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Designing Technology for Humanity

An Organization Development Point of View on Innovations at CES2020

*This article is part of a series on CES and its relationship to people strategy in the workplace. See the rest of the articles: Why Should OD and HR Care About CES.

With 4500 exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show distributed across 10 locations in Vegas, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Divided across 30 categories, consider that in the AI category alone, there were ~560 companies showcasing a multitude of concepts. By the end of Day 1, not to mention the end of the show, everyone had the same questioning look on their face: How do I even begin to process all of this?

As we think about the continued penetration of technology into society, this is a THE problem. How do we make sense of all of the change, all of the possibilities? Organization Development (OD) is a field of expertise that creates change in an organization or community in a way that empowers humanity. It’s a field that combines philosophies and practices across the social sciences, neuroscience, business, and psychology to help improve the workplace. OD and consulting thought leader, Peter Block, shares how to make sense of it all in his book, The Answer to How is Yes. To sum it up, it’s not about the how. It is about the WHY.

To cut through the overwhelm, when I left CES, I had the strong sense that what matters most is why we are designing what we are designing. That’s how I began to make sense of the thousands of possibilities and innovations. As we bring technology in or design new creations, here’s a few insights I had that can help you center on the why and cut through the noise on your projects.

Avoiding the Danger of Designing to Sell

Business has always been about sales. However, in the last few decades, the notion of the “triple bottom line” – that is, companies that serve more than just the single bottom line of profit – has emerged and grown in importance. Also emerging is a conversation about the human side of technology. What’s missing, however, is addressing the elephant in the room: today, we are wired to design to sell. Our structures, our processes, our leadership all support the notion of profit growth.

The danger of designing to sell is that we don’t care about the reason why something sells. Does it sell because it’s good for us so we want it? Or does it sell because we are so addicted to it that we can’t live without it? Of course, what’s good for us and what’s bad for us is up for debate as well. But we don’t have the debate at all if our goal is just to sell. Designing to sell creates a blind eye to the impact on humanity. It reduces corporate accountability and ownership over the powerful influence they have to shape the future of society.

While the status quo has been to focus on the sale, it’s time for organizations to get deeper into the meaning and to take accountability for the influence they have over shaping society. Why now? Because I don’t know of any organization that truly wants technology to subsume humanity. We watch too many apocalyptic shows for that! Teams that design products with profits and empowering humanity in mind, make a deeper connection with consumers.

Break Through the Noise of Convenience Products

Amongst the thousands of innovations, it quickly became apparent to me which ones I had little interest in, that just started blending together into a blurry haze: the convenience products. Over the past few years, there’s been an ongoing focus on making life just that much more convenient. Products that have minute incremental changes that I didn’t know I wanted and are quickly forgotten.

We can go down the rabbit hole of inventing for convenience, but what really speaks to people is when you touch a human need. At CES, many innovations targeted healthcare. For example, Healium’s virtual reality and augmented reality apps help users manage anxiety through choosing experiences that defuse reactions. When married to wearables, they can monitor biometric data and better self-manage brain patterns or heart rate. Another example is the EyeQue Vision Monitoring Kit, which allows anyone to check in on their vision wellness between doctor’s visits. Apps and wearables for health tracking address human needs: a need for survival and a need for control. In other words, the need for self-care.

Product or process design, internally or externally, that first seek to fulfill needs rather than simply adding convenience will have the most impact on unleashing human potential through technology.

Debating The Usefulness of More Data

Data, data, and more data. Another huge theme at CES were innovations that provide more data to us. Everything from monitoring indoor air quality (e.g. The Airthings Hub) to analyzing your brainwaves to improve sleep (e.g. Urgo Tech) put more data in our hands. Yet, is more data useful? Case in point, Lora Di Carlo’s Lioness data-ize sexual experiences using artificial intelligence, in theory to help learn what works for you. But do I need to be in my head more, analyzing the experience on my phone, with more data to have better sex? It might work for some, but for me, that’s a hard no.

Just because everything can provide you data, doesn’t mean it should. Product and process designs, externally for consumers and internally in our workplaces, need to be intelligent and choiceful with data inclusion based on what help looks like in the flow of life and what our capacity is to process data. Many of these new applications are another thing for people to check on, follow up with and be anxious about. For example, Caregiver Smart Solutions launched a kit involving sensors that track how often aging family members are using the bathroom or shower, moving around, eating, and so on. That level of data feels intrusive on aging relatives’ privacy and too much for a caregiver to handle. Much of caregiving still falls on the women of the family and I can tell you what we don’t need – more data to make us anxious and to feel like we aren’t doing a good enough job.

Technology innovations aren’t addressing the growing problem of information overload. We don’t need more updates on all the micro-nuances of the world. We need more intelligence that helps us make macro-impacts. As AI and 5G advance, we need to help human advance their capacity to process the outputs, not just give everyone more data.

Enabling Human Interaction or Assuming Disconnection?

Lastly, I’ve been witnessing a trend that truly worries me – trends like all-around life companions and robotic dogs. If technology has the potential to free up humanity’s time, why are we banking on a world where human interaction decreases? Loneliness, depression, anxiety are looming problems, even in a world with seven billion people. There are real dogs that need our real help. Why assume we will all be lonelier in the future?

We don’t need technology that continues to isolate us from one another. Because designers assume that we are disconnected, we invent more innovations that try to fill the gaps created by or take advantage of disconnection. Yet, we are genetically wired to be social creatures. We need technology that seeks to enable human interaction, that works with the understanding that we crave connection.

Designing for humanity means designing ways to empower deep, meaningful connection with one another.

Seeking to Empower Humanity

If you combine the desire to make sales with convenience-oriented products that promote disconnection, it’s no wonder that you get products that cater to our reptilian brain, keep us hooked in, and dependent on systems. If you start with humanity, look at needs, and promote interaction, you start to get products that unleash human potential and creativity. As put by Erica Volini, Global Human Capital Leader at Deloitte, ask yourself, “What can we do with the expanded capacity technology is creating? Rather than asking, what can I do what I do already, but faster and cheaper?” The former is generative, the latter is a limiting, incremental approach. Whether looking to design a new technology for the workplace or a product for the marketplace, thinking through these “whys” inherently lend towards honoring humanity while advancing a world of technology.

*This article is part of a series on CES and its relationship to people strategy in the workplace. See the rest of the articles: Why Should OD and HR Care About CES.

I am a two-time TEDx speaker, author, and organizational development consultant. I focus on helping leaders question the assumptions of the Industrial age and re-imagine their workplace culture for today’s Digital age. Whether it’s a particular challenge in learning, inclusion, productivity, engagement, retention, or otherwise, I am leading dialogue that makes us think about what’s really going on here, what do we want to see, and how will we make that happen. — Crystal Kadakia