Design Research in face of current challenges to Knowledge

As our conference call goes out, here is my statement:

The recent and growing ransomware virus trend has been raising the levels of concern for the safety, integrity and accessibility of our information; in one second, the wrong click may wipe out our personal digital heritage once and for all. Yet even more concerning may be the ways in which it has managed to wreak havoc on certain public infrastructures and private core companies: on the May 2017 cyberattack, the UK National Health Service was forced to revert to manual prescription among the infochaos, just as Portuguese emergency services reverted to radio communication as a preventative measure.

This sequence of events may be regarded as a manifestation of a broader set of challenges we face nowadays; on one hand, it exposes an ironic frailty at the core of the hyper-complex state of technology we have developed and subscribed to as an unquestionable paradigm. On the other hand, and equally as ironically, it sets a reversion into analogue, even manual procedures, that reveal themselves ultimately more reliable in times of crisis. So much for deterministic progress, then: Brave New World ends up in a black box, and the black box is bursting at the seams, and the black box is encrypted. Now, shall we wait until AI has woven itself effectively into our bodies and we have fully delegated our cognitive and vital functions? In this ever-more-likely scenario, a hacking might just turn out to be the last one.

The ransomware trend may also be regarded as a metaphor: for the ways scientific knowledge is often far from openly accessible for the purpose of scientific advancement – and equally a metaphor for the ways in which science seems to be increasingly becoming hostage to agendas, be it financial, political or other. Recent echoes from the US Government voicing its willingness to veto impartial research pertaining to climate change (and elsewhere to withdraw the funding of bodies and projects whose findings do not align themselves with political agendas) are deeply concerning signs when it comes to the continued maintenance and nurturing of the sacred principle of scientific impartiality.

Agenda-driven Science is, one may argue, in line with the broader phenomenon of fake news: ultimately unreliable, but more dangerously, ultimately capable of rendering impartial knowledge and information unreliable by association, as one and the other become increasingly harder to tell apart. And this happens in part through an ever-increasing access to ever more powerful design tools. Again, the irony: design sophistication has flattened the authoritative formation (and formality) of content. In a sense, all is noise already; the question is, is this syndrome reversible?

On a broader perspective, we may posit that purposeful knowledge is in the process of being neutralised by the sheer magnitude of paradoxical information, the allure of speed betraying our ontological need for depth. Our struggle with this kind of Noise is particularly challenging because it provides a very effective semblance of content – but hardly or rarely a narrative, a context or a canon.

Noise is therefore either the endpoint of encryption, or an induced omnipresence (and therefore a uselessness) of meaning.

Which brings us to Design Research. A fairly recent endeavour in its scientific ambition, it has been consolidating itself as a discipline both by applying and customising scientific paradigms and methodologies as required by its own field – as well as by making itself available to other disciplines that may benefit from the input of design.

The premise of UD17 – noiseWise is that design research may point towards a wide range of contributions, both in the sciences and in civic environments – and we believe these contributions may be able to converge in a shared mission: to ensure, confer and preserve the presence of meaning and purpose among the current state of cognitive volatility.

Furthermore, the Humanities and Social Sciences face the challenge of incorporating a critical and interpretative voice that could attempt to regulate and harmonise what at times seems to be an exponential technological development devoid of the sense of its own social or cultural impact: case at hand, the utopia of online connectivity has at some point given way to a neurosis of ubiquitous surveillance and compulsive over-exposure. Yet the party goes on unabated and unchallenged. Make no mistake: this is not a manifesto against technological development, but rather a call for its wise and mindful mediation and incorporation.

Could design research lead this process of decipherment and re-centering of current scientific progress? We believe the answer may be in the affirmative: from research that casts light into contemporary communication phenomena, to projects that reveal the dynamics and conflicts between tradition and progress. From pedagogical assets in our relation with technology, to the actual aesthetic and functional betterment of that same technology. From the tangible facilitation of emerging communities to ensuring existing communities avoid the traps of exoticisation and loss of self-determination.

More importantly, we believe design research needs to build and maintain bridges with other disciplines if it is to flourish in its own terms, and effectively contribute to that truthful cliché we have all wanted all along as researchers: “A Better World”. And a Better World needs to be built just as it needs to be interpreted, communicated, provided with forms, translated into tools and the means to flourish. A Better World is based on a wealth of meaningful and purposeful knowledge; in other words, it is based on wisdom. As design researchers, we will be delighted to provide a continued contribution; and as doctoral students, we will do our darn best to ensure the future turns out to be wiser than the present.


Heitor Alvelos, May 2017