Evolutionary Stakeholder Discovery

Peter Jones Co-Creation, Cybernetics, Dialogic Design, Systemic Design

A significant source of both power and error in social system design originates from the distribution mix of participants in design and planning engagements. Designers rely significantly on the lived experience of participants in such sessions, but rarely qualify the distribution of that experience as a form of knowledge translation. The unqualified inclusion of “any or all” participants leads to socialized forms of sampling error, one which cannot be corrected within a given session.

Stakeholder selection can be significantly biased by default and unreflective practices common in design engagements. When stakeholders are selected to participate in sessions conceived as co-creation practices, where participants are the “designers of the system,” the onus of group design decisions relies solely on their knowledge base. A discovery process of evolutionary stakeholder sampling resolves this concern by adapting multiple dimensions of ontological and social identification. Sampling can be defined as commensurate with the requisite variety in problems as framed, or social system of interest to participating stakeholders. This process provides a justified basis for democratic engagement of multiple stakeholders associated with a social system, with consideration of the spectra of inclusive and representative participation. 

Requisite System Sampling for Co-Creation

As increasingly complex domains are addressed in design studies, from healthcare to smart city planning, methodological accounts are published on engagement practices and group interventions for co-creation and design facilitation (Aguirre, Agudelo & Romm, 2017, Donetto, et al., 2015, Jones, 2019). As predicted by Sanders and Stappers (2008) a decade ago, design practices have indeed moved from design for product and service owners to “design with” participants in their own lifeworlds.

However, as the level of complexity moves higher along a notional scale from products to organizations to multiple coordinating organizations, the inclusion of participants and their role in design decision making changes dramatically. The role of a participant in sketching a preferred app interface entails nowhere near the multifactorial complexity or power relations involved in system, policy, or governance decision-making programs. Yet these programs and their workshops are calling on design practitioners for process support, and these engagements are frequently facilitated with similar participatory and generative methods. The stakes are significantly different between user participation and multi-stakeholder consensus on critical issues or wicked problem systems, and the methods for professing to consensus and design decisions differ not only by style but epistemology and disciplinary integration.  An underinformed user’s contributions to a service prototype might not contribute to well-defined outcomes. A stakeholder group determining the community’s climate adaptation policy ought to require knowledge, personal or professional stake, and the capability to sustain action according to collective decisions.

There may be many systemic design methods considered pragmatically effective in their consultative or engagement settings. Yet in any design process requiring participant decisionmaking, especially with consensus on binding actions, the commitment of the participant to the outcome becomes a critical factor.

In product/service design the “users” are the system. We hold users as stakeholders, as experts in their own experience, not as representatives of a social system of users. They are typically a market of occasional users with defined interactions. We can reliably sample from user populations or market participants, and can identify relevant characteristics of use behaviors to assumed product/service needs. In design research, high deviation from the norm informs design decisions, as research exploring the extremes of use and application signal the emergence of new options in a product or offering. 

But in systemic, or so-called multistakeholder contexts (now an overused and misunderstood term), the signifying tasks might involve complex scenarios and decisions for which designers cannot be held to understand as domain participants. The facilitating design activities are much more abstract than in product/service design research, and primarily include problem finding and framing, discovering common ground between levels of power and knowledge, and across contexts, constructing credible proposals for action, and facilitating a durable consensus for decisions.

These activities require high-credibility and neutral facilitation of stakeholders, who may be seen as committed expert participants in practices, as genuine “system members.” Real stakeholders are not merely representatives of a social system in which they hold titular membership, they are committed co-producers of the social system of concern. In organizational and policy contexts, stakeholders can be seen as political participants in an arena of debate. Therefore, one of the most overlooked design choices, stakeholder selection, may be one of the most critical risks and blind spot we face in systemic and policy design.

Getting the Whole System in the Room

In the Western knowledge society we have “centred” users and stakeholders as sources of knowledge and veridiction. Human-centering in design is often presented as evidence of ethical practice, or at least, a necessary sensitivity to multivocalism in design process. However, in many if not most design-led participatory workshops, the situated placement of self-selecting participants as representative “voices of the system” can slip into an unreflective (but efficient) process that evades responsibility of future consequences of design decisions. We would not decide a consensus for actual social system participants. Yet how are we disclosing ourselves as lifeworld-sensitive designers, when we decide for a systemic decision, perhaps an even more consequential outcome, of who will be the system participants?

Design problematics in the many domains we now touch involve social complexity and the complex multiplicity of stakeholders. If we recognize stakeholder co-creation as a context for design facilitation for critical decision and planning events (Jones, 2018), we bring forth skills for different roles than product or service designers. As with other design skills, systemic designers are neither authentically domain experts or visionaries in the complex sociotechnical systems we may serve, such as urban planning, healthcare, ecological community design, and advanced technology.

A common phrase among facilitators of large-group interventions is “getting the whole system in the room.” Group processes such as Future Search (Weisbord, 1992) have relied on this principle. Such practices (based on the original search conference concept) rely on the assumption that large group workshops increase the points of view and diffuse the power levels among members of a group and raise the likelihood of their learning from each other and making durable decisions together. To a great extent, this practice has been reported as successful within organizations.

However, as a social system is expanded to its larger social boundary (as across an industry or community), achieving understanding and decisions across widely disparate organizations and its stakeholders requires more than just large group workshops and arranging for occasions to talk over issues. We might also question the heuristic of the large group intervention, which substitutes the inclusion of greater numbers of participants for a targeted, prior understanding of the composition of stakeholders and their expected contributions.  How could we ever know whether we had acquired the appropriate social variety representative of a given social system, without modeling the system of interest in detail and its interactions? When the very identity of a social system is defined by its members, we would have to involve some quorum of its stakeholders that other members would agree have defined its boundary conditions and inclusions.

Stakeholder selection is itself a wicked problem. As in a wicked problem, each selection of stakeholders matters, each inclusion of a participant excludes another possible choice. The consequences of participation and non-participation are unknown at the time of selection, but each person’s perspective counts and can be seen as a potential representative. Stakeholders as a collective share a context (even if solely due to their invitation to an engagement) and co-create a framing (a reference system) that becomes path-dependent, that cannot be undone. The participant sample defines the problem space. Vision, context and direction setting are extremely sensitive to initial conditions, and – especially when performed well – may create a lock-in effect with confirmation of beliefs among actors that their choices represent desirable preferences for future system participants.

On this logical position we might propose that the selection of stakeholders make more difference to achieving a durable consensus than our choice of design methodology. A carefully-tuned participatory design workshop with attention to co-creation process and designerly practices makes little enduring difference if the participants have no continuing stake in the outcome. When the design team is left to interpret for themselves the meaning of sticky notes pulled off the wall, the workshop has not intervened in the future system.

In systemic design we face a changing problem frame with each selection of participants. We can see shifts between each stage of a progressive design process, sustaining an essentially artificial co-creation engagement. A typical co-creation engagement proceeds from visioning and problem framing, through system intervention or concept formulation, and toward consensus on collective action. All of these activities require stakeholder insight and validation, and much less design guidance and content compared to D2.0 product/service contexts.

A design process may become irrelevant if stakeholder selection does not represent the requisite variety in the exogenous social system and fails to enroll authentic commitment from selected stakeholders. Because design disciplines are predicated on a tradition of creative problem solving, and not the social science traditions of careful field research, these critical functions are often underdeveloped, especially for workshop-type engagements. When we under-conceptualize the exogenous (external, socially constructed) system we risk failures in outcome, even when co-creation has been deemed highly satisfactory, by failing to select and enroll sufficiently well enough to enable an effective future result in the social system.

Presented at RSD7 Politecnico Torino [Proceedings]
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