Everyday choices: How do we cooperate in times of crisis?

Professor Sawhney examines the role of technology and cooperation in crisis using transdisciplinary human-centered design practices.

Interview by Paula Haikarainen // Photo by Veera Konsti, Aalto University, October 20, 2020.


Your field of research is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Tell me what you find most fascinating about it!

I tend to think of Human-Computer Interaction in parallel with Human-Centred Design. These increasingly affect almost every facet of our lives – and of society.

Human-centred design practices are embedded in most of the everyday digital appliances and services we use today. Various health and wellness applications, devices and services offering heart-rate, sleep and activity tracking, like the Apple Watch and Oura ring, as well as emerging contact-tracing applications, such as Koronavilkku, released by the Finnish institute for health and welfare, are all developed using thoughtful HCI and human-centred design research.  It’s inescapable that we need to make new technologies and services more evocative, engaging and better suited to our lives.

The field is highly trans-disciplinary and continues to evolve: it has sociologists, anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, product designers, computational data-scientists, and AI researchers among others. This is what excites me most: collaborating with people from so many different domains, who deeply care about understanding and enhancing human experience.

You have engaged in cooperation with artists, activists and social scientists. Which aspects of their thinking would you like to introduce to the field of technology?

I find myself constantly working with artists and activists on projects, and it’s rather liberating, because it changes how we critically engage with society outside the academic ivory tower. Artists can take a visceral or emotional approach to something, but they challenge our logical assumptions while channelling their sensibilities to create very unexpected outcomes.

I always tell my students that if we don’t find something unexpected then what are we really trying to do in our research? Science should always be examining the uncertainties in our lives, and that is something artists are confronting all the time.

The role of activists is also very crucial. When there is so much injustice in the world, activists take many risks to expose these fractures in society, offering an important reality check for scientists, helping us recognise that we cannot take a neutral position. I’ve come to believe that creating technology and engaging in design is always political.

Read the full article here: https://www.aalto.fi/en/news/everyday-choices-nitin-sawhney-how-do-we-cooperate-in-times-of-crisis

To be published in the Aalto University Magazine, Autumn 2020.