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We Are the Gardeners of the Socio-Technical Landscape

By Kat Gowland (MDes + MBA 2023)

June 6, 2023

Kat Gowland speaking at commencement
Embracing Cutting-Edge Innovation while Staying Wary of Unintended Consequences

Kat Gowland (MDes + MBA 2023) spoke at this year’s ID Commencement Ceremony on May 12. Following is the transcript and video of her speech.

To reflect on our responsibility as designers, I’m going to begin with a story from my garden. When I moved to Chicago to start this master’s program, for the first time in my life I had outdoor space to call my own— a modest fifty square foot balcony— with sunlight beaming down on it for most of the day. So, it didn’t take long for me to acquire the main ingredients needed for a garden— a deep garden bed, heaping bags of organic soils and fertilizers, and a variety of seed packets. When Spring finally arrived in the city last year, I had trays and trays of little seedlings sprouting in no time.

So, the garden was going, but by this time, after almost a year at ID, there was something haunting me that I could not ignore any longer. My food waste. I just could not help but ask myself, How might I satisfy the nutrient-rich soil needs of my balcony garden with the food scraps from my kitchen? What would be needed to create a symbiotic relationship between the formerly linear supply chain of my food from the grocery store to the fridge, to my mouth (or the waste bin), and feed my plants with that excess? These thoughts soon led me to receive a package in the mail. I remember scurrying downstairs upon receiving the delivery notification and announcing proudly to my doorman that the package contained 1,000 Red European Nightcrawler worms. He nearly threw the package at me in sheer horror and disgust.

Throughout the summer, I listened to my plants. I observed their growth, behaviors, and reacted with adjustments to their positioning, organic fertilizer levels, and quantity of water. My partner and I liberally picked at the dill, parsley, basil, mint, cilantro, and rosemary herbs but noticed that the fruiting plants were still not producing by the time the first chilly winds of September swept through the city. We were sitting on the balcony one morning enjoying breakfast when mid-conversation I interrupted him with a sharp “Shh! There’s a bee!” A bee… had found the one 5 square foot garden bed on the 11th story balcony of an apartment building in downtown Chicago. To our delight, it danced around the plants a few times, and the next week we started to see the fruits of its labor.

Once my seedlings had begun to take root, my partner started to notice my new hobby and, coming from a chemistry background, saw an opportunity to poach a variety of the seedlings for a hydroponic experiment that he’d set up next to my soil-based garden, now his control group. After he got the cascading slow running waterfall working through his PVC pipes, pumped with cycling water from a reservoir that he’d monitor the nitrogen and phosphorus levels of, the results of the experiment were soon clear— for a quarter of the effort to maintain, the hydroponic system could produce ten times the yield that the soil garden could.

Some of you might be thinking that’s some steep competition. And those metrics surely do indicate success and potential for profit, with such a large difference in efficiency between the two gardens. But the goal of my soil-based garden was never to optimize yield. it wasn’t really about yield at all.

It was about experimentation, prototyping, listening, and iterating… getting my hands dirty to learn about the needs of my plants and thinking in systems to see the potential for repurposing food waste with the help of worms.

Watch Kat Gowland’s entire speech.

But which one of these approaches to gardening is better? Which one is right to choose to scale up, or invest in for our future?

If we care about climate change and feeding the world, maybe the semi-automated more efficient hydroponic system? Let’s imagine a world where hydroponic systems are the new norm and have popped up in controlled-environment agricultural facilities, like greenhouses, all over the world. AI advancement has alleviated the need to pay for human labor to manage the PH and nutrient levels in the water that’s cycling through these closed-loop facilities, so profits are high, universal access to healthy food options is high, and the use of artificial pollinators is standard and reliable, despite bees being endangered. We’ve solved global food insecurity! But at what expense?

I’ve recently been inspired by the way that Max Tegmark, a leading AI researcher, is asking this question: At what expense are we adopting new technologies into our lives? He recently compared Large Language Models, like ChatGPT, to the concept of MALOC. MALOC is essentially when some force, or “monster” pits people, or companies, against each other in a race to the bottom where everyone ends up losing. During the rise of innovation in the design of social media apps, the quick adoption of influencers to use Facetune beauty filters was an example of MALOC. Once some were quick to adopt, others felt like they had to as well, to keep up and stay relevant, and now everyone’s on the same playing field again, but on a whole new level of unrealistic beauty standards, and mental health effects. Sound familiar with what seems to be happening with AI today?

AI has the potential to replace the need for a lot of human jobs. We need to stop and ask, why are we embedding Large Language Models into a given product or platform? We don’t need to outsource a skill, or a job just because it’s possible. As designers we should be discerning about where Large Language Models are helpful assistants to compliment or enhance human abilities, and where they are not appropriate to leverage because they are in conflict with human morals, or responsibilities we really derive value from doing manually. How do we figure out what those guiding morals and desirable responsibilities are? We ask people. We conduct user research— so that we can design by humanity for humanity, not by humanity for MALOC.

So now let’s revisit that earlier question between the soil-based and hydroponic gardens. Which one is the future? Both are. We can’t just steamroll over the value of natural systems in the name of progress but we’re also destroying our planet right now, so we need to embrace innovation to address our planet’s most wicked problems, like global food insecurity and needing to be able to feed and sustain the human race.

As designers, we must operate in that gray space and float between those two worlds of embracing cutting-edge innovation and staying wary of unintended consequences.

We don’t need to wonder how we might do this… we already are!
We’ve spent the past two years asking: Just because it can be designed… should it? And creating experiential ways to effectively communicate intangible, future-focused, intended, and unintended consequences of innovation. In a moment we’ll pull back that curtain and reveal the gallery of work behind it— showcasing provocations like board games that can help stakeholders plan for a future where there are clear pros and cons to embracing trends in wearable tech and 24/7 biometric data tracking, and projects that target behavioral design and infrastructural opportunities for protein sources like clams or insects to feed future generations.

My final message to my fellow graduates is that wherever we work, wherever we find ourselves after ID, we can’t fall for MALOC.

We can’t race forward in the name of progress or profit without noticing the bee or thinking of the worms—noticing where there are crucial aspects of natural systems that we need to be advocating for designing with.

After the ceremony, Latrina and I would like to invite graduates to help yourselves to a plant cutting, from a table at the top of the stairs, whose root systems have been growing throughout our time here in either my, or Latrina’s gardens. Bring it wherever your life is about to take you, plant it, nurture it, listen to its needs, and celebrate its growth. Let it stand as a daily reminder on your desk that just as we have a responsibility to listen to the needs of these plants, we too must advocate for all living beings in our careers as designers.
Thank you— to everyone here, and online— and congratulations, ID Class of 2023. We are the future of design, and I can’t wait to see what we grow.