Design must come to the table!

Bianca Herlo, head of Research the Research Group “Inequality and Digital Sovereignty”, explains in an interview what social negotiation processes for the use of digital technologies might also look like in times of coronavirus – and what role design research plays in this.

Ms Herlo, similar to some of your colleagues, the coronavirus crisis broke out for you just before a major scientific meeting that you had planned ...

We had organised a symposium titled “Practicing Sovereignty. Means of Digital Involvement” on the topic of digital Sovereignty, which has become particularly relevant in the course of the digitalisation wave during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The symposium should have been accompanied by an exhibition at the Berlin University of the Arts in which artists, activists and design researchers dealing with the topic of digital sovereignty were set to present their work. Among them was a work by Adam Harvey, who is now a fellow in Research Group 8. As a designer and activist, Harvey is deeply concerned with facial recognition. For his portrait photo on our institute’s website, for example, he used a technology that prevents common face recognition software from reading the image and identifying him in the picture. Unfortunately, in March, we had to cancel the event one day before the opening. To this end, we are now publishing an edited volume with a documentation of the exhibition objects and essays by the invited speakers, including a contribution by human rights activist Renata Avila, who, as a lawyer, strongly advocates for bringing design “into the decision-making room”. The volume “Practicing Sovereignty in Times of Crisis. Means of Digital Involvement” now addresses the current state of crisis, which has become even more relevant due to the global pandemic, to analyse new possibilities for social participation and policy-making and to present alternative technological practices.

What does design as a research approach have to do with the topic of “digital sovereignty”?

Maybe I should start by saying that I don’t just understand “design” as the designing of objects. This term also includes the design of processes and systems, including the enabling and moderation of social negotiations. In my opinion, design does not provide solutions, but a framework – and it can make a significant contribution to identifying problems. It offers participatory opportunities to integrate different perspectives, interests and knowledge bases. If you like, this goes all the way into policy-making – in this case, into addressing issues of inequality, surveillance and manipulation that are linked to digital technologies. As design researchers we believe that design, as a genuinely cross-sectional discipline, should be much more strongly integrated into shaping and moderating social negotiation processes.

How does the approach of design research differ from other scientific approaches?

In many ways, for example, in the way meaning is assigned and connections are represented. An important aspect is that design research is distinguished by its methods. We not only use language-based formats such as interviews but also make use of technology and materiality. Time and again, our experience has shown: There is a very special form of knowledge that is brought to light in the process of making, one which has a different quality than a purely intellectual debate.

How can this be imagined?

One method that we often use as a building block in the process is collaborative mapping. For example, we use wooden blocks, icons and labels. All this is arranged on a paintable table mat. The participants use these tools to build a shared model. This can be a spatial ensemble in a city or something much more abstract, like a concept for a digital application or a sequence of chronological stations for delivering a medical service. In this context, we use the term “boundary objects”, which originated in the sociology of technology. Boundary objects are not only materialised ideas but knowledge-generating objects. It is therefore not only a matter of doing things together but also of reflecting on them.

Does the group carrying out a collaborative mapping agree on a common opinion at the end?

For such a process – whether it happens in a single workshop or in a practice-based research project – there is a helpful scheme: – analysis, projection, synthesis (after Wolfgang Jonas). You start with the question: What kind of situation do we have? And how does this situation present itself from the perspective of the various groups in society? Then the projection, the transfer into the future: What can we do, how can we ideally imagine it? Finally, the synthesis or consideration: what is feasible under the existing conditions? What risks are more important and which ones are less so? It is primarily about the reasons advanced for or against decisions, the differentiated visualisation of social problems, needs and interests and how decisions bear on these interests.

Back to the topic of digital sovereignty! To what extent do you think the Corona-Warn app, which has been around since the summer, would have taken a different form if it had come about through a negotiation process, as you describe it?

I don't know if the Corona-Warn app would have taken a different form; the question is very difficult to answer. I believe that the basic decision could have been made in a more differentiated way, it seems to me that, from the outset, too much emphasis was placed on a technological solution to a complex problem. In any case, coronavirus has shown us that we need other tools to be able to act collectively in crisis situations. Design approaches have the potential to provide a good basis for a more robust response to future crises. My guess is that if there had been a participatory process, a colourful bouquet of different, smaller but more targeted measures would have been adopted instead of a warning app.

And the app itself? The civil society developer community has had a relatively strong influence on the development in recent months, and the app was partly technically developed under open source rules. What would have been different here if design and design research had played a more active role in the process?

Right from the start, the Corona-Warn app had a strong symbolic charge. Hopes were pinned on it almost as if it were a vaccine, even though it was and still is completely unclear what concrete successes will actually be achieved with it, because the interim results so far look mixed. At the same time, the risks were initially underestimated. In a first version of the app, for example, a central storage of data was planned, despite objections from the data protection side. Only after a lengthy debate and after criticism, for example, from civil society actors, but not least because of the necessary programme interfaces, did policymakers switch to a decentralised solution. However, despite the time delay and given the immense pressure, the process went well and the publication of the source code was extremely important. But the question of the implementation of such an app, its practicability and integration, i.e. the concrete hurdles in practice, would certainly have been a key question in a negotiation process in which design research would have taken on a moderating role.

What I found particularly exciting was that the debate about the Corona-Warn app brought the whole issue into the public eye. Questions of data security, privacy, data sovereignty, digital rights, digital competence and individual as well as social responsibility were discussed in high intensity by different groups on the basis of this boundary object, the Corona-Warn app. Am I antisocial if I am not willing to share my data and thus contribute to the containment of the virus? This is a very practical question. I consider it extremely important to enter into a social discourse on this issue. And such a discourse does not end with the completion of the development of an app. In fact, it is the other way round: The debate on the coronavirus app has, for example, forced us to think about data protection and privacy in relation to the other apps you carry with you on your smartphone. Here, I still see a strong need to develop solutions that are not primarily technical. Rather, it should be about expanding digital literacy and making decisions that will make us more resilient to future crises and that we as a society can ultimately share.

Thank you very much for the interview!

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