Determining our Humanity

Katja Forbes

  • Managing director of Designit, Australia and New Zealand
Katja is an Australian pioneer in the field of experience design and all its components.Back in 2014, Katja founded syfte, a specialist business in research and experience design acquired by Wipro in 2018. She was then appointed Australian MD of Designit. Katja was also a co-founding member of the Interaction Design Association Board (IxDA) in Sydney, helping build a community of over 1600 designers. Today, Katja is international director on IxDA’s global board. Katja is a sought-after speaker for organisations including Women In Design, Leaders in Heels, Women In Commerce, Code like a Girl, Telstra and Macquarie Bank. Katja was recognised as a Top 10 Australian Women Entrepreneurs 2018 by My Entrepreneur Magazine and one of the 100 Women of Influence by Westpac and the Australian Financial Review in 2016.

The decades leading to 2020 should have given us an idea about what to expect.  

Despite a strong and persuasive global call to unarm, North Korea continued to enthusiastically carry out ‘strategic’ missile tests and the US continued to, even more enthusiastically, squirrel away bigger, more destructive ‘strategic’ missiles. We all felt some version of World War 3 was imminent, but no one could have possibly imagined what form it took, or how it would affect every last corner of humanity. Decisions we had unwittingly made over all these decades shifted our humanity to the point of no return, and we suddenly faced a bunch of really undesirable consequences.

‘Business as unusual’ is a term my organisation has adopted to describe the professional aftermath of COVID-19 and the rest of the tragic events this year. Social distancing, perspex screens at counters and masks in all manner of situations have introduced us to a world we were never familiar with.

But, as we keep being reminded, this is the new normal. This is the world we created. Yet we also have the opportunity to create something else.

This is where designers feature. And what we believe is this year presents the perfect time to explore how technology can enhance humanity.

Digitalisation, automation, climate change, corona pandemic, another scandalous US election – pick your challenge. By now, we have discovered we can change and adapt, faster than we thought was possible. It takes a while to break habits (just check with most smokers or even teenagers addicted to their phones) but stimulated in the right way, humans can make new brain connections, review mental models and create novel ideas and ways of working, new business plans and even altruistic endeavours. 

As designers of humanity, it’s important to remember that while we don’t have crystal balls, research and design methods can help us to discover and explore many possible futures. Yes, plural.

One word coming through clear and strong this year is uncertainty. Not that long ago, businesses and organisations were all bragging about their agility. I wonder if they have withstood the challenges this year threw up? Or was that just another catchy marketing word that sounded good in earnest advertorials?

The only way to become truly agile is to be aware of possible but impactful futures that may seem irrelevant, crazy or unlikely. This is how an organisation can become truly resilient.

Obviously, the best way to understand these possible futures is to experience them, and we do that through the use of workable scenarios and prototypes. Organisations often don’t have the ability to identify, create or explore the realm of possibilities ahead of them, but designers do.

Once they are created, we all have a number of issues to consider. While many organisations tend to be concerned primarily about their bottom line, as designers we have a greater responsibility. And when it comes to new technologies, it’s about understanding what they really mean for humanity.

Unintended consequences are manifesting everywhere in 2020. For example, there is incredible value placed on user data, more so than demographics or where you come from. Data is the new currency and very fabric of society, revealing our behaviours, likes and dislikes and inner most secrets. We take comfort in the perception of anonymity of big data and optimistically believe our secrets to be safe.

As a society, we should be more engaged in the layers data adds to our existence, rather than just hoping it all works properly and trust those who gather it are acting with good intentions.

Human interaction and empathy are still important and shouldn’t be lost as regrettable side effects in the rise of digital identity. Likewise, important facets of humanity such as ethics shouldn’t be eliminated by our technology progress. The ethics we all abide by have been eroding for a while now, and while material and intellectual waste is one thing, what about the people left behind?

We know this year has seen organisations forced to pursue rapid and often messy technological development. I, for one, hope things will settle a little so we can re-examine these reactive decisions and new processes made on the fly, and look to more sustainable and human long-term solutions. 


Tags: design thinking, marketing strategy

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