Transdisciplinary Design

Stats in TD?

Posted on November 24, 2021


Stats in TD?


Pop quiz! These questions come from Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, a book that explores some statistics that describe global trends in the recent past.

  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population in living in extreme poverty has…
    1. Almost doubled
    2. Remained more or less the same
    3. Almost halved
  2. What is the average life expectancy of the world today?
    1. 50 years
    2. 60 years
    3. 70 years
  3. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?
    1. More than doubled
    2. Remained the same
    3. Decreased to less than half
  4. How many of the world’s 1 year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?
    1. 20%
    2. 50%
    3. 80%
  5. Worldwide, 30-year-old-men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?
    1. 9 years
    2. 6 years
    3. 3 years
  6. How many people in the world have access to some electricity?
    1. 20 percent
    2. 50 percent
    3. 80 percent



The answers to the questions are below, but before I’ll show some statistics that Rosling has gathered after giving these questions to thousands of people in various countries and of varying disciplines. For question 3, 25% of people in Sweden surveyed answered correctly, and in the US, just 5%. Much worse than if people were to answer randomly of course. For questions 9, 24% of Swedes answered correctly, and 17% of Americans. The stats above come from the UN, the World Bank, the WHO, and other organizations. There will be a link to the book’s sources at the bottom.


I was inspired to choose this subject for my post a couple weeks ago when we were discussing how TD sometimes can feel quite dreary, and that much of what we have been “unlearning” are the ways in which design has either intentionally or inadvertently brought harm to the world. This relates to why people so often answer incorrectly the above questions. There are many reasons, but a contributing one is the level to which we are inundated with bad news. We don’t often here about the slow steady march of progress. Here are the answers in order: c, c, c, c, a, c.


Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but they do tell a part of it. Presenting these statistics paints the world in an optimistic light, which was my initial intention when setting out to write this post. As I’ve written, I’ve been pondering more and more the roles of objectivity and subjectivity in our understandings. I’ve only gotten more confused, and I don’t have anything conclusive to offer as I’m still struggling to grasp the places of both, but this post is roughly where I am now. To clarify, by objective I mean facts that transcend perspective, and by subjective, I mean personal or communal perspectives.


Starting with these stats and a brief case for optimism. While there is still much progress to made in many landscapes, including healthcare and education, the world has come an incredible distance in the last fifty years. Viewing both sides, the progress and the problems, provides a more complete picture of the world. And at least some of the progress that’s been made can be attributed to design, depending on one’s definition of design. There are many insights to be learned from how systems have produced positive outcomes, such as increased access to education and healthcare. As well, there are many lessons to be learned about what and how negative influences affect systems and their outcomes. In the future, hopefully we can apply some of this knowledge to avoid the mistakes of the past, or at least make new mistakes and then learn from those.


The question of objectivity vs subjectivity comes in here, what is a positive result, what is progress? To me, some trends seem “objectively” good (or bad), and some seem subjectively good. A lower rate of maternal mortality for example seems good anywhere you look, while the stock market growing could easily be argued as a subjective representation of good. While these two examples may seem obvious, just acknowledging that there are some objective measures of progress starts the conversation. I’ve no clue where it goes from there.


In TD I’ve at times felt a push against objectivity, and for good reasons. It’s critical, of course, that we challenge our assumptions of what we think is true, but does this leave nothing to be true? Sometimes I feel a bit like I’m in a house of mirrors. How to parse out what we know for certain, what firm ground is there to stand on?


I’ve begun to think of objectivity best used as a way of analysis, a way of comparing concepts rather than the concepts themselves. As a way to understand how things relate to one another. We’re learning how complexity makes solutions seem futile at time, the unpredictability of systems, and how well-intentioned interventions can cause unforeseen harm. So, to say that one solution or approach is objectively better than other seems like it could be misguided. But to evaluate how pieces work together might provide a more concrete understanding. In a lecture, Terry Irwin describes how wolves were kept out of Yellowstone because it was believed that their absence enabled other species to thrive. Reintroducing wolves returned the ecosystem to balance, and it began to thrive after being in decline for decades. Can we say with confidence that the wolves are a critical part of the ecosystem, is this objectively true? If I were to say that, subjectively, I don’t think wolves are important for the forest, am I right at all? Is this some firm ground to stand on?


As we continue to study our societies, communities, and the systems within them, is it possible for us to gain objective knowledge as to how they function most harmoniously? It becomes more complicated here, because again what is harmonious? One person’s idea might be different than another’s, and can one’s idea be objectively better than another’s? Maybe? But anyhow, for me the optimism comes not in the hope of solving the system, but just nudging it in the right direction. This is all still very fuzzy, I’m just trying to see a little bit more clearly.


Factfulness Detailed Sources and Website