Politics

The Design Problems of Brexit

The UK Government paper titled: The future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, otherwise known as ‘The Chequers agreement’, after the Buckinghamshire country manor house where the agreement was first made, is as much a work of design as of policy.

The UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, delivers a speech on Brexit to the EU. Photo credit: Associated Press

The UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, delivers a speech on Brexit to the EU. Photograph: Associated Press

The foreword is by the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, who begins:

“In the referendum on 23 June 2016 – the largest ever democratic exercise in the United Kingdom – the British people voted to leave the European Union.” [1]

She goes on resolutely:

“And that is what we will do – leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, ending free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in this country, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, and ending the days of sending vast sums of money to the EU every year. We will take back control of our money, laws, and borders. And…”

And after ripping it all up:

“… begin a new exciting chapter in our nation’s history.”

Who is the author of that chapter?

Teresa goes on:

“It now falls to us all to write that chapter.”

Ah! This must be a huge exercise in democratic and participative design, where we can all pitch in our ideas and a solution seamlessly emerges, as if shaped by an invisible hand.

Well, not quite. The ‘us’, of course, is really ‘not us’. The authors of the chapter will be the lawmakers: politicians and others who will codify our future. The ‘us’ may get to say yes or no, but this isn’t an exercise in participative design.

The front page of the UK HM Government's Brexit Proposal

The front page of the UK HM Government’s Brexit Proposal.

The Chequers agreement is a 98 page document, presented in 4 chapters, laying out (in order) the economics, security, cooperation, and institutions of Brexit. The document mentions the word design (or its variants) thirteen times, but they are significant mentions about significant things.

Designing, in Brexit terms, means designing new relationships and partnerships, new proposals, new arrangements, new institutional arrangements, new rules, new policies and policy tools, new systems, and new committees.

That is an awful lot of ‘new’, and an awful lot of designing. What kind of designing is it exactly though? and who will do it? Or more pertinently, does the ‘not us’ have the necessary experience to come up with good designs? (And how will we know they are good designs?)

Taking out each mention of design in the Chequers agreement, and turning it around, makes Brexit read like the curriculum for a new kind of design school [2]:

Design an institutional framework that facilitates dialogue [i]
Design a new trading relationship that ensures frictionless access to each other’s goods [ii]
Design a proposal based on principles of reciprocal commitments [iii]
Design a facilitated customs arrangement [iv]
Design a common rulebook [v]
Design an agricultural policy that delivers market relevant outcomes [vi]
Design a migration system that works for all parts of the UK [vii]
Design a system to promote domestic production and preserve cultural identity [viii]
Design ‘horizontal’ rules that ensure open and fair markets [ix]
Design a global rule for new and disruptive technologies [x]
Design a partnership that makes tracking crime across borders efficient and reliable [xi]
Design an effective sanction [xii]
Design a Joint Committee to prevent disputes arising [xiii]

Or perhaps this a very old kind of design school, because agriculture, trade, and disruptive technologies have been around for at least 5000 years.

The problems above are reducible to designing two other kinds of thing that are mentioned in the Chequers agreement: systems (62 mentions), and rules (110 mentions).

But perhaps most of all Brexit will be about designing systems of rules.

The design of these rule-based systems will take imagination, to think out the particularities and the consequences that might develop. So does the ‘not us’ include people with this kind of imagination? People that can exercise a sophisticated design intelligence in meeting practical, political, ethical, and aesthetic [3] constraints?

I’m not sure that the UK has these kinds of people, or at least doesn’t provide systematic (that word again) ways of training and educating them. We are good at producing political analysts, policy advisors, economists, journalists and philosophers. And they are all good at talking a good game.

But changing the rules of the game requires systematic imagination and creative integrity that should be open to question. It shouldn’t be ‘ta da – here’s a solution’, it should be ‘here is the design process we went through to arrive at this proposal’. The people are not trained in how to make design decisions and consider the possible consequences of those decisions (though they may consider consequences from previous decisions of others). Rather than learning from failure during their education, they learn by very real failure in practice [4].

Perhaps the design of Brexit needs first to include the design of curriculum that can deliver this kind of knowledge and develop the missing designers of today. Game Design 101 might not be a bad place to start.

 

Notes

[1] To be precise 17.4 million people voted to leave, out of an estimated population of 65.6 million (and a population of those eligible to vote of 46.5 million – 19.1 million people being under the voting age of 18).

[2] Actually not unlike the one proposed by Charles and Ray Eames’ India Report that I described in a previous post looking at design education.

[3] The word ‘frictionless’ (11 mentions in the Chequers agreement), for example, suggests something aesthetic. What do you think of when you think of something frictionless? I think of air hockey. It also suggests that clever interaction and service design will be necessary.

[4] Indeed Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, consisting of five paragraphs, and formulated to allow any member state to withdraw from the EU, could well be an example of this failure. In this case the rule designer was John Kerr, a Scottish Member of the UK Parliament.

 

Design references to the UK Government’s document on Brexit

[i] “The institutional framework should prevent disputes arising but in the unlikely event that they did, it should be designed in a way that facilitates dialogue.” (page 92)

[ii] “In designing the new trading relationship, the UK and the EU should therefore focus on ensuring continued frictionless access at the border to each other’s markets for goods.” (page 7)

[iii] “These principles, together with strong reciprocal commitments on open and fair trade, and propositions for a new institutional framework, inform the design of the UK’s proposal.” (page13)

[iv] “The Facilitated Customs Arrangement is designed to ensure that the repayment mechanism is only needed in a limited proportion of UK trade, and to make it as simple as possible to use for those who need to use it.” (page 18)

[v] “The UK would also seek participation – as an active participant, albeit without voting rights – in EU technical committees that have a role in designing and implementing rules that form part of the common rulebook.” (page 20)

[vi] “The UK will be free to design agricultural support policies that deliver the outcomes most relevant to its market, within the confines of WTO rules.” (page 24)

[vii] “The UK will design a system that works for all parts of the UK. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, due in September 2018, will provide important evidence on patterns of EU migration and the role of migration in the wider economy to inform this.” (page 32)

[viii] “European Works is a system designed to promote domestic European production and preserve cultural identity.” (page 37)

[ix] “Some horizontal rules are not primarily designed to ensure open and fair markets. Nonetheless, it is usual to include commitments on these areas in Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).” (page 37)

[x] “The UK will be agile enough to provide thought leadership on the shape and design of new global rules for new and disruptive technologies.” (page 50)

[xi] “As the UK and the EU design a new partnership, maintaining efficient and reliable operational capabilities will be vital, including but not limited to:

  • a. the efficient extradition of criminals and wanted individuals between Member States and the UK;
  • b. cooperation of judicial, police and customs authorities in different states; and
  • c. delivering cross-border criminal investigations and prosecutions.”

(page 59)

[xii] “Sanctions are a key foreign policy tool and are most effective when designed and applied alongside international partners.” (page 65)

[xiii] “Through regular and structured dialogue, the Joint Committee would be designed to prevent disputes from arising, whether related to implementation, enforcement or compliance.” (page 88)

How Can a Designer do Nothing?

Sometimes things might be better off as they are, but how do we know? Two recent podcasts describe examples of where a more minimal approach to design might have resulted in better quality of life and indeed, lives being saved.

The first example comes from the outstanding 99% Invisible podcast [1].

Responding thoughtfully to the recent Californian wildfires, Episode 317 Built to Burn, considers what causes wildfires to spread and how best to stop them destroying property.  It turns out that it is the embers of a wildfire – not the wall of flames – that generally sets property alight. They do this by accumulating in the crevices of wooden structures that exist around many houses – in shingle roofs, for example.

Wildfire

A firefighter battles the Butte wildfire near San Andreas, California. The swiftly spreading flames have destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of residents to flee. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

With a few simple interventions around ‘the home ignition’ zone, the episode concludes that homes can easily withstand fire, even in areas that are prone to wildfires.

So why spend hundreds of millions funding infrastructure – planes, helicopters, equipment, not to mention the firefighters themselves – to fight fires when you can just let them burn and instead concentrate on a few simple measures to build and retrofit houses to withstand fire?

The second example comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History [2], which focuses on issues from the past that have been ‘overlooked or misunderstood’. I like this podcast because it often reveals structural injustices through examining particular cases.

Episode 5 from Series 3 General Chapman’s Last Stand is a case in point. The episode looks at the history of two neighbours – Mexico and the US – and particularly the migration of people across the border.

From effectively no border at all in the early seventies – free movement of people – the border between the two countries has become less and less porous. Checkpoints, surveillance, fences, and latterly, walls, have slowly made the ease and cost of migration prohibitive.

Mexico Border.jpg

A family stands next to the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on 23 May 2017. Photograph: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

But this has also changed the nature of migration from a circular migration – where workers would cross the border when seasonal work was available and return back over the border to their home and family in Mexico when it wasn’t – to a permanent migration – where workers were ‘locked in’ to the US so also brought their families with them and in effect relocated.

With an open border, migration is dynamic and impermanent. Crucially, net migration stays low. Closing and policing the borders paradoxically raises net migration because it is too hazardous for workers to return home and then attempt to cross to the US again at a later date. So hundreds of millions is spent on keeping people out, when nothing at all achieved approximately the same result!

The two examples follow a similar pattern. First, they are both based on insightful research being carried out, with solid data, revealing an alternative understanding of the problem. Second, that understanding of the problem implies a simpler solution than current practice. And third, the State is invested in maintaining that current practice.

Logically, to achieve better results (on the measures that the current practices themselves use to measure their effectiveness) designers doing nothing, or close to nothing, would result in better solutions. But how can a designer do next to nothing?

The key point above is that the State is invested in maintaining a current practice. In the case of fire, to actively confront the wall of flames. In the case of migration, to directly prevent certain people from entering the country. The State is invested in these practices because of the way it believes people think about these issues (as bad things) and fears the political consequences of not intervening.

The interventions, of course, are designed interventions. A hi-tech wall, an infrared detection drone, a device to drop large amounts of water, a system to dynamically map the spread of fire. These interventions feed the narrative and human drama of both stories: the brave and heroic firefighter, the devastated couple who have lost everything, the family caught trying to cross the border. There is politics, but there is also 24-hour news and expectation.

We have come to believe that fire and economic migrants are bad things, things that will threaten our property and the goods we enjoy. We have also come to believe that they are problems that need be solved in particular ways – through fighting and containment – so the designed interventions are aligned with these ways of framing the problem, and designers will respond to the briefs that fit these problem frames [3].

The problem for a designer wanting to do next to nothing, then, is more than showing that we already have (cost) effective ways to achieve the defined goals. The problem is to create a frame that convinces people and politicians that less interventionist solutions can sometimes be better.

In other words, a designer wanting to do nothing has a lot of work on their hands.


 

References

[1] The 99% Invisible podcast celebrates the unnoticed designed world around us: https://99percentinvisible.org/ Episode 317 looks at how solutions to fighting wildfires might be simpler: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/built-to-burn/

[2] Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent Revisionist History podcast is available at: http://revisionisthistory.com  Episode 5, Series 3 considers how overly efficient bureaucracy has led to the current US-Mexico border arrangements: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/25-general-chapman’s-last-stand

[3] See for example, ‘US-Mexico border wall tender calls for 30-foot-tall concrete barriers’ at https://www.dezeen.com/2017/03/09/us-mexico-border-wall-tender-30-foot-tall-concrete-barriers/