Future Design Practices

Ghosts in the making (ESR 15)

Discussing decoloniality with Design/AI practitioners

In the last decade, disciplines of Design and HCI alike have been increasingly contending with issues such as decoloniality. Coloniality, as distinct from colonialism, operates as a system of oppression, independent of the presence of a colonizer (Atuire, 2023). Coloniality is systemic and it spans from the local to the global, not necessarily bound to geographical boundaries and powers. The spectrum of colonial manifestations in socio-technical products can be traced from what counts for valid knowledge and data in academic settings,all the way to hiring practices and institutional logics of large organizations, public and private, that effectively control digitisation around the globe. In order to address these issues, I conducted interviews with a dozen practitioners working in the field of Design and Tech to understand the challenges they face and strategies they employ in these circumstances. In response to my query, an anti-caste design researcher focused on ‘debrahminisation’ of Design explains, “the whole point [of decolonisation] is to reconstruct the gaze, but in an academic space, the way research works is through citations, and you can’t cite a knowledge which has been erased.” Colonization begins there, in deeming one type of knowledge more valid than another. He continues, “it’s immeasurably difficult of a task to negotiate with what’s written there, and […] you always have to contend with the legibility, defend the legitimacy of your work, and you have to interact with people who have actively denied you the ability to study and work and have actively erased that knowledge.” In order to combat this issue, another researcher puts forth the importance of building groups of people from minority communities, whose “[…]traditional work has been colonized and appropriated.[…]what about the potter from ‘Kumbharvada’? Is he not a designer?These questions have to be asked because honestly, we’re very tired of being looked at by others from the outside, so we are now working on it from the inside itself.” 

As design researchers doing decolonial work struggle to legitimize their research and knowledge, those engaged with designing products with AI in the industry struggle both through their run-ins with institutional norms as well as the design tools that they use and the knowledge of AI that they possess. For designers working in large companies with global footprints in digital media, the job can include more than just designing. “Implementing change within a large company like ours requires evangelizing [the perks of inclusive] design among designers, marketers, content creators, AI developers and those involved in managing search engines and metadata. The process is slow but essential to create more engaging and inclusive viewer experiences.” There is evident inertia to adopting or even mentioning terms such as ‘decolonizing’ in practice. “The goal is to shape the distinction between DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives focused on human resources and product design that goes beyond diversity quotas.” Highlighting and evangelizing the need for change, having uncomfortable conversations can be an exhausting process – both practically and emotionally for individuals. This seems to be a point of inflection for many, some stay while others leave institutions to become freelancers. “I think that there was a certain short sightedness”, says a AI and tech policy consultant who has worked with the biggest public institutions in the world. “When speaking about, for example, algorithmic harms [..] people would not necessarily acknowledge and recognise the historical patterns of exclusion and discrimination in taxonomies or racialized racialization or patterns of exclusion, but it would be about let’s promote diversity, or they would not necessarily question the essence or the philosophy that powers AI technologies, data knowledge observation and so on.”  

These interviews probe applying decolonial theory in practice where we address challenges—institutional, individual, societal—and strategies used by professionals to realize decolonization discourse in making, designing, and implementing AI technologies. 


Atuire, C. A. (n.d.). A decolonial framework for thinking about sustainable AI. In Sustainable AI Conference [Keynote Speech]. 2 ND INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE: “SUSTAINABLE AI ACROSS BORDERS, Bonn, Germany. https://sustainable-ai-conference.eu/

Preview cover image credit: Amelie Mourichon via Unsplash

Share On:
Twitter LinkedIn