Marianne Kinnula: Better technologies are created together
From Nokia networks to business software
Marianne Kinnula’s journey began at the University of Tampere, where she studied computer science. Back then, her studies were more focused on software engineering, and after graduation, she ended up employed at Nokia networks for 10 years.
At some point, Kinnula started working on her doctoral dissertation, which was linked to her job of the time. The topic of her dissertation was software business, and in fact, the business angle has been brought through with her since then.
Children and Technology
After having acquired a doctoral degree, Kinnula was scratching her head over potential research topics. Soon she met up with a group of other researchers, and they collectively brainstormed a topic – children and technology.
Kinnula recalls that her own situation in life partly caused her to gain interest in the topic. She had had her own children and had for long observed that their everyday lives had become filled with technology.
Since the beginning, Kinnula and her colleagues have addressed the phenomenon as “technology-rich everyday life,” and they are interested in how children navigate in our world full of technology.
The need to co-create technology with children
The important starting point in Kinnula’s research is that better technologies, software, and products are created when the users are involved in the creation processes. This paradigm is also heavily present in the field of computer science overall.
Kinnula and her colleagues use participatory design in their research, meaning that they involve the users of the technology in the creation processes intensively. Their research premise is that people have the right to influence the kind of technology they use, and this of course applies not only to adults, but children as well.
However, involving children in the creation processes is not always genuine. Sometimes children are present as tokens and thus their insights are not authentically incorporated into the research at hand.
Seeking out effective ways to involve children into the creation processes has been one of the challenges that Kinnula and her colleagues have faced.
While child-computer interaction research – the umbrella term of Kinnula’s research – can be conducted in laboratory settings, Kinnula and her colleagues prefer to work in real-life settings, in classrooms, for instance. The emphasis on what happens at the level of practice is their main guiding principle.
“It is often the case that only certain kinds of students get selected to participate in research taking place in laboratories. We want to gain an insight into the everyday lives of all students and teachers at schools. The ultimate goal is that our findings could be integrated into the actual teaching practice by teachers,” Kinnula comments.
Becoming a design protagonist
Another goal that Kinnula and her colleagues have is to teach the so-called 21st century skills to students. The working methods from child-computer interaction research should be integrated into the curriculum, as a way to enhance those skills.
In Finland, children are already taught coding at schools, but child-computer interaction researchers agree that this is not enough. While coding teaches children that computers are just machines that complete the programmed steps, Kinnula thinks that technology making practices as well as digital technology design should also be integrated into the curriculum.
Having design skills implies that one can design software that is useful. When integrating design skills into schoolwork, students learn to understand who uses the technology, and whether the technology is necessary or if it should be redesigned somehow.
“But we can also speak of a mindset. If you have these skills, it is not enough. You also need courage, will, and agency – meaning that you are capable of using these skills. This is what we call being a design protagonist,” Kinnula says.
A design protagonist – or the ‘main character’ - is someone who has the will and agency to challenge technology. Kinnula thinks that children should learn not to take technology as a given, but instead reflect on it critically, learning to recognise when something is not beneficial for them. The previously mentioned technical skills can help children to do that.
Critical reflection is needed
Kinnula mentions social media as an example of a digital environment where the protagonist mindset can evolve. According to Kinnula, social media can cause young people to develop body image issues, and in such cases, critical reflection is needed.
“Young people should reflect – is this technology beneficial? Is it beneficial for society? Could things be done differently? And lastly – could I involve myself in the development of the platform somehow? Should something new be designed that meets my needs better? This is an example of thinking like a design protagonist,” Kinnula comments.
But having examined software from a business angle, Kinnula is also keen on promoting systemic thinking when it comes to reflecting different media platforms, for instance.
“We should all understand that when we use Instagram, for example, it is a part of a larger ecosystem, and it promotes business. Who gets paid and who pays? And how much? Who are the parties involved? There is a large surrounding network,” Kinnula says.
For a business to work, all the stakeholders need to gain value from the business. In the case of Instagram, it is Meta Inc., users, and advertisers that all benefit from the platform.
“This could be a good exercise for young people, to think about the value they gain from using social media. What values does my social media use provide for me? And how about on a societal level – what values do social media platforms provide for society? Do they actually decrease well-being?” Kinnula says.
Taking steps forward with research
Recently, Kinnula and her colleagues have been researching situated design capital. Kinnula explains that design capital is something that children have, which enables technology design to happen. Like learning, technology design is also situated. It either emerges when doing something, or not, depending on the situation.
More specifically, Kinnula and her team have been interested in observing what happens in the classroom when children co-create, or design technology together. They have been asking questions such as what aspects influence how children avail themselves with situated design capital, and how design capital emerges in those situations.
Kinnula thinks that the multidisciplinary GenZ project has brought a lot of inspiration into her research. The integration of multidisciplinary perspectives into research always brings out something new into the world, as Kinnula puts it. In addition to the benefits of being multidisciplinary, Kinnula also has GenZ to thank for enabling her to take bigger steps with her research.
Having been granted funds from the Academy of Finland and European Union, Kinnula is planning to further link the business approach with children and technology, drawing particularly from ecosystems and collective value production. Another angle to the topic comes from direct action democracy and critical perspective to digital technology design.
On a larger scale, Kinnula says that her work is connected to the politics of design. All the solutions that are created are in fact political, and they have a direct effect on people’s lives. Applying the participatory design method and involving children into technology creation is just one example of making better solutions.
“Who gets to design the world we live in? Who is allowed to participate and who creates our technology? What gender are they, are they young or old, techies or ordinary people? Excellent business would be created if a larger variety of people were more involved in solution making. We are missing plenty of useful solutions just because women, for example, are not involved enough,” Kinnula expresses.
These perspectives of empowerment reflect from Kinnula’s current research, and they will be present in her future work too.