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Control v. Care: Frameworks for systems redesign during COVID-19

Format: Workshops, RSD9, Topic: Health & Well-being, Topic: Policy & Governance

Jonathan Healey and Sydney M. Luken

1.5-hour online workshop

The scale and urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic have strained social systems both locally and globally, warranting a spirit of creative resourcefulness in tending to the crisis while new specially-tailored systems are conceived. In the face of this challenge, a jarring clash often occurs as socio-technical systems, with their pre-existing design priorities, simply reposition their services in response to the new demands of a public health emergency. As communities struggle to resume work, education, and entertainment, a persistent design question lies at the centre: what should we be optimizing for in this new context, and how might the values of our available systems support or hinder that aim?

This design challenge finds an important design ally in Bioethics, which helpfully introduces comparative frameworks of Control and Care drawn from the practice of health and medicine. These distinctions are extensible to the assessment and reimagining of non-medical socio-technical systems. In this workshop, we’ll examine a variety of systems we observe in this situation, introduce the history and principles of these frameworks, and operationalize them as Design tools.

So-called “smart access” systems are one such example of an existing system being repurposed in response to Covid-19. These products, previously marketed as “automated, contactless property management solutions,” are now touted as a means to secure the acute health and safety concerns of a building’s occupants. These systems are visible throughout commercial buildings, often connecting peripherals such as thermal scanners, biometric readers, mask-detection cameras, and human security attendants.

When observed through the framework of Control, core attributes of the existing system design emerge: an architectural paradigm of “compatibility,” a single-direction data authority structure, and a broad subjugation of human users without mechanisms to declare consent. Reframing the design analysis through the framework of Care reveals the system’s centering on asset security priorities at the expense of the dynamic social environment it is purported to support. The framework of Care also reveals alternative priorities, such as the privacy and well-being interests of people that encounter the building, or a notion of community maintenance rather than an attitude of surveillance.

This designerly approach to comparative analysis also provides a foundation to inspire forward-looking systems thinking and design. In the case of “smart access,” how might these systems better sense and support the health and safety needs of the surrounding community? By leveraging the frameworks, value-driven design responses emerge, such as disclosing readings only to the assessed person, automating targeted maintenance services, and including local health authorities as participant stakeholders of the system. Stepping back from the present context of Covid-19, we can ask how these insights might fundamentally change the design of systems to contribute more responsibly to sustainable and equitable societies.

Goals & Outcomes

The goals of this workshop are to:

  1. Introduce system-value alignments in context
  2. Translate Bioethics frameworks of Control and Care to frameworks of systems thinking
  3. Identify opportunities to enhance the practical methodologies of systems design to centre on the sustainable well-being of individuals and society.

Through this workshop, we expect to:

  1. Generate a collection of example cases (including initial comparative analyses through the frameworks of Control and Care, as well as sketches of imagined alternatives)
  2. Refine a translational framework of systems of control v. systems of care to share with the system design community


Opening Activity [10m]
The opening exercise will ask participants to think of systems that are currently responding to Covid-19 demands but were originally conceived for vastly different purposes. We’ll discuss some of these examples as a group.

Introduction of Frameworks [15m]
The facilitators will introduce Bioethics frameworks of Control and Care, providing an overview of relevant principles as well as historical examples of their translation to practice.

Story-sharing & Intention Setting [25m]
Participants and facilitators will share their own perspectives and experiences with systems of Control and of Care, both as designers and as people experiencing the systems’ effects. We will begin compiling ideas about essential attributes, priorities, and interests within these systems.

Systems Analysis & Re-imagining [25m]
Participants will select one system for comparative design analysis—first through the lens of Control, then through the lens of Care—then imagine responsible design alternatives. A prompt for re-imagining might be: In a post-COVID context, how might these systems better support systems for equity, collectivism, and flourishing ecological systems?

Gallery & Closing Reflection [15m]
Participants will share their work with the full group, reflect on what we learned in the process, and consider avenues for developing resources for professional and pedagogical communities.




Citation Data

Author(s): Jonathan Healey and Sydney M. Luken
Title: Control v. Care: Frameworks for systems redesign during COVID-19
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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Symposium Dates:
First published: 6 October 2020
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