Design for Planet with AI and data
Frederik Weissenborn, Programme Lead, Design Council
We are currently living through a great transformation in how human beings communicate and interact which is caused by revolutions in data science and information technologies. These technological advances are, in turn, transforming the way we create, construct, consume, and distribute goods and services, giving rise to the notion of a so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ which is rapidly transforming sectors from within. That includes the design sector where a significant proportion of the UK’s 1.97m strong design community is working with digital design (the biggest single group of designers bar none).
But what role can data capture, analysis, and visualisation play in addressing the big challenges we face as a society, such as the climate and biodiversity emergencies? How can AI and data help facilitate and accelerate the transition to net zero and the development of regenerative forms of practice and design? And what measures must the design community put in place to ensure that data is used in a transparent, equitable way?
These questions were explored at a Design Council Community of Practice workshop earlier this year. The session was structured around short presentations from Design Council Experts working with data and AI, followed by a plenary discussion of how data and AI can help promote equality and sustainable outcomes. It shed new light on the potential that digital technologies hold for driving forward the Design for Planet agenda, for instance through the structured monitoring of outcomes and the provision of new ways of framing and visualising climate change. However, the session also raised important questions about transparency, legitimacy, and equity. This blog post explores these insights in more detail.
Three perspectives on data and AI
Design data systems that allow for targeted insight and analysis
Experts first heard from Linda Chandler who is a Smart Places Industry Advisor with Microsoft. Linda discussed the tech cycles that have defined the previous four decades, noting that the defining feature of the current cycle is ‘autonomy’ (the ability to access, process and act on data on the go). However, that picture is constantly changing, and Chandler noted that the technologies that will define the next decade are likely already here even if they are not distributed equally or implemented at scale.
Chandler then reflected on how design and innovation is approached within the tech sector, noting that linear models of development have now largely been replaced by more agile programmes characterised by rapid prototyping and co-creation. The new focus on user involvement dovetails nicely with a growing focus on inclusivity and accessibility in design development, even if this can be further improved in future.
Design has a key role to play in the energy transition needed to tackle and mitigate climate change. That includes retrofit of housing at scale and the roll out of sustainable forms of transport. Chandler explained how data can help drive this transition by enabling carbon reporting and baselining of existing products and services through targeted data capture and analysis. Action, in other words, must be grounded in insights which in turn can be developed through targeted collection and analysis.
Design data infrastructures that allow all citizens to engage
The group then heard from Katharine Willis, Professor of Smart Cities at the University of Plymouth. Through her research into AI, data and the city, Prof Willis and her team explore how new technologies can enable behaviour change to support the energy transition. Prof Willis discussed participatory data approaches, arguing that ‘a data-driven approach to urban life requires new modes of thinking about who has access to information and how this access enables different modes of citizenship and governance’. In other words: do the models we develop allow people to become co-creators of data, or do they exclude or alienate them?
Prof Willis explored these issues through a series of case studies: an event at the V&A Museum which invited children to co-design interventions into public realm; a project in Plymouth that used sensors to reveal stories about local species and the ecosystems they support; and a mobility project, again in Plymouth, which explored how data can help shape behaviour change. Data, she proposed, is the new infrastructure of the city, and considered, narrative-based approaches can help bring this reality to life to citizens. As such, engaging with this novel infrastructure represents an opportunity for designers, but it should be deployed in genuine collaboration with stakeholders from the community.
Design to make visible the implications of new technologies
The topic of engagement was picked up by Jon Flint, Co-founder of VJF Studio, who discussed how creative approaches to data representation can help uncover otherwise hidden aspects of our digital lives. To illustrate this, Flint discussed an artwork, the ‘Cached Experience’, which scrapes participants’ social media profiles to generate a story about them that is then displayed on an audio-visual mirror. (The data is later erased, but participants receive a printed receipt as a memento).The artwork explores how machines see people — humanity from the point of view of data — but also highlights the potential pitfalls of algorithmic decision-making.
As we prepare to enter the Metaverse, set to blend the physical and digital worlds into one multi-layered reality, artworks like the Cached Experience raise important questions about surveillance, equity and bias, as well as the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on democratic discourse and decision making. Designers looking to deploy these new technologies, whether in the development of insights or as actual design outcomes, should therefore reflect on the important, but complex, ethical considerations associated with data collection, representation, and analysis.
How can designers leverage data and AI in their practice?
Having heard from the speakers, participants were then divided into breakout groups to discuss how digital technologies and AI can help support the Design for Planet agenda and the design sector more broadly. Top insights from the discussions included:
- Focus on outcomes at the outset. Designers should start by establishing what they want to achieve and be supported — not led — by data. Exploring ways to define outcomes in quantifiable ways at inception stage can furthermore help support this more considered approach to data-led design.
- Capture data to drive change. The creative use of data can generate insights about users and processes which in turn can help inform the shape of emerging designs. Measures for collecting and analysing data should therefore be built into the design process from the outset to help generate insights and drive change.
- Ensure data is accessible to all. Designers should make data accessible by using inclusive communication formats, such as language that isn’t jargony or visuals that aren’t exclusive. This will help increase the value and legitimacy of the final outcome.
- Translate insights into narratives. Designers should use their ability to interpret and translate data-driven insights into engaging narratives. Thinking about who will engage with the data is critical, but it is equally important to ensure that no demographics are arbitrarily excluded.
- Encourage data sharing. ‘Open sourcing’ data streams can support the creation of new products or services over time. Designers should therefore consider incorporating data sharing into their service design, e.g. through establishing common data frameworks, as a means to encourage further innovation and ecosystem development.
The workshop concluded with an informal discussion which revealed broad agreement about the opportunities that AI and data represent, but also about the importance of designing in equity and considerations for human dignity.
Further reading and resources
• Citizen Sense investigates the relationship between technologies and practices of environmental sensing and citizen engagement.
• Hello Lampost enables people to interact with street objects, such as lamp posts, and thereby aims to make the planning of cities more centred around citizens’ needs and ideas.
• Tactical Tech Data Detox Kit is an activity book to help young people take control of their tech
• Apply Magic Sauce shows what your digital footprint reveals about you
• Commonplace is an online citizen engagement platform used for built environment projects
• New service delivery models is an ODI project that aims to increase understanding of data-enabled service delivery models in local government, and to encourage more open data to be published to improve public services
Open source data on transport:
• Strava Heatmap is a resource for athletes to discover new places to be active
• Data Shine is the 2011 census mapped with context
• Transport for London’s open source data