FeaturesSpecial topic: Design futures

XXV.2 March-April 2018
Page: 41
Digital Citation

Afrofuturism, inclusion, and the design imagination

Woodrow Winchester

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The excitement associated with the recent release (February 2018) of the Marvel film Black Panther has been infectious. Provocative and visceral, the trailers and associated imagery and commentary have been inspiring to me both as a black science fiction fan and, in particular, as a human-centered design (HCD) educator and researcher. Black Panther's Afrofuturistic imagining of a technologically advanced African nation, Wakanda, free from Western involvement, catalyzes streams of new thoughts about how Afrofuturism connects with HCD, envisioning the inclusive technological innovation needed to address—more equitably—the grand engineering challenges of the 21st century (http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/).

back to top  Insights


While HCD holds much promise, the complexity of these grand challenges (e.g., to advance health informatics, provide access to clean water, and restore and improve urban infrastructure) warrant deeper design engagements. These deeper dives challenge the human-centered designer to grapple with not only the technical aspects of an envisioned solution, but also the often more consequential social, political, and cultural (including race) implications of its design and eventual deployment. New design tools are needed. Afrofuturism as a design lens [1] could embolden HCD's engagement and afford the requisite rigor in uncovering the blind spots (e.g., biases, privilege, and power) that often occlude the designer's ability to more holistically approach a design dilemma (see Bruce Sterling's May+June 2009 Interactions article). As such, Afrofuturism offers a framing that allows the human-centered designer to more fully explore both environment and context, thus imagining more empathic, inclusive, and impactful design solutions.

back to top  Afrofuturism Defined

The term Afrofuturism, coined by Mark Dery, can be defined as "a literary and cultural aesthetic that uses the tools and tropes of science fiction, as well as references to African and non-Western mythology, as a means to confront and analyze the present-day issues faced by people of color" [2]. Traditionally viewed as an aesthetic, Afrofuturism lies at the intersections of black cultures, imagination, liberation, and technology [3]. Sanford Biggers, in responding to Afrofuturism's relevance outside of a strictly aesthetic context, situates Afrofuturism somewhat as an epistemology, stating that "Afrofuturism is a way of re-contextualizing and assessing history and imagining the future of the peoples of the African Diaspora via science, science fiction, technology, sound, architecture, the visual and culinary arts, and other more nimble and interpretive modes of research and understanding" [4].

back to top  Situating Afrofuturism Within the HCD Discourse

As the complexity of the aforementioned engineering challenges facing humanity is better recognized and understood, importing more diverse perspectives to inform the design of more inclusive future technological solutions in response is paramount. Afrofuturism offers a means by which to satisfy this imperative.

It is well understood within the HCD world that the stakes are high. Thus, it is important that the human-centered designer, in this milieu, think and act—specifically, by imagining more inclusively—to conceive and deliver solutions of benefit to all of humanity. Unfortunately, as a function of the depoliticization of engineering and the homogeneity in perspectives, beliefs, and values of those often privileged to engage in such grand design exercises, a more monolithic view of user and context of use often prevails. This narrow perspective indicative of the status quo not only constrains the design exploration but also fosters future technological solutions that are ignorant of the needs and considerations of often marginalized and disenfranchised groups, such as black/African Americans in the U.S. While this is an unintended consequence of the designer's decision making, the implications can be profound.

Cast primarily in an epistemological sense in connecting with HCD, Afrofuturism represents a means by which diverse solution possibilities can be cultivated and realized, expanding the solution space both in novelty and, equally as important, inclusivity. Inclusivity matters in technology design. Without appropriate processes, countermeasures, and advocacy, we risk constructing technologies that "mirror a narrow and privileged vision of society, with its old, familiar biases and stereotypes" [5]. This challenge vividly and unfortunately reminds me of an essay in the Atlantic entitled "Technology Versus African Americans" by Anthony Walton. He states that:

... blacks have participated as equals in the technological world only as consumers, otherwise existing on the margins of the ethos that defines the nation, underrepresented as designers, innovators, and implementers of our systems and machines. As a group, they have suffered from something that can loosely be called technological illiteracy. Though this has not been the point of technological innovation, it has undeniably been its fallout. It is important that we understand and come to terms with this now; there are technological developments in the making that could permanently affect the destiny of black Americans, as Americans and as global citizens [6].

Afrofuturism offers a potential antidote to this thesis. Complementary to (and often lacking in) speculative and critical design approaches such as science fiction prototyping (which uses science fiction to speculate on technology and the future), Afrofuturism facilitates a more empathic design engagement that explicitly places the often disenfranchised black voice central in the design narrative, with an intent of universal betterment through and by technology.

back to top  A Case Study: More Inclusive Wearable Technology Designs for Black/African-American Women

In the context of my current work in exploring the experience-design aspects of connected fitness technologies (e.g., activity-tracking technologies such as Fitbit devices), Afrofuturism has been transformative in motivating design decision making for more inclusive and impactful designs. This is particularly true in the design and engagement of wearable technologies by black/ African-American women, for whom considerable health disparities exist.

A recent study confirms earlier anecdotal evidence that suggests the skin color (i.e., skin pigmentation) of participants affects the accuracy of wrist-based devices that use optical heart-rate monitors [7]. This inaccuracy results in higher error rates when extrapolating energy expenditure (i.e., caloric burn). In particular, errors are worse for participants with darker skin [8]. This is truly problematic, especially as the potential of wearable technology in increasing physical activity levels is viewed as promising in mitigating many of the health disparities experienced by black/African-American women.

Algorithmically, these technologies are also seemingly lacking in responding to the physiology of the black body. Countering the assumption that the energy needs of individuals with the same body weight are the same, a recent study offers evidence that indicates that black/African-American women have lower energy requirements than Caucasian women. This means that black/African-American women must burn more calories to achieve a weight loss similar to that experienced by Caucasian women [9]. This evidence, coupled with the discussed error rates, suggests that the use of wearable technologies by black/African-American women in gauging and tracking caloric burn may actually be leading to behaviors counter to their weight-loss goals and/or objectives. Truly, technology, in this case, is not working for all.

Moreover, the type and nature of insights offered by these technologies to motivate the user in increasing physical activity often differs. Current technologies focus on more quantitative measures (e.g., calories burned or number of steps taken). However, more qualitative representations of collected and analyzed quantitative measures might be more appropriate in engendering behavioral change around physical activity, especially for black/African-American women.

This is illustrated in insights offered by the work and success of GirlTrek, an organization whose aim is to "inspire black women to change their lives and communities by walking." In a recent New York Times piece, GirlTrek is described as a success in spurring behavior change through more qualitative approaches:

They don't talk about hypertension or body mass index, but about feeling less anxious and having more energy. They don't talk about looking good, but about looking alive: having the "GirlTrekglow." They inspire women with images of courage and dignity. "They have lots of process motivators around black history—walking as Harriet Tubman did or retracing the steps at Selma" [10].

By placing the voice of the GirlTrek women central in solution-space exploration—in the vein of engaging an Afrofuturism design lens—a re-imagined narrative depicting the relationship of user to insights, in motivating physical activity, unfolds, and a re-contextualized design space emerges. More ecologically and culturally situated design solutions are now enabled and fostered.

Imagine the design possibilities. Figures 1 to 3, realized in collaboration with Marcel L. Walker, an artist from Pittsburgh, offer such a speculative design exploration. Figure 1 reflects an augmented reality concept centered on notions of community in inspiring behavioral change through the couching of physical activity levels within a global collective context. Figure 2 offers an activity-centric concept that highlights the application of material and styling in both depicting and enhancing physical activity performance. Figure 3 depicts a design instantiation that features a chest-positioned form factor that leverages visual elements (e.g., glow) in portraying physical activity levels. While these designs are not meant to be implemented as imagined, these speculative design artifacts are intended to provoke and trigger a more inclusive design exploration and debate about both users and the context of use.

ins02.gif Figure 1. Global pulse concept.
ins03.gif Figure 2. Activity-centric concept.
ins04.gif Figure 3. Glow concept.

So, how did the current state of affairs evolve? How did a class of technologies with such potential for societal benefit come to exist while being limited in both use and relevance to diverse groups? By no means am I suggesting that what is being witnessed is deliberate. Other variables are often at play—evolving technological capabilities (e.g., sensor technologies), market pressures, limited design and evaluation resources, and, as stated earlier, simply the frequent homogeneity in voice and perspective in technology design commonly hamper more inclusive efforts. However, these factors, individually or collectively, cannot be given a pass; their consequences—the potential disenfranchisement of a core user group—simply dismissed as collateral damage. Frankly, we as an HCD community know and have known better (e.g., "you are not the user").

back to top  Leveraging Afrofuturism in HCD

Thus, in unpacking Afrofuturism's value and power within the HCD space in "knowing better," three points of leverage become apparent:

  • A lens for more empathic design engagements. Aligned with the core tenets and emerging concepts of HCD such as systems thinking, value-sensitive design (VSD), culture-centered design, value-oriented and culturally informed approach (VCIA), and post-colonial computing, Afrofuturism as a design lens fosters empathy. Afrofuturism, in supporting a deeper design engagement, offers degrees of design freedom in exposing and countering the "unexamined assumptions" that often constrain and limit the solution space. As such, Afrofuturism helps to make visible how traditional HCD design practices can be, while not necessarily intentionally, both culturally located and power laden.
  • A pathway for inclusion in the engagement of the imagination in HCD. Echoing Bruce Sterling, Afrofuturism can plug the imagination gap, offering a better and potentially more inclusive imagining of future possibilities in technological design. Afrofuturism in application affords a more structured engagement of the imagination in design decision making, albeit more tailored, supporting speculative design approaches such as science fiction prototyping [11] and inclusive design frameworks such as equityXdesign [12]. Afrofuturism offers a framing for exploring and understanding the potential ramifications of the technology (e.g., step 3 of the science fiction prototyping process and design principle 5—speak to the future—of equityXdesign), specifically on diverse populations. As such, Afrofuturism lessens, in a proactive sense, the unintended consequences of design decisions.
  • A mechanism for engaging often underrepresented and disenfranchised groups, particularly black/African Americans in STEM. The value of Afrofuturism extends beyond the considerations of the black "perspective" in the process of designing future technologies, even as it ensures that this group—these voices—are central in the decision making and conversations around future systems. In increasing the needed representation of black voices in technology design, Afrofuturism provides leverage in engendering more active engagement of underrepresented voices in related STEM fields. As an example, the movie Black Panther, through its Afrofuturistic imagery, plotline, and premise, could inspire black/African-American young people to explore STEM and STEM careers, mirroring many of the discussions and outcomes of the STEM-engagement efforts spurred by the release of the movie Hidden Figures.

The HCI community is at a crucial junction. HCD and related approaches (e.g., design thinking) are often heralded as the saving grace in technology design and deployment for the betterment of all. However, as illustrated in the connected fitness space and as is clear in other contexts, design patterns, behaviors, and norms are being ingrained within the HCD culture and practice that, while unintentional, may lead to future technological solutions that do more harm than good.

Afrofuturism, as a countermeasure, affords greater reflection, intentionality, and voice to considerations of inclusion within the design process. While Afrofuturism in particular aids the designer in identifying those salient "cultural retentions that blacks/African Americans bring to the technologies that they use" [13], its use supports decision making that lends a more complete and inclusive picture of all people within the technology-design engagement. Afrofuturism, as such, is a design lens through which the needed motivation and actions can be both catalyzed and operationalized in increasing inclusivity and thus equity within the culture and processes of HCD.

back to top  References

1. Winchester III, W.W. REALizing our messy futures: Toward culturally responsive design tools in engaging our deeper dives. Interactions 17, 6 (2010), 14–19.

2. Dery, M., ed. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC, 1994.

3. Womack, Y. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago Review Press, 2013.

4. Castro, J.G. Sanford Biggers: Music, Afrofuturism, and re-envisioning history Castro. Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. Aug. 14, 2013; https://www.nyubrn.org/sanford-biggers-music-afrofuturism-and-re-envisioning-history-interview-by-jan-garden-castro/

5. Crawford, K. Artificial intelligence's white guy problem. The New York Times. June 25, 2016; https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/opinion/sunday/artificial-intelligences-white-guy-problem.html

6. Walton, A. Technology versus African Americans. The Atlantic. (Jan. 1999); https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/01/technology-versus-african-americans/377392/

7. Profis, S. Do wristband heart trackers actually work? A checkup. Cnet. May 22, 2014; https://www.cnet.com/uk/news/how-accurate-are-wristband-heart-rate-monitors/

8. Shcherbina, A., Mattsson, C.M., Waggott, D., Salisbury. H., Christle, J.W., Hastie, T., Wheeler, M.T., and Ashley, E.A. Accuracy in wrist-worn, sensor-based measurements of heart rate and energy expenditure in a diverse cohort. Journal of Personalized Medicine 7, 2 (2017), 3.

9. Jakicic, J.M., and Wing, R.R. Differences in resting energy expenditure in African-American vs. Caucasian overweight females. International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders 22, 3 (1998).

10. Bornstein, D. Walking together for health and spirit. New York Times Opinionator. April 5, 2016; https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/05/walking-to-build-spirit-as-well-as-health/

11. Johnson, B.D. Science fiction prototyping: Designing the future with science fiction. Synthesis Lectures on Computer Science 3, 1 (2011), 1–190.

12. Guzman, O. and Marie, C. equityXdesign: Leveraging identity development in the creation of an anti-racist equitable design thinking process. Harvard Graduate School of Education; https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/33774659

13. Anderson, T. and Stewart, J.B. Introduction to African American studies: Transdisciplinary approaches and implications. Black Classic Press, 2007.

back to top  Author

Woodrow W. Winchester, III, is an associate professor of engineering management and coordinator of graduate engineering programs at Robert Morris University. A trained human factors engineer and fitness enthusiast, he brings with him a strong passion for the health and wellness space with interests that seek to advance an understanding of connected fitness technologies in improving health outcomes, especially among marginalized populations. woodrow.winchesteriii@gmail.com

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