top of page

Conceptual analysis and conceptual design

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

The Reichstag in Berlin
The Reichstag in Berlin: the conceptual architecture of many buildings is at the heart of their design. Why don't we examine the underlying concepts of our technologies in a similar manner?

A lot of human knowledge is constructed by humans.

What does this mean?

Well, the concept of ‘constructed knowledge’ stands in contrast to the idea that most knowledge is in the world waiting to be discovered. Instead of ‘discovering’ and ‘uncovering’ ideas, we construct, interpret, create and invent knowledge. This knowledge becomes ingrained into our behaviour and our communities, so that we can’t imagine anything else.

Let me go through an example with you.

Where is the future?

I mean it. Show me where the future is.

What gesture did you make?

I would bet that you pointed in front of you. Most (~99.99%) people think the future is in front of them, and the past is behind them.

However, there are the Aymara people in the Andes who do the exact opposite, they gesture behind them when they talk about the future and in front of them when they talk about the past.

It is hypothesised that we all have an idea of where our bodies are in relation to time. Many cultures picture a person walking when they envision time moving forward. If we are walking down a path, then the past is behind us, because that is where we have already travelled, and the future is in front of us, it’s the terrain we haven’t yet seen.

Whereas the Aymara people see time as something which occurs around a person. The body is static. Consequently, they can see everything in front of them, and that is the past, whereas the future is behind them, and that is what they cannot see.

Before it was thought that the concept time was a ‘cognitive universal’ in humans. This means that we ‘naturally’ think of the past as being behind us. It was thought to be a biological fact. But the Aymara case shows that this is not true. Our view of time and our relation to it is a cultural construction.


Want to learn more? Sign up to our newsletter today.


Constructed concepts

This idea of envisioning the location of time, and our bodies in relation to it, cannot be found anywhere outside of human and animal existence. It is a narrative we tell ourselves to make sense of time, and in many ways is part of the human condition.

Constructed knowledge is not any less real than unconstructed knowledge, but it does mean that there is a lot of work to do to analyse the existing constructs and concepts underneath our technologies and beliefs, to see if we can reconstruct them, or design new concepts.

Innovation and ethics

Innovation and ethics go hand in hand.

If we define ethics as the study of how humans should live, and use the philosophical method to untangle how technology design is affecting how we live, then we can start to build products which are designed in entirely new ways. These new designs can fit different ideas about how to live an ethical life.

This process is called conceptual analysis and conceptual design. First off, we analyse different technologies to understand what concepts are embedded into them. This may not be obvious – quite often these technologies have been built within existing structures, and little thought has been put into the concepts that rule them. Secondly, we think about how we would build the technology which is based on a different concept. This is the design element of ethics.

Perhaps this would make more sense with an example.

The recurring concept

Descartes is the conceptual artist behind many of our technologies. For example, his theory of identity: “I think therefore I am” or “cogito ergo sum” leads us to believe that we can have a rational mind without our community.(1) This means that a lot of our technology is individualistic to the extreme. I've previously done some work to show how this notion of an individual who can rationalise without the aid of others has led to some incorrect ideas about how to approach polarisation in society.

Twain Liu argues that Descartes' binary thinking concerning the mind being completely separate from the body has caused many of the problems that we see in artificial intelligence. “This has caused problems in AI because now we’re stacking emotion units on top of binary classification layers in an unnatural and non-integrated way” she writes.

Dr Kim Foale speaks about how Cartesian geometry has influenced many aspects of our game design. We view our environment as a series of coordinates. This means that we can easily track subjects and objects, and have a 'birds eye view' of our surroundings. This is a particular idea of space, and not one that necessarily correlates with our every day existence.

Conceptual design

Once we have identified the existing conceptual framework for a technology, we can look to see how we can build a technology with a different conceptual basis.

For example, when it comes to developing communities online, I would love to explore Hegelian foundations for interaction on social media. In contrast to the cogito, Hegel believed that we only identified ourselves as being human by recognising another human. He writes that by discovering an other, and seeing ourselves through the eyes of that other person, only then do we discover ourselves. To paraphrase his stance: “I exist because you exist, and you recognise that I exist."

Liu has developed a form of code which doesn’t use binary 0s and 1s, but instead looks to the Daoist Yin and Yang for inspiration. In Yin and Yang we see that there is softness in the hardness and hardness in the softness. She has a mathematical formula for programming that can incorporate this nuance into machines.

Foale reviews the conceptual foundations of gaming and writes that in many digital and board games: “slavery becomes a purely abstract concept for the exploitation of the players”. They question: “Why is it that slavery, and work, are so underplayed in not just these games but games in general? … Why do games commonly have veteran units and high technology but no trade unions, management innovation, or master builders?”

Foale concludes: “I'd like to see a recognition of the subliminally learnt violent messages in all these games, and publishers, designers and critics to take seriously the themes as a central part of the experience rather than a disposable layer of design fluff. I'd like us to think more about how we absorb knowledge even when placing a block of wood, and move past colonialist themes into something new, and more exciting.”

A final example of conceptual design concerns the work that we've done on the forthcoming democracy navigator by the European Partnership for Democracy. Our brief was to break down democracy into suitable pillars that would mean policy makers will think about the democratic consequences of future regulation in tech. We took the existing concept: democracy, and sought other indexes and places where it had been broken down into manageable chunks. This was the conceptual analysis. Once we had understood this, we could form a different way to view democracy, that was most suitable for the audience would use the navigator. This will be released in March.

Is everything constructed?

We don't believe that all knowledge is constructed. Of course much of human knowledge is based on concepts that live outside of our individual minds and societies. But the interpretation of these manifestations is always going to include a degree of construction.

What next?

Ethics and responsible business departments sit across many different business siloes – we are involved in innovation, in compliance and risk, in operations, strategy and in sales and marketing.

A key place that we can help with innovation and product development is in conceptual analysis and design. This is already present in many other disciplines, such as architecture. It is time to start using this method for technology.

In a post-Covid era, can you afford not to have this kind of thinking in your business?

(1) For more on Descartes please see Abeba Birhane's article: "Descartes was wrong: A person is a person through other persons."


Stay up to date with the world of tech ethics by signing up to our newsletter here

bottom of page