Social Design & The World’s Wicked Problems


What is a social problem that you find particularly vexing? What can of interventions can you think about to address it? What are the root causes of the problem and who are the key stakeholders that can make a difference in addressing this problem?
The Problem
I am currently conducting research on Body Burden, the whose mildly editorialized definition on Wikipedia is noted as such: Body burden is a term that refers to the total accumulation of toxins in your body. This can include anything from dangerous metals like lead or mercury, to pesticides, unsafe food additives, or fluoride — just to name a scant few. (Bold emphasis mine).
The definition may sound sinister but the effects are more so; toxic accumulation of such chemicals in human fat tissue (where these dangerous chemicals latch on like microscopic parasites) can lead to wellness issues ranging from stunted frontal lobe development in children to breast or kidney cancer in middle-aged adults.
More alarming still is the chemicals seeming ubiquity. We are not exposed to these toxins by scuba diving off the shores of Fukushima  Daiichi or haphazardly ingesting paint chips that we’ve idly peeled from dusty boiler room walls, but rather in our everyday interactions: drinking from a water bottle; holding our smart phones to our skulls; eating canned foods. In fact -and this seems so ridiculous that it took my citing several studies from renowned environmental groups before my husband would believe me- babies are exposed to toxic chemicals that are found in both the bottles used to feed them AND the linings of formula containers.
Research I’ve conducted that lists typical body burden chemicals, where they’re found and their known long-term effects.

Root Causes

This is, by large and in part, a systems problem. For example, there is failure at every stage of the rather crucial FDA, at the industrial level, and in the petrochemical complex. It is a problem driven by western consumerism as well as by neo-liberal ideology, and is tainted by sexism and felt often by those most at risk -minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Toxic chemicals can be found in any area of any economically developed society. There is toxic runoff from harmful pesticides that ends up in our drinking water. There are manufacturing chemicals that, while praised for their safety in the short-term (flame retardants come to mind) are harmful in the long term (they cause cancer).

Moreover, the known risks of these chemicals are met with indifference at a policy level. The FDA does nothing (or close to nothing) to prevent the presence of toxic chemicals in our food packaging and sometimes even our food. Legislators are wary to fight the powerful oil lobbies that challenge the regulation of petrochemical runoff and pollution in general. And demand for cheap consumable electronics and other goods ensures a constant stream of harmful plastic manufacture.

The Solution (?)

My response to this issue so far has been one that has relied on increasing social awareness and has often taken a darkly (too dark?) ironic tone. As a result much of my work ends up preaching to the choir. Moreover, by indulging my many ideas surrounding how to bring these issues to light, I risk simultaneously alienating my audience while offering neither a solution to eradicating burdinous chemicals from our everyday lives nor any scalable practice for preventing exposure.

This is why I’ve chosen to reexamine this particularly wicked problem in the context of design and systems thinking. As I see it, there are three targeted audiences that should be addressed:

  1. Consumers -I find this problematic as, though often the lowest hanging fruit, it places the burden of solution on the citizen, and can be seen as an acceptance of and response or reaction to the current problem rather than a way to attack its existence. Consumer-targeted solutions could include awareness campaigns, boycotts, and the generation of and reliance on small-scale alternative shops for delivering safer consumer goods.
  2. Legislators -This could be the most effective plan of attack. Legislators have the power to overhaul the systems -industrial or otherwise- that expose us to these harmful chemicals in the first place. But typical bureaucratic restraints and timelines coupled with a healthy beholden-ness to lobbies and campaign financing means that any movement that might be seen in this arena could take years and would require a drastic overhaul of our political system in general.
  3. Industry -I am hesitant to return to industry as our last best hope, but market-driven results in our current western economic climate allow for the most agile approach. That, and the now on-trend appetite for sustainable design makes the kickstarters of the world our most likely allies in coming to a scalable solution for the masses. Rolling out guerilla campaigns -alternative labeling, say- while pledging to create more socially responsible manufacturing environments, better working conditions in less industrialized nations, socially-driven adaptably product design to prevent exposure and enhance knowledge, seems like the lowest barrier of entry and will take results furthest.

Additional References

Drawing well-being.

The Examined Life by Martha Nussbaum

Why To Be Wary of Design For Developing Countries by Krista Donaldson

Design in public and social innovation: What’s going right and what’s going wrong?  by Geoff Mulgan


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