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Humanity-Centered Design Without Hubris
Lessons about the future from university master plans
I’m Tim Gorichanaz, and this is Ports, a newsletter about design and ethics. You’ll find this week’s article below, followed by Ports of Call, links to things I’ve been reading and pondering this week.
Most university master plans are essentially a map showing what the university is supposed to look like in ten or twenty years. Master plans for other types of institutions are usually also maps of a more metaphorical variety. Is this a good approach?
The Map-of-the-Future Approach and Its Limitations
Let’s take my own university’s Master Plan as an example. Published in 2012, the latest date to be found in the vision document is 2017, suggesting the plan represented a five-year guide. (Confusingly, though, the plan’s webpage says, “The Master Plan’s timeframe… outlin[es] 30 years of campus growth and development.”)
Looking at the Master Plan today, we can see that some of the projects mentioned in the document came to pass, but some did not. The “plan” gives no indication about why (e.g., prioritization, contingencies).
And some projects came to pass that don’t appear in the plan at all, such as my college’s formation in 2013 and then its relocation to space in an office building that opened in 2019, or the coming life sciences building at 3201 Cuthbert Street.
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The point is not that the Master Plan was bad, per se, but that creating a map of the future and attempting to bring it to life over time is not the best approach. It is too rigid. If anything changes in the intervening years, such as the formation of a new college, the plan-as-map gives no instructions for how to adapt.
For instance, my university’s Master Plan includes a call to “emphasize close relationships and short travel times between related programs to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration.” But how can that be squared with the reality of a newly formed and fast-growing college that quickly outgrows its space and then out of exigency must relocate off campus? So much for short travel times; many of my students now arrive late to class because it is physically impossible to make it from the Main Building to ours within ten minutes—and God forbid you have to use the bathroom.
A Better Approach
So if the map-of-the-future approach doesn’t work for planning a vibrant university, what’s better? When Christopher Alexander led the development of the University of Oregon’s master plan in the 1970s, he developed instead a philosophy and a set of patterns that describe how the campus should adapt over time. The major principles include:
organic order rather than rigid planning
piecemeal growth, prioritizing cheap low-hanging fruit over mammoth building projects
patterns (using a shared language to guide projects)
a diagnostic toolkit for identifying high-priority issues to address
If you’re interested, all this was published in the book The Oregon Experiment. I think it should be required reading for anyone in university administration!
This particular master plan stood for some time and guided some useful improvements around the University of Oregon’s campus. But eventually it was set aside. Greg Bryant offers a retrospective on this from the vantage of 1994. Long story short, universities—like most institutions, I guess—have apparent priorities other than ensuring livelihood in their spaces.
Even so, it is clear that as a plan, Alexander’s approach is much better than the static map-of-the-future approach.
I think all this provides some useful insights for humanity-centered design, which I wrote about last week.
As suggested in its very name, humanity-centered design asks us to think broadly. It’s not just human (as in, the individual user) but humanity (as in, the whole project of this being human). As far as I can see, humanity-centered design intends breadth across three dimensions:
human scope, involving cascading groups of stakeholders
environmental scope, involving interlocking ecosystems
temporal scope, attending to the far future while designing in the present
As such, humanity-centered design builds on and resonates with a number of other movements, such as systems thinking, effective altruism and longtermism. The latter is particularly in vogue right now, following the publication of William MacAskill’s book What We Owe the Future.
When we think of designing something that will be implemented in the future, we usually think of the map-of-the-future approach. When designing an app or a website, for example, the designer’s role is generally considered complete when they hand off their design to the developer. (Designers design designs—the map-of-the-future notion is right there in the words we use.) Though it’s recognized that, clearly, the designer could or should be involved at least as a consultant as development goes on, the handoff stage remains perhaps the major barrier to implementing human-centered design. Much of the same, I think, could be said about architecture and perhaps design in other realms.
If handoff is such a challenge for designs that are going to be implemented immediately, how much more of a challenge will it be for designs that are supposed to be implemented over decades, or for designs meant to last tens of thousands of years, as longtermism intends?
Humanity-Centered Design Without Hubris
Attempting humanity-centered design runs the risk of arrogance and eventually hubris. But as we strive to develop and operationalize humanity-centered design, the greatest virtue will be humility. Humility is about recognizing limitations, about proportionality, about verifying assumptions before moving forward.
At present, but perhaps always, arrogance is more common. Arrogance is the opposite of humility. It’s presuming that you know the right way forward, or assuming that what works in one place or time will work in another. And hubris is a close cousin of arrogance. It’s epitomized by every myth of an ancient hero who thinks he cannot fail and then does. Hubris is arrogance whose fault has been revealed.
But I think humble humanity-centered design is possible.
In the spirit of humility, when it comes to human scope, we must realize that a single universal set of priorities (as in some versions of effective altruism) will not do the most good. It is part of being human that we care about those closest to us; and some but not all people will have the resources and interest for caring about far-flung people (whether physically far away or remote in time). Different people will care about different things, and so pluralism must be supported. A single map of the future will not suffice. Rather, following one of the principles from Alexander’s master plan for the University of Oregon, organic order and participatory design should be the order of the day.
Similarly, when it comes to environmental scope, we must realize that there cannot be any party with overriding interests. We humans can’t live without nature (I would maintain that life on Mars is no life at all, but that is a different essay). Indeed our very bodies include more non-human cells than human ones, home as we each are to innumerable microorganisms. So it doesn’t make sense to suggest that human interests always trump natural ones, nor that we must protect a particular conceptualization of nature at all human costs. In this light, the notion of participatory design may be expanded to include those parties who cannot speak for themselves.
And when it comes to temporal scope, it doesn’t make sense to develop a single prescription for the far future. Human values evolve over time (thank goodness for that); and pluralism is better than uniformity, for we humans care about different things. Alexander encapsulated this in his master plan with evolving governance—a meta-plan, like how the U.S. Constitution describes procedures for its own amendment.
Ports of Call
It’s Labor Day weekend here in the States—the unofficial end of summer. It’s always funny to me because summer doesn’t really end for another three weeks, and while most other universities are just starting their fall semesters, here at Drexel we’re wrapping up summer quarter. Now we get a few weeks of break before the next quarter starts.
A couple of things on my mind this week:
Two art exhibitions: I love the work of Jesse Mockrin, precise and Renaissance-ish, and a bit weird, and she has a new exhibition opening in New York next week. I hope to go see it! Another artist I admire, Per Frederiksen, just opened a show in Norwich. Which I won’t have the chance to see, alas.
How institutions think: I’m working on a research paper whose deadline is fast approaching, but I’m thinking about Mary Douglas’ classic book How Institutions Think—related to the ideas in today’s post about systems thinking.
Non-alcoholic beer: I love a good beer, especially after a run. I’ve gotten into the non-alcoholic brews from Athletic Brewing Company, which don’t hamper my recovery. NABs were something to scoff at not too many years ago, but nowadays the quality is really great.
Combating CSAM: Child sexual abuse material is rampant on the internet. (Most often it’s erroneously called “child pornography”—make no mistake, this is not consensual material; it’s evidence of abuse.) Some time ago Apple announced new technology to detect and help prevent the spread of CSAM, but civil liberties activists argued that the technology was imperfect. Apple eventually quietly abandoned these plans. A new article this week explains their reasoning. All this shows how thorny some of these problems can be, and how seemingly intractable.