Human Capabilities in Design for Values

A Capability Approach of “Design for Values”
  • Ilse OosterlakenEmail author
Living reference work entry


Technology and the expansion of human capabilities are intimately related. This chapter discusses an influential philosophical framework that attaches central moral importance to human capabilities, namely, the so-called capability approach, and explains in which ways it has relevance for design. A distinction will be drawn between two different, although related, design applications of the capability approach. Firstly, in the “narrow” usage, the capability approach is seen as presenting a proper conceptualization of individual well-being, namely, in terms of the capabilities that a person has. The aim of design is then to contribute to the expansion of these capabilities, to which I refer as design for capabilities. I will discuss two challenges for design for capabilities, namely, an epistemological and an aggregation challenge. Secondly, in the “broad” usage, the capability approach is seen as a source of insight and inspiration for taking a broader range of values and concerns into account in design, most importantly agency and justice. From this perspective, so it is argued, strong parallels can be drawn with participatory design and universal design. In reality both the narrow and the broad usage of the capability approach in design should go hand in hand. The chapter ends with some reflections on the challenges ahead in making the philosophical literature on the capability approach accessible to and usable by designers.


Agency Justice Well-being Capability approach 


As mundane as some technological artifacts may seem to be, there is sometimes a rich story to be told about their meaning for or impact on human lives. Take, for example, a lamp. It has a rather straightforward function: to give light. Since lamps are ubiquitous in modern, Western society, we rarely stop to reflect on it. Yet due to factors such as low income or the absence of an electricity infrastructure, having light is not self-evident for everyone. In 2008 I met an industrial design engineer who had worked on several design projects for poor communities in the South, including the design of lamps. The experiences gained during that work, so he told me, made him realize that lamps are ultimately not about light. The importance of a lamp lies in the fact that it enables you to do things that contribute to the overall quality of life, for example, to go to the outdoor toilet at night without being afraid or to make your homework in the evening after having looked after your family’s cattle all day. Technology has, so this simple example illustrates, the potential to contribute to the quality of life by expanding what people can do or be – their capabilities.

That technical artifacts have in essence something to do with enabling human action, with expanding human capabilities, is an intuitively plausible idea that has recently been reflected upon by several philosophers of technology (e.g., Lawson 2010; Van den Hoven 2012; Illies and Meijers forthcoming). The focus of this chapter will, however, be on a more general philosophical framework that attaches central moral importance to certain human capabilities, namely, the so-called capability approach. In this approach – for which Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum have done much of the groundwork – human capabilities are often described as the real opportunities for a person to do and be what he/she has reason to value. In a recent introduction to the capability approach, Robeyns (2011) notes that

it is generally understood as a conceptual framework for a range of normative exercises, including most prominent the following: (1) the assessment of individual well-being; (2) the evaluation and assessment of social arrangements; and (3) the design of policies and proposals about social change in society. (Robeyns 2011, p. 3)

This chapter will discuss the capability approach as a normative framework that also has relevance for design – be it engineering design, industrial design, or architectural design. Furthermore, it should perhaps be noted at this point that I am rather lenient toward what counts as “design.” This could be conceptualizing and shaping a completely new artifact/system, redesigning and improving an existing artifact/system, or merely trying to figure out the best configuration of an artifact/system based on existing components and technologies. The chapter can be seen as providing a specific elaboration of the general idea of “design for values” that is the central topic of this handbook.

The structure of this chapter is as follows. I will start with an outline of the central concepts and philosophical ideas present in the capability approach (section “The Capability Approach”).1 It will then be briefly discussed how technology and human capabilities are related (section “The Complex Relation Between Technology and Human Capabilities”). The first two sections thus provide the background against which the remainder of the chapter explores in more detail the different ways in which the capability approach could be relevant to design. A distinction will be drawn between the two usages of the capability approach.2 In the “narrow” usage3 (section “The “Narrow” Application of the Capability Approach: Well-Being”), the capability approach is seen as presenting a proper conceptualization of individual well-being, with the aim of design being able to contribute to this. This, however, raises some discussion points and a number of problems, most importantly an epistemological challenge (section “The Epistemological Challenge for a Well-Being Application”) and an aggregation challenge (section “The Aggregation Challenge for a Well-Being Application”). In the “broad” usage, the capability approach is seen as a source of insight and inspiration for taking a broader range of values and concerns into account in design – most importantly agency (section “A “Broad” Application of the Capability Approach: Agency”) and justice (section “A “Broad” Application of the Capability Approach: Justice”).4 I will next discuss some general challenges for a capability approach of design (section “Looking Ahead: Some Further Challenges”) and end with some brief conclusions.

The Capability Approach

One way to view the capability approach is as a position in the debate about the best “informational basis” for judgments about justice, equality, well-being, and development. According to the capability approach, assessment should not primarily take place in terms of income, resources, primary goods, utility (i.e., happiness or the sum of pains and pleasures), or preference satisfaction. The focus should rather be on a range of human capabilities. These capabilities are generally described as what people are effectively able to do and be or the positive freedom that people have to enjoy valuable “beings and doings.” These beings and doings are called “functionings” by Sen. Examples of functionings are such diverse things as working, resting, being literate, being healthy, being part of a community, being able to travel, and being confident. Functionings “together constitute what makes a life valuable” (Robeyns 2005) and are “constitutive of a person’s being” (Alkire 2005a). “The distinction between achieved functionings and capabilities,” so Robeyns (2005) explains, “is between the realized and the effectively possible; in other words, between achievements on the one hand, and freedoms or valuable options from which one can choose on the other.”

As Alkire explains, one reason to focus on capabilities instead of functionings is that we value free choice and human agency. “Agency ,” so Alkire (2005b) explains, “refers to a person’s ability to pursue and realize goals that he or she values and has reason to value. An agent is ‘someone who acts and brings about change.’ The opposite of a person with agency is someone who is forced, oppressed, or passive.” Nussbaum (2000) conceptualizes the human being as “a dignified free being who shapes his or her own life”; she says, “we see the person as having activity, goals, and projects.” The idea is that if people have a range of different capabilities, they may choose to realize those functionings that are in line with their view of the good life. Policies should – according to the capability approach – aim at expanding people’s capabilities and not force people into certain functionings. “The ‘good life’ is partly a life of genuine choice,” says Sen (1985), “and not one in which the person is forced into a particular life – however rich it might be in other respects.” One thing is certain: as a range of capabilities is always needed for a good human life, well-being is multidimensional according to the capability approach. This, so Nussbaum (2000, p. 81) has argued, “limits the trade-offs that it will be reasonable to make.”5 If someone lacks, for example, the capability to be well nourished, we cannot – or at least not fully – compensate this deprivation by expanding his capability to maintain meaningful social relations.6

Why should we focus on capabilities rather than utility or resources? A main reason is that the relationship between a certain amount of goods and what a person can do or can be varies, as Sen and others have often illustrated:

… a person may have more income and more nutritional intake than another person, but less freedom to live a well-nourished existence because of a higher basal metabolic rate, greater vulnerability to parasitic diseases, larger body size, or pregnancy. (Sen 1990, p. 116)

One of the crucial insights of the capability approach is thus that the conversion of goods and services into functionings is influenced by a range of factors, which may vary greatly from person to person. In the capability approach, a distinction is usually made between personal, social, and environmental conversion factors. The quote of Sen above mentions a couple of personal conversion factors – which are internal to the person – in relation to food resources. An example of an environmental conversion factor is climate; depending on the climate in one’s living area, a certain type of house may or may not provide adequate shelter. The society in which one lives gives rise to social conversion factors, for example, the availability of nearby schools may be of no use to a girl if gender norms prevent her from taking advantage of this opportunity. In short, the fact of immense human diversity makes that a focus on capabilities is more informative of human well-being than a focus on mere resources. The main reason why capability theorists prefer these capabilities over utility or preference satisfaction is the existence of a phenomenon which Sen has called “adaptive preferences”:

Our desires and pleasure-taking abilities adjust to circumstances; especially to make life bearable in adverse situations. The utility calculus can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived […] The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival; and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible. (Sen 1999, pp. 62–63)

Thus, if the deprived are happy with their lot in life, we cannot, according to the capability approach, conclude from this that there is no injustice in their situation.

The capability approach thus chooses to conceptualize well-being in terms of a person’s capability set and development as a process of expanding these capabilities. In this process of development, capabilities can, Sen argues, be both means and ends. For example, a person’s capability to be healthy is intrinsically valuable (as an end in itself), but may also be valued instrumentally because it contributes to a person’s capability to be part of a community. It should furthermore be noted here that Sen and Nussbaum use “human capabilities” as an ethical category; the term refers to those capabilities of an individual that are valuable or salient from an ethical perspective. Some capabilities may be trivial from the perspective of justice and development. Sen (1987), for example, is highly skeptical about a new brand of washing powder expanding valuable human capabilities, as advertisers tend to claim. Other capabilities may be outright undesirable to promote – Nussbaum (2000), for example, gives the example of the capability for cruelty. And a large number of more concrete capabilities will only be morally relevant because they are instrumentally important to or constitutive of the human capabilities that we ultimately or intrinsically value.

Not surprisingly one important debate within the capability approach is about which capabilities matter and who (how, when) is to decide this. This is actually one of the main topics on which Sen and Nussbaum – the former having a background in economics and the latter in philosophy – differ of opinion. Nussbaum has, after extensive discussion with people worldwide, identified a list of 10 central categories of human capabilities that are needed for living a life in conformity with human dignity, in which people can properly exercise their human agency (see “Appendix” for details of what falls under those categories):
  1. 1.


  2. 2.

    Bodily health

  3. 3.

    Bodily integrity

  4. 4.

    Senses, imagination, and thought

  5. 5.


  6. 6.

    Practical reason

  7. 7.


  8. 8.

    Other species

  9. 9.


  10. 10.

    Control over one’s environment – both political and material


She claims that justice requires bringing each and every human being up to at least a certain threshold for each of the capabilities on her list. Although Sen gives plenty of examples of important capabilities in his work, he has always refused to make such a list. His reasons are that the proper list of capabilities may depend on purpose and context and should be a result of public reasoning and democracy, not something a theorist should come up with. Democracy, public deliberation, and participation are – because of this debate about making a list of capabilities or not and because of the value attached to human agency – also frequent topics of reflection and discussion among capability theorists (see, e.g., Crocker 2008). It is recognized by both Sen and Nussbaum that from an ethical perspective not only outcomes in terms of expanded capabilities matter but also the process through which these changes are brought about – and out of respect for people’s agency, in principle participatory processes are to be preferred from a moral perspective.

Various other topics and questions also feature in the literature on the capability approach. One is, not surprisingly, the question of how to operationalize the capability approach (see, e.g., Comim et al. 2008). This includes questions on how to identify, rank, weigh, or trade off relevant capabilities in policy/project applications, on which no consensus exists. As Alkire (2005a) explains, “operationalizing is not a one-time thing,” but something that is dependent upon such things as country, level of action, and the problem at hand. One of the many challenges is that it is hard to measure capabilities, as they (a) refer to the possible and not just to the realized and (b) are complex constructs depending on both an individual’s internal characteristics/capacities and his/her external environment. A challenge is furthermore how to “aggregate” over people while not losing sight of the fact that a capability approach emphasizes that each and every person needs sufficient capabilities to lead a flourishing life. These questions and challenges also appear in a design application of the capability approach and will be addressed in section four.

The Complex Relation Between Technology and Human Capabilities

The capability approach has over the past decades been applied in different ways (Robeyns 2006), such as the assessment of small-scale development projects (including projects involving the introduction of a technology; see, e.g., Fernández-Baldor et al. 2012; Vaughan 2011), theoretical and empirical analyses of policies (this may also concern technology policy or technology assessment; see, e.g., Zheng and Stahl 2012), and critiques on social norms, practices, and discourses (e.g., the ICT4D discourse; see Zheng 2009; Kleine 2011). Many of the applications so far have been concerned with backward-looking assessment and evaluation, but of course for advancing justice, well-being and development forward-looking, “prospective” applications should also receive attention (Alkire 2008), meaning that we should investigate how the expansion of human capabilities can successfully be brought about. In general terms:

For some of these capabilities the main input will be financial resources and economic production; but for others, it can also be political practices and institutions, […] political participation, social or cultural practices, social structures, social institutions, public goods, social norms, traditions and habits. (Robeyns 2005, p. 96)

Technologies could, of course, also be important inputs or means for the expansion of valuable capabilities, and indeed, increasing attention is paid to technology within the scholarly community and literature on the capability approach.7 Before we can start to explore how the capability approach could be relevant to the design of technical artifacts, it is important to gain some basic understanding of the way in which such artifacts are related to human capabilities. As Zheng (2007) rightly noted, the capability approach – being a general normative framework - “offers little about understanding details of technology and their relationship with social processes,” nor about the relations between human capabilities and technology. For this we will thus also have to turn to additional theorizing and/or empirical studies on technology.

The first thing that is important to realize is that human capabilities as discussed in the capability approach are “combined capabilities” (Nussbaum 2000), as their existence depends on a combination of two things. Only if we take both into account do we get a picture of what a person is realistically able to do and be in life. The first concerns internal capacities of a person, which includes both bodily and mental capacities, both innate and realized through training. The second concerns – as Nussbaum expresses it – “suitable external circumstances for their exercise,” which includes the individual’s embedding in institutions and practices and her/his access to resources. The latter includes technical artifacts, which are arguably – in addition to internal capacities and social structures – a third constitutive element of individual human capabilities (Oosterlaken 2011). This does not mean, of course, that technical artifacts are always effective in actually expanding valued human capabilities. As Lawson (2010) explains, “for the extension in capabilities to be realised the artefacts or devices which are used to extend the capability must be enrolled in both technical and social networks of interdependencies.” It is thus the continuous interactions between these elements – the individual, technical artifacts, physical circumstances, and social structures8 – that determine this individual’s human capabilities.

A technical artifact that Sen has occasionally referred to, namely, a bicycle, may serve as an illustration. All bicycle owners are equal in terms of their possession of this resource, but people with certain disabilities will obviously not gain an increased capability to move about as a result of this bicycle (Sen 1983, 1985). One could also think of other things obstructing or facilitating the expansion of human capabilities by means of bicycles. Arguably, a person in the Netherlands – which has good roads and even many separate bicycle lanes – may gain more capabilities from owning a bicycle than a Bedouin in the desert. And if cultural norms and practices prevent women from using bicycles, as was the case in the early history of bicycle development in Europe (Bijker 1995), having a bicycle will not contribute much to capability expansion for these women either. The capability approach would acknowledge the relevance of all such contextual factors (bodily abilities, roads, supportive cultural norms) under the label “conversion factors” (already introduced in the previous section). The bicycle example may also be used to illustrate Sen’s distinction between capabilities as means and ends; for some people, there may be intrinsic value in the capability to move about; a mountain biker could, for example, appreciate the sense of “flow” and freedom and the outdoor experience that the activity of cycling itself may offer. For many others, the capability to move about with a bicycle may be merely of instrumental value, as, for example, it may contribute to one’s capability to visit friends (which would fall under Nussbaum’s category of “affiliation”) or to one’s capability to exercise and in that way maintain good health. Even more indirectly, having a bicycle may contribute to one’s livelihood opportunities, which could in turn again contribute in diverse ways to some of the 10 intrinsically valuable capabilities on Nussbaum’s list. Of course, it is very well possible that one person values both the intrinsically valuable and the instrumental capabilities that a bicycle expands.

The example so far concerns a technical artifact that expands the capabilities of its individual users – whether direct or indirect. Yet many technologies influence our capabilities as individuals not because we use them, but because they are embedded in the socio-technical systems, institutions, and practices in which we are also embedded as an individual. For example, new medical technologies often lead to changes in health-care institutions and practices, and these may in turn have an impact – either positive or negative – on human capabilities. New ICTs change the ways in which governments and politicians go about their daily business, which may in turn have consequences for an individual’s capability to have control over his/her political environment. Technology is also related to our culture and values in complex ways, which in turn is a relevant factor influencing people’s capabilities (see, e.g., Nussbaum 2000, on culture and the capabilities of women in India). To get back to the bicycle example, Bijker (1995) concludes from his historical study of bicycle development in Europe that “the first cycles in fact reinforced the existing ‘gender order,’” while “it later became an instrument for women’s emancipation.” Furthermore, as Coeckelbergh (2011) has pointed out, new technologies may influence our interpretation of what certain abstract capabilities, such as those on Nussbaum’s list, mean. For example, ICTs such as social networking sites have arguably not merely expanded our capabilities for affiliation, but also challenged and changed our understanding of what it means to be able to engage in meaningful relations with others. Adding to the complexity is that it is conceivable that a technology expands the capability set of one category of individuals while simultaneously diminishing it for another, or influences one capability positively and another negatively, or has positive direct capability effects and negative indirect capability effects, or negative impacts on the short term and positive on the long term.

Either way, the capability approach – with its normative position that each and every person ought to have certain valuable capabilities – suggests that in the end these technologies should be evaluated in terms of their capability impacts.9 To fully do so would require extensive empirical research, which may sometimes be – as Alkire (2010) has likewise pointed out for the relation between social arrangements and capabilities – very complex and difficult to do. The general picture that arises from the relevant literature is thus that the relation between technology and valuable human capabilities is not simple and straightforward, but dynamic and complex. Some of the implications will be addressed in section four, which discusses, among others, the epistemological challenge that designers will face in a “well-being usage” of the capability approach in design.

The “Narrow” Application of the Capability Approach: Well-Being

As said, this chapter distinguishes between two somewhat different, although not completely separated, ways of linking the capability approach to design. In the “broad” usage the capability approach (see section “The Aggregation Challenge for a Well-Being Application”) is seen as encouraging, taking a broad range of values and concerns into account in design, such as inclusiveness, agency, participation, and justice. In the “narrow” or “well-being usage” of the capability approach for design, the capability approach is used as a forceful reminder of the importance of human well-being and more importantly a convincing perspective on how well-being should be conceptualized and evaluated within design, namely, in terms of human capabilities. We may also call this design for capabilities.10

The discussion in the literature on resource possession/access versus capabilities as the best indicator of well-being is quite relevant to the design of technical artifacts. It draws the designer’s attention to personal, social, and environmental “conversion factors” that should be in place before a certain artifact (merely a resource or means) can truly contribute to the expansion of valuable human capabilities (its ultimate end). In combination with the proactive design for values approach, this suggests that in order to make a meaningful contribution to improving human well-being, one should already anticipate these factors during the design process and try to choose design features in response to these factors. As such, the capability approach could provide an antidote to any “product fixation” that engineers/designers – like the economists accused of “commodity fetishism” by Sen (1985, 1984) – may suffer from on occasion.11

A proposal for such a “narrow” or “well-being usage” of the capability approach can be found, for example, in the work of some authors reflecting on “care robots,” robots meant to contribute to the care of elderly people. Coeckelbergh (2009, 2012), a philosopher of technology, has proposed that such technologies should be evaluated in terms of their impact on the ten capability categories listed by Nussbaum. Following the proactive attitude of value sensitive design, this implies of course that we should already address these valuable human capabilities during the design phase of robot caregivers. According to Borenstein and Pearson (2010):

…a typical motive for introducing robots into an environment has been to maximize profits by replacing human workers. Yet bringing robot caregivers onto the scene could also be motivated by the obligation to meet core human needs. This is a key advantage of the capabilities approach, since it should inform the design and use of robot caregivers in such a way that the ‘human’ in human-robot interaction is maintained. (p. 285)

More specifically, “by applying the capabilities approach as a guide to both the design and use of robot caregivers,” philosophers Borenstein and Pearson say, “we hope that this will maximize opportunities to preserve or expand freedom for care recipients.” The capability approach is thus used as part of an argument to put the well-being of this group of people central in design.

Another example can be found in the joint work of philosopher Colleen Murphy and civil engineer Paolo Gardoni on the capability approach and technological risks, more specifically risks related to infrastructural works. In one of their recent writings (Murphy and Gardoni 2012), they address engineering design and note that the existing

reliability-based design codes only focus on probabilities and ignore the associated consequences […] there is a need for a risk-based design that accounts in a normative and comprehensive way for the consequences associated to risks. (p. 174, emphasis is mine)

The capability approach is, according to them, able to fulfill this need. A “central principled advantage” is that the capability approach “puts the well-being of individuals as a central focus of the design process.” The approach suggests that the negative consequences associated with risks should be expressed in terms of a range of morally salient capability deprivations. Furthermore, “a capability-based design can provide,” Murphy and Gardoni claim, “some guidance to engineers as they make trade-offs between risk and meeting other design constraints, some of which may be also translated in terms of capabilities.”

Up to present proposals for a well-being usage of the capability approach in design have, to my knowledge, not yet been followed by real-world applications. In all fairness it should, however, be acknowledged that many designers/engineers are already very aware of the importance of well-being and of taking “conversion factors” into account, even though they may not be expressing it in the same language as capability theorists. A call for structural attention for some such factors can be found, for example, in the appropriate technology movement.12 For example, development organization practical action – which has roots in the appropriate technology movement – introduced podcasting devices in a rural area in Zimbabwe. Podcasts were recorded on topics in the area of health and cattle management (e.g., how to treat sick cows). The choice for a voice-based technology was already a response to an important personal conversion factor, namely, the illiteracy of a significant proportion of the inhabitants of the area. The exact design features were furthermore discussed taking other relevant factors into account. Important choices were that for speakers instead of headphones (in response to a common African cultural practice, e.g., sitting and sharing under a village tree) and between recharging batteries with the use of solar panels or the electricity grid (in response to local infrastructural problems). There was thus no unquestioned assumption that introducing this or that state-of-the-art ICT or technical resource could be equaled to “development” (Oosterlaken et al. 2012). Yet even if technologists/designers are already aware of the importance of conversion factors, the capability approach could still contribute by providing criteria to evaluate the importance of such factors and judge the success of such design efforts explicitly from a normative perspective, namely, in terms of people’s well-being, conceived as the expansion of intrinsically valuable human capabilities.

The view of the capability approach that a range of incommensurable capabilities is needed for a good human life may also help designers to develop a broader perspective on the impact of their products on people’s lives. The redesign of a silk reeling machine used in livelihood projects of an Indian development organization can illustrate this. This project was directly contributing to the women’s basic capabilities to sustain themselves and their families. The new design solved problems like energy loss during reeling, failing materials, yarn quality problems, safety issues, and physical problems for the reeling women. The development organization was pleased with the new machine and took it into production. Looking back on the project years later, after being immersed in the capability approach, designer Annemarie Mink realized that she had quite uncritically accepted one part of the assignment: the machine should be made light and movable, in order to be suitable for usage at women’s homes. New inquiries taught her that the reason for this design requirement was general unhappiness – mainly of the men in the villages – with the women having to work in silk reeling centers, which goes against a persistent cultural norm that women should stay home as much as possible. The women, however, actually appreciated being able to work in the reeling centers (Mink et al. forthcoming). How certain values and norms existing in India negatively affect the quality of life of these women, depriving them of central human capabilities, has been described impressively by Nussbaum (2000, 2011). A capability of affiliation, including being able to engage in various forms of social interaction, is on her list of 10 central human capabilities. The possibility to connect with other women in silk reeling centers could be valuable not only intrinsically but also as a means toward their further empowerment. However, in practice the freedom of women to choose to work in these reeling centers is restricted in the name of culture. And the design of the new machine turned out to facilitate this. An explicit consideration of the well-being of women in terms of Nussbaum’s full list of capabilities during the design phase might have led to a different project outcome.

The capability approach, especially when illustrated with such cases from design practice, may contribute to increasing designer’s sensitivity to such ethical issues. And while the capability approach provides concepts and ideas that are helpful in deliberating about them, creative value sensitive design may at least in some cases contribute to finding concrete solutions. The design for capabilities approach argued for in this section does, however, raise some challenges, so some recent work by Van de Poel (2012, unpublished draft book chapter) makes clear. He identifies two challenges for design for well-being more broadly, namely, an epistemological and an aggregation challenge. Van de Poel does discuss Nussbaum’s capability list as one possible interpretation of design for well-being, yet the focus of this chapter allows for a more in-depth discussion of these challenges in relation to the capability approach.

The Epistemological Challenge for a Well-Being Application

If a designer chooses to concentrate on the capability impacts of a product for its direct users, this raises an epistemological challenge. Van de Poel (unpublished draft book chapter) describes the challenge as follows for “design for well-being ” in general:

… design typically concerns products that do not yet exist; in fact design is largely an open-ended process which relates to creating a product. This means that the designers not only need knowledge of [a] what constitutes well-being for users and how that well-being might be affected by new technologies, but they must also [b] be aware that such knowledge needs to be translated into, for example, design requirements, criteria or technical parameters that can guide the design process

Let us start with sub-challenge [a]. As was explained before, Sen leaves it rather open which capabilities constitute well-being, while Nussbaum’s version of the capability approach provides more guidance. However, a feature of Nussbaum’s list of 10 intrinsically valuable capabilities is its “multiple realizability” (Nussbaum 2000, p. 105). It thus still needs to be investigated what these rather abstract capabilities, such as the capability for play or affiliation, could – with preservation of their moral import13 – mean exactly in the context or culture for which the design is meant. Moreover, the effect of new technologies on human capabilities, so I argued in section two, is dynamic and complex. It may be good for designers to be aware that this is the case. Yet for both practical and epistemic reasons, it does not seem realistic to expect them to anticipate and/or influence all capability effects of the artifacts that they help create. Their technical and empirical investigations, as part of a design for capabilities process, will need to be focused on the capabilities, conversion factors, and issues that seem most salient and relevant to the design challenge in question.

An obvious and often defensible curtailment will be to concentrate on the well-being of the expected direct users of a technology. One can doubt, says Van de Poel (2012), “whether there is a moral imperative for designers to increase the well-being of other stakeholders besides users.” In contrast, the moral imperative not to harm other stakeholders cannot be dismissed that easily, which may sometimes mean that attention needs to be paid to the capability impacts for nonusers. Take the example provided by Murphy and Gardoni: infrastructural works may also come with risks for nonusers, which may be conceptualized as diminishing the security of their capabilities. There are strong ethical reasons for designers to take this possible harm into account.14 In any case, an extensive discussion of the moral obligations of designers is beyond the scope of this chapter. The point here is that, as part of design for capabilities, there is a need for integrated conceptual and empirical investigations15 addressing the relevance and meaning of certain capabilities and the contribution that a certain technology/design could make to expand those. Design for capabilities requires, as Van de Poel (2012) remarks for design for well-being in general, “more than just the identification of user demands by means of surveys or marketing research.” One thing that may be beneficial for design for capabilities is more ethnographic style research for better understanding of the relation between technology and human capabilities in light of the local context and good life views.16

In another article, Van de Poel (forthcoming) has reflected on sub-challenge [b], translating values into design requirements, criteria, and so on. This process, so he warns, “may be long lasting and cumbersome”; it “may require specific expertise, sometimes from outside engineering”; it “is value laden,” “can be done in different ways,” and is “context-dependent.” That last point may be considered to be especially important from the perspective of the capability approach, considering its emphasis on human diversity and the great variety of personal, social, and environmental conversion factors. A central idea in Van de Poel’s paper on how to translate values into design requirements is that of a “value hierarchy” going from abstract values, via norms to concrete design requirements – where each of these three main layers may have sub-layers again. An example that he gives is that of animal welfare as a central value in the design of chicken husbandry systems. This value may be translated into norms such as “presence of laying nests,” “enough living space,” and so on. The latter norm could in turn be translated in a requirement to have at least 1,100 cm2 usable area per hen.17 According to Van de Poel:

The reconstruction of a values hierarchy makes the translation of values into design requirements not only more systematic, it makes the value judgments involved also explicit, debatable and transparent. (Van de Poel forthcoming)

The reconstruction of value hierarchies can be helpful, even though – as Van de Poel notices – merely describing a value hierarchy does not directly solve possible disagreements about such translations.

This idea of a value hierarchy can, it seems to me, also be put to use in the context of design for capabilities, helping designers to address the epistemological challenge. One of Nussbaum’s 10 capabilities – or a context-dependent interpretation of it – could be put at the very top of the value hierarchy of a design for capabilities project. In the layer below one could put – among others – more concrete capabilities, which are important for the sake of the high-level capability. “For the sake of,” Van de Poel explains, can be “seen as the placeholder for a number of more specific relations.” A certain capability could, for example, be either a constitutive part of a higher-level capability or be a means toward that capability. Let me give some examples. One’s capability to be free of malaria could be said to be constitutive of one’s capability for bodily health – to which designers may, for example, contribute by creating a new malaria diagnostic device that is suitable for usage in rural areas in developing countries. As we have seen, many conversion factors may stand in the way of such a device leading to the expansion of the capability in question for, say, villagers in India. These factors can be an important source for norms and subsequent concrete design requirements – for example, the fact that local health-care workers have little education may lead to a norm that the device should have a simple and intuitively clear user interface.18

Or take the example of a project to design a walker for elderly people. One’s capability to move around can be seen as an end in itself, but it can also be considered as a means for one’s capability for affiliation. In the latter case one can argue that one of the norms should be that one can also comfortably use the walker as a temporary seat when encountering people in the street that one would like to talk to. What this example nicely illustrates is that a technical artifact may often – direct or indirect, intended or unintended, or positively or negatively – affect a range of different capabilities, even though the primary function of a technical artifact seems closely tied to one specific capability. Nussbaum’s list of capabilities needed for a flourishing human life may invite designer to always investigate the potential impact of a project on a range of capabilities, instead of a single one. In both examples – the malaria diagnostic device and the walker – the norms identified still need to be further translated into concrete design requirements, which will make sure that the interface will be clear enough, respectively, and the seat comfortable enough.

The Aggregation Challenge for a Well-Being Application

In addition to the epistemological challenge, Van de Poel (2012) rightly notices that design for well-being will run into an aggregation problem, which

… arises due to the fact that a design does not affect the well-being of just one person, but rather that of a range of people. This raises the question of how the well-being of these people should be aggregated so that it can be taken into account in the design process. If one believes that well-being constitutes plural and incommensurable prudential values, as some philosophers […] have suggested, then an aggregation problem arises with respect to how these values can, or cannot, be aggregated into an overall measure of well-being. (p. 296)

As was explained in section one, the capability approach in general also faces both these problems of aggregation over (a) a range of people while not losing sight of the moral worth of each and every individual and (b) plural, incommensurable capabilities (see, e.g., Comim 2008). The incommensurability of values, Van de Poel (unpublished draft book chapter) notes, “limits the applicability of [maximizing] methods such as cost benefit analysis and multi-criteria analysis which are often used in technical design to choose between different conceptual design solutions.” Luckily, he says, there exist alternative methods “not unfamiliar to the field of design.” He distinguishes between two different situations. The first is where design is supposed to contribute to elementary capabilities in contexts of great poverty. Here the solution that Van de Poel proposes is – in line with Nussbaum’s position – to “set thresholds for all the relevant capabilities and to look for a design that reaches all of these thresholds.”

The second situation is contexts of more welfare where “one aims to find a design that contributes to the overall well-being of users.” Here the focus will be on more intricate and complex capabilities rather than basic capabilities. The solution that van de Poel proposes consists of several elements. A basic step is to “select a user group that shares a comprehensive [life] goal and/or a vision of the good life,” a step “which avoids the need to aggregate the well-being of people who have different, incompatible” goals or visions. The idea is then to come up with a mix of specific values (or capabilities, in the context of this chapter) to which a technology may contribute and then to design a product “that enables this mix as much as possible.” Van de Poel (2012) hastens to add here that this

does not imply a maximising approach to well-being. The focus is on the mix of values [or capabilities] rather than on maximising an overall measure of well-being. The focus is also not on maximising each of the prudential values [or capabilities] in isolation, because it is usually the mix of values [or capabilities] that contributes to the overall goal rather than the values [or capabilities] in isolation. (p. 303)

Incommensurability of capabilities thus need not become a problem if creative design solutions enable us to expand all of them rather than to make a trade-off between them.19

Van de Poel’s idea of focusing on a mix of capabilities rather than on single ones shows some resemblance to the idea of a “capability innovation” that was introduced by Ziegler (2010). Building on Schumpeterian economics, which views development as a process of economic innovation in the sense of “new combinations in terms of new goods, new methods of production, and so on,” Ziegler defines social innovation as “the carrying out of new combinations of capabilities.” Ziegler views – in line with the capability approach – capabilities as both ends in itself and means toward other capabilities, emphasizing that the “relations between the capabilities” are “especially important” in his concept of capability innovation. Of course new products and their design details may be an essential element in the success of “capability innovations,” as a case study in a later paper of the same author makes clear (Ziegler et al. forthcoming).

A design case discussed by Oosterlaken (2009) may be taken to illustrate the idea of “capability innovations.” It concerns a project on tricycles for disabled people in Ghana, executed by industrial design engineering students (Kandachar et al. 2007). Both the local context and entrepreneurial opportunities were carefully taken into consideration. During exploratory field studies, it was discovered, for example, that “the major part of the disabled population is willing to work but cannot find employment” and that “the Ghanaian society is annoyed by disabled who are begging on the street.” The newly designed tricycle has a cooler in front so that disabled users are able to make a living as street vendors selling ice cream and other frozen products. To make this a sustainable development success, it was investigated how to embed this artifact in a larger plan and network also involving a local metal workshop being able to produce and repair the tricycles and a supplier of products to be sold.20 It can be considered a capability innovation in Ziegler’s sense, as it involves a clever combination of simultaneously expanding for these disabled the capabilities for mobility, earning a living (and hence basic capabilities related to survival and health), social participation, and self-esteem.

A “Broad” Application of the Capability Approach: Agency

Having discussed the narrow or well-being usage of the capability approach for design in some detail, I would now like to move to a “broad” usage of the capability approach in the context of design. In a broader usage, the capability approach not only is seen as highlighting the importance of individual well-being and conceptualizing this in terms of human capabilities but is also seen as taking aboard a wider range of values, most importantly agency and justice. The importance of agency in the capability approach is, as was already explained, among others, reflected in the approach’s defense of capabilities instead of functionings as a policy goal. The idea behind making a distinction between capabilities and functionings is – as explained before – to be respectful of people’s agency and their views on the good life by focusing on expanding their capabilities without forcing them to realize the corresponding functionings. Capability scholars acknowledge, however, that there are sometimes reasons why a focus on functionings instead of capabilities may be justified for evaluative purposes (see, e.g., Robeyns 2005, p. 101).

In the case of the design of technical artifacts, one might also wonder if it is sensible to uphold this distinction; is an artifact that does not lead to an increase in the functioning(s) that the designer aimed at not a failure? This depends. If people lacking the functioning have freely chosen not to realize it, we generally need to accept and respect this. But if the functioning in question is absent on a massive scale, this may warrant further investigation. Has the designer failed to grasp what capabilities are important to people’s lives and has therefore nobody chosen to use the artifact to realize the corresponding functionings? This would be a matter of people exercising their agency. Or are there perhaps disruptive conversion factors in play that nobody foresaw and has the design therefore not really enabled people to realize these functionings? This would mean that the design has not lead to empowerment or an increase of agency. These two causes, which can be distinguished when looking through the lens of the capability approach, obviously ask for different responses.

The capability-functioning distinction may also make designers aware of how much choice they are giving the users (see, e.g., Steen et al. 2011; Kleine et al. 2012). Are the products of design merely expanding people’s capabilities, or are they somehow forcing people into certain functionings? The capability approach can, for example, be seen to provide a critical perspective on the so-called behavior steering technology, even when designed to contribute to well-being – as it will mean pushing people into certain functionings. This might indicate insufficient respect for people’s own agency, although Nussbaum (2000) has argued that “we may feel that some of the capabilities [like that of being healthy] are so important, so crucial to the development or maintenance of all others, that we are sometimes justified in promoting functioning rather than simply capability, within limits set by an appropriate concern for liberty.” The concept of “adaptive preferences,” prominently present in the capability approach literature, also implies that respect for people’s agency should not be taken to mean that designers always need to respect each and every preference that people happen to have. This is an important point, as preference satisfaction – or something akin, like desire satisfaction or happiness – is what design often aims at (Oosterlaken 2009; Van de Poel 2012). The capability approach offers a richer, less subjective understanding of human well-being, which may challenge designers to develop a critical and deliberative attitude and look beyond what people superficially seem to want. However, too easily labeling someone’s preferences as “adaptive” would lead to unjustified paternalism – which especially in the intercultural context of “design for development” may quickly become an issue.21 It is hard if not impossible to provide general guidelines on how to balance these different concerns, abstracted from the details of concrete cases. In short, the capability approach does not offer quick and easy guidelines for designers, but rather a conceptual framework that helps highlighting and discussing important issues.

Furthermore, capability theorists connect agency not only to outcomes in terms of the expansion of human capabilities but also to the process leading to these outcomes. In the capability approach people are not viewed as passive patients to be helped, but as agents in charge of their own development process. Hence, the literature on the capability approach pays attention to participatory processes and democratic deliberation as both an expression of people’s agency and a way to expand their agency (see, e.g., Crocker 2008). A connection can be made here with the so-called participatory design . According to Nieusma (2004), this “has developed into a well-articulated, well-justified methodology for user participation in design processes” and should be all about “coping with disagreements.” He regrets, however, that “increasingly, participatory design methodologies are used to advance the goals of user-centred design without emphasizing the inclusion of marginalized perspectives in design processes.” According to Buchanan (2001) as well, designers often “reduce [their] considerations of human-centred design [which often involves users in the design process] to matters of sheer usability.”

The capability approach may be helpful in revitalizing the ideals of participatory design (Oosterlaken 2009). A parallel can be drawn here with participatory methods in development cooperation. In practice, says Frediani (unknown date), these methods often do not meet the expectations, being “sometimes used merely as a tool for achieving pre-set objectives” and not as a process for true empowerment and improvement of people’s lives. He argues that “participatory methods need to be complemented by a theory that explores the nature of people’s lives and the relations between the many dimensions of well-being.” This theory, he says, should be comprehensive, but flexible and able to capture complex linkages between (aspects of) poverty, intervention, participation, and empowerment. He feels that the capability approach is able to offer exactly that. Similarly, Frediani and Boano (2012), who focus on urban design, note “a surprising lack of literature investigating the conceptual underpinnings of participatory design and its implications in terms of practice,” a gap which – according to them – could be filled with the help of the capability approach.

A “Broad” Application of the Capability Approach: Justice

Going a step beyond “mere” participation in a process where professional designers are still in the lead is proposed by Dong (2008), who believes “that the capabilities approach offers one avenue to situate design practice as part of an endeavour of social justice.” His focus is on the design of civic works and the built environment. He argues that such design is intimately connected to people’s health and identity and therefore Dong proposes to “add ‘control over the design and production of civic building’ to Nussbaum’s list as sitting astride political and material control.” However, one could easily extend Dong’s argument to the design of technical artifacts more broadly; if we combine the fact that these are nowadays ubiquitous in all domains of human life with insights on the “politics” (Winner 1980) and “value ladenness” (see, e.g., Radder 2009) of such artifacts, it seems that Nussbaum’s description of what control over one’s environment entails (see “Appendix”) is too narrow and should include control over one’s designed surroundings (including buildings and other artifacts). But back to Dong’s (2008) line of argument:

Public policies can effectively remove public engagement in the name of expediency. […] Thus, what the urban poor in developing countries and citizens in developed countries share is the problem of enacting a policy of design that reflects the values of the people. […] People have the right to user participation in design only if there are effective policies to make people truly capable of design. So what is needed is not user participation in design as a counterforce to the power of designers […] but instead a design culture of pluralism with effective means for achieving it. (p. 77)

Dong argues that from a justice perspective, we should pay attention to citizens’ capabilities to design themselves and in this way enable them to co-shape their life world. For this purpose he fleshes out a set of instrumentally important capabilities that citizens would need to do design, which could become object of (inter)national design policy. The categories that he distinguishes are information, knowledge, abstraction, evaluation, participation, and authority. Dong points out, in line with the capability approach, that “asymmetries in capability to do design may arise from differences between people and socio-political barriers” and that design policy should thus address both these internal and external factors. As Nichols and Dong (2012) explicate: gaining design capacity or skill – as the “humanitarian design community” apparently promotes – is not enough for truly gaining the “capability to design.” The latter may, for example, be inhibited by political factors even though design skills are present.

Not only the capability approach and participatory design could be fruitfully connected but also inclusive/universal design and the capability approach. What the latter two share (Oosterlaken 2012) is an awareness of the pervasiveness and importance of human diversity and the injustice to which neglecting this may lead. The paradigm example here is buildings being inaccessible for wheelchair users – in the language of the capability approach, we could say that personal conversion factors in this case hamper the conversion of resources into valuable capabilities. Nussbaum (2006, p. 167) considers such a design as a serious matter of injustice. As was mentioned in section one, injustice occurs according to her when people fall below a certain threshold level of capabilities, which may occur when human diversity is not taken sufficiently into account or in other words when conversion factors for different categories of people have not been sufficiently considered by designers.

The inclusive/universal design movement has also addressed this case of wheelchair-unfriendly buildings (Connell and Sanford 1999), by advocating designs that are usable by a wide variety of users, including but not limited to people with disabilities. Although wheelchair-friendly buildings may have become the standard by now, in other domains of design and for other user groups, the inclusive/universal design movement may still have work to do. Toboso (2011), for example, claims that there is not enough attention for diversity in the design of ICTs. He uses the capability approach to rethink disability and proposes to enrich it with the concept of “functional diversity” to support the shift in design practice that he proposes. The capability approach could learn a lot from how the inclusive/universal design has come up with solutions for the challenge of human diversity, thus contributing to the expansion of human capabilities and the practical realization of the normative ideals of the capability approach.

The universal/inclusive design movement, on the other hand, might benefit from a better acquaintance with the capability approach and the conceptual framework it provides (Oosterlaken 2012). It may help designers to get a better understanding of the ultimate aims of design and may make it possible for them to make a quite natural connection between their work and wider normative debates about justice and development. Furthermore, the degree to which a design contributes to the actual realization of human capabilities of different categories of users could be used as a yardstick to determine whether or not universal/inclusive design has achieved its moral objective.

Looking Ahead: Some Further Challenges

As was already mentioned before, many designers are not oblivious to the considerations that a capability approach of design would highlight; in fact they regularly already take these into account, without using the capability approach’s vocabulary. Yet using the capability approach could make these design considerations more explicit and therefore more open to scrutiny and debate. The capability approach has the potential – to borrow some words of Zheng (2007) – to “surface a set of key concerns [most importantly justice, well-being and agency] systematically and coherently, on an explicit philosophical foundation.”22 The previous sections have hinted at possible benefits of more explicitly applying the capability approach to design, but of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating and that is where it is still lacking. Theorizing on the capability approach and design has only just begun, and practical experience with it is still extremely limited. One of the challenges is – so my interactions with some designers have indicated – that the conceptual framework of the capability approach is not so intuitively obvious23 and it takes some effort to learn it. And although some designers may be motivated to plow through the many insightful books and articles of Sen, Nussbaum, and other capability theorists, it is not realistic to expect this from all designers.

One possible solution – one that I would personally expect to appeal to practical people like designers – is to develop checklists and tools based on the capability approach that designers could use in different phases of the design process. So far, these do not exist.24 For other members of the “design for values” family, such as design for sustainability, a lot of progress has been made on this path. This comes, however, with a risk of an uncritical usage and an unhelpful simplification of the issues and dilemmas at hand. For example, various software packages exist that help designers to make a qualitative life cycle analysis of their product. In response the chapter on sustainability in a main textbook for teaching ethics to engineers (Brumsen 2011) warns engineers that these programs may create an unjustified air of simplicity. They weigh and add different environmental aspects into one final number. Thus, the software’s outcomes are based on the normative considerations of the programmers, a specific way of aggregating, which may subsequently not become a topic of discussion among designers. Even more qualitatively oriented lifecycle approaches, so the author points out, still have the disadvantage of focusing on environmental impact, while leaving other aspects of sustainability, such as intergenerational justice, unaddressed.

One might say that the idea of sustainability and the capability approach share the problem of multidimensionality and incommensurability, which provides a challenge for their “operationalization” for designers. Providing designers with concrete tools in which the thinking has already been done for them does not seem the way to go for an approach that emphasizes the pervasiveness of human diversity, both in people’s circumstances and characteristics and their ideas of the good life. Yet there is surely a lot of middle ground between that path and giving designers a pile of philosophical books. One could think of an inspirational portfolio of design cases analyzed with the capability approach and illustrating dilemmas encountered, in combination with exercises developed to “sensitize” designers to different ideas highlighted by the capability approach. Approaches such as Van de Poel’s usage of a value hierarchy in translating values into design requirements could be further investigated in relation to the capability approach, as could other tools and approaches developed within value sensitive design more broadly. And of course there is a lot to be gained from looking at the work already done in design movements which share some ideals and insights with the capability approach, such as participatory design and inclusive/universal design.

A completely different type of challenges arises from the fact that, as was explain in section one, human capabilities concern what a person is able to do and be all things considered. This, so section two explained, also implies that human capabilities do not merely depend on technical artifacts and other products of design, but also on their embedding in broader socio-technical networks. This insight may result in some skeptical doubts about the possibility of design for capabilities. It seems undeniable that there are substantive limits – including epistemological ones – to the degree to which designers can take responsibility for the wider socio-technical environment in which their products will be embedded and thus for the effective creation of valuable human capabilities. This seems to be even more the case when we take into account the long-term and systemic effects of the introduction of new technologies, which may have an indirect effect on a range of valuable capabilities. One may therefore wonder if design for capabilities is not just a very nice idea that is very difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. However, that the details of design often matter to some degree for the capabilities that technical artifacts do or do not expand seems to me just as undeniable as the limitations to the influence of design. To what degree, so we can learn from the empirical turn in philosophy of technology (Kroes and Meijers 2000), is not something that we can resolve in the abstract, for technology in general. This therefore requires further study in real-world cases.

I think though that this skeptical response raises a further issue, namely, about how we understand, organize, and practice design. Instead of strongly contrasting them or seeing them as complementary, we should perhaps rather think about merging them by thoroughly rethinking design itself and expanding its scope. The need to do so and take a “system view of design” is perhaps most salient in the context of developing countries, where even basic socio-technical networks and infrastructures are lacking (Sklar and Madsen 2010), but even in the North this may sometimes be needed – an obvious example probably being electric cars, the introduction of which requires an integrated approach of both product design and socio-technical system development. Design for capabilities, in order to become reality, may thus need to connect to current discourses on systems and design, like perhaps “whole system design” (e.g., Blizzard and Klotz 2012) or the design of PSS or product/service systems (e.g., Morelli 2002) – however, for both, the availability of tools, methods, and design principles is still one of the challenges. Also against the background of VSD or “value sensitive design,” it has been noted (Nathan et al. 2008) that “a scarcity of methods exists to support long-term, emergent, systemic thinking in interactive design practice, technology development and system deployment.” Philosophers of technology may have a contribution to make to such a system-oriented endeavor to give the idea of design for capabilities more substantive content (see, e.g., Kroes et al. 2006; Krohs 2008).


That the capability approach can be brought to bear on technology’s design should be clear by now. Starting with an intuition that technical artifacts have in essence something to do with enabling human action, with expanding what persons are able to do and be, this chapter has explored the relevance of the capability approach – being a philosophical framework that attaches central moral importance to human capabilities – for the value sensitive design of such artifacts. A distinction was made between a “narrow” or “well-being usage” of the capability approach and a “broad usage” in which the capability approach is also seen as a source of insight and inspiration with respect to a wider range of values, most prominently agency and justice. Each of these three values can be conceptualized and understood with reference to human capabilities, and relations between these values have emerged in this chapter. Participatory design can be connected to both agency and justice, inclusive or universal design to both justice and well-being, and design for capabilities to both well-being and agency. And each should be done with an awareness of the broader socio-technical embedding of the object of design (see Fig. 1). In reality, however, both usages can and should often go hand in hand.
Fig. 1

Values central in the capability approach and their relation to design

In previous work on the capability approach, the impression was given that a well-being usage of the capability approach is exclusively connected to a product-oriented application of the capability approach (Oosterlaken 2009), whereas a process-oriented application of the capability approach connects to agency (Dong 2008). Frediani and Boano (2012) reject such an “unhelpful dichotomy”:

…the analysis should not merely engage with the process of design, but also with its outcomes. The reason is that citizens’ design freedom is shaped not merely by their choices, abilities and opportunities to engage in the process of design, but also by the degree to which the outcomes being produced are supportive of human flourishing. (p. 210).

This chapter has shown that a capability approach of design should indeed embrace all these different values and design approaches.



  1. 1.

    This section should give designers a minimal basis for the “conceptual investigation phase” of the tripartite “value sensitive design” or VSD approach developed by Friedman and her colleagues (e.g., Friedman et al. 2001; see also Chap. 2 of this book). According to the VSD approach, these conceptual investigations should be closely intertwined with empirical and technical investigations throughout the design process. In that light, it could be considered an attractive feature of the capability approach that – in addition to the philosophical literature – there also exists a large and interdisciplinary body of literature discussing its “operationalization” and presenting empirical applications. This social science literature, although not further discussed in this chapter, may be relevant for designers in two ways. Firstly, the methodologies used to evaluate well-being and social arrangements in terms of human capabilities may also be useful for the evaluation of design alternatives or final design outcomes. Secondly, the results of such empirical studies may be useful, by providing designers with relevant knowledge about (a) stakeholder views on which human capabilities are important and how they should be understood and (b) factors contributing to or inhibiting the expansion of human capabilities in concrete contexts of usage.

  2. 2.

    Both are already referred to implicitly in my article in Design Issues (Oosterlaken 2009), which talks about design that aims to expand human capabilities and also links the idea of “capability sensitive design” to participatory design and universal/inclusive design. Yet the explicit distinction made in this chapter was not made in that article.

  3. 3.

    “Narrow” should not be read as implying a value judgment. See Robeyns (2011) for an explanation of the distinction between a narrow and a broad employment of the capability approach. She contrasts the broad usage in two different ways with the narrow usage (a) taking into consideration a broader range of values versus being concerned with well-being alone and (b) focusing on the evaluation of policies and social institutions vs. focusing on the well-being of individuals. I’m using distinction (a), applied to the normative evaluation of design, so comparable to the evaluation of policies and institutions in distinction (b).

  4. 4.

    This means that there will be commonalities with some of the other chapters in this handbook, such as that on “Design for the Value of Human Well-Being,” “Design for the Values of Democracy and Justice,” and “Design for the Value of Inclusiveness.”

  5. 5.

    In philosophical terms, these capabilities are – at least to some degree – incommensurable.

  6. 6.

    It may be that increasing someone’s capability for social affiliation may turn out to be helpful as a means for expanding this person’s capability to be well nourished – yet they are both also ends in themselves and that is where the problem of trade-offs occurs.

  7. 7.

    For example, in September 2009, the thematic group “Technology & Design” was established under the umbrella of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA). For a review of literature that has appeared on the topic until 2011, see the introductory chapter of the edited volume “The Capability Approach, Technology and Design” (Oosterlaken 2012).

  8. 8.

    Social structures, in turn, are increasingly composed of both humans and technical artifacts, which is reflected in the phrase “socio-technical systems.”

  9. 9.

    Although it is acknowledged by capability theorists that other evaluation criteria may also play a role.

  10. 10.

    In a previous publication (Oosterlaken 2009), I called this “capability sensitive design, a variety on the term ‘value sensitive design’” (VSD). Yet VSD is a specific approach to taking values into account in design, as developed by Friedman and colleagues. This handbook uses “design for values” for the more general idea to include values in the design process, although occasional reference to the work of Friedman and colleagues is made as well.

  11. 11.

    An example may be found in Derksen (2008). She concludes that tissue engineers working on heart valves often have a limited conception of functionality and are very much focused on trying to mimic nature, while according to Derksen, they should be more concerned with the impact of the biotechnologies they develop on people’s capabilities to play sports, going through pregnancy, etc. – so the sort of “beings and doings” that people have ultimately reason to value. Derksen does, by the way, not refer to the capability approach – even though what she says seems to fit in very well with that approach.

  12. 12.

    For a more extensive discussion of the appropriate technology movement in relation to the capability approach, see Oosterlaken et al. (2012) and Fernández-Baldor et al. (2012).

  13. 13.

    What is meant by the latter is that a certain more concrete conceptualization of an abstract capability should do justice to or at least cohere with the reasons we have to consider the abstract capability to be valuable in the first place.

  14. 14.

    The distinction made here mirrors the distinction made by philosophers between positive duties of benevolence and negative duties not to harm, where the latter is in general considered to be stronger and less controversial than the former. But Van de Poel notices that “increasing or maximizing user well-being is often mentioned or assumed as goal in design.”

  15. 15.

    Reference is made here to the “tripartite methodology as proposed by Friedman et al. (2001), consisting of integrated empirical, technical, and conceptual investigations. See also the entry on value sensitive design elsewhere in this handbook.

  16. 16.

    I take this suggestion from an article by Ratan and Bailur on the capability approach and “ICT for Development” (2007).

  17. 17.

    Van de Poel (forthcoming) points out that “the relation between the different layers of a values hierarchy is not deductive. Elements at the lower levels cannot be logically deduced from higher level elements. One reason for this is that the lower levels are more concrete or specific and that formulating them requires taking into account the specific context or design project for which the values hierarchy is constructed.”

  18. 18.

    This example is inspired by an actual design project described in Kandachar et al. (2007).

  19. 19.

    Van den Hoven et al. (2012) extensively argue along these lines concerning incommensurable values and moral dilemmas more broadly.

  20. 20.

    A pilot was subsequently executed.

  21. 21.

    See, e.g., the blog of Bruce Nussbaum titled “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” (, blog from July 7th 2010).

  22. 22.

    Zheng (2007) is speaking about applying the capability approach to the area of “ICT for Development (ICT4D),” and parallels may be drawn with applying it to design. She notes that “many of the issues unveiled by applying the capability approach are not new to e-development research.” Yet, she feels that the capability approach is “able to surface a set of key concerns systematically and coherently, on an explicit philosophical foundation,” and, “as a conceptual basis, could accommodate other theoretical perspectives in e-development,” like discourse analysis, institutional theory, social inclusion, the participative approach, local adaptation, and information culture.

  23. 23.

    For example, what is the difference between the function of an artifact and the concept of “functionings” in the capability approach? What distinguishes a capacity or skill from a capability?

  24. 24.

    Nussbaum’s list of 10 central capabilities may serve as a starting point for designers, but it has not been tested yet if and how it helps designers in their deliberations about their design project. Moreover, as discussed in section four, the list is quite abstract and applying it in design would still require quite a lot of additional work, so that “just” giving this list to designers is probably not enough.



This research has been made possible by a grant from NWO, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. The author would like to thank a number of people for their valuable feedback on earlier versions of this chapter: Annemarie Mink, Ibo van de Poel, Sabine Roeser, and Rafael Ziegler.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Values and Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy and ManagementDelft University of TechnologyDelftNetherlands

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