Designing love-based systems

I was in Vancouver’s Railtown Cafe a couple months ago, in town to help facilitate a design sprint for a non-profit. 

Powering up for the day with a breakfast sandwich, as smells of fresh baking and coffee wafted over the counter, I encountered this article from Jesse Weaver: “Human-Centered Design Dies at Launch.” 

The perspective goes like this: we say we’re doing “human-centered design,” but inevitably, business goals trump the user’s needs. Every time. 

In the comment section, one user washes the criticism away as being misguided: “Of course it does,” they say. “Human-centered design is a business tool. And a business exists to make money. You want change, go work in the non-profit sector.”

On that very day, where I was running a design sprint for a non-profit, it included an executive leader who was dead-focused on questions about return-on-investment, without a thought towards his team’s health, his non-profit’s impact or sense of purpose. I will assure you that he felt no freer to measure well-being and human thriving than a leader in a conventional business setting. 

The non-profit sector cannot and will not solve this: and even if it could, are we really going to take any notion of humanity’s well-being and shove off the responsibility to a whole other sector? If today’s organizations see themselves as having no responsibility for humanity’s well-being, then it’s time to redesign these systems.

Are we not ready for this — to change the nature of business? Are we not ready to optimize for something healthier and more long-lasting? Are we not ready to push beyond this scarcity-minded behaviour? 

Some say an alternative is on its way: from human-centered design to life-centered design, says Katharina Clasen. “The Future is Life-Centered” says Jane Fulton Suri, of IDEO.

These are healthy and humble evolutions — it shows a tremendous humility on the part of designers to suggest that it’s the designers or the design process that needs to change. But as much as this ever-evolving field might healthily and humbly disagree, design doesn’t need to change. Design is fine. Design is available any time of the day to help you pay attention to needs and patterns and realities, build empathy, imagine the future, create possibility and make plans to make it happen. It’s the systems that abuse design or ignore it entirely that are killing us. And it’s those systems themselves that must be reimagined and redesigned. 

I have a new norm for us to build towards: love-based systems. Develop a metric to measure the presence of love in your system, and optimize for that.

You don’t have to call it that.

Oh, we don’t have to call it love — we can call it social connectedness, belonging, community strengthening, empathy, or your favourite synonym that makes you feel less uncomfortable. But it’s there, waiting for us, as the hoped-for outcome of every human in every system, the punchline at the end of every research report, the unstated inference in each of our interactions, the one thing that would change our world if we would let it. 

In other settings, the “love” conclusion shows up under different names.

danah boyd calls it belonging, in her keynote and article about media literacy. She explains when we see false information spreading, our temptation is to correct people who spread it. We fact-check our friends. But the information-seeker accessing that false information is actually having a need met through it: to have a viewpoint affirmed, to have a perspective validated, to feel part of something. To feel a sense of belonging. When we ‘fact-check’ it, we signal to them that they are not part of our community. They don’t belong. In effect, we exile them, causing them to move further into the community that issued the false information. The way to successfully respond to false information is by extending belonging and connection to the seeker. Love.

Johann Hari calls it social connection. Though addiction and depression are multi-faceted issues, one of the key elements in both is social isolation — a lack of connection. Not universally, not all the time, and not without additional complicating elements — but social isolation plays a role. Love, then, is the starting point.

The City of Vancouver calls it social connectedness, or simply, community. When a community is able to recover well from a disaster, showing true resilience, it is when community ties are strong. So as a way of being prepared for its own inevitable disasters that may come in the form of anticipated earthquakes, Vancouver invests in a strategy that aims to increase the social connectedness between neighbours on street blocks and apartment buildings. They recognize that socially strong communities are stronger and more resilient. Love, you could say.

Speaking of Vancouver, Dr. Gabor Mate in his own research into trauma, addiction, stress and childhood development, lands also on the need to build strong relational bonds as a pathway through these negatives.

I heard Lance Priebe talk on a similar topic. He pioneered early tools for internet community moderation, helping identify ways to protect children online from toxic culture and predatory luring, as an element of building Disney’s Club Penguin. In his current work, he’s been exploring the world of eSports; competitive online gaming. Child luring remains a problem, as kids who are hungry for affirmation and fame respond to YouTube commenters and Twitch accounts powered by people reaching out to compliment them on their skills, only to gradually discover more nefarious aims. Lance was encouraging parents about how to counter this reality: be the one to pay attention to their gaming in the first place. Treat it like you would their dance practice or soccer games. Show up, support them, get them into healthy habits, cheer for them, pay for their equipment, and be the person that is already paying them enough attention that they need not seek it elsewhere. Love.

Tim Leberecht echoes a sentiment like this in his work, The Business Romantic.

Frederich LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations explores this with his idea of Teal Organizations.

Ram Dass, passing away last year in Maui at 88, would get to this in a heartbeat.

Buckminster Fuller, renowned futurist and author, equates love with gravity, as one of the only constantly-in-play forces in the universe, referring to it “metaphysical gravity.” He called love, “omni-inclusive and progressively exquisite,” and envisioned elaborate scenarios for world-betterment based on this sense.

Barry Oshry calls it “partnership.” His conclusion after anthropologically studying human systems over the course of his entire career was that humans inevitably stratify into social systems that cause alienation, and the only way through this are deliberate stances of partnership and co-creation. Later in his career, he began to shift to a more direct use of the word “love.”

And don’t make me quote Brené Brown at you. Because I don’t want to reduce the work of her amazing books and talks into just one tidy quote. I might suggest that any of our work combatting shame, choosing vulnerability, is not just towards helping businesses ship more products, helping leaders Get Things Done — rather, it’s towards creating a planet where we see and experience love in abundance, as a fundamental measure of our quality of connection. 

“Where is it on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” you might ask. “Why isn’t it the bottom of the pyramid, if it’s so fundamental, instead of at number three?” 

Besides the fact that love is clearly on the pyramid is this less-known fact: before his death, Maslow revised his hierarchy to place “self-transcendence” on the top, not “self-actualization.” Self-transcendence is described as “a shift in focus from the self to others.” The forgotten pinnacle, the missing apex, is this: centering on the needs of others. 

I offer these synonyms because I expect not all of us will be comfortable introducing “love” into the contexts where we work and live. Know that other names exist, but so does adequate research and data, showing that the whatever-you-call-it is foundational for health and thriving.

If we want to invest in social innovation, systems change, business success, economic thriving, health and well-being, invest in one thing: invest in love. It’s a worthy pursuit, a noble ambition, a viable product, a valuable metric, the key performance indicator.

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