Who’s Afraid of Big Numbers?


Aiyana Green and Steven Strogatz at the New York Times: “Billions” and “trillions” seem to be an inescapable part of our conversations these days, whether the subject is Jeff Bezos’s net worth or President Biden’s proposed budget. Yet nearly everyone has trouble making sense of such big numbers. Is there any way to get a feel for them? As it turns out, there is. If we can relate big numbers to something familiar, they start to feel much more tangible, almost palpable.

For example, consider Senator Bernie Sanders’s signature reference to “millionaires and billionaires.” Politics aside, are these levels of wealth really comparable? Intellectually, we all know that billionaires have a lot more money than millionaires do, but intuitively it’s hard to feel the difference, because most of us haven’t experienced what it’s like to have that much money.

In contrast, everyone knows what the passage of time feels like. So consider how long it would take for a million seconds to tick by. Do the math, and you’ll find that a million seconds is about 12 days. And a billion seconds? That’s about 32 years. Suddenly the vastness of the gulf between a million and a billion becomes obvious. A million seconds is a brief vacation; a billion seconds is a major fraction of a lifetime.

Comparisons to ordinary distances provide another way to make sense of big numbers. Here in Ithaca, we have a scale model of the solar system known as the Sagan Walk, in which all the planets and the gaps between them are reduced by a factor of five billion. At that scale, the sun becomes the size of a serving plate, Earth is a small pea and Jupiter is a brussels sprout. To walk from Earth to the sun takes just a few dozen footsteps, whereas Pluto is a 15-minute hike across town. Strolling through the solar system, you gain a visceral understanding of astronomical distances that you don’t get from looking at a book or visiting a planetarium. Your body grasps it even if your mind cannot….(More)”.

Open Hardware: An Opportunity to Build Better Science


Report by Alison Parker et al: “Today’s research infrastructure, including scientific hardware, is unevenly distributed in the scientific community, severely limiting collaboration, customization, and impact. Open hardware for science provides an alternative approach to reliance on expensive and proprietary instrumentation while giving “people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of design.”

Open hardware can be modified and recombined to build diverse libraries of tools that serve as a freely available resource for use across several disciplines. By improving access to tools, open hardware for science encourages collaboration, accelerates innovation, and improves scientific reproducibility and repeatability. Open hardware for science is often less expensive than proprietary equivalents, allowing research laboratories to stretch funding further. Beyond scientific research, open hardware has proven to benefit and impact a number of complementary policy priorities including: broadening public participation in science, accessible experiential STEM education, crisis response, and improving distributed manufacturing capabilities.

Because of recent, bipartisan progress in open science, the U.S. government is well positioned to elevate and enhance the impact of open hardware in American science. By addressing key implementation challenges and prioritizing open hardware for science, we as a nation can build better infrastructure for future science, cement U.S. scientific leadership and innovation, and help the U.S. prepare for future crises. This report addresses the need to build a stronger foundation for science by prioritizing open hardware, describes the unique benefits of open hardware alongside complementary policy priorities, and briefly lays out implementation challenges to overcome. …(More)”.

Berlin Declaration on Digital Society and Value-based Digital Government


European Commission: “…The Declaration follows up on the success of the Tallinn Declaration on eGovernment, which endorsed the key principles for digital public services put forward in the eGovernment Action Plan 2016-2020. The Berlin Declaration takes the user-centricity principles formulated in the Tallinn Declaration a step further by strengthening the pioneering role of public administrations in driving a value-based digital transformation of our European societies.

The Declaration acknowledges the public sector as an essential element for the European Single Market and a driving force for new and innovative technological solutions for public services and societal challenges. It emphasises that public authorities at all levels must lead by example to strengthen the tenets of the European Union.

To do so it sets out seven key principles with related policy action lines and national and EU level:

  1. Validity and respect of fundamental rights and democratic values in the digital sphere;
  2. Social participation and digital inclusion to shape the digital world;
  3. Empowerment and digital literacy, allowing all citizens to participate in the digital sphere;
  4. Trust and security in digital government interactions, allowing everyone to navigate the digital world safely, authenticate and be digitally recognised within the EU conveniently;
  5. Digital sovereignty and interoperability, as a key in ensuring the ability of citizens and public administrations to make decisions and act self-determined in the digital world;
  6. Human-centred systems and innovative technologies in the public sector, strengthening its pioneering role in the research on secure and trustworthy technology design;
  7. A resilient and sustainable digital society, preserving our natural foundations of life in line with the Green Deal and using digital technologies to enhance the sustainability of our health systems….(More)”.

Laboratories of Design: A Catalog of Policy Innovation Labs in Europe


Report by Anat Gofen and Esti Golan: “To address both persistent and emerging social and environmental problems, governments around the world have been seeking innovative ways to generate policy solutions in collaboration with citizens. One prominent trend during recent decades is the proliferation of Policy Innovation Labs (PILs), in which the search for policy solutions is embedded within scientific laboratory-like structures. Spread across the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and often funded by local, regional, or national governments, PILs utilize experimental methods, testing, and measurement to generate innovative, evidence-based policy solutions to complex public issues.

This catalog lists PILs in Europe. For each lab, a one-page profile specifies its vision, policy innovation approaches, methodologies, major projects, parent entity, funding sources, and its alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) call to action. For each lab we identify governmental, municipal, multi-sectorial, academic, non-profit, or private sector affiliation.

The goals of compiling this catalog and making it available to citizens, scholars, NGOs, and public officials are to call attention to the growing spirit of citizen engagement in developing innovative policy solutions for their own communities and to facilitate collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between organizations. Despite their increasing importance in public policy making, PILs are as yet understudied. This catalog will provide an opportunity for scholars to explore the function and value of community-oriented policy innovation as well as the effects of approaching policy making around disruptive social problems in a “scientific” way.

Methodology: This catalog of policy innovation labs was compiled based on published reports, as well as a Google search for each individual country using the terms “policy lab” and “innovation lab,” first in English, then in the native language. Sometimes the labs themselves came up in the search results; for others, an article or a blog that mentioned them appeared. Next, each lab was searched specifically by name or by using an identified link. Each lab website that was identified was searched for other labs that were mentioned. Some labs were identified more than once, and a few that were found to be defunct or lacking a website were excluded. Innovation labs that referred only to technical or technological innovations were omitted. Only labs that relate to policy and to so-called “public innovation” were included in this catalog. Eligible PILs could be run and/or sponsored by local, regional, or national governments, universities, non-profit organizations, or the private sector. This resulted in a total of 212 European PILs.

Notably, while the global proliferation of policy innovation labs is acknowledged by formal, global organizations, there are no clear-cut criteria to determine which organizations are considered PILs. Therefore, this catalog follows the precedent set by previous catalogs and identifies PILs as organizations that generate policy recommendations for social problems and public issues by employing a user-oriented design approach and utilizing experimental methods.

Information about every lab was collected form its website, with minimal editing for coherence. For some labs, information was presented in English on its website; for others, information in the native language was translated into English using machine translation followed by human editing. Data for the catalog was collected between December 2019 and July 2020. PILs are opening and closing with increasing frequency so this catalog serves as a snapshot in time, featuring PILs that are currently active as of the time of compilation….(More)”.

Can You Fight Systemic Racism With Design?


Reboot’s “Design With” podcast with Antionette Carroll: “What began as a 24-hour design challenge addressing racial inequality in Ferguson, MO has since grown into a powerful organization fighting inequity with its own brand of collaborative design. Antionette Carroll, founder of Creative Reaction Lab, speaks about Equity-Centered Community Design—and how Black and Latinx youth are using design as their tool of choice to dismantle the very systems designed to exclude them….(More)”.

The Obsolescence of Interfaces


Essay by Carlos A. Scolari: “COVID-19 has highlighted the need to redesign current interfaces to tackle an increasingly complex and uncertain world….

Whenever somebody says the word interface one immediately thinks of a keyboard, a mouse or a joystick, and an infinite number of icons on a screen… This interface – also called a graphical user interface – is a place for interaction, the frontier space where the analogical (double-clicking the mouse) becomes digital (a file, made up of bits, opens). But the graphical user interface is not limited to that exchange between individual and technology: that relationship is mediated by an “interaction grammar” that, in order that things function, must be shared between designer and user.

This idea – the interface understood as a network of actors that are human (user, designer, etc.), technological (mouse, keyboard, screen, apps, Internet, etc.) and institutional (interaction grammar, businesses, laws, etc.) – can be taken far beyond the classical image of the individual against the digital machine. If we scale the concept, we can consider the school as an interface where actors that are human (teachers, students, governors, families, etc.), technological (blackboards, benches, books, pencils, projectors, tablets, etc.) and institutional (school management, PTA, Department of Education, Ministry, etc.) maintain different types of relationships with each other and carry forward a series of processes.

Educational interfaces

For years there has been talk of a “crisis in the school system” and of “educational innovation”. Rivers of ink and seas of bits have issued forth on this question in recent years. Back in 2007, in an article published in La Vanguardia, Manuel Castells warned: “The idea that young people today should bear the burden of a rucksack full of boring textbooks, defined by ministerial bureaucrats, and should be locked up in a classroom to endure a discourse irrelevant to their perspective, and should put up with all this in the name of the future, is simply absurd”. For some, the solution simply involves incorporating “educational technology” into the classroom and training the teachers. However, for others, we believe that the issue is much more complex and that it demands another type of focus. Perhaps a view from the perspective of interfaces might be useful for us….

Many other interfaces that were already showing their limitations from a couple of decades ago, such as political interfaces (parties) or social interfaces (trade unions), must pass through processes of redesign if we want them to continue fulfilling their representative roles. COVID-19 has added hospitals and healthcare centres to this list: during the worst weeks of the pandemic, these interfaces had to be redesigned in real time in order to tackle the boom in the number of patients entering their emergency departments.

Another interface that will not escape redesign is the city. Urban interfaces will have to be rethought in all their dimensions, from the relationship between the public and the private space to the spaces for the flow and permanence of pedestrians while maintaining a “safe social distance”. Even highly innovative spaces on an urban level, such as the “super-blocks” of Barcelona or the new co-working rooms at the UPF, are not prepared for the post-pandemic world and will have to be redesigned.

Nearly all the interfaces that have been mentioned (compulsory state schools, political parties, trade unions, hospitals) were created during Modernity to cater for the needs of a type of industrial mass society that is in the process of disappearing. COVID-19 has done nothing if not slit open all of these interfaces and evidence their incapacity to tackle an increasingly complex and uncertain world….(More)”.

How urban design can make or break protests


Peter Schwartzstein in Smithsonian Magazine: “If protesters could plan a perfect stage to voice their grievances, it might look a lot like Athens, Greece. Its broad, yet not overly long, central boulevards are almost tailor-made for parading. Its large parliament-facing square, Syntagma, forms a natural focal point for marchers. With a warren of narrow streets surrounding the center, including the rebellious district of Exarcheia, it’s often remarkably easy for demonstrators to steal away if the going gets rough.

Los Angeles, by contrast, is a disaster for protesters. It has no wholly recognizable center, few walkable distances, and little in the way of protest-friendly space. As far as longtime city activists are concerned, just amassing small crowds can be an achievement. “There’s really just no place to go, the city is structured in a way that you’re in a city but you’re not in a city,” says David Adler, general coordinator at the Progressive International, a new global political group. “While a protest is the coming together of a large group of people and that’s just counter to the idea of L.A.”

Among the complex medley of moving parts that guide protest movements, urban design might seem like a fairly peripheral concern. But try telling that to demonstrators from Houston to Beijing, two cities that have geographic characteristics that complicate public protest. Low urban density can thwart mass participation. Limited public space can deprive protesters of the visibility and hence the momentum they need to sustain themselves. On those occasions when proceedings turn messy or violent, alleyways, parks, and labyrinthine apartment buildings can mean the difference between detention and escape….(More)”.

Narrative Change: How Changing the Story Can Transform Society, Business, and Ourselves


Book by Hans Hansen: “Texas prosecutors are powerful: in cases where they seek capital punishment, the defendant is sentenced to death over ninety percent of the time. When management professor Hans Hansen joined Texas’s newly formed death penalty defense team to rethink their approach, they faced almost insurmountable odds. Yet while Hansen was working with the office, they won seventy of seventy-one cases by changing the narrative for death penalty defense. To date, they have succeeded in preventing well over one hundred executions—demonstrating the importance of changing the narrative to change our world.

In this book, Hansen offers readers a powerful model for creating significant organizational, social, and institutional change. He unpacks the lessons of the fight to change capital punishment in Texas—juxtaposing life-and-death decisions with the efforts to achieve a cultural shift at Uber. Hansen reveals how narratives shape our everyday lives and how we can construct new narratives to enact positive change. This narrative change model can be used to transform corporate cultures, improve public services, encourage innovation, craft a brand, or even develop your own leadership.

Narrative Change provides an unparalleled window into an innovative model of change while telling powerful stories of a fight against injustice. It reminds us that what matters most for any organization, community, or person is the story we tell about ourselves—and the most effective way to shake things up is by changing the story….(More)”.

Covid-19 means systems thinking is no longer optional


Seth Reynolds at NPC: “Never has the interdependence of our world been experienced by so many, so directly, so rapidly and so simultaneously. Our response to one threat, Covid-19, has unleashed a deluge of secondary and tertiary consequences that have swept across the globe faster than the virus itself. The butterfly effect has taken on new dimensions, as the reality of system interdependence at multiple levels has been brought directly into our homes and news feeds:

  • Individually, an innocuous bus journey sends a stranger to intensive care in a fortnight
  • Societally, health charities are warning that actions taken in response to one health crisis – Covid-19 – could lead to up to 11,000 deaths of women in childbirth around the world because of another – namely, 9.5m women not getting access to family planning intervention.
  • Governmentally, some systemic consequences of decision-making are there for all to see, while others are less immediately apparent – for example, Trump’s false proclamation of testing availability “for anyone that wants one”  ended up actually reducing the availability of tests by immediately increasing demand.  It even reduced the already scarce supply of protective masks, which must be disposed of after testing.

Students will be studying coronavirus for years. A systems lens can help us learn essential lessons. Covid-19 has provided many clear examples of effective systemic action, and stark lessons in the consequences of non-systemic thinking. Leaders and decision-makers everywhere are being compelled to think broader and deeper about causation and consequence. Decisions taken, even words spoken, without systemic awareness can have – indeed have had – profoundly damaging effects.

Systemic thinking, planning, action and leadership must now be mainstreamed – individually, organisationally, societally, across public, private and charity sectors. As one American diplomat recently reflected: “from climate change to the coronavirus, complex adaptive systems thinking is key to handling crises”. In fact, some epidemiologists, suddenly the world’s most valuable profession, have been calling for more systemic ways of working for years. However, we currently do not think and act in accordance with how our complex systems function and this has been part of the Covid-19 problem…(More)”.

Dark Patterns: Regulating Digital Design


Report by the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung: “How easy it is to order a book on an online shop’s website, how intuitive maps or navigation services are to use in everyday life, or how laborious it is to set up a customer account for a car-sharing service, these features and ‘user flows’ have become incredibly important to the every customer. Today, the “user friendliness” of a digital platform or service can therefore have a significant influence on how well a product sells or what market share it gains. Therefore, not only operators of large online platforms, but also companies in more traditional sectors of the economy are increasing investments into designing websites, apps or software in such a way that they can be used easily, intuitively and as time-saving as possible. 

This approach to product design is called user-centered design (UX design) and is based on the observations of how people interact with digital products, developing prototypes and testing them in experiments. These methods are not only used to improve the user-friendliness of digital interfaces but also to improve certain performance indicators which are relevant to the business – whether it is raising the number of users who register as new customers, increasing the sales volume per user or encouraging as many users as possible to share personal data.

UX design as well as intensive testing and optimization of user interfaces has become a standard in today’s digital product development as well as an important growth-driver for many companies. However, this development also has a side effect: Since companies and users can have conflicting interests and needs with regard to the design of digital products or services, digital design practices which cause problems or even harm for users are spreading.

Examples of problematic design choices include warnings and countdowns that create time pressure in online shops, the design of settings-windows that make it difficult for users to activate data protection settings, or website architectures that make it extremely time-consuming to delete an account. These examples are called “dark patterns”, “Deceptive Design” or “Unethical Design” and are defined as design practices which, intentionally or intentionally, influence people to their disadvantage and potentially manipulate users in their behaviour or decisions….(More)”.