Understanding values changing over time



Ethics & Values

Design Phase:

Values Theory






In this teaching activity, students position themselves within a very long historical timeline to reflect on value changes over time. Value changes can occur either due to social developments (e.g., French Revolution that overthrew the monarchy) or induced by technology (e.g., contraceptives which have had an effect on sexual morality). With an emphasis on both societal and technological changes (and the interaction between the two), students are encouraged to identify examples of particularly important or significant technical inventions/designs, analyse their historical context, compare contemporary values with past/future values, and explain how values change over time.


Students often focus on integrating a predefined set of values identified during the early stages of design. They often assume that these values will remain stable in the later stages of the design life-cycle during widespread adoption and use. However, values can change over time. New values may emerge in society (e.g., emergence of feminist values), the priority of values for a specific technological design may change during its use (e.g., increased emphasis on sustainability over efficiency), and the meanings or interpretations of the same value may change over time (e.g., how privacy is understood in the age of the Internet).

This activity will encourage students to situate their designs within a broader socio-historical context, to become aware of value changes, and in turn lead students to design products, systems and services that can better adapt to changing conditions.


After the teaching activity students will be able to:

  • have gained a longer and broader perspective on the socio-historical context surrounding their design,
  • be able to analyse and compare values from different time periods,
  • be able to explain how values change over time, how changing values might have an impact on design, and how design might induce value changes in society.


  • Create a multi-lifespan timeline (see the provided example) (Yoo et al., 2016) – it can be either physical (e.g., a large-scale poster) or digital (e.g., a Miro board). Mark the current year at the center point. Indicate 25-year intervals stretching 100 years into the past and 100 years into the future.
  • Above the timeline axis, populate the past 100 years with a handful of examples of social events and technological innovations (e.g., World War II, space walk, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first computer, the first iPhone, COVID-19 pandemic).
  • Ask students to bring an example of the most meaningful technical inventions/iconic designs from the past 100 years (or beyond).


  1. Reflect as a whole group on some key societal events and technological innovations from the past, and how they have affected people’s values.
  2. Ask students to add to the timeline what they think is the most important or significant technological invention/design of the past century. Ask students to explain their choice, its historical context, and how it has affected people’s values.
  3. Brainstorm ideas for the future of society and technology: what might happen in the next 100 years? Record suggestions on sticky notes and place them on the timeline. Avoid “factual forecasting,” but rather to focus on creative visions.


To assess whether the intended learning outcomes were attained by the teaching activity the following assessment activities can be carried out (in class or after class).


Assess students' learning by asking them to apply their understanding of changing values over time on a case study (summative assessment) by creating a time traveling scenario, imagining how a design might be used and valued differently by people from the past or the future.

Assess students' learning by asking them to write a reflective value report focusing on students’ awareness of the dynamic socio-historical context surrounding design, and how they are manifested in products, systems and services (formative assessment of knowledge).


In the assessment activity ask students to focus on:

  • comparing contemporary values with past and future values,
  • explaining the interplay between the social events and technical innovations (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic and telepresence technologies),
  • analyzing how values are manifested in products, systems and services from a socio-historical perspective.


van de Poel, Ibo (2018). Design for value change. Ethics and Information Technology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-018-9461-9

Yoo, Daisy; Derthick, Katie; Ghassemian, Shaghayegh; Hakizimana, Jean; Gill, Briam; & Friedman, Batya (2016). Multi-lifespan design thinking: two methods and a case study with the Rwandan diaspora. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 4423-4434).



Suggested Assessment Activities: