Beyond Human Centred Design

COVID19 has given the world the time to rest, and the opportunity for us to rethink the way we live. It has also revealed how inseparable we are with the natural world. Not only because we as humans rely on the resources that it provides, but also because of increasing human-wildlife collisions due to overpopulation, urban development, climate change and so on. While looking at all these interrelated issues, we all know that human beings are just one of the stakeholders in a bigger picture. Working in the field of human-centred design, what kinds of questions must we ask ourselves in light of these trends? Which disciplines can inform the way that we think about, and design for, interactions between humans and the natural ecosystems in which we are embedded?

“The earth is more than just a home, it’s a living planet and we are part of it.”  -James Lovelock

We have recently been exploring a few of the ways that scientists, philosophers and authors have understood  relationships between human and nature. Various approaches we have investigated include Gaia theory, deep ecology, ecofeminism and multi-species ethnography. Though they span from macro to micro level theories, the message is clear that all the organisms on earth are interrelated. AT STBY, we believe that having the ability to empathise and care for other life forms is crucial in the wider context of climate action. This is just the same as what we emphasise for human-centred design, stepping into another person’s shoes to understand their lives and solve problems from their perspectives. Our empathy needs to extend to other life forms in order to shift the entrenched perception that humans are superior to and detached from other natural systems. What kinds of approaches and thinkers are translating these values to research practice? 

In recent years, anthropologist Eben Kirksey has given impetus to multispecies ethnography, a more-than-human approach to ethnographic research. The approach acknowledges the interconnectedness and inseparability of humans and other life forms. It emphasises empirical analysis and place-based forms of knowledge to understand the human causes, vulnerabilities and impacts of environmental change, and thus to inform societal responses to the sustainability challenges that society now faces.

“Biology that studied nature and anthropology that studied culture, there was no interesting middle space where I could bring nature and culture together.” – Eben Kirksey

In addition, there are a few more action oriented theories that can be put into practice. In the essay ‘The Ecology of Human–nature Interactions’, Masashi Soga and Kevin Gaston developed a framework to identify and quantify different kinds of human-nature interactions in research. Closer to our own field, the Behavioural Insights Team has developed a set of tools to accelerate conservation efforts based on behavioural science. They believe conservation is a behavioral challenge and therefore needs behaviorally-informed solutions. They argue for a greater focus on how our cognitive biases, emotions, social networks, and decision-making environments all impact our behaviours and choices. This echoes the approach of design research that we specialise in: investigating human experience and behaviour in particular context through different layers and scales, finding opportunities for improvements and innovations. Apart from acquiring new concepts and theories to enhance our practice, we also need to keep an eye on the emerging technology that has played an important role in exploring new ways to understand animal behaviours and make informed decisions in urban planning that is good for people as well as other life forms.

“People are and will always be inextricably linked to nature. For the sake of those with whom we share this planet – human and otherwise – we all need to make different choices about how we interact with other species and natural resources.” – Behavioural Insights Team

Societies, governments and businesses are made of people. We, as a dominant stakeholder on earth, have the power to change and turn the tide of the current environmental crisis, inspire people to view and interact with nature differently. To implement change, not only we need to have a deep understanding of people, but also of other life forms and how our own behaviours and choices impact them.  We want to continue to expand our understanding of this topic so that we, as design researchers, can play a bigger and more informed role in addressing  them.

By Constance Chung