Amin Mojtahedi, PhD(c), Associate AIA, is a Design Researcher at HGA and PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research focuses on the architecture of social learning and people-space analytics. Here, he talks about how research can create supportive spaces that boost individual and organizational growth.
What inspires you as a design researcher?
There is a quote from Richard Rorty, the American neo-pragmatist philosopher, which has always inspired me. He says that the quest for certainty should be replaced with the demand for imagination, that one should replace knowledge by hope. Rorty continues by saying that one should stop worrying about whether what one believes is well grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one's present beliefs. So, in his view, concern about “building a better future” precedes the obsession about “correspondence to reality”.
This is a rather radical view. Of course, as a researcher, you acknowledge and use evidence in your work, but as a “design” researcher, you also need to be innovative about ways of generating and curating insights that go beyond that. Now the dilemma is that evidence often tells us about “what is” whereas design is often curious about “what if” and “what will be.” We could address this dilemma by using methodologies that help organizations to generate valuable, fresh insights that evoke imagination. These methodologies have certain qualities:
- They start with people, not the problem. And they use hybrid methods of empathizing with them to understand thoughts, emotions and motivations that drive their behavior. In my work, I tend to use a combination of ethnographic methods with data science, which some refer to as techno-ethnography.
- They steer you away from the wrong problems. What I refer to as wrong problems are the ones that are not the user’s priority, are too vague or too general to effectively tackle, or are not addressing the root cause. This is critical because you do not want to spend time and resources developing design solutions for problems that are not essential.
- They are participatory, heavily value diversity of thoughts and perspectives, and are action-oriented. Inclusivity is important because having diverse fresh perspectives is a prerequisite for innovation, but that is not all. These methodologies also have a bias toward action, meaning that they do not just passively “listen” to the user, but they also empower and equip the user to take “action” and build a new reality. As the user participates in shaping the new culture or experience, they become its owners, so designers do not need to “educate” them about their own building after the design is delivered. This is how you leave an enduring legacy.
- They rely on iterative experimentation and prototyping for building a version of the future rather than predicting it—this is a different view of knowledge. These methodologies encourage small and relevant experiments, which feed the cycle of building and testing and learning to eventually collapse the users’ experience on something that they find valuable. If empathy is listening to people or the subject, then experimentation and prototyping is listening to the object of design.
- They yield results that are readily translatable to design solutions mainly because they fully integrate designers throughout the process. In other words, insights generated by these methodologies are fully accessible to designers and are at the verge of becoming design solutions.
- Finally, they are story-based. Architects often think about design solutions in the context of "building typologies." That is what has inspired three of our practice groups here at HGA: Healthcare, Public | Corporate, and Arts, Community and Education. These methodologies help us to think about buildings also in terms of “story typologies.” Stories transcend practice groups and building types. That is why great stories are timeless! They are applicable to diverse circumstances.
What is architecture of social learning?
When it comes to who knows what, where knowledge-gems are and how to use them, larger organizations are often messy. Organizations’ desire to learn, is the desire to contain, navigate through, and eventually leverage this mess. Architecture of social learning is a way of understanding, framing, explaining and shaping the complex ecology of people, spaces, artifacts, information and practices in a way that is conducive to desired knowledge and learning outcomes.
Architecture of social learning has three main components:
- A methodology inspired by Participatory Action Research and Design Thinking to guide the organization through the process of shaping its social and physical structures to empower the organization to impact its learning-knowledge practices and/or cultivate new ones.
- A set of tools and techniques represented by People-Space Analytics and its paraphernalia, including social network analysis (SNA), spatial mapping, and techno-ethnography, to map the organization before and after the change and to create artifacts that can help facilitate a conversation about the topic.
- A theoretical lens or perspective emerged at the intersection of learning theories, organizational theory, social anthropology of cognition, architects’ normative views, and empirical evidence pertaining to people in work and learning environments. This lens is used to frame insights.
How can building owners benefit from your research?
They can benefit from this work on three levels from basic to advanced:
- Basic: Understanding and making decisions about efficient and effective allocation of resources based on space, furniture and asset utilization trends.
- Intermediate: Strategizing for attracting, recruiting and retaining talent by increasing engagement and socio-spatial bonds with the organization.
- Advanced: Improving business performance and productivity, workflow, collaboration patterns, and learning and knowledge practices.
What is your ideal work and educational space?
We cannot talk about the ideal work and educational spaces without first framing their ideal rituals and social habits. We design hospitals, workplaces and schools, but deep down we want to design the healing process, work, learning, and lifestyle. In my ideal work and educational spaces, informal groups or communities of people, who have a passion for a domain of knowledge or practice, get together on a regular basis and use the social and spatial resources of the organization to learn, grow, and become better at what they do. These communities of practice are different from project teams or task-forces because they live and grow as long as they are recruiting and retaining members who shape and re-shape the domain of practice or passion through their continuous participation. This type of growth might even continue to the point of challenging the established rituals of its host organization and eventually transforming the entire organization for the better.
My ideal space not only supports but cultivates these communities of practice.