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Publicizing implications in understandable ways

Technology today is progressing faster than ever before, and the different fields of technology become ever more specialized. Technology is on a trajectory to reach deeper into everyday life, enabling car insurance companies to charge us based on how, where, and when we drive; making possible consumer products monitoring and scoring us on how much we exercise, or how healthy we eat; or letting advertisers understand what we like, dislike, or do in our spare time through the data we produce when using online services or social networks.

Often technology appears in the consumer market so fast and is integrated so quickly that users aren’t given a choice or aren’t truly aware of what technology is working in the background of their actions and experiences. For example, browser cookies have been used for years to track users across the Web and enable targeted advertising based on their behavior. However, many users are likely to only have learned about this recently, when the European Union passed legislation to force websites to declare their use of cookies up front.

Publicizing implications in understandable ways is about using the cross-disciplinary skills of designers to examine emerging technologies through the lenses of society, culture, and business. In the same way designers can conceptualize and realize products and services when working on commercial projects, this approach uses the same skills to make implications and potential future scenarios tangible and understandable. By using the familiar “language” of products and services that people are used to reading in advertising or retail establishments, designers can distill possible scenarios into artifacts that embody these potential futures in understandable ways. This provides the knowledge and understanding for citizens to make up their minds about whether these futures are desirable.

This can be seen in publicly awarded and exhibited academic work. Design student Bram Fritz in Amsterdam used a project briefing about designing an app using the city’s open data to show the dark sides of this openly available information. He proposed the concept app “Makkie klauwe,” which means “easy pickings.” The app uses readily available public information about disposable incomes, crime levels, or reported problems of different districts to recommend streets and areas more suitable for theft and burglary. The student’s audiences for this project were citizens and city employees. His aim was to provoke and raise awareness of the potential harmful ways of using open data. In this case, the smartphone application becomes the commonly understood language for achieving this provocation.

A designer who takes this even further in his work is Anthony Dunne. In his book Hertzian Tales (MIT Press), he builds on a previously suggested role for the designer by Ezio Manzini, who advises designers to, “...visualize alternative future scenarios in ways that can be presented to the public, thus enabling democratic choices between the futures people actually want.”[]

Dunne takes this a step further and puts forward an approach in which the designer “no longer knows anything for certain.” This is a less didactic role than that proposed by Manzini, in which the designer has no moral stance but offers his skills as a resource to experiment with an unknown territory.

Projects with such an approach used to happen almost exclusively in academia. New kinds of design practices such as the aforementioned Superflux consider it part of their agenda and integrate this approach into their commercial offering. Nevertheless, funding often comes from public sources such as the European-wide initiative StudioLab, or galleries and museums.

However, this way of engaging with the uncertainty and unpredictability of the technological future needs to become more commonplace and inform long-term corporate strategy, as well. Design consultancy Superflux employs this approach to help businesses guide their strategic planning. The founders call this approach “Design for the new normal.” Here’s a synopsis:

Design for the new normal works to cut through established narratives by engaging with two broad areas of interest: uncloaking the “strange now” [.] and extrapolating current trends to present the sheer breadth of, often unsettling,

future possibilities that lie ahead of us.[194]

 
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