Designing outside the box: design, co-production and digital transformation

PART 1: Design, Co-production and Digital transformation for vibrant, human experience

Our heads are down, our virtual blinkers on. We’re using our phones for 2 hours a day to access the internet. At this rate, we’ll rapidly evolve a new muscular hump to support our neck-bent obsession with live feeds of social, business, wellbeing and environmental data, meaning we’ll miss out on the colourful and diverse world around us. But this doesn’t have to be our future…

… the time has come for us to lift up our heads. Welcome to ‘Designing Outside the Box’.

This series of articles will seek to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead as we digitally augment and modify human experience, and consider the decisions we need to make, to use technology to enrich our lives, and deepen our connections to the people and places around us.

Cops in Cars

Before we go back to the future, let’s take a moment to learn from the past.

In the 1970s, when Professor Ostrom was commissioned by the Chicago Police Department to explain why the crime rate had increased, she found it was down to their shiny new black and white boxes: their new patrol cars. Whilst the cars no doubt drove up the officers’ intake of Twinkies and drove down their levels of exercise, it was in fact the social barrier between citizens and police offers that accounted for the increase in crime rate. Police officers were no longer walking the beat, getting the word on the street and building strong relationships with communities. In their patrol cars, officers were arguably working in isolation chambers, now disconnected from citizens and their insights; citizens less than convinced of the officers’ commitment to their wellbeing and safety.

Empathy and Connection

Don’t worry, this isn’t a blog series about dystopian futures of crime and corruption driven by our unrelenting addiction to the digital black boxes in our hands and homes. However, I use this piece of history to remind us to look up more, avoid an endless gaze into the data we’re fed, and not speculate but strive for deeper, digitally enriched experiences with the people and places immediately around us.

In a recent article, design ethicist and magician, Tristan Harris makes a compelling case for the design of “technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely”. And I think we all know he’s onto something, as we compulsively check in to see what’s behind the latest notification buzz or bleep. Tristan argues for a ‘time well spent’ world, and I’m right there with him. It’s time to move on from our decade’s Pavlov dog experiment and reconnect in the real world, but this time with a digital power-up.

Rather than dazzle people with new, even shinier smart devices, serving experiences to draw our attention away from the world, we must strive for digital transformations that deepen our social and spatial connections; more enabled, less distracted users.

Perhaps it’s time for a ‘less is more’ approach? Perhaps it’s time for a digital design ethics standard? And quite boldly, perhaps when the conditions are right, it’s even time to start designing out digital, in favour of human roles and capabilities?

So with these questions in mind (and no doubt several more to follow), let’s also ask ourselves:

How can we be more aware of and benefit from the deep data in the world that surrounds us, yet keep our heads high so we don’t miss the world speeding by in our driverless cars?

How can we ensure that digital health records continue to enable holistic and preventative health and wellbeing offers, yet nurture and sustain empathic and authentic relationships between care professionals, the cared for and their loved ones?

How can we layer digital efficiencies into social, retail & cultural services and experiences, yet ensure we sustain the value of real world, human to human interaction?

How can we educate our future generations through personalised digital learning pathways, yet ensure they remain curious, compelled and enabled to experiment with their physical surrounds?

How can we use technology, during design and development, to drive deep empathy with the places and communities we’re designing with and for?

These are my challenges as a designer. These are our challenges as leaders in the digitisation of our world. And these are our opportunities to work with and to create vibrant, human experience.

Next time: Part 2. Designed by Digital.