Illustration by Dmitry Nikulnikov from Icons8

1. Need for new kind of stakeholders. 

We’re used to the fact that in our design practice we need to fulfil the needs of multiple stakeholders. Usually there are some business stakeholders, there’s tech limitation, and of course our individual (though many times rather abstract) users are our perceived stakeholders. These are the people we design for. However the impact we have is not just on people and individuals. The impact is more often than not on bigger entities. The product we work on impacts (at least our) companies, we impact communities, sometimes the society, sometimes the stuff we work on can impact big part of financial market or economy. And it certainly has an impact on the environment we live in. To not take this impact into account is short sighted and kind of immature at least. We should start including these other kinds of stakeholders into our view and processes. And it’s not a new concept either - the old design disciplines such as architecture and urban design already did o lot of work on this. Good architect or urban planner designs for the community of people using and living in their design and for the communities surrounding them. There’s a lot to learn from them.

We shouldn’t design just for disruption of the market. We should also design for the stewardship of the systems we’re parts of.

2. Sustainablity is not enough. 

In last few years the term sustainability successfully achieved the status of a buzzword. And as most good buzzwords, many use it without fully understanding its meaning. Most common understanding of it is as way of living and continuing our current social and consumer habits without doing damage to the ecosystem or the planet we live in. Sounds cool, right? We’ll just stop exploiting the resources, stop polluting the environment and use less stuff. Of course all of that would be a huge undertaking and would require a society-wide mental shift, but theoretically it can be done. But, will that be enough? I argue that it won’t be enough. Current understanding of sustainability doesn’t exactly tell us what are we trying to sustain. And if it even is a good idea. And it does not address the damage already done. The damage on the ecosystem, or on the communities, or… Therefore I would rather call for restorative design. The current pandemic situation has shown us its potential beautifully. There has been a big disruption in our way of living. And it’s our choice if we try to sustain it that way after this watershed moment or if we look for ways to make it better afterwards. We don’t need to return to the old normal we can create a new and improved normal. What does it mean for design? I would suggest a simple call - rather than looking for inspiration of how to minimise or mitigate the harm our product can do, look for how can we leave the system (eco, social, any impacted) in a better shape than we found it.

3. Thinking restoratively.

I am sure there are many metaphors for this principle out there, (and I would welcome any new ones) but I personally like the handprints metaphor the most. Many of you are familiar with the term “footprint”? Footprints are usually the impacts or traces of processes that enable our presence. It’s a kind of “tax” that is included in the suff we consume or use or experience whether we like it or not. Every product and service you experience (or create) has some kind of footprint. Carbon, social, environmental, sometimes even sadly forced or child labor. So what if I told you that there’s a counterpart to it? Handprints symbolise the impact you make besides the footprints. They symbolise the impact you knowingly choose to do. Very simple example of an environmental handprint is a tree planted. It does not reduce the footprint you generated burning fossil fuels, or using wooden furniture or living on a deforested land. It mitigates, restores and regenerates a part of environment. If we were talking about carbon handprint we wold be talking about the amount of CO2 captured from the atmosphere. If we we talking about the forced labor handprint we wold be talking about how many less people were working on the product involuntarily. You should basically strive to create a bigger handprint than footprint. Well, you might say, that sounds all nice, but how can you apply this to digital design? Unfortunately digital design cannot do much directly about ecological handprints. But! It is super powerful in indirect action. Designers can influence and create a lot of new opportunities and approaches in the world of social communication and connection, in creating new business models and many more “soft” tech areas.

4. Enable the transformation. 

To continue on the previous point - digital design is often super intangible. But at the same time it often connects, disrupts and transforms a lot of other tangible areas and industries. When we were discussing this with a couple of folks and researchers from the circular movement we came to a conclusion that one of the biggest impacts of digital technologies is in enabling the change of other industries. Mobility, production, information, exchange of assets, energy, social networks and causes… These and many more other areas will undergo more and more transformation. Whether digital or sustainable or circular, there will certainly be a some kind of digital aspect to it. Don’t throw all the benefits of effectivity, flexibility and scalability of digital out of window, but help people from these industries to make the change smart, responsible, considerate, regenerative and as less harmful as possible.

5. Step outside of HCD. 

Human centered design has been a holy grail of digital design for a couple of decades. That makes sense given the beginnings of digital technologies, and even in physical design disciplines such as industrial design or architecture. Even though the framework was definitely well meant it is not sufficient to address the challenges design faces now and will face in upcoming decades. Putting human user at the centre of our focus and disregarding the wider context, implications and impact it can cause on other systems is similar to proclaiming the Earth as a centre of universe. I think that designers should explore other frameworks and modes of approaching design in upcoming years and decades. These new frameworks should take more participative approach, not designing “for” but designing “with” someone, take into consideration other entities and kinds of stakeholders and actants of systems. If there’s anyone interested in zooming out a bit I highly recommend two resources: Human-Centered Design Is Broken. Here’s a Better Alternative. and The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty

6. We’re in a completely different business.

– than we think. The discussion about sustainability and environmental responsibility is largely framed by emissions and their reduction nowadays. If you’ve been following this for a while you know that this is just a part of the solution. The current progression of Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions suggests that we have a very very slim chance to not reversing it, but just slowing it down. And the probable upcoming political changes paint even bleaker picture. To make that kind of change and commitment on planetary scale is a huge and super complicated thing. Another thing you will notice when you dive deep is that technology is not our limitation. Our limitations are: political culture and social norms, expectations and values. And to change those it will takes not years but decades. We can do that. But we need to keep people, societies and companies on board to do that. You might see where I’m heading with this.

We’re not in the business of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. We’re in the business of social and economical change.

Designers, and especially IxD, UX, Product designers, and so on tend to be quite good at tech. But we’re better at fusing it with the human aspect. With arts and humanities. And that’s exactly what will be needed. We should help to guide the attention to individuals, communities, societies and ecosystems. Sure it won’t be a fast process, it will take years and decades, and we should take that into consideration. We can prepare a better starting position for the future designers. Just remember what the pioneers of HCI and UX did for the field decades ago and how it flourishes now.