The coronavirus crisis offers a "great possibility" for community-led change, says MIT associate professor Sasha Costanza-Chock, whose new book Design Justice explores how design can help marginalised communities and promote equality.
Costanza-Chock advocates "design justice" – a practice that both critically analyses how design perpetuates existing power structures and looks for ways to make it more equitable and inclusive.
The pandemic creates "a moment where there could be great possibility but also the likely outcome that existing structural inequality gets deepened," Costanza-Chock told Dezeen.
"Designers need to think about how to seize the moment."
The academic, who uses the pronouns they/them or she/her, teaches civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), founded its Co-Design Studio and is on the steering committee of the Design Justice Network.
Designers need to be more inclusive in times of crisis
Their new book, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, was published by MIT Press in March, just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the US and Europe.
As they explain in this interview, designers are now working in a climate of crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, where transformational change is more likely than usual to take hold.
In addition to this, designers are often creating this work in scenarios like hackathons and design challenges, and the quick-fire nature of these initiatives can mean they carelessly sideline important issues and voices.
Instead, the best work in the field of medical innovation will build on the knowledge and hacks of nurses and other frontline health workers with first-hand experience.
Design for Covid-19 could deepen structural inequality
"I think it's a really important moment," Costanza-Chock says of the Covid-19 pandemic. "It's a world-changing moment."
"You have this worldwide crisis and that provides an opportunity for people from really anywhere on the political spectrum to bring forward ideas for radical transformation and potentially have them adopted quickly, as people are flailing about for solutions or ways to get through this together."
Below, the professor discusses design justice, why airport security scanners are a failed design, and the issues that designers should be aware of as the pandemic unfolds:
Rima Sabina Aouf: In your book you use the term "the matrix of domination" a lot. What is it and why is it important for designers to be aware of it?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: The matrix of domination is a concept that comes from black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, who wrote about it in her classic book Black Feminist Thought. It basically refers to the way that systems of structural and historical oppression – most classically, class, race and gender, as well as disability, immigration status and others – all work together to structure people's life chances.
They're not operating alone; racism doesn't operate independently of capitalism, patriarchy doesn't operate independently of bias against people with disabilities, and so on and so forth.
The matrix of domination is important for designers because as we are designing things like interfaces or the built environment or objects, we're often unwittingly reproducing the existing structure of who is going to get privileged access and who's going to be excluded – who's going to benefit the most and who's going to be harmed the most by the tools or the objects or the systems or the buildings or spaces that we're designing.
Rima Sabina Aouf: So what constitutes design justice and what does it look like to practise it?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: Design justice centres a critical analysis of the matrix of domination and thinks about how we can use design to constantly push back against, dismantle and undo injustice.
In the book, there's a succinct description: It's a framework for analysis of how design distributes benefits and burdens between various groups of people. Design justice focuses explicitly on how design reproduces or challenges the matrix of domination of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, settler colonialism and other forms of structural inequality.
But also, design justice is a growing community of practice – people who are doing design work with an intent to more equitably distribute designs' benefits and burdens, to ensure more meaningful participation in design decisions, and also to recognise community-based indigenous and diasporic design traditions, knowledge and practices.
Rima Sabina Aouf: You also point out in your book that it's not as simple as just diversifying a workforce. Just because you have a group of diverse designers doesn't mean you automatically have a more fair design. Can you elaborate?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: Diversifying the workforce, up to the management or board level, is an important thing to do. But even if you do that, you're still a capitalist firm, designing and producing products for a capitalist market, with all of the incentives that that entails. That means that most firms are still going to remain focused on producing the most profitable products. And there's lots of things that we need to design and make that aren't necessarily profitable.
So design justice is interested not just in a diverse workforce within the current structure of the global economy; design justice is interested in, how do we make a world that is actually more equitable and just and ecologically sustainable?
Rima Sabina Aouf: There's a meme about conscious consumerism, "there's no ethical consumption under capitalism". It sounds like your position would be, there's no design justice under capitalism?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: I would frame it more as "under the intersection of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism and settler colonialism". But yes.
Rima Sabina Aouf: Slightly less catchy. Let's talk about some specific examples – you start your book with a story about how airport security can be traumatic for people who are outside the gender binary. Why is designing for binary genders bad?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: Well designing for binary genders is bad because human gender isn't binary. For most of human history, most peoples in the world have had other genders beyond the binary.
We've been through a brief period of time in the last couple of hundred years, under the ongoing project of settler colonialism, where a weird and relatively small proportion of the global population imposed a binary gender division on much of the world, and actively and violently destroyed and tried to erase other genders wherever they went. So Europeans came to the Americas and literally killed people of other genders that they found. And that's all really well documented.
But we are in a moment where there's starting to be maybe a little bit more pushback or reversal of that process of reduction of gender to a binary. Trans and gender non-conforming and non-binary gendered people are becoming more active and more visible. But design – including interface design, product design and the built environment, in bathrooms, for example – hasn't caught up. So as designers in different domains, one thing we can do to push back is to think about, how do we not unthinkingly produce binary gender?
For example, if we're making an account creation user experience, when people are setting up their new accounts. First of all, we could think, do we need to ask them about their gender at all?
Probably you don't. But if you do, don't make it a binary gender drop-down that forces people to select a gender that they don't really feel part of. That's called a dysaffordance – spelled D-Y-S, from gender dysphoria. That's the idea of a system that forces somebody to misidentify themself in order to continue the interaction. That's an example of a dysaffordance.
Rima Sabina Aouf: This obviously causes real harm to people. Tell me about how that plays out in the airport security context specifically.
Sasha Costanza-Chock: The book opens with me describing an experience that's really common to trans and gender non-conforming people when we go through airport security systems, but a lot of cisgender people don't necessarily know about it, which is the millimetre wave scanners. It's the device where you put your hands up in the air and it spins around you, produces a millimetre-resolution scan of your body surface and identifies anomalies for further inspection.
When you walk into that device, the operator on the other side is visually inspecting you and deciding from a distance, whether they think that you're male or female. They have a little blue "boy" button and a pink "girl" button on the touchscreen that they select, and then based on that, your body's compared to a binary normative body shape model that's been trained to identify anomalies.
As a non-binary trans feminine person, usually the agent will select female when I approach the device, and then my body gets scanned and then parts of my body that don't conform with the statistical norm of a female body type, like my groin area, will get flagged for additional search, by a TSA agent.
Or if they select male, then my breasts, which are larger than a statistical norm male body-type breasts, get flagged, and then those have to get inspected by the agent. So as a non-binary person, I can't win, and I'm always going to get flagged, no matter what they select through this user interface.
And there's lots of other categories of people who always get flagged as well. So black women's hair often gets flagged, because the models weren't trained on black women's hair and hairstyles. People who wear head wraps. People who might use mobility assistance devices. People who might have internal assistive devices. There's lots of different categories of people who don't fit the norm who are going to always get flagged by a device that's reducing human populations in this kind of way.
Rima Sabina Aouf: That sounds so intense and unnecessarily traumatic. If we were to redesign airport security to be fairer, or using design justice principles, what would that process look like instead?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: That's a complicated question, in part because my own understanding and analysis of those airport security systems, and millimetre wave scanners in particular, is that they're not particularly effective for the task that they claim to solve. They fall more in the category of "security theatre". So their role is to make people feel safer and like they're being watched and protected and cared for by the state.
So actually, I would say I'm not interested in making a more inclusive millimetre wave scanner, spending a lot of money redesigning it so that it includes non-binary bodies. I think we should shut down the contracts with the millimetre wave scanner makers and remove them from airports and think about what are other steps that we need to make if what we're concerned about is security and safety.
For example, maybe if we stopped pursuing endless wars largely built around dominating access to petroleum that we shouldn't be burning anyway, we could feel safer when flying and there would be less incentive for people to try and strike back at empire.
Rima Sabina Aouf: So just a little redesign then.
Sasha Costanza-Chock: One of the things that design justice asks us to do all the time is to not let our scope be limited to the given parameters of a particular design problem. Classically a designer is given a brief and it would say, "Millimetre wave scanners are disproportionately harming trans people and gender non-conforming people. Here's a brief to redesign them. It's very lucrative; you can make a lot of money. Go."
Design justice asks us, before we accept work like that, to step back for a moment and say, is this particular design challenge contributing to dismantling the matrix of domination? Or by making this small change, am I just making a deeply oppressive system slightly better?
A place this shows up is in the border wall design challenge. The Trump administration had a design challenge that many firms bid for. Some of them got the contracts and they're building it now. One firm that won part of the contract has really small holes that are just big enough to let animals go through, so that it will reduce the ecological impact on animal habitats. But a border wall, again, it's security theatre that's about xenophobia and racism and isn't actually about security. Designers shouldn't take those types of gigs, even to marginally improve the ecological impacts of the border wall.
Rima Sabina Aouf: Let's talk about the coronavirus pandemic we're now in. Has it changed your thoughts about the design and technology world in any way?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: I think it's a really important moment. It's a world-changing moment. There's so much to say, but a couple of key things are top of my mind right now. One is the disaster capitalism analysis. It's the idea that you have this worldwide crisis, and that provides an opportunity for people from really anywhere on the political spectrum to bring forward ideas for radical transformation and potentially have them adopted quickly, as people are flailing about for solutions or ways to get through this together.
Suddenly governments are experimenting with something that looks a lot like universal basic income. Like, if nobody can work, the only way to keep everything going is to start sending enough money to everybody to survive. And the idea of decoupling healthcare from employment, which isn't a wild idea in many parts of the world, but suddenly it feels like there's a moment in the United States where we could have that conversation. So redesigning large-scale systems very, very quickly actually becomes possible.
But also, of course, really disturbing and dystopian radical possibilities are on the table. Extreme expansion of surveillance, unchecked surveillance capacities with no oversight or recourse and no end date, are being floated and proposed everywhere. The shift to online education has a lot of potential, but also we know from a couple of decades of research that online education tends to disproportionately burden those who already occupy marginalised positions – so people who don't have broadband access in the home, who don't have computers in the home, who don't have as much computing skills already.
It's a moment where there could be great possibility but also the likely outcome that existing structural inequality gets deepened. So designers need to think about how to seize the moment and bounce radical proposals, but also, how do we push back against some of the radical proposals coming from the hard right?
Another issue is looking at #covtech through a design justice lens. "Covtech" is Covid-19 tech, and it's kind of an umbrella hashtag that a lot of people are using to organise hackathons and design challenges for "solving" Covid-19 – and I put that in air quotes. There are many, many, many ongoing hackathons around everything from 3D-printing ventilator parts to finding homes for healthcare workers.
One thing we're looking at with the Design Justice Network is, where is this producing something really potentially useful and accountable to the communities that are going to actually need it? Good intentions can really easily lead to either a lot of time-wasting and useless projects, in the middle case, and truly harmful stuff in the worst case.
But then on the other side, some of these projects are really useful, especially when they're building on knowledge that's been generated by frontline health workers. For instance, "oh, this is how we can split the air from a ventilator using this simple hack, and we can suddenly have two people on it, instead of one." People are exploring that. Or "here's how we can 3D-print this one part that's known to fail a lot that the manufacturer charges thousands of dollars for but we can 3D-print for a couple of dollars."
Rima Sabina Aouf: In the book you talk about how designs are often modified for use by a community that's been excluded from them in some way, and how those DIY practitioners are often not seen as "designers" by the industry. You give the example of nurses, which is so relevant right now. Can you talk a bit about that?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: There's a long history of nurses doing medical device innovation and also care process innovation. Nurses in the modern healthcare system spend more time than anyone directly interacting with and at the point of care. But investment in medical device innovation tends to go to doctors.
There's a great story from the Little Devices Lab, which is a lab at MIT that has been working to set up these sort of hacker-and makerspaces for nurses inside hospitals. They trace back this whole history of maker nurses who even at the turn of the last century had their own magazine where they published and shared nursing and medical innovations. That was a nationally distributed magazine that ran for many years before it eventually closed down.
So for designers, it's about looking for, where is this stuff already happening? And then how do we lift up and validate and better resource that? And Covid-19 is a great moment for thinking about that. So I would urge people who are participating in design challenges and tech hackathons to really try and figure out how nurses can be part of those design teams as much as possible, if they are focusing on anything that has to do with medical-device or care-process innovation.
For example, maybe we could do a concerted effort to work with quarantined nurses, so that the hacking, making and prototyping work that people are doing remotely could be more deeply informed by people with direct and lived experience of doing that frontline work.
Rima Sabina Aouf: Both now and post-coronavirus, what is your advice for someone who wants to bring the practice of design justice into their workplace?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: I would say come join the Design Justice Network. That gets you access to all the resources that we're developing internally. There's a lot happening in the network and people are producing a lot of good resources to help people think about different domains. So there's an education working group; it's thinking about, what do design justice principals have to say about this shift to online education? How do we evaluate the tools we're being asked to use? How do we ensure that the online shift doesn't exclude those who are already marginalised? So if you're an educator, that would be a good group to join, and so forth.
Rima Sabina Aouf: You're at MIT, which is like the global nerve centre for tech development. Does your practice mean that you butt heads a lot with your colleagues, who I presume want to advance technology as fast as they can?
Sasha Costanza-Chock: Some of that happens. But I think when we as design justice practitioners can create really concrete resources and grounded examples that demonstrate how this approach is really going to help us make tools and systems better for people who've been excluded, and that can help make the planet ecologically sustainable, we can win a lot of allies, including unexpected allies.
I'm hopeful because I think there's a lot of younger people who care about all this stuff and are searching for ways to bring it into the different types of work that they do. It's an important moment and there's a lot of interest, so people should get involved.