Inclusivity and gender fairness in design is better served in small portions

Cities designed with a gender perspective and inclusivity in mind is not a new concept and we at Out Of Office are not the only ones discussing it. However, it is a hot topic nonetheless. Last year, a renewed and growing mainstream narrative occurred around emancipation, gender and inclusivity — bearing in mind the questions sparked by #MeToo. And whilst the #MeToo discussion is complex, blurred and subsiding at times, it does matter. It triggered a wide global sharing of opinions, ideas and experiences. It showed an opportunity to change the status quo and it identified a remarkable moment to rethink and redefine a new normal. At the same time, one can see that design has matured from a largely stylistic endeavour to a field tasked with solving complex, technological and interrelated social problems. Designers get a seat at the table when it comes to designing cities and are brought into the creative process of city making. And with this participation comes influence and responsibility. With this in mind, Out Of Office believes there is a momentum for change to revisit and redefine the narratives around inclusivity and equality, to address the invisible biases and the representation of those that work in the practice of design.

This article is a beginning to explore how we can start to rethink current values around inclusivity today and in the future, fueled by (trend) research and insight. How can we use design to create change, when there is no ‘one-approach-fits-all’ solution to address gender fairness and inclusivity? In this article, a suggestion is made to take small steps to interpret what it all means now and in a future context, to create real insight, to offer inspiration and to suggest alternative futures by triggering new imagination with decision makers.

The conversation about female-friendly cities is already underway and was first spurred into existence by urban planning professor Dolores Hayden’s 1980 essay What would a Non-Sexist city be like? But with around 2.5 billion more people will be living in cities by 2050, there is a urgent need to anticipate on the urban challenges that need fixing. The decisions we will take in the next decades will affect humanity for generations to come. We will be looking at sustainable ideas that empower new ways of consuming, innovative ideas for mobility and we will have to address social urban issues, such as gentrification and polarization in a city, that rapidly becomes more and more digitalized. With technology emerging as an effective tool for designing cities, a new range of innovative solutions to those urban challenges has become possible. Designers (and technologists) of today are building social systems of tomorrow, which define much more. Algorithms running Uber or TaskRabbit shape how work is divided, who gets what tasks and how much one gets paid. Social media platforms such as Facebook determine the shape of political discussion and analytics platforms determine prices we pay.

When Out Of Office got the opportunity to construct a session at the Techfestival in Copenhagen, I saw this as our chance for us to explore this complex topic with fresh and positive eyes. I facilitated an afternoon to discuss ‘Future cities, gender in the design of identity, space and services.’ During this session, I shared trends and stories of the city, explored the needs and values of current and future generations as well as probing for examples to provoke and inspire. Marcelle van Beusekom, Design Director at IDEO joined us to share her experience and perspectives. As this segment of the session, input was also collected from the audience to explore their varying positions as an interactive search for new ways forward. Here are some reflections of the session.

Different demographics people with fresh perspectives came to the session to share their views and knowledge. Photo credits: Anna Hyvärinen

How are design qualities associated with femininity valued, compared to those traditionally associated with masculinity?
Andrea Merrett is an architectural historian who took a view of the #MeToo movement and considered it beyond the scope of architecture and design. She states that “until women and femininity, and qualities associated with femininity are given equal value to men and qualities associated with the masculine, our systems will continue to create possibilities for exploitation.”

Said differently, there is a double standard — an unconscious bias -, which reinforces stereotypes and influences daily decisions and attitudes. What we see in today’s world, is that boys are still the norm — girls are the variation. Boys define the group, the story and it’s code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys. We live in times where we no longer automatically accept these double standards and we need to thrive towards a new normal in design, which begins with a fresh and updated world view on societal balances. However, when we look at the design practices of today — we can see many examples of gendered and stereotypic design, where women are addressed with products that are often smaller, more expensive and often pink. A famous example is the BIC pen “for her”, that was launched in 2012 and was — rightfully so — received with a barrage of sarcasm (do women really need their own pen?). The people responsible for the popularity of ‘Cards Against Humanity’ addressed this stereotypic type of design by releasing a hilarious parody on female-targeted products with their ‘Just For Her edition:’ “It’s the exact same game as the original, but comes in a pink box and costs $5 more.”

Parody of gendered design: Cards Against Humanity ‘for her’

Emily Lever wrote in the New York Magazine an article I Was a Human Siri, that states that in the United States, 94.6 percent of human administrative assistants are female. This matters because it also mentions that the voice assistants are designed with a sassy female assistant voice. This is just one aspect of normalizing female subservience and is part of a cycle of social conditioning and reinforcement.These examples show how some products and services are designed with an unequal and biased perspective, however at the same time, it raises the question of if whether we need to then strive for neutral design in all areas of life?

The answer is not that simple. 
Where we can see in one case female voices are used in the design of voice assistants to emphasize subservience, on another case we see that an Amsterdam public transport company GVB use female voices to strengthen the effect of safety. Nancy and Walther are the voices that are being used in the new metro ‘Noord Zuid Lijn. Nancy is a female voice and was specifically chosen for the unpleasant messaging in the metro. The company claims that research shows a female voice telling bad news is better received by passengers then using a male voice.

In our session, we again turned to IDEO’s Marcelle van Beusekom to share her perspectives on this matter. She believes that empathy with the user and unexpected or ‘extreme user’ is essential to design the right solutions for the right problem. When it comes to design with gender in mind, in several areas, for example healthcare, gender perspectives are essential in the design process. In many cases the male’s body, beliefs and behaviors are often considered the norm and the female’s typically considered as an afterthought in the design. When Apple launched its Health Kit app in 2017, they claimed it could track all kinds of biometric data, pulse, blood pressure etc. However, the developers failed to factor-in sex and gender into their work — the app did not track the female menstrual cycle.

Does this mean we should paint the streets pink?
Can we improve our current design practices when looking at the city context with a gender perspective? One could argue that some urban challenges are, unfortunately, almost exclusive to girls and women. For example, women and young girls almost exclusively face the problem of harassment in cities. Women have often accepted that they do not belong in the city at night or have developed survival mechanisms to avoid harassment. We are now seeing ideas and approaches designed specifically to address this problem of safety. An example of this would be a service called ‘Free to Be, an app that was designed in collaboration with Crowdspot, Monash University’s XYX Lab and — importantly — young women. The app uses crowd mapping to enable women to identify and share public spaces that make them feel uneasy or scared, but also happy and safe. The service enables the user to identify a “bad spot” on a map and show where urban design change needs to happen. Another example is an initiative from Paris, where recently an ‘On Demand Bus Stop’ service was introduced. This on-demand-service enables users to stop at a map location of their own choosing — close to their destination — so the service user will not need to walk those last 200 meters alone at night.

Free to Be — a map-based social survey tool designed, with the help of girls and young women, to enable them to identify, without fear of recrimination, the areas in their city where they feel safe or unsafe.

Fix the invisible bias
Addressing and coming up with solutions for urban problems such as safety and harassment is important and necessary. However, the city is a collection of cultural, social elements — but often most of the design of identity, storytelling, space and services in the city are developed with a male persona in mind. More specifically, advertisements, street signage, statues, services, such as public administration, transportation (women have different transportation habits since many of them multitask between home, work, taking short trips per day), public toilets and spaces (playgrounds, pavements). According to the Swedish architecture firm White Arkitekter 
“80 percent of public space in cities is used by men, and that girls feel 10 times less secure in these public spaces than men.”

An example of this unconscious bias is perhaps well illustrated by the invisibility and absence of women in the urban space. Overall, we are seeing growing calls in European cities to recognize women in the naming of public places. This summer in Amsterdam — women took over the street signs and street names in Amsterdam as a protest on how little women’s names are represented in public space. In Amsterdam there are only 242 of the 2000 people names women — and a lot of times they are ‘the wife of’. So why not change this balance — not history — but especially with new neighborhoods — why not choose women?

Changing the street names in Amsterdam. Photo credits: Tammy van Nerum

The future is already here…
If we want to create meaningful design and innovation, it is important to look ahead. Being a trend-driven consultancy, Out Of Office uses insights and trends to indicate what possible futures might look like. Today — on the face of it, it’s still a man’s world. When we look fast forward to the next generation — now aged 17–27 — we have to think about what will happen if they will be our core demographics and dominate the workforce in ten years? What are their viewpoints, needs and values and how will this influence the narratives around gender, equality, career and family. We already can see now, that this is a generation that expects flexibility, had a fluid mindset and a generation that thinks differently about old certainties around power, diversity, privilege and the male / female divide. What will this mean for our future cities when it comes to designing its identity, its services and spaces? How do we make sure that this generation, its needs and its values, are equally represented in our future cities?

Who is designing and deciding?
In this exploration of this topic, it is also important to ask the question of who is designing and who is deciding in our cities? How diverse is the representation, when we look at the decision makers in businesses, in architect firms, in design companies, the politicians and think tanks to name a few. An example to address the hurdles women face and aims to building empathy as a pathway is this Gender Equity Toolkit by Leyla Acaroglu.

Gender Equity Toolkit: a toolkit that addresses the hurdles women face and aims to building empathy as a pathway to gender equity — by Disrupt Design in Collaboration with AIGA Women Lead

A few years ago, Out Of Office created a successful trend lecture about ‘Generation 404*’. We used ‘404’ as an analogy to express the gap between decision makers and future users. Since then our methodology 404 aims to bridge this disconnect to ensure that real future value is created. And we sense a ‘404’ here as well, just look at some facts:

· In the European Union, 32% of regional assembly members and 36% of municipal council members are women and only 15% of mayors are women.

· When we look at think tanks, we can state that these are overwhelmingly male and pale, young and privileged, and there are legitimate concerns about them designing our cities in their image. Less than one in every 10 architects is black, Asian or minority-ethnic, and less than a third of UK qualified architects are women. And the numbers are not improving.

· Globally, according to Girls Who Code, women hold only 5% of leadership jobs in the technology sector. Of those receiving venture capital funding, only 8% globally are women.

And that brings us to the last question: “are women heard when they are in leadership positions and sit around the table?” Or is it worth building a new table rather than fighting for a seat at a table where its code and values are those of an old system?

What is next?
What does this all mean? How will all of this influence the city? In the coming months, Out Of Office will continue to explore this topic. Until then, here are some initial thoughts on how to address diversity, inclusivity and gender equality in design practices:

INTERPRETATION — in order to redefine and rethink what inclusivity and gender equality means, it is important explore and research what the interpretations and translations of those values are in a future context. During the session, interpretations and perspectives on diversity and inclusivity were collected from the audience. There was a wide range of different interpretations and an equally wide variety of input in the form of answers. Understanding what these words mean now and, in the future, can be a source of inspiration and framework for the creative process.

Some of the insights the audience shared among each other during the session.

INSIGHT— involve and include insights of a diverse group, including women and girls in the process of design. Include them not only in the areas where gender is an essential part of the innovation and design (such as health innovation) but also in entire process. Some companies are already doing this, for example the Swedish architecture firm White Arkitekter. With ‘Place for Girls’ they started by convening girls from the youth council in Skarpnäck, a neighborhood in Sweden’s capital. The firm asked the girls to create scale models to represent a public space for girls. “The place chosen was a location that the girls knew very well, yet very seldom used,” the firm writes. The girls came up with places with “strong character concerning color and form, places for sitting together face to face, protected from weather and wind, to see without necessary be seen, a sense of intimacy without being constrictive; and most of all, to be able to leave an imprint on their city.

INSPIRATION — tell both old and new stories that inspire future generations to rethink traditional role models and to change with whom they can identify themselves. An example the children’s book ‘Rebel Girls: a good night stories for rebel girls’ that trades princesses for female pioneers. And at the same time we need to inspire boys and men with new stories and codes to reposition our narratives. Alternative modes are becoming more available to inspire and engage new generations. Digipipi and Girls Garage inspire girls for design and technology; they offer to build skillsets and knowledge. These alternative systems of thought may help future generations to recalibrate a new societal norm.

IMAGINATION — in complex and hectic times like these, it is important that the decision makers companies, governments, and organizations can imagine alternative futures. In order to see new opportunities, one must have the capacity to be open for other possibilities and to do things different, instead of rehashing the same solution in a different shape. It might be that new perspectives from a more diverse group of decision makers could bring new qualities and values that drive meaningful innovations. Questions such as “how to create more gender aware cities without reproducing old gender biases?” to “how can we not only bring more diversity among decision makers, but make sure that voices are heard” are very valuable to be further explored. We can see initiatives, such as Womenability project that focuses on gender fair cities, already trying to stretch the imagination of current politicians. They are organizing exploratory walks with leadership to navigate through the city and point out issues and design challenges to discuss the problems from a new alternative perspective.

Some of the insights the audience shared among each other during the session.

Inclusivity and gender fairness in design is better served in small portions
We know that not every city is the same and that there is no one-approach-fits-all to address gender fairness and inclusivity. Life is not binary and in order to move forward, we believe that we should take smaller steps to be sure to understand the nuances when striving to change the status quo. Or as one of the participants wrote: “there is no perfect solutions for all and change happens in small steps, gradually.”

We want to thank all who participated in this event and contributed inspiration and new insights. For the last 10 years, Out Of Office have been helping companies to identify patterns, suggest new thinking based on future insight that suggest new value spaces. We believe that this is one of the new value spaces and that now is the time to re-calibrate, re-think, re-define values and re-design solutions offered in the cities today and in the future. 
The above article is part of a larger exploration and continuous trend research project on the Future Of Inclusivity. Please contact me if you want to know more.