Design and Exclusion

Joan Shigekawa – A message on Opportunities Missed from Excluded Voices

Amy Choi: Now, onto a keynote I am so excited about as a personal beneficiary of the NEA.

Joan Shigekawa, former acting chairwoman of the National Endowment of the Arts and a longtime executive at the Rockefeller foundation is here to talk to us about how we marshal our creative talents to help those most in need. Art is the future guys, and Joan is here to help us pave the way.



Joan Shigekawa [JS]: When we talk about exclusion from design, exclusion from technology and exclusion from art, what we are really asking is, who exactly is building the future infrastructure for collaboration, for communication and for creativity in our country? And who’s country is it? When the data tells us that there are so many voices missing from the fields of technology, art and design. And that these fields are dominated by a single subset of people who share 2 characteristics. They’re white and they are male.

What opportunities do we miss when we exclude voices from technology, art and design – first we certainly miss opportunities of imagination. Here is Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, about what art does.

Quote, “Art makes space. It makes space for aspiration. It makes a space to instigate change. It creates space through the ability to provide the opportunity for dialogue. The opportunity for reflection. So the kind of space making, the mental space the intellectual space, the emotional space – the political space that art creates is what makes it such a disruptive force.” And I would add, such a force for change. Art shapes our storytelling and creates our images. When most women and most people of color are missing from the picture, we are in fact missing the ideas and energy of the majority of Americans. Ideas and energy which could create new modes of communication, new products and services, an new approaches to complex problems.

Second, what opportunities are we missing when technology design is dominated by one kind of person? When our field of vision in technology is narrow, we limit the range of ideas for a vibrant user experience. We block opportunities for participation. Thus, when we learn that IBM has recently hired 1,000 designers to join their engineering teams, in an effort to create innovation at the interface between humans and machines – we have to ask. Who are these designers and what range of human experience do their choices reflect?

And when we learn that designers are hard at work on the internet of things we have to ask, who are these designers? And what are the incentives for them to design for those most in need? In the past 10 years, we’ve come to the realization that designers have been trained to focus their attention on the top 10% of the world’s population. And 90% of the world’s population does not benefit from design in their daily lives. It was a museum which highlighted the issue of inequality in design as a national concern. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum with their groundbreaking exhibition – Design for the Other 90%. This show demonstrated how design had the potential to be a lifesaving force at home and around the world.

And in her second show, Design with the Other 90% the curator, Cynthia Smith, went onto demonstrate how the power of design could be even further strengthened through collaboration with grassroots innovators and end users. If currently excluded voices are not part of the ongoing design process, how will we ensure that access to technology’s innovations will remain open to all? Failure to enable access for all citizens represents not only a missed opportunity but also a threat to democracy’s goal of equality. How do we design technology and create communication that builds bridges across our differences and doesn’t drive us to talk only to people who are just like ourselves. For example, how do we design a system to enable art, science and technology to compliment each other’s thinking and generate new ideas.

How do we build a platform for interaction among groups who have very different beliefs and value systems? These are all design issues. American innovation must be able to access the full range of ideas and cultural imagination available to us or we may not be able to solve the complex problems that we face. But there is good news. We have proof that if you build platforms for full participation – platforms which do away with command and control structures. Platforms that are open to all and not just to experts. You can tackle complex challenges with success. Here are just 3 examples and you probably know of many more. Think about the early days of the wiki more than 2 decades and what amazing access to knowledge it has produced.

Next consider InnoCentive – a company which developed open innovation through crowdsourcing by involving anyone to provide solutions to research and development problems in applied science. And last, consider Joi Ito’s grassroots citizen science action to measure levels of radiation around the world. It began with a nuclear power plant accident in Japan which put his family in danger. He started with a question the government was not answering about how much radiation exposure his family had sustained. Joi who is now head of the Media Lab at MIT instantly asked for help from the internet. Others contributed resources, ideas and data and the collaboration grew until an interactive network of knowledge was built. They named it, Safecast and it is now the world’s largest open data set of radiation measurements. Joey Ito’s central point is that to build the project, they used a compass and not a map. They did not stop to map out a grand plan – but rather built solutions to each obstacle as it came up. Now these examples are all very different. But what they have in common is a faith in human intuition and imagination. And a commitment to inclusion.

Let me quote Joi Ito one last time. Quote: “So I think the good news is that even though the world is extremely complex, what you need to do is very simple. Focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware and super present. Now these are the attributes of art. The tools of design and the building blocks of technology. And this is how we can make a 21st century America that includes all of us. Our best ideas, our many dreams for the future.”

Thank you.