Problem Solving with Society-Centered Design

O'Reilly Media
Oct 15, 2020 · 6 min read

Editor’s Note: As a designer and leading expert on privacy, security and systems change, Sarah Gold, founder and CEO of IF, strives to create interventions that show how technology can respect more of our rights. In this insightful piece, Sarah makes the case that we should move beyond human-centered design to society-centered design, a new framework for products, services, and data that is purpose-built for the 21st century. We’d love to hear from you about what you think about this piece.

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Our world is on fire. For too long we have been complicit, maintaining the status quo. This must change. I’m writing this as we’re living through three pandemics. Covid-19, structurally enabled racism, and the climate crisis. Each of these pandemics make visible the ways that individuals fit into and contribute to wider communities. Or fail to fit in.

Before Covid-19, it’s likely that society made you think of liberal politics or charity or posh events that you rarely get invited to. Now, I bet you think of society as community. We’ve all become more aware of how connected we are to one another, and our responsibilities to our communities. That’s not only for us as people, but for business too.

Until now innovation frameworks like human-centered design, jobs to be done or design thinking have focused on two things. The first is serving the individual in order to make products and services that people want. This is often called “user needs.” The second is following a “growth imperative,” and a financial measure of success. We’ve asked how software and hardware could help drive profit and GDP.

The result is products and services that give us superpowers. You have a pocket supercomputer that can conveniently beckon a taxi instantly to you. You know exactly where you are. You can instantly communicate and transact from anywhere. However these superpowers come at a cost: your attention is a scarce commodity and your data is put to use in an ocean of advertising.

What strikes me the most is that these innovation frameworks only work when organizations and their teams operate from a place of privilege. It’s easier to ignore the unintended consequences (the “negative externalities” in the industry’s dry jargon) when you are personally not impacted. So it’s unsurprising that institutions like Harvard or Stanford gave birth to these methodologies, Silicon Valley companies popularized them, and consultancies packaged them into toolkits. These are organizations that are often predominantly white, male, and affluent.

Here’s an example. A new generation of electric bike and scooter rideshare startups made it possible to pick up or leave a scooter anywhere in a city. They removed the charging docks, so the user no longer had to find one that had a scooter available to be used, or had a spare slot to return the scooter to. The user would just tell the app that they’d finished with it, and the app took care of the rest, which was very convenient. But this made the experience of moving around the city harder for everyone else, and particularly affected those with limited mobility. So much focus went into serving the needs of the individual that the needs of other people went ignored.

It doesn’t stop at products and services. Individualism has shaped much of our social contract in the West. Data protection frameworks like Europe’s GDPR give us individual rights to data that represents us. Consent is asked for on an individual basis, with cookie banners being the ultimate divide-and-conquer attack on humanity. If consent was gained through hurried and weary clicks on nagging pop-up barriers on countless websites, can it be considered freely given?

A problem with design for the individual is the assumption that data necessarily represents one person. But it doesn’t. In nearly all cases, data represents many people. For example your DNA represents your parents, siblings, and children. Your location data represents where you’ve been with other people, where you see your friends or the walk to school with your kids. Data is inherently social and represents society.

Society-Centered Design

This is where Society-centered design comes in. At IF, a technology studio that I run, we believe it’s time to do better. It’s time to make better design approaches and tools, better measures of success, and better data protection standards. We need a new framework for products, services, and data that is purpose-built for the 21st century. We want to move beyond human-centered design to society-centered design. Where society, not an individual, is at the center.

Society-centered design is about changing the climate of ideas, and moving towards real-world solutions. It’s an approach to problem solving, that develops solutions by putting society in every step of the problem-solving process.

How could we make rideshare scooters work for wider society as well as the riders? This question is timely because the UK Government is accelerating a plan to allow rentable electric scooters in towns and cities to provide socially-distanced alternatives to public transport. Perhaps the scooters could be dockable so the streets could be less cluttered: the scooter companies would work with local authorities to provide many more docks. The docks could be sufficiently standardized that any scooter or bike could use them for secure storage and charging. Working with open standards, working with the city, working with people.

A different and speculative example is how we might rethink data management. I’ve written before about how hard it is to stay on top of all the consent choices you’ve made. If your data preferences change, are you going to visit a million websites to modify the communication and cookie preferences you clicked half a decade ago? What if instead you were able to delegate decision making to an entity that represents your values? That way the consent management is dealt with by a third party. This isn’t a new idea. Tom Steinberg has written about organizations, “personal data representatives,” that could take on this role. I explored the idea of data cooperatives in 2014. Now there are a growing number of ‘data trust’ experiments from the Open Data Institute, Uber drivers, Sidewalk Labs, and others.

Designing for society means designing for the broader context of systems that we impact and shape. To do this, we must be intentional about citizen empowerment, civic commons, public health, equity, and the planet:

  • Citizen empowerment: how might we give people more rights and capabilities?
  • Civic commons: how might we create shared resources that strengthen communities?
  • Public health: how might we protect the safety and improve the physical and mental health of communities?
  • Equity: how might we design products, services, and standards that are fair to everyone, not just the most privileged?
  • The planet: how might we better care for our world?

We have a collective opportunity right now to design out the structural inequalities around us. To collectively hold each other accountable, to examine our existing products and services to make sure they are equitable. It’s not enough to play lip service about change within your business. It’s not enough to just look at recruitment practices. It’s not enough to make tweaks to the images you show. To take a society-centered approach means fundamentally looking at the underlying values of your business.

Until now, individual needs have been the foundation of a business’ growth, profit, and culture. Now it’s time to look towards society’s needs.

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Sarah Gold is a leading expert in emerging issues and trends in privacy, security, and technology. She founded IF in 2015 and has a well-established reputation for her commitment to changing the way personal data is managed. Sarah’s won a range of awards, including Forbes 30 Under 30, and is a practitioner for the Research Institute in the Science of Cyber Security and a Fellow of the RSA.


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