A city is a system.
Within any system are components.
Cities, for example, contain components such as municipal government, academia, businesses and various others. These components are also known as institutions.
Within each institution are processes. Here are a few examples:
- Governments: elections, council meetings, etc
- Universities: matriculation is the process of being enrolled in a college and pursuing a specific degree
- Businesses: increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and maximizing profit
Each institution brings its own ability to create value as well as its own obstacles.
Problems tend to arise when one institution attempts to function without taking into account the existence of the other institutions.
Before the advent of technology it was quite difficult to function as a society while taking into account all the stakeholders. This led to each institution developing itself, solving its own internal problems, and basically doing what it could to survive.
As leaders of each institution became more successful at solving their own problems they grew in wealth and power. The distance between the leaders and the led widened.
This created something known as the ivory tower effect – when the leaders of an institution become disconnected with the people they are supposed to be representing. As Americans, we have experienced this for decades, and in some cases centuries. It has become increasingly difficult to pursue happiness in this country because those who lead the people are, in fact, disconnected from the people. How can someone lead us if they do not know the ins and outs of our specific, unique needs? I experienced this in higher education both as a student and a teacher. I experienced this in business both as a customer and an entrepreneur. I experienced this in government both as an activist and a political ally.
One problem with the ivory tower effect is how it keeps the people of an institution confined within the walls of said institution. For example, more and more college students graduate from American universities without a place in the economy. They are not equipped with the skills necessary to provide for themselves. This causes an array of new social problems: unemployment, underemployment, burdening debt, poverty, hunger, homelessness, etc. Until recently, these youth and their families have struggled to develop solutions to these unexpected problems. Likewise, universities are trying to figure out how to better prepare their students for the economy. Businesses are trying to figure out how to procure young talent. Governments are looking for ways to do more with strict budgets. As a system designer, I look at these obstacles as opportunities.
For the first time in history, the people are empowered with the ability to redesign the systems which prevent them from pursuing happiness. Technology enables you and I to skip the need to ask for permission before we try to fix a problem in our lives.
Do you recall the walls I mentioned which were confining the people within institutions? Technology has torn down those walls.
If I have a problem, I can go straight to the businesses in my city, I can go straight to the educators, straight to the families, and straight to the other people who are experiencing similar problems. That is precisely what we have done with Princeton Impact Project. We bring all the stakeholders together, We work cooperatively, as a team, and discuss solutions.
The moment I realized I was in control of my future was the moment I stopped blaming other people and institutions for how my life was turning out.
The purpose behind system design is to reimagine the way in which the institutions, or components, interact with one another in order to achieve a more beneficial outcome for all.
In this case, we must reimagine the infrastructure throughout society so that all Americans are granted similar rights and opportunities.
Jim Waldo is a Harvard Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Waldo wrote a report in 2006 which was published by Sun Labs titled, “On System Design”. In the first section, Notes from the Author, Waldo dives in head first:
The subject of the essay, System Design, is one that as a profession we talk about less than I believe we should. It is, in many ways, the most important and most difficult thing that we engineers attempt to do. I believe that we avoid talking about it because it is hard, and seems somehow “unscientific.”
It is clear, as the paper progresses, Waldo is talking about engineering. In particular, computer programming and software engineering. He tells us that a system is a set of components which form an integrated whole, and to design a system requires each component be broken down into smaller parts. My background is not software engineering so I immediately made connections between Waldo’s “system design” and our society, at large.
Waldo then moves into the details of how to go about designing a system effectively.
It is very difficult to mask the weaknesses of a design when you are communicating that design to someone else who is intimately involved in the implementation of the design. Simple designs can be communicated easily; complex designs are hard to explain. Just as writing down a design will often show flaws or weaknesses in the design, explaining a design to a peer will often improve the design.
-Jim Waldo, Harvard University
If it is true, that speaking about the design of a system allows for flaws in the system to be discovered, then this seems like an effective place to start: an assessment of the problems from a high-level, system perspective.
It is important to understand how problems within one institution are interrelated with other aspects of society. Solutions should not be pushed forward if they serve only one institution, or one group within an institution. Rather, the solutions should provide an equal amount of positive and negative results to all stakeholders. All stakeholders must be present during these discussions.
For example, a poor person may be getting evicted. The threat of homelessness is near. We can provide immediate shelter to this person which is what homeless shelters do, but a homeless shelter is not the typical solution which allows a person to rebuild a meaningful life. It does not get to the root of the problem. It is a bandaid on a much deeper, systemic wound.
How can we utilize the system designer’s approach to solve this type of problem?
Perhaps there is an opportunity for university students to build a program that teaches homeless people from their community to learn job skills. This is a solution which serves the education of our youth, it serves the homeless person who is looking for an opportunity, it increases the economic value of the city by raising the income across all residents, it serves businesses by increasing the number of potential customers in the city, and the list of positive impacts goes on.
It is obtuse to discuss solutions for homelessness without homeless people sitting at the same table.
The purpose behind stakeholder meetings is to get a full understanding of the existing problems. How are the different stakeholders being impacted? What is causing the homeless person to become homeless? What is causing the college student to not have a job after graduation?
Having these early conversations is how we may discover many important pieces of data regarding the causes and effects of a given social problem, what is currently being done to bring relief to the problems, why current programs may not be as effective as they could be, etc.
Reach out to the community of different stakeholders, create a space for discussion, and host regular discussions surrounding the obstacles that we, the people, encounter in our daily lives on the pursuit of justice and equality for all.
The awesome team at Code for Princeton are doing an incredible job of connecting with the community to identify such obstacles. They are hosting an open forum for the city on May 31st at the Princeton Public Library:
The Princeton Impact Project recently hosted its first social innovation conference. The purpose was to bring together all the stakeholders from the business, government, community, and technology components of Princeton and the surrounding region. We heard from speakers tell stories about their lives, their projects, lessons they are learning, and the obstacles they are running into right now. We are hosting a conference assessment meeting this Wednesday, May 20th at the Princeton Public Library.
Stakeholder Email Lists
Start a mailing list to serve as a an archive of constant discussion. Multi-sided communication in the mailing list will allow a person experiencing a specific adversity to make those issues known so that those who have the means to contribute to a resolution will be empowered to do so.
Learn more about how we recently started a stakeholder email list as a resource on Princeton Impact Project.
Interested in building something like this for your organization?
Contact me to setup a time for a meeting.
Already have a project you want help building? Submit your project.
View the research paper I mentioned from Jim Waldo, Harvard University: On System Design