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Ethical Things: Workshop v2, London

Ethical Things: Workshop v2, London

On May 9 and 10, we held another series of co-creation workshops with developers and designers who make connected devices - this time, we held the workshops in London, which is the second field site for our project VIRT-EU.

Our goals were to try to understand how IOT creators see ethics happening in their product choices and design, as well as how / whether guiding our participants to speculate at a more system-level would open up uncovered ethical pitfalls.

With our partners at LSE and ITU, we refined the experience we had created for Amsterdam in order to more directly achieve our goals.

0. Recruitment

Recruitment in London was more difficult than in Amsterdam - people had less time - between longer work hours and longer commutes. Still, our LSE partners gathered small groups for each workshop from the network they have been developing during the project.


We asked participants to identify + sequentially list in 3 columns the following key elements:

A. Values (for ex: transparency)

B. Ingredients (for ex: bluetooth LE)

C. Roles (for ex: back-end dev)

After listing, they drew lines starting from a given value to any ingredients that demonstrate that value, continuing to the roles that support the work on this ingredient.

For example, from the value of “transparency” to the ingredient of a “meter” to the roles of “interface designer, engineer, policy officials and project managers.”

Or, in another participant's input, from the value of “transparency” to the ingredient of “blockchain” to the role of “blockchain engineer and CTO.”


Through this priming activity, we hope to a) help our paired participants share an understanding of how the product is composed and b) provoke our participants to reflect upon how their product’s stated values do or do not align with their product’s tangible ingredients - as well as how the various roles in the company take more or less responsibility of some of these key values+ingredients.


Firstly, there were often several values that, while listed, were not linked to an ingredient. This could have been because of lack of time, but it also points at the possibility of a lack of representation of certain overall values. This may be because the company holds them, or the individual holds them, but they have not yet found a way to integrate them in the product. *We will look into this in our next iteration of the exercise. 

Values of “ease of use” and/or “simplicity” were stated in all of the product statements. For example, similar ingredients of “interface” and “display” are linked to similar values of “ease of use” and “simplicity”.

However, the more specific type of interface / display of an App or Website have more disparate values associated with them such as “energy efficiency” and “off-site monitoring”. 

On the other hand, we saw certain surprising polarities in how participants linked values and ingredients.

As mentioned above, the value of “transparency” was linked to both a “meter” (as in, a physical object that displays current readings about the product) as well as to “blockchain.” This piques interest as we can see how companies could try to achieve this overarching value through an object rooted in physical place as well as through a vast networked, decentralised technology.

The value -> ingredient statements strive towards a goal of connection but clearly do not equal one another. Thus perhaps a follow up prompt would be “and how close is this connection?” in order to stimulate deeper reflection over time of how the product might be achieving its value-based goals (or not). A micro controller linked to the value of “security” might be a far-off link at first, but as the company makes more decisions about how the micro controller operates, it might fill in the gaps to bring the ingredient closer to that value. We see this question of what could bring the ingredient closer to the value come through in the inputs to the next exercise.


The next step was to choose an ingredient that was particularly challenging - bringing up tensions in the team, difficult questions, multiple arguments. They placed this ingredient at the centre of our workshopping sheet that guided them to explain the system around the ingredient choice - from arguments to individuals who made those arguments to broader influences upon those individuals. 

element_options_arguments a2.jpg


The goal of this exercise was to dive deeply into the tangible nature of ethics in creating IOT. Each major (and even minor) choice rests on the company's moral foundation and this exercise seeks to pull this fact closer to the surface and closer to the participant's awareness. 

We did not direct participants towards a right answer for a given choice. Rather, we leave it to them to demonstrate how a given choice and the possible arguments in favour of one direction or another would or would not align with the core values they had already identified.


While the homework contained connections between a big value and a product component that in and of itself contained many small decisions, the “zoom-in” allowed us to push our participants to look at those connections more closely. 

Thus, while “transparency” does not necessarily equal “blockchain”, once this assumption is pulled apart, we can understand better how the given company makes this connection. One company had 3 possible options related to their choice of the ingredient of blockchain - they could use ethereum (public blockchain), a private blockchain or no blockchain at all. Interestingly, when asked if each option represented the previously asserted values of “transparency” and “trust”, our participant immediately shifted the post-its, showing that these values could only be linked with ethereum (public blockchain).

Thus she demonstrated how certain ingredients, and the detailed elements inside of them, are in fact closer or farther from their overarching value, depending on which elements are chosen. *


After this zooming in on the product and its inner pieces, we asked our participants to zoom out and, similar to the exercise we held in Amsterdam, consider the possible negative and positive impacts their product might have if everyone in the world had it. 

However, we refined the experience so that participants would roll a die to reveal a more specific type of impact, focusing their speculations on either CULTURAL / POLITICAL / ECONOMIC / SOCIAL / ECOLOGICAL impact.

As in Amsterdam, they continued this activity by assessing the desirability + likelihood of the outcomes, and then building a scenario/story around one of the least desirable outcomes.


The goal of this exercise was to test our working hypothesis that structured speculation can enable participants to consider their product on a system-level and imagine otherwise under-imagined negative impacts along with the (possibly over-imagined) positive impacts.


The speculative activity effectively led our participants to push their assumptions about their connected values + products, such that one group wrote a purely nonsensical scenario in order to avoid the possible outcome of their speculation.**


Lastly, as in Amsterdam, we held a brainstorm where we asked our participants what tools we could make to help address such ethical pitfalls during the IOT creation process. The previous activity of speculation and scenario drawing flows directly into this question. We further supported the ideation process by providing possible contexts for the tool - whether the tool is at the desk, in the office, on a computer / app, or embodied in a person. 


As in Amsterdam, we used brainstorming to a) surface how the participants themselves understand ethics - this comes through in what kind of tool they would like to create and b) encourage ownership + community as we continue to proceed towards creating tools that we hope will be useful and relevant for the IOT creators.


Together with our partners from LSE who are specifically focused on the ethics models that surround this IOT product development, we noticed that our participants’ brainstormed tools often represented a particular ethical foundation. 

For example, we saw the ideas of providing counterfactuals, or being able to communicate with an interlocutor.

Furthermore, there were at least 3 themes that have surfaced from the brainstorms of Amsterdam and London. 

1. Awareness: to help become aware of a possible problem.

2. Questioning: activating other personas / inputs to question your decisions. 

3. Unpredictable impacts: creating unimaginable repercussions or unexpected user groups to help push farther than the company’s own assumptions.


Certain focus areas for our tools have shown up throughout the past two workshops.

1. Tools for articulation: empowering participants to connect values with specific ingredients and product choices.

2. Tools for speculation: in order to question assumptions about #1, participants need help to be aware of unexpected system-level repercussions or cultural differences in how a product is used and what kind fo impact it could have.


I. Values -> ingredients:

a. Tiers of values:

We will add two more columns to this exercise for “personal” and “company” values in order to look at how individuals’ sense of ethics come through (or do not come through) in their product development.

b. Uncover gaps:

**Why does a given company compromise on their personal/company/product values? We will run an exercise to uncover this by asking “If you had everything you needed, what would you do differently?” in relation to their ingredient choices. 

We also consider an iteration or addition to the speculation whereby we would structure the “diff” between the participant’s least desired possible outcome and a dream scenario where they would have all of the resources in the world - how would they avoid this outcome? How/would they change their product to avoid it?

II. Speculations:

a. Impact contexts:

Building a full tree to explore X impact on a Y level, where X could be ecological / cultural / political / economic / social and Y could be local / global


*creating an interactive tool where depending on which value, ingredient and then possible elements you add in or take out, the value and the ingredient will be more or less strongly connected. 

Ethical Things: Workshop v1, Amsterdam

Ethical Things: Workshop v1, Amsterdam