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Ethical reflection through design

05 October 2020

In three blog posts, we follow the joined research project 'Responsible Cities' of the University of Twente and the University of Utrecht. They explore the role of design to bring interest groups together to think, feel, and take action on the topic of smart city futures. In this second blog, we'll discuss: Ethical reflection through design.

Why design is not neutral

The technology we design is not neutral. New products and processes we bring into the world determine the way we see it, just as the way we see the world determines how we design new products. Take the most common example of the smartphone: it has altered our experiences and of our social interactions; and this change has now a continuous impact in the apps we develop or new features we desire. Back in the 90s, we did not have a weather forecast application, and now we do not leave the house without checking when it is going to rain.

We started having technology in our offices, in our homes, in our pockets and now we also have it everywhere in our cities. Many cities around the world want to become smart and implement a large network of sensors and intelligent systems to deal with urban issues such as pollution, traffic congestion or criminality. When discussing major technological projects such as smart cities, the role of design should not be neglected. It is essential to be aware of the fact that, while designing new products or services, certain values, cultural perspectives or biases become inscribed in the design. This helps us to understand that smart city sensors and data are more than mere technical tools that help the governance of the city. They show the dominant culture – e.g. the emphasis on smart parking apps show the dominant car-culture that exists in Dutch cities, – reproduce or even enhance existing biases – e.g. profiling or other forms of data-driven policies that target specific groups – or highlight predominant values – e.g. the extent to which sensors are employed for sustainability or other purposes.

Anticipate the impact of design

But how can we discuss this role of design? Is there a way to anticipate the effects of the services and products that we design, beyond the intended functionality? Can we, for example, anticipate how smart city technology might exclude certain groups or society, or the effect it might have on our autonomy or freedom? For that, we need a critical and ethical attitude, and, very importantly, the power of design to imagine the influence of technology in our behavior and the world around us.

To adopt a critical and ethical attitude towards the impact of technology on society, we can benefit from theoretical insights from philosophy. Philosophy encourages us to question and reflect on how technology affects the understanding of ourselves, our interactions and the larger world surrounding us. This knowledge about present day human-technology relations can guide us when moving towards future scenarios and anticipating the impact of design. However, as professor Peter Paul Verbeek puts it: ‘No ethics without imagination. Taking responsibility for the cities we are designing requires anticipation of the ways in which smart city technologies affect human beings, social practices, and societal structures. How can we imagine their potential influence our behavior, our social interactions, and the relations between citizens and governments?’ (page 29 of the ‘Futuring the smart city booklet’ we wrote after the DDW19).

To answer this last question, we turn back to design. The discipline of design itself can also guide us when anticipating future scenarios and the potential impact of what we create in the here and now. Although this might sound like some form of inception, design can really help us to open up new possibilities; it can stimulate our imagination and support reflection on anticipated or unexpected outcomes.  For example, new approaches in design such as Speculative Design by Dunny & Raby and Experiential Futures by Stuart Candy stimulate such imagination that goes beyond the design itself. They question the context in which the design will exist, and what the effects of the design on that context could be. By experiencing small bits of a possible future, we are encouraged to reflect on the impact and desirability of such a future.

Responsible smart city design

In our research project on responsible smart cities, we take an interdisciplinary approach towards the design of smart cities: by combining the theoretical insights from philosophy about human-technology relations, with the co-creation efforts central to human-centered design, we work towards a responsible smart city design. To stimulate ethical reflection, we are designing various (collaborative) tools that help to think about values in design, changing values and other impacts on society.

One of the efforts to bring co-creation, imagination, ethics and design together was the ‘Journalist of the Future City’-cardgame, we presented at DDW19. More about this game and the results we collected during DDW19 in our next post. Stay tuned!

This blog was written by: Anouk Geenen, Julieta Matos Castaño.

Research team

University of Twente: prof. Mascha van der Voort, prof. Peter Paul Verbeek, dr. Julieta Matos Castaño, Anouk Geenen

Utrecht University: dr. Michiel de Lange, dr. Corelia Baibarac-Duignan

Acknowledgement: This work is part of the research program Designing for Controversies in Responsible Smart Cities with project number CISC.CC.012, which is (partly) financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). We thank our project partners (Aerovision, Design Innovation Group, Future City Foundation, Marxman, Municipality of Amersfoort and Utrecht University) for their valuable contributions to this research project.