If you think you don’t need to design for safety, dignity and trust, you are missing something.
New and emerging technologies have the potential to cause both great benefit and harm — yet the processes designed to develop and use these technologies rarely consider the humanitarian and social costs. How can technology be used for good? What does this look like? Who gets a say? These are some of the questions we are exploring at Humanitech, an initiative of Australian Red Cross, dedicated to harnessing the transformational power of technology for good.
As part of our exploration of the implications of frontier technology, Humanitech supports ideas and solutions with the greatest potential to meet social needs through the Humanitech Lab. Participants have access to experts and mentors, connections across sector and industry, along with grants of up to $500,000 to validate, pilot and scale their solutions.
For the past few months, Humanitech has been supporting six exciting solutions working at the intersection of humanity and technology through the ‘validate’ phase of our innovation process.
Working with these six organisations, the Humanitech Lab’s first ever cohort, our aim was not only to identify, explore and amplify unique ways to solve some pressing social issues but also test how our approach can support the ethical, responsible and inclusive design and use of technology. We also aim to share knowledge, insights and findings we gather along the way with the intention that our work will create opportunities to influence ecosystems and advocate for better outcomes for humanity.
As me move to pilot some of these solutions in the next stage of our innovation cycle, these are some of the insights we have gathered from the validate stage:
Solving wicked problems is messy
It is important to rehash the obvious; there are no one-size-fits-all, single solutions to the types of wicked problems we are seeking to address. The simple problems have already been solved. The problems we are tackling — climate change, inequity and injustice, disasters and emergencies are continually evolving, have many complex and tangled causes, with multiple stakeholders involved, and as such there are no quick fixes or easy solutions.
There is no magic bullet, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying — it just means that we have to keep exploring different and diverse approaches to engaging with these problems.
The journey is as important as the destination
We all love a flashy, tangible, end product that we can showcase as something we created, but we are learning more and more that the process of design is just as significant. Non-linear and iterative, the design journey can be weary as it might sometimes involve going back to the start or taking steps backwards on multiple occasions but it is a very worthwhile undertaking.
The journey allows us to get to the heart of the matter by listening, learning, testing, and engaging with our users and stakeholders and potentially uncovering alternative solutions that might have not been visible at first. It is these flexible and meaningful movements along different stages and iterations that eventually get us to a desirable, feasible and viable outcome.
It will take time to develop alternative-based approaches to tech development
Successfully solving — or at least managing — these wicked problems requires a radical paradigm shift to our ways of working and approaches to problem-solving. Traditional linear processes — such as identifying the issue, gathering data, scenario planning, implementing a strategy — don’t work. Even user-centred or human-centred approaches have their limitations, as we are not simply designing products but interventions for more than one homogenous demographic.
We need new frameworks and approaches that not only reimagine but in fact revolutionise how we view and address systemic issues, how we design, use and deploy technologies, our governance structures, and our organisational capacities. In short, the stakes are high. It would therefore be naive to assume that this technological revolution, like any other, would happen without friction or challenges.
We cannot go it alone; a multi-stakeholder, cross-sector approach is required
Because the problems we are seeking to solve involve multiple causes and stakeholders, they require action at every level — from government, to private sector, to communities and individuals. However, a multi-stakeholder, cross sector approach is not without its challenges. It can be a sprawling, conflict-ridden, slow and often frustrating process. Values and personality clashes, conflicting schedules, differences in power or ability to engage, not to mention ‘act of God’ events such as floods, or a pandemic can get in the way and derail the best laid plans.
This approach requires a delicate balance that entails identifying and involving all essential stakeholders, articulating a coherent sense of direction and roles, and running small and safe-to-fail experiments with the shared goal of learning, adapting and implementing along the way.
This doesn’t mean that there will be no competing values and interests, but the goal here is enable what Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework for sense-making refers to as “coherent heterogeneity’ — the possibility that we can reconcile the dilemma of enhancing diversity while building human cohesion across our differences.
To build solutions that truly matter, we must co-create alongside community
The key to success is to build something that solves people’s problems and that they like using. To do this successfully, we must design and create solutions with the communities with the lived experience of the problems we are addressing. This approach considers communities as partners in the design process, not as passive end-users for whom solutions are merely designed for. Researcher Robin Mays, a specialist in resilience and humanitarian systems, articulates this as ‘community as HQ’, recognising the very important role of developing relationships with communities and placing people at the centre as a key tenet of responsible and ethical design.
The insights and connections that emerge from co-creating with a community reveal the things that most matter to them, their pain points, the barriers they face, and their wants and needs. Even more importantly, is then actually feeding those insights back into your solution and letting these insights truly guide the design and development of your product or service.
Time as a key consideration for participatory design
Design is time-consuming. Planning, motivating and sustaining meaningful engagement from different stakeholders can be a laborious process. Sufficient time is required to allow for the community and different stakeholders to consider information and then make meaningful contributions to the design and development process.
This is especially important when the communities we are working with require additional support or are at-risk, for example those with language barriers, physical disabilities, or in remote areas. The needs of these at-risk populations cannot simply be ignored and must be recognized as critical and intentionally built into your product or service from the outset. This is not only ethical but also a good business model because it turns out that if you design for the people in the margins, your solution works better for everyone.
The projects we worked with during the validate stage lasted around three months, so time was naturally a constraint. The challenge for us as an ecosystem is to think about how we can organise our work in ways that support, not hinder, co-creation.
Sharing insights so others can benefit is critical
Sharing knowledge, insights and learnings is vital for enlightening and inspiring the ecosystems we work in. We have found that a sound documentation process can offer a good way to capture important insights about the problem, the solution, the community, and different stakeholders which can then be shared with the ecosystem to inform new ways of working.
Documenting insights need not be confined to complete decisions; we have to be creative in using the process to capture insights and evidence on the opportunities and risks frontier technologies present.
Design for use AND misuse case
As technologists and designers, we have found that we spend a lot of time thinking and designing for the ‘use case’. However, we are learning that re-thinking how we design and deploy technology for good means that we also need to spend time considering and designing for the “misuse case.” That is, situations where the products or services we are developing for good are misused either intentionally or unintentionally to cause harm.
Designing for misuse cases is admittedly tricky because we can’t predict the future but that doesn't mean we should not build foresight and safeguards into the design process so that our solutions anticipate, mitigate and maybe even eliminate potential abuses and harms of technology.
Design for safety, dignity and trust
To put it bluntly: if you think you don’t need to design for safety, dignity and trust because you think your solution doesn’t generate or pose any ethical concerns, you are missing something.
Closely linked to our previous learning, designing for safety, dignity and trust means considering how our solutions safeguard the dignity of all people, especially the most at-risk while promoting safety and providing opportunities to build trust with each other and institutions.
Some guiding questions worth asking here include: have you truly considered how your solution might relate to or intersect with existing problems or even contribute to them?At what environmental, cultural, and social cost does your solution come? Who is your solution serving, and who is it not serving? How has the impacted community influenced product development? How does your solution play into your users’ values, preferences, and behaviours?
Account for power dynamics
It would be remiss to not directly address the issue of power within the design and use of technology. We cannot merely assume that existing institutions, practices, policies, or frameworks will conduct themselves ethically and support ‘doing the right thing’. We need to be explicit about the role and importance of power relationships as we engage different stakeholders, including those who influence and will be influenced by the processes and outcomes of design, and not only identify, but also where possible, challenge and disrupt problematic power dynamics.
Our work will require us to investigate what theories of power are well aligned for adoption or adaptation in the pursuit of responsible, ethical and inclusive design and use of technology. What approaches (either existing, or to be developed) are effective for identifying and potentially challenging existing power dynamics? What types of capabilities, skills and support will advance our abilities to identify, articulate and take responsibility for power dynamics in our work and the outcomes of our work?
Tech policy needs to keep pace with tech development
Frontier technologies are presenting new and evolving risks with wide-ranging implications for people’s rights. The sheer pace of progress — where technologies and people who build them are reshaping our social and economic systems — requires smart and adaptive governance models. Our existing data and technology laws and regulatory frameworks must be strengthened to ensure responsible, ethical and inclusive design and use of technology.
Working in the Lab, we’ve been testing how to embed dignity, safety and trust through the technology design process. We’re trying to re-imagine design practice, as current approaches, which prioritise speed and scale, do not always cater for complexity and can — without intention — exclude important voices and perspectives. Learning through doing, and sharing our insights, we want to help inform technology policies, design guidelines and accountability mechanisms to ensure risks are addressed and benefits are shared.Engaging with technology policy presents a clear opportunity to champion our principles for responsible, ethical and inclusive technology, grounded in real-life examples and use cases. We have to constantly question, how might we adapt our approaches to engage more successfully with informing or critiquing existing policy or advocating for the development of new policies and regulations? How do we move our work to a place where we can actively engage policymakers as credible sources of pertinent information and domain experts?
As we continue to learn from our exploration of new approaches to using frontier technologies for good, we’ve become more certain of this: whatever products or services we are developing, they must be designed to benefit communities in which they are used, and in ways that uphold human dignity, safety and trust. This approach continues to be a promising way forward.
These lessons don’t mean we have all the answers, but they are meant for all of us to broaden how we view our responsibilities. If we continue to invest time and energy into more diverse and nuanced ways of thinking and working, we can start to shift the needle on these wicked problems.
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Humanitech is a think+do tank which seeks to progress humanitarian and social outcomes through the use of frontier technologies. An initiative of Australian Red Cross, Humanitech proposes a new approach to harnessing the power of technology for good by placing humanity at the centre and in control.