How Transdisciplinary Design Liberated me to be a Better EntrepreneurPosted on December 17, 2019
Five months ago, I left a good-paying corporate job, the best team I have worked with, and Salt Lake City, my home for the majority of my college life; I uprooted and moved to New York City and the unknown so I could pursue a graduate degree at Parsons School of Design.
My Parsons orientation hinted at more change and discomfort to come. From Sierra Leone to Southern California to Utah, I had never been among a more diverse group of people — both in NYC and the program. One by one, designers from Japan, Poland, India, Israel, and many more countries stood up to introduce themselves and their unique backgrounds. I, too, stood and told about my background in business. I had a sense that I would soon be challenged and overwhelmed by the multiplicity of new ideas, frameworks, and understandings that would soon confront me.
Almost immediately, I found myself submerged in the uncomfortable and new. Even our group exercises at orientation challenged my thinking and forced me to slow down. Where before, I had been most comfortable thinking in terms of solutions, now in every class I was confronted with system thinking. Instead of problem-solving, now we worked to provoke systems so wide and complex I could not get my head around them. Growing to understand this new framework was slow and frustrating; I could only immerse myself and trust the leadership.
Undoing old ways of thinking to make way for the new, however, was uncomfortable and sometimes even painful. This is how I experienced the learning process at Parsons at first: in confusion and growing pains: a hammering process as my thinking was changed from one shape to another.
My first days in my team studio challenged me into new ways of thinking. I entered with startup experience and a deep-seated business mindset. My classmates and I were shown flawed systems and encouraged to sit, observe them, and “play.” However, my mind immediately jumped ahead. I wanted to solve the flaws I perceived in these systems. Though this process has sometimes been uncomfortable, I believe it has emancipated me as an entrepreneur to pursue ventures with long-term, significant impact on systems around me.
Gradually, as I read Donella Meadow, and engaged with system thinking, I began to understand why we had spent so much time slowing down and understanding systems. “We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone” (Meadow).
I began to understand that, in my hurry to accomplish something and “solve” problems, I might be trying to force systems to work my way. Jamer Hunt, my instructor, said, “If you present a healthcare issue to a lawyer, he will propose a new law; if you ask an architect, he will suggest designing more hospitals, and the engineer will most likely suggest building those hospitals” (Curi). Likewise, I was approaching huge, complex, “wicked” problems with only the toolset of a businessperson. I was searching for business solutions only.
In response, system thinking liberated me from this narrow approach. Now, stepping back, interacting with the system, and involving more voices and approaches, I could interact with the system. I could understand leverage points within the system and intervene in it.
Another revelation from the semester was to re-define stakeholders/shareholders. All capitalistic movement is designed to satisfy stakeholders — so what if stakeholders meant every person affected by the venture, not simply every person who invests money into profit shares? Equitable practices and inclusion could be the primary concerns of a business or design endeavor. Stakeholders might include those at every stage of a product’s creation, from those gathering the raw resources all the way to the executive officers of a company.
Program Director John Bruce showed me the “rigor behind the rigor,” the research behind the research that helps identify leverage points for intervention. He encouraged us to do the deep work of research and collaboration, asking ourselves, “How do we define value? And how do we measure it?” I began to realize that, even though I was already engaged in the process of building startups that were intended to give value to people, my assumptions about value creation might be flawed.
In this way, I find the Transdisciplinary Design program has expanded my consciousness. As my professor, John Bruce, says, an idea or business cannot simply be concerned with the profit or with solving. It also has to consider every person who will be affected, and more: “how it’s going to affect the environment, how it’s going to affect the community” — from how a building project might impact erosion, to the views of the sky the building might block once finished. Now I find myself asking the question: how can I seek more equitable interventions within systems? More importantly, how can I be a reflective and reflexive entrepreneur, holding myself responsible to ensure everyone wins?
I do not believe we can always avoid causing some to lose: we are Staying with the Trouble: the wicked problems that infect our systems and cannot be solved by one approach (Haraway).
Moving forward in business, I am holding many questions. As Donella Meadows writes, “Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own.” Jamer Hunt taught me that all models are “wrong” and contain failures; however, some are useful. The Transdisciplinary Design Program has given me new models, but it has also taught me the extraordinary importance of questioning them through design-led research, co-creating with stakeholders within the systems, and remaining open to co-discovery.
By creating interdisciplinary entrepreneurial communities, I hope to be a part of positive interventions into complex, “wicked problems.” Together, we can propose interventions that lead more and more people to win and fewer to lose, interventions that make systems more inclusive and equitable, and business ventures in which the shareholders put the good of communities above net profits. Ultimately, we can make capitalism continually more equitable, iterating it forward toward a more inclusive future.
Curi, Gui. “Why Transdisciplinary Design?” Medium, Medium, 21 Nov. 2019,
Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. Chelsea Green
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke
University Press, 2016.