Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 86, February 2010

Designing for Interdependence

The world of design might be one of the firmest bastions for “Intelligent Design” in modern society. Nowhere is the faith so strong in the genius of the designer, with his pure intentions, great skill and almighty power to change the world. If we listen to designers explaining their latest chair design it seems to be created from thin air, materialized through some magical ritual, as if there were no chairs before this, and as if evolution of ideas does not occur in the realm of chairs. A better life for all emanates from the mind of the original designer.

It seems like designers can only think of one person at the time, either themselves or their client. If design has caught anything from evolution, it might be the quasi-darwinian approach of “survival of the fittest”. A good designer helps his customers to become more fit to survive in the harsh reality of life. Humans are, in the eyes of design, lone and independent predators roaming the streets for prey.

We design for independence. We design automatic doors and rolling bags. The basic idea is that we design to never ask any one else for help. We also design perfect weather forecasts and interactive maps. So that we will never need any one’s advice or guidance. To manage the world on ones own is the ultimate proof of success and basically a better world from our perspective. Gated communities and an arms race in security is a logical step in today’s design paradigm.

Let us just examine a fantastic design a little closer, one which has affected the world greatly and made people more secure; the safety belt for cars. The brilliant three-point belt was invented at the labs of Volvo in the end of the 1950s by the engineer Nils Bohlin as a part of the commercial company Volvo’s wishes to make cars safer and better and create a market position for itself as “the safe car”. Or at least that is what the myth says. Mr Bolin did indeed create the Volvo safety belt, but the work of innovation and awareness raising process was conducted the decades before by civil institutions. The workers unions realized that traffic accidents were common places for workplace injuries, and the hospitals received many severely injured patients and wanted new safety measures for the citizens. The safety belt was not an invention from a lone genius in his lab but just the tip of a social articulation of risk management.
But let us now consider this invention a second time. In all its good intentions and successful design – has it made the streets safer? Well, yes indeed. And now with new airbags and steel frames the cars are safer than ever. But what if we look at it from the perspective of civil society? Do safe drivers drive safely?

Bohlin crash

The three-point belt indeed saves the driver. But it does not save the victim who got hit by the heavy metal car. The design and following arms race in safety is based on the intention to save the driver – at any cost. The safety belt is designed for the lone predator, the human striving for maximum independence.

So could we design car safety from a perspective of interdependence? Perhaps we could design something that makes the driver not locked into a safe bubble, but something that makes him an attentive and concerned driver. A proposal that makes the driver aware of the fragility of the world around him, and that racing a heavy piece of metal machinery among soft organic bodies is an act of great risk.

Could we imagine the “safety-spear” – a sharp lance sticking out from the steering wheel pointing to the driver’s chest? If he would hit something on his way he would surely be injured. Would we have problems with ruthless drivers? Would people drive drunk if they primarily risked their own lives? There are of course ethical problems with such a device, and punishment-driven design is not desirable for anyone, but how can we as designers shift focus and consider designing for interdependence rather than independence?

We can have a quick look at the prisoner’s dilemma to expose this situation. Take for example traffic jams. Most people on the streets take the car to their jobs. Some take public transport. We all are stuck in traffic. But the bus always has to stop at the bus stops, so most certainly the car is always faster. But if everyone takes the car, everyone is even more stuck in traffic. From the perspective of car industry we would create more comfortable cars with air cleaners and DVD players in so we can stand the waiting times. The better we make the cars, the more people will take their comfy car to work and sit in even longer queues.

So how should we design to make more people take the bus and thus ease the pressure on the roads? We must move transversally through the dilemma. One way is to limit the size of the road and introduce a special priority bus lane. Another is to create telecommunication tools so people can work from home. We must think outside of the paradigm framed by the “rules” of the dilemma itself.

As with the safety belt we design tools for surveillance and security which insinuates that every citizen is a potential thief or villain. Cameras observe us all in the shops as if in every one of us there is a small criminal waiting for the right moment to come out. If we do not suppress the urge for stealing, we would all steal – wouldn’t we? You can’t trust anyone! But is that not because we have designed away all possibilities to show trust? We designers have played a central role in the creation of today’s fragmented and isolationist society.

closed circuit design

So now with all smart electronic systems, couldn’t we rethink how interactions in society are designed? We can create objects which require collaboration to work, or which signal confidence and responsibility rather than mistrust. With all electronic locks these days, could we not make doors which are always open, until an uninvited guest approaches and the door locks?

We can also imagine objects which require two to operate. Backpacks like a basket on my back, with all my personal belongings in, but which I cannot reach without the help of others. When my phone rings I must approach someone and ask – “Can you help pick up my phone?”

These are of course utopian ideas that would not always work. But in their design they would expose trust and suggest responsible behaviour among our fellow mortals. Can we design interactions which reward confidence? Design could articulate how we humans are social and collaborative animals rather than cruel and lonely wolves. Next time we are suggested to design against crime, could we instead consider designing for mediation, for reciprocal altruism, for reconciliation?

Like so many other design dilemmas there is no immediate or straight answer, but the problem reveals itself rather like a Zen-Buddhist koan, a non-rational question or statement:

- What if it's a disaster?
- It’s that too.


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