This is from 2012 | 6 minute read

Challenging Precedence as Artificial Constraints

Yesterday, I gave a talk in France about social entrepreneurship, urging people to consider starting their own company and leaving behind the corporate machine. I realize the laws governing entrepreneurship differ greatly in various countries. It may be tremendously difficult in Europe to, say, declare bankruptcy after a failed startup attempt, and dissolving a company may be next to impossible. I was expecting to hear questions about this from the crowd, and to be frank, I don't have a great answer to how to mitigate this (except to urge local governments to establish laws that are more agreeable to entrepreneurial endeavors). Most of the questions I received weren't about that, though. They weren't about the legal and structural aspects of company creation: they were about the emotional and attitudinal parts. How do you deal with a country where, to paraphrase one of the questions, people aren't encultured to challenge norms, take initiative, and utilize creative approaches to problem solving?

I don't think that's unique to countries in Europe. I actually think this is the largest opportunity for entrepreneurial training: giving students the permission to do things they are already allowed to do, but making that permission explicit and constantly reinforcing a drive towards creativity and away from consumption. This is related to passion and motivation: it's about learning a way of thinking that encourages self-directed action as provocation, and fostering a culture of curiosity.

By and large, this is a learned attitude. There's probably a genetic disposition towards action, but I simply can't believe that curiosity is some sort of Boolean, where you either have it or you don't. And no matter what your genetic starting point, the increasing scientific evidence towards the plasticity of the brain and our ability to constantly gain knowledge implies that you have the ability to change your initial disposition. Cognitive development doesn't stop; while the cliff of learning may be longer as you grow older, I feel that most of the length of that cliff is artificial and not chemical. And in the context of entrepreneurship, a lot of the issues faced are those of proactivity.

I remember a conversation with a student who was learning about public assistance programs for food ("food stamps"). I suggested that one of these assistance programs might be integrated into his product so people could leverage it as a form of payment during the online checkout program. He told me that, as far as he knew, it didn't work like that; you had to present the assistance card in person to pay for things. As we discussed and debated the feasibility of this based on our assumptions about how the program worked, it became clear that neither of us had enough data to determine if it could really work, and so I asked him a leading question: how could you find out, and what would be a course of action to make it work? I thought the answer was simple: call the government and ask. To him, this was crazy. Who would he call? How would he get their number? Is it OK to call them? What if they wanted to know more about his product? They wouldn't change their policies for him, would they? You don't just call the government, do you? It's just not done like that, is it?

There was a basic assumption of how things are done, both on a detail and a broad level. On a detail level, he assumed that the program was set in stone, and that precedence indicated resolve. We hadn't seen any online payment system that uses public assistance as a checkout mechanism, and he just assumed it couldn't be done for a considered reason.

On a broader level, there was an ingrained hesitation to challenge existing policies, procedures, and norms, and this hesitation blocked curiosity. Things are the way they are for a good reason, and so a solution to a problem should recognize this precedence as logical and appropriate. His frame, like that of so many other people in the world, was one of acceptance rather than skepticism. This wasn't a logical or conscious or rational assessment; it was his default stance, based on the way he was brought up, on the way he was taught to interact with the world around him.

The more I encounter and consider the way systems work in our world, the more I realize that these systems, in fact, aren't the way they are for any good reason, and that these systems are malleable. The constraints of a wicked problem are fuzzy, blurry, and often, completely arbitrary. If you start with the assumption that things can't be done and that the world is the way it is for good reason, you view opportunity and options through an extremely narrow lens. Your set of options at any moment are limited to things that have established precedence. But if you start with the assumptions that anything can be done, particularly when it comes to non-scientific actions, and that historic precedent doesn't determine future action, your set of options is nearly limitless.

This speaks to one of the biggest breakdowns in how we educate kids in the US. It illustrates why eighteen years of learning a shallow version of science and math force rigidity in thinking that doesn't play well with the process of design. As STEM is commonly taught, constraints are fixed. When you solve a logic proof, or solve for x, or cause a chemical reaction to occur, you are taught that constraints are fixed and can't be changed. If A, than B; if B, than C. What about D? Who decided A was there? What if A is A prime? Can I substitute things for the letters? What is logic, anyways? Where did it come from? Who decided how it works? Who set the rules? These questions aren't encouraged or considered, and probably for good reason: I'm not sure the teacher could answer them. And so we learn that, when you encounter a logic proof, you can't change the assumptions, they are fixed. Rules are rules; things are the way they are. I don't particularly think this is true even in the natural sciences, but I'm absolutely sure it's not true in the artificial. We make culture, and so we can change it. But there's no delineation in education made between the natural world and the created world; there's no education given to our relationship with the created world.

That relationship should be one of empowerment. The constraints in a problem of design are completely artificial, and our starting stance towards the artificial should be curiosity and skepticism, not passivity and conformity. This is why entrepreneurship and design are such good partners. Both view the world as rich with opportunity, and as a medium of change.

Originally posted on Wed, 30 May 2012

Want to read some more? Try Rejecting The Relentless Spread of Technology.