Define justice. No Googling allowed. What does this word mean to you on a personal level? Does that definition align with modern-day law enforcement in the country where you live?
These questions are central to today’s topic: a fascinating speculative design project from system designer, civic designer, and interdisciplinary thinker Ayushi Jain.
Working as a consultant, designer, and strategist with a variety of organizations, Jain has been recognized as a leading design thinker, and today we’d like to delve into her thesis project: Beyond Justice.
Exploring speculative design & decolonizing design
Beyond Justice was borne out of careful and informed consideration of both speculative and decolonizing design, and before discussing the finished project, Jain guided us through the core considerations involved in each of these distinct areas of design.
In turn, these considerations are essential for understanding the choices and motivations that would result in the Beyond Justice thesis project.
“Speculative design is a design practice that is concerned with challenging ideas we have about how the world works, and instead exploring what the world and our society can look like. It is an approach that heavily relies on critical examination of our world and imagination of an alternative future.”
Depending on the designer, speculative design can focus on the far-distant future of humanity or a future only fifty years away.
As Jain described, speculative design is founded on critical thought. It is not based on straightforward predictions of the future that retain contemporary perspectives and contemporary modes of thought.
There’s a saying among anthropologists, that culture is to humans what water is to the fish. Every day, we subconsciously continue to accept norms of not only culture but also of government, power structures, gender, work, and, of course, justice. It takes a conscious effort to step outside of these norms and consider alternatives.
While this doesn’t summarize the entirety of speculative design, it is a crucial component of speculative design.
For Jain, speculative design is an invitation to look past surface details and explore nearly endless possibilities.
“I have always been interested in ‘the middle’, the cracks within systems, because I think
that’s where all the beauty lies. Speculative design as a practice gives me an opportunity to do the same with thoughts, belief systems, and socio-political structures. It allows me to break away from the ‘convention’ and rummage through the silos to draw alternative futures.”
So what is decolonizing design and how is it distinct from speculative design? Decolonizing design, rather than looking to the future, is concerned with forces of colonization in both the past and the present.
Colonization of course has its roots in the literal occupation of a geographical location by an invading political, military, and cultural power. Indigenous peoples and places are then influenced and outright controlled by the invading force.
Colonization has defined many historical empires, from the Roman Empire to Great Britain’s Empire to the de facto political Empire of the United States.
What’s important to understand about colonization in contemporary thought is that the concept is not restricted to the literal, physical occupation of a nation, and further, the effects of colonization can last for many hundreds of years, especially religious and ideological effects.
“In my view, the act of colonization is not limited to the violent seizure of native resources and the ‘formal’ colonial rule over another country, but it is an ongoing act of violence through the embedding of non-native (often Western) ideologies in the society.”
Having grown up in India, formerly considered a colony of Great Britain, Jain is deeply interested in decolonization as a way of ending the oppression of the mind affected by colonizing entities.
Decolonizing design, as a whole, examines instances and effects of colonization in the past and the present in order to find ways of opposing those colonizing forces through design, attempting to undo the ongoing negative effects of historic wrongs.
Jain brought these two areas of design together for her Beyond Justice project, and when we discussed the intersection of speculative design and decolonizing design, she explained that, “One seems to deal with the past and another with the future. Everything we see around us first begins as an idea, a fragment of imagination. Now, if our imagination is colored by dominant oppressive ideologies from the past, how will we ever imagine a future that challenges this hegemony?”
Decolonizing design provided an essential perspective for the project, as the roots of the project were indelibly attached to underlying assumptions and tenets regarding systems of control, specifically policing in the United States.
Jain didn’t feel that she could effectively envision an alternate future without considering the past and the present.
With that background in place, we can now move on to the Beyond Justice project itself, beginning with Jain’s inspiration for exploring key social issues.
In the summer of 2020, Jain was searching for a topic for her thesis, and simultaneously, the world around her, around all of us, was in flux. Not only was the COVID-19 pandemic raging onward, but the Black Lives Matter movement had found a new level of intensity.
“These events made apparent the existing violence of our systems that continue to marginalize people of color and groups that do not conform to the dominant Euro-centric value systems.”
Jain felt compelled to explore the philosophical underpinnings of the US justice system, and she found that, while there’s a baseline assumption that the law emphasizes fairness, justice, and equality, it has frequently been used as a means to oppress marginalized people.
Legal systems that focus on assigning blame and commensurate forms and duration of punishment are retributive in nature, and this structure is bound to colonization.
“Widespread systems of law inspired by European legal traditions were imposed on non-Western societies during the process of colonization. While most people have come to recognize the terrible harms caused by colonialism, many legal systems are existing holdovers from colonial periods, serving entrenched interests that perpetuate historical power structures.”
The questions arising from this understanding of Western and Western-influenced justice systems led Jain to a realization that there would always be multiple definitions of justice.
There was so much to explore, and she knew that the project now forming in her mind needed to be able to spark further thinking and discussion of justice.
A flawed artifact
Jain set her sights on the NYPD complaint worksheet as the basis for Beyond Justice. This worksheet is what the police department uses when registering a crime report.
“In the case of the current system- which is a retributive justice system, the questions serve that exact purpose. It’s a way to establish the severity of the crime and then identify a criminal so they can be punished in accordance with the crime they committed.”
Jain identified this worksheet as a flawed design artifact. Among its flaws are questions focusing on the race and appearance of the suspect. Overall, the worksheet supports the goal of identifying a person seen as a problem with the aim of incarcerating them.
“These questions reinforce the biases of the existing system and build a cycle of oppression like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are to break this cycle, we must create space for alternative ways of looking at justice.”
In the process of overhauling this worksheet, Jain looked to Jain philosophy, a school of thought that poses alternatives to colonial conceptions of justice, based on the doctrine of anekāntavāda and syādvāda.
“Anekāntavāda means plurality or multiplicity of truths, and Syādvāda is the concept that all judgments are conditional and hold true only under certain circumstances. Jainism challenges the notion of justice rooted in fairness and punishment by describing the world where multiple truths coexist and emphasizing human limitations in discerning these pluralities.”
Jain’s goals with this project were to modify the information collected by the NYPD to reflect Jain principles and create a new worksheet that would extend service to non-humans in order to serve all recognized by Jainism as living beings.
“I moved away from the language of ‘victim’ and ‘suspect’ to ‘complainant’ and ‘complainee.’ It creates a possibility to recognize that these individuals exist in roles beyond those defined in the report.”
She also added questions that focused on the impact of the incident in question on the complainant. By changing these questions, Jain suggested an alternative in which focus is placed on breaking the cycle of violence perpetuated by crime and punishment.
“I also added a section that allows the people filing the complaint to reconcile with the harm and recognize how they would like to be supported. And I built out a worksheet that highlights what it may look like if we were to extend legal rights to other living beings, challenging the hegemony of the human species.”
A different lens
Asked whether she thinks that this critical approach to ingrained, institutional thinking could be applied elsewhere in American society, Jain had this to say.
“I believe so. Looking at our systems through a different lens can enable us to surface issues, gaps, and possibilities that may be overlooked in traditional design approaches. Among other roles, I am a civic designer, and I am constantly thinking about the underlying ‘values’ that are embedded in the current systems and who they are serving.”
Understanding collective assumptions and accepting our ability to change these assumptions is powerful, allowing us to collectively change existing systems for the better. The potential for change is enormous, and it all begins, as Jain described, with a single thought.