SETUP: ‘The starting point is that trust, inclusiveness and autonomy are very clearly central’

The Creative Industries Fund NL encourages applicants to respond to current events. And that's exactly what SETUP did in response to the corona app being developed by the government, by launching its own study into such an app.

26 May 2020

In response to the fast-track process set up by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport to develop an app to help contain COVID-19, media lab and knowledge platform SETUP issued an open call. ‘By means of the call, we want to generate speculative scenarios to raise concerns about the social implications of introducing the app’, says Krista Hendriks of SETUP. Seven makers working in a range of disciplines were selected: Gerjanne van Gink, Nicky Liebregts, Myrthe Krepel and Dorian Kingma (together Collectief SMELT), Tom Schouw, Aina Seerden and Niels Sinke. Krista Hendriks: ‘The makers went to work in three teams on the themes of power, trust and control, false security and objectivity, and social structures and polarization. The central question here was how to get across what the introduction of a government app to curb the virus can bring about. Through design research, the teams each came up with a stimulating idea during a concentrated working period of three weeks.’ Analogous to the ministry’s pathway, these ideas were made public in an appathon on Monday 18 May. The concept designs were scrutinized by a diverse panel, consisting of digital-technology trend watcher Jarno Duursma, expert in health law and new technology Renée Dekker, cultural sociologist Siri Beerends, technology philosopher Rens van der Vorst and Esther Crabbendam from Bits of Freedom.

Campagnebeeld door Nastia Cistakova

speculative design

The concept designs were extremely diverse; they ranged from a personalized face mask that shows how the wearer is responding to the imposed measures and what safety means to him or her, to an app that stimulates users to work together in monitoring the limits of our behaviour, or a Covid pack that gives everyone in the Netherlands their own individual freedom of movement based on a subdivision into risk groups. The designs do not claim to offer a solution. They do, however, show that by choosing different starting points, you end up with alternative online and offline scenarios. Panel member Esther Crabbendam: ‘The great thing about these concept designs is that the starting point is not how technology can be used to solve the problem as efficiently as possible, but that trust, inclusiveness and autonomy are very clearly central. The end results are very different from a Bluetooth tracking app, as it turns out.’

Because the makers took a number of matters very literally and sometimes even opted for a seemingly naive approach, the designs mainly raise questions that are missing in the debate about the government app. How does it work in practical terms? Is it easy to sabotage? Does it not hurt more than it benefits? Who sets the rules? Based on what knowledge? Whereas the national discussion remains largely confined to what is technically possible and legally permissible, the designs of the three teams provide room for important moral questions. That is precisely the value of speculative design: it helps to make abstract matters physical and tangible and to open up a discussion about them.

technology-critical discussion

Many of us lack the knowledge to properly assess the pros and cons of deploying technology and, more importantly, of shifting responsibility to technology. A dangerous situation, because technology as the solution to problems like the COVID-19 pandemic is anything but a foregone conclusion. Panel member Renée Dekker: ‘Technology should always be given a chance. But this discussion is more about right and wrong than the means itself.’ As a result, a good debate organized in various different ways is especially important. The Fund acknowledges that, and that is why platforms such as SETUP receive grants from the Fund. In the coming period, SETUP will endeavour to ensure that the debate is as broad as possible. Keep up to date with the latest developments via the platform’s website. If you are curious about the pitches and the discussion held during the appathon, you can watch them again here.