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Design: Cultural Probes



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interactions...january + february 1999
As the local site coordinator finished his introduction to the meeting, our worries were
increasing. The group had taken on a glazed look, showing polite interest, but no real
enthusiasm. How would they react when we presented them with our packages?
Would disinterest deepen to boredom, or even hostility?
Cultural Probes
Homo ludens impinges on his environment: He interrupts, changes, intensifies; he follows paths and in
passing, leaves traces of his presence everywhere. — Constant
Don Bishop ©1997 Artville, LLC
Of course an explanation had been necessary
for this special meeting with us, three foreign
designers. The coordinator explained that we
were there as part of a European
Union–funded research project looking at
novel interaction techniques to increase the
presence of the elderly in their local commu-
nities. We represented two design centers that
would be working over the next two years
with three community sites: in the Majorstua,
a district of Oslo; the Bijlmer, a large planned
community near Amsterdam; and Peccioli, a
small village outside Pisa. We were at the last
site, to get to know the group a little.
An important preamble, then, well deliv-
ered by the coordinator, but the explanation
was of necessity fairly complicated. On our
arrival, the 10 elderly members had been
friendly and enthusiastic, if a little puzzled.
Now they were looking tired.
Finally the time came. I stood up and said,
“We’ve brought you a kind of gift,” as we all
passed the clear blue plastic envelopes to the
group. (See Fig. 1) “They’re a way for us to get
to know you better, and for you to get to know
us.” Already people were starting to unwind the
strings fastening the envelopes. “Take a look,” I
said, “and we’ll explain what’s in them.”
An assortment of maps, postcards, cam-
eras, and booklets began accumulating in
front of them. Curious, they started exam-
ining the materials. Soon they were smiling
and discussing them with their neighbors.
As the feeling of the group livened percep-
tibly, we started explaining the contents.
Worry transformed to excitement. Perhaps the
probes would work after all.
Cultural Probes
The cultural probes—these packages of maps,
postcards, and other materials—were
designed to provoke inspirational responses
from elderly people in diverse communities.
Like astronomic or surgical probes, we left
them behind when we had gone and waited
for them to return fragmentary data over time.
The probes were part of a strategy of pur-
suing experimental design in a responsive way.
They address a common dilemma in devel-
oping projects for unfamiliar groups.
Understanding the local cultures was neces-
sary so that our designs wouldn’t seem irrele-
vant or arrogant, but we didn’t want the
groups to constrain our designs unduly by
focusing on needs or desires they already
understood. We wanted to lead a discussion
with the groups toward unexpected ideas, but
we didn’t want to dominate it.
Within the probe packages, people found 8 to
10 postcards scattered among other materials.
The cards had images on the front, and ques-
tions on the back, such as:
Please tell us a piece of advice or
insight that has been important to you.
What do you dislike about Peccioli?
What place does art have in your life?
Tell us about your favorite device.
interactions...january + february 1999
Figure 1. A cultural probe package.
Your home
What you will wear today
The first person you see today
Something desirable
Something boring
About half the pictures were unassigned,
and the elders were asked to photograph
whatever they wanted to show us before
mailing the camera back to us. (See Fig. 4)
Photo Album and Media Diary
The last two items in the probes were in the
form of small booklets. The first was a photo
album, which requesting the elders to “use 6
to 10 pictures to tell us your story.” When
questioned, we encouraged participants to use
photos of the past, their families, their current
lives, or anything they found meaningful. (See
Fig. 5)
Finally, each probe contained a media
interactions...january + february 1999 23
The questions concerned the elders’ atti-
tudes towards their lives, cultural environ-
ments, and technology. But we used oblique
wording and evocative images to open a space
of possibilities, allowing the elders as much
room to respond as possible.
Postcards are an attractive medium for
asking these sorts of questions because of their
connotations as an informal, friendly mode of
communication. (See Fig. 2) Unlike formal
questionnaires, the postcards encouraged
questions to be approached casually, which
was underlined by pre-addressing and
stamping them for separate return.
The probes contained about seven maps, each
with an accompanying inquiry exploring the
elders’ attitudes toward their environment.
(See Fig. 3)
Requests ranged from straightforward to
poetic. For instance, a map of the world
included the question “Where have you been
in the world?”, and small dot stickers were
provided to mark answers. Participants were
also asked to mark zones on local maps,
showing us where, for instance,
They would go to meet people
They would go to be alone
They liked to daydream
They would like to go but can’t
A more surreal task was given to each group
as well; in the case of Peccioli, for example, a
map was labeled “if Peccioli were New York...”
and was accompanied by stickers showing
scenes ranging from the Statue of Liberty to
people injecting drugs.
The maps were printed on a variety of tex-
tured papers to emphasize their individuality
and cut into several different envelope forms.
When the elderly were finished with them,
they folded them together and put them in
the mail.
Each probe included a disposable camera,
repackaged to separate it from its commercial
origins and to integrate it with the other probe
materials. On the back we listed requests for
pictures, such as Figure 2. A postcard (“what is your favorite device?”)
diary, in which elderly participants were asked
to record their television and radio use,
including what they watched, with whom,
and when. They were also asked to note
incoming and outgoing calls, including their
relationship with the caller and the subject of
the calls. The entries were made daily, for a
total of a week.
A number of converging interests and con-
straints were involved in designing the probes.
The Presence Project has been funded for two
years under the European Unions 13 initia-
tive. Eight partners from four countries are
exploring technologies to increase the presence
of the elderly in their local communities. This
is a relatively unconstrained project, defined
only in terms of its overall goal and its flow
over time. The first year has been spent on
opening a space of possible designs; the second
will focus on developing prototypes to be
24 interactions...january + february 1999
tested in the sites.
The sites themselves constrain the sorts of
design explorations that might be meaningful.
In Oslo, we are working with a group of
elderly who have been learning to use the
Internet at a local library. In the Netherlands,
the elders live in the Bijlmer, an extensive
planned community with a poor reputation.
Finally, the Italian site is in Peccioli, a small
Tuscan village where an elder center is being
planned. The diversity of the sites was clear
from the outset. Our task was to better under-
stand their particularities.
The openness of the design brief, and the
availability of more quantitative demographic
data from the local sites, meant that we could
freely explore many different aspects of the
elders’ attitudes. Of course, we might have
used more traditional methods to do this,
including perhaps ethnographic studies, inter-
views, or questionnaires. That we didn’t stems,
in part, from how we think about doing
research through design.
Design as Research
We approach research into new technologies
from the traditions of artist–designers rather
than the more typical science- and engi-
neering-based approaches.
Unlike much research, we dont emphasize
precise analyses or carefully controlled
methodologies; instead, we concentrate on
aesthetic control, the cultural implications of
our designs, and ways to open new spaces for
design. Scientific theories may be one source
of inspiration for us, but so are more informal
analyses, chance observations, the popular
press, and other such “unscientific” sources.
Bill Gaver and
Tony Dunne
Royal College of Art
London, U.K.
Elena Pacenti
Domus Academy
Milan, Italy
Figure 4. Camera
Figure 3. A map (“if Peccioli were New York...“)
Geographic and cultural distances were
more specific problems for this project. We
designed the materials to be posted separately,
both to acknowledge our distance and to
emphasize our ongoing lives in other coun-
tries (thus we used our names in the addresses,
as opposed to an institutional title like “The
Presence Project”). We also tried to design the
materials to be as visual as possible, to some
extent bypassing language barriers.
Respecting Our Elders
A particularly important gap for us to bridge
was the generational gap implied by
designing for another age group. To
encourage a provocative dialogue about
design, we tried to reject stereotypes of older
people as “needy” or “nice.” This freed us, in
turn, to challenge the elder groups, both
through the probes and our eventual designs.
Moving beyond a view of older people as
needy or nice has allowed us to view them in
new ways, opening new opportunities for
design. For instance, elders represent a life-
time of experiences and knowledge, often
deeply embedded in their local communities.
This could be an invaluable resource to the
younger members of their community.
Conversely, elders also represent a life free
from the need to work, and thus the possi-
bility of exploring life as homo ludens,
humanity defined by its playful qualities. Our
designs could offer them opportunities to
appreciate their environments—social, urban,
and natural—in new and intriguing ways.
Functional Aesthetics
Throughout the project, we have viewed aes-
thetic and conceptual pleasure as a right rather
than a luxury. We didnt work on the aes-
thetics of the probes simply to make them
appealing or motivating but because we
believe aesthetics to be an integral part of
functionality, with pleasure a criterion for
design equal to efficiency or usability.
We worked to make the probe materials
delightful, but not childish or condescending.
In fact, the aesthetics were somewhat abstract
or alien in order to encourage from respon-
dents a slightly detached attitude to our
Unlike most design, we dont focus on
commercial products, but on new under-
standings of technology. This allows us—even
requires us—to be speculative in our designs,
as trying to extend the boundaries of current
technologies demands that we explore func-
tions, experiences, and cultural placements
quite outside the norm.
Instead of designing solutions for user
needs, then, we work to provide opportunities
to discover new pleasures, new forms of socia-
bility, and new cultural forms. We often act as
provocateurs through our designs, trying to
shift current perceptions of technology func-
tionally, aesthetically, culturally, and even
Inspiration, not Information
The artist–designer approach is openly subjec-
tive, only partly guided by any “objective
problem statement. Thus we were after “inspi-
rational data” with the probes, to stimulate
our imaginations rather than define a set of
We weren’t trying to reach an objective
view of the elders’ needs through the probes,
but instead a more impressionistic account of
their beliefs and desires, their aesthetic prefer-
ences and cultural concerns. Using official-
looking questionnaires or formal meetings
seemed likely to cast us in the role of doctors,
diagnosing user problems and prescribing
technological cures. Conversely, we didn’t
want to be servants either, letting the elders set
the directions for our designs. Trying to estab-
lish a role as provocateurs, we shaped the
probes as interventions that would affect the
elders while eliciting informative responses
from them.
Combating Distance
To establish a conversation with the elder
groups, we had to overcome several kinds of
distance that might separate us, some endemic
to most research, some particular to this pro-
ject. Foremost was the kind of distance of offi-
cialdom that comes with being flown in as
well-funded experts. Trying to reduce this sort
of distance underlay a great deal of the tone
and aesthetics of the probe materials.
interactions...january + february 1999
Figure 5. Photo album
requests. But although the materials were aes-
thetically crafted, they were not too profes-
sionally finished. This gave them a personal
and informal feeling, allowing them to escape
the genres of official forms or of commercial
marketing. In the end, they revealed the
energy we put into them and expressed our
tastes and interests to the groups.
The aesthetics of the packages were thus
another attempt to reduce the distance
between us and the groups. Through the
materials and images and the requests we
made, we tried to reveal ourselves to the
groups as we asked them to reveal themselves
to us. Not only did this make the probes
themselves enjoyable and communicative, but
it meant that they started to hint at what the
elders might expect from our eventual designs.
Applying Conceptual Art
The conceptual concerns and specific tech-
niques of various arts movements also influ-
enced our design. For instance, our maps are
related to the psychogeographical maps of the
Situationists [1] (see the sidebar), which cap-
ture the emotional ambience of different loca-
tions. Unfamiliar with the local sites ourselves,
we asked the local groups to map them for us.
Not only did this give us material to inform
our designs, but, we hope, provoked the elders
to consider their environment in a new way.
We used other techniques from groups
such as Dada, the Surrealists, and more con-
temporary artists in the probes as well. They
incorporated elements of collage, in which
juxtaposed images open new and provocative
spaces, and of borrowing and subverting the
visual and textual languages of advertisements,
postcards, and other elements of commercial
culture. Finally, we tried to use, judiciously,
tactics of ambiguity, absurdity, and mystery
throughout, as a way of provoking new per-
spectives on everyday life.
Launching the Probes
We gave the probes to members of the elder
groups in a series of meetings at the local sites,
like the one described in the beginning of this
paper. We did not describe every item, but
instead introduced the types of things they
would find. We wanted them to be surprised
as they returned to the packages over the fol-
lowing weeks.
Originally we had planned to send the
packages to the groups, but we were afraid they
might reject the unusual approach we were
taking. We decided to present them ourselves
to explain our intentions, answer questions,
and encourage the elders to take an informal,
experimental approach to the materials.
This turned out to be an extremely fortu-
nate decision, because one of the unexpected
strengths of the probes was in sparking a dia-
logue between us and the elderly. What we
feared would be polite group discussions
turned out to be spontaneous and personal,
and we learned a great deal about the groups
in discussing the materials. Even after we left,
some of the elders sent us personal greetings
beyond the materials themselves—postcards,
letters, even personalized Christmas cards.
The Returns
For about a month after we left each site, we
started receiving the completed materials, at a
rate that seemed to compare favorably with
that for other methods. Every day or so, we
would find another few postcards, maps, or
cameras in our post, which allowed us to scan
and sort them in a piecemeal and leisurely
fashion. (See Fig. 6)
Some of the items that the elders returned
were left blank or they included notes about
why the given request was difficult. We had
encouraged this in the meetings, as a way of
keeping the process open to the elders’ opin-
26 interactions...january + february 1999
Kate Ehrlich
Senior Research Manager
Lotus Development
55 Cambridge Parkway
Cambridge, MA 02142
fax: +1-617-693-8383
Figure 6. Some of the returned items.
ions. And in fact, we redesigned the materials
for each group as we received returns from
the last.
Sorting through the masses of maps, cards,
and photographs that we received, strong and
differentiated views of the three sites began to
emerge. Some items acted as beacons for us—
a photograph of friends at an Italian café, a
map of the Bijlmer with extensive notes about
the “junkies and thieves” in the area, a joke
about death from Oslo. They seemed to cap-
ture particular facets of the cultures, clearly
symbolizing important issues. (See Fig. 7)
The return rates from the groups added to
our impressions of their differences. The Oslo
group returned almost all the materials, and
thus seemed enthusiastic and diligent. The
Bijlmer group returned a bit more than half
the materials: they seemed less convinced by
the project but willing to take part in tasks
they found meaningful or provoking. Finally,
the Peccioli group returned less than half the
materials, despite being enthusiastic when
they received them. We take this as a sign that
they are well meaning but happily distracted
by their daily lives—an important factor for
our designs.
From Probes to Designs
The probes were not designed to be analyzed,
nor did we summarize what they revealed
about the sites as an explicit stage in the
process. Rather, the design proposals we pro-
duced reflected what we learned from the
materials. For the Royal College of Art, the
probe materials allowed the different charac-
ters of the three sites to emerge, which we are
reflecting in quite different design scenarios:
In the Bijlmer, our ideas respond to the
paradox of a strong community in a
dangerous area: We have proposed
building a network of computer dis-
plays with which the elderly could help
inhabitants communicate their values
and attitudes about the culture.
The group in Oslo is affluent, well
educated, and enthusiastic: We are
proposing that they lead a community-
wide conversation about social issues,
publishing questions from the library
that are sent for public response to
electronic systems in cafés, trams, or
public spaces.
Finally, the elders in Peccioli enjoy a
relaxed social life in a beautiful setting.
We plan to amplify their pleasure by
creating social and pastoral radioscapes,
allowing them to create flexible com-
munications networks and to listen to
the sounds of the surrounding country-
side. (See Fig. 8)
For the Domus Academy, the returns sug-
gested a range of nonstereotypical profiles of
elders that were less focused on the particular
sites. For instance, many elders are experts on
interactions...january + february 1999 27
Figure 7. A returned map showing zones of safety and fear in the Bijlmer.
the current status and history of their com-
munities and might serve as local information
resources, perhaps by guiding tourists. They
are eager to keep in touch with friends and
families, and thus new technologies might
support relationships with distant relatives or
with children and grandchildren closer to
home, or might provide forms of “soft surveil-
lance” or informal help chains to combat
social isolation. Finally, the elderly might pro-
vide a living memory of a particular commu-
nity, enriching the physical environment with
virtual traces of its history.
These proposals were our reply to the
elders’ responses to the probes, integrating
what we learned about them with suggestions
for new possibilities. The best evidence that
the returns from the probes spurred valuable
insights into the local cultures was that the
elders clearly recognized themselves in the
proposals. Although some of our suggestions
were intended to be strange or provocative,
the elders became readily involved with them,
making suggestions for reshaping the ideas,
but without breakdowns in the conversation
that would have indicated our perceptions
28 interactions...january + february 1999
The Situationists
One influence on our work is the Situationists [1, 3], a collective
of artist-provocateurs based largely in Paris from the late 1950s
to early 1960s.
Like the Dadaists and Surrealists (e.g., [2]), the Situationists
wanted their art to be revolutionary, reawakening passion and
unconscious desires in the general public. Fundamental in this
approach was their analysis of the ways that commercial culture
expropriates people’s experience into the “Spectacle,” an all-
encompassing, media-fueled show. As the Spectacle subsumes
ideas, desires, even protests, people are forced into an alienated
position, as consumers of their own experience.
The Situationists used artistic strategies both as a radical
critique of the Spectacle and as concrete research into the
promise of new cultural possibilities. Art was to be liberated
from the safe enclave of established galleries and used to
seduce and confront ordinary people. They mass-produced paint-
ings sold by the yard; altered prints, comic strips, and advertise-
ments; and created new architectures to be changed at will by
the people who lived in them. Throughout, they embraced dis-
orientation and confusion as methods for liberation.
Psychogeographical maps were developed to represent the city’s topology of desire, fear, isolation and
sociality, to challenge the cultural homogeneity assumed by commercial interests. Situationists took
derivés, meandering around the city guided only by the landscape of impulse and desire, and mapped
what they found. We have borrowed from this technique for the cultural probes. More generally, we
approach our design in their spirit of functional pleasure.
Figure 8. From the proposal for the bijlmer.
interactions...january + february 1999
were crude or mistaken. This notion of a con-
tinuing conversation with the elders has been
pivotal to our understanding of the probes as
a method.
User-Centered Inspiration
Although the probes were central to our
understanding of the sites, they didn’t directly
lead to our designs. They were invaluable in
making us aware of the detailed texture of the
sites, allowing us to shape proposals to fit
them. But we were also influenced by our pre-
existing conceptual interests, our visits to the
sites, anecdotes and data about the areas from
the local coordinators, and readings from the
popular and specialist press. Just as many
influences went into designing the probes, so
have they been one of many influences on our
design process.
The cultural probes were successful for us in
trying to familiarize ourselves with the sites in
a way that would be appropriate for our
approach as artist–designers. They provided us
with a rich and varied set of materials that both
inspired our designs and let us ground them in
the detailed textures of the local cultures.
What we learned about the elders is only
half the story, however. The other half is what
the elders learned from the probes. They pro-
voked the groups to think about the roles they
play and the pleasures they experience,
hinting to them that our designs might sug-
gest new roles and new experiences. In the
end, the probes helped establish a conversa-
tion with the groups, one that has continued
throughout the project.
We believe the cultural probes could be
adapted to a wide variety of similar design
projects. Just as machine-addressed letters
seem more pushy than friendly, however, so
might a generic approach to the probes pro-
duce materials that seem insincere, like official
forms with a veneer of marketing. The real
strength of the method was that we had
designed and produced the materials specifi-
cally for this project, for those people, and for
their environments. The probes were our per-
sonal communication to the elders, and
prompted the elders to communicate person-
ally in return.
“The game should be played for some length
of time to arrive at the most curious results. The
questions, as well as the answers, are to be con-
sidered as symptomatic.”
— J. Levy, Surrealism
The Presence Project is supported by a grant
from the European Union under the I3 initia-
tive. We are extremely grateful to the members
of the three groups and to Sidsel Bjorneby,
Simon Clatworthy, Danielle van Diemen, and
Cecelia Laschi, the local site coordinators. We
thank Ben Hooker and Fiona Raby for help
with the design and production of the probe
materials and Anne Schlottmann for helpful
comments on this paper. Finally, we thank our
partners from the Domus Academy,
Netherlands Design Institute, Telenor,
Human Factors Solutions, Scuola Superiore
Sant’Anna, and IDEA.
1. Andreotti, L. and Costa, X. (eds.), Situationists: Art,
Politics, Urbanism. Museo d’Art Contemporani de
Barcelona, 1996.
2. Levy, J. Surrealism. Black Sun Press (1st ed.), 1936;
reprinted by Da Capo Press, New York, 1995.
3. Plant, S. The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist
International in a Postmodern Age. Routledge, London,
© ACM 1072-5220/99/0100 $5.00
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... A particular example, from design research with elderly communities, is the development of the cultural probe method as a way to rebalance this negotiation, and to subvert the roles of the designers and those "to be designed for". Cultural probes are themselves designed to allow for more agency on the part of the participant -more expressive and creative ability, choice and freedom whether, when and in what ways to partake (See Gaver et al., 1999). Here too, defamiliarization techniques could play an important role, in particular to uncover value systems and default implicit assumptions in how to design for and with people living with dementia. ...
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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about the first real opportunity to test the efficacy of the Responsible Research and Innovation framework or RRI in a global health crisis. This is in view of the bold new approaches to health research and innovation that the pandemic has paved the way for. One such approach is the digital contact tracing application (CTA). Although contact tracing has been a fundamental part of infectious disease control for decades, this is the first time this technique has been used in mobile applications. Based on a Multivocal Literature Review, the development of CTAs in four countries – France, Germany, Spain, and the UK – was assessed to understand what dimensions of RRI can be identified in the governments’ response to COVID-19. This chapter shows that although from 2011, RRI has been promoted as a governance approach for increasing societal desirability of the processes and products of science and technology, very little is known about how the framework may be applied in a health crisis. Notwithstanding that RRI was not explicitly referenced during the development of CTAs in France, the UK, Spain, and Germany, the analysis has identified some interesting linkage to this framework. It shows that while no RRI approach was explicitly embraced by these governments, some key components were present – even though inadequately. It also indicates that, while it is challenging to apply RRI in crises, there is value in using it as an analytical tool for techno-social responses in situations, like those created by the COVID-19 health crisis.
Due to an increased presence of robots in human-inhabited environments, we observe a growing body of examples in which humans show behavior that is indicative of strong social engagement towards robots that do not possess any life-like realism in appearance or behavior. In response, we focus on the under-explored concept of a common locus as a relevant driver for a robot passing a social threshold. The key principle of common locus is that sharing place and time with a robotic artifact functions as an important catalyst for a perception of shared experiences, which in turn leads to bonding. We present BlockBots, minimal cube-shaped robotic artifacts that are deployed in an unsupervised, open-ended and in-the-field experimental setting aimed to explore the relevance of this concept. Participants host the BlockBot in their domestic environment before passing it on, without necessarily knowing they are taking part in an experiment. Qualitative data suggest that participants make identity and mind attributions to the BlockBot. People that actively maintain a common locus with BlockBot by taking it with them when changing location, on trips and during outdoor activities, project more of these attributes than others.
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