This is a story about Earth, what’s happening, and why it can’t be fixed.
The trouble started with the invention of the internet.
People began to spend more and more of their time online in front of screens. The amount of information, especially contradicting information, was so overwhelming that people didn’t know what to believe and they began to mistrust most of what they saw. They sought solace in the echo chambers of online communities that reinforced existing belief sets, as this environment was much more reassuring. However, this caused extreme polarization to grow as sub communities fed off themselves and ignored other viewpoints. The result was that the political landscape became irreparably polarized and damaged as trust declined.
The government was actually the first thing to go on Earth. Youth especially, didn’t trust it, and instead they gave their attention to the commercial world, to new flashy companies with new flashy technologies. The best and the brightest minds graduated and went to work for these companies and used their creativity to get people to click on ads and spend even more time in front of screens.
It was the divide between the rich and the poor that was most potent. The tension between the two sides, the haves and the have-nots, spawned resentment within communities and war between nations.
Simply put, the rich were too rich, the poor were too poor, and no one knew how to create balance.
The rich, tried to give their money away constantly, to charities, to individuals, but the money never seemed to actually help. Transferring money alone didn’t bring liberation or stop suffering. Money just disappeared into the ether not creating any real change.
Charities worked furiously trying to help those in the greatest need like the homeless, those living on less than $2 a day, and victims of a natural disasters. They ran successful fundraising campaigns, received huge donations and launched initiatives to build new communities and help as many people as possible. But even if they looked promising at the onset, after some time, all their efforts fell flat. Their solutions weren’t used by the beneficiaries. The communities they built turned into ghost towns, and they couldn’t understand why.
The world looked to it’s youth and it’s designers, those would-be saviors charged with creating positive social impact. Students were given money, shown the problems and told to pitch the best solutions – help! But none of the students really understood what they were dealing with in the first place. All their designs were destined for failure because they were designing within already broken system.
Earth was finished.
Depression was rampant, plaguing almost every human on the planet. Humans had given up on each other, and given up on trying.
People lived secluded lives, trusting no one, and venturing out only through digital interfaces and virtual realities.
Not everyone had given up, and there was one interesting technology that was being developed.
People had finally figured out how to safely transport humans away from Earth, and there was a plan to colonize a new artificial planet, called New Earth.
New Earth gives was an opportunity to start over; it was a clean slate. And this time, they weren’t going to fuck it up.
Before launch a select group of extraordinarily altruistic and intelligent people were designated as Stewards of the new planet. These Stewards were trained extensively on the human psyche, what’s best for human kind and how to help manage people. On New Earth, each Steward was assign a group of people to look after and care for.
There were two brothers in particular that were selected as Stewards for there kindness, intelligence, and upstanding characters.
Brother 1 was diligent in planning out the colony. He created parks, rivers, lakes and little walking paths that wound around beds of exotic flowers. He avoided the mess of money all together. He gave everyone assigned jobs, and if anyone needed money, they could just come to him and ask for it. He was happy to give money! But he wanted to make sure they were spending their money on the right things and not making poor decisions.
Each day he walked around and asked,
“How’s it going?”
“Good, expect…” a colony member began to reply.
“Great! See you later!” as soon as he confirmed things were good, he continued on with his rounds.
He saw his colony as perfect, and was very proud of himself. No one was homeless, no one was in poverty. Life was good.
But before too long, people became unhappy, and Brother 1 didn’t understand why.
Brother 2 took a different approach to planning and creating the colony and it started with a conversation.
“How should we build our community?” he asked.
Brother 2 listened to the people and helped them organize and understand themselves as they moved towards a shared vision of their colony. It took time. They played out multiple scenarios, and helped each other see why some decisions were more promising than others, and eventually there was a consensus.
Brother 2 was happy and proud of his colony as well, but he knew it wasn’t perfect. He understood the power of time. Time changes even the best designs as people grow and change within a system. Brother 2 was diligent in monitoring the system they had created. The people paused regularly to reflect on micro changes and to course-correct if necessary. They practiced mindful reflection both as individuals and as members of the community. They became stewards of each other and the colony they had co-created. Conflict did arise of course, but people were taught to express their concerns and struggles and make time to work through conflict before resentment could be imbedded.
If designers hold any merit in taking on social impact work, it should be for their awareness that they don’t have all the answers nor all the domain knowledge required to address the problems of humans. It should be in our awareness of the power we have (or dont’ have), and our ability to transfer that power. We must design with humility and a willingness to learn, experiment and diligently course-correct. An agency model of design work is troubling. Can we really hand over the design after a month of work and then wash our hands of it? We will never be able to anticipate the all the implications or future outcomes of a design. It’s negligent to think our work is done when the project contract ends.
The world is not static, people are not static, and designs are not static. We must be able to intercept a failing or warped design before it’s too late, and give the people that use our design the tools to see the larger system and adapt it to their own needs as they will inevitably change.