As a Design Leader, I’m often asked about who, what, and where, are my biggest influences, and where they come from. There are actually a lot, and they are very wide ranging. But when I think about the single biggest influence that’s shaped my own thinking and perspective over the last 2 decades, it’s a straightforward answer: Cybernetics. And because of that importance, and influence, I want to introduce it enthusiastically and sincerely with you here.
It’s been an incredibly pervasive mental model for me. From the way I think about Design, to how I apply it in practice; to how I think about customers, users, people, and their needs; Or how we define processes and DesignOps to facilitate our best work; how to design great Designers, how to mentor people through finding their own skills and talents, and how to best contribute within teams and organisations – the recurring theme is always ‘Cybernetics’. Floating around my mind, there’s the ‘Cybernetics of Team Design’, the ‘Cybernetics of Product Design’, the ‘Cybernetics of Career Design’, the invention of ‘Design Engines’. All of these things are applying the same core principles to every element of the process, albeit People, Processes, Products or Problems.
When I explain how one of the biggest influences in my UX career is Cybernetics, people ask how many robots I’ve built. Unfortunately, the answer is ‘none’. But the term has become so closely associated with robots that it’s rarely considered as being a highly valuable subject that holds the potential of solving some of the biggest problems we face today. Yet, when most people think of Cybernetics, they think of technology, like robotics 1. The record needs to be corrected on this front, for sure.
In fact, the influence of Cybernetics is everywhere if you look for it. It’s one of those unseen influences in so many fields, from sociology, ethnography, quantum physics, computer science, psychology, architecture. So many Cyberneticians have dropped in, applied some Cybernetic ideas, and changed the field forever – but we’ll leave those stories for a future article. For now, let’s take a look at how this science started out.
The Origins of Cybernetics
When people talk about ‘unseen influences’, they’re usually talking about some conspiracy theory, or the illuminati. But when I say that Cybernetics is an unseen influence, it’s because it’s a fact. It’s not really too much of an exaggeration to say that the world-view of Cybernetics created the modern world. Both in good ways, and bad ways.
Cybernetics’ origin story is quite ancient, being the study of systems and processes. But the official start date for Cybernetics was relatively recent.
In 1948, a polymath mathematician called Norbert Wiener, published a book that introduced the subject to the world. The book was a result of years of work, and captured the context of when he was tasked to solve some of the most important problems facing the Allies during World War II. To solve them, Wiener gathered a crack team of experts, each one the highest exemplar of their field. And they were a very diverse group: Engineers, Psychologists, Biologists, Physicists, mathematicians etc. But after the challenges had been stated, the problems laid on the table, an even bigger challenge emerged. The vocabulary each one used was peculiar and idiosyncratic from each of the others. This was one of the first times that interdisciplinary work was happening, and it was a struggle 2.
Although each expert had a great deal of clarity with their own field, when it came to communicating between them, the semblance of within-discipline clarity dissolved. The team struggled because they didn’t have a unified set of ideas that worked across all the fields of thought. It was a superb example of the Parable of the Elephant. As always, Aristotle provides one of the earliest, and finely worded, examples of the effect: “…no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while we individually contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed” (Metaphysics, Bk2:1,993b). And this is exactly what Cybernetics set out to do.
The science of Cybernetics
Cybernetics is a specific form of Systems Science. It’s also often categorised as a Complexity Science 3. The name actually means ‘steersman’, reminiscent of the governor of a ship (a Latinised form of the Greek word, Kybernetes), and the quality of ‘steersmanship’. With this word, the concept should actually be associated with control, determining which course it takes, and how. It’s conceptually more closely related to the term ‘Strategy’. The context for the term Strategy was the battlefield 4. The context for the term Cybernetics is the ocean. The former saw people pitted against other people; The latter, where people are pitted against the unknown.
People have always been pitted against the unknown, against uncertainty. Albeit the uncertainty of events, of security of the next meal. The universe is a very uncertain and sometimes hostile place, especially for Life: so much so, Hobbes would have us believe that as a result, life is ‘nasty brutish, and short’, and theories that in order to flourish, we must first protect and secure ourselves from that uncertainty 5.
But there are other forms of Uncertainty. Physicists have a good understanding of the types of uncertainty of this thing called ‘the universe’ that we inhabit. Quantum physics tells us that the universe naturally progresses towards disorder, and chaos (for which they use the fancy term, ‘entropy’). Interestingly, Cybernetics frames itself as the study of both ‘entropy’ (unstructured, disorder, instability, unconstrained) and its opposite: ‘negentropy’ (structured, per Schrödinger, 1943) complexity. Humans like to counteract entropy by enforcing order, stability, constraint, structure, hierarchy, and much more besides. In which case, humans are agents of negentropy, as a means of producing security from uncertainty.
But needless to say, and expanding this out to the big-picture for a moment, the understanding of the supreme system, an engine called ‘the universe’, is a complex matter indeed. And humans exist within it, they form part of that engine. Our lives are tethered to this engine, as Zeno stated, like a dog hitched to a cart 6. The engine acts, interacts, reacts as it always has done, in an epic machinery of Godly proportions. That ancient and eternal movement is what Daoists refer to as ‘The Way’ 7. When seen from a Cybernetics lens, the universe is one big engine, and there’s so much beauty within it.
Some pragmatic tools to understand, study and affect that engine are found in Systems Sciences. It’s likely you’ve heard of ‘Systems Thinking’ 8, and perhaps ‘System Dynamics’, but less likely you have heard of ‘Cybernetics’. Each of these fields has value to Design, but Cybernetics is the most latent of them, and I will explain how the two can work together.
Design and Cybernetics should be deeply connected with each other. In my view, they’re actually one and the same. One of the most useful definitions of Cybernetics is Couffignal’s description of it being ‘the art of ensuring the efficacy of action’ 9. Hence, the steersman. But the steersman can take many forms, as the user, or customer, as the designer, as the team, as the product. These spheres all make use of the common framework defined in Cybernetics.
But there’s further correlation between Design and Cybernetics. As the Cybernetician, Ross Ashby once observed, “…cybernetics typically treats any given…machine by asking not ‘what individual act will it provide here and now?’ But ‘what are all the possible behaviours it can produce?’” (Ashby pp3). Now read the previous sentence again and switch out ‘machine’, for ‘system’, ‘product’, ‘experience’, ‘customer’. In Design, don’t we do the same? Not just observing a given product or experience, but also recognise the possible, and the distance between that possible with the ‘actual’ in front of us? In a creative field, a great understanding of the actual, the specific, the end product is part of the blood of a Designer. The act of reflective thought, and deconstruction is what it means to be a Designer. It’s what makes great designers, those who question the choices, and see not just the path taken, but the paths not taken. And truly great designers seek to understand why. Cybernetics provides a conceptual framework for ‘why’.
As the scientist Karl Popper once said, ‘definition is the greatest form of exclusion’ – because when you say a thing is this, you’re also saying the reverse – what it is not. And Design does that. Every choice we make whether visible or invisible, tangible or intangible, is ‘design’. Design, as they say, really is ‘decision-making’. Ashby offered a further description of Cybernetics that feels like a description of Design too: “Cybernetics envisages a set of possibilities much wider than the actual, and then asks why the particular case should conform to its usual particular restriction” (ibid). In effect, Cybernetics is the study of how and why things are as they are. Design is a conscious or unconscious act of determining properties of any given thing, and therefore a Designer is often the reason for how and why things are as they are. Cybernetics provides a language and a framework to do that. Therefore Design, like Cybernetics, “…the science of effective organisation” (Couffignal, pp13). Not organisation in the narrow sense of people, groups, and companies, but organisation of the structural properties that define anything. Hence, the idea of ‘building the right thing’ and ‘building the thing right’, as a complement to the Double-Diamond. We already do it, but Cybernetics can help us take a step beyond.
A step beyond
So Cybernetics can help Designers to conceptualise their work, their process to do that work, and it can also be used as a model for designing oneself, one’s career, one’s team or one’s business. Even one’s life.
Each speculative experiment that provides alternative futures, and when we ask: which version should exist? Which would be most successful? This is a Cybernetic act, it’s Applied Cybernetics. To rephrase what Ashby stated earlier, the designer begins by asking not ‘what actual thing exists here and now?’ But ‘what are all the possible things that could have existed? Why this thing, and how does it best fit the needs – the purpose – of it’s existence? For ease, that’s Design Cybernetics.
Finally, there are many definitions of what Cybernetics means, and the scope of those definitions almost always fall into problematic territories when applied more generally. However, my aim with this article is to spark your curiosity, as a call-to-action to find connection between Cybernetics and Design, and your own practice – to step beyond what’s currently discussed, into new spaces and innovative work.
- It’s not surprising given the ubiquity of the prefix Cyber- to most futuristic technologies. Modern technologies associated with the internet – Cybercrime, Cybersecurity, Cybercafe (in the 90s), popular culture – Cybertron (Transformers), Cyborgs (such as Cyborg from DC comics), Cyberdyne Systems (Terminator), Cybermen (Dr Who), etc have cemented in the mainstream consciousness the idea of anything Cyber- being the science of robotics. To an extent, the prefix has misappropriated what Cybernetics actually is.
- As Wiener elaborated: He, along with his colleague Dr Rosenbleuth, “…shared the conviction that the most fruitful areas for growth of the sciences were those which had been neglected as a no-man’s land between various established fields…” They observed how regretfully, “…science has been increasingly the task of specialists, in fields that show a tendency to grow progressively narrower.” Wiener lamented how a scientist was often “…filled with the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarranted breach of privacy” (Wiener 1948, pp.2).
- There are various terms applied, each confusing and reusing concepts across the fields of Systems Sciences.
- Strategy stems from the Greek word “Strategos” meaning “General”, or “Director”. Likewise, Tactic stems from the Greek word “taktike” meaning “to arrange for war”, as we can see all the abovementioned terms find their origin from warfare, to refer to the office of the general, the arrangement and the actual waging of war
- Adam Smith, for example, the father of Economics, once believed that people were inherently self-interested because of this reason, but once these needs were met, the natural progression is benevolence. The physical needs for protection, and physiological needs because of survival are of course at the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy, and difficult to dispute for that reason.
- When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined. ― Zeno of Citium”
- For example, Aristotle described how “..all this world of nature is in movement” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 4:5). He was referencing Change as the only constant. The universe is in perpetual motion, in an infinite state of flux. On the other side of the world, Lao Tzu provided the ultimate guide to navigating that state of flux, which he named ‘Dao’ (The Way, Flow, Path). The grand ultimate way of the universe was defined in proto-scientific terms, in which the universe divides, proliferates and expands, generating maximum variety at all times. This maximum variety is then observable from the absolute extremes of that variety, which was later visualised in the form of the Tai-kik/chi (commonly known in the West as ‘Yin-Yang’).
- What’s called ‘Second-Order Cybernetics’, or ‘Systems Thinking’, assumes there’s a thinker observing systems. Systems Thinking provides some structure for how to think, how to recognise oneself as part of a bigger system, and how behaviours between humans create societal systems. Overcoming biases of our own personal input-output, and our own thinking as a ‘muddy box’ effect.
- Couffignal, Louis, “Essai d’une définition générale de la cybernétique”, The First International Congress on Cybernetics, Namur, Belgium, June 26-29, 1956, Gauthier-Villars, Paris, 1958, pp. 46-54.