Core77 Design Awards
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There is a lot of talk about ethics and technology but what can designers and developers actually do? How can we confront the present and future ethical challenges as we create connective tech?
The Ethical Stack is an interface designed to structure and facilitate considering ethics when building new connected technology. It is a series of tools to support creators of new connected technology to reflect on their products ethical and social impacts.
How did this come about? The Ethical Stack was created through intensive collaboration across disciplines and industries. For the last three years, together with our partners in VIRT-EU, we have been researching ethics, ethical tools and processes within technology design and development, conducting co-creation, co-design and finally testing sessions with entrepreneurs, developers and designers in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and London. We worked with our expert partners at LSE, ITU and ORG to ensure that we designed and delivered tools that support ethics as we see it.
Along with the Ethical Stack, we designed participatory workshops, experiences, and talks. Through these sessions, we developed the interactive interface of the Ethical Stack and its many accompanying materials. Developing the Ethical Stack entailed everything from prototyping and testing to rich graphic and user interface design to programming and user experience tests.
It's not easy to be ethical. As "being ethical" is a concept with thousands of years of theory behind it, the goal of running an ethical business is intimidating and near impossible for many. Can you learn about ethics and find a way to practice it - at the same time as you fix bugs in the software, manage teammates, assure quality, perhaps pitch for investment, and handle all the other tasks of daily life as a startup or new company? It's even harder to be ethical in the field of new technology. Every day, we read of a new case where a product's data processing, algorithms, machine learning and automated decision-making are creating problematic political, environmental, social and legal impacts. The new technologies embedded inside of new products have unpredictable and deeply complex impacts and the context of product use is shifting constantly.
The Ethical Stack is an interactive website and service that is designed to guide creators of new technology through a series of exercises to practice their ethics in their product development. It supports creators of new technology to prepare for and reflect upon the unpredictable ethical and social impacts their product may have.
The Ethical Stack is composed of an interactive website to guide creators of new technology to conduct ethical self-assessment, custom paper-based tools for integrating ethics into technology development, workshops and training series on ethics professionals or students in the technology field.
Participants in the interactive website of the Ethical Stack begin by making an overview of your product's layered impacts and aligning with their team about shared ethical values and vision. They then connect the materials of their product with these values and are prompted to consider and re-think the social and ethical impacts of their product. The Ethical Stack gives feedback in the form of ethical challenges in relation to the product's values and materials. Finally, participants can try out a variety of different paper-based tools to further understand the ethical challenges and address them in a practical way. The paper based tools were built through co-creation and iterative design, and whittled down to a series of four paper-based tools that are designed to enable technology teams to address their ethical challenges.
Furthermore, if our participants are interested in a more discursive and offline experience, based on the ethical framework we have created in the research project VIRT-EU, together with our partners, we have created multiple formats of short and longer-form workshops, training sessions for professionals and students in the field of new technology.
Our goals through the Ethical Stack are to increase the number of startups that are able to integrate ethics into their processes from the first concept to the iterative implementation of their product, influence and prepare future creators at the very outset of their technical careers through educational programming on ethics, and lastly, to translate ethics for technology development from the private to the public realm.
The interactive experience is designed based on a series of insights we gained through collaboration with our ethnography partners at LSE and ITU, our co-creation and co-design sessions, as well as through our collaborative analysis of the current "ethical tools" landscape and what was missing from that landscape.
The Ethical Stack allows for an ethical evolution over time, pushing participants to question "flat" values - that is, values that are not attached to actual product choices. Furthermore, it gives feedback as participants progress, with targeted critique of each values connection to its materials. The feedback, accompanied with scenarios of conflicts, helps to simulate issues before they may actually arise: perhaps the most challenging part of developing a new technology (but it's perfect!). Through our accompanying paper-based tools, we support our participants to re-think their technologies and guide them through alternate decision-making processes.
The Ethical Stack takes into account 3 theories of ethics: Virtue, Care and Capabilities. The combination of these theories into one framework for applying ethics to new connected technologies stems from the work of our partners at LSE; through deep collaboration, we found ways to make the theories tangible. The theory of "Virtue ethics" is reflected in the attempt of continuously connecting values to actions. On the other hand, the theory of "Care ethics" is reflected in the accompanying paper tool of "What if Everyone In the World..." a structured activity that prompts participants to question their product's narrow user definition and imagine scenarios where otherwise invisible users might benefit or lose from the design of the technology. Finally, the "Capabilities Approach" is present both in the team-based value definitions as well as the options-weighing exercises.