Today I'll be writing a series of blogposts from the Falling Walls conference in Berlin. Each speaker is invited to discuss the ideas, inventions, and discoveries they believe will break down walls in their field.
Robert E. Horn: How Visual Language Supports Decision Making About Wicked Problems and Social Messes
Let's face it, having "messes" listed as a research specialism on your business card is pretty neat. But Stanford's Robert Horn is exactly that, a man who studies messes, or more accurately "inter-related sets of problems", particularly because business and government strategies are often hatched in the midst of messes. Starting out with the war on drugs, Horn shows how the issue is fed from a dizzying number of sources: everything from the rate of high-school dropout to war on the streets of Mexico. And this leads to Horn's mantra, writ large on the towering screen behind him: "Don't treat a social mess as a regular problem".
To make sense of messes such as these, Horn creates visual aids. But these are no ordinary powerpoint presentations. Commissioned to help develop Britain's 12,000 year plan for the disposal of nuclear waste, Horn and his team created a mural that spanned fifty years into the past and a million into the future, containing hundred of images and word boxes. A similar mural was created for the World Council on Sustainable Development, to illustrate a roadmap for achieving a more equal society by 2050. In "backcasting" (a technique Horn describes as imagining the ideal future and looking backwards, year by year, to visualise what would need to be in place to lead there), the final mural was
40 14 feet wide and contained 70 measures of success, 350 milestones and 250 visual elements.
Horn says this kind of mega-infographic can illustrate multiple points of view, patterns, and context that helps to facilitate the type of group processes needed to solve some of our most intractable - and intricate - problems.