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Johan RedströmProfessor vid Designhögskolan vid Umeå universitet
Published: 2024-05-06 Updated: 2024-05-27, 07:45

Sustainable design for the future goes beyond individual needs

PROFILE The transformation brought by new technology in shaping design is the driving force behind Johan Redström's research. With curiosity and an open mind, he explores new perspectives on how technology and everyday objects can be designed in the future.

Image: Mattias Pettersson
Johan RedströmProfessor vid Designhögskolan vid Umeå universitet

Very much revolves around a curiosity about how things could be different.

Product design has long been dominated by a strong focus on the user. The object or technology should be easy to handle, function efficiently, and provide a good experience. However, recent digital advancements, coupled with the pursuit of sustainable development, have shown that the user-centered approach is not always sufficient. Design encompasses much more than the relationship between a product and an individual user.

“When I use, for example, an app on my mobile phone, it's actually not just me who's using it. A web search is also, for some entity, a way to gather information about what I'm looking for, perhaps to target advertisements to me. If we consider values such as democracy, influence, and transparency, we may need to design technology differently so that we don't end up surprised by the downsides hidden behind an efficient and beautiful surface,” says Johan Redström.

From music to design

Johan Redström is a professor of design at the Umeå Institute of Design. The field he researches, interaction design, did not exist when he began studying in the 1990s. He studied music and later philosophy. He was also early on interested in the interaction between people and computers.

Eventually, he became part of an interdisciplinary research group at a newly established research institute at the University of Gothenburg, focusing on applied research in art and technology.

“That's sort of where I started as a researcher. Design research became a way to combine, on the one hand, artistic interest, and on the other hand, interest in research and philosophy,” says Johan Redström.

An early research project involved merging new technology with such a traditional area as textile design. What happens when you weave electronic properties, controllable and programmable, into textiles? Today, smart textiles are commonplace. So is artificial intelligence, which Johan Redström and his colleagues experimented with early on. Much has changed since he began his research career to where we are today, and interaction design is now a well-established field.

"Have to break new ground"

We are at the Umeå Institute of Design at the Arts Campus in Umeå. Johan Redström was recruited here in 2012 to build up the doctoral program and a research environment, which today is relatively large considering the size of the school. From 2015 to 2018, he served as the dean of the Umeå Institute of Design. Now, much of his work consists of supervising doctoral students.

“Compared to other technical and scientific fields, doctoral students here often have their own projects and develop to a greater extent into independent researchers. In the artistic field, you have to break a lot of new ground. This means that I spend quite a lot of time helping them develop their own projects,” says Johan Redström.

His current research revolves around what is often called more-than-human design, exploring alternatives to more traditional user-centered design. For example, it asks how the future might look when computers and other digital objects shift from being passive tools we use when we need them, to constantly active, information-gathering, and connected machines trying to predict what we want to do next, like what song we want to listen to or what movies we want to watch. How do we want to live with this type of technology in the future?

Another aspect of more-than-human design is that humans are not alone on our planet.

“The necessity of sustainable development has significant implications for the design field and how we educate designers,” says Johan Redström.

What is more-than-human design?

More-than-human design is a design philosophy that acknowledges that we are more than just “users”. We are part of extensive ecosystems where microorganisms, plants, animals, algorithms, and machines also act and produce effects.

One research direction of more-than-human design criticises human exceptionalism and concider other species and ecosystems as equally important, and includes for instance research on designing for and with other species. Another direction concerns how our relations to technology are changing as machine learning, algorithmic decision making and related forms of artificial intelligence take on tasks previously being exclusive to humans.

He is involved in various projects, and the results are published in scientific articles, exhibited, turned into books, and used in teaching.

“Teaching is perhaps the most important way to disseminate research and make a concrete difference,” he says.

In his research, Johan Redström asks more questions than he answers and he likes to challenge society's view of design.

“Very much revolves around a curiosity about how things could be different.”

Alongside his work, Johan Redström loves music and being outdoors. He enjoys surfing, skiing, and mountain biking, among other activities.

“Balancing research and family life is a challenge. You have to compromise. For example, I try to limit my travel to conferences. At the same time, we have the attitude that of course it's possible, it shouldn't have to be a choice. I also have very good colleagues,” says Johan Redström.