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Practices of High-Performance Group


Empathy offers promises and perils to the goals of innovation. Its core promise, as many in the design-thinking movement will suggest, is its ability to inspire innovators to attune to the authentic needs of a selected user base. Its perils lie in empathy’s connection to our biases; partialities so deep that we often remain unaware of them. Consequently, empathy may be necessary but insufficient to guide us in the creation and application of major innovations – those which intersect with the very definition of what it means to be human. This object study considers the intricate connections between bioethical principles, the design process, and the innovations that shape contemporary understandings of what it means to be human.

Content submitted by authors and participants on the BxD web pages does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Krause Innovation Studio or Penn State University.

Empathy begets innovation. This is the current wisdom practiced in corporate settings and taught in educational institutions. Empathy is considered by many to be fundamental to the human-centered design process. However, breakthrough innovations often challenge our most fundamental ideas about who we are. Empathy alone may not be enough to spark or sustain this kind of high-impact work.

The first phase of a design-thinking project – often called the empathize phase – provides an opportunity to learn about the values, practices, and challenges of an individual or community. By starting with observations, interviews, and immersive experiences, a designer can anchor the project in an awareness of the beliefs and goals of the people who are the focus of the design effort. This phase informs the designer’s interests about what these people do, how they do it, and why. It also give the designer information about the hope these people have for the future and the features of their lives that they do not want to change.

For the empathize phase to be successful the designer must put aside assumptions; s/he must attempt to internalize the authentic experiences and aspirations of the people being observed. However, achieving this stance is not easy. Biases run deep. So ingrained are our sensibilities about who and what circumstances are worthy of empathy that it may be difficult for even the best designers to recognize or over-ride them.

Because it is easy to empathize with people like us (and to blame people different from us), it is less complicated and less taxing to work on innovations that help in-group people. This rings true even without considering the possibility of empathy fatigue; a phenomenon that leaves a designer less able to engage the compassionate understanding that their work requires.

The challenges of attuning with others might not matter if the innovations under development are no more consequential than a new app to help people choose a restaurant. However, the ongoing presence of these challenges suggests that empathy is necessary but insufficient to guide the design of high-stakes innovations – the kind of innovations that will define the 21st century.

Future innovations that harness contemporary advances in science and technology are likely to challenge our very notion of what it means to be human. As designers integrate aspects of cutting edge research – from the Human Genome Project, stem cells, genetic engineering, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and xenotransplantation to name but a few – into their work, empathy alone seems unlikely to be an adequate guide.

Empathy is, of course, extremely important in all aspects of life – including the innovation process. One of empathy’s main functions is to enable us to adjudicate among fundamental values in complicated circumstances. For empathy to serve us best it must be anchored in a conscious understanding of those values, our core moral concerns.

If we hope that 21st century designers create breakthrough innovations successfully and ethically at the edges of the definition of what it means to be human, then we should articulate the values that can supplement empathy in that process. Principles of autonomy, beneficence, and social justice – the lodestars of bioethics – have been embraced globally as essential guides in critical circumstances that involve concerns about quality of life, social cohesion, and life and death.

This series of object lessons examines recent innovations — innovations that intersect with our understanding of what it means to be human – through the lens of bioethics. Through visual and verbal essays, it considers how the core principles of bioethics are evident in the final structure of these objects and in the design process that created them.

This exploration begins with the premise that bioethics is part of the design process; its principles of autonomy, beneficence, and social justice influence the physical and conceptual dimensions of innovation in contemporary society. Studied objects may be embedded (intended to be inside the body), external (intended to replace or extend the body), or inhabited (intended to surround the body). Each essay will be presented online and will welcome thoughtful comments from experts, students, and interested individuals around the world.

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