Can't see the forest for the trees

By Cyndi Dawes, Practice Director.

For about 500 years, the saying "can't see the forest for the trees"; has been a reminder in our Western world to lift our view from the details of a single thing, to take in the whole system and see the patterns and connections. This ancient wisdom lies deep in the heart of how indigenous cultures all over the planet work with nature rather than against it. For example, the Subak rice paddies in Bali and the use of living tree roots as bridges of the Khasis in India rely upon understanding and designing for the complex and intricate interconnections in living systems to benefit those systems and humans.

It seems we have lost sight of the importance of this. The rise of the individual and the privileging of individual rights over the collective is a phenomenon that has dire consequences for us as humans and the health of our planet. It is embedded in much of our governance and decision making. Even in the world of design we see the rise of CX and the championing of the customer. Of course, this is a welcome development if we contrast it with the movement that saw rights of shareholders as pre-eminent and almost exclusive. However it again singles out a tree rather than looking at the whole forest's health.

At Huddle we like to apply our approach from the forest. When given the opportunity to design something new or solve a problem, we look at all the people in the system; those who work in it, those who are users or customers, suppliers, partners, etc. We also look at the effects and impacts on the planet. Mindful human-centred design is inclusive.

We take the time to look below the surface, to see how the root systems and the informal network of communications and messaging creates culture and norms. We pay attention to the little things, and look for patterns and connections across the whole system. We look at how information and resources flow, like sugars and nutrients in a forest. And we don’t think we've done our job well if one tree thrives while others suffer.

Now more than ever, we need to design and problem solve this challenge. When asked to look at a single tree, take the whole forest into account.


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