How to build a Minimum Viable System

After a week traveling in the US with visits to Detroit (with Kresge Foundation with Carol Coletta and Helen Davis Johnson) to Providence (with Brown University and Rhode Island Design School Enrique Martinez, Damian White and their amazing colleagues and students), Rhode Island Foundation (with Jessica David) ... and in New York where I had some brilliant systems conversations with Rachel SinhaPhilip Silva, Myung Lee and the incredible team working at Cities of Service - after all these fantastic eye-opening conversations I starting thinking about a useful possible framing of our work - the large Demonstration Neighborhood we are planning in particular - in terms of building a Minimum Viable System.

Here’s the starting points for thinking in these terms.

1. The current system has design flaws

Over a long period the whole system has been pieced together by thousands of individuals and institutions.  Like an out of date computer system which has been continually patched. At some point you need to decide if you can continually keep patching (or altering the aspects of the system over which you have some control) or if you want to use all the new tech available to build a new improved system. Many would suggest that not all problems can be solved by patching or altering - problems such as inequality, environment and social cohesion need more fundamental systemic changes - ones that involve different everyday behaviors and cultures from 1000s of people. 

A problem for which the solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behaviour is likely to be a wicked problem. Wicked problems have multiple root causes and are interconnected through physical, economic and human systems.

2. That a re-design process can contribute to changing the long term trajectory

Can we ‘design out’ some of these problems at a systems level? Personally I think we can go a long way towards this.

Most social problems—such as poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness - are wicked.

Wicked problems can’t be ‘fixed’.

But because of the role of design in developing infrastructure, designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions.

This mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise. Due to the system qualities of these large problems, this design process demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.
— Jon Kolko Founder and Director Austin Centre for Design

Much of our political efforts are aimed at creating a better balance e.g. Big Government vs Big Society, variations in taxation or redistribution, capitalism vs socialism and so on.  Lots of re-directing resources through big lever mechanisms, not currently resulting in fairness or balance.

In the UK the public demand for honesty, fairness and a much better balance, economically, socially and environmentally is getting louder and louder.

In summary many people believe that: 

  • The current systems are unsustainable long term 
  • We can start to re-design these systems for a better balance and social impact
  • We need to redesign carefully, in situ, with real people and institutions -This is not a re-design process that can be done in an office with a pack of postit notes - it has to be designed in a live context.

Minimum viable product vs minimum viable system?

One of the biggest shifts in thinking we prototyped in The Open Works was to move from thinking about single ideas, entities and activities - to a thinking about systems of ideas and activities. This meant supporting an ecology of mutually dependent and supportive collections of activity - rather than simply stimulating and supporting single ideas and entities.

Currently in neighbourhoods the responsibility for institutional infrastructure (constitutions, bank accounts, committees) and sustainability of the activity is placed on individual ideas.  In The Open Works we tested the strategy of moving both these responsibilities into a collective environment.  How could we support an ecology of projects through a platform approach with shared institutional infrastructures? How could we raise the question of sustainability from the individual idea to looking at the sustainability of the whole system? (See Marc Ventresca on  Don't Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems)

What does this shift towards whole system re-design change?

- It moves the thinking towards a collective framework - towards 1000s of people and institutions working in concert, as mutually supportive and interrelated, rather than as individuals or single entitities. 

- It creates an ecology where all creativity, ingenuity and resource can find a home - a free flowing, growing and evolving environment which everyone has a place, a way to plug in and contribute to the health, wealth and resilience of the whole system. In effect, the platform works as a neighborhood level incubator and accelerator for achieving system-wide outcomes - not for incubating and accelerating linear specified outcomes and outputs.

- It changes the mechanisms for achieving balance in the system and builds in resilience to the system - its less rigid (more flexible), less cumbersome (more responsive), less linear (more networked) - and so on.

- It can design in long term public good, inclusivity and sustainability that will produce a much more sustainable system by embedding design principles and processes - as the system is redesigned - rather than trying to retrofit these vital principles into existing systems which have become too ossified over time, and sometimes actively resist change.

As mentioned in the last post, it was highlighted in the work that the Mayor and team are working through their Urban Commons project in Bologna. Where government is too dominant with services it is unsustainable financially, and where too much is asked of local residents that is unsustainable because people get exhausted.  It this new collaboration mid-point,  a new type of societal co-production melting pot - neither top down nor bottom up - which needs to be redesigned for achieving healthy neighbourhoods that are sustainable long term.

Massive re-design requirement

What The Open Works did was build a prototype that worked successfully on building a new intersection of the overall system in a particular neighborhood - creating a new type of collaboration space for local government, citizens, local organizations and businesses - a new center of gravity. All of these different actors worked together on the development of the 20 projects.

The larger Demonstration Neighborhood we are planning will go much further — it intends to build a Minimum Viable System that includes all aspects of the system and will incorporate the ideas and resources of 1000s of people.

We anticipate that when the fully developed collaboration matrix is ready to start the system re-design and build process it will look something like this:

10 - 20 funders and social investors

10 high level knowledge partners

20 educational institutions 

50 specialist advisors as project faculty 

40+ local organisations

100+ local businesses

1000s of local residents

1 bold and ambitious local government 

The Demonstration Neighborhood aims to raise the ambition and concentrate our efforts - and that involves a large scale re-organisation and re-design process.

For more examples of the types of projects that would make up this ecology of co-produced and co-designed projects please take a look a the new Community Lover's Guide website

Tessy Britton