Calibrating the Possible and the Imaginable


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Bryan Boyer
Bryan Boyer is a cofounder of Dash Marshall, where he leads the strategic design work focused on American cities. Previously he helped develop Makeshift Society Brooklyn, Helsinki Design Lab, and a web 1.0 startup called Deepleap. He serves on the Board of Directors at Public Policy Lab and is still trying to answer the question: what is the opposite of a sandwich? @BryanBoyer

As a noun, “design” implies a plan for something yet to come. Often the objectives are ambitious, perhaps even unrealistic. As a verb, “design” describes the act of putting together form and function. The outcomes of this process can be brilliant. Often the act of design is described as a kind of commercialized creativity. This is part of it, but a minor part.

Design as a cultural force has created lovely parts of our cities ?? and our lives ☕️. Its value is in giving meaningful form to the symbols and ideas that breathe life into our culture.

Design as part of industry has given businesses a competitive edge, with outcomes from the frivolous ? to the functional ?. The value is in identifying and then meeting unique human needs.

And now “design” pops up in discussions of government and institutions. It’s the trendy sibling of technology, creativity, and behavioral economics. Some call it Strategic Design. But what is the value of strategic design inside government?

This is best answered by examining how decisions are made, using two extremes. The engineer’s job is to determine what’s possible. Great engineering happens on the edges of possibility. Making engineering decisions is aided by the fact that science is a quantitative subject. Possibilities are tested by calculating whether they work or not.

The artist’s job is to show us what’s imaginable, and their best work stretches our imagination. The best engineering doesn’t need to be culturally relevant: it just needs to work. The opposite is true of art: it rarely needs to make sense, or to do much of anything, so long as it moves *us* to do things differently. Artistic decisions are made on a qualitative basis, without any forces of nature to worry about. It’s all debate and no calculation.

The separation of qualitative and quantitative, of soft and hard, into two separate camps is a false dichotomy. Think of your dinner: how often do you choose a meal solely based on the calories? Or completely on taste with no regard whatsoever for cost? Most things that happen in our lives are a mix of both.

The same is true for policy. As policy is translated into regulation and enforced to shape human behavior, decisions made at every step are the result of a mix between natural constraints (fish repopulation rates, for instance) and human concerns (the desire and need to make money as fishermen). Anecdotally it’s hard to rationalize the relationship between these two modes of analysis because they’re so intertwined. But our institutions have been designed as if it were not only natural, but desirable to separate them.

Supposedly, debate happens first (we call it politics) and then winning ideas are implemented with maximum efficiency (the job of the bureaucracy). Soft, then hard. Politicians have the luxury of making promises that bureaucracy inherits the burden of delivering upon. When small but important details are discovered during delivery, there’s too little opportunity for new information to recalibrate the policy it is part of — imagine cooking in a kitchen where one has no remedy if they over-salt the soup!

Strategic design offers a rigorous way of making decisions about soft and hard together. Every act of good design is based partially on things that can be calculated (budgets, natural forces, timelines, etc) and partially on things that forever evade quantification (humor, approachability, relevance, etc). Design is not engineering or art, but some mix of both. Its goal is to calibrate the possible and the imaginable.

The principal results of strategic design are a well-framed opportunity and specific proposals to harness that opportunity. More robust framing comes from the shared value nature of design, looking at all aspects of a problem to understand it in hard and soft terms. The endpoint is not a philosophical position on the topic but a brief that anticipates, perhaps even provokes, action.

The second outcome of strategic design is to influence the way that things (broadly interpreted) are designed and built in our world. Through strategic design a dumb building becomes an opportunity to rethink the regulations that define city-making in an entire country. A welfare service becomes a vehicle for debating the social contract with more precision and less vitriol than a purely philosophical discussion. A new website acts as a medium to redesign the relationship between citizen and government. The service design for a jobs center becomes a low-risk way to test the devolution of power to local authorities. With apologies to American poet William Carlos Williams, for the strategic designer there are “no ideas but in things.”

Why is strategic design valuable inside government today? Because it’s the glue that mends decision-making processes that’ve been cleaved into simplistic categories of qualitative and quantitative. And let’s hope it’s strong glue indeed, because the challenges facing our institutions are anything but small and simple. If we want to avoid everything going ?-shaped, the best remedy is to first figure out how to compare ?s and ?z.