Where Science Meets Muse

Will Technological Innovation Eliminate the Perceived Necessity for Social Change?

Posted by Plish on May 12, 2010

Conferences are great in that they make you think.

Today was no different.  While attending the Design Research Conference in Chicago today I heard references to technology being the great equalizer.   Those specific words weren’t used, but during one case study looking at the redesign of a hearing aid,  an elderly gentleman noted how when he uses current hearing aid technologies, their designs don’t disguise the fact he’s losing his hearing and in fact draw attention to it.  The result is that he feels marginalized by society.  The solution, obviously, was a better designed hearing aid that utilized really cool technology that didn’t draw attention to itself but yet made the hearer’s life easier.

First, let me say that there’s nothing wrong with utilizing technology to make the lives of the elderly easier.   But the above case study, and another mention of the ‘saving value’ of technology yesterday, got me thinking.

So, I did a Google search of “technology” and “save us” and the two phrases together bring up 934,000 hits. Apparently, I’m not the only one seeing a pattern.

Again, I’m not against technology at all, but if we rely on technology to come to the rescue of our designs, then  aren’t we missing the point?

The point is well articulated in the  following quote from here:

…(A)ll of technological optimism can be summed up in one desire: The desire not to have to change any of our current behaviors. And, yet it is our behavior that most of all needs changing.

That’s the crux of the issue – behaviors.

Here we are, innovating for a better world but at the same time, by extensively using technology we tacitly agree that the world and the people around us aren’t going to change their behaviors.  So, we use technology to make it less painful for those marginalized by society so they can live in a world of people who are cold.   Something doesn’t seem right here.

Now, to be fair, we’re talking about designing devices, so the design project’s charter does not include designing a better society per se.  But, this doesn’t mean that using technology to create a buffer against the indifference of the world doesn’t raise questions like:  

If we get efficient at palliating social stigmas through technology, will we reach a cultural tipping point where the desire to improve one’s self is no longer felt as a need because everyone around us seems ok?

Is that an acceptable situation? Is this a real possibility?  What could we do to prevent it from happening if it is?

Why does  IDEO’s approach to design thinking and Tim Brown’s definition below have to include technology as a given?

“Design thinking is an approach that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods for problem solving to meet people’s needs in a technologically feasible and commercially viable way. In other words, design thinking is human-centered innovation.”

Does the definition for human centered innovation have to include the necessity of technology?

What do you think?


8 Responses to “Will Technological Innovation Eliminate the Perceived Necessity for Social Change?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Plishka. Michael Plishka said: Will Technological Innovation Elimination The Perceived Necessity for Social Change? #drc10: http://wp.me/pkQcg-x3 […]

  2. krash63 said

    I’m not certain I agree with the premise that using technology to change behaviors is inferior to the need for personal behavior change. For example, if you define technology broadly, a statin is a technology. It lowers cholesterol very effectively, more so than changes in diet in most cases. So, aren’t we, as a society and a person better off using the “technology” to make us healthier than to depend on a dietary changes of behavior, which have abysmally low success rates.

    One could argue that bad behaviors are presently designed into the system (inclusive of technology). Fast food is cheap through technology, easy to get through technology. Is it easier to get millions of people to stop eating fast food by convincing them to personally change their behavior, or can technology design a systems change that makes that behavior change for them?

    Obviously its a multi variate solution and self empowerment is an important element, but I would suggest that technology gives us the power of scale and of sustainability which we’ve never been able to achieve, one person, one behavior at a time.

  3. Plish said

    Kristi, I actually pretty much agree with your comments above. I don’t think it’s either/or with technology but both/and. Like I said in the post, I’m definitely pro-technology. However, it’s still a tool that helps us get where we want to be. What happens though is that under pressures of needing a fix it can become the hit we need to make it through another ‘pain’free day. Statins are a good example of something that don’t really make us healthier per se but help us continue lifestyles that are not healthy. Statins mess with our blood chemistry in ways that aren’t really good for us but we play the odds that those necessary evils outweigh the negatives of not having it all. On the contrary, a healthy lifestyle has no downsides other than it’s hard to live a healthy lifestyle.

    That’s where you’re right on. If technology can support self-empowerment and mutual regard for others on a grand, sustainable scale when it’s implemented in a solution then it’s a good thing.

    The point that keeps coming back to my mind is that if we assume technology can help us in an easy fashion (like the statin example), we simply don’t structure our problem statement to include the fact that our solution might create problems – we leave out the human factor. For example, it’s been shown that there is an aspect of living in obese neighborhoods that supports people staying obese. Statins may run to the rescue here to lower everyone’s cholesterol but at its core there is still a problem, a very human problem.

    It’s very similar to this situation in which an apartment in a lousy neighborhood effectively isolates its tenants from the neighborhood. Great for those in the complex but it also can be self-defeating. That’s my point. If I were the one designing a hearing aid, I’m not sure I would consider the reverse social impact that it might have. I’d use the best technology available to help that person out. But, perhaps that company needs to start some social movement to get others to see that aging isn’t something evil, that old people aren’t any less human for getting old. Tall order? Big time! But it’s the awareness of the both/and, technology as solution/negative-behavioral-reinforcement, that should always be part of the innovation equation.

    What do you think?

  4. krash63 said

    I agree in essence. So let me test this and see if we’re tracking. If instead of prescribing and relying on sketchy levels of compliance with hypertensive meds, we engineered sodium out of the food supply, effectively lowering blood pressure in the population, that would be good. But it doesn’t necessarily raise the understanding of the damage hypertension can do, especially for those who still have it after the environmental intervention.

    I also totally agree with the “reverse engineering” example you give and do believe it relates not just to “technology fixes” but any intervention that needs to ask the bigger questions.

    Thanks for extending the conversation. Fascinating stuff.

  5. Plish said


    Yup, I think we’re tracking together, here.

    Thanks for contributing!!

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