Mind the gap

Posted on May 23, 2014

Our message to our designers ahead of the 2014 Annual Challenge in Kigali and London:

Over the next two weeks, we are going to go through some profound experiences together. We will visit countries we’ve never seen before. We’ll hear stories of personal tragedy and triumph, of redemption and reconciliation. And we’ll be reckoning with one of the most shocking events of our lifetimes, the Rwandan Genocide.

As we go through these sometimes overwhelming emotional experiences, it is imperative that we stay focused on the problem we’re trying to solve. The stories of genocide survivors will naturally inspire empathy in us and make us ask how we would have behaved in their place, or how we might have acted to stop their suffering. As problem-solvers, we’ll also be drawn to the difficulties facing the curators of the museums and memorials we visit, wondering how we could serve them as “clients.”

But the problem we’re trying to solve isn’t just genocide and isn’t just museums. Rather, it’s the gap between the way we remember the genocides of the past and how we act to prevent the genocides of the future. It’s a poorly understood and shifting space, which is exactly why we think UX designers are the right people to explore it.

Sometimes the problem is memory. Many of history’s most brutal mass killings are poorly documented or not well-known by the general public. For example, the slaughter of Armenians during World War I occurred before the word “genocide” existed and before international law recognized it as a crime. Today, many of the descendants of those displaced by the genocide justifiably feel that simply recognizing the tragedy would be a sufficient goal. The challenges of understanding the history of each individual genocide on its own terms is real; how do we reconcile the need to accurately document the past with the equally pressing need to act in the present?

Sometimes the problem is feeling. In the decades following World War II, a robust culture of commemoration and reflection has grown up around the Holocaust. Academics, artists, and writers have devoted their entire careers to chronicling the atrocities that occurred under the Nazi regime. Most people in the Western world are familiar with the facts of what occurred, and it’s not uncommon to hear how Holocaust museums and memorials provoked overwhelming emotional responses even in people who have no personal connection to the event. Like all emotions, these feelings are individual and complex; how do we respect the feelings evoked by the memory of past tragedies while also providing opportunities to turn such feelings into action now?

Sometimes the problem is action. Despite the anthem of “never again,” the world has stood by during many instances of mass slaughter in the modern era, in nations like Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. Just looking at the past decade or the past year, the number of countries that have faced a risk of genocide or gross human rights abuses is overwhelming. Even when we have gathered accurate facts about the past and the present, even when we have summoned the emotional resolve to stop the next genocide, exactly which actions we ought to take as individuals and as nations remains uncertain. You should consider this question — what actions should actually be taken to stop genocide? — as part of your remit.

How should we remember? How should we feel? How should we act? Together, these questions make up the gap, and it’s your challenge as designers to map users’ journey across it — or imagine a journey that no one has yet undertaken.

In the days before we embark on this quest together, our team of provocateurs will be talking with leading experts in the field to find out what they know about these questions. All of this knowledge will be incorporated into the final document produced by this year’s Annual Challenge. During the time you spend with survivors, witnesses, and museum curators in Rwanda, we urge you to reach your own understanding of their experience. As we transition to the work of designing together in London, feel free to talk with the provocateurs in order to examine what you have learned in the context of the broader problems of remembering and preventing genocide. By the day of our final presentation, everything we have learned will inform the designs we present to Aegis Trust.

Until then, we encourage you to think about “the gap.” In between your last round of vaccinations or maybe while you’re packing your bag, consider all that you have learned in your diverse experiences as designers. What is the difference between knowledge and feeling? What moves different types of people from feelings to action? We encourage you to bring anything you have learned from any aspect of the design discipline to this work we’re doing together, because we have no doubt it is a project that will truly take all we’ve got.