John Rousseau, Vice President of Design of Artefact: “It is our responsibility to shape the future with care and ensure our work is contributing to the ‘good life’ for all”

Artefact is an award-winning digital experience innovation company. They use human-centered design to solve complex problems and create timeless experiences that help their partners have a positive impact on their customers, businesses and society. John Rousseau is responsible for the creative culture that the firm drives, and also for innovating its offering, capabilities, and methodologies to better meet the needs of their clients related to emerging technologies, trends, and market conditions.

Artefact’s motto is ‘Design, Technology and Innovation for a Better Future’. How can design contribute to changing the world?
Design is far more than an aesthetic practice; it is a way of thinking, strategizing and problem-solving. At Artefact, we believe design has the ability and responsibility to guide innovation and its consequences, both good and bad. Technology is increasingly the throughline connecting a wide range of human experiences, from how we use individual products to our relationship with the cities that we live in. Yet many of the technology products ubiquitous in our lives have resulted in unintended consequences such as increased inequality and greater polarization. Artefact’s approach to design reshapes how products and services are created and delivered in order to not only anticipate and mitigate negative consequences, but actively contribute to shaping a world we all want to live in.

Your speech at Sustainable Brands Madrid 2018 will be about whether so-called “human-centered design” really benefits people. What hides the potential negative impact of human-centered design?
Human-centered design was a response to the top-down practice of product design that emerged from the industrial revolution. In contrast, by starting with the user and their challenges in mind, human-centered design creates products and services that can fix more problems for more people. This is still a fundamentally good approach but can be myopic and susceptible to short-term thinking, resulting in unintended consequences. The dark side of human-centered design is when new products and services are created that are either unnecessary or have harmful side effects, however involuntary. Companies in the sharing economy are an apt example. They typically have inadvertent disruptive effects on local economies and industries, despite the significant value they create for their users.

What should human-centered design look like and what characteristics or criteria should it have?
In short, a focus on outcomes. Design should look farther into the future to define larger outcomes against which to find solutions. This means considering society and all its stakeholders; the ecosystem in which these stakeholders exist; the network of connections and impacts; and how the system changes over time. At heart, it’s about broadening the lens and identifying wider consequences. Rather than designing a better hiking boot, for example, think about designing for the future of outdoor recreation. Rather than launching a city scooter sharing system, design for a community’s relationship with transportation and nature. Human-centered design should help organizations look toward future outcomes in a holistic and sustainable manner.

How do sustainability and social responsibility integrate in the rapidly changing environment of the technology industry?
We believe in a future where socially responsible companies will outperform those that are not – and we’re not alone in that thinking. Blackrock CEO Larry Fink’s annual Letter to CEOs this year argues that “A company’s ability to manage environmental, social and governance matters demonstrates the leadership and good governance that is so essential to sustainable growth.” Considering issues of equity and sustainability are central to what will make the products and services of the future not only responsible, but also effective and profitable. A recent Harvard Business Review study of global executive leadership found that 80 percent of participants believed in the business case for social responsibility. Their challenge? Recognizing the societal problems that social responsibility can solve. This is where Artefact’s outcomes-focused approach to design can help organizations understand complex systems and illuminate blind spots, particularly in the fast-paced technology space.

How can we ‘Redesign the Good Life’, the motto of Sustainable Brands Madrid?
The “good life” is about the future, yet the future has never been more uncertain than it is today. The fundamental truths of our culture and society are changing as a result of technological innovation. It is our responsibility to shape that future with care and intention and ensure our work is contributing to the “good life” for all. This is understandably difficult work to begin. To help technologists push their thinking around product outcomes, we debuted a creative tool this year called The Tarot Cards of Tech. The cards are a set of provocations around the consequences of what we make, and include prompts such as “What happens when 100 million people use your product?” or “When you picture your user base, who is excluded?” The questions put businesses in a forward-thinking mindset and encourage greater exploration of product consequences. There is much to be done in “redesigning the good life,” but we are encouraged by the organizations joining us at Sustainable Brands Madrid that share a desire to work toward these values.

As a technological designer, how do you visualize the world in 20 years’ time?
It is crucial to be optimistic about the future and our ability to shape it in positive ways. To me, the ideal future is a fundamentally humanist world – one where we have control over our relationship with technology, autonomy over our data, and are open with how we share information. These characteristics are true of consumer products and services as much as they are of technology. If brands and companies take responsibility for the things we create, there is an opportunity to shape a more just, equitable and sustainable world. It starts with asking the tough questions and making the right choices, together.

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