IDEA | Step Change & System D

Posted on 24/10/2011


I increasingly hear people use the term ‘step change’. Most recently, at a meeting of regional development practitioners, someone called for a ‘step change’ for their floundering and declining region. Others call for a step change in relation to addressing climate change. The use of this term seems prevalent in policy considerations and indicates a need for doing things in radically different ways that catalyse results and impact; that generate radical difference. Wiktionary notes that step change is borrowed from mathematics and technology terminology, from ‘step function’ and defines it as meaning a ‘a sudden, discontinuous change’. This seems markedly similar to the idea of ‘transilience‘ that I recently wrote about. However, in communities where we resist change with every molecule of our beings, I’m curious to know how we do this – how we manage this step from one situation to another one, mindfully. The state, of course, didn’t rise to that challenge when it sent in police to evict a peaceful occupation. The occupy movement is seeking to draw attention to a failing system (implicating both government and corporations) that serves the interests of the extremely wealthy and powerful. The displays of state sanctioned violence and thuggery against peacefully assembled and self-organising citizens seemed to bring that failure into sharp focus.

This has bearing on my current thinking about suburbs and a recognition that within the whole urban system, suburban environments tend to be the most resistant and slowest to change. Suburbs stubbornly persist and protect. In part, that’s the result of a mix of poor property development practices, planning inertia, cultural/consumption biases and sloppy governance. However, step change implies more than just fast tracking, if radical difference is the objective. Our tendency for incrementalism and need for hand holding seems to indicate that some rewiring is necessary due to our recidivism or recline into habit or tradition despite changing circumstances. There was an opportunity for a step change in policing and governance in Melbourne and Sydney this week.

While reading tweets yesterday, I noted an unfamiliar term – system D, also système D. Wikipedia says that “System D (in French, Système D) is a shorthand term that refers back to the French word débrouillard or démerder. The verb se débrouiller means “to untangle”. The verb se démerder means to literally to remove oneself from the shit. The basic theory of System D is that it is a manner of responding to challenges that requires one to have the ability to think fast, to adapt, and to improvise when getting the job done. It has the connotation of getting around the system, managing to accomplish, or breaking the rules.” It seems like a kind of purposeful freestyling and it seems to have great currency in human and community development contexts in Africa. The Timbuktu Chronicles explains that  “the basic theory of System D is that it is a manner of responding to challenges that requires one to have the ability to think fast, to adapt, and to improvise when getting the job done … Système D is a common term used in Central Africa referring to adaptable, handy solutions.”

There’s been some rumbling around various design, architecture and art networks about grassroots and DIY urbanism, tensions between the tactical and the improvised, the designed and the assembled. There’s obviously a need to find some new and different languages around this – languages that aren’t so referential to mainsteam urbanist, cultural and design practice – and system d emerges as a frame for ‘quick thinking’, to innovate and work-around immediate problems and obstacles. This idea of system D has an immediacy and agility about it that seems to fit well with the idea of ‘step change’ and prevailing pressures for adaption – it emphasises that in matters of adaptability and change, every moment is potent.

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