May 4, 2015

Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)

Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.