Industrial design: which morality do you materialize?

Home Technologist 07 Industrial design: which morality do you materialize?

Growing discomfort with societal changes requires a shift in mindsets.

Caroline Hummels Tue

Turn on the TV, open a newspaper or browse the web and you’ll see major societal challenges – such as safety, pollution and health – that can be perceived as an open invitation for action. Many engineers take up this gauntlet, which immediately raises ethical questions: What kind of societies do we want to support through engineering? Or can engineers refrain from taking an ethical stance with their work? My answer to the latter question is no. As Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek wrote in 2006: “Engineers do ‘ethics by other means’: they materialize morality”.

Through his concept of Technological Mediation, Verbeek has shown that technologies are not neutral but a medium between humans and reality. Technologies transform our perceptions – amplifying or reducing specific aspects of reality – and translate our actions – inviting or inhibiting specific actions. Technologies are both a vehicle to steer society and a reflection of society.

When socio-cultural forces and technologies change, perceptions of what constitutes value also change. At Philips Design, Reon Brand and Simona Rocchi refer to the Transformation Paradigm that is currently rising as a response to growing discomfort with our societal challenges. It aims at an exchange of ethical and societal values, and attention to global and societal issues addressed through empathic collaboration based on trust. Moving towards the Transformation Paradigm requires a fundamental shift in mindset, vocabulary and behaviour. For this we not only have to develop new technologies or appropriate our technologies differently, but we also have to find new ways of learning, researching, working together, valorising and communicating.

Within our Designing Quality in Interaction group at TU/e, we feel continuously challenged by our current paradigms. We aim to design alternative perspectives that will fit the Transformation Paradigm. Inspired by theories from philosophy, psychology and sociology, we explore and research how to design highly interactive systems, products and related services that support skilful coping and embodiment. We not only design such systems, but we also develop the necessary processes, methods and tools.

For example, through his Smart Textile Services (STSs), my colleague Martijn ten Bhömer developed together with a multi- disciplinary team a smart knitted cardigan for Alzheimer’s patients to encourage physical movement and increase communication with their therapists, along with the processes and tools to design the cardigan. With every project we challenge ourselves and our partners towards an ethical stance. We explore the boundaries and face of the Transformation Paradigm.

In addition to STSs, we have also been working on the kitchen of the future (with IKEA, IDEO and Lund University) and we are developing a platform to support embodied co-design for shared governance (with Necker van Naem and the city of Eindhoven). Since January 2015, I have challenged 100 international inspirators from various backgrounds (including industry, academia, government, NGOs and local communities) to explore with me their relation to the Transformation Paradigm and their ethical stance.

I would love to have an encounter, but for now I just challenge you here: Which morality do you materialize and how could it support us towards the Transfor­mation Paradigm?

By Caroline Hummels @chummels_tue

Caroline Hummels is full professor “Design and Theory for Transformative Qualities” in the department of Industrial Design at the Eindhoven University of Technology, where she heads the Designing Quality in Interaction group.

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