Design-thinking our way out of terror

Design thinking” is the latest white-hot management fad. Arguably at the root of some of the most valuable companies in the world, such as Apple, it is increasingly used for the most intractable problems. Can it crack this one?
The world's response to terrorism is left-brained, rational but also lopsided. It is bent to defeat terror mostly through increased security and an attack to its manifestation. Is that all that's needed? 
Designing thinking inspires solutions that are deeply emotionally engaging, not just rationally viable. It puts people, not processes and machines, at the center - and digs, often uncomfortably, into how they feel
So - how do terrorists, and those who may become so, feel? Now, that's deeply uncomfortable. Yet, it is worthwhile - we must not overlook the power of an emotionally engaging answer for potential terrorists and not just for the electorate of populist politicians (everywhere). 
Let's explore the steps that design thinkers would take - from isolating the "who is at the center of the challenge, and why" (the "persona"), to discovering who can help and how. Design thinking zooms into who terrorists are, and why they are so - by dissecting their "emotional gunpowder".
We must be getting up close and personal with them. In a bizarre turn of events, many of us have, in our own youth. That's where we start. 
I was a target, and my peers the terrorists 
I grew up in Italy in the late '70s - a country plagued by social tensions, and terrorism. Almost every week an attack to state representatives or executives of large "capitalist" institutions reminded us of our society’s fragility. It was an unending bleeding, with some big atrocities. In one of them the train station of Bologna, home to Europe's oldest university and a stone's throw from my own hometown, was blown up. Eighty-five innocents, most of them families on their way to somewhere in the middle of summer holidays, found the end of their line on that Saturday morning. We never found out who did it.
I had transited through that station only weeks before, on a school field trip. I was eleven years old.
The terrorists who made even Italians paranoid about walking into transportation hubs and public places came from both extreme right, and extreme left's politics. Slightly older than I was then, they could have been the folks I played soccer with or those who sat next to me in a bus. While not personally hostile to me or my family, they would see all of us as expendable on the way to enlightening the country and directing it to what they saw as the right political regime. They were young idealists whose life had taken a sinister turn in the shadow of the Cold War and the disillusionment of a slowing post-war economic boom that marginalized many. They themselves weren't poor - they were "armed opinion leaders" who strove to right what they saw as an unjust society. They were the enemy, but at some level they weren't different from me, or my friends. 
Fueled by the free press’ search for answers, my generation grew up reading about them, their lives, friends, mothers, and dreams. We grew up fearing them, hating them, but also developing a better understanding of why our own brothers and sisters would choose to take on, barbarically, an entire society.
Police fought them. The army fought them. Civil society fought them.Yet, they stubbornly kept going. 
Until something happened. 
They aged, and the society around them grew older, more content and able to divert the new generation away from extremists' idealism. Their ability to recruit, achieve critical mass and fight, became weaker than society's ability to bring them back from the brink. Young, intellectually sophisticated idealists gave up their prospects of violent struggle, married, had children, and while many still politically active, moved on. 
The last part of this story must not be lost. A design thinker would see an opportunity right here. So here's what the next step could be. 
What's the core of the issue? Youth 
Design thinkers start by exploring the key stakeholder's perspective - but who's key here? 
In the last decade copious research has shown that most conflicts, from Nazi Germany to Arab Spring, erupt more frequently in countries that are...
(a) Young i.e. high percentage of 16-30 year old compared to the rest of the population, aka "youth bulge" in reference to the striking demographic shape (see below two examples from

(b) Unfair. There, the young feel they or their loved ones are unfairly treated by local or global society, often because of lack of economic opportunity which in turn threatens their prospects - from a decent job to financial independence to starting their own family
(c) Idealistic to the point of radicalization. A strong narrative can turn youth's discontent into hate - typically through the catalyst of strong leader, ideology, or religion
(d) Freer than before. Young people's pent-up rage in fragile environments isn’t contained anymore by authoritarian regimes. 
Under these conditions, when wars didn't erupt, civil wars and terrorism did: from German RAF to Italy's Red Brigades, from India's Naxalites to Peru'sShining Path and of course, ISIS.
We have forgotten how our children are the key to societal stability. That's something we ought rediscover. 
What is it like to be young in the wrong place?
 A designer would explore how to make young people feel that life in this society is fair and worth living. But first, she would ask - What does it feel like today? And even before that...forget about potential terrorists. Do we even know what it feels like to any young person? Young people are…
  • For the first time in their life, they often feel unhappy and confused(especially if they're male). Anything they experience is amplified and messed about by hormonal changes, extra physical strength, and a lot of befuddling choices.
  • Want to belong - as a young person, you want to hang out with your friends, to experience and make sense of life. The group you belong to, whether political, religious, or simply friends, parents and siblings, represents your value compass. They’re the most important thing you have in your life. Unfortunately, even with the most sophisticated intelligence and weaponry, military intervention isn't a surgical affair: the campaign against terrorists and their strongholds accidentally yet routinely generate significant "collateral civilian damage". A young person would say "they are killing the innocents I love". 
  • Want to prepare for adult life, and access the opportunities that come with it. But what if normal adult life kept slipping away? And those who don't have access to educational and economic opportunities often have to postpone setting up a family, which makes their condition not just about more money in their pockets - it makes it lonely. 
  • Want love - romance, sex, a stable relationship, getting engaged, and eventually married. Political, social or economic unrest makes all of this a lot harder.  
  • Don't know what death is. Young people feel invincible - especially if they're male. In every army, the most dangerous situation is tackled heads on by young males, especially when working with their "brothers in arms". If you had one, do you remember how you rode your motorbike when you were twenty? Compare it to now that you know what life's value is (“which bike?” you will likely ask). 
Do we know how these things feel in various part of the world? Indeed – for instance through the Global Youth Well-being Index study from which the heat map’s data below is extracted, showing the ranking of a sample of countries. Opportunity for young people in many developing countries, especially some with a "youth bulge", is dangerously low. 

Young people in certain regions do find plenty of reasons to feel unfairly treated by the society, the world, around them. And they are more likely than anyone else to do something drastic about it. 

What could blow up next? 
Let's pull all data together now through a crude analysis to determine where we should direct our actions. Which countries have the lowest economic access and opportunity, and the largest youth bulge?
In the below "instability heat map", where most indicators are red, things may ignite in some sort of social physics reaction. Here, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) pinpoints standards of living, its growth (trend) represents the "hope in the future", and a proportionally large youth group amplifies the chance of reaching a tipping point.

For those in seemingly "safe" countries, it is worth reminding that the youth bulge may exist in subgroups that feel rejected by society - for instance, some Muslim youth in France and Belgium. There, their country’s average is misleading, especially as significant destruction can be increasingly carried out by few people. 
Now we know where the core of the challenge is. So what’s to do?
Obviously, economic policies should invest in youth, but in many countries they're not easy to implement. What would a design thinker do? 
We must enlist diverse thinkers for design and iteration
Surprising success may emerge when we harness the collective intelligence of unconventional sources of ideas, in addition to leveraging the wisdom of traditional experts. Traditional design thinking methods however would struggle with pulling all of them under the same physical tent. That's why we need to harness crowdsourcing and collective-intelligence approaches that have become feasible in the last few years. 
My dream team is a deliberately disparate crew.
  • Other young people: a mix of those who are in the middle of those environments, some who have recently moved on, and some who have never lived them
  • Academia and their clients (i.e. young people): they can break down and patiently study large amounts of raw data. For example MIT Sandy Pentland (social physics) and Tom Malone (collective intelligence) or HBS’ Karim Lakhani (crowd innovation)
  • Social media gurus: they can design youth engagement that doesn't smell of stale government ads (Why does ISIS have the most effective social media while advertising’s best brains spend their life on the next fashion fad?)
  • Brand gurus: like Jason McCue said on TED a few years back, they may know how to make terrorism "a failed brand"
  • Social psychologists: they understand motives of people as part of the group's they belong to
  • Social workers, including but not only those engaged in youth de-radicalization efforts
  • Behavioral economists: they appreciate the nexus between money and people
  • Theologians, philosophers, and historians: they can assess what is "fair" from historical, religious and logical points of view
  • Singers, cinematographers and video games designers: they craft emotions for a living, and many have historically joined the fray, fromMarlene Dietrich, to Sting's "Russians", to Rolling Stone's "Sympathy for the Devil", to Alejandro Iñárritu, George Clooney, Brad Pitt's in Babel or Syriana 
  • Management consultants: they deal with talent scarcity for their clients (for instance, look at what McKinsey's "Generation" efforts are doing)
  • Demographers: they see those pyramids coming, and possibly going
  • Silicon Valley types - from Andreessen to Thiel (and his big data outfit) to Zuckerberg (who hosts the largest conversation on the planet). So they get one more chance to really change the world
  • Any quantitatively minded person: they can dive into data made publicly available on platforms such as com or XPrize
  • Philanthropists like Bill Gates and his foundation: they attack issues such as education and health that are at the root of youth's resentment
  • Healthcare expert: they may know how to cut infant mortality and other source of perceived unfairness, as well as they know what adverse childhood events do on youth
  • Policemen, school principals, sport coaches, and anyone who deals with kids and young adults for a living
  • Older terrorists, perhaps even those from countries where Cold War era terrorism has waned. And their children, like Zak Ebrahim whose father helped plan the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1983
  • The military: they understand not just how to fight, but how to protect and contain
  • Terrorist's neighbors, and the local people from villages where terrorists recruit
  • And more simply, mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers of youngsters who could become terrorists. Today, they're very often just left with hard choices, and many aren't prepared to cope with them. 
(and yes, we may need design thinkers too)
It takes a village to design the craziest idea that might work
We live in the most intelligent and wealthy world society on record, yet we still can't prevent hundreds of millions of young people feeling treated awfully by their societies and the world.
The resultant terrorist groundswell has been met by a strange mix of left-brain hyper-rational response and right brained, blindingly emotional one. Terrorism is a security threat, and our societies design a solution to military and security specs.
While that's part of the answer, it doesn't seem to be a full one. Just like antibiotics aren’t a full answer to diseases - it takes a healthier body to turn the page for good.  
Design thinking attacks the same seemingly intractable problem by asking "what if"… and exploring the craziest ideas. So here's one: 
Might we use design thinking to cut what fuels terrorism, instead of just fighting its manifestations? 
Can we change the emotional equation, or in the words of the French journalist recently released by ISIS, can we change the narrative, the storytelling that propagates through the people at risk of being radicalized, and our own narrative? Can we design a world free of terrorism, by reimagining how our young adults in volatile environments feel about the society they live in? 
That's a crazy idea. With so much at stake, it may be worth that all of us, including me and you, take a piece of it - starting by sharing, debating, and ripping this post into pieces.
Until we find a way to bring youth back from the brink. 


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