Society Centered Design

Von Nicolas Olberg @nic_digital auf Twitter
7. February 2020

When "User Centered Thinking" endangers society

When I take a closer look at the political discussions around the world, the challenges around technology and digitalization are almost non-existent. Consequently, in Germany this topic is not part of the day-to-day political events, either. Actually, the topic is spread over many ministries of the german government. Something that I appreciate, as digitalization is not a separate issue.  It affects numerous central aspects of our lifes and so this is precisely why the digitisation of business models, jobs, housing or healthcare should be placed at the centre of the political debate. A sustainable and agile design of digital solutions by the EU, federal and state governments should ensure that such developments and their consequences for a society are considered wisely and accompanied by guidelines. Unfortunately, that is not the case today.

At the same time, companies compete with each other at an impressive pace in defining better digital solutions. IT and algorithm-controlled processes become more and more integrated into our everyday lifes, whether it is the way to our workplaces in the morning, the process of granting loans, the classification in an insurance tariff or the success of a job application. Looking to our clients projects and ideas, more use cases are already in place. Further, the chinese social scoring system demonstrates dramatically the extent to which digitalization can take over our lifes. Unfortunately, I do not expect any consistent initiatives or responsibilities of politicians any time soon.

Take responsibility

From my point of view, however, it can help if companies aim to a much greater responsibility for society. I see two central aspects for this: 

First, companies must intensify their dialogue with politicians and, secondly, they need to develop a claim to act in a much more society-centered manner in order to gain the trust of their users and the surrounding society. Inspired by a very similar demand by Andrea Krajewski, professor at the University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt, I simply classify this way of thinking as "Society Centered Design". I am convinced that this has tobe the consequent following step to "User Centered Design" as it implies an answer to many problems of our time. Read the thoughts of Andrea Krajewski here in full length.

Society Centered Design

As part of the wider term "Society Centered Design", I am particularly interested in the design of the digital business model. When we look at modern business models, aspects such as "convenience" or "speed" are often at the heart of their value proposition. Values that initially have a very positive effect on an individual, but can have a negative influence on society, as well. This can happen if the value proposition promotes individualism and selfishness and tends to prioritise societal cohesion lower. Take AirBnB as an example: Users can easily find wonderful rooms and apartments right in the centre of popular cities. At the same time, cities such as Venice, Munich and Barcelona are struggling with housing shortages. Instead of making housing available to the housing market, many landlords are now opting for high daily rents from tourists and AirBnB. The business models of Facebook or Amazon Prime Delivery likewise promote the comfort of the individual but have significant social side effects as well.

To my view, we cannot free ourselves from the responsibility for our work in designing digital products. In 2016, Federico Donelli wrote in an article in Medium in a very similar context the following:

"We continuously track huge amount of data and analytics, we make tests, we design tools, features and campaigns in order to control users behaviour, brand exposure and buying impulses. At the same time we know that the way we design tech products have a huge impact on how people will behave, on their emotions, and ultimately on their lives. So how do we deal with this moral responsibility?

(Click here for the full article at

At least, I can incorporate this social impact, both negative and positive, in the design of my business model and consider how it can be compensated if necessary. Even if many consequences are not directly foreseeable, business models can be adapted over time.

Putting the community at the centre

The topic becomes even more relevant when we look at the increased use of AI solutions. Because I observe that many people are even more sceptical than in the past about whether these are more like a weapon or an opportunity. This question is not new and has already occupied society at the time of the first railways or cars. So why is there such a high level of scepticism? My thesis: AI is even less tangible than revolutions of the past and at least today it finds an even smaler circle of people who actually understand the matter.

To my view, this confirms the need to apply a much more society-centered approach in this field. This includes working closely with governments and pushing the approach of "put the public first". I am convinced that this way can create much more confidence in digital solutions and that topics like AI get a positive vision. Creating these positive visions and looking optimistically into the future are fundamental to moving beyond populism, as populism exploits the pessimistic view of the future and drives the political debate crazy by adding something like a phantom pain of the society.