Value sensitive design the good and the bad

In this column good and bad examples of value sensitive design will be discussed. The smart meter, the Long Island bridge and the Dutch neighborhoods.

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We all have things that we want, you want to buy the game console and the skateboard. The only constraint you face is the amount of money you have. You have to prioritize your demands and choose one, so the skateboard or the game console. Here you can make a distinction between instrumental values and intrinsic values. Instrumental values are values that are important for the sake of something else, here it would be money. Intrinsic values that are important for their own sake, and not to attain something else, like fun.

Designers also face these questions. So when you have to choose which values you are going to implement in your design and to which extent you will be dealing with these kind of questions. This can be used for the good or for the bad. A good example where value sensitive design used for a bad purpose is that of the bridge in Long Island. This bridge was designed by an urban planner Robert Moses. This bridge was made deliberately low because then busses could not drive that route. Why did an urban planner not want that busses would take that route? This is because of a racist argument. Black people took the bus and that route was heading to the beach and they did not want that black people went to the beach. These kind of racist urban planning ideas are not used anymore.  The government is doing a good job with urban planning. There are not ‘black’ neighborhoods anymore in the Netherlands, the value of togetherness is very good used in the urban plans of the Dutch government. This is a good thing, if the children learn at a young age to cope with different people it will make them less racist. I think that the U.S can learn from the Netherlands, because you have a lot of ‘black’ neighborhoods over there.

A good example of not implementing values in the right way in your design is the smart meter. It is designed to safe people money. This meter was also designed to reduce CO2 emissions for the EU targets of 2020 and to make the grid more efficient. If there was a smart meter in every house than every household would give detailed information of their electricity usage and therefore electricity companies could predict a peak and make that peek lower so that they could produce less electricity but they could provide everybody in accordance to their needs.  However, there are also problems with this design. These smart meters do invade our privacy. I will just give a quick summary on the report of how these meters can take away our privacy. You can use these meters to:

  • Determine how many people are home and at what times;
  • Determine what appliances you use when, e.g., washer, dryer, toaster, furnace, A/C, microwave, medical devices … the list is almost endless depending on the granularity of the data;
  • Determine when a home is vacant (for planning a burglary), who has high-priced appliances, and who has a security system;

Other problems with these meters is that they cost a lot of money. By the time the proposal was brought by the upper house, there were a lot of concerns about the privacy issues when implementing such a smart meter. The Dutch upper house rejected the plan on the ground of data protection. The designers of such a device should have focused much more on his value sensitive design. The privacy issue could be foreseen, the companies who would attain the information would even know, when you are home, how many people are at home and even what you are doing. This is of course a big privacy violation and the EU should make a smart meter without all these privacy issues. The smart meter is a good idea because it could help the environment, but it should be without the big privacy violations.


It is a good decision of the Dutch upper house to reject the plan for the implementation of the smart meter, because otherwise the smart meter would be watching you!

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