Crime and Justice Philosophy & Religion

Exploring the Boundaries of Justice: An Interview with Designer Ayushi Jain on Decolonizing Design and Speculative Design

As society continues to grapple with systemic inequalities and injustices, designers are increasingly using their skills and creativity to imagine new possibilities for the future. One approach that has gained traction in recent years is speculative design, a method that uses design to explore potential futures and challenge dominant ways of thinking. 

In this context, decolonizing design has emerged as a critical framework for addressing the ways in which design and design processes have historically perpetuated colonialism and reinforced inequitable power structures.

Decolonizing design seeks to question and challenge the Eurocentric design principles that have been dominant for centuries, and instead promote the voices, perspectives, and practices of underrepresented communities. It involves rethinking design practices to ensure that they are inclusive, participatory, and respectful of diverse cultural traditions and values. Through this process, decolonizing design aims to create more equitable and sustainable systems that benefit everyone.

Ayushi Jain is a designer who has been at the forefront of these efforts, using her skills and creativity to explore complex social issues and find new ways to address them. Over the past eight years, she has worked in close partnership with cross-cultural teams across six countries, gaining valuable insights into different cultural perspectives and practices. Her work has focused on using design to create more equitable and sustainable systems that benefit everyone.

Jain’s thesis, Beyond Justice, is a thought-provoking exploration of the current boundaries and possibilities of the ‘complaint report worksheet’ used by the NYPD to register any criminal activity. This artifact of the justice system opens a window of possibility to re-imagine and reconsider how the criminal justice system works in the US and how we define justice as a society. 

By introducing an alternate ideological framework, in this case, Jainism, it challenges the dominant notions of justice which are rooted in fairness and retribution. Jainism offers a thorough critique of a system of crime and punishment where violence becomes an inherent attribute, proposing a path of extreme non-violence, this transdisciplinary exploration of the justice system centers on forgiveness.

We had the chance to speak with Ayushi Jain to gain more insights into her design philosophy and her approach to exploring the current boundaries and possibilities of the complaint report worksheet used by the NYPD. By using speculative design and decolonizing design principles, Jain’s work offers an exciting and innovative perspective on how we can use design to create more equitable and just systems that benefit everyone. 

Through this interview, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of her design process and her vision for the future of design and social justice.

It’s such an honor to have you here, Ayushi. Can you describe your interest in speculative design and the origins of that interest?

I first learned about speculative design during my Master’s program at Parsons School of Design. Many professors at The New School work in the field of speculative design, including Elliot Montogermry and Barbara Adams, who introduced me to it. My interest in this field grew during a class called “Between the Silos,” led by Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, and Victoria Hattam. 

The course’s premise was that critical work can occur by rejecting the arbitrary siloing of fields of study, such as arts, design, and socio-political research. During the course, we challenged the status quo of scholarship that distinguishes itself from creative work: real versus fiction. We explored ways to reconnect polymorphous worlds that have been artificially separated through existing norms and institutional structures.

I have always been interested in “the middle,” the cracks within the systems because that’s where all the beauty lies. As a furniture designer, I always played with materials, challenging the notions of what could or could not be achieved with a certain material. I made chairs with lean sticks, mud, soft foam, and all kinds of other unconventional materials. 

Speculative design as a practice gives me an opportunity to do the same with thoughts, belief systems, and socio-political structures. It allows me to break away from convention and rummage through the silos to draw alternative futures.

What are some key areas of intersection between your own speculative design efforts and decolonizing design?

To start, let me define what speculative design and decolonization mean to me. Speculative design is a design practice that challenges conventional ideas about how the world works and explores alternative futures through critical examination and imagination. Decolonization, on the other hand, involves undoing the ongoing violence of embedding Western ideologies into society, not just limited to the past colonial rule over another country.

As someone who grew up in India, a former British colony, I am deeply interested in the notion of decolonization, especially as it relates to the oppression of indigenous peoples through the capture of their imagination. The intersection between speculative design and decolonization lies in the correlation between the past and the future. If our imagination is colored by oppressive ideologies from the past, it is difficult to imagine a future that challenges this hegemony.

During my thesis, titled Beyond Justice, I combined the two approaches of design to build alternative worlds. By using a decolonial lens, I aimed to create a future that is free from the shackles of our oppressive past.

We’d love to hear more about your Beyond Justice thesis project. What was the genesis of this project?

During the summer of 2020, I was searching for a topic for my thesis inquiry. As we all know, this process can be deeply reflective and existential. Moreover, it was 2020, marked by key events like the COVID pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, which highlighted the existing violence of our systems that marginalize people of color and non-conforming groups.

Given my background growing up in a former colony, I was already interested in decolonizing design, and the events of 2020 made this work even more urgent. I began to question the existing notion of justice and the violent nature of the current legal systems.

The philosophical premise of justice is that the law should be fair and equal. However, the harsh reality is that legislation has been used as a tool to oppress and dispossess marginalized people worldwide. The predominant legal systems are retributive, focusing on blame and suitable punishment. This legal structure has its roots in colonization, where European legal traditions were imposed on non-Western societies. These legal systems serve entrenched interests that perpetuate historical power structures, building an ongoing cycle of violence.

To create a decolonial definition of justice and reconcile the violent nature of this system, I started looking into alternative systems and definitions of justice. I realized that plural definitions of justice must exist, and my search began with exploring my last name, representative of my culture and values. 

This project is meant to be a starting point, an invitation for others to challenge the monolithic definition of justice and bring forth alternatives rooted in their own rich histories and cultures.

What were some of your issues with the existing NYPD complaint report worksheet?

The NYPD complaint report worksheet is a tangible artifact that reflects the values underlying the service interaction in the system. When a crime is reported, the police department uses this worksheet to gather information. However, the questions on the worksheet serve the purpose of the existing retributive justice system. 

The questions are designed to establish the severity of the crime and identify a criminal to be punished in accordance with the crime committed. For example, questions related to the suspect’s race, hairstyle, skin tone, complexion, and distinguished body marks reinforce biases and focus on an individual as the problem in society. 

This perpetuates a cycle of oppression, where we blame and punish the individual without addressing the broader social conditions and systems that contributed to their behavior.

To break this cycle, we need to create space for alternative ways of looking at justice that is rooted in healing, restoration, and transformation. Many historic traditions around the world offer alternative views of justice that focus on addressing harm and holding the wrongdoer accountable while also helping the victim heal from the harm caused.

To move toward a more just and equitable society, we must challenge the dominant narrative and build alternative systems that are inclusive, empathetic, and restorative.

In what ways did Beyond Justice seek to alter the application and scope of the complaint report worksheet?

Systems and services are deeply intertwined with the values that are embedded in society. As part of this project, I critically examined the dominant definition of justice, which is linked to fairness and shapes the current legal system. By reassessing the lenses through which we see the world, I hoped to open up a wide range of possibilities.

Jain philosophy posits an alternative to the predominant notion of justice, shaped by the doctrines of anekāntavāda and syādvāda. Anekāntavāda means the plurality or multiplicity of truths, and Syādvāda is the concept that all judgments are conditional and hold good only under certain circumstances. Jainism challenges the notion of justice rooted in fairness (Theory of Justice, John Rawls 2001) and punishment by describing a world where multiple truths coexist and emphasizing human limitations in discerning these pluralities. 

Stories from Jain scriptures elaborate on the conditionality of judgment and undermine a legal system that claims to determine fair outcomes. The values of anekāntavāda and syādvāda, combined with the virtues of ahimsa or non-violence, propose a radical reimagination of the justice system.

To demonstrate Jain canonical values, I undertook a speculative redesign of the complaint report worksheet – a service artifact used by the New York Police Department to register criminal activity. The proposed modifications include changing the language from “victim” and “suspect” to “complainant” and “complainee,” which creates a possibility to recognize that these individuals exist in roles beyond those defined in the report.

I also added questions focused on the impact of the incident on the complainant, rather than a forceful classification of a “suspect” as belonging to a certain race, class, etc. For example, I added a question such as “How has the incident affected the complainant?” This approach proposes an alternative where the focus is on restoring harm and breaking the cycle of continued violence through punishment and crime. I also added a section that allows the people filing the complaint to reconcile with the harm and recognize how they would like to be supported.

I pushed the boundaries by creating space for justice for other living organisms. Jainism recognizes ten different categories of living beings, including one-sensed (Ekendriya Jivas) living creatures such as plants, trees, etc. 

I built out a worksheet that highlights what it may look like if we were to extend legal rights to other living beings, challenging the hegemony of the human species. This approach asks us to consider what justice might look like for trees, for example.

Can you elaborate on the project’s relationship to Jain philosophy?

This project is deeply rooted in Jain philosophy, which forms the underlying system of values that determine every aspect of the design. You may be familiar with value-driven work that emphasizes the underlying values we choose to embed throughout our system. For example, if our value is inclusion, we would ensure that the product/service we are creating enables users from historically marginalized communities to feel included. 

This might look like the addition of space for people to write out their pronouns in their profiles. These small or big decisions are often driven by the values embedded in our designs. In the case of this project, I chose to use an ancient philosophical system, Jainism, as the determinant of the embedded values.

Do you feel the premise of this project is relevant to other civic settings throughout the USA?

I agree that this project opened a window of possibility, showing how looking at our systems through a different lens can enable us to surface issues, gaps, and possibilities that may be overlooked in traditional design approaches. 

As a civic designer, I play many roles, and in my current projects, when making design recommendations about social service programs and systems, I am constantly thinking about the underlying values that are embedded in the current systems and who they are serving. 

We start every project with a collective discussion on design principles. We determine the principles we wish to uphold in the designs we are creating so that as we go through the process and make decisions about our services, we can ensure we are living by the principles we established at the very beginning of the process.