Beyond human-centred design

In our line of work, it is customary for us to proclaim that we are ‘human-centric’; that good business is driven by understanding the customer. We confidently state that we put people front and centre, to explore what is meaningful to them, how they experience their reality. We assert that through understanding our users, we can identify unmet needs, develop new products, devise successful marketing strategies, break into new markets, and uncover emerging trends. To do this, we draw upon anthropology to help us uncover and understand the motivations, practices, and sociocultural contexts that people operate within, and which inform their consumer behaviour. Anthropology, is, by definition, anthropocentric – centred on humans.

What if I told you, however, that humans aren’t so special. That the very qualities that make us human are not pre-given features but are rather properties generated by our participation in the world at large. In this view, humans are not mere expressions of blueprints started at the moment of conception. Rather, we are shaped and fashioned in the course of our lives through the many different environments that we grow and mature within. And these environments consist of all the worldly things that are part of our existence – people, animals, nature, objects – all the things that make up our world.

If we accept such a view then, what does it mean for our work? Can we continue to place the human front and centre when so much of our being is constituted through our engagement with the world around us? In this blogpost I’d like to put forward the provocation that instead of seeing ourselves as the centre of this world, we should instead start seeing ourselves as only part of this world. When we recognise that we are co-creators within a world that is constantly ‘becoming’, shaped by innumerable forces of which we are but one factor, then we can start designing not just for our fellow humans, but for a world at large.

Robots and Humans

In a recent project we conducted on service robots and human interaction, many of the issues I raise above surfaced in the course of the research as we tackled issues surrounding the introduction of robots into society. Disruptive technologies such as AI, machine learning, and robotics are set to fundamentally challenge and transform almost every facet of our existence in the years to come. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has stated that artificial intelligence will have a bigger impact on the world than some of the most well-known innovations in history: “AI is one of the most important things humanity is working on. It is more profound than … electricity or fire,” said Pichai, speaking at a town hall event in San Francisco in January of this year[i]. Difficult issues will have to be faced as people confront the impact of these changes in terms of jobs, skills, wages, and identity.

This last point is pertinent, since it raises profound questions on the nature of our humanness and the idea of ‘humanity’ as a special, protected class. If we set aside humans as special and unique, we tend to then dehumanise and downscale everything that is non-human, setting the stage for our current malaise where our environment is objectified as a resource to be used up as quickly as possible.

The idea that we have dominion over other things, over nature, that we might somehow “own” them, is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the majority of our history, as hunter-gatherers, we saw ourselves as part of nature, as one and the same, we were neither separate nor apart, but rather just another element in a vibrant and alive environment. With the coming of the agricultural revolution however, and then modern science we gradually became divorced from the world around us, first through domestication and control of the land, and secondly through removing and detaching ourselves from that world so that we might measure and observe it.

Industry 4.0

We are now on the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution, one marked by emerging technologies in robotics, AI, nanotechnology, and The Internet of Things amongst others. As many have pointed out, what differentiates this transformation from previous revolutions is the constancy, depth and breadth of the changes underway and how they affect every aspect of human organisation, from production to governance and up to and including the human body itself. Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum has stated that “[The fourth industrial revolution] is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”[ii]

As designers and anthropologists who create experiences, it is our responsibility to be at the forefront of these emerging trends. We have the capability to help shape these conversations and start designing a world not just for the few, but for the many. Designing with humans front and centre was a welcome development after far too many years of approaching business design problems soley from product or technology perspectives. However, times are once again changing. We are beginning to witness first-hand the effects of unconstrained environmental waste and the depletion of entire ecosystems. Traditional, linear economic models that cannot account for the ‘externalities’ of environmental impact caused by resource extraction and its impact on the wider social good are no longer fit for purpose. In all areas we will be forced to move from human-centred products to cradle-to-cradle systems that take account of the wider environment. We need to be at the forefront of these changes and start positioning ourselves to help shape this emerging world.

Whilst previous revolutions have drawn distinct divisions between humans and their environment, the newly emerging changes underway signal new ways in which we might conceive of ourselves within the context of our environment. Many commentators have called attention to the threat posed by artificial intelligence and robots for their potential to overpower or out-think humans, a threat which Sundar Pichai is all too aware: “We have learned to harness fire for the benefits of humanity, but we had to overcome its downsides too. So, my point is, AI is really important, but we have to be concerned about it.” And many others have noted the huge benefits to humankind that such a shift may entail. Many however, have overlooked what I think to be a more elemental point: our changing perception of ourselves as the pre-eminent actor in this world.

Designing for a shared world

As robots and AI become more commonplace, as the technology improves, and we gradually come to interact with them in our daily social lives, there will come a time when we have to consider what, if any, legal rights, robots should be extended. How should we, as moral beings, and society treat them? Our preliminary research indicated that people have a natural tendency to anthropomorphise social robots, to project life-like qualities on to them. Indeed, many such robots, like Softbank’s Pepper robot are designed explicitly to elicit emotional responses in their human interlocutors. This has been further verified in other studies e.g. Kate Darling (2014) reports on military robots designed to defuse mines (by stepping on them) being pulled from active service by their commanders due to the perceived inhumane treatment accorded them[iii].

One argument of course in favour of implementing some kind of charter for the treatment of social robots is the protection of societal values. Already, there have been reports of robot abuse in which researchers have observed children punching, kicking, and generally abusing service robots in shopping malls[iv]. When we deter children (and adults) from mistreating robots, we are firstly discouraging similar types of behaviour from carrying over to other contexts through normalisation and desensitisation, and secondly, encouraging a respect and consideration for all other living and non-living things. In parallel, when we begin to value all things, to accord them our respect, and to downplay our own ‘specialness’ we might begin to forge a more forgiving and empathetic world. When we no longer elevate humans as a unique class over and above things, perhaps we may once again start developing a respect for and dialogue with other non-human things, including our surrounding environment.

To return then to our initial premise, if we humans are shaped and constituted through our interactions, then our conduct with robots and other living and non-living things have a direct bearing upon us. We not only shape the world around us but are shaped back in a mutually reciprocal fashion. In the future then, as designers and researchers, perhaps we might look towards and investigate, not just people, but an active and alive world. For the human mind, as anthropologist Tim Ingold notes “is not ‘inside the headrather than ‘out there’ in the world.[v]

The environmental merit of such a change in perspective is readily apparent. However, is there also a corresponding business case to be made? Let us be clear, human-centricity without sustainability is a dead-end, period. Short-term thinking that fails to consider the systemic impact of our work (and future implications thereof) is not only bad business from a strategy perspective, but furthermore ignores all the signs that we are seeing today from our future customers. This project, and others we have been involved in (most notably a recent project on the aspirations of the so-called ‘Gen Z’) indicate that the next generation recognise and understand the need to pursue more equitable relationships with their fellow humans and their environment at large. In the future, businesses would be wise to take heed of these changing social mores and behaviours. For the companies who get there first, who establish their reputation and brand not only around more sustainable business practices but also fairness, transparency, and accountability will be the ones who forge ahead in the years to come. And for that to happen, it means designing for a world in which we are no longer the pre-eminent actor. It means designing for a non-human centred world.

Oct 25, 2018


Key References

[i] Clifford, Catherine. 2018. ‘Google CEO: A.I. is more important than fire or electricity’.Available at: 2018
[ii] Schwab, Klaus. 2016. ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond’. Available at:
[iii] Darling, Kate. 2012. ‘Extending Legal Protection to Social Robots: The Effects of Anthropomorphism, Empathy, and Violent Behavior Towards Robotic Objects’. Available at SSRN: or
[iv] Nomura, Tatsuya et all. 2015. ‘Why Do Children Abuse Robots?’ Available at:
[v] Ingold, Tim. 2000. Perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill