Beautiful Monsters: With such a late start, we best get moving

From our position at the confluence of human desire, technology, and business, interaction designers can make a tremendously positive—or negative—impact on the biggest issues facing us today: the sustainability of commerce, human societies, and natural systems. Despite these opportunities, software makers are discouraged from thinking outside the aspect ratio of the computer ’s monitor.

This is the first in a series of articles intended to serve as an ongoing conversation about how interaction designers can move the industry toward an Ecosystem Centered Design to improve our fortunes, our relationships, and the health of our planet.

With such a late start, we best get moving

I write this as smoke obscures the sun over most of Northern California, the result of an unprecedented number of early-season wildfires that have charred hundreds of miles of land. We are visited by flames because we’re in the midst of the worst drought in decades, and because we experienced thousands of dry lightning strikes in a period of days, something as common in these parts as Leprechauns and snow leopards.

These 1,700 fires have created a weeks-long pall of smoke that has forced everyone indoors… not just the very young and the very old, but everyone.

To battle the flames, firefighters are draining our reservoirs’ stores of precious water, which couldn’t come at a worse time, considering we are rationing water in several areas of the state. Makes you wonder what will happen next time you open the tap. Meanwhile, there aren’t enough folks and equipment to fight all the fires, so many are being allowed to burn unchecked.

Weird weather or harbinger of climatological chaos? That’s the question that NASA climate scientist James Hansen was asked in last week’s congressional testimony. His conclusion was that the time for debate over such questions has long since passed: we are in the midst of a “planetary emergency” that requires everyone’s attention, ingenuity, and good will. Now. Not whenever we get around to it after we have finished what we're doing. Now.

Last week Ford Motor Company announced the death of the SUV. Turns out that there’s not an endless supply of cheap gas and piña coladas. The bill is overdue and we need to pay up.

So it's a propitious time to launch a series about how interaction design can, and must, take into account the social, economic, and environmental ecosystems on which we all depend.

In addition to whatever native wit and well-honed craft any interaction designer may possess, each of us also depends upon some form of User Centered Design (UCD) to create products, services, and systems that are hospitable and appealing. Placing human concerns at the center of the design of software-enabled systems has been quite a trick, given that doing so has meant moving technology to a role that is subservient to human needs. But this Copernican shift has led not only to better products, but better process also. That’s because doing interaction design in the proper way also provides everyone greater visibility into and appropriate influence over the development, use, and impact of the systems that are designed.

The problem comes when UCD is taken too literally, for it can also promote a myopia that blurs what’s outside the immediate reach of individuals, preventing us from clearly seeing the inter-woven social, industrial, and environmental ecologies within which people live and companies exist. This must change. Whether interaction designers hear it or not, we are being called upon to address the broader ecological contexts of the companies that build what we design, and those who use the product of our labors. It is, therefore, urgent for our design values, methods, and collaboration habits to evolve. Now.

What is called for is an Ecosystem-Centered Design, a shared set of ideas and methods to guide our way toward more sustainable creative endeavors that address vital social, organizational, and environmental influences upon—and consequences of—the creation, use, and retirement of what we design.