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Everyday choices: Nitin Sawhney, how do we cooperate in times of crisis?

Professor of Practice Sawhney examines the role of technology and cooperation in crisis using transdisciplinary human-centered design practices.
Professori Nitin Sawhney istumassa rannalla, kuva: Veera Konsti
Photo: Veera Konsti.

Your field of research is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Tell me what you find most fascinating about it!

I tend to think of Human-Computer Interaction in parallel with Human-Centred Design. These increasingly affect almost every facet of our lives – and of society.

Human-centred design practices are embedded in most of the everyday digital appliances and services we use today. Various health and wellness applications, devices and services offering heart-rate, sleep and activity tracking, like the Apple Watch and Oura ring, as well as emerging contact-tracing applications, such as Koronavilkku, released by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), are all developed using thoughtful HCI and human-centred design research. It’s inescapable that we need to make new technologies and services more evocative, engaging and better suited to our lives.

The field is highly trans-disciplinary and continues to evolve: it has sociologists, anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, product designers, computational data-scientists, and AI researchers among others. This is what excites me most: collaborating with people from so many different domains, who deeply care about understanding and enhancing human experience.

You have engaged in cooperation with artists, activists and social scientists. Which aspects of their thinking would you like to introduce to the field of technology?

I find myself constantly working with artists and activists on projects, and it’s rather liberating, because it changes how we critically engage with society outside the academic ivory tower. Artists can take a visceral or emotional approach to something, but they challenge our logical assumptions while channelling their sensibilities to create very unexpected outcomes.

I always tell my students that if we don’t find something unexpected then what are we really trying to do in our research? Science should always be examining the uncertainties in our lives, and that is something artists are confronting all the time.

The role of activists is also very crucial. When there is so much injustice in the world, activists take many risks to expose these fractures in society, offering an important reality check for scientists, helping us recognise that we cannot take a neutral position. I’ve come to believe that creating technology and engaging in design is always political.

Starting from your childhood, crises have often had an impact on your life. You have, for example, had to emigrate because of social upheavals. Has this taught you to be prepared for surprises?

When I was a child, we moved from New Delhi to Tehran, and of course, a revolution spurred in Iran in the seventies, so we had to uproot ourselves and relocate again. While living in the Middle East, I started to realise that crises are just a fact of life. There are many moments that we simply find ways to confront and build a kind of resilience, but we also have to recognise what we can learn something from every crisis.

A crisis often brings out the best in humanity and helps reimagine how it can transform us. It offers an opportunity to recalibrate society; an opportunity to devise more inclusive and integrative solutions, rather than just addressing only one aspect. For example, during this global pandemic we’ve begun to pay attention to the health and economic disparities around the world, and our relationship to wildlife, ecology and the climate; all of these unfolding crises are inter-related.

Do you have a personal toolkit for crisis management? What does it include?

It varies from place to place and each context needs adapting. In any crisis situation a lot of the work is in the planning and preparation. But generally, when you are in the middle of a crisis, you have to rely on good cooperation with others.

While living in New York City, I witnessed many crises from storms and hurricanes to social and economic protests; what’s extraordinary is how people who hardly know each other would quickly self-organise to take action in neighbourhoods. When there was no power in parts of the city due to flooding, grassroots communities were the first to provide relief on the ground, well before the city could effectively deploy emergency resources.

So, in addition to technological tools and infrastructures we need to nurture such resilient human systems to emerge and thrive. The challenge is designing platforms and practices to support such distributed and self-organized networks, rather than top-down institutions and hierarchical systems. This is something we experimented with through initiatives like OccupyDataNYC in New York City and MikroActs in Moscow.

We need to research how various micro-networks consisting of societal human response systems can be effective. I’ve learned to trust neighbourhood initiatives and cooperative action, but they can also collapse and are not easily scaled without the right support structures. I’ve examined the role of distributed co-production of knowledge and participatory design practices in such contexts.

In August, the world was shocked by the massive explosion in Beirut and the subsequent humanitarian catastrophe. What’s your prognosis regarding the rebuilding of the city? Could technology help in this effort?

To me, this is really a crisis of trust and politics, and we should not shy away from discussing that. If we only deal with the humanitarian aspects, the systemic concerns and factors enabling the crisis remain unchanged.

We have to critically examine the situation in Beirut from a historical perspective. Lebanon has been through many wars and overlapping crises that have nearly devastated its infrastructure, economy and governance over the years. Lebanon was already confronting, before the pandemic and this unfortunate catastrophe, mass public protests around economic inequity and corruption. This explosion amplified all of that, while exposing the deeper fractures in society and how dysfunctional the government had been.

This vibrant city will rebuild, for sure. There are certainly many potential technologies that can be leveraged, from using drones for 3D mapping and reconstruction to devising resilient architectures and smart urban infrastructures. But we should also consider how to improve collaborative governance: technologies of civic engagement to rebuild the democratic institutions.

Developing new platforms where people can engage more effectively in both dialogue and dissent, offer alternative visions of the city, while participating in transformation and shared governance, is crucial. In that sense, technology is only one of the many layers affecting such crises; we need to grapple with the larger cultural and socio-political complexities in society.

Every crisis offers an opportunity for radical shifts in technology, design and social practices, as we’ve already seen emerging with this global pandemic.

This summer, you organised the highly topical course Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis. How did it succeed?

It was offered as an online course with a trans-disciplinary approach; we invited disaster management experts from the Finnish Red Cross as well as design researchers and data scientists. We also had graduate students from computer science, arts and design, and all of them were engaged in thinking about the ways we can find intersections across fields in dealing with crises. Just having them in conversation with each other, reflecting on how to make sense of recent crises like the pandemic, wildfires and social protests from very different perspectives, was extraordinary.

We discussed the wider ecology of actors and stakeholders, as well as the values, ethics and power structures embedded in technology and design. This kind of political and social criticality was embraced by the students who took on more holistic, speculative and integrative design thinking. All of the course content is available to the public (hcrdcrisis2020.wordpress.com), and we hope others are inspired to draw on this work.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 27, October 2020.

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