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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds VOICE 1: Brand new house. Mmm.. detached, got to be four bedrooms, tennis court, definitely a garage. Location? Zone 1. London. Woman about town.

Skip to 0 minutes and 25 seconds I could stretch to a cool half million pounds VOICE 2: So many requirements. Half a million! You couldn’t even buy the plot for that. Detached!

Skip to 0 minutes and 40 seconds VOICE 1: Ok Ok. Well, I suppose I could get on a train max one hour. Milton Keynes.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 seconds VOICE 2: So there the plot will be 200 thousand ..and still not big enough for a tennis court

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds VOICE 1: You cannot be serious. Compromise compromise.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds VOICE 2: OK, this is the deal - you can have a 3 bedroom house in Milton Keynes with no garage

Skip to 1 minute and 7 seconds VOICE 1: No garage, that’s just going too far.

Skip to 1 minute and 10 seconds VOICE 2: you can build it to your own layout,

Skip to 1 minute and 13 seconds but it will cost VOICE 1: I better go and talk to the bank .

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds VOICE 2: Ok Ok 2 bedrooms then, and a bigger mortgage, and a garage. Call the architect!

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds ARCHITECT: a curved wall, 10k

Skip to 1 minute and 37 seconds VOICE 1: smaller bedrooms! Oh.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds ARCHITECT: …up and over doors, no electric motor,

Skip to 1 minute and 45 seconds save 5k VOICE 1: definitely the porch VOICE 2: So, are you there?

Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds VOICE 1: Yes, at last.

Skip to 1 minute and 52 seconds VOICE 2: Well that’s the design process you go back and forth and the end point changes. You start off with one problem, and as you try to solve it you end up with something different, but generally something that works. Happy driving!

Policy design

Case study: designing a house

Look around you. Most likely, almost everything you see has been designed. The Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon called design a Science of the Artificial1. Design is about change – making new things or improving existing things. Design is about making systems as they ought to be.

Policy is also about change – making new things or improving existing things. Policy is also about making systems as they ought to be. Policy is designing the future 2.

Design is a process. It begins with desires and requirements and proceeds by generating and evaluating alternative ways of satisfying them. For example, the person in the video wants to design a house with four bedrooms, a tennis court and a garage subject to the constraint of it being in central London and costing less than £500,000.

This design problem has no solution because it is impossible to buy the necessary plot of land in central London for this price, let alone build a house. So a compromise is made. The new house will have to be built within an hour of central London, say Milton Keynes where a small plot of land costs about £200,000. So she makes another compromise – no tennis court. Even worse, she has to accept that the most she could expect is a small house with three bedrooms, and no garage. Or she can have the garage but just two bedrooms.

And this could cost more than the budget, so she talks to the bank and although it’s tight, she can have a bigger mortgage. Another £30,000.

Given this brief, her architect sets to work. It’s not long before he tells her that the bedrooms will be smaller than she hoped for. By cutting corners here and there she can keep within her stretched budget.

So, during the design process, the problem has changed from designing a £500,000 house in central London with four bedrooms and a tennis court to the problem of designing a small house in Milton Keynes with two bedrooms and a garage costing £530,000. These are different problems!

The design process

In design the problem and the solution coevolve. In principle the design process could go on forever until the optimum solution is found. In practice there is no optimum solution, but a number of suboptimal solutions that have different merits and drawbacks, and since life is finite a decision has to be made. Herbert Simon call this satisficing the problem, meaning that the design process ends when an acceptable but imperfect comprise has been made between the various desires and constraints.

Compare this to the conventional idea of problem solving at school. Suppose your teacher set you a question and you came back the next day saying that while trying to answer the question you discovered a better question and answered that instead.

In this respect design is a particular way of formulating and solving problems: it is a process by which you discover what you think you can have to satisfy what you think you need. In the next step you will see how this perspective provides a practical framework for the essential cooperation between scientists, policy makers and citizens of Global Systems Science.

What do you think?

Do you think policies are designed? If not, where do they come from? What is the process that results in a policy? Can a policy be compared to a design blueprint? You can add your comments below.


1 Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, MIT Press, 1966.

2 Jeffrey Johnson, ‘Policy Design, Planning, and Management in Global Systems Science’, in Complex Systems Design & Management Asia, Editors: Michel-Alexandre Cardin, Daniel Krob, Pao Chuen Lui, Yang How Tan, Kristin Wood. 2014.

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Global Systems Science and Policy: an Introduction

UNESCO UNITWIN Complex Systems Digital Campus

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