Getting Myself Stuck in the Middle

Recently for my Thesis class, we were asked to write a paper about our Thesis as it pertains to interdisciplinarity.  What are the disciplines you’re drawing from?  What are the similarities between them, where do they contrast?  It was an interesting exploration, where I found, by the end of it, I had sandwiched myself between two strong disciplines – policy and design.  If and how I make my way out the other side remains to be seen.

I’ll share my paper to see if you see what I mean:


I firmly believe that the world is comprised of thinkers and doers.  There are those who brainstorm ideas, who think of things in a different way, who understand issues and have the mind to figure out what needs to be done about them.  Then there are those who execute those visions, who manage projects, who know how to utilize resources and get the best out of what they have.  I think these two groups often clash, when the thinkers want to think the doers just want to do.

On one side we have policy – filled with bureaucracies, structures, administrations – and on the other we have design – filled with flow charts, white boards, organized chaos.  What I am doing is looking at public policy issues through a design perspective.  This breaks down into two tracts: a) solving civic issues using technology (utilizing technology in the engineering of a system), and b) approaching the process of and maintenance of those solutions (using design models as opposed to bureaucratic models).

A big question in this space right now is “how can we engage people?”  How do we reach people for input into civic issues?  How do we keep people engaged through the process?  How can people organize themselves around issues utilizing technology available to them?  The metrics for projects that look at issues like accountability and engagement are also debated.  What is success?  Is success just usage?  Is success just implementation of a project?

The process of how a project or program is designed is also a debated one.  Should ideas be created by an entity such as the World Bank and then implemented onto a community, or should the idea come from the community?  The PlayPumps project is a well-documented design project, which failed.  The idea was to build merry go rounds that hooked up to water pumps in Africa, so that water would be pumped from children playing.  The goal was to allow women to not need to spend as much time pumping, and to make water more accessible.  However, the cost of the pumps was too expensive for most villages, and those that were installed were eventually failures because the children didn’t play with the pumps.  So women ended up pumping the water using the merry go rounds.  Besides the logistical failures of not meeting their goals, the design was never talked about with the communities who would be using it, which is something UNICEF has admitted as a mistake.

Most of the evidence in this space is based on projects and pilots that have been implemented and tested.  They range in scale and context.  International organizations such as UNICEF and the World Bank have tested programs in South America and Africa.  Municipalities in the United States have tested programs on a city level.  A project such as participatory democracy has moved from the developing world to the developed world, making the mobility of ideas a notion I want to explore.  Do ideas have to come from one part of the world?  Do ideas have to come from the top of bureaucracies?  Using the PlayPump as an example, UNICEF has altered its methodology based on its findings, now looking at a more bottom up approach to community driven ideas.

Professionally, I worked in the Department of Public Affairs for 3 years in the City Comptroller’s office.  I dealt with a variety of constituency issues and intake, and was the public face for the Comptroller in communities in Brooklyn, and around different issues.  This meant attending town halls, CBO meetings, business association meetings, and phone calls from people directly.  I started in 2010, and in 2012 was given a promotion to Deputy Director.  The reason I bring that up isn’t to brag, but it means I saw and worked in two levels of bureaucracy.   I have a solid foundation of understanding behind the train of thought that government runs at a slow and inefficient manner.  I have a good understanding of how local entities operate within the context of New York City’s bureaucracy, which I believe gives me a good understanding of how local entities operate within the context of American cities.  I have been the link between a community and the government resources they need.  I have been in a community meeting where my boss announced, “ok, if anyone has any more problems, please go talk to Asher.”  I have heard the complaints, I have seen the process.  I do not have the field experience of a non-American city or a rural setting.  It is important to keep these contexts in mind, and I will rely on field reports of projects in these contexts for insight into how context plays a role in these kinds of tech projects.

I’ve always had a different way of looking at things.  My background is in writing and film making, so my approach to most problems is different than a normal policy approach.  I have more of a design approach, in that I tend to map out issues and projects, working out a flow chart of the beginning, middle, and end.  I also keep the mantra of “know your audience” in mind when designing any project.  This leads to a more user-based design, rather than a system-based design.  Knowing my goal and knowing my users are two key components of my design thinking.

Getting the two sides on the same page in a sustainable manner is often a task.  Combining them allows a space for a project such as my Thesis to exist.  A small group (namely, myself and an engineer) to ideate and create a project and implement the project.  Even if you have the best idea in the world, you need to be able to implement it so it effects change in people’s lives.  And even if you’re completely embedded in a culture and ready to change a system for the better, without the proper tool to do so, change is difficult to achieve.

Both sides have a tendency to be stubborn.  Policy makers like the comforts of structure, designers like the freedoms of chaos.  A designer, such as Clay Shirky has expressed frustration with the layers of administration necessary to implement a project.  A policy maker, such as Jumaane Williams has expressed frustration with a designer’s lack of understanding of the context of his community when trying to implement a project.  The common ground between the two sides is that they both have a willingness to help, so the end goal is still the same.  It’s the process that needs to be rethought, reimagined, redesigned.

I think that by focusing on a low tech solution, with a bottom up implementation plan, this Thesis has the ability to bridge these two disciplines.




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