SIDELab is gaining momentum after the first two meetings of the 2014-2015 year. As Nick so aptly explained in our last SIDELab blog post, we are a diverse group of thinkers and this is profoundly beneficial and challenging. Each week a different combination of people attends and new perspectives shift and shape our landscape.

We are passionate about solving wicked problems with wicked tools. As a result of this passion, we are already inundated with models and we don’t seem to mind. We enjoy this, actually.

On October 1st, we spent a lot of time exploring the strengths and stretches of a model called Solution Search. We constantly asked ourselves a challenging question of purpose: what is a SIDELab model supposed to do?

This question recurred in our last SIDELab. We continued to ask ourselves about the purpose of a SIDELab model and the setbacks of aiming for a meta-model. But what is a meta-model? After much conversation, it was clear that we understood the term differently. Before coming to a common definition, we began to share strong opinions about its potential (or lack thereof).

This brings about another recurring question. What is the value of language definition? There are definitely benefits and setbacks to defining words and phrases as a group. Sometimes this process can be tedious, circular and demotivating.

Personally, I find that a reasonable amount of time devoted to language definition is well spent. From my experience, the exercise of coming to a shared understanding – all the while knowing that we will bring our own nuances, contradictions, and interpretations into the mix – is useful and oftentimes necessary. The exercise of language definition can allow us to highlight our assumptions, share our vision with one another, and reveal personal experiences and ways of knowing. It is a process, not an event, as one group member asserted.

That being said, we don’t want to spend every session arguing definitions. We want to think through decision-making processes, interrogate biases, and provide responses to problems that impact quality of life.

We also don’t want to create a SIDELab model that – however original and innovative – will only reduce elaborate patterns of thought and limit the scope of our problem solving.

This brings us back to the question of purpose. How can we explore Systems, Integrative, Design and Evaluative Thinking frameworks in a broad way without losing the integrity of any particular framework?

We discussed how each of the SIDE Thinking frameworks, regardless of specific steps/labels/diagrams, encourages the problem-solver to first diverge and then converge in their thinking. This can be depicted as two overlapping circles: one circle represents context, analysis, or divergence and another represents form, design or convergence. Each circle can include selected tools provided by each of the SIDE Thinking frameworks.

A Glimpse of SIDELab Notes

I appreciated this approach because of its openness – regardless of framework, we begin to approach a wicked problem by first ‘breaking it open’ and then creating something more concrete, e.g. a prototype, a tool, a defined problem. As a group, we spent time discussing this approach and then we applied it to our beloved issue, ‘Garbage in the PATH’.

The new approach, which I will temporarily dub ‘Overlapping Circles’, created space for unique questions and tangents. We talked about art, consumer behavior, disruption, agriculture, demographics, breadcrumbs, and Tupperware. When sharing our ideas for the PATH problem, we found that each solution was valid and yet they were starkly different.

Clearly, the Overlapping Circles idea is flexible enough to bring in all perspectives yet structured enough to provide direction to the communal thought process. It is not immune, however, to the issue of language definition (for example, it can be difficult to separate context and form) and it is definitely a model of some kind.

As we continue to explore, I reflect on the kind of SIDELab model I am looking for. I am interested in a model that spurs us beyond conversation into action, one that serves as an educational tool for social change in our local communities. Maybe that means that we create a shared model, and maybe that means that we acknowledge and reveal our own personal approaches to solving wicked problems.

In my life, I design learning experiences. I know that when I engage in curriculum design, I am absolutely – often unconsciously – applying SIDE Thinking frameworks. If I externalize this for myself and for my peers, what will emerge? Will I be able to augment my approach? Will I provide insight for others?

In the last two SIDELabs, we have all agreed that it’s time to get personal. We want to share how we apply SIDE principles in our daily lives. I think we’re getting somewhere.

Written by Noorin Fazal.

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