What Can Brexit And Trump Teach Design?


Friday morning we all woke up to a world that had literally changed over night. Having arrived in Copenhagen from my home in Los Angeles the night before, and suffering from jet lag, I closely followed the election into the early morning. When I finally went to bed, all the prognosticators declared that the UK would remain in the European Union. When I woke up the next morning the reality was very different.

The British had decided to leave the European Union to unilaterally design their own future. No longer would they collaborate closely with the remaining twenty-seven European countries, taking other's concerns into consideration. This was a decision, which to a large extent was guided by emotions rather than reason. What can our politicians, business people and problem solvers alike learn from this earth-shattering event?

The Brexit election exposed, without a doubt, a chasm between the European intellectual elite and the common man. In a dictatorship, these groups' misperceived differences in interests are suppressed; however in a democracy the consequences eventually bite everybody in the butt during elections. The Brexit and Trump phenomenon provide vivid current examples of this divide. As Shakespeare said: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

As in all types of businesses, whether it is a company, government or any other form of organization that provides solutions, losing touch with one's users, quickly results in a dramatic decline in market shares. Recent examples of this are Nokia, the East German Communist party and the Catholic Church. What these institutions failed to consider was not just physical needs, even more importantly, they failed to address emotional needs.

In the case of Brittan, the politicians failed to address half of the population's need for feeling included, having pride and trusting that their world was going in the right direction. American politicians are now failing to address the very same fundamental human needs.

The most frustrating thing is that these catastrophic events are not Acts of God; they are man made and therefore preventable. The first step of basic Design Thinking is to understand the users in the field, not sitting in one's ivory tower or 'think tank' and making things up.

Intellectually, the British and American elite know that over the past decades the gap in wealth between the top one percentile and everyone else has increased. They may also see that technological development has divided people into those with and those without a future. However, there is a huge difference between knowing and understanding.

Innovation providers, such as designers and engineers, have, in decades past, invested heavily in "walking a mile" in their user's shoes and not just reading technical specifications from marketing. This has provided us all with a wide range of amazing opportunities, - think Ebay, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb. In contrast to our politicians, their leaders, managers and development teams are directly, immediately and personally responsible and accountable for the outcome.

When was the last user-centered, innovative and truly well designed solution seen from politicians? As an old Viking family saying goes: "If you cannot hear you will have to feel!" On Friday, it may be that the European elite and its politicians felt what the American politicians have yet to feel.