Prof Rafael Calvo:  Champion of Positive Computing

Prof Rafael Calvo, director of Software Engineering in the School of Electrical Engineering and Dorian Peters from Education & Social Work, Sydney University, have recently published the book : "Positive Computing - Technology for wellbeing and human potential" with MIT Press.

The book is about the "positive computing", a movement championed by Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters, and becoming the tech buzzword of 2015.

Forbes and the Washington Post wrote extensive articles about the book and potential for positive computing to make a diffference in our lives for the next generation of wearable computing devices.

Rafael and Dorian have also been invited to give a lecture about Positive Computing at The Center for Compassion and Altruism, Stanford School of Medicine.

Rafael and Dorian explain what is Positive Computing

Is technology making us any happier? Positive Computing and the future of wellbeing-supportive technology.

In 1973, when the doors were first opened to the Sydney Opera House, most people had never heard of a “digital experience”.  Since then we’ve watched digital devices make their way into every detail of our experience from business to exercise, health, politics, friendships, and romance.  They are now continuous players in our moment-by-moment lived experience and the future “Internet of Things” promises little separation between digital and non-digital experience at all.  But one critical question remains…

Are we any happier?  

In other words, is all this creativity, investment, energy, and carbon emission delivering a fair return with respect to our overall wellbeing?  Incredibly, according to the statistics, it’s not.  Population surveys over the last few decades show that the wealth of nations has increased significantly (and with wealth, digital devices), but happiness has not increased much.

The tyranny of productivity

Naturally, as an engineer and technology designer, we had to ask ourselves, if technology is supposed to make life better, why is the correlation between technology and happiness so poor?

We believe it’s because we’ve been designing for proxies.  In other words, we design for things like productivity and efficiency which are easy to operationalise and measure, and we go under the assumption that, if we’re more productive and efficient, we’ll be happier.  However, like wealth, our proxies are poor indicators of what really contributes to wellbeing and it’s time we start designing for the real thing.

Enter Positive Computing

Positive Computing is a term we use to refer to the “research and development of technologies designed to support wellbeing and human potential”. In our recent book,Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential, we show how validated measures, methods, and evidence-based theory from disciplines like psychology, neuroscience, economics and the social sciences, can be used by technologists to better inform the design process.  Just as economists have recently begun to measure wellbeing as an alternative to GDP, we in technology can join them in “measuring what matters” and designing for it.

A future of wellbeing-supportive technology

We envision a future in which wellbeing is incorporated into the iterative design cycle of all technologies - a world in which everyday technologies are enriched by an understanding of human psychological flourishing.  In this world, social media programs like Facebook could better support empathy or emotional intelligence, word processing programs would actively support flow and video games would make significant contributions to pro-social behavior and mental wellness.

Work is already underway; we’ve met with folks at places like Facebook, Microsoft and Google who have dedicated internal teams doing groundbreaking work on supporting wellbeing determinants like empathy, meaning and mindfulness.  We also work with smaller organizations, social enterprises and non-profits dedicated to discovering new ways technology can be used to promote mental health and “mental wealth”.  The growing interest in technology that does better than stress us out is also reflected in a recent article in Forbes which suggested “Positive Computing was the next big thing in Human-Centered Computing” and another in the Washington Post claiming it the buzzword for 2015.

Multidisciplinary collaboration is key

We are adamant that engineers can not travel this road alone and must work as part of multidisciplinary teams that includes experts in areas like psychology and the social sciences. As such, in our book, we provided a space for expert perspectives from thought-leaders like Don Norman, Jane McGonigal, danah boyd, and Mihaly Csikzsentmihaly who shared their unique views on how technology can and should be supporting wellbeing.  

As we continue to have new discussions about the future of positive computing, we find that no matter what the discipline, we’re all interested in one thing: a future of technology that is genuine better for our world and the people in it.  If you’re interested in finding out more about research or practice in Positive Computing, catch up with us on: