Considering the System

Ensure human-centered benefits for individuals, communities, and humanity

This is part of a series to provoke dialogue and provide concrete ways to help people ethically design intelligent systems. Read our introduction.

Interdependencies within the systems we design will create impact at multiple levels, affecting everyone from individuals to communities to the world at large. The design choices we make will impact people, culture, and our environment. Inevitably, where we turn our focus will determine these choices and influence outcomes across all levels of interaction. At times there will be conflicts of interest between different elements: What may be good for one population or community — say health policy decisions based upon aggregated data — may not be beneficial for some specific individuals, and vice versa. It’s important that we explore fully the systemic consequences of what we design, zooming between micro to macro levels and keeping focus on the connections between key elements.

Activities to try

_Do a “Systems Sprint”: set aside 30 minutes to brainstorm a systems map of the people, places, and things that could be affected by what you are designing. Think broadly, examining both direct users of the system as well as those who may experience secondary or tertiary impacts. Use this map, modifying it as you learn more, to gauge the impact of key decisions.

_Use this systems map to imagine the stories of two futures: an optimistic future and a pessimistic one.

_Create a matrix to capture and examine the potential human consequences of design outcomes at multiple levels, both positive and negative. The prompts in the sample matrix below are not intended to be comprehensive.

Referencing this matrix, review your evolving design solutions and generate or evolve concepts to maximize beneficial outcomes and mitigate problems at each level.

Project vignette

An automotive client approached a design team with the challenge to design the future of autonomous vehicle ownership. The blended team of clients and consultant designers went beyond considering how autonomous vehicles would interact with their owners. They imagined how the vehicles might interact with a host of other entities, including other “smart cars,” “smart roadways,” and “smart cities” as well as pedestrians, infrastructure, communities, and neighborhoods. These future considerations were incorporated into the final design concepts, proposing new avenues of ownership and suggesting ways for autonomous vehicle owners to communicate externally with other cars and traffic lights.

Explore the other posts in this series: