External Examiner - Jane Strange
This report is published with authorisation from external examiner, Jane Strange.
This work is, as Sam says, deeply personal and undertaken in an entrepreneurial spirit.
It explicitly draws on Sam’s diverse environmental and social innovation experience to synthesise new ‘practice-based theory’. This is demonstrated by Sam formally interrogating his own historical experiences to legitimise and help to bridge the gap between design’s much vaunted ‘learning by doing’ and capturing and evolving new thinking in emerging areas of design. His analysis of both the different categories of design he is playing in, and the intersecting and overlapping levels of a truly emergent design practice create important new concepts.
Conversely, I believe Sam’s development of ‘theory-based practice’ in this work is exceptional. He nimbly integrates, adapts and borrows from a variety of disciplines from evolutionary biology, to systems thinking to different strands and orders of design to create new practice based on strong synthesis and a bias towards action.
The ability to toggle between these two modes is rare in my experience, and as Sam states the methodology involves constant iterations and switches between action, learning and responding. A key insight for practitioners of social innovation is his deliberate use of reflection and longer-term synthesis to complement the fast cycles that, practiced in isolation, can end in exhaustion and confusion rather than reinforcement, integration and clarity.
Sam’s wide use of different observation, insight generation, synthesis and strategy tools – and his discussion of their different strengths and weaknesses – evidences Sam’ssophisticated analytical and critique. Using and critiquing a wide range of tools not only contributes to the discussion around where and how to use different techniques, but also demonstrates that insight that emerges from different processes can be seen to be particularly robust.
The work also bridges important gaps between the different phases of a design process – especially using the wide-ranging and deeply interrogated strategy stage between insight and action. Using principles from complexity, emergent strategy and systems change practice with strategic thinking (so that strategy is more of a principles based hypothesis than a plan for success) is a leap that could change the planning based culture and processes that Sam identifies as a root cause of much disfunction and waste.
This study will potentially be as useful to future students and practitioners of design, policy and systems change as the wide range of inspiration that Sam draws from throughout his research.
Sam provides interesting reflections on the difficulty of isolating a problem area when taking a design-led approach. The fact that he revised his research questions shows both clarity and flexibility of thinking and conscious evolution of purpose in response to the evidence generated by his primary and secondary research.
Sam’s subject matter, design approaches, secondary research, and reflection processes draw strongly from nature. His use of the metaphor of forests and trees for the different parts and purposes of his research dovetail beautifully with this.
The material is presented in an engaging and fluid way in the three videos which I believe stand on their own as an important resource for social innovation practitioners. Watching them as part of the examination process meant that my fellow examiner and I were immersed in the work in a way that allowed for a much more natural conversation when Sam came into the room and created a positive halo for the work as a whole prior to the examination presentation. He responded confidently, honestly and succinctly to the questions we asked as well.
For me, one of Sam’s key insights was around the subtle and pernicious effect of our anthropomorphic world view as a reason for our chronic lack of priority and investment in conservation despite the evidence of catastrophic species loss. This led to Sam’s acknowledgement that human-centred design suffers from a similar world view – in contrast to the eco-centric world view of indigenous people including Māori. One disappointment for me was that this did not result in any further enquiry about some of the excellent work being done in Aotearoa around infusing design with a Māori world view (Angie Tangaere, The Southern Initiative, Penny Hagen, Smallfire/Auckland Co-design Lab).
The strategy and concepts did not explicitly develop this theme further either, even though the reflection around the revision of the research questions suggested that the need to change this world view was an unconscious underpinning of his original research question.
As Sam acknowledges, the least developed part of the study was the testing and iteration of the concepts and resulting conclusions. Although Sam argues strongly for the fact that concepts should be thought of as useful ways to ‘probe’ and should not be valued intrinsically or in isolation, he also acknowledges that this process happened at a time of great personal stress.
One thing that I found odd, considering this argument and Sam’s assertion that the parts of the model are overlapping and interconnected, was presenting the concepts as Part 1 of the study. Although this was intended to cast them as a vehicle to tell the story, this instead caused me to critique them without the full understanding and rationale that the subsequent close reading of the Design and Strategy sections provided. Reviewing them again after reading sections 2 and 3 cast a different and more positive light on them.
Although the outcomes undermine the work to a degree, I would argue that doing and thinking about design is a very difficult thing to do solo, and that in light of that, the huge volume, variety and depth of insight and practice that Sam has explored here is inspiring.
The different approaches to how to proceed (with a stumble, walk, run metaphor that worked well) and the reflection that design is never really finished also argues against the criticism that the project perhaps faltered a little towards the end. I look forward to seeing where Sam takes this important piece of work next.