XXII.5 September-October 2015
Page: 18
Digital Citation

I am a Luddite—-well, sort of

Marc Steen

Me, a Luddite? But I have not destroyed any machines. Not recently—or deliberately, anyway. On the contrary, I use plenty of machines and all sorts of digital online services. Moreover, I work on research and innovation projects that aim to create innovative ICT services. So, how am I a Luddite?

I started my professional career in product, service, and interaction design roles, then moved to coordination and management roles in research and development projects. And a couple of years ago, I started to critically reflect on the projects I work on.

An example. A while back, my colleague Sharon and I were managing a project that aimed to create ICT services for older people, to help them to engage in social activities. We organized a collaborative and iterative process: We involved older people, developed prototypes, and did user studies. That went nicely. But there were also moments when we looked at the resources that went into the project and compared these with its output and the actual impact on older people’s wellbeing. We imagined that there could be better ways to promote wellbeing. The resources could have been spent, for example, on healthcare services in rural Africa. That would have been better, right?

So I became interested in organizing projects in ways such that they contribute more effectively or efficiently to promoting the wellbeing of “users”—the people who are supposed to benefit from the projects’ results. This is a next step in the evolution of design expertise: shifting its focus from functionality to experience and now to wellbeing, as has also been proposed by, for example, Liz Sanders, Pieter Jan Stappers, Pieter Desmet, and Anna Pohlmeyer.

My understanding of wellbeing is informed by Aristotle. He proposed that the ultimate goal of all our activities—including organizing projects and using the products and services that these projects deliver—is, or should be, the proper development of human potential. He understood wellbeing as a social, lifelong, and creative activity, as living meaningful and fulfilling lives, as flourishing. This view on wellbeing resonates in positive psychology (e.g., Martin Seligman) and books on the art of living (e.g., Mark Vernon).

Now, how could we integrate this perspective on wellbeing into organizing our projects?

Fortunately, I came across the Capability Approach (CA), especially the work of Ilse Oosterlaken, who applied the CA to the domain of technology and design.

The CA aims to make sure that people have the relevant capabilities to “lead the kind of lives they have reason to value,” as Amartya Sen, a key figure in the CA, puts it. The CA promotes development and freedom, which are conceptualized as human capabilities, such as the capability to eat healthy food, to maintain meaningful relationships, or to engage in recreational activities. Martha Nussbaum, another key figure in the CA, helpfully proposed a list of 10 such “central human capabilities.”

Capabilities are often combinations of personal bodily and mental abilities, which can partly be trained, and external conditions, such as legislation or institutions. For example, the capability to eat healthfully requires that people understand the benefits of health food and that this is available and affordable for them. Or the capability to engage in recreational activities requires, for example, safe ways to travel to these activities and a mindset that motivates people to actually go there.

I believe the CA can help to steer clear of two typical designer obsessions: technologies and activities. The CA requires that, ideally, people are enabled to access and use technologies in order to expand capabilities that are relevant for them, which enable them to pursue activities that contribute to their flourishing.

First, the CA helps to avoid the pitfall of focusing too much on technologies and forgetting the broader context. It draws attention to all sorts of personal, social, and environmental conversion factors that need to be in place before a piece of technology (merely a means) can actually enable people to expand relevant capabilities and flourish (the ultimate end). It may seem attractive to focus a project on creating technology. Its commissioners are happy when x number of units y are produced. But merely providing technology often does not suffice. The computers in the community center need maintenance, cultural norms must allow people to go there, and so on.

Second, the CA helps to avoid the pitfall of endorsing specific behaviors, even if that happens unintentionally. This can limit people’s freedom and impede their wellbeing. Therefore, the CA advocates using technologies flexibly, for different purposes. One person will use Internet access for recreation, another for learning, and another for commerce. It may seem attractive in a project to monitor people’s behaviors and to report that x people are doing activities y “according to plan.” But that can tend toward a paternalistic approach: to prescribe what people should do. The CA aims instead to enable people to try out and experiment and to live different versions of the good life.

Together with several colleagues, we are currently developing and applying tools to practically apply concepts and insights from the CA in projects.

For example, we developed a set of Capability Cards. People can use these cards in a project’s definition phase to discuss which capabilities the project will aim to help people expand, so they can align their ambitions. One project partner, for example a health service provider, may aim to enable people to expand capabilities related to physical health. Another, a provider of public services, may aim to create conditions for specific groups of people to participate in social activities. And a third, a developer of a training program running on smartphones, may aim to help people develop their self-awareness and self-determination. Expressing their ambitions can help them to align their goals—which, in this case, have considerable overlap and synergy.

Additionally, we are trying out instruments to evaluate the impact of our projects’ results on users’ wellbeing. Diverse instruments to assess different elements of wellbeing exist, for example, in terms of personal resources and external conditions, such as those used by the New Economics Foundation, or in terms of personal and interpersonal feeling and functioning, such as those used in the European Social Survey Well-being Module. The challenge is thus in choosing instruments that are appropriate for a specific project, so that they help to clarify how the project’s results affect wellbeing. We can use such instruments to steer the project in its iterative cycles, for example, by organizing user trials, and also to build evidence for the ways that projects actually promote wellbeing, which will help to justify and fund this type of project in the future.

So, how am I a Luddite? And what is my confession? I am a Luddite in that I do not like machines. I prefer to focus on people and their flourishing. And my confession is that I would like to see more people in design or innovation projects embracing the Capability Approach and better steering their projects toward promoting people’s wellbeing.


Marc Steen works as a senior research scientist at TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. He is an expert in human-centered design, co-design, open innovation, innovation management, and applied ethics.


UF1Figure. Capability Cards, which project partners can use to discuss and align their ambitions—and to focus their project on delivering outputs that help to promote wellbeing.

Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found