Three Emerging Product Practices to Design an Optimistic Future

Alessio Symons

Alessio Symons

Optimism rarely comes with the same intellectual credibility as pessimism. The popularity and cultural significance of dystopian works, for example, indicates our collective desire to stand in a corner pointing our fingers at the many ways in which society has gone off track. 

Technology often stands at the forefront of this pessimistic, intellectually gratifying worldview. The overly utopian aspirations of inventors have, over the past several decades, given way to short-sighted technological fetishism – the former resulting in unsustainable, difficult-to-replace infrastructure, the latter adding layers of addictive, profit-driven gadgets. 

However, for the first time in history, we no longer have the veil of ignorance to hide behind. Producers and consumers of technology are aware of its damaging effects on society, the environment, and individuals – from a growing anxiety epidemic, to the depletion of natural resources, to screen addiction, among many other effects. There is an increasing sense of frustration and fatigue growing around the way technology seems to permeate every aspect of our daily lives.

Within this frustration lies opportunities for different voices and different solutions. There is an abundance of evidence and countless arguments suggesting that our pursuit of technology-driven solutions has led to the proliferation of social, political, environmental, and personal crises. Still, there is room yet for a certain kind of optimism – a brighter outlook that author Charles Eisenstein considers “a practical one that sees and integrates all the ugly facts of our world.” 

Historically, optimism has been eroded time and time again by reality. But if we look to the fringes today, we can find signs of a scientific and technological community that is finally learning its lesson. None too soon, but with any luck, not too late either.

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge

Our common understanding and conception of science and technology has been built upon a Eurocentric understanding of the world. A simple Google search for “earliest scientist” will undoubtedly lead you to results regarding Thales of Miletus, a man with no surviving written work; Euclid, the father of geometry; and Ptolemy, the man who incorrectly placed Earth at the center of the cosmos. All three of these men were born in Greece before the calendar had shifted from B.C. to A.D. 

The European model of science and technology, as Indigenous archaeologist Dr. George Nicholas puts it, “tends to be text-based, reductionist, hierarchical, and dependent on categorization.” This framework has served as the basis of mainstream technological innovation for over 2,500 years. In other words, we have always operated with a paradigm that values uncompromising, unshifting scientific fact – despite a near-constant change in our understanding of the laws, facts, and realities that govern our world and universe. 

As a result, we have created technology laden with moral absolutism that ignores the changing context of the world in which we live. Indigenous science, on the other hand, “does not strive for a universal set of explanations but is particularistic in orientation and often contextual,” according to Dr. Nicholas. By incorporating Indigenous knowledge and understanding into our technology, we could adapt those solutions to the changing nature of our reality, rather than designing technology around a fixed view of the world. 

This alternative approach could hold significance in our attempts to fight climate change. One example of such thinking in action can be seen with the UN’s Equator Initiative, which recognizes and invests in sustainable development and technology projects run by Indigenous communities. This program highlights the power that local knowledge can have when it comes to designing technological solutions around an innate understanding of a specific place. 

Angie Abdilla, a Trawlwoolway woman and founder and CEO of Old Ways, New, a research and technology design consultancy, believes that the incorporation of Indigenous voices in conversations regarding technology could create lasting change: “It’s really simple for me: our culture informs our knowledges, our strategies, and then the technologies for not just surviving, but thriving in the future.” Her company’s tagline succinctly illustrates the new wave of thought currently entering the technology community: the organization is described as “a company of Indigenous Consultants and Technologists, creating a new digital world.”

Abdilla isn’t alone in seeing the trend toward a blend of Western and Indigenous thought. Cristina Coc, a Ketchi Maya woman and Indigenous leader from Belize, has also felt the optimistic swing toward an amalgamated approach: “I’m starting to really embrace and understand that there are opportunities for collaboration between the scientific world and the Indigenous world,” she reflects, “where Indigenous traditional knowledge can be valued as equal, if not more important, to inform the scientific world, particularly because these global challenges of climate change are not for any one person or any one community.” There isn’t one solution that will solve the issue of climate change – instead, we need solutions designed for each specific challenge. 

Respecting Liberal Arts

Technological solutions and infrastructures are largely designed by STEM specialists. Despite the clear need for this type of expertise, the failure to represent other disciplines in product design can result in a lack of consideration for the human impact of new inventions. For all its utopian posturing, an organization like Apple has done more to create the anxiety-inducing, constantly-on model of short-term tech obsession than any other company. In theory, the organization blends creativity with technical expertise. But in reality, the creative element of its products largely leverages the less appealing elements of the human condition: namely insecurities and addictions.

Along with other leaders in app and interface design, Apple has contributed to people’s dependence on smartphones by turning their devices into sources of constant stimulation. Notifications, noises, alerts, and apps have transformed the cell phone from a useful tool into a socially disruptive one. The initial intent for smartphones to be used for social good and connection has long since evaporated as a clear priority. 

However, as Farhad Manjoo – tech writer for The New York Times – argues, the same organization that led this change is also the one best equipped to resolve the issue. “Building a less-addictive phone is chiefly a problem of interface design,” he explains, “which is basically Apple’s entire corporate raison d’être.”

Before they can set out to solve the problem of distracting technology, Apple and other companies like it must first change their priorities by embracing a new goal: practicing true empathy for their consumers. And empathy is often a key trait acquired through a liberal arts education. This is why, according to a 2017 Harvard Business Review article by JM Olejarz, employers “from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon” are seeking liberal arts graduates to “tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges.” This thought is also echoed by Tim Marshall, provost and chief academic officer at The New School, in a 2018 Quartz article. Marshall argues that as increasingly pervasive offerings continue to emerge in tech, “the capacity to understand the constraints and opportunities that are presented during times of transformation is key. This requires insight, perspective, self-reflection, and an entrepreneurial sensibility – all qualities taught in liberal-arts education.”

Much to Apple’s consternation, the best example of technology designed to solve real social issues is coming from their long-time competitor, IBM, who unveiled an AI debating bot. Project Debater. When the bot was pitted against a human debate champion, it was able to introduce a slew of solid facts into the debate – arguably with more precision and depth than its human adversary. If technology were able to regularly elevate public debates with enhanced information and rational arguments, the result could be a better-educated population with improved capacity for critical thought.

The study of language and human connection so often found in philosophy, literature, and history classrooms could have a serious benefit for this type of technology. Such knowledge could give the AI a more rounded understanding of the human experience – one that would be steeped in the same complexities real people deal with every day. If these types of technologies – and other types of AI, like Alexa and Google Home – are to act as truly intimate partners, they must move past the attention-grabbing nature of today’s popular devices and instead facilitate interactions designed around principles of true human good. 

Matt Eyring, chief strategy and innovation officer at Vivint Smart Home, believes that as AI-powered voice assistants and other connected devices get smarter and further permeate our lives, the need for professionals with liberal arts degrees will only increase. “The future of tech isn’t solely about designing the robot, systems, and back-end technologies; it’s about creating the human-robot interaction, and that requires a different set of skills,” Eyring says.

As more people with liberal-arts backgrounds move into the technology space, the purposes behind the products that companies design may very well shift from addictive experiences to additive experiences; from pervasive technologies to intimate relationships; and from interruption to connection. 

Utilizing Philanthropic Data Usage

Big data has been a hot topic for the past few years, with a great deal of conversation centered on how to further segment consumer groups. Meanwhile, the amount of data each person creates every year is increasing, and the tools that are available to make use of this abundance of information are becoming more sophisticated. 

As data itself becomes more valuable and the cost of devices comes down, technology is moving into an unprecedented realm of democratization. According to Statista, there are now 2.53 billion smartphone users worldwide, meaning these tools are now giving new voices to those who have historically gone unheard or unseen. 

For only a few examples, the World Bank Group’s Listening to Africa initiative uses data collected from people’s phones to gather information about their real-time living conditions; a GPS pilot project in Somali has tracked the movement of nomads to ensure that basic public services are still available to this population, no matter where they go; and in Mexico, data is used to analyze the number of individuals living below the poverty line.

On the surface, these examples might point only to how current technology can be adapted to fit the needs of those living near or below the line of poverty; however, as technology becomes more affordable and the usefulness of data continues to grow, smaller organizations will be better equipped to turn a profit from purpose-driven – or even philanthropic – ventures. 

Affordable technology means that innovation doesn’t have to live exclusively within the conglomerate arena or be financed by venture capital funds with their own system to prop up. For-profit organizations genuinely devoted to social good can thrive in this landscape, especially as crowdsourcing continues to be a prevalent way of funding startup ventures.

Beyond this, the potential for data to be used for philanthropic good would also increase the viability of such organizations by enabling them to track the difference they are making. Jason Ricci, CEO of Fluxx, a technology consultancy working exclusively with philanthropic partners, sees the emergence of affordable technology as the catalyst needed for a paradigm shift in this space: “Technology improvements are inevitable, but it’s the cultural shifts technology can create that are even more important,” he explains. Chief among these shifts would be a change to our collective belief that purpose, philanthropy, and profit must only exist as warring forces.

Technology, as it stretches into more aspects of our lives and is powered by data that allows us to understand each unique user, can be designed for specific needs to tackle specific problems. The next wave of technological innovation has the potential to usher in an era of connected businesses, with each individual business working to tackle more targeted issues while simultaneously being part of a network that addresses global needs.

Alessio Symons

Alessio Symons

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