Inches away from the dark side

I have written before about the potential synergy of design and technology, and how we are gradually finding ways to engage with the design community more in our activities. One consequence of this is that we have been invited to join the Home Office Design and Technology Alliance. This, in turn, has allowed me to go and learn more about both design and crime!! The one thing that quickly becomes apparent is that the elements of design must be built into the situation from the beginning, not added as an afterthought.

As part of my “indoctrination”, a few days ago I met with Professor Gloria Laycock, Director of the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. In an anonymous building off Tottenham Court Road, I spent several hours with Gloria trying to better understand the underlying rationale of the Alliance. The first thing she did was show me a section in a book comparing the excuses law-abiding people make when they get into mild trouble with what criminals say when they are caught. They were startlingly similar! Her point was that we are all capable of stepping outside the rules and then back-rationalising whatever behaviour we exhibit. We mostly don’t do this because the opportunities are limited and we have a righteous fear of being caught and punished. If we could construct an environment where there were no opportunities to commit crime and/or there was no reward – or that there was guaranteed punishment – then crime might well be lessened. That is the philosophy behind the first 2 projects that I was aware of – Hot Products and the Safer Pint Glass.

In Hot Products, the idea is to develop systems that make stolen mobile phones useless. Such is our modern day dependence on these marvels of the computer age, they are not mere communication devices. They carry large amounts of our lives on them in the form of data. If they are stolen, it is likely that the thief knows where you live, who your friends are, probably where you go and possibly how to access your money. They also have access – for a time at least – to your money to pay for their phone calls!! Various ideas came out of the competition in this area, from systems to render the whole phone useless, to those that just erased all your personal data.

In the Safer Pint Glass project, the intention was to ensure that broken glasses could not be used as weapons. I was not aware until joining the Alliance of the scale of injuries involving glasses – 87,000 incidents a year, with a staggering impact on victims and their families and the costs of their treatment to the National Health Service. The initial development takes the same underlying idea as used in car windscreens for last 100 years – the glass is laminated with a plastic layer to ensure the glass does not shatter into sharp edges – that could be used as a weapon. It is interesting to note that plastic glasses (one of the confusing aspects of explaining this is that the word for the material and the object are the same – such is the ubiquity of the relationship!) are seemingly not liked by those who buy beer. This has meant that the designers have taken into account the needs and wishes of the user rather than simply imposing a technically more effective solution on them – there’s a lesson in here!

The Design and Technology Alliance is building on these early successes and starting to be able to make the “business case” that investment up front in denying potential criminals the opportunity to transgress or rendering their spoils valueless can make crime a pointless and unprofitable pursuit. There are other projects in the pipeline and I am looking forward to learning – and contributing – more.

As I was preparing to leave, we struck another rich vein of opportunity. The principles are being applied to the physical world, but might they be applied in cyberspace? I need more learning and thinking time!


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:08

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