Building A Better Everything

4 minute read

In June, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel at the University of Montreal’s Cyberjustice Lab. I chatted about how we use our mission and values to inform our day-to-day work, and felt it might be helpful to put some of what I talked about in writing, to help explain just what it is that we do here.

SIMLab works to make systems and services more accessible, responsive, and resilient. Talking to lawyers, traditionally service providers, I like to focus my framing on legal systems, to help people think a little differently. Put simply, a system has inputs and outputs that feed back into each other. These inputs and outputs can be information, behavior, money, time, widgets…and so on. So, if our mission is to improve systems, it means we measure the success of our technology projects by whether it makes a system better. (We also have to draw lines around what the system is for a given project, but that’s a topic for another day.) Our values, accessibility, responsiveness, and resilience, are how we define what “better” looks like in a system, and illuminate lessons that inform how we approach our work. So how do we think about each of those values in a more practical sense?

Measuring accessibility sounds simple: how easy is it for someone to get into a system? But sometimes this manifests in interesting ways: with the DC Public Library, we’re working to help librarians deliver better information about social services, so that people can navigate the system more easily. As with any project we do, we’ve dedicated lots of time to exploring the context—here, the DC social services ecosystem—to test and revise (and revise again) our hypotheses, and embrace the limitations of the project—here, that there’s an opportunity to provide help without doing a full social work intake interview.

If accessibility is about getting in to the system, responsiveness might be what the system produces. This isn’t always improving the substance of an outcome—after all, not everyone can be happy with the outcome of a legal case—sometimes it’s simply making a system more efficient. In Odisha, India, we’re working with Landesa to make it easier for supervisors and potential titleholders alike to coordinate and track a complex surveying and land titling program. Although we’re building technology, ultimately our hope is to make humans more responsive. As a result, we strive to understand who we’re creating more—or less—work for, and constantly monitor what we’ve built to see if it’s working. In other words, to build a more responsive system, we need to be responsive, too.

Resilience is perhaps the fuzziest-seeming value of the three. I like to describe it helping systems (and organizations) be self-propelled. So, are we helping a system—or an organization—adapt to shocks, or changes in the bigger system around it? We work with non-profits on small engagements to help them use a piece of technology better, whether it’s improving how they collect feedback from people calling a help line, creating a reminder system for clients, or connecting with clients over a different communications channel, such as SMS. Whether the project is big or small, our goal is that at the end of the day, it can run without our help, and adapt to the inevitable changes that an organization or a system will face. Resilient technologies can help make resilient organizations, and in turn, more resilient systems.

No matter where we work, we try to be inclusive, foster local ownership of technology, encourage good habits, generate data, and make complex processes more efficient and transparent. This isn’t always easy: systems are chaotic and messy. So, in our work, we value fluidity: how well our work fills the gaps in a system, and how well it adapts (and we adapt) to change. Because systems never stop: the flow of information, of demand for services, of need for help, is constant and unceasing, whether you’re ready to handle it or not. In that blur of motion, we think it’s critical that systems are accessible, responsive, and resilient—even if those values are hard to define, and harder to measure. As Donella Meadows, a pioneer of systems thinking, put it, “No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”