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New Adventures 2020 was something I’d been looking forward to for a long time, seeing as last year’s conference had a massive impact on my work and on me as a person.

A year on, and it’s become increasingly obvious that the world is in a mess. The climate crisis is overwhelmingly dire, the inequality gap is wider than ever and abuse of people’s personal data is happening on a global scale yet still widely ignored.

Acknowledging this feels incredibly difficult. Thankfully, the organisers of New Adventures are not afraid to face these challenges and assembled a top team of diverse speakers prepared to tackle these themes head-on.

As such, this year’s event was less New Adventures, more Cleaning up the mess from your old adventures.

In the build-up to New Adventures 2020, event organisers Simon Collison and Geri Coady released an impressive climate impact policy, which should be seen as a leading example for other conferences. I encourage anyone to read the full climate policy and learn from it.

Some of the positive changes the organisers implemented included:

  • Primarily inviting UK and European speakers and offsetting any overseas flights.
  • Encouraging attendees to bring our own reusable water bottle and coffee cup.
  • Providing lunches with much reduced plastic wrapping.
  • Removing pre-made goodie bags and allowing attendees to take materials they would want.

Whilst this can be considered quite forward thinking, it’s also something we as an industry and society can and should be doing now.

In a way, the environmental policy set the tone of the whole day.

Planet-centred design

Cennydd Bowles opening New Adventures 2020 with his talk Building Better Worlds.

Futurist designer Cennydd Bowles is the author of Future Ethics, and discussed the concept of planet-centred design.

Planet-centred design moves on from the idea of user-centred design, that is “what is the best solution for the one person using my design”.

It’s about thinking “beyond the now” and considering more critically the long-term effects the products we are designing will have on the whole planet.

Realistically, the most environmentally-friendly product is one that does not exist. So it’s crucial that we as designers properly consider the potential consequences of anything we intend to create and then take responsibility for the outcome.

Live and Live Differently

Akil Benjamin discussed personal growth through honest self-reflection.

Next up was Akil Benjamin of Comuzi Lab. Akil brought us back to the present day with some practical advice on how to make decisions to move you in the direction of where you want to be as a person in the future.

Importantly, to make these decisions you need to give yourself options and explore them by:

  • Collaborating with people from different backgrounds to get varying viewpoints.
  • Making retrospective assessments of your actions and learning from experience (as long as you are brave enough to listen).
  • Considering whether your actions will contribute to the greater good beyond yourself.

Otherwise you just keep making the same decisions and the same mistakes, right?

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Radical Love

Natalie Kane shared an array of objects from the V&A digital design collection.

Curator Natalie Kane shared artifacts from the new digital design collection at the V&A in London. This included culturally significant objects such as the Apple II, an original Makerbot and the Radical Love mask.

What was really fascinating about this new exhibition is the attempts by the museum to preserve software, which is so transient. Much code is either unavailable behind IP laws or set to auto update if the devices are ever switched on!

The purpose of the exhibit is to acknowledge how we got to this point so we can design better futures.

I’d personally love to have a poke around the code base of some of the original Nintendo games. It would be amazing so see how these incredible games were made, particularly how they got around the memory restrictions of the cartridges.

Inclusive design that truly includes

Liz Jackson created Thisten, which provided a live transcript of all the talks to attendee’s phones throughout the day.

Thoughts then turned to accessibility with Liz Jackson, founder of The Disabled List and The With Fellowship. She is also behind the audio-to-text transition platform Thisten,which provided automated realtime transcripts of all the talks which could be read live on your phone (even if you couldn’t be at the event).

Additionally, all the talks were expertly transcribed by White Coat Captioning and displayed on a big screen by the stage (so accurately in fact I mistakenly thought this was automated too!). All conferences should be doing this!

Liz explained that all too often design that is used to help someone with a disability is seen as a PR exercise. Rather than engaging disability as part of the process by default, it’s used to show how empathetic the designers are. At its worse, this empathy becomes pity and only serves to harm people.

Incidentally, an intriguing point that came up throughout the day was the declining effectiveness of empathy in the design process. As such, designers should stop trying to think like someone else and actually get them involved in the design process. As Liz pointed out, disabled people are often not included in the design process for tools that are meant to help them.

Profiling and privacy

Laura Kalbag: Reading privacy policies so you don’t have to (but really should).

Laura Kalbag of the Small Technology Foundation gave a passionate and often chilling insight into web privacy.

She detailed the vast amounts of intimately personal information that the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon hold about all of us. Yet despite this, we are still quite happy to continue handing our data over to these companies and others like them.

The potential repercussions of allowing ourselves to be so easily profiled in a world increasingly ruled by algorithms honestly fill me with dread.

This is certainly something I can personally do better with and I’ll be consulting switching.software which Laura recommended as a resource to find alternative digital tools with improved privacy.

Design for advocacy, not inclusion

User experience designer Florence Okoye questioned how we can continue to design products in a capitalist society, primarily that projects are typically based around budgets rather than human needs.

“Sometimes you just want to burn the whole thing down and start again… but a lot of people would get hurt so we won’t do that”, Florence quipped.

In the search for positive change, she also reiterated the need for collaboration between diverse teams of designers that can advocate for the communities they are helping.

Learning to Unlearn

The afternoon session was headlined by “tech misanthropologist” Tatiana Mac delivering the thought-provoking keynote talk “Our Banal Binary”.

Tatiana discussed the concept of breaking away from binary ‘this or that’ states based on opposites, which are ultimately fated to divide us. One of the two options will always be considered the ‘bad’ option, which will be used to give one side more dominance (typically based on the decision of the system creator).

A phrase that came up a lot throughout the day was Digital Colonialism: the idea of rich, powerful, white men conquering the online world. As someone who ticks two of these boxes, I need to work hard to do better.

What gives you hope?

The afternoon panel discussion hosted by Jeff Veen featuring Liz Jackson, Laura Kalbag, Florence Okoye and Tatiana Mac.

The morning and afternoon sessions were both concluded by a panel discussion of each session’s speakers led by Jeff Veen for his The Presentable Podcast.

I loved this format as it allowed the speakers to bounce off each other and offer further insight from their individual talks.

Both groups discussed a range of topics including the idea of unionising the digital design industry (mirroring Ethan Marcotte’s excellent talk last year) as well as establishing restrictions and better policing of digital technology. Laura rightly questioned who would lead this, as the more established powers on the web are already the most problematic.

On a day when everyone was opening up to problems in the industry, it was also interesting to hear conversations about grappling with complicity in creating software – with good intentions – which goes on to have a negative impact.

Possibly the most powerful of all was when Jeff asked: “What gives you hope for the future?”

Akil said it perfectly: “The power of redemption. We’ve all messed up in the past but we can still do good in the future.”

Change is happening

New Adventures 2020 was an inspiring, albeit intense, day that left me with a lot to digest and think about. It was a day full of big ideas to change all the systems by which we live by.

As individuals, in the face of such global-scale challenges, how can we even begin to attempt significant positive change?

Whilst one person can’t change a whole society, individuals can still do something. It helps to remember you can inspire your community around you and that communities can in turn influence change on a wider scale.

To quote Greta Thunberg: No one is too small to make a difference.

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