Lilly Irani is currently an associate professor in the Communication department and an affiliate faculty member at The UCSD Design Lab. She’s the winner of the 2020 International Communication Association Outstanding Book Award and the 2019 Diana Forsythe Prize for her book Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India. Inspired by the work of Lucy Suchman, Lilly’s research in the field of design extends beyond simply “asking what’s right and wrong and for whom,” but encompasses giving workers and communities “an actual voice in shaping the technology” and getting “political agency over the technologies that we use,” as she put it.
Before arriving at UCSD, Lilly first earned her B.S., then M.S., in Computer Science at Stanford University. Then, she earned her Ph.D. in Informatics with a feminist emphasis at the University of California, Irvine. In addition, Lilly has also done work for companies like Google and Intel. Lilly originally entered UCSD as an assistant professor in the Communication department in 2013. She got involved with the Design Lab a year later, organizing the Design@Large speaker series, and eventually became an affiliate faculty member in 2016. When asked about why she is involved in the Design Lab, Lilly pointed to several things she finds important about the community and why she values it. “One of the things that is really important to me is getting to work with students who have this hope to contribute their time, work, and imagination to making the world around them better and getting to channel those energies into projects that communities that they find meaningful in San Diego.” Another reason she stays involved with The Design Lab is “to make sure that those ethical perspectives are included in the conversation about design,” she said. “It’s important that they’re included in how students are educated about design, and I want to find allies who care about that, as well.”
Lilly also emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of design, and the importance of designers interacting across disciplines. “We should learn from ethnic studies scholars and black studies scholars to understand how race shapes power. Instead of trying to do it all ourselves, we have to ally ourselves with and value others who have a stake in what we hope to achieve. [A]s we grow and include faculty from the humanities, from urban studies, from visual arts, I think that we have a better chance of being able to address that full-stack complexity of designing things that people can actually shape and adapts democratically as they live with them.”
This is also partly the reason for Lilly joining the Communication department. She notes that the Communication department “looks at the systems that mediate our relationships with others” and focuses on the broader challenges that society and even design face. “I actually think that a lot of the big challenges that we have for the design of technologies are not about pushing the cutting edge of how you manufacture something or how you make an algorithm work. A lot of the big problems that we’re trying to understand as a society are actually about understanding the relationship between the social effects and the shape of technologies, so I think the Communication department offers, in computer science terms, a full-stack education.”
When asked her future with The Design Lab, Lilly noted that “one of [her] big hopes is to support students and community members who want to build projects that can show us examples of alternatives to how big tech is trying to organize our communication, transportation, education, and other aspects of our lives.”
Her involvement with the community is nothing short of impressive. For ten years, Lilly co-designed and maintained a website for online gig workers on the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform to let workers share reviews of employers and jobs to take or avoid. Over the last two years, she has grown the software platform into a worker advocacy organization run by Mechanical Turk workers themselves, so they can also organize to improve their work conditions in ways that matter to them.
More recently, she has worked with the United Taxi Workers San Diego to champion a program to digitize access to taxis for first and last mile transportation in San Diego. This project works towards maintaining good wages and rights for essential transport workers while working towards climate justice by using taxis to make public transit more useful to San Diegans. Design Lab members Udayan Tandon, Vera Khovanskaya, Enrique Arcilla, and Sam Muñoz work on this project.
All in all, Lilly Irani is a seasoned designer and excited to continue contributing to the field. Currently, she is especially excited to work on the Transitional Ecologies Studio with UCSD professors Manuel Shvartzberg Carrio and Matilde Cordoba Azcárate that seeks “to put together a lab that provides a supportive space for people who want to design in a way that empowers communities to get their needs met through technology and innovative environmental projects.”