A future mindset for design ethics

“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” – Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine

I consider myself a futurist. As an educator, I couldn’t help but become one when I began to understand the way that my work in the present shaped tomorrow as my students continued to change the world in big and small ways. Each small step–teaching someone to tie a knot, find the standard deviation of a set, or how to debug code, was an investment in our shared future. Knowledge I shared with a student might be practiced immediately, but it also built a foundation for a life of exploration, curiosity, kindness and confidence. Although I never taught a course called “How to Change the World,” I realized I was doing exactly that.

James, an outdoor education student who savored every opportunity to cook group meals with me over our tiny backpacking stoves, now owns a restaurant and butcher shop in Oklahoma City. Our course was his first chance to take care of other people by preparing delicious meals at the end of a long day. Alex, a software engineering student who struggled with concepts that her peers grasped easily, is now an engineer at Apple. I coached her extensively on cultivating a growth mindset and tackling impostor syndrome. Those tools must have been as important as her engineering skills when interviewing for her current role.

The futurist mindset that inspired my work as an educator has developed further as a design student. As I conceive of the work we are doing as students and imagine future design work creating the world that I want to live, I am both excited and a little afraid. Every single beautiful or awful aspect of our society that exists today is the byproduct of choices made by individuals. As such, I am mindful to wield my influence with not only a sense of responsibility, but also empathy and compassion.

While some of the biggest challenges of our time may seem beyond our ability to solve, I know that we are creating the future every minute. When developing an ethical framework to support my work as a designer, I wanted to balance a sense of caution with optimism. My framework is impact-oriented, but also acknowledges our inability to perfectly estimate the outcomes of our work. In building my framework I attempted to include aspects that acknowledge our place in history and the potential future impacts of our work. Ultimately, I decided that a futurist mindset was best addressed not by having specific elements of the framework speaking to timescale, but by embedding ethical review as a practice that needs to be repeated at intervals in order to combat the limits of our ability to see into the future.

I have tried out my framework at multiple inflection points of a single company. In the past 15 years they’ve been known by several names, Ploom, Pax or Juul, but the two founders have remained throughout. They were two product design students who met at the Stanford, learning many of the same things that I am learning now. And all that thoughtful and empathetic design practice and prototyping led them to design a product that has reversed decades of trends in nicotine addiction amongst teenagers. I wanted to explore their story through an ethical framework to better understand how well-meaning, intelligent designers could end up creating such a destructive product.

My primary conclusion is that the two founders, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, were like the proverbial boiled frog who slowly perished as the water got warmer cooking him without ever realizing his peril. The product vision at the outset, a harm reduction product for current smokers was benign, but not riskless. What eventually resulted was a product optimized for addiction and unleashed with sexy marketing targeted at young people that was ultimately acquired by the largest tobacco company in the world. I imagine that at the outset, James and Adam would not have predicted this outcome. When I consider what went wrong, I can’t overlook the limits of the two founders to anticipate the outcome of their choices in 2005 when they were students starting this company as a student project.

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While our ability to anticipate outcomes declines as we peer further into the future, the consequences of our actions can grow ever greater.

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Does that mean that those destined to be good ancestors are people capable of great foresight? Or are they just lucky that their high-impact decisions ended up having positive outcomes?

Although both of those are possibilities, the way that we best position ourselves to be good ancestors is by course-correcting throughout our journeys, to stop, reflect, reevaluate and change course when needed. Our imperfect ability to see the future can be augmented by planning times of reflection into our project timelines and into our personal and professional lives.