The Best of Outcomes > The Best of Intentions
Designers have great power to shape the future of humanity, and with that, as Stan Lee would say, comes great responsibility. Therefore, at AC4D, we focus on using design to make a positive social impact. But how do we know if the change we wish to inspire will have the desired effect? Or worse, how do we know it won’t bring negative consequences?
The truth is, even with the best of intentions, we can’t know how our design will affect society until it’s released in reality. At that point, intentions become irrelevant, and outcomes are the only significant measure.
The Best of Intentions: One-Size Fits All
As Michael Hobbes writes in his article “Stop Trying to Save the World,” many well-meaning aid efforts have followed the trend of “exciting new idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.”
As a case in point, consider the clean drinking water project, Playpumps. It was an inspired idea — a water system that used the energy created by children playing to operate a water pump. People need water, children need to play, it seemed like a perfect combination. Although initially lauded for its innovation, it was quickly criticized for being too expensive, less effective than traditional hand-pumps, and reliant on child labor.
According to Hobbes, “Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the handpumps they already had. In one community, adults were paying children to operate the pump.”
Nevertheless, this idea should not be discounted altogether — in some villages, under the right circumstances, they were helpful, and are still installed as a “niche solution” on playgrounds and at schools in poor rural areas.
The real issue was not that Playpumps was a poor idea, but that it was poorly executed.There was little collaboration or research with the people the organization sought to serve, and the implementation was “one-size-fits-all” — based on the fact that since it was an effective solution for some, it could be applied to everyone.
The Worst(?) of Intentions: Corporate Social Responsibility & Cause Marketing
Corporate Social Responsibility
Advocacy is now rivaling sex as Corporate America’s main selling strategy. For example, in response to the Drumpf administration’s travel ban, Airbnb offered free housing to anyone denied entry and Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees. Seeing this primarily as a marketing tactic, Alex Holder writes that “it’s difficult to separate the fact that while these brands are showcasing pedigree social responsibility, ultimately they’re helping refugees because it sells milky lattes and cheap holiday accommodation.”
In another related example, Lyft donated $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union after Uber continued to pick up passengers from the JFK Airport amidst a taxi driver strike against the travel ban. Soon after, Lyft bested Uber in the App store for the first time.
While there may be ulterior motives to these corporate actions, the question is… does it matter? Free housing, jobs, million dollar donations… indeed, there is a clear benefit to the companies in terms of public favor and increased revenue, but would we rather do without these grand gestures?
Perhaps it would be stronger ethically for companies to contribute socially, but to do so quietly. But, if not for Lyft’s public donation, Uber may not have pledged to provide legal support and establish a $3 million legal defense fund for threatened drivers.
Product(RED) is an organization that recruits companies like the Gap and Apple to participate in cause marketing, donating a portion of product sales to the fight against AIDS. While Product(RED)’s intentions seem pure, some believe that corporate partners only use the charitable association to sell more goods.
Apple donates a portion of its red Beats headphone proceeds to Product(RED).
Buylesscrap.com is particularly critical of Product(RED). It rallies people to reject the “ti(red) notion that shopping is a reasonable response to human suffering” and to donate directly to the Global Fund, without consuming.
Yes, we all need to buylesscrap.com. Yes, we’re destroying the environment. Yes, we’re screwed and the rich are moving to Mars… and, if Product(Red) can capitalize on a deeply ingrained behavior, and raise $465 million to help prevent HIV… can we really fault them for it? I’ll make buylesscrap.com a deal — if they can eradicate consumer culture, I will switch my position and insist that Bono find another way to save the world.
While it’s clear companies have something to gain from their social impact initiatives, their investments and corresponding promotions unquestionably benefit society.
The Worst of Internet: the Rise of Fake News
According to author Mark Manson, the early creators of the internet had good intentions.
“They worked for decades toward a vision of seamlessly networking the world’s people and information. They saw greater empathy and understanding across nations, ethnicities, and lifestyles. They dreamed of a unified and connected global movement with a single shared interest for peace and prosperity.”
Oops. Especially with the rise of fake news, and Facebook’s almost impenetrable echo chambers, we seemed to have missed the mark.
But then I realize that the internet is a reflection of our society — “echo chambers” have always existed. We love to surround ourselves with like people, it makes us feel safe, secure, and validated. “Fake news” has always been there — the rewriting of history books, or (less severe), those “FW: FW: FW: Obama…” emails from your grandparents — the only difference is it can now travel exponentially faster through the veins of social media.
The good news is that now these very tribal tendencies of pushing out or dismissing the “other,” over perceived differences, are now out in the open. The public outcry against echo chambers and fake news is a call to get curious about the other, to learn about their hopes, their fears, their dreams, and perhaps find some common ground.
In a way, this is a signal for a new iteration of the internet. Designer Jon Kolko says that both the good and the bad are designers’ fault and their ongoing responsibility. I also argue that, as consumers, we have a responsibility to think critically about how we interact with a particular product or service. So, while the initial intentions of the internet did not become what 80s and 90s technologists dreamed it would be, designers and its consumers have a responsibility to create a new version, and keep moving towards the greater vision of peace and understanding.
Sometimes impure motivations can still bring great benefit, and other times, good intentions can bring about the worst of consequences. As designers, the best we can do is diligently research the problem we’re trying to solve, project all the possible implications of our proposed solution, and continue to iterate as the design interacts with the world.
To explore the complexities of social impact, I created a simple board game that follows the development of a non-profit organization working to increase access to education among low-income individuals in Managua, Nicaragua.
The game requires, at minimum, two teams of two, wherein each team takes turns pulling out cards from the deck. Depending on the outcome of the card, the team would move closer or further away from the finish.