Lessons from Fukushima – a systemic organisational failure of Tokyo power company (TEPCO)
TEPCO is one of the largest companies in Japan, producing 30% of the country’s entire energy needs. Critical reflection on why the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster occurred has now swung its attention from the tsunami towards the internal mechanisms of the organisation. The criticisms they’re facing is similar to what the CFA had experienced.
One major failure was largely due to systemic inadequacy in the organisation. It was built on a heirarchical, pyramid structure and the nuclear energy department were perceived as the ‘elites’, immune to scrutiny and input from other departments. This led them to ignore the concerns of the public on nuclear power, which was accutely felt by the sales department, though the communication between these departments had been inadequate.
Public anxiety and outrage has now become so severe that many employees, especially the new, younger people, are leaving the company. Unable to gain back the trust of the citizens, these employees are feeling that their values for social contribution is no longer being relfected in the company. Many observed that this was having a detrimental effect on others.
Interestingly, their past lack of awareness to public concern and arrogant attitude have also caused them to be adverse to failure, responding only to obvious risks. They had become too risk-averse to think of the worst case scenario, leading to insular thinking and making them more ill prepared. Again, this reflected the shortfalls that were observed in Black Saturday.
As a way to counteract this prevalent thinking, rhetoric on having a ‘manual’ has been raised. It is a typically safe and ‘Japanese’ response – a one-size-fits-all template – and it seemed to me that it would only compound the problem rather than breaking the negative cycle.
Visualising a human-centred designer
In a recent talk by Professor Martin Wood (which I thoroughly enjoyed – more about it in another post) he showed this picture by Oskar Schlemmer, who once taught at the Bauhaus. I’m not that excited by its geometry, but I liked the way the lines went beyond the person – connecting them to something bigger/broader/others. It reminded me of the power of drawing/visualisation as a way to articulate things beyond what words can, in capturing some of the thoughts I had about the inherent relational qualities of human beings.
“The Japanese term for ‘human being’ is ningen (人間), composed of two characters for ‘person’ (人), and ‘between’ (間). The Japanese understanding of human as in-betweenness, etymologised by ‘between person’, situates it as a relational being. This is the central framework for my notions of ‘self’ and being ‘human’[i]. This concept of human is strikingly different from major Western philosophies that emphasises ‘anthropos’ or ‘homo’, denoting the individual. Being human-centred is criticised for perpetuating an anthropocentric position[ii], further contributing to humanity’s self-centredness and environmentally destructive behaviour. The profound ethical difference of conceiving humans as detached and in isolation, compared to the Japanese concept of human as relational in-betweennes, is argued by one of the most significant Japanese philosophers of the twentieth century, Tetsuro Watsuji[iii] . He was influenced by hermeneutics, phenomenology, Zen Buddhism and the Japanese indigenous spirituality of Shinto. In his book Rinrigaku, ethics in Japan, Watsuji is critical of Western philosophy (Heidegger and many others[iv]) that emphasises the individual concept of self and the locus of the ethical problem pertaining to the consciousness of the individual.”
Writing taken from ‘A ‘way of being’ in design practice: Zen and the art of being a human-centred practitioner’, published through Design Philosophy Papers.
The power of vulnerability
I came across Brené Brown’s talk in a magazine called Dumbo feathers at a doctor’s surgery. It was serendipitous - there I was, wrapped in a thin cotton gown that has that opening at the back that shows your bum - feeling a bit embarrassed, cold and vulnerable, reading all about these feeling in her interview. I read the whole article TWICE – mainly because the doctor was late, but I was hungrily consuming every single word she was saying. She is so good at talking about uncomfortable emotions like shame, fear and vulnerability (and the accompanying efforts to try and remove them). She speaks so candidly (and so humorously) in acknowledging her own vulnerability, without becoming those ‘touchy-feely-hippy-loving’ self-professed spiritual gurus. Even more amazingly, she comes at this as a grounded researcher, and challenges the enshrined epistemology of research that privileges repeatable, generalisable and controllable outcomes.
The effect of reading her article, and subsequently watching her talk on TEDx also made me realise how I try very hard to push aside my own vulnerability, rather than accept it. She says that in our attempts to ‘numb’ emotions we don’t like, like guilt, fear, shame, envy, we also numb other emotions like joy, acceptance, compassion, love. Emotion can’t be selectively controlled, even though we try. Not accepting these emotions is not accepting ourselves, and prevents out ability to feel the other emotions.
From the day I read this article, I think something catalysed within me. I’d like to be a person who is comfortable in saying ‘I don’t know’, ‘I’m confused’, ‘I’m weak and need help’, ‘I’m shit at this’, rather than pretending that I’m not. This realisation was important to let me further see what it means to being human-centred. In research terms, being at that doctor’s surgery was a ‘critical incident’!
Compassion and ethics..?
A few weeks ago, I was invited to take part in a facilitated workshop on ‘building a vision for Melbourne’ with Green’s MP Adam Bandt at The Hub Melbourne. There were a range of participants from education, like myself, and others from non-profit organisations, local government, greens members and various industry groups. This workshop was organised so that we, as a group, could contribute to this ‘vision’ for the city of Melborune and for Adam to potentially campaign and implement through his role and input in policies. We broke up into tables that each had a theme – sustainability, equality and compassion – and the groups were given roughly 45min to identify the problems and suggest ideas for implementation.
With the recent contentious Carbon Tax debate, this workshop potentially was a way to generate practical ideas and avenues to address sustainability and social inclusion – two key agendas of the government. The workshop seemed to be mainly greens/labor supporters – so no climate skeptics there – and with a one-sided discussion, it could easily promote an idealistic, skwewed perspective, which was a concern.
The workshop and group discussion sounds good in theory, but there were several issues that were problematic. I was on the ‘compassion’ table and with such a value-laden word, there was no time to agree on what ‘compassion’ meant which led to divergent interpretations about ‘caring’, ‘diversity’, respect’, ‘voice’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘empathy’. Broad generalisations were also made, for example, ‘people don’t care about eachother anymore’, or ‘people don’t have the time’, that also hindered a collective understanding of the issue. The conversation on our table was fraught with tension – those who had the largest voice usually got their point across – some talked over others – we quibbled over terminologies – and ironically, there was very little ‘compassion’ manifesting and being enacted on our table. I felt that the ideas that we proposed, was therefore ‘hollow’ in meaning.
Attending this workshop highlighted a critical neglect in our own discourse in design. It made me realise how ‘compassion’ or ‘empathy’ is a cornerstone for designers, yet little is discussed about its importance, possibly owing to the engineering, sciences or Modernist traditions that highlight roles and functions insead. Designers who have empathy for those they design for and with, are able to engage and create authentically trusting relationships, thereby leading to more meaningful interaction and outcomes. But how do we generate /educate empathy or compassion? Are these values we are born with, nurtured through our parents or taught through formal/informal education in culture/society? Some of these questions also surfaced in our table’s discussion and they seemed very philosophical and deep to be tackled in 10 min!
I saw a documentary on Anthony Gormley
… on ABC 2 last night. I always admired his work – he seemed to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what he does. He said something that I thought applied to us (design practitioners / design academics) that as an artist, you had the responsibility to do ‘what was worth doing’, as opposed to doing someone else’s ‘bidding’. He said that was ‘easier said than done’, and its the doing part that was the hardest thing.
How often do we question ourselves on this? How hard is this to ask and answer this question honestly and with integrity, and then to act upon it? It requires a strength in mind, openness and confidence to begin that questioning within oneself - and then perhaps several years to actually take the step towards the answer…? ‘What was worth doing’ is the toughest question one could ask of one self – and obviously, its all relative, depending on one’s own ideology, aspiration, values, ethics and faith. This to me seems to be the crux of the whole ’social responsibility’ debate – a lot of that stuff is based on what others tell you that its ‘worth doing’, as opposed to creating a ’space’ in one’s practice where it can be contemplated upon.
zen, fire and the art of being a novice
The Birds of a Feather project on community engagement around bushfires in the Otway region has been very rewarding on many levels. I just thought I’d pop this thought here for now, stemming from a conversation that I just had with Jeremy.
Since our presentation to the CFA this week, I have been mulling over why they had found our workshop so interesting. My thinking was still caught up in the ‘novelty’ of the design methods we’ve used, such as the Playful Triggers and scenarios as a way to facilitate engagement and knowledge transfer. It is obvious that these methods, which I/designers take for granted, sounds new and interesting to others – but is that it?
Jeremy had an interesting point to make about this. He reckoned that there was something a lot deeper going on that makes what we/I do different to what the CFA does around community engagement and facilitation. He used the word ‘user-centred’, which on first hearing sounds questionable since I would’ve thought that our approach and the CFA’s approach on community engagement (in particular, the staff we spoke to) were both user-centred. He explained that perhaps we approach a context with an open, enquiry-led way that assumes nothing. We take the position that we don’t know anything, and we are here to understand and to explore possibilities. On the otherhand, the CFA are a culture of people who have expertise. Their role is to help, advise, and be an expert on ‘fire and community engagement’. He pointed out to the fundamental differences in our approach stemming from this positioning.
I then remarked that this is a very zen-like thinking. In zen philosophy, the higher you progress, the less of an expert you become. Zen philosophy is to achieve ‘mu’, or nothing-ness. One undergoes a process of ‘letting go’ the ego, possessions, facts and figures, etc.
I can be criticised and get caught in semantics, just as how zen cannot really be articulated in words. It does sound like a contradiction and a confusion, but I sense that there is something here that is core to any activity, like pedagogy, parenting, management etc. I feel that this has all been figured out thousands of years ago, with us still trying to make sense of this philosophy and seeing how it is actually ‘lived’ in our own lives – in our actions, our work, our perspective of the world.
I was really interested in reading the post on Design Observer, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ which is a discussion between Valerie Casey and David Stairs (http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=11177). Those who have travelled the long, hard, windy road of design and social responsibility have developed a healthy cynicism towards recent interest in social design as a ‘fad’. Though, looking underneath the surface, much of the social design interest is generated from a genuine concern to help others and the environment.
This genuine concern and interest isn’t a bad thing – much of it is coming from a good place in the heart, and I think its something that humans instinctively do. But, this is the age-old problem with the notion of ‘aid’ and ‘helping’ – the philosophical issue of what it really means to ‘help’ others? I agree with Stairs when he says that a lot of it can be driven by a mis-guided understanding of power-dynamics that one can ‘fix’ problems because of one’s privileged position.
I think its ok to admit that you are helping others for selfish reasons, and in fact, perhaps that is the only way to move way from being trapped in a moral dilemma. We can’t all be buddhists striving for enlightenment – that will take a whole lifetime. Getting to the stage of selfless-ness aint that easy… just ask those Japanese monks who gets a sharp whack on their back for simply ‘clouding their thoughts’ in meditation.
So, where should we start?
I think the point raised by Casey and Stairs on being alert to the use of language is important. Language is a powerful force and can shape how we think, how we behave, what we believe and who we are. Being mindful of it is a good idea.
I also think having a good balance of ideology and reality is needed. Designers by their nature think outside of reality to propose alternative future-worlds. Some of the ‘activists’ I come across are pumped up with this ideology of ‘changing the world’. That energy and ‘the blindness of youth’ is a powerful force if it can be channelled with more wisdom and a ‘reality check’. The problem is that there isn’t just one reality, there’s millions of it. A reality to one person is different to another person. We designers should try and understand the complexity of the realities – and how they collide in a design project with a brief and a budget that only really highlights (and therefore privileges) one or two realities.
I think this is the lesson I am hoping to learn from, in my lifetime.
The project on bushfires is a classic example of different realities colliding with one another. Our team had to face tough obstacles and as a designer and project leader caught up in it, I often wanted to crawl back into my comfy little hole and just play with my toys… I understood that it was my ideology that was the driving force behind my involvement. But my ideology demanded that I moved mountains and continents. Surely that was possible! – it said. But after months of trying and being completely exhausted, I realised that it wasn’t going to work. In the end, the only way to get around the obstacle was to make it simpler and reduce the project to a smaller scale. In other words, cut out the number of ‘realities’ that were complicating the project and re-focus our efforts on assisting the communities in another way.
Bushfire and resilience
Our team, ‘Birds of a feather’ is partnering with Southern Otways Landcare Network in facilitating effective communication and planning strategies around bushfires. The Otway communities are particularly vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic fires that threatens the region next summer. The area is poor in communication infrastructure including radio, TV, internet and mobile coverage, making communities even more vulnerable and dependent upon their own resources and networks in the face of a bushfire event. The issue is not only related to infrastructure and communication technology, though these impact heavily on managing bushfires. The team have conducted an initial field visit to the Otways, met local residents and CFA volunteers. These discussion have identified several other issues, for example, influx of tourists and temporary residents in the local area which complicates the risks; false sense of security led by the belief that the CFA will come to the rescue; lack of multiple risk management plans in place (Plan A, B, C and so on). Some of these issues we have found echo a lot of the work that you have done already with the bushfire CRC.
Our aim is firstly to develop a heightened sense of bushfire risk among a ‘community of place’ (ie those who are located in the same geographical area) through a series of workshops. Our main methodology is the use of ’scenarios’ that are constructed by participants from the ground-up. Each individual’s situation and household context is different and the community themselves have the expert knowledge of the people, land, topography, vegetation, likely direction of the fire, access routes etc. We are going to pool this knowledge and develop a variety of scenarios that capture and illustrate potential risks that are specific to individual households and their local area. The collective pooling and sharing of knowledge is a way to ‘educate’ the residents who have little knowledge of the area. We also feel the ‘first-person’ account is a key aspect to how the scenarios are described and engaged with.
These risk-focused scenarios will then be the driver to discuss and brainstorm ideas on planning effective strategies to mitigate and manage the risks identified. Again, the emphasis here is active participation in generating the plans among neighbours, thereby strengthening networks and bonds within the community of place. We are also working on tapping into the networks of the temporary residents (holiday makers, weekenders from Melbourne etc) who have little knowledge of the landscape and awareness of the risks and bring this group together using the scenarios. We intend on having input from the fire authorities and individuals who have experienced bushfire as a way of bringing the stories and scenarios ‘to life’. We are hoping to commence the workshops in January 2010 and we are looking to expertise in the field who can assist and help us with this approach.
Our design project, which is currently underway with a community, utilises the ‘tools of the trade’ in communication design such as designing artefacts, mapping and visualisations, to firstly, bring a fractured community together around a common concern, highlight the risks that communities face, and then plan strategies to mitigate those risks. The photos show how the use of Playful Triggers was effective in pooling knowledge specific to a particular location. It shows how a group of people from a community of place, identified where houses are located, which households were permanent and temporary residents, those who had children and the likely direction of the fire. Undertaking this exercise was valuable to our research team who had no knowledge of the local area, but also for the participants as well. The Playful Triggers facilitated the revelation of knowledge that they each had, and it helped them make it explicit to us and to one another, to the point where one participants was amazed by how much local knowledge they actually had between them. Natural conversations flowed where certain geographical sites suddenly ’stood out’ as being conducive to build a bush bunker. This design approach empowered the community to plan and generate effective strategies themselves.
Commenting on Dori’s post
Following on from what I said, rather nastily, I pondered to reflect on what I found so concerning about Dori’s position on Design Anthropology and Design for Democracy. The fact that there were ‘camps’ in the audience (which I found out later) was also interesting – those who raved about Dori’s presentation and those who found it very worrying. The comments below came from a discussion with those who attended who found her presentation ‘worrying’… I have posted this comment in her blog to see how she might counter some of the arguments I have put forward.
“It has been a while since I dropped in your blog – I have done so previously a long time ago – anyway, as I live in Melbourne, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear you talk at Swinburne and Design Victoria event.
And, I am afraid, I found the concepts you presented troubling. I wonder why my impression contrasts so much with the other positive feedback you have received? This comment is just a way to make sense of how I interpreted your presentation, and wondered what your view/response might be. So here goes.
In order to write this comment, I am going to assume a considerable amount from your presentation – and so firstly allow me to apologise if I had misinterpreted things in anyway.
On one level, I listened to you talk wondering ‘what is the difference between what you do, and market research’? , especially where you discussed shampoo products and the men you studied. Is it the methodology? Agenda? Empowerment of the ones studied? This was not clear in the presentation, and hence I didn’t get the sense that Design Anthopology (!) was any different to commonly forms of research that many designers are familiar with anyway.
The other level, which to me is more concerning is the way I interpreted how you position yourself as a ‘problem solver’ – to solve the problem of others. Whether they be problems with signage, voting cards or how the US military might promote themselves. The problem solver paradigm is quite common for designers to adopt – so my positioning against it is in the minority – however, my concern with regards to your position mainly comes from the fact that you do this under the title of ‘design for democracy’. We have had similar discussion about this before in my comments, but I guess its a bone I can’t stop picking at, and it is because the title ‘design for democracy’ almost seems contradictory to what it implies. Let me explain.
My understanding of your position as a ‘problem solver’ seems to me to require an ‘objective’ stance to the problem solved. Subjects and their living contexts are studied and the problems are identified. The subjects are ‘the other’. The problem is viewed at an arms distance, and steps are taken to resolve it to give ‘order and clarity’ to this world. In this model, the designer is perceived as the person who has the power to ’solve’ other people’s problems. If we flip this the other way, the ‘people’ who are studied, then have the designer’s way of ’solving problems’ imposed on to them – a problem that has been identified by the designer. If we look at this from the point of view of empowerment and democracy, the people are not empowered to change their world in the way they would like to, nor are they given any other choice but to live with what has been ’solved’ for them by the designers.
I am reminded of how late (in the 80s) that anthropology realised that anthropologists shouldn’t be giving ‘labels’ and definition (based on their own world view and values) of the subjects they studied. Through ‘radical anthropology’, they realised how they need to allow the subjects to ‘name’ themselves. There was a huge shift between the relationship between the researcher and the subject.
Design Anthropology, in the way I have seen you present and write about previously, echoes the pre 80s era of anthropology, which then seemed to have been married to ‘design’ to reinforce this even further.
Design Anthropology, to me, is patronising and misguided. As a designer, I really see no value in approaching design in this way. The point that Design Anthropology misses is, how complex the world and people really are. Design Anthropology positions the designer researcher as a removed observer, and there is no empathy to really understand that things aren’t that simple. Designer researchers may have the best, misguided intentions to make the world a better place for other people, but the solution that they come up with only serves to satisfy and satiate the way they themselves would like the world to be.”
Genevieve Bell on values
Its interesting how anthropologists (Like Margot Berreton) are always the ones who flags up the concerns with how values can be embedded in the process and outcome of design, and the impact this may have on people and our world. On reading this post in the New York Times website, (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/06/technology/circuits/06cult.html?ei=5007&en=2fbed84d2b46d2c6&ex=1399176000&pagewanted=all&position=), Genevieve Bell from Intel explains how their vision of ubiquitous technology is ’so secular, so profoundly embedded in a set of Western discourses, that we’ve created a vision of the world that shuts out a percentage of people in a way we can’t really even begin to articulate. (para. 9). In so doing, she challenges Intel to see its misconception about the potential users of its products elsewhere in the world.
She describes how values of humility and simplicity might make technology less welcome in some Hindu homes in India, or Muslim homes in Malaysia or Indonesia. ‘If part of the value of the home is this space of purity that’s protected from the pollutedness of the world, a place where you express values like simplicity, humility, modesty, grace … that becomes a barrier to adopting some technologies’ (para. 6).
My head-space at the moment is still trying to understand what ‘values’ are – or perhaps, try and better articulate it. When I read values such as ‘humility’ or ’simplicity’ on their own, they mean nothing. They are hollow, abstract concepts that I cannot associate with, try and embrace, or even adopt. But when it is described in the way Genevieve has stated above and given reasons to why they are important ‘to protect from the pollutedness of the world’, I can share that perspective, begin to understand how important that is, to respect it and therefore to make sure that is a concern that I address in any potential designs…
Fmmm, is this going somewhere…?