October 29, 2019

PG #45: We Have A Responsibility For What We Make And How It Affects The World

An illustration of a pile of papers that are surrounded by a cup of coffee and a pen to the left and a cup of tea and another pen on the right of the paper.
Illustration by Hope Lumsden-Barry, Communications Designer

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) seem to be the latest in quick-fix silver-bullet technology – with businesses rushing to apply it to everything from online shopping and self-driving cars to medical diagnosis and criminal justice and sentencing.

Because AI and ML contain the words ‘intelligence’ and ‘learning’, it’s natural to attribute a science-fiction level of agency to this technology, but at its core, each AI is still a computer program, and its intelligence is strictly limited to what it has been programmed to do – run through a set of instructions (an algorithm) when it encounters a specific situation.

These algorithms are already being used to make decisions that have real impact on people’s lives. Dan’s link below speaks to one of the newer algorithms in use today (emotion recognition), but there are many others – and countless numbers of them have flaws that have either the potential for, or already documented, negative human consequences:  

How would you like to be ‘diagnosed’ by medical technology that is flawed such that it favours white patients over black patients – even when the white patients are less sick?

Or get a ‘job interview’ from a face-scanning algorithm that decides whether your “facial expressions, eye-movements, body movements, details of clothes, and nuances of voice” are right for the job?

Or be wrongly identified by a “permanent line-up” law-enforcement algorithm capable of scanning the biometric data of almost every citizen in Australia?

Or – and as a father with a son about to enter primary school, this is the most terrifying one for me – have your child’s emails, web history and social media use intensively surveilled by an AI that doesn’t understand teen sarcasm and has the authority to notify police?

If we step back from the AI angle for a moment, these are all examples of technological solutions to social problems. Which would be bad enough. But these companies are worse than just misguided – they barely even seem to care that their solutions don’t actually fix the problems. They are just exploiting problems for profit, using technology that is already known to have serious flaws and ethical concerns.

For example: companies that push school surveillance technology make the argument that “the technology is part of educating today’s students in how to be good ‘digital citizens’, and that monitoring in school helps train students for constant surveillance after they graduate.” Now, this might be true, as far as it goes. But statements like this just point out that our current workforce trajectory is one of privacy intrusion and corporate surveillance, something we should be fighting against. 

Now – I’m not saying that AI is always or will always be bad, or that ML can never be used for anything positive. All I’m suggesting is that relying on companies that sell AI to fix things for us is a risk – one we need to be aware of, take an ethical stance on, and approach with caution and care.

Conversations around AI are extremely useful and enlightening, because they bring to light societal and political problems that need social solutions, not technological ones. Whenever you see AI put forward as a ‘solution’, ask yourself: What is the real problem that’s been identified here, and how might we fix that?

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

For this week’s newsletter, I stole most of my links from @hypervisible – please follow them on Twitter if that’s your thing.

Read the rest of Issue #45 here.

October 15, 2019

PG #44: How Do Good Companies Turn Bad?

An aboriginal artwork depicting bush medicine leaves using a range of blues, greens and whites
Image: Bush Medicine Leaves Dreaming by Louise Numina

Iain’s contribution below opens with a famous quote from Paul Virilio – “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” 

The second part of that quote is “when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash”, which I’m calling out here because I just read this incredible (long) article about the Boeing 737 MAX disaster, in which 346 passengers and crew were killed in two separate incidents. 

The reason for this disaster? Managerial, design, and engineering decisions, within a system of constraints and a drive for profit above all else, that meant that in certain circumstances, the plane would automatically dive to the ground. 

The Virilo quote is often read to mean that ‘any technology comes with unintended negative consequences’, but when thinking about things like what happened with Boeing, I like to read it as ‘decisions made about technology can have unintended consequences’, or to go more broad, ‘design decisions have consequences’.

Now, saying ‘decisions have consequences’ may come across as a bit glib, but in actual fact, making decisions that lead to good consequences isn’t always easy.

The information we base our decisions on, the systemic factors at play, can all make it really hard to make a good decision, or even just avoid a disastrous one. The recent Boeing example is sadly not a unique case – when I teach design research I regularly use the examples of both the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia, and the failures of data analysis, communication design, and management in those instances that led directly to their explosions. (The information designer Edward Tufte has written extensively about this topic). 

Making good decisions is of course possible. None of the disasters I’ve mentioned were deliberate, so much as they were avoidable. What’s really positive is that we can learn from the mistakes of others, so that we don’t make disastrous mistakes ourselves – there is a huge wealth of methods available, to both create success and avoid failure. Use the tools and methods at your disposal, and make your decisions count. 

 — Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #44 here.

October 1, 2019

PG #43: The Attention Economy

Painted city landscape depicting a bridge over a river in front of a number of sky scrapers in the distance
Image: My River City Sky by Laing Rahner

Did you notice that the distribution model for media has changed A Whole Lot Very Quickly? 

Streaming music and on-demand video have changed how we think of such things as ‘an album’ and ‘not watching all six episodes right before bed’. The latest disruptions include Netflix-like subscription models for content that used to be single-serve, like video games and books. A personalised, endless smorgasbord of ways to spend our attention.

But our attention is not endless. And that makes corporate competition for it cutthroat. The CEO of Netflix once said that their biggest competitor is sleep. We know what a lack of sleep does to our own health, but at a societal level, it’s less an individual hardship and more a public health crisis. And this is all less about sleep than it is about informed consent.

In complex systems, whether they’re economic or political, it’s interesting to think how this works for the person designing the system. Why is the policy maker pulling that specific policy lever to get that outcome? What economic incentives push a creator to make that specific thing instead of another?

So, I think it’s worth asking the question: what happens when platforms pay content creators based on how well they monetise attention? 

This is a system that incentivises long-term stickiness and mechanics to grab attention. Algorithms show preference gaps and providers rush to fill it with an exclusive. Anyone that’s opened Instagram recently has a sense for what this feels like.

Product design often aims to reduce a user’s ‘friction’. This might help a user make decisions (the next episode is playing in five seconds) but when we play that decision out to the level of the system (people are sleeping an hour less) we realise that a little friction can be a good thing.

This isn’t a call to quit Insta, cancel your Netflix subscription, and install blackout blinds. But, as people who influence the design of systems, we should be striving to ensure these systems give people the agency to make decisions that are in their best interests.

That means not misleading people in ways that are exploitative of human psychology and behaviour. It means being upfront about what people are getting out of a system and not hiding information from them where it’s necessary to make a decision.

Thinking about the bigger picture is non-negotiable, whether we’re building entertainment platforms or urban infrastructure policies.

— Dan Woods, General Manager, Canberra

Read the rest of Issue #43 here.

September 17, 2019

PG #42: The Power Of Personal Stories

An aboriginal artwork depicting the Bush Plum using multiple little purple, gold and white brush strokes
Image: Bush Plum by Polly Ngale

The other day, I came across this interesting thought experiment: what if, instead of using ‘economic growth’ as our measure of progress, we measured the number of girls who ride a bike to school?

“If more and more girls ride a bike to school, it means it’s safer and safer to cycle in traffic.

If more and more girls ride bikes to school, it means that bikes are increasingly accepted as a means of transport [...]

If more and more girls cycle to school, it means that more and more girls are actually going to school…”

You get the idea...*

The many risks of using only economic growth as a proxy measure for progress are already well understood - a rapidly warming world being the clearest negative outcome. GDP is still widely used as if it’s the only way to know if a country is doing well, even though we know that, to transition to a world that sustains us, we need to rapidly come up with new ways of measuring and evaluating progress.    

Of course, any one measure of change is dangerous, but I like the ‘girls on bikes’ thought experiment because it shifts our mindset from “what do we usually measure and evaluate?” to “what might we measure and evaluate, and what might that tell us?” 

Measurement and evaluation have been on my mind lately for several reasons. Yesterday, I spoke on a panel about digital disruption at the Australian Evaluation Society conference. Due to the magic of the internet, I wrote this piece before I spoke on the panel, so actually I have no idea how the discussion went; perhaps someone that was there can let me know?

Apart from being at the conference, evaluation has been on my mind because we’re having an ongoing discussion at Paper Giant about the best way to measure the impact of design, as well as how to effectively baseline and measure design capability.  

At Paper Giant we are frequently trying to help organisations make better decisions – and by ‘better’, we mean decisions that lead to greater justice, equality and sustainability. One thing that helps with decision making: knowing the impact of your decisions! 

In this issue we have examples of the power of listening and reporting personal stories, and the importance of paying careful attention to personal interactions rather than just metrics that can be easily captured in digital interactions.

What do you measure and why? Is it telling you what you think it’s telling you?

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

*Thanks Jussi for introducing me to this idea.

Read the rest of Issue #42 here.

September 3, 2019

PG #41: Design Education’s Big Gap

A large number of brown and blue jars hung in a circular pattern from the steel beams supporting a windowed ceiling.
Image by Stephen Bennett

A number of us here at Paper Giant used to be educators – lecturers or tutors at universities, mostly – and so it’s no surprise that teaching design (or capability building, as it is regularly labelled) has become a core part of our work.

This year, we’ve delivered both public and private training around co-design, design research and service design. We’ve helped multiple government departments establish design education programs, and created resources, guides, toolkits and other support materials that clients use to deliver better projects. On top of that, almost all of our recent project work has had structured elements of mentorship and coaching within it, through which we work alongside client teams to deliver human-centred outcomes. 

Most of this education work is about helping people use design. We’re often introducing design to people for the first time, so that they can work with problems in new ways. We also try to help design teams do better, by delivering training around specialties like qualitative research, research ethics, or storytelling and organisational engagement.  

What we’ve learned from this work is that design is being widely embraced, and it’s being asked to solve increasingly complex problems. We’ve also learned that practitioners don’t necessarily feel like they have the skills and structures to do what they see as necessary. Imposter syndrome is common, and it appears that, once you’ve learned enough to get your first job, education is largely experience based and self-guided. 

A two-day course can only teach so much, and three-year degrees are impractical for many professionals. Which leaves the third option: reflection on experience. We try to bring that to each of our projects, but we understand how difficult it can be to protect the time and space to do it properly. 

Like all habits, learning takes work to sustain. From our perspective, what is the biggest lesson? What makes the biggest difference? The commitment to keep trying.

— Chris Marmo & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #41 here.

August 20, 2019

PG #40: Design As A ‘Model Of Care’

One of the benefits of working in design consulting is that you are constantly exposed to new ways of working, thinking and considering. For example, about six months ago I was exposed to the concept of ‘models of care’ in healthcare systems.

A model of care is a set of steps, practice guidelines, and instructions on how to provide the best possible care for a patient. This is about more than how to practise medicine, it’s about taking into account individual circumstances, medical best practice, legislation, services offered across the system, and using all this to take a holistic approach to ‘care’ for someone. A good model of care (for example, the Cancer Council’s care pathways) asks ‘how can we deliver the best possible outcomes for each patient?’

This is even more complex for people at the end of their lives, where the ‘best possible care’ can mean many different things. Maintaining dignity, making sure patient choices are respected, and ensuring equality of access are all challenges here. The new ‘assisted dying’ laws in Victoria are an example of legislation that has been put into effect to address some of the care needs of people with terminal illness that were not previously being met by our health care system in Victoria.

We were incredibly privileged to have played a small part in the design of this new system.

Something that is unfortunate about how much of society delivers services, is that even with efforts towards fair access and equity, many of our systems still favour the advantaged. Just staying with health care in Australia – the design of the NDIS, despite its rhetoric around choice, has unfairly advantaged the already privileged.

Maybe approaching the work of design, and thinking about the models we create as ‘models of care’ can help us here?

How do we care for people, society, and the planet, and what models are we following? How can the models and systems we design deliver the best possible outcomes, so that all people can be treated with dignity, equality and respect?

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #40 here.

August 6, 2019

PG #39: Paying Attention To What We Already Know

Photo form inside the crowded halls of America's first mall, Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota
America's first mall, Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota

“There are many opportunities to create systems that work from the elements and technologies that exist. Perhaps we should do nothing else for the next century but apply our knowledge. We already know how to build, maintain, and inhabit sustainable systems. Every essential problem is solved, but in the everyday life of people this is hardly apparent.”

⁠— Bill Mollison, Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual (1988)

Innovation, in my experience, rarely means coming up with something new. In my career as a designer, some of the most ‘innovative’ things I’ve seen or participated in have been exactly what Bill Mollison describes – applying existing knowledge in a new way, to build systems that work. 

As we face new challenges in a rapidly changing political, social, economic and ecological climate, we would do well to pay attention to what we already know how to do.In the last newsletter I talked about how we already know how to solve the homelessness crisis. (Hint: give people homes.) There are many, many facets of society where ‘applying existing knowledge’ could be a true innovation. We already know how to transition away from coal, for example

Now, I’m not saying that applying existing knowledge is easy – all sorts of things hold us back from being able to lift and apply innovation from elsewhere. The specifics of local communities, local attitudes, local ideologies, local relationships – they all matter if change is going to stick! 

This is why things like co-design – community led, adaptive, iterative and local –are the only way we’ll make lasting innovative change in places where change needs to happen. For this reason, I’m heartened by the renewed attention being paid to co-design, systems thinking, permaculture, and similar fields in the design industry as a whole. 

And though originally designed 40 years ago, the basic texts and principles of permaculture still hold true today. At this moment, we should be paying more attention to what we already know, and looking for innovative ways to apply this knowledge.

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #39 here.

July 23, 2019

PG #38: Compare And Contrast

Compare and contrast:

1. The federal government steadfastly refuses to raise the rate of Newstart (Australia’s unemployment benefits) to a rate that is even close to a living wage. 

2. The Australian federal government, with bipartisan support, just passed a $158bn tax cut, which will have the most impact on people earning above $180,000, and will likely lead to further cuts in social services as tax revenue decreases

By denying unemployed people the money needed for basic survival, Australia is actively forcing people into homelessness. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: people without a permanent residence find it hard to apply for work, have trouble accessing services, and are increasingly likely to end up in prison. People with a criminal record face even more challenges finding work. Women are increasingly overrepresented in this cycle. 

Paper Giant has been doing work in sectors such as criminal justice, social services, and disability services in Victoria for a few years now, and every time we attempt to look at where we might have some impact, we come up against these self-reinforcing cycles of poverty. 

The most frustrating part of this is, if you talk to anyone who works in social services, they already know the solution! Raise Newstart. Fund housing. Offer support without judgement.   

But to make a change to a system like this obviously requires more than just knowing a solution. It requires a change in mindset across the system: an orientation towards care, support and recovery; not blame and punishment. 

There are great examples of this out there. Two that spring to mind are Dandenong’s drug court (where the focus is on treatment and recovery, not punishment), and a newly revamped Ozanam House (where an understanding of trauma as both a cause and effect of homelessness underpins their work). Our recent StreamlineFines project is a smaller example of work that aims for a holistic approach to intertwined social and health outcomes.  

I feel like every newsletter that I write ends up being about transformative systems change in some way, but I realise that’s for good reason – the systems that make up our society are not working equally, fairly or sustainably for everyone. But they were made by people, so they can be changed by people.

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #38 here.

July 9, 2019

PG #37: The Peculiar Blindness Of Experts

Two hands above a pile of papers. The one on the left is holding a pencil, about to write something. The one on the right is pointing to something on the paper. There is a cup of coffee and a pen to the left of the paper. There is a cup of tea and another pen on the right of the paper.
Illustration by Hope Lumsden-Barry, Communication Designer

There’s this strange thing that happens in Australia every June – it’s called the ‘End of Financial Year’ (aka EOFY). It’s an odd time where companies and government agencies alike are trying to spend as much money as possible to justify their budget requests for the next financial year and reduce their tax liability.

What it means for consultancies like ours is that June is the busiest time of year: the time when our clients desperately need work delivered before July rolls around, and we are working as hard as we can to deliver it.

It’s also winter, and everyone wants to take a break.

It’s also school holiday time.

It’s also flu season.

And what happens is the interaction between these things – busiest time of year + winter + holiday time + flu season – means we arrive early July exhausted and gasping for breath. I don’t know about you, but if I wanted to design a healthy working economy, this is not how I would go about it. And there are ways to design better economies – check out this article on 5 things Australia could do right now to end poverty

All this is really just a preamble to explain why you might notice the newsletter is a little light on this week. We hope you are able to be kind to yourself for the rest of the winter months!

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #37 here.

June 26, 2019

PG #36: From Self-Care To Community Care

About two years ago, we had the opportunity to do an amazing research project into something that affects nearly everyone at some point in their lives.

The project was called ‘The Death of a Loved One’. It aimed to map the experience of dealing with death in Australia, and for a good reason: to make clear the failings of public and private services, and to find opportunities to make a difficult experience a bit less difficult all-round for those of us left behind. 

Qualitative research on ‘life events’ (e.g. ‘having a baby’, ‘moving out of home’, ‘dying’) is foundational for service providers because these events are foundational to our lives. They affect every aspect from the financial to the emotional, and are the times we are most likely to need external support. Research in these areas will always have application far outside the instigating project’s scope. Even though our work is two years old, the findings are still relevant, and will likely remain relevant for many years to come. 

This project was foundational for Paper Giant too – it helped us formalise and cement in place our approach to ethics and care on projects, which we’ve written and spoken about elsewhere (and will be doing again in London this week!).

For me personally, doing this work really highlighted the importance of gaining qualitative insight into experiences, to understand people’s situations before implementing change – especially situations that are as complex, diverse and nuanced as someone close to you dying.

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #36 here.

 

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