September 5 — Class Overview (AH, EZ)

In-class listening: “Butterflies”, Nate DiMeo

Discussion about technologies that have been positively transformational for society,  and the Media Lab’s approach to innovation, seeking impact on a billion or more people.


  • Write a brief post on the class blog explaining who you are and what brings you to working in the tech and social change space.


Read for next week:


September 12 — Developing a practice of productive critique (EZ)

Discussion of readings

We will review case studies in technology for social change and explore how we assess the success or failure of an intervention. Through review of guiding questions we’ll explore how to balance informed criticism of technological interventions with optimism for the potential of technology.

Assignment – Due Monday, September 17th at 11:59AM:

  • Using a subset of the guiding questions for critique introduced in class, write a brief reflection (~500 words) on a project you have worked on in the past and post to the class blog.
  • Choose an example of a technology for social change (from your field if possible).  Add a slide to our joint deck and come prepared to discuss the concept and its strengths and weaknesses in class next week.


Read for next week:


September 19 — Theories of Change (EZ)

New technologies aren’t the only way to make social change – activists have a long history of using law, norms and markets to address problems, individually and in combination. After exploring the “four levers” framework for social change, we will break into teams and design solutions to a social problem using each of the four levers as a primary design inspiration.

Assignment – Due Monday, September 24th at 11:59AM:

  • Identify 3 potential issues you are interested in working on. For each one, brainstorm how the 4 levers could be applied (independently or together) to address the issue. Post this to the class blog.


Read for next week:


September 26 — Technology is inherently political (AH)

Based on the readings, we will discuss the differences between technical and sociotechnical systems, examine multiple ways of considering the politics of artifacts, and questions of engineers’ responsibility for the artifacts they create.

In groups, we will examine everyday artifacts, discuss affordances and limitations, then redesign with an alternative set of values.

Assignment – Due Monday, October 1st at 11:59AM:

  • Write a brief reflection on the in-class design exercise. What are the politics you identified in the artifact your group worked on as it currently exists? How was the experience of explicitly translating the viewpoint you chose into an object? Include photos of your designs.


Read for next week:

  • Design Justice in Action
  • Notes on Design Justice and Digital Technologies, Sasha Costanza-Chock
  • Our Communities Need More Than Good, Una Lee


October 3  — Values-driven design (AH)

Through reflection on readings, we will explore concrete approaches to translating values and politics into participatory research and design work. In the second half of the class we will run a hands-on activity to generate a list of core values that drive our work and design an event that reflects the values we have identified.

Read for next week:


October 10 — How to Understand a Field (EZ and AH)

Deep understanding of a problem and the context that surrounds it requires years of experience and immersion in the communities and cultures most affected by it. We will explore a set of practices to better understand the ecosystem in which issues are embedded and the process of identifying potential partners.

Assignment – Due Monday, October 15th at 11:59AM:

  • Create a project folder here with your name(s). We’ll collect project related assignments here for the next several weeks.
  • Write 2-3 background paragraphs on the topic you plan to explore for the project
    • Why is this issue important?
    • Who does it impact?
    • What has been/is being done to address this issue?
  • Develop an initial ecosystem map for your issue, looking at who is directly and indirectly impacted, who is working on different aspects of the topic, what actors or elements might be barriers to change, and relationships/dynamics between actors. We encourage you to play with visual formats to represent your maps.


Read for next week:


October 17 — Ethnographies and Interviewing (EZ and AH)

Intentional, honest, and targeted conversations with stakeholders are a critical component of understanding the lived experiences of others and seeing below the surface of an issue. This class will introduce best practices and ethical considerations for interviewing as a design research method.

Assignment – Due Monday, October 22nd at 11:59AM:

  • Identify ten people you would want to interview to flesh out your ecosystem map
  • Complete 3 interviews from that list


Read for next week:


October 24 — No Class — Media Lab Member Week


October 31 — Overview of Design Philosophies (AH)

Conducting research with “end-users” is a powerful tool to help designers understand a problem space and brainstorm potential solutions. This class will provide an overview of different approaches to involving stakeholders in design and decision making processes.

Assignment – Due Monday, November 5th at 11:59AM:

  • Conduct an additional 3 interviews and begin to cluster some of your learnings into themes and insights. Write up these learnings in your Design Brief doc
  • Design and implement at least one of the additional methods introduced in class and write up observations in your Design Brief doc


Read for next week:


November 7 — Unintended consequences (EZ)

We will examine two case studies of unintended consequences resulting from otherwise reasonable design decisions. Guest star Danielle Wood will talk about methods used to anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences in large engineering projects, including NASA missions.

Assignment – Due Monday, November 12th at 11:59AM:

  • Write a brief science fiction story (1000-2000 words) about how your project goes catastrophically wrong.
  • Building on Dr. Wood’s suggestions, add a consequence mitigation strategy to your project document.


Read for next week:


November 14 — Social media and social purpose (EZ, AH)

Since the 2016 election, there’s been a robust discussion of the values and ethical responsibilities of social media platforms. We’ll use the tools we’ve learned thus far to examine values built into existing social media platforms and consider what a values-driven social media platform could look like.

The second half of the class includes a design workshop led by Alexis Hope.

Read for next week:


November 21 — No Class — Thanksgiving break


November 28 — Big Data, Surveillance and Business Models (EZ)

Surveillant advertising has been described as the default business model of the internet. We explore the values that underly that model and examine business models that provide alternatives to reselling human attention.

The second half of the class includes a design workshop led by Alexis Hope.

Assignment and readings to come.


December 5 — Tech Won’t Build It (EZ, AH and guest star)

Guest star Sasha Costanza Schock talks about Tech Won’t Build It, an emerging movement within tech companies to encourage employees to take ethical stands regarding projects they’re involved with.

The second half of the class includes a design workshop led by Alexis Hope.


December 12 — Final presentations, lunch