Fred Dust on Little Change and Big Change
June 22nd, 2010

While browsing the roster of Gov2.0 Expo speakers to choose interviewees for Smart Mobs, I was surprised to find Fred Dust, a partner at IDEO. But the truth is, his name should have come as no surprise: although IDEO’s trajectory began in product design, it has expanded into the design of things less physical, like processes, experiences, and systems. Given that he leads IDEO’s Systems at Scale group, “responsible for helping clients with large systemic infrastructural questions from governmental shifts, to behavior change, and beyond,” I was intrigued by what he’d have to say about Government 2.0, and courted him for an interview. Following are tidbits from what turned out to be a fascinating conversation.

I first inquire about how IDEO expanded from toothbrushes and shopping carts to health insurance plans and government recruitment systems. Fred begins his response with the two tenets of IDEO’s design process: 1) Human-centering, i.e. incorporating ethnography into and putting users at the center of the design process, and 2) Prototyping and testing, i.e. constant iteration and the inclusion of more people – from designers to anthropologists to users – in production and development. Interestingly, IDEO’s diversification arc was demand-driven; it wasn’t folks in the biz dev department plotting to branch out into working with governments, but governments and other large institutions seeking to shift from building “fragmented systems,” in which old components are subsumed under new ones without being adapted or discarded, to building “aggregate systems,” in which components are integrated into a coherent whole and discarded if necessary. (Governments, with their ever-piling of bureaucratic structure upon bureaucratic structure, are prime examples of fragmented systems.) In other words, governments and other large institutions are (finally) manifesting the paradigm shift from reductionism to holism predicted in Fritjof Capra’s 1984 The Turning Point. And in asking bigger, systemic questions, and seeking creative problem-solving methods that more human-centered and iterative, they’re turning to firms like IDEO. The two tenets IDEO holds dear are applicable to anything. “Think carefully about what we do. It’s very applicable to big systems kinds of questions…Design is not an it; it’s a process, a way of getting somewhere.” Fred started as an architect thinking about how to design spaces, and has migrated into thinking about designing cultures and governmental systems. I joke that he’ll be onto the earth, galaxy, and universe next, and he laughs, but doesn’t necessarily correct me.

I ask for more specifics on the work IDEO is doing with governments. It’s largely confidential, but Fred tells me about their three areas of work: first, with government HR departments, to attract new employees, to develop a better sense of the characteristics they’re looking for – both individually (naturally, including the capacity for design thinking) and in the holistic makeup of their personnel (including a healthy mix of breadth and depth), and to better leverage and retain their personnel (think aggregate HR system, à la the aggregate systems mentioned above). A second area is that of “humanizing systems,” taking current systems that exist and designing them to “make more sense, to feel more appropriate to the American public.” Just imagine what a little humanizing might do, not only for the terrible lines at the DMV or the arduous TSA security check at the airport, but for actual policies or the way citizens interact with our government. (This orientation towards humanizing governmental systems, and its corresponding use of human-centered design, is symptomatic a larger trend towards humanizing and human-centeredness, e.g. manifested in health as patient-centered care and in education as student-centered learning. IMHO we’re on our way (back) to social network/community-centeredness, and then onto all of the above depending on the circumstances.) On that last note about citizen-government interaction, IDEO’s third area of work is participation, namely how to inspire citizens to participate in government. This area is particularly relevant to the Gov2.0 Expo, which is explicitly dedicated to exploring “IT innovation and the Web as a platform for fostering efficiencies within government and citizen participation.” Fred also tells me about a fourth, related area, which is a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to research how innovation happens in government. Although this work isn’t for government but about government, the latter will presumably feed the former. Finally, Fred slips in a specific client with whom IDEO’s conversation is open: the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). I find it refreshingly brilliant yet obvious that IDEO’s approach to creating systems change in government is not (or at least, not solely) about changing bureaucratic structures, but about creating conditions conducive to systems change of bureaucratic structures, i.e. curating the kind of personnel who will themselves precipitate systems change.

IDEO’s motto is “fail often, in order to succeed sooner (and learn faster).” I’m curious about what this means in a policy context, and if it would be possible to design truly iterative, perpetual beta-style policies. Fred admits they haven’t “cracked the policy nut thus far.” They’ve stayed away from policy conversations, and instead – somewhat unexpectedly – spent much of their time on skill development within government. “Bureaucratic structures are built for reliability, but people operate at different scales.” Returning again to the same theme, instead of directly meddling with bureaucratic structures, IDEO is encouraging government employees to be more impatient. Impatient government employees: now that feels appropriate to the American public.

Bringing the conversation full circle, I ask how IDEO’s work on bigger questions has infused, or integrated with their work on smaller ones. (Certainly a study of Antanas Mockus‘ mayoral administration in Bogotá would make for some fantastic toothbrushes and, in turn, public dental health.) Fred happens to be in the process that day of making a diagram about the relationship between ‘big change’ and ‘little change.’ “It’s about how to make small behavioral shifts translate into big systems change.” He’s speaking my language now. He takes obesity as an example. “We can design huge programs to tackle obesity, or we can design certain products to be more palatable than others.” Again refreshingly brilliant yet obvious, IDEO isn’t segregating big change from little change, but developing an integrated systems design methodology that operates at multiple scales.

Lastly, I want to learn more about Systems at Scale, the group that Fred leads. “Over time, the questions we’re dealing with have gotten bigger and bigger. Our traditional methods still work in some circumstances, but not others. How do we learn about the GSA [U.S. General Services Administration] and managing real estate across government?” The GSA involves massive groups of people, and ethnography on individuals won’t suffice. “We need other ways of knowing.” Enter Systems at Scale, which is dedicated in part to evolving IDEO’s design methodology for big, systemic questions, and has grown to become a third of IDEO’s business. “We need to experiment with new methods, and how to use technology to do that.” They have journalists, historians, political scientists and other experts ‘on-call’ for inspiration, invite fellows to work in-house and introduce new ways of thinking, play with the methods of other disciplines, and use all of the above to invent their own methods. I Love it. I remark at how, although academia predictably provides this function, design and innovation strategy firms like IDEO have less predictably become somewhat of a Grand Central Station for the meeting of many minds, for interdisciplinary cross-pollination in our culture. Fred responds that, in fact, the most interesting things IDEO has done have been around Open IDEO, a platform for crowdsourcing questions (not answers) from the Grand Central Station that is the community around IDEO.

Now he’s speaking smart mobby language. Technology-enabled collectively intelligent systems design: sounds wordy but awesome. I decide, if it doesn’t already, Systems at Scale should have an in-house fellow or expert-on-call versed in smart mobs. And while I’m at it, the group should also invite a Permaculturist versed in Permaculture’s 12 Design Principles, which are human-centered design principles applied to Agroecology. Whether under the auspices of smart mobs, Permaculture, or otherwise, I know I’d be overjoyed to come by.


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