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Eight Design Tenets for Emerging Technology

As we face a future in which the definition of what it is to be human might be inexorably changed, we will need design to help frame our interactions with technologies, from skin- top embeddable computers to bioprinted organs to swarming robots, which often seem to be racing ahead of our ability to process and manage on an emotional, ethical, and societal level. Designers have an opportunity to help define the parameters of and sculpt the interactions between man and technology, whether we’re struggling with fear and loathing in reaction to genetically altered foods, the moral issues of changing a child’s traits to suit a parent’s preferences, the ethics guiding battlefield robots, or the societal implications of a 150-year extended lifetime. At its best, not only can design provide the frame for how technology works and how it’s used, it can also situate it within a broader context: incorporating system thinking, planning for a complete technological lifecycle, and evaluating the possibility of unintended consequences.

Our field of practice will be transformed, as well, and we must prepare for it by moving from design as facilitation, shaping the interface and workflow, to design as the arbiter, driving the creation of the technology itself and applying our understanding of interaction, form, information, and artistry to new areas. To balance those asking, “How can this be done?” we should ask, “Why should we do this, to what end, and for whose benefit?” We must move from being passive receptors of new technology to active participants in its formation. As design thinkers and practitioners we’re called to be explorers. And, although it’s true that not every designer will want or be able to follow this path, those who do will have an opportunity to contribute in significant fashion.

Today, design work is changing at an unprecedented pace, and we are all too aware of the need to constantly evolve our skills to match the demands of the marketplace. With this uncertainty comes opportunity: the design positions of the future are not yet defined. Just as there was no industrial, graphic, or interaction designer at one time, so too the designer of emerging technologies has, at least for now, a broad canvas to explore. How we bring our current skills to bear on new problems, how we determine new subjects to learn, and how we integrate with burgeoning new industries will all play a part in the way our emerging design practices form.

What competencies will be most important for the designer in these new areas? What approaches will be most effective for managing the disruptive power of emerging technologies? What thinking processes will help the designer negotiate the technical, social, and ethical complexities that emerging technology will inevitably present? As a first attempt at answering these questions, the tenets that follow articulate some high-level guidelines for creative thinking and process development, drawing broad-based inspiration from related professional fields, including architecture, art, ethnography, engineering, and most of all, user experience. Although these tenets are certainly also applicable to knowledge work in a general sense — for the scientist, technologist, or entrepreneur — we will consider them in the context of design for emerging technology.

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