As part of ThingsCon‘s RIOT Report — our annual essay collection about the State of Responsible Internet of Things — I wrote an article drawing parallels between the challenges we see in the tech world right now and the expertise that political science has been developing over decades. This most recent report was themed “Good Things” and is available in full on the ThingsCon website.
Below, my article reproduced in full.
What Can Designers Learn From Political Science?
I’m about to argue that design can learn from political science, that there are a few thousand years of history and knowledge to draw from that can help us build better connected systems. And I’d like to invite you to think with me about inputs, process, outcomes.
Let’s visualize this looking at this simplified graph:
In traditional design circles, the idea of the individual genius is still alive and well. Steve Jobs’ strikes of genius with things like iPod or iPhone are judged as great designed objects (outputs), created out of one man’s mind.
In traditional design circles, the idea of the individual genius is still alive and well.
Something like this:
Or maybe this is just a narrative put forward by folks with a lacking understanding of design, a narrative that just won’t go away? Of course many forward-thinking design practitioners would consider this a fallacy. If the conversations throughout the ThingsCon community (and the other contributions in this year’s RIOT Report) are any indication, the design community has been thinking a lot about equality, equitable design, various forms of “not just human-centered” design. All of which indicate a shift away from product-focus to instead a focus on governance: Who decides which design goals we should focus on, and by what decision-making mechanisms?
Who decides which design goals we should focus on, and by what decision-making mechanisms?
And all of a sudden, with these debates we find ourselves in the traditional stomping grounds of political scientists. Which, fun fact, I happen to be. (I hasten to add: by education, but not in practice. I majored in PoliSci but never worked directly in the field.)
In the world of political science, questions of governance, process and impact rule supreme. In other words, it’s all about who gets to make the rules and how, and what impact they have.
So here, the graph looks more like this:
Maybe just as important a question is how to guarantee that those impacted by those rules aren’t negatively impacted, have the power to seek redress. That all voices are being heard.
Individual genius is actively disparaged in this world. Even if the results of the genius’ decisions could ever be perfect, they would be consid- ered flawed just by the fact that one person thought them up, and had the power to implement them.
This is sometimes referred to as the Benign King argument: Even if a fictional Benign King would rule perfectly, he would still need absolute power; and whoever came after the Benign King would be less perfect, and likely less benign — but still hold absolute power. And thus, this scenario is to be avoided at all costs.
So, democracy. Whatever form it might take in detail, the idea here is that any form of governance is more just if those who will be subjected to decisions, rules and laws are represented in the decision-making process. Having a voice is considered more important than the results of the decisions (within reason; usually, there are safety mechanisms built in against abuse and mob mentality).
Any form of governance is more just if those who will be subjected to decisions, rules and laws are represented in the decision-making process.
The history of democracy has, overall, been a history of expanding the definition of who gets heard, who gets to participate in societal decision-making. From the very restrictive starting point of male land owners (and usually slave keepers) of Ancient Greece at the birth of democracy, the list of people who get their say has been expanding those last 2500 years or so. And still, it’s not perfect: There are still lots of barriers to participation wherever you look, and these barriers are not equally distributed.
So, who gets to give inputs is one aspect that leads to better governance. The others are that the rules are known and apply to everyone equally, in other words that there’s a process in place. This is also known as… the rule of law. The law, and other decision making processes, should apply to everyone equally. The process needs to be known, and adaptable.
Finally, outcomes. Here, the zoom level shouldn’t be any individual policy decision, even though those should of course be evaluated; but rather, the focus should be on the impact that policy decision has — in the larger context of other decisions, existing rules, and pure and simply real life — on society: On the many societal levels that show up in media reports and government language under names like citizens, stakeholders, or businesses. (Increasingly, the environment gets a mention in that list, and it’s about time!) So the question wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be, say, does a person get €500 as a payment to address some economic issue or another. But rather, what impact would that payment have on that person? Is it enough to address the issue, or too little? Would it create incentives or disincentives to nudge the behavior one way or another? Would it create negative side effects, or positive ones? Is this approach the right one to tackle the underlying issue to begin with?
Much like in the design world, systems thinking in the world of governance is complex, and fraught with potential unexpected side effects. Often, the bigger picture gets ignored in favor of quick solutionism. Frequently, zooming out too much, towards a truly holistic solution, be- comes inactionable. So here, like in design, there are no silver bullets.
Still, there are aspects in the world of political science that the world of design can draw from.
A broader perspective of potential stakeholders (more representation) matters a great deal to good design work.
A broader perspective of potential stakeholders (more representation) matters a great deal to good design work. Processes can help avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, from product to product and company to company — consider things like security-by-design and privacy-by-design guidelines. And finally, considering not just the final product but rather its potential impacts can lead to hugely beneficial outcomes: How might this be used in the real world? How might this be abused? What impacts is it likely to have on users, on non-users, on the environment?
Considering not just the final product but rather its potential impacts can lead to hugely beneficial outcomes.
The recent surge in the debate on new perspectives in design is inspiring to see. Let’s keep looking beyond the individual and towards more collective goods, strong commons, sustainable or regenerative practices for the environment — both in design and policy circles.