A robot on a hill looking into a stroller against the backdrop of a starry night.

Technology should serve humanity. Not the other way round.

03.12.18

Is it possible to be a sustainable organisation and yet have a positive impact on the world? As designers, we mostly focus on finding solutions to problems. But that’s too short-sighted. We also need to think about how the problem that we’re trying to solve is framed. Doing so, we’ll quickly realise that a hefty dose of humanism needs to be injected into most problems: Who are you designing this for? What problems of your users are you trying to solve? What will they do with your technology?

In the end, designers shouldn’t simply execute a vision someone else brought to the table. Instead, our job is to prototype a more humane future. And that requires asking critical questions, because not every problem is worth solving.

Is meaningful business possible?

At least that’s how we see things at Nothing. But we wanted to know what others think. That’s why we invited three speakers to share their view at our “Meaningful business” event on November, 15, 2018. Sebastian Buckup, Head of Programming at the World Economic Forum, started off with a talk about the power of narratives. Then, Timon Zimmermann and Matteo Togninalli of Visium shared a case study on the potential of artificial intelligence and humans working together. And finally, we got inspired by Kate Beecroft talking about how decentralisation and the blockchain can help pave new paths in order to use business for good. Three totally different views, three totally different talks. Let’s recap what they had to say.

The power of narratives

Everyone sees the world from their own perspective. We tell ourselves stories about how things came to be and what needs to be done. Such narratives shape the way we see and change the world. And in order to use technology to create a more humane world, we need to take the narratives into our own hands.

Sebastian urged us all to look to both the rational and the emotional aspects of humans in order to drive change. There’s no point in focusing merely on debating and convincing others to adopt your point of view. There’s a real need to collaborate and to see others as human beings with their own needs and fears—it doesn’t matter whether they’re our family, our neighbours or distant people in a different country. He showcased how technology and design can help bridge the gap between people. For instance by experiencing a day in the life of a refugee not through a documentary but by actually going through it using virtual reality technology: living in a tent with dirty clothes, trying to carry everything you treasure everywhere you go, overcoming obstacles that seem impossible to mount. Design can help here if we use it as a tool to get people to think in novel and different ways about the future. The key word is “possibility.” Design should open up instead of closing off new opportunities. After all, these are our chances to drive change and tackle meaningful problems.

Using AI for good

One of the main technological disruptions of the present and future is certainly artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of fear, doubt and false hopes surrounding the possibility of algorithms becoming more and more sophisticated: from taking away our jobs, reducing the world to a pile of paper clips to helping medical diagnoses. But is there a way to actually use that technology as a tool that serves us?

Matteo and Timon shared a case study with us where the goal was to implement artificial intelligence into production without making humans irrelevant: in the quality control for industrial crystals. They believe that one of the main lessons is that good AI will always need humans that frame the problem and envision new solutions. That’s because machines are usually really bad at thinking outside of the box.

Furthermore, as soon as an algorithm finds a solution that delivers the intended results, it’s important to shed light on the process that delivers the outcome. To create understanding in the technology and how it’s applied, the veil needs to be lifted and designers and developers need the explain how the machine works and what it can deliver.

Finally, Timon and Matteo believe that humans and algorithms can live in harmony. They can use their individual talents and capabilities to create synergies that would otherwise lay barren. In the end, you get the best results when humans are still in the loop.

Autonomy through decentralisation

Centralised governance is a thing of the past. More and more organisations shy away from strict top-down hierarchies to experiment with different organisational forms—within business and outside. But: How can we make decentralisation scaleable?

Kate thinks that the technological potential of the blockchain, decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) and smart contracts is just as important as the more human aspects of empathy and true coordination. If we want to truly become a global movement of self-organisation, we need to exploit the technologies that are on offer and use them for good. Now that we’re residing in “cryptowinter” is the right time to embrace the blockchain and use it to rethink how we cooperate, vote, take decisions and organise ourselves. In the end, it might be the tool that helps us escape some of the problems of hierarchical and centralised structures. But even if we use this technology for good, we can’t leave the human aspects aside. After all, for most of us that’s why we show up for work. Producing apps and processes simply isn’t enough. We want to work with others to help others. That’s why Kate thinks we need to let go of our ego-states and “show up with radical trust and love for our colleagues”.

Keeping the conversation alive

That’s just a short summary of the key points from our “Meaningful business” event. The topic is of course much larger than that — so, let’s keep the conversation alive. We want to be challenged and we want to create new opportunities for technology to be used in a more humane way. Is the blockchain the future for decentralised organisations? Will future businesses be rid of strict hierarchies? Will human superintelligence take over the world? If yes, how can we stop this? Or: Should we stop this? We’d love to hear your thoughts!