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Don’t be Afraid of Dystopias: Talking about Values in PD Processes

Contribution to the PDC 2020 Interactive Workshop "Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility: The Past, Present and Future Values of Participatory Design".

Published onMay 25, 2020
Don’t be Afraid of Dystopias: Talking about Values in PD Processes

Don’t be Afraid of Dystopias: Talking about Values in PD Processes

By Franzisca Maas and Sara Klüber

University of Würzburg Würzburg, Germany

Contact: {Franzisca.maas, Sara.klueber}

While digital technologies affect (almost) everyone’s lives, non-developers (or users) often face difficulties in influencing technology development. The aim of Participatory Design (PD), therefore, is to democratize technology development by giving voice to those who are affected by the outcomes [1]. Following early PD ideals, such development processes are intended to be ‘two-way’ (learning from each other, joint decision-making at eye level), rather than ‘one-way’ (users as informants). From our own experience, we think it is the two-way process that renders PD most valuable but, at first, can also feel challenging and risky. Because the process of joint decision- making necessarily brings to the fore everyone’s previous experiences and the individual viewpoints and values thus created. Accordingly, the question often arises of how to deal with such diversity or with emerging ideas that are dystopic? We argue that both, value conflicts and dystopian ideas in PD processes are advantages, not problems that particularly bring to the fore PD strengths rather than weaknesses.

To present this view in a more comprehensible manner, we report on a case within a project on local political participation, called ForDemocracy, in which both authors of the paper currently engage. For about six months, we have been meeting every other week with citizens of a district, and so far we have been working on data collection and ideation. Realizing ideation in a diverse group (psychologists, human-computer interaction specialists, students, citizens (21 – 70 years)) was challenging but valuable. We invented an ideation game using cards presenting interaction techniques similar to the technology cards in inspiration card workshops [2] to stimulate joint creative thinking. The cards consisted of short descriptions of different in- and output technologies (1-2 sentences), a picture, and several diverse applications in different fields. Everyone was given one random card, and we matched in random pairs with in- and output cards. The task was to invent a solution for the problems identified during data collection that made use of the respective technologies. Prompted by the cards, participants started to imagine a world in which new technologies would influence their daily life, which resulted in utopias for some combinations of cards, but also in dystopic scenarios for other combinations. One pair came up with an idea, in which a face recognition system set up on the town square would recognize whether a citizen passing by would be interested in being involved in local political participation. Depending on the result, the system would recommend local initiatives based on the citizen’s preferences. This scenario immediately provoked protests from other participants, who felt the idea contradicted their values (such as the right to privacy). However, instead of completely abandoning the concept, the group was able to make use of the extreme example and discuss how the combination of technologies could be implemented in a way that supported everyone’s ethical standards. Talking about a dystopian implementation of technology opened up space and stimulated participants to vocalize (ethical) concerns and discuss conflicting values. It is important to note that participants were equipped with preexisting opinions and values and were thus able to express these without needing to be introduced to the scientific or technological background while generating design ideas.

We suggest that using such cards or even directly prompt dystopian scenarios in PD projects might help to focus on participants’ values in participatory design. Values and PD ideals are thus supported through (1) co-realization by communally creating visions, which reflect participants’ values, (2) mutual learning as participants learn about the technological background and our personal values, while providing an insight into theirs as well as discussing conflicting values amongst each other and (3) having a say as participants are able to decline ideas that do not promote their values.

Our example demonstrates how dystopian ideas might benefit rather than harm PD processes. Being able to take up and reflect even on extreme ideas with different perspectives is a strength that comes with PD and is not supported by any other user-centered design method, so we would encourage others to not refrain from welcoming dystopias if they emerge.


This research was funded by the Bavarian state ministry for science and art (ForDemocracy).


  1. Pelle Ehn. 1988. Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates., Hillsdale, Place.

  2. Kim Halskov and Peter Dalsgård. 2006. Inspiration card workshops. In Proceedings of the 6th conference on Designing Interactive systems. ACM, 2-11.

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