This is from 2012 | 16 minute read

The Ethics of Disruptive Innovation in Wicked Problems

Academics frequently conduct research as an end in itself. Practicing designers (sometimes known as "design researchers") attempt to "use" the research to provoke new ideas. These practitioners have formalized a process of design-led innovation, where this applied ethnography is followed by reframing (looking at a situation in new or unexpected ways) and iterative ideation (trying things with real people in an effort to see how well these new and unexpected ideas work) as a way of driving disruption in tired or conservative industries. A formal or traditional approach to ethnography requires a researcher to remain impartial and attempt to intervene as little as possible, but the observations extracted by a design researcher are frequently driven by direct participation and active intervention. A design researcher may stop a participant and ask them to explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, or if they always do it that way. One of the "best practices" of a form of design research called Contextual Inquiry is to establish a master and apprentice relationship with a participant, where the design researcher literally learns from the participant by trying things, much like a master craftsman shows an apprentice how to use a tool. The design researcher's intent is to engage in rapid and active learning, and to gain empathy. This is sometimes called (affectionately by designers, and with disdain by academics) ethnography light or guerrilla ethnography, and is used in contexts as varied as understanding how people purchase perfume to how the workflow of vehicle assembly can be streamlined.

In academia, the phenomenon of "informed consent" plays a major role in determining the scope, scale, and approach of research that is conducted with these at-risk populations. The use of human subjects in experiments has a tainted history, and so governance boards (called IRB, or Institutional Review Boards) have been established to ensure these populations are not targeted in unethical or problematic ways. In the United States, researchers who receive funding from government agencies (such as the National Science Foundation) are required to have their research reviewed by an IRB, which is regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Belmont Report—the document that established a majority of these research rules—was adopted in1978. This is one of the first attempts at defining informed consent. A critical component of the report is duplicated below, in full:

Respect for persons requires that subjects, to the degree that they are capable, be given the opportunity to choose what shall or shall not happen to them...

Injustice may appear in the selection of subjects, even if individual subjects are selected fairly by investigators and treated fairly in the course of research. Thus injustice arises from social, racial, sexual and cultural biases institutionalized in society. Thus, even if individual researchers are treating their research subjects fairly, and even if IRBs are taking care to assure that subjects are selected fairly within a particular institution, unjust social patterns may nevertheless appear in the overall distribution of the burdens and benefits of research. Although individual institutions or investigators may not be able to resolve a problem that is pervasive in their social setting, they can consider distributive justice in selecting research subjects.

Some populations, especially institutionalized ones, are already burdened in many ways by their infirmities and environments. When research is proposed that involves risks and does not include a therapeutic component, other less burdened classes of persons should be called upon first to accept these risks of research, except where the research is directly related to the specific conditions of the class involved. Also, even though public funds for research may often flow in the same directions as public funds for health care, it seems unfair that populations dependent on public health care constitute a pool of preferred research subjects if more advantaged populations are likely to be the recipients of the benefits.

One special instance of injustice results from the involvement of vulnerable subjects. Certain groups, such as racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, the very sick, and the institutionalized may continually be sought as research subjects, owing to their ready availability in settings where research is conducted. Given their dependent status and their frequently compromised capacity for free consent, they should be protected against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience, or because they are easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition.

There's very little in the report that's controversial, because the report takes a very common-sense, humanitarian approach to research. The majority of researchers doing work in academia are already well aware of this ethical conversation; it's a standard consideration in formulating a research approach, and it's part of the culture of the academy.

But this same process of design research is used outside of academia, by practitioners: design research is considered one of the keys to disruptive innovation. Design research, followed by reframing and ideation is increasingly being adopted by practicing designers at companies like Nike, Starbucks, and Procter & Gamble. In these contexts, this design research is positioned as a form of market research, aimed at identifying latent needs and provoking new product and service ideas. And, the same process is used by social entrepreneurs in the context of humanitarian problems, known in circles of design as "Wicked Problems". Broadly, these problems are the systemic issues of poverty, hunger, education, drug abuse, and so on—the large, interlinked, and societal issues that stem from our public policies, our use of technology, and financial inequality. Designers who engage in tackling these problems realize the potential of design as a tool for affecting positive change, and so they immerse themselves in the cultures they are hoping to effect. They utilize a number of different design research methods, such as Contextual Inquiry, Participatory Design, or Bodystorming, all in an effort to gain empathy and understanding with a target audience. Design researchers, coming from academia, professional practice, or acting as social entrepreneurs, may live on the streets with the homeless, volunteer at shelters, engage with case workers, and otherwise explore the phenomenon of homelessness.

The same process of looking at behavior is used in academic research, in for-profit commercial research, and in both for- and non-profit contexts of social entrepreneurship. This presents a problem, because the safeguards put in place by law to protect at-risk populations are largely ignored by those doing non-academic research. In my experience, I've found that design research, applied outside of academia, is nearly void of a formal ethical process. And there is a cruel irony in this, because these are the same innovators who are likely to actually produce new products and services. The results of their work will be more prevalent and impactful, and the positive and negative repercussions felt more broadly than academic research stuck in the confines of an academic journal. It is in a commercial or entrepreneurial setting that ethics are more important, as the potential for manipulative practice is more likely.

Some (very few) design researchers may make rudimentary efforts to simulate the intent of the IRB. They may have their participants sign consent forms, or the researcher may go out of their way to articulate the research process and the compensation a participant may receive for their participation. They typically describe to the participant that they can quit the research process at any time and will still receive the compensation offered to them. But these efforts are minimal and inconsistent. And the lack of informed-consent form is just one of the problems we encounter when we apply design research in commercial contexts.

Some of these problems are listed below; these are all problems I've actually observed, and I'm sure there are many more.

Forming a Non-Sustainable Relationship. Designers, intent on learning about a particular situation, form a relationship with a member of an at-risk population, such as a homeless person. They learn about this person, understand their wants and needs, and learn to empathize with them. In doing so, the participant becomes either emotionally, physically, or socially dependent on the researcher. When the research phase of the project is over, the designer leaves.

Safety. Designers (and particularly, design students) find themselves in unsafe situations, such as sleeping on the streets or participating in drug purchases, in an effort to learn about a particular culture or empathize with a specific audience. The richness of these experiences is alluring, and it's difficult for the student (and the professor) to identify appropriate boundaries. This is compounded by popular celebration of this behavior (for example, Sudhir Venkatesh's research work with inner-city gangs, popularized in Freakonomics).

Broad, Impromptu Research Activities. Designers depend on a fluidity of action in the field, where they observe actual behavior and can respond to the activities they observe. This is hard to plan—the entire benefit to the research is in its fluidity and reliance on actual behavior as a prompt—and so the research plan that is produced is broad and vague. An IRB may be unwilling or unable to approve such a broad set of activities. This is echoed by academic Michael Schmidt in a thread on the PhD Design mailing list, "... the review boards are often comprised of people who know very little about qualitative research and who in some cases even hold a bias against anything outside a conventional quantitative study, randomized trial, or a rigorous mixed methods approach. Ironically, low-impact, non-invasive studies like carefully constructed interview protocols can be the hardest for which to receive approval."

Equitable Compensation. In order to engage with a population, a design researcher typically offers compensation in response to a particular set of actions. One of my former colleagues at frog design, Jan Chipchase, describes that "Defining 'equitable compensation' can sometimes be tricky for the simplest of design research activities (e.g. a home interview), but is especially problematic when researching highly financially constrained communities where the gulf between the wealth/power of the participants and the researchers can be considerable." He's exactly right. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced teams have the necessary experience that Chipchase has to make this assessment, and what's worse, only very rarely do teams even have this conversation. For those in at-risk populations, inequitable compensation may provoke negative consequences, such as the purchase of drugs, a competitive or violent reaction from peers, or the inability for a participant to end a research engagement when they feel uncomfortable.

Use of Research For Questionable Means. Research conducted outside of academia is used to provoke new products and services. There is extraordinarily little conversation in industry as to the responsibility a design researcher has in translating observations into product insights. In the Epic 2006 conference proceedings, Stokes Jones describes a fascinating body of work related to homeopathy remedies in South Africa. As an anthropological study, it sheds light on the unique bottom-up approaches to innovation in developing countries. But it's not just an anthropological study: this research was funded by Procter & Gamble with an explicit ambition, to "design new preparations specifically for Southern Africa (to fit Africans' tastes and habits) as well as to target 'lower income consumers' (low for P&G's targeting but average for South Africa)." I don't fault Jones at all, as his presentation and description of the research indicates a thorough reflection on the ethical complexities of this research. But I also wonder what happened at P&G after this research was presented, and based on my experiences with big-brand consumer insights teams, I can only assume the response to South Africans putting Vaporub in their hot drinks was met with giddiness at the new financial potential. This is the "design imperialism" argument, which I frankly view as less critical and more of a red-herring than the other four points above.

The summary of these points is that, first, there is no IRB for professionals or for social entrepreneurs, and there is no understanding of the role of such a board. While there exist independent review boards, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of practicing design researchers are not aware of them and do not engage with them. Next, there is little shared understanding of the ethics of design research for professionals or for social entrepreneurs, and the degree to which design research activities are examined in a particular context is extremely inconsistent. And finally, there is a larger conversation around ethics in design research that is only happening in the periphery (there are a few small journals and respected individuals talking about this, but only a small number.)


And so presents a strange, albeit complicated and extremely textured problem. Well-intentioned designers hoping to learn about an at-risk population with the intent on helping that population must become a part of that very population, learning the language and the culture, understanding the workflow and broken policies and procedures, and trying their best to feel the emotions of that population. And in doing so, these well-intentioned designers may be forming important relationships, acting in life-saving capacities, learning the private and intimate details of people's lives, and otherwise disrupting the status quo. They are frequently performing these activities on behalf of for-profit companies, and in the context of finite projects. There is a tension between the selfish and the responsible. Research in creativity and innovation increasingly describes the need for iterative design, the ability to fail and learn from failure, and the importance of playful, divergent thinking as a way of sparking new and unexpected ideas. This presents a problem for those engaged with an at-risk population, because these qualities are at odds with accepted behavior about at-risk interventions.

This tension and problem is exemplified by a recent experiment at South By Southwest, an extremely large technology conference in Austin, Texas. At the 2012 conference, one of the strangest stories to emerge was that of the Homeless Hotspots—a project coordinated by the non-profit Frontsteps and the for-profit advertising agency BBH Labs. The premise of the project is simple, but the implications are extraordinarily complex. Homeless individuals in Austin were given technology that allowed their physical presence to act as a 4G hotspot, and wore t-shirts that announced the presence of the hotspot. Nearby individuals could utilize the free bandwidth, and if they wanted, they could donate money to the homeless individual for providing the service. The project received the following feedback:

"It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia"

"The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall"

"It has to do with digital divides, haves and have nots, and the idea that a fellow human being is of no more use to you than as an Internet jack"

One way of viewing and considering the Homeless Hotspot project is through a lens of disruptive design, or design thinking. This is the process by which a designer examines a situation and then attempts to reframe it by challenging, reconsidering, or outright rejecting existing norms. A traditional way of thinking about helping the homeless is by fulfilling their basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter, and then providing case management skills to help them find a job. An innovative way of thinking about helping the homeless is by combining their geographic independence with technology, and giving them a service to offer those around them. This argument describes the Homeless Hotspot as a successful design approach, because the designers were able to learn from the activities of the prototypical situation and can now improve subsequent ideas based on these findings. What's more, this argument paints the process—"try crazy things that question and disrupt our standard way of viewing a situation"—as fundamental for affecting innovative change.

Another way of viewing and considering the Homeless Hotspot project is through a lens of ethics and empowerment. From this stance, the homeless are unable to adequately assess the financial and social implications and repercussions of acting as a mobile hotspot, and by definition, their socio-economic status precludes them from objectively and knowledgably consenting to such an intervention. The work is dehumanizing because it leverages a group that is in no position to appropriately assess the mental or social harm that might come from such an intervention. This argument describes the Homeless Hotspot as a harmful failure, because the designers took advantage of a population that was unable to properly assess the tradeoffs of a decision to participate. What's more, this argument paints the process of iterative reframing and disruptive design as harmful and exploitive.

The situation is not a simple one, and there is no easily supported, one-sided judgment of the project. What is clear is that there exists no real depth to the conversation of design ethics in the context of wicked problems. The population of design researchers is small, disparate, and without a shared language or set of ethics to ground their important activities.

There are academic design researchers like Chris Le Dantec, who study at-risk populations, design interactions and interventions, and then describe these in written, peer-reviewed journals. Typically, these design researchers are constrained by the rules of their university, which strictly comply with the IRB rules. Graduate students and faculty who conduct research in these contexts submit their research plan to the IRB well in advance of their actual research plan, and revise the plan according to feedback from the IRB committee in order to ensure an ethical and responsible approach to research.

There are practicing design researchers at for-profit companies, who study an at-risk population for a paying client, design interactions and interventions, and then monetize these. Typically, these design researchers have no professional constraints on their behavior, and so they proceed as they have been trained through prior experience. If they experienced ethical oversight of their research in a University or educational setting, they may advance those ethics in their work. If they work in a large corporation, they may have a corporate policy that they must adhere to. Or, most commonly, if they work in an agency or design consultancy and developed their skills without formal training, there is no oversight or formal consideration to the ethical implications of their work. The question of "What are the implications of this research on our target population" is never asked. For all of its positive qualities, IDEO's Human Centered Design Toolkit—funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—fails to even mention ethics at all.

And there are design-led social entrepreneurs, who study an at-risk population and attempt to build double-bottom line services to support that population while simultaneously generating profit. Because of the bootstrap, rapid style of entrepreneurship, research in these contexts is usually conducted in a "quick and dirty" fashion. In some evolving methodologies, the entire point of the research is to test a small, ill-thought out idea before investing a great deal of time in planning or reflecting.

Ultimately, I agree with Chipchase that "The real design imperialism comes from those people who assume that the world's poor are not worthy of the attention." But I think the ethical considerations of design are being largely ignored by many practicing designers, most of whom are fully intending to do good and have only the best of intentions. And so I encourage these folk to engage in the conversation, evaluate their own work, and further examine not the intent, but the actual mechanisms and potential repercussions of their actions—and to realize that the power of design demands an ethic of design, as well.

Originally posted on Sun, 22 Apr 2012

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