Black Swan Farming

Emergent design and the benefit of hindsight

To keep or not to keep?

Imagine, if you will, that it is the late 1800s and your team are designing the city of Paris, France. Your brief is to make sure that it becomes the most beautiful, romantic city in the world. Surely, any of us with even the most basic of knowledge of Paris would, if they were in a position to influence the design of this amazing city, insist on the Engineer Gustav Eiffel’s masterpiece as the crowning glory. More than any other emblem (and there are plenty to choose from in Paris) it is this one that captivates people. It would be incomplete without it. No question.

In any “MMF” of Paris, you would have to insist on having the greatest marketing symbol of all. It would be at the top of the (nominally unordered) list of “must haves” for those using the MoSCoW prioritisation method. None of us, surely, would suggest, in XP parlance, that “you ain’t gonna need it”. Even using our beloved Cost of Delay: as a single feature the tower generates its own economy – with a GDP no doubt greater than many sovereign countries. Using CD3 would likely get this prioritised somewhere near the top of features to be urgently built.

As for spending additional time and money to make this a temporary structure – an experiment, designed in such a way to make it easy to dismantle and remove in its entirety after construction – would this not be considered a crazy idea, completely unnecessary? Why plan for the obsolescence of it? A decision with the benefit of hindsight might even insist on a design that not only lasted as long as possible, but one that would make it difficult to remove. It is, you would argue, going to be such an important part of the very identity of not just the city, but France itself. Thanks to its status as the most recognisable symbol of Paris it is often the “go to” shot for films to establish that a scene takes place in Paris.

The way it actually happened though, if it hadn’t been planned as an obsolescent feature, it may never have been built in the first place. Never shy of taking to the streets to protest points that they feel strongly about, there would surely have been riots on the streets if the tower was proposed as a permanent eyesore on the landscape of the city. A group of well-known painters, sculptors, architects and writers put pen to paper to voice their concern:

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower”.

So, the design, and the now obvious need for the tower wasn’t clear, at all. It is only obvious to us now, many years after the fact, that this is the case. At the time many Parisians hated the tower. It was almost torn down, as originally planned, on more than three occasions. Instead, Eiffel’s creation has gone on to receive over 250 million visitors and is now the most-visited paid monument the world. It is perhaps the greatest example of emergent design, keeping options open and allowing the best design to become apparent after the fact.

To make the process of emergent design more visceral, the following video gives you some sense of the iterative nature of the design process for the User Interface of an app.