Designing Better Digital Futures

By Emily Woolgar, Head of Marketing & Design

Introducing #10 in #TeamPTHR’s Unorthodox and Unplugged blog series. Brought to us by Emily Woolgar (that’s me!) as Head of Marketing and Design and the introductory narrator throughout this team blog series. It’s been a pleasure coordinating the series to hear from all the voices at PTHR and share a bit more of ourselves, our thoughts, and our ideas. Thanks for the continued support from all those who have followed along the journey – and looking forward to sharing what’s next! My contribution today explores the power of digital design and infrastructure, a topic on which I am quite passionate.



As a design enthusiast and self-professed creative spirit, I was particularly amused when I stumbled across French artist, Jacques Carelman’s Catalogue of Impossible Objects (1969), and in particular his Coffeepot for Masochists made famous for its perfectly useless design, albeit cheeky and emotive sentiment.


It got me thinking about how integral and influential design is on our experience of the world and how we exist within it. This fundamental truth is not new but easily forgotten, like our inattention to our own breath and how it powers us throughout the world. And just as meditation re-centres us to the miracle of our consciousness and breath, curiosity and observation leaves us surprised by the profound effect our surroundings play on our actions.


We are shocked into remembrance of this every time we slam into a ‘pull’ door that breaks the unconscious rules of design, light the wrong burner on an old stove with unintuitive labeling, or trip on a staircase that deviates from standardised height expectations.


What’s more, the effects of design extend into all realms of life including the digital universe, and often in more consequential ways than the momentary embarrassment of a public door fumble. 


The impact of digital design is increasingly important with the growing amounts of time we spend in this space, even more so as the impact of a Global Pandemic has purported to record spikes in internet usage. In April this year, UK adults spent longer than four hours online each day – more than a quarter of waking life. This was an increase of over half an hour since January, with a third of this time spent on sites owned by Facebook or Google. Millions of people were reported using online video services for the first time with experts proposing a, “lasting digital legacy” from lockdown (Independent). Though 2020 has brought sustained spikes in internet usage, increasing digital connectivity has been on the rise since its inception. Experts currently estimate there to be 31 billion active Internet of Things devices (ex. Smartwatches), equating to nearly 4 devices for every person on Earth. This is set to reach 75 billion connected to the web by 2025 (Security Today).


The point here is since we are intrinsically influenced by the design of the spaces in which we operate – the digital space ought to be a consideration.


This goes for both creators and users, especially with the general ambiguity that comes with the current state of rapid digital change. Just as the stark design differences between a concert hall and a library impact our behaviour, so too does the architecture of the digital world. However, the key difference is a lack of broadly held knowledge and understanding of the design influences at play in the world of the internet.


This creates vulnerability for corruption to be designed into a system, and unfortunately, there are all too many examples of corruptive pursuits for money, power, and influence infecting our digital spaces.



…It’s how systemic inequality and financial exploitation using big data and algorithmic profiling, is laughed off among friends as “our phones must be listening to us”. 


The systems designed to track and store evidence of consumer activity are not inherently bad. It allows for a personalized UX and feeds filled with content we enjoy. However, this often derails into harmful algorithmic profiling and exploitation – and the stakes are high with big data mining described as the “oil” of the internet. Understandably so, with companies like Google generating US$135 billion in ad revenue during 2019 alone, and IBM seeing a “zero to US$10 billion per annum return” three years after implementing direct-marketing planning (Statista)(Housden, 2016). Both have successfully designed digital spaces informed by our data to shape profitable behavioural outcomes – but here’s where things go sideways.


Algorithmic profiling allows the same goods to be offered at different prices to specific consumer groups, known as price discrimination. Arguably acceptable, except this has been shown to overwhelmingly disadvantage low-income groups who do not have easy access to viable alternatives (Newman, 2014).


Similarly, profiling has been shown to target uneducated, poor, at-risk, and elderly groups (with some horrifying case studies directly targeting Alzheimer’s patients) for payday loans and financial scams (Newman, 2014).


Other research has revealed deep seeded racial targeting and economic profiling for subprime mortgages, high interest loans, and credit card terms reinforcing widespread systemic inequality. People of colour offered these subprime mortgages were 30% more likely to be charged higher interest rates compared to white borrowers with similar credit ratings. Wells Fargo was exposed for illegally steering an estimated 30,000 Black and Hispanic lenders from 2004 to 2009 into more costly subprime mortgages and charging them higher fees than comparable white borrowers (Newman, 2014). Further examples of bias, stereotyping, and discrimination can be evidenced in countless destructive ads that play into degrading, and frankly lazy, interpretations of each other.


Data is power. Consider this: one petabyte is equivalent to 20 million traditional filing cabinets of text; Walmart is estimated to create 2.5 petabytes of consumer data every hour (HBR). Our data holds value (trillions in fact!) and many of us unconsciously give it away or have it taken from us by systems that are not always designed with the user at heart. If we hope to ever truly stand against systemic injustice in our world, we must also address the inextricably tied digital world that serves as an extension and reflection of this system.


-Power –

…It’s how political interference that threatens democracy and shapes more divided, divisive, and dogmatic people; is dismissed as “it’s just politics”.


This is what happened in the 2016 US election, the Brexit movement, and the tumultuous Caribbean elections (The Great Hack, Netflix). The echo chamber design of social media was infiltrated by Cambridge Analytica to create personalized and targeted slur campaigns, successfully displacing unbiased information as well any diversity of perspective.


In the US election, 87 million people had their Facebook information illegally obtained in order to build psychological profiles of citizens and voters. Entire populations of people had been systematically profiled using 5,000 key data points, while their informational environments were controlled and censored. With this data, Cambridge Analytica was able to deliver targeted narratives, both unfounded and at times simply fraudulent, with the aim to ignite a culture war, suppress voter turnout in key demographics, and exacerbate discriminatory bias in others (Time). In a chilling comment from Christopher Wylie, a whistle blower from Cambridge Analytica, “if you run campaigns designed to undermine people’s ability to make free choices and to understand what is real and not real, you are undermining democracy and treating voters in the same way as you are treating terrorists” (Campaign Live).



…It’s why we get lost in endless scrolling sessions and look up to find it’s dark out.


Sometimes the negative impacts of digital design are not truly understood until it is too late, even by its creators. This is the case with Aza Raskin, the inventor of the infinite scroll on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. This simple UX innovation, effectively removing the ‘next page’ button, is estimated to waste 200,000 lifetimes a day! Raskin admits to seriously regretting the invention and acknowledges, “we’re losing control of the tools we made” (The Daily Telegraph). Though the sentiment is admirable, the effects are irreversible, and to the ultimate financial benefit of tech giants able to keep eyeballs on screens for longer.


By design, this has supported smartphone addiction and our increasing need for stimulus and instant gratification. The infinite scroll, like buttons, push notifications, pull to refresh, video auto-play, and high saturation warm tone colour stories are all contributors to phone addiction and inadvertently the rise of viral culture. Does anyone remember the Gangnam Style music video of 2012? In the time spent watching this (admittedly amusing) video we could have built the great pyramids 4.5 times over totalling 16,000 years – yikes! (The Economist)


…But, it’s not all bad news!
Whew. Thank goodness if you’ve stuck with me while I’ve waded into the controversy of ‘money, politics and…social’ 😉


In fact, it’s more than just good. When the influential power of digital design is geared toward positive global outcomes, the possibilities hold no upper limit, and we can find many noble examples:



…Software-design for sustainability!


Just as we build eco friendly houses, the same principles can be applied to digital structures. A great example of this comes from Danny Van Kooten, a Dutch programmer and the inventor of a WordPress plug-in that helps 2 million website owners integrate Mailchimp. Initially, his desire to reduce his carbon footprint was led by no longer eating meat or flying. Then 5 months later a 2-hour coding session to ‘re-factor’, or streamline, his plug-in was able to reduce the global monthly CO2 output by 59,000 kilograms. This is approximately the equivalent to flying from New York to Amsterdam and back 85 times. Not bad… and much easier says Danny than forgoing meat (Wired Magazine).


Furthermore, the power for eco-positive action through digital design isn’t limited to coders so long as we understand the designed systems behind our activities, and remain conscious of their impact. If every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email per day, it would cut 16 tons of carbon yearly, equal to 22 round-trip flights between New York and London. One might argue good manners are important -and they’re right- but it was also found that 49% of us often send thank-you emails to people “within walking distance” (Wired Magazine). These small behavioural changes make it easier than ever to be an ecowarrior.



…Artificial intelligence for humanitarian wins?


Both condemned and revered for its global disruption, AI is helping re-design the relationship between digital and physical realms. It’s doing so by shifting our experience of the world from reactive to proactive, and no longer simply predicting the future, but shaping it. 


I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Amir Haramaty, from Spark Beyond, an Israeli AI company while completing my Masters in Silicon Valley last year. He shared profound examples of how their AI tool has had astonishing social humanitarian impact across many sectors such as healthcare, governance, agriculture, and the environment. They’ve done so by designing an AI search engine formed around the premise of humans searching for knowledge, not just information. 


Using the tool, they were able to amplify the ability for early detection of colon cancer 13 times over, with early intervention being the most crucial survival indicator.


At Rikers Island, one of the most notoriously dangerous prisons in America, the AI engine was able to reduce inmate violence 40% by simply reassigning inmate cells in a different way.


Through their causality studio they were able to identify causal relationships – a significant step on from establishing correlations. They discovered flooding environmental disasters as a predictor for spikes in human trafficking and were thus able to dispatch protective support to mitigate crime before it took place.


The tool was able to present solutions for Bromine repurposing, once deemed humanly impossible. By week 3 they had a plethora of hypotheses for the environmentally toxic chemical, 78% of which had never been considered by the world’s leading experts.


The company has worked with global leaders within the United Nations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Governments trialing evidence-based policy and many others to design a better future.


Spark Beyond exemplifies how we might fundamentally reimagine the design of our digital universe for profoundly positive impact. They are humanizing the experience from searching for data to searching for knowledge and solutions. As famously said by Steve Jobs, “design is not just what it looks like and feels like, design is how it works”.


– Exponential Potential –

…It’s only up! – if that’s where we decide to go.


If I haven’t laboured the point enough already, the potential to do good through good design is boundless… and this is further underscored by the current rate of change and progress.


The world of technology is alive and ever evolving in its capacity, capability, and speed. It is the building that is never finished, following an exponential rate of change effectively doubling every decade – as defined by Moores Law’s fifth paradigm.


Because of this paradigm we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress according to today’s rate. In the “nineteenth century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it, and now in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, we’ve seen more advancement than in all of the nineteenth century”. By 2050, $1000 of computing will equal the processing power of all human brains on Earth (Kurzweil, 2001).


The exponential growth rate of computing is mirrored across an array of technologies from DNA sequencing gene maps; to data memory storage capacity and cost-performance; to communication transmission speed and bandwidth; to the overall growth of the internet (Kurzweil, 2001).


This law of accelerating returns in technological advancement directly correlates with other positive global trends too, such as the exponential curve in innovation and mass-adaptation thereof, the global GDP economy, manufacturing output and productivity, education and learning, and human life expectancy. The 21st century has also seen declines in extreme poverty, world hunger, child labour, child/childbirth mortality, and many other key measures (Vox).


– Let Good Design Prevail –

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” – Ken Blanchard


What’s clear is the necessity for a multidisciplinary approach. The digital universe in which we all hope to exist will not be built over pizza by coders in a Silicon Valley basement and controlled by the elite 1%.


Together we can design a better digital future for all.


Thinking back to the amusing absurdity of Carleman’s Coffeepot for Masochists – an anecdote for the importance of good design – we should not allow ourselves to become the punchline, burning our own hands at the peril of dangerous design. With so much at stake and the unlimited potential to design better digital futures, we have our work cut out for us!