30 March 2020
All around us we see signs that patriarchal capitalism and exploitative business models place profit over privacy, and efficiency over agency. They pit individuals against the collective. At their core, they are hierarchical and exclusionary.
We designed tools and frameworks to help us see the world in new ways, but they also changed how we think. We shaped frameworks, and in turn they shaped us. 20th century approaches like design thinking, human-centered design, and jobs to be done too often look at people solely as individuals. Or, worse yet, only as consumers. They don’t consider people in relation to their communities or to wider society. And society itself is ignored by design.
Similarly, data protection frameworks like GDPR or CCPA express our rights only as individuals. This individualistic lens has shaped how we now design for digital rights. But data rarely represents a single person - it usually describes many people.
We’ve had enough. We demand better. Better design approaches and tools, better measures of success, better data protection standards. We need a new framework for design and data that is purpose-built for the 21st century.
We want to move beyond human-centered design to society-centered design. We must design for the collective. We must design for society.
Designing for society means designing for the broader context of systems that we impact and shape. We can redefine our social contract with each other, and with the world that we steward. To do this, we must be intentional about citizen empowerment, civic commons, public health, equity, and the planet:
Society-centered design has these principles:
If we put care first and at the center of our efforts, we can move away from delivering solely for individual and commercial interests. Care lets us deliver for public health and the planet through compassion and reciprocity.
As more of our lives are connected, we need to create systems that earn trust with people. Products, services, and standards that can be open, resilient and promote citizen empowerment.
Empowering collective agency starts with radical inclusion of the most vulnerable. We should be creating a new civic commons by making economic opportunity for the many.
We can create new resources and standards that favour the civic commons and public health over commercial value and the success of the few.
Design is a political act and it’s our responsibility to design for people’s rights. Privacy is not a luxury for those that can afford it. Privacy is a human right. We must create systems that remove the imbalance of power and instead promote equity and citizen empowerment.
Without fairness and justice we cannot have equity. Too often, “the commons” is shorthand for “the majority”. So we need to place mechanisms for fair and just oversight inside our design systems, so society can hold the powerful to account.
The web is the greatest single distribution platform ever created. As a result, it has an outsized impact on everything, including causing harm to the most vulnerable and excluded. Design must seek to redistribute that power for citizen empowerment and equity.
AI and automation are rapidly changing the world. But currently they're focused on commercial goals rather than societal needs. We have an opportunity to reshape AI and automation so they create equity and reinforce civic commons. People must be in control, always.
The climate emergency is an existential threat to humanity. We need to shift narratives and focus away from abundance and scarcity to regeneration. We need sustainable and regenerative design and business models for society for public health, and for the planet.
The issues we face are intertwined, complex and ever-shifting. We live in radical times. And radical times require radical solutions. Doing nothing only favors a deadly status quo: we must act boldly and defiantly.
These principles show what society-centered design must achieve, but we are not there yet.
Our next step is to set out practical advice about how to work towards these principles with real-world examples.
We are at the start of the journey.