Collective thinking

I’ve been testing the waters of the design profession by talking to designers about what their firms look for in new hires and I encountered a remark that got me thinking. The fellow I was interviewing said (and I am paraphrasing), “Our firm would be interested in you because, unlike many younger graduates, you can think.” This comment made me wonder – what does it mean to “think”? The immediate answer is that thinking is the exercise of intelligence, reason, logic, and so forth, but it’s equally clear that thinking goes beyond “book learning” to involve life experience, social skills, basic curiosity and, perhaps most important, a willingness to step outside safe boundaries.

One of these boundaries is certainty. In his book The Long Tail, Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson talks about Google, blogs, Wikipedia, and other internet sites that operate on the “alien logic of probabilistic statistics.” By this he means that content of these sites is not certain, but is based on probability. For example, Wikipedia is an on-line encyclopedia created, monitored, and updated by users, with an incredible number of in-depth articles on nearly any topic one can imagine. Because, however, the articles are not backed up by panels of experts, as is the case with traditional encyclopedias such as Britannica, it is not certain that the facts in the articles are accurate. The probability is quite high that what you read in Wikipedia is accurate, but you can’t be sure that the particular article you are reading is. Britannica’s online version has some 118,000 articles; the English version of Wikipedia has 1,336,000. Certainty may be lost, but a world of information is gained.

The other interesting thing about this mode of amassing information is that it works with minimal or no structure. Anderson states, “The true miracle of Wikipedia is that this open system of amateur user contributions and edits doesn’t simply collapse into anarchy. Instead, it has somehow self-organized the most comprehensive encyclopedia in history.” This reminds me of the collective “thinking” of social insect colonies, which, though composed of many individuals, operate as a single entity – a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “collective intelligence” or “swarm intelligence.” David Gordon, in his essay Collective Intelligence in Social Insects, discusses the organizational processes of insect colonies and applies the method to science, math, and ultimately modern life. He concludes his essay with this statement:

It’s possible that this type of thinking will characterise the 21st century, where mighty corporations and institutions evaporate into networks of nodes and sub-nodes. Where individuals, dwarfed by the social, political, economic and informational networks they comprise once again surface as the collective masters of those networks.

This strikes me as nothing less than revolutionary. Business as we know it is going to change.

My question, then, as I approach my new profession of interior design and architecture, is: can this way of looking at things be translated into, say, the design of a building or a community? Judging by the admittedly limited exposure I’ve had to the design profession so far, it appears that the design process is one of drilling down from general requirements to minute, specific, and accurate details. This attention to detail is vital – after all, designers must ensure the health and safety of the people who will be using the building. But does this process restrain innovation and creativity by limiting design thinking to forms, materials, and processes that are certain? Is it possible for designers to look at their clients from a new perspective, tapping into the collective intelligence of not only the decisionmakers within the client firm, but also of the firm’s employees, customers, business partners, and communities. Can designers create solutions by drawing from the collective intelligence of the entire design community or even from that of the human world at large? One might say that the collective experience of architects and designers over the centuries has resulted in a community intelligence for design, but the profession is still churning out dysfunctional, non-sustainable structures. Perhaps it’s time for a new type of thinking in the design world.

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