Designing for the New Normal

By Jon Fukuda

There are rare times in human history, where our usual stratification of attention,  passions, and points of view become focused on a narrow set of common issues across the globe. This is one of those times.

Everything we’re doing today is different than it was before communities locked down for the long haul.  In our homes, we are dealing with various ways to continue learning, working, collaborating, communicating and safely venturing out for our needs. We’ve gotten creative.  

Everyone is asking, “Which of these innovations of necessity and new ways of doing things would we try to keep doing after we flatten and eliminate the curve?” This is really important to recognize… we’re doing it right now, we’re collectively asking the questions, “What have we been doing our entire lives – just because it’s the way we’ve always done it? In what ways could it (or should it) be different?” Could this be the spark that ignites a renaissance of creators, makers, inventors, designers, and futurists?  

Observe teachers and their students, with the full force of their school districts, navigating new online curriculum and lesson models. In everything they do, they’re asking the core question, “What is distance learning, and how could tools and processes for on-line education be better?”

Cross-functional business teams have taken up Slack, Mural, Miro, Google Suite, Figma (et al), and conference-ware to harness the power of remote collaboration.  They’re learning what works and developing new protocols for designing and documenting in tandem. 

We’re discovering the shortcomings of supply chains when panic buying and poor planning leave a nation without masks and ventilators, the ingenuity of at-home DIY fabricators, and the agility of manufacturers who have pivoted their production lines to fill the gap. 

It seems that everywhere you look, social distancing, lockdown, and other COVID-related challenges are generating new normals that we are adopting and adapting to as we move forward.  The possibilities that lie ahead are inspiring, with the massive diversity of experience and expertise focused on establishing adaptive behavioral changes, innovative processes, tools, and patterns that allow for collective benefit – despite adverse circumstances.  

I’ve always said jokingly that if the amount of brainpower, money, energy, and resources that are typically spent in support of our love for football were put towards solving healthcare, homelessness, income inequality, pollution, corruption, you name it… it would be done, just like that.  

This is it folks, Humanity’s Super Bowl.  All eyes, hearts, minds, and creative energy are focused on a narrow set of issues, right now.  It’s the opportunity of a lifetime – to imagine and manifest a new normal. What should it be? What does the world beyond COVID-19 take from this opportunity? What changes do we work on today to usher in a future that we can all benefit from?

Diagram showing the stages of design thinking starting with life as we know it. Then narrowing to a point of disruption and examining the broken facets of the problem trying to be solved. From there choosing and focusing on what matters from those facets. Next defining, designing and prototyping solutions. Next stress testing those solutions until a valid solution is reached. This is life as it could be, the other side of the design thinking process.

Models and Resources for Innovation

The design thinking model lends itself well to addressing disruption with durable outcomes.  Looking at COVID-19 impacts on public health management – the whole systems-change mindset had to take place.  It wasn’t just masks and gloves, it was general social distancing, but specific methods in letting the right amount of people into the grocery store at one time, sanitizing each cart, taping out the proper distances, placing plexiglass dividers between clerks and customers, and sanitizing chip-readers.  In hospitals rapidly running out of personal protective equipment, experiments rapidly determined that N-95 masks could be sanitized and reused multiple times. Prototype and test in real-time, adapt and adopt what works. Do we need gloves and plexiglass dividers post COVID-19? It’s not likely. Can we continue to reuse masks, and drastically lower the need for disposable PPE? Possibly but the adaptive-mode is more to the point.  We must constantly try to identify these opportunities and adopt them in an agile, scalable, and durable way. 

Exercise: Set aside some time and think through your own daily life. What seems harder, or more wasteful, or more complicated than it should be? Why is it hard, wasteful, or complicated? Can you try a solution?

All product designers, UX practitioners, architects, and engineers see themselves as futurists, but that doesn’t mean the future rests solely on them – it’s as much yours to design as the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the world.  Check out what Adam Zuckerman, supporter of open innovation, has been doing with 3D printers to support DC’s first-responders and healthcare professionals. And Tom Wavering, of Oklahoma University, driving lean and open PPE production for healthcare professionals in Oklahoma.

If this intrigues you, I recommend looking into Speculative Futures, a global community of futurists who explore alternative futures and the systems, processes, policies, and designs those futures necessitate. This community, founded by Phil Balagtas, explores the future via Slack, meetups, and international conferences – and now, more than ever can benefit from the influx of your diverse and unique inspiration, ingenuity, and perspective.

Closer to home here in Colorado, Tom Higley and Jeffrey Nathanson have been grappling with a host of wicked problems through their 10.10.10. Program since 2015 recognizing a need to adapt. If 10 CEOs had 10 days, unlimited resources to tackle 10 wicked problems, what could they accomplish?

Concluding Thoughts

If anything is to be taken from this experience, it’s that the world we live in today and the ways that we live it aren’t meant to be static.  We’re meant to adapt and evolve to changing forces that lie beyond our control. Whether it’s a disruptive technology, climate change, global health crisis, or evolving wicked problems, you innovate and adapt, or get swept up in consequence, wondering if there ever could have been a different way.

Further Reading if you’ve got the itch…

Our team’s favorite books that explore the nuances of change and adaptation: