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Feedback Loops & Ontological Design

Aaron Howes
4 min readApr 23, 2021

Early in this project, I started thinking about the complex systems at play in cities. In particular, the feedback loops set in motion when designing spaces and the objects that fill them. How do our values, beliefs and behaviours influence city design? How does city design influence our values, beliefs and behaviours? “We design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us,” explains Anne-Marie Willis in her paper Ontological Designing. People and cities cannot be separated, they are part of a single system — how should we think about this as designers?

“A city’s dynamism derives from its inefficiencies, from people and ideas colliding unpredictably.”

One approach, the premise that the smart city is reliant on, is that with enough data and computing power, cities can be solved or optimised — in turn, people and their lives will be optimised too. But how might solving “bugs” in the city system impact complex relationships we can’t yet understand? As Emily Badger wrote in The New York Times in 2018, “Technology can help reduce traffic, or connect you faster to a ride home. ‘But a city is not at its fundamental level optimizable’… A city’s dynamism derives from its inefficiencies, from people and ideas colliding unpredictably.” From this perspective, the elements of the city that we consider problems may be features and not bugs. What might be the consequence of removing them?

Similarly, working through early-stage ideas, it was easy to get caught up on the “problems” that came as a consequence of our theoretical design interventions. For example, many of our ideas rely on some form of big data being collected from citizens which presents myriad moral issues around privacy and individuals’ rights. I was exploring the idea of a city that had empathy, and this could mean that the city would need to know the details of people’s lives and understand their feelings. We spent a lot of time debating the pros and cons of such trade-offs.

However, what our group has quickly come to learn is that each so-called “solution” will inevitably bring with it new problems. And these don’t have to be bugs within our project proposal, they can be features. “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution…”, says Paul Virilio in Politics of the Very Worst (p. 89). “Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress”. Rather than consider these problems as obstacles to our progress, we’ve started to think of them as part of our progress.

So if we couldn’t “solve” the city, how should we think about designing it? One of the frameworks introduced in this module was that of the “Possible, Probable and Preferable” which led to a conversation with a friend about a method called “backcasting”. Coined by John Robinson in 1982, backcasting is a counter to the often unproductive and rarely accurate method of forecasting. Rather than try to predict the future, backcasting imagines a desired future and works backwards to identify actions that will enable or create that future state. My friend pointed out, “In contrast, many other methods start with the present state and are therefore implicitly constrained by what has been done, what is being done and what is presently thought possible.”

“By designing objects, spaces, tools and experiences, we are in fact designing the human being itself.”

Ontological design complements these methods of thinking about futures perfectly: “Ontological design is the design discipline concerned with designing human experience. It does so by operating under one essential assumption: that by designing objects, spaces, tools and experiences, we are in fact designing the human being itself,” says Daniel Fraga. Ontological design puts the transformation of human experience at the centre of imagined futures. What improved human experience do we hope to materialise? How could we arrive at that future? And, thinking back to the beginning, what desirable or undesirable consequences might that bring?

Thinking through these difficult questions, our group made two decisions. One was that the future we desired — the human experience and values we wanted to create — was either one that was more transparent, empathetic or creative. These all came up in our first ideation session and were ideas we would individually explore in more detail before presenting our research and ideas back to the group. The other was that we would make both the positive and negative consequences of our design ideas a part of our project and hopefully find a way to present a balanced perspective.

Read the next entry: Image-Making

Read the previous entry: Where do we begin?