04/24/2013 12:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Our Political Battle of the Brands


I recently attended a gathering of diverse leaders in the Twin Cities to envision how we would respond to some of big challenges headed our way: climate change, disruptive technologies, the obesity epidemic, an aging population and so on. Hosted by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and called "Reality Check 2.0", the meeting made two things immediately clear. First, no one disagreed with the reality of these challenges and second, no one -- whether on the political left or right -- disagreed with the goals of our wanting resilient infrastructure, a vibrant economy, a healthy community, and a productive workforce.

The workshop generated a wide range of creative ideas about how to deal with these challenges, so why do we, in the U.S., have so much difficulty doing so at the national or even at a statewide level? It comes, I think, from confusion in our political culture between means and ends. The vast majority of people -- and politicians -- seem to agree on the ends; who doesn't want security, prosperity, and health? Our political gridlock arises, instead, from disagreements over the means of achieving those ends: through more government regulation or less, more economic stimulus or less, more control of individual behavior or less.

Unfortunately, our two political parties have branded themselves with the means that each advocate rather than with the ends about which most of us seem to agree. This makes it almost impossible to move forward since any compromise over the means appears to threaten each party's brand and leads too many politicians to resist reaching across the aisle. But as we saw at the ULI gathering, when we start with the goals we agree on rather than the means over which we disagree, it becomes much easier to find common ground.

The design thinking used at the meeting helped make that happen. By having diverse groups of people wrestle with big challenges, devise as many different ways as possible to address them, and present their proposals to others for comment, the ULI workshop set up a creative and iterative process that led to new solutions, many of which defied the conventional categories of the political left and right. In several cases, the most creative ideas came from inverting the typical way in which we think of challenges. One group, for example, argued that we need to see an aging population not as a problem, but as an asset that can help us tackle other challenges, such as mentoring and tutoring of under-privileged children or remembering how previous generations lived in more sustainable ways.

Another idea emerged from the conversation that bears on all of this. We like to speak about the "American Experiment," but we seem to have a hard time experimenting in the United States with diverse ways of doing things and then assessing the results of these tests. This comes, some thought, not only from the rigid adherence to the brand on the part of our political parties, but also from the apparent desire of each party to have its way of doing things prevail in statehouses across the country as well as in Congress. We not only confuse our real differences over means with an illusory disagreement over ends, but we also mistakenly think that there should be only one means -- the Democrat's means or the Republican's means -- to achieve a common end.

For example, it makes no sense to advocate for tax cuts or at least no tax increases as the solution to every problem, as the Republicans brand seems to assert. The design community learned long ago that the same answer to every problem leads to a lot terrible solutions that not only don't resolve the problems, but also often make them worse. Instead, we need as many different experiments as possible going on. Let taxes go up in some places and down in others and let's see what happens. Will the better schools and services in the high-tax localities compensate for the likely loss of tax-sensitive individuals and corporations? And will economic growth in the low-tax locations out pace the effects of their decaying schools and infrastructure?

At the same time, it also makes little sense to adhere to every aspect of Federal entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, as the Democratic faithful seem to insist upon. And here too, the design community can offer plenty of examples in which something designed under one condition or set of expectations needs renovation or rethinking in light of changing needs or demands. With people living longer and healthier, programs devised in an earlier era of shorter lifespans and more rudimentary medicine probably need revision, and so let's see what happens when different states or regions tweak one aspect or another of these entitlements, rigorously assessing the results after a set period of time. Will funds freed up with lower benefits lead to other investments that enhance quality of life or will older people flee such places and lead to a declining tax base that negates any entitlement savings?

Above all, we need to stop the battle of our political brands and take more advantage of the opportunities to try different approaches to problems that federalism gives to each state. And we need to remember what made the American Experiment the envy of the world. We did not get here by arguing endlessly over untested ideologies, but instead by experimenting and pragmatically embracing the ideas that produced the best results.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.