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Meet Mark: Finding success through tension

In the Design Lab, we like to ask people, “what’s your superpower?”. It’s a great way to get folks to identify their strengths and talk about a unique ability within themselves. To get to know me is to understand my superpower. I guess that makes this an origin story of sorts, and like any good origin story, it’s a journey.

Discovering my superpower is a deep dive into the discipline of design. If there’s one thing that you need to know about me, it’s that I love design in all its shapes and forms. I’ve dedicated my entire career to the study and practice of design. It has been the conduit through which I harness my superpower: the ability to help people find success through tension.

But the term 'design' itself is a bit of a messy one. For many people, it usually refers to creativity, look and feel, the aesthetics of something. Seldom do people associate design with strategic thinking or the means to transform complex systems.

In reality, design cuts across many different disciplines, modalities, theories and applications. Though the word has become ubiquitous and dilute in meaning, therein lies its power—the power to work at different scales and in different ways, big and small (Leurs & Roberts. "What do we mean by design?". Nesta, 2017)

Buchanon's Four Orders of Design (Nesta)

My journey through design began as a visual designer specializing in web and print, working with businesses to build websites and marketing materials. Back then, I used to describe my superpower as having the ability to combine analytical thinking with creativity and imagination. It was a way to describe making beautiful things that met a discrete business outcome. This is how my superpower began to emerge, honing my skills as a visual communicator to help organizations solve problems in communication.

Eventually, my work expanded into User Experience (UX) consulting, where I cultivated my skills working with leading digital agencies in Edmonton. In these roles, I assisted enterprise organizations in applying human-centred design to create digital applications and strategies, conduct user research, and understand the impact of digital innovation. You could say this is where much of my superpower training happened, moving from discrete problems towards more networked ones. Cue the training montage.

It's like the phrase, "seeing the forest for the trees". Up to this point, my work was in the private sector working as an external consultant hopping from project to project, tree to tree. Often, projects were one and done. That was just the nature of the client-vendor relationship. However, as relationships developed I found myself working with the same clients over many engagements. Those engagements exposed our team to enough of the organization to truly understand the depth and severity of issues. Design at this larger scale meant shifting the focus from visual design to orchestrating experiences, which led me to explore service design. Glimpses of the forest began to emerge.

Unlike user experience, service design examines not only the end-user experience but the experience of the employees delivering that service. As a member of the Alberta CoLab within the Government of Alberta, I had opportunities to explore the intersections between human-centred design, new ways of digital working, policy making and implementation within the public service. My work went so far as to create a prototype of an alternate process, which sought to reshape the conduct of policy making by inviting citizens into their development.

Through the Alberta CoLab, we facilitated many design thinking sessions to tackle big, complex challenges across different ministries (until disbanded in 2020). For example, we explored the potential for a circular economy in partnership with the United Nations; the role of policy in preserving biodiversity within the province; we even mapped the possible strategic investments of major oil companies to predict their potential impacts on Alberta. The common thread being that many of the problems were highly complex, deeply networked, and loaded with ambiguity (Buchanon). At this grand scale, service design wasn’t enough. Only by adding the layer of systems thinking could we begin to navigate through the ambiguity. This practice of combining systems thinking with design thinking is less widely known as systemic design ("Systemic Design". Learning for Sustainability).

Systems thinking was the spark that leveled up my superpower. It’s like that moment in The Matrix when Neo finally sees the code beneath the façade and learns to manipulate it. By zooming out on a problem until the complete context revealed itself, I was finally able to see the forest(s).

As I discovered later in life, this superpower is known as integrative thinking (Connor, Tom. "Integrative Thinking Problem Solving Process—Roger L. Martin". Medium, Jan. 20, 2021). By definition, integrative thinking is “the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each” (Martin, Roger L.). In my experience, these opposites are abundant: innovation vs. business as usual, digital transformation vs. legacy IT, customer expectations vs. business objectives, citizen engagement vs. political agendas.

Which brings me to today at the Design Lab, the next phase of my journey. I’m very honoured to be joining a team of super-powered humans and enter this new space with humility. I know there is no bigger challenge than health care and welcome the opportunity to spark change from within. The tension of opposites are abundant and ripe for design to not only help reconcile, but to heal and build a more humane future.

How can we help you build a better tomorrow?

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