Cultures of Decision Making

Note: Much of the text below is assembled from conversations with my colleagues Marco, Justin, and Dan in the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra. For more on these topics, check the HDL blog or see Dan’s excellent recent eBook: Trojan Horses & Dark Matter: A Strategic Design Vocabulary.  


In the past year 542 humans scaled to the highest point on earth, one visited the planet’s lowest, and a team at CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson. Right now someone in California is controlling a remote vehicle at least 54.6 million kilometers away on the surface of Mars while a separate vehicle is poised to exit our solar system, still sending back signals. The accomplishments of the past twelve months alone are, taken in and of themselves, staggering. As the human race, it would seem that we’re able to do what we want. An uninitiated traveler who visits from another time, less jaded, and with different baggage, would be sent reeling by these accomplishments, and some of them, like summiting Everest, can now even be considered rather mundane.

As a human race we’re able to launch almost 37 million commercial flights into the air in a single year with a very small fraction of them suffering catastrophic problems, and yet we’re still unable to care for every person on the planet in the most basic of ways. Twenty two percent of the human population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Planet Earth is suffering too, as we know, and have known for some time, yet we’re still trying to agree to do something about it on a global scale. Some places, like the US, are still amassing the will to even confront climate change as a fact, giving us a strong piece of evidence to support Bruno Latour’s assertion that we’ve moved from a world of fixed facts to one of mutable concerns.

From climate change to panda bears, AIDS to homelessness, causes abound and each has someone lobbying for our support. This is life in a world without facts: levels of importance, funding, and attention given to every thing, every idea, every person are choices made by a balance of individuals and collectives. That balance fluctuates, and the decisions fluctuate over time as well. But I think the Goonies may have put it more succinctly:

Down here, in the messy world, it’s our time. We cannot rely on anyone or anything else to tell us what to do, and there are no Adults or Gods up above to help us settle our disputes. Immutable rules do not come from the heavens anymore, nor from nature, nor from institutions. The social contract is a conversation and the choices are ours to make, but how will we make them?

Invoking Latour again, we might compose a “common world… built from utterly heterogenous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material.” The litany of accomplishments and failures that I opened this post with seem to imply that we do not have a common world at our disposal. We have a surplus of ability, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily applied or distributed in the ways we might like it to be. Why?

Narratives of political inaction are littered with villains and their conspiracies. While it makes for good movies, this approach amounts to mythologizing the status quo. Putting the emphasis on blockages and bottlenecks is debilitating because it reduces progress to the conquering of a monolithic enemy. This in turn demands singular heros and lets everyone else off the hook. It’s too simple, too easy.

Single points of corruption, evil, or difficulty that stifle the good and the just certainly exist, but are they the sole explanation for the fractured state of human decision-making today? As a thought experiment, let’s abstain from considering evil and incompetence for a moment. If we remove the easy outs, what is keeping us from agreeing to agree?

I suspect that we suffer from an unacknowledged profusion of cultures of decision-making, and that the fine-grain differences between these various cultures makes agreement across silos of knowledge increasingly difficult. Due to its defining internal coherence, agreement within one culture is easier than agreement between two cultures, which is itself easier than agreement among three, and so on. My hypothesis is that accepting, understanding, and confronting the gaps between our different cultures of decision-making will allow us to work together more effectively.

Geographic and linguistic distinctions are taken for granted, but humans participate in multiple overlapping cultures. Professional cultures are particularly tricky because they are both global and localized at the same time. Content unifies on one layer while geography can divide on another. For example, until recently it was illegal to build large buildings out of wood in Finland, yet legal 1 hour away in Sweden where the same wood construction technology exists, as does a kindred culture. Weathering the climate crisis and the restructuring of society that networked communication continues to unfurl will require that we get comfortable with taking larger risks, and to do that we need to have better knowledge of where we’re safe and where we’re going out on a limb.

The way we make decisions is affected by our professional role(s), including the spaces(s), jargon(s), and relationships that come with that professional community. A dentist will decide what is risky, innovative, good, or bad differently from a lawyer, not just because the content of their decisions is different but because the stew of expectations and incentives that the cultures of dentistry and law have created are distinct from each other, as they are from all other professional communities. And of course individuals are part of families, clubs, parties, and geographies or linguistic communities that each have a unique culture which affects decision-making as well.

Unique cultures have different currencies for personal reputation; they have different standards about sharing credit (or not); they may weight accuracy over precision or vice versa, or not even have a notion of accuracy; they value formal institutions differently; think about scale and time in different ways; construct arguments using different accepted building blocks; use different fonts; go to different bars and live in different cities; dress differently; work under lamps of different power and different temperature; and speak in different tongues. By suggesting that we need to pay attention to cultures of decision-making if we want to learn to act together more effectively, I’m suggesting that we re-internalize these factors which have been assumed to be outside and irrelevant to moments of choice.

The individual is important, but it’s also the part we understand best right now. Thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman we are beginning to have a sketch of the psychology of decision-making. There’s an emerging picture of the sorts of competing forces that are at play inside an individual’s mind when considering options, but how are these individual considerations layered over by the pressures of various groups that one is part of? Cultures of decision-making is about understanding the micro-sociology of conclusions.

Cultures of decision-making in a context of silo’d knowledge is especially tricky, and therefore important. With more specialized knowledge come more silos, and every extra silo exponentially increases the number of silo-to-silo connections. More silos with their own unique ways of making decisions means more of a translation cost—more friction—when those silos have to work together. In our world they increasingly do.

A common response to silo-ification is to create horizontal bridges that link up multiple silos. The Strategic Design Unit I’m part of at Sitra is one example. We have an explicit mandate to work with all parts of the organization to help conceptualize and deliver collaborative projects. By definition these horizontal units will always be the minority, so they might help but they’re not the answer. If we want to deal with the difficulty of working between multiple silos, we’ll have to develop a more robust understanding of their cultures so that individuals can more easily construct their own empathic connections.


A travel guide to Finland, circa 1938

We build scaffolds that enable empathy across national cultures. A tourist heading to Europe will learn that in Switzerland they kiss on the cheeks three times, while across the border in France they do it only twice. It’s a cultural choice with no right or wrong answer but a good bit of potential for awkwardness if bungled. Because we know that, there is some effort taken to discuss and publicize these local choices so that visitors and locals alike can negotiate a common existence. In the future, will there be booklets telling us that neuroendocrinologists prefer short sentences with words of latin root, that plumbers require at least 10 minutes of smalltalk before opening their toolbox, and that Swedish Engineers require 5 decimal places of accuracy to be comfortable? Surely somewhere in an advertising office this knowledge is already codified, so we need to play catch up.

The easy answer is that we rise above what could be considered minor differences, but if it were easy to rise above cultural differences we would have done it already, right? People are trying. Coming to grips with different cultures of decision-making is one of the things that ethnography helps us do, which leads me to read the recent interest in service design, design ethnography, and similar modes of need-finding within business (and increasingly the public sector) as a tacit recognition that we have to understand our customers and our citizen-peers’ own decision making much better if we want to create useful and meaningful experiences, products, services, and interactions for them. That is, if we want people to choose us over the others, we need to understand how they’re doing the choosing. This work is often being led by designers, or at least design studios, which is a bit of a quandary: if needs-finding is the work to be done, and ethnography is the tool, why not go straight to the social sciences?

Without the comfort of easy to find Right Answers, we need new sources of stability to sit between multiple parties who bringing multiple cultures to the table. In this situation matter becomes important, and the design disciplines are the ones who shape matter. Material things are important because they offer us a single source from which divergent interpretations may result. We can go back to things again and again, reformulating the language we use to understand them until there’s a common consensus in ways that are simply more difficult when you’re starting point are words and your ending point also words. One may be able to politicize the implications of a website, a building, a door handle, but it’s hard to argue with atoms. They’re stubbon and far more patient that most humans. I suspect design (like “evidence” in very large quotation marks) is often implicated in strategic circles out of a desire to have something inarguable. As we apply it in the Strategic Design Unit, design is a tool to navigate between the material world and the meta, the abstract, intangible, tacit or unknown aspects of the world. Yes, the dark matter. We often design probes for the explicit purpose of exciting the dark matter so that it becomes visible to us. In our conception of design nothing is fixed, per se, but it’s a way to find your fix, your navigation points.

Latour argued for the importance of things, now it’s our job to build to tools that change the status quo. Our work at Sitra has often gravitated around interfaces between different cultures. Brickstarter is concerned with the interface between municipal government and active citizens. Helsinki Street Eats is attempting to build an interface between enthusiastic hobbyists and pan-searing entrepreneurship. Interfaces imply systems, and in the contemporary world that means platforms: systems which expose their seams and enable participants to do something that was impossible or cost-prohibitive before. But here’s the trick: the interfaces that we need to build are often between ourselves. Democracy needs new interfaces so that we can use it more effectively, more equitably, to resolve our conflicts and make shared decisions.

So in things we find the gaps between our cultures of decision-making illuminated. Below are a few of the stories I’ve collected over the last 18 months, each a vignette showing how mis-matched cultures are making our daily life more frustrating and, ultimately, inhibiting our ability to make progress on Big Issues.

Here are some of my favorites.


Open Office Mouse

Chuffed with the success of developing the Open Office project, an open source clone of Microsoft Office, a group of people decided to create a piece of open source hardware: a mouse to be used with the program.

There probably should have been a hint that this was a bad idea from the get go. After all, spreadsheets, word processing, and presentations are not among the most demanding computing tasks, and most people manage with two or three buttons. The material reality of the Open Office mouse is shocking because it demonstrates the difficulty of making decisions in a zero-sum situation—in a matter battle.

When designing a piece of software, you can have it all. Prefer to use a menu option to make words bold? Ok. How about a keyboard command? Yes! And an icon on the toolbar just to be sure? No problem. Those choices are not made in connection to one another because they are not competing for the same resources. The decision-making process can be less rigorous without becoming a glaring monument to indecision. But apply the same logic to material and your indecision is mirrored back to you in the form of an 18 button mega mouse that no one wanted and no one will use.

As an example of clashing cultures of decision-making, I suspect that diligent ethnography would reveal this to be the product of office software aficionados and more than a couple gamers, the latter have more need for things like thumb joysticks than the average Excel jockey. The tools this group had at hand to resolve disputes in a software project are effective in that arena, but did not work as well for resolving conflicts in the material world. They need new tools and they’re not alone. As cultures of decision-making grind into deadlock we will have to create new tools to help us create our compositions of just-so-ness. It’s poetic that after some disputes about whether the project is making legitimate use of the Open Office branding they have rebranded it as the War Mouse. Zero-sum indeed.


Not in my backyard (NIMBY)

This wind turbine is part of a small wind farm in Hamina, Finland and it owes its existence to the fact that it was moved 500 meters from where it was originally proposed. In this particular case the dispute was over the noise of the turbine which a nearby part-time resident was concerned about. In Finland the maximum acceptable noise levels in an area zoned for summer cottage use are actually lower than they are in permanent residential areas. In other words, cottages that are used at most 3 months out of the year are institutionally more protected than homes which are in use 12 months out of the year.

In the specific example of this turbine there’s a conflict between the engineering of the turbine’s existence and its perception in eyes of some nearby individuals. The former has to do with things like soil stability, wind patterns, land ownership, grid infrastructure, and low carbon energy production. The latter involves aspects such as personal preference, individual physiology, life patterns, and national narratives about ‘the good life.’

In Hamina all of these factors were composed in such a way that the turbine could be built, just in a slightly different location. There are reams of counter examples where no amount of flexibility on behalf of either side would lead to a constructive agreement, and this is what makes NIMBY an excellent example of the friction between different cultures of decision-making. “I like your idea, I just don’t want it in my backyard” is a monolithic villain that can only be conquered by a persistent hero. If we want to reduce NIMBYism and make it easier to execute sustainable infrastructure projects—to pick an example out of a hat—then we need to decompose the monolithic. We will have, as Hamina has begun, to engage the specifics of the cultures in question and negotiate a tentative, wending path to decision.


Parliament Fights

Why are these Ukranian MPs fighting in their chambers? And it’s not only them, it’s also in Korea, Canadians, Indians, Kenya, Taiwan, and probably just about every national chamber of deliberation at some point in history. Although we like to take potshots at our Congresses and our Parliaments, if we take ourselves seriously they should be the places in which the most deliberative, rational, and focused decision-making occurs. I’m curious why they’re not.

Part of the problem is that representative democracy as we’ve inherited it from the 19th century needs facts to argue about. Inherent in the representative model is that facts are constant, so they merely need to be loaded into the deliberative chamber and then representatives can hash out how limited resources are applied across a diverse land. Remove objective facts from this equation and you have an organism that’s all muscle and no bone. Without some form of resistance it’s hard to build up stable conclusions. Decisions and the principles used to make them must be constantly revisited, and every time it’s a task of translating not only between the customs of one corner of the realm and another, but also trying to find some way to compose the relative incongruities of, say, energy production, health, and national security. Add to this the fact that we’re experiencing rapid technological change and it’s a frothy mix where it’s hard to be right, let alone know with confidence that you are right. No wonder it comes to blows.


An apple is not an apple

This example is borrowed from my colleague Marco Steinberg who uses it to illustrate the difficulty of the contemporary design task. How do you compete in a market where differences are materially imperceptible?

On the flip side, how do you make decisions when those differences are invisible, abstract, and in conflict with one another? Of the two above, which apple is the better apple?

Comparing them on a single axis is not too difficult, but making decisions when you, a consumer who just wants a healthy snack, has to figure out how to make sense of competing factors is not insignificant. Is it better to be organic but shipped in from 1000 miles away, or to go with conventionally farmed apples that have a lower carbon footprint? Is your palette prepared to skip the apple altogether if your wallet cannot afford the kind of apple that your values lead you to appreciate? How do you balance hard factors like cost, against hard-but-difficult to quantify factors such as impact on soil biodiversity and carbon foot print, against soft factors such as flavor and appearance?

Multiply this by an entire grocery list and it’s a small feat that shoppers are not reduced to a blubbering mess when walking into the super market. We simplify because we have to, and that’s OK, but this is also a place where it would be useful to know more about how communities pick their allegiances—and how they might be convinced to change.

I usually buy my food with carbon as the primary concern, preferring local products over those from distant shores. Others are more concerned with ensuring that their food is organic for personal health reasons. Still others prefer organic because they are concerned that conventional farming is destroying the ecosystem.

That’s why we need to devote more time to understanding the world’s myriad cultures of decision-making: none of these beliefs are mutually exclusive in the shopping cart, but they often become so at the till.

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