Design in Civvies: The Promise of Creating Degrees of Freedom in Government

Author: Alex Ryan 

Abstract: Both military and civilian design can be measured by the degrees of freedom it unlocks. This paper is a reflection on my experience of civilian and military design reinterpreted through the perspective of unlocking new degrees of freedom. There are many similarities between military and civilian design. The main difference is that it is much more difficult and much less common to create a whole systems team in the military context due to the extreme polarization caused by war. Degrees of freedom can also be created by disrupting the existing system from within or from outside. Disruptive design is ethical only when it alleviates more harm and suffering than it creates.

Design is dangerous because it opens up all of our existing structures, institutions and routines to the possibility of redesign. This creates great potential for improvement but also for harm. A responsible designer approaches complex problematic situations with a mixture of courage and humility. They have the courage to act to learn about and to transform undesirable situations, while remaining open to the possibility that their interventions are making things worse. A responsible designer is both an explorer of new territory and a steward of the future.

* Note: this paper is part of the Special Issue of Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, titled ‘Reflexive Military Practitioners: Design Thinking and Beyond’. The full issue can be accessed at:

View special issue via JMSS

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