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Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Director of Future Mobility Design (FMD) Lab and Research Associate at UC Digital Futures, and Mobility Systems Design Professor at the University of Cincinnati

Ep38. Alejandro Lozano Robledo: Human-Centered A.I. & Empathy

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Ep38. Human-Centered A.I. & Empathy: Why Designing for Extreme Use Cases and Not Just the Average Uplifts All with UC Digital Futures Alejandro Lozano Robledo

Growing up in the traffic-clogged streets of Bogotá, Colombia, Alejandro Lozano Robledo has long been fascinated by the untapped potential of our cities to uplift everyone, especially the most marginalized. Today, he leads research on autonomy, smart cities, the shared economy, A.I., and transit-oriented development using human-centered design as the Director of Future Mobility Design Lab and Research Associate at UC Digital Futures in addition to being a Mobility Systems Design Professor at the University of Cincinnati.

Epitomizing that the future is collaborative, Alejandro partners with researchers across disciplines like aerospace engineering and urban planning to reimagine the future. He collaborates with industry partners like Boeing, government partners like the Department of Transportation, and non-profits like Uptown Consortium on innovative proposals that use mobility to improve quality of life.

Since 2018, Alejandro has taught Industrial Design at DAAP, leading the Mobility Systems Design program since 2020. He partners with companies like Gravity Sketch to develop new virtual and augmented reality workflows for design education. With over six patents and an International Crystal Cabin Award, Alejandro has presented his research nationally and internationally.

“We specialize in understanding people’s needs. But then we bring technologies such as AR and VR, and these exciting new ways of testing, and coming up with future solutions. So the applications are really endless.”

Alejandro Lozano Robledo

In today’s conversation, you’ll discover how empathy is key for human-centered A.I. and the necessity of having a vision for what’s possible. We also discuss the importance of the year 2040 related to paradigm-shifting megatrends, Alejandro’s future projection method, inspiration from the fictional city of Wakanda as an example of the rising Solar Punk movement, and our evolution to Techno Sapiens. Alejandro also shares the importance of keeping humans at the center of critical, societal decisions, especially as A.I. plays an increasingly assistive role in all facets of our lives. Finally, he discusses why we need to design emerging technologies, including A.I., for extreme use cases, not just the average. 

What can the future look like if we make the right decisions now? Read on and check out the interview to find out!

The Human Element of Urban Design

Through his position at the Future Mobility Design Lab, Alejandro sits at the crossroads where stakeholders from every sector of city life meet to design and plan the urban environment of the future. 

Designing the future of how our cities will function is a complex process, requiring consideration of quantitative factors like population, economic conditions, and politics, as well as more individualized qualitative factors, the intangible aspects of somebody’s environment that affect their quality of life. 

His work influences and is influenced by a collection of stakeholders, including multidisciplinary academics, policymakers and funders in government, industry partners to help drive innovation, and community-focused nonprofits. 

His lab is part of a larger multidisciplinary effort at the University of Cincinnati’s new Digital Futures building (DF) to explore how we can best leverage emerging technology to solve today’s challenges. Others at the DF focus on areas such as aerospace engineering, biomechanics, and crypto-economics. 

As a human-centered designer and researcher, Alejandro focuses on understanding the applications and how they will affect people. 

Technology has no value by itself; the value is in the applications. How are you using technology to help people?”

Alejandro Lozano Robledo

Augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) are examples of technology providing value, specifically by helping to envision design solutions. 

Photo courtesy of UC Digital Futures Lab

Not too long ago, Alejandro’s lab used VR technology to render a digital twin of an intersection in Cincinnati as it could look in 10 to 20 years. Alejandro says that immersing somebody in the digital space helps non-technical stakeholders play a more active role in the design process. Rather than trying to decipher a blueprint or imagine how a 2D image would translate into a 3D space, those without the skills or need help visualizing a concept to make that leap can instead strap on a VR headset and navigate the virtual space as if they were navigating the real-life intersection. 

Alejandro and his team hosted a meeting with government officials to show them the digital intersection and gather feedback. More immersion means better-informed feedback, which leads to better decision-making. 

AR/VR also helps condense the design process by reducing the limits of geography. Through AR/VR, Alejandro and his team can collaborate in the same digital space with partners from across the world. Design tasks that may have taken years to complete when Alejandro was an undergrad now only take a few weeks. 

Alejandro doesn’t doubt that these technologies, especially A.I., will become fully intertwined in our lives, especially given humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize the tools we use. It’s already happening with the rise of A.I. companions; it will accelerate as more people adopt A.I. assistants to manage their lives, and ultimately, A.I. may reach a point where it shapes our lives as much as the reverse. Through these changes, Alejandro hopes that humans remain entirely behind the wheel, driving decision-making that benefits all people impacted in communities where the technology is deployed. 

His research focuses squarely on the needs of the individual, and he envisions a world where technological innovation does not come at the expense of human needs but rather as a result of and in support of those needs. 

Solarpunk 2040: Turning Fiction into the Future

With the rise of autonomous devices, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and the tech-enabled sharing economy, we are witnessing a historic paradigm shift similar to the impact of the Industrial and Information Revolutions, and soon to be the age of Techno Sapiens. 

While these technologies are still young, Alejandro thinks they’ll simply be a regular part of our lives within the next 16 years. The world in 2040 may be hard to imagine, but we are already creating that world through the decisions we make here and now. Although there’s valid cause for caution in designing and implementing these tech innovations, Alejandro aligns with a more optimistic view of how technology will transform our future. 

“I like to be very utopian and optimistic. Just because some things can go wrong, doesn’t mean they will, and maybe making decisions now can help us get to a more utopian society.”

Alejandro Lozano Robledo

He draws inspiration from a growing conceptual framework called Solarpunk. It’s similar to more popular aesthetic concepts like steampunk or cyberpunk. While dystopian themes tend to play a more significant role in the steam and cyberpunk genres, Solarpunk focuses more on how technology can improve humans’ lives. The Solarpunk ethos can be seen in contemporary depictions such as Wakanda, the fictional country featured in the Marvel Universe’s Black Panther, where technology has solved issues like energy scarcity, disease, hunger, and climate disaster. 

“Solarpunk City” by Dan Wallace with Dall-E

Some of Alejandro’s hopes for a Solarpunk future include sustainable, self-reliant, locally-grown economies and cities designed first and foremost for humans, with accessible transportation options that operate in harmony with human and environmental needs. 

Imagining a utopian future isn’t just a thought exercise; Alejandro says that Solarpunk and similar aesthetics are helpful because they provide a framework for various disciplines in the process of creating culture. Solarpunk-inspired images, poems, songs, and designs of today may become the cultural touchstones of the future. Remembering that may help us make the right decisions today to achieve that future, and he stresses the need to have a vision for where we’re heading in the age of A.I. and emerging mega-trend technologies.

Opportunity By Design with Future Projection Method

Designing for a future we can’t clearly envision is like gambling: countless possible outcomes constantly fluctuating between likely and impossible. Alejandro and his team use a future projection method to map current and upcoming tech innovation trends on a timeline. From there, they pick a year in the future and build different sets of assumptions about what the tech landscape could look like in that year. This process helps them visualize a spectrum of possible outcomes which helps us be more prepared for any of the possible scenarios that come to fruition.

Besides tech trends, cultural factors can significantly impact those outcomes as well, as we’ve seen historically. Alejandro highlights this by comparing the layout of Barcelona with a typical U.S. city. Much of downtown Barcelona predates the automobile by several hundred years. As a result, Barcelona is much more multimodal and pedestrian-friendly than the average U.S. city designed primarily for vehicle mobility. On a recent trip to Spain, Alejandro toured some of Barcelona’s “superblocks,” 3-block by 3-block clusters where cars are prohibited, freeing residents to navigate their community safely via foot or bicycle. 

Generated with Dall-E

Superblocks are an example of “urban reshaping,” the process of making incremental changes to an existing environment. Urban reshaping initiatives can often be as simple as repainting an intersection with a new color scheme. Low-tech solutions like that can compound into more significant changes, especially where the status quo is so entrenched that sudden and dramatic changes are impractical.

Just because we have access to really cool technologies doesn’t mean it’s the best immediate solution. It could be a combination of a few things. So thinking of it more as a system is really important.”

Alejandro Lozano Robledo

Urban reshaping also offers the opportunity to address historic inequities, such as the lack of transportation options in lower-income communities. Alejandro says that lack of physical mobility creates barriers to opportunity, often resulting in less socioeconomic mobility. Those disparities worsen over time, further distancing the haves from the have-nots. 

Alejandro believes that good design should first and foremost accommodate extreme use cases on the margin. If you’re designing an autonomous car, for example, it’s better to design the vehicle with a wheelchair user in mind first than to design it for an average person and later have to alter that design to accommodate a wheelchair user. The design accommodates both for the average and wheelchair person.  

Closing Thoughts

How do we plan and design our environment for a future where our physical and digital realities are merged into one? According to Alejandro, we start with a human-centered approach.

In order to achieve the utopia we write fiction about, we need to think about the value of technology through the lens of what people need, especially those whose needs haven’t historically been prioritized.

By intentionally incorporating empathy into our designs for the future, we can reshape reality to accommodate and uplift all of us.

It’s up to us to dictate what the impact of these technologies will be. It’s up to us to make decisions now, to get together and ask a very simple question, which is ‘why?’ Why should we? I want to leave people on an optimistic note: I believe in our future being a very positive one, but we will be in charge of it. So let’s take action.”

Alejandro Lozano Robledo

Even as we become more reliant on technology to interact with our environment, Alejandro reminds us not to focus too much on what could go wrong and ignore what could go right, as we are ultimately the ones steering the ship.

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Thank you, Alejandro, for being our guest on Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

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