Influencing the scientific community

Today’s scientific research builds on centuries of achievements and discoveries. This means that today’s research efforts are highly specialized, fitting specific niches, and looking at problems in a very isolated way. This makes it more difficult for researchers to retain a higher-level view across different fields and to keep an eye on knock-on effects or sociocultural implications of their work.

Both the scientific community and designers themselves need to embrace what design has to offer. Designers are cross-disciplinary thinkers and makers who understand people, technology, and business. And although design traditionally comes in at the point of application of a technology, designers today need to enter at the point of research. Designers need to be the “buoy” that connects with highly specialized and deepened research efforts but stays in touch with the wider context of the world.

Influencing the scientific community is about collaboration between designers and scientists. It is about designers providing human insight and becoming the advocates of people and societies. That way, designers provide a counterweight against results-driven efforts, which ignore the potential for side effects or unanticipated outcomes.

A good example of this cooperation between designers and scientists was the European Union-funded Smarcos Project.[] It set out to establish guidelines and best practices for “interconnected embedded systems” and was a collaboration between 17 research partners from both academic and commercial research centers. It also involved the commercial design consultancy Fjord, and I worked on the project as an interaction design researcher alongside my colleagues Claire Rowland and Helen Le Voi.

Even though the project was not aimed at the public or intended to create commercially available products, a team of designers was involved in it in a variety of ways. The Fjord team added user-experience considerations to the otherwise technical work, making guidelines and recommendations not just about technology, but also about the human experience of that technology. The team facilitated creative workshops with the researchers that drew out potential applications and real-world impacts of the research that was being done. Using design research methods such as ethnography, diary studies, and interviews, the team brought human insight to the discussions and opinions within the research project. Lastly, the team helped communicate the aims and outcomes of the project within the wider scientific community more effectively by making the work tangible and more accessible.

When it comes to emerging technologies that are further away from application, designers have to play an important role, too. Dr. Rachel Armstrong, a researcher in the field of synthetic biology, sees the established approaches to the funding and structuring of research projects as increasingly inappropriate for the complex and hard-to-predict nature of future technologies. She believes that a shift is required in the way future technologies are looked at, explored, and discussed, and that designers have a role to play in this new approach. Instead of the deterministic view that has been taken historically, the future needs to be seen in a probabilistic way.[] This means that research into emerging technologies can no longer be directed and measured toward a particular desirable outcome. Instead, outcomes need to be considered as probabilities that can merely be influenced but not determined.

This requires a constant extrapolation of possible ultimate outcomes and their implications. This is where Dr. Armstrong sees the role of designers; they need to continually explore and experiment with these probabilistic futures. This goes beyond designers helping with public engagement or communication of research work. Instead, it is a direct collaboration with the scientist through which the designer speculates about the future and uses acquired skills to make these speculations tangible.

 
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