The Copenhagen Interpretation of design thinking

If you love physics as much as I do, you can’t help but see connections between physical phenomena and your everyday experience.  There are times when I find myself visualizing free body diagrams when walking on boats or riding my bike. Lately, I’ve been noticing a remarkable amount of overlap between two things that appear to have nothing in common: quantum mechanics and design thinking.  More specifically, I’ve noted parallels between the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics and the latter steps of design thinking.

(Graphic by Taylor Cone)

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics tells us that before we conduct a measurement to determine the location of a particle (say, an electron) in a quantum mechanical system, any location is possible. The particle could be anywhere. In essence, the particle simultaneously exists everywhere and nowhere. It exists everywhere in the sense that there is theoretically a nonzero probability that it could be anywhere in the universe (physicists say the particle exists in a superposition of all possible states), and it exists nowhere in the sense that, until we make a measurement, we are unable to say it actually exists in any one place.

All we can state beforehand is the probability of it being recorded in any location when we actually do measure the particle (this probability can be calculated using the particle’s wave function, a mathematical tool used to describe particles in these circumstances of uncertainty).  When we take the measurement, we collapse the wave function of the particle, causing it to appear in one physical place.

(Graphic by Taylor Cone)

Here’s another way to say this: before the “measurement” is made to determine where the particle is, all possible locations of the particle – and therefore all possible futures – are options for us.  Anything is possible (no matter how improbable) in this pre-measurement phase. When the measurement is taken and the wavefunction of all possible futures is collapsed, we end up with one world in which we’re moving forward.

A key point about the Copenhagen Interpretation is that, as far as we can tell, the world that ends up becoming our reality does so completely by chance. In other words, we have no power over which possible future becomes our actual future (aside from whatever accidental or unintended effect our measurement has on the system).

So how does this relate to design thinking?

Think about those moments when you’re being generative in design thinking; namely, ideation and prototyping. The primary goal of these steps is to imagine as many solutions to whatever problem you’re tackling – in other words, to imagine as many potential future worlds as you possibly can.  In the language of physics, you could say that during these steps you are establishing the wavefunction of the possible solutions to your design challenge.

When you move on to testing, iteration, and implementation, you begin to “collapse the wavefunction.” You move from the realm of infinite possibility of future world paths to a single future created by you in concert with those who give you feedback. When you finalize your product, you have collapsed its wavefunction and committed to one of the many possible futures you had been exploring.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics asserts that one future world is chosen purely by chance from an infinite set of options, prohibiting us from knowing anything about alternatives. This is what separates design thinking from quantum mechanics. Allow me to introduce the Copenhagen Interpretation of design thinking, in which design thinking is viewed not just as a method for innovating our future, but as one that enables us to step into a number of possible futures, compare our options, and commit to the best path forward.

Computer science pioneer Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  Quantum mechanics prohibits accomplishing the former with complete certainty. Design thinking gives us an opportunity to all but circumvent the fundamental laws of our universe by allowing us to do the latter. This means we can optimize our collective path through the infinity of possible worlds by peeking into them before we are called on to choose one.

You can follow Taylor on Twitter at @Taycone.