The V&A gets a bit political with Rapid Response Collecting

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Tucked away in a poorly-signposted corner of the V&A, an interesting little experiment in curating is afoot. Most people will know the Museum for being brimful of old treasures in vitrines. However alongside the temporary exhibitions programme, which upholds a more active conversation about design, old and new, there is now a team responsible for the Museum’s dealings with the contemporary world of design, architecture, and digital artefacts: and they have developed a new practice that they’re calling ‘rapid response collecting’.

What this means is, instead of hopping over to Milan and acquiring the most interesting new chair, they are fishing around in current affairs, global politics and supply chains – identifying and collecting items that are particularly telling about the world as we know it. Or rather, more interestingly, that reveal the inequalities, injustices and awkward facts about the made world that we often choose to ignore.

So in this first round they have a digitally printed gun, some Katy Perry fake eyelashes handmade by low-paid third world workers, an IKEA toy that became an unlikely mascot of protest, the App that proved so addictive its maker removed it from circulation – and eight other objects of similar potency.

This all feels, of course, highly political (even though the text accompanying the objects is nicely neutral). Consequently – better than just positive coverage for the V&A – it has already sparked quite a bit of commentary and debate – including in the New York Times. It’s absolutely appropriate that the Museum should be instigating a public conversation in this way, but how often does it really happen? This step towards repositioning the public role of the museum is no small achievement by Kieran Long, Corinna Gardner, and their colleagues. I look forward to seeing what they do next: especially in an election year.

The other thing to say is that for those who know very little about design history – and even those who do – this collection is a perfect entry point to the rest of the museum. Context, after all, is what makes design interesting – and we are all immediately familiar with the context of these objects, in a way that most of us aren’t with the historical and political milieu of a pair of medieval church doors, or Italian renaissance ceramics. I wonder if these 12 objects – and whatever else comes next to the Rapid Response team – might make the rest of the vast collection seem somehow more approachable? Perhaps eventually it could be moved to somewhere a little more easily in the path of the casual visitor.

For now, if you’re intrigued, go up the stairs by the Exhibition Road entrance, along to the end of the 20th century gallery, and just beyond the 1940s, there it is.

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Dirty Rotten Socials: making the Good City

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Photo courtesy of Alison Haigh/Wolff Olins

Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in the inaugural event of the House of St Barnabas’s ‘Dirty Rotten Socials’. The House of St Barnabas is a curious institution in the very heart of Soho: housed in a lovely Georgian building on Soho square, it is both a homeless charity, and a private members club. The Dirty Rotten Socials are an attempt (in partnership with Pioneers Post) to bring some discussion of the social issues with which the charity is preoccupied to the creative community that makes up its membership.

This first event, ‘Design Like You Give A Damn’, curated by Wolff Olins, invited five speakers from the world of design to present the audience with a provocation or question that they themselves ‘give a damn about’. The audience was then asked to tackle each question in small groups, proposing a ‘magic wand’ solution, an ‘ideal’ solution, and a realistic, actionable solution.

So, what do I give a damn about? I wondered. Having never been one for causes, I can certainly say I’m interested in lots of things, but I’m not sure that’s the same. And then, as is so often the case, a silly answer provided the kernel of honesty that set me on the right track: ‘Well obviously I just want things to be lovely all the time’, I sighed to myself. And in London, where I live, and where this debate was taking place, it is increasingly true that things can only really be lovely all the time if one is very wealthy. Except even then you’d be occasionally faced with the unlovely side of the city the rest of us have to contend with, which might take the shine off your otherwise perfectly composed day.

One thing I have always been caught up by is the nature of cities, and what makes places the way they are. What makes Rome so convivial, Copenhagen so civilised, London so dynamic? Far too much to tackle in one blog – or a five minute provocation. But through conversation with colleagues at BOP, who know far more about this than I do though their work on the World Cities Culture Forum, we boiled it down to a central challenge. That is, right now there is a force physically and socially reshaping London with astonishing rapidity: the influx of global capital.

It is de rigueur these days for cities to orient their policies toward attracting inward investment, and in London it is the oil that greases the machine of the city for which we should all be thankful. But unchecked it will run away with us: as in the 250 skyscrapers in the offing, an onslaught of urban surgery the scale of which the public, and apparently even Boris, was blissfully unaware. It’s also fuelling the (utterly bizarre) inflation in property prices, which means that no one with even a decent salary – and certainly not students or key workers – can afford to live anywhere near where they work. This commodification of the basic human need for shelter has negative consequences for so many people – something I’m sure the team at House of St Barnabas are acutely aware of. Ironically, the creative and cultural industries (who form the majority of HOSB members) are partly to blame. They are the frontier explorers leading the cycle of gentrification that ultimately often threatens their own place in the city.

So this was my question to the audience, and the poor souls in my group who had to try and come up with an answer: how do we protect our cities from the ravages of global capital, and make them decent places for everyone?

Needless to say, in the allotted time we didn’t solve this one, and in fact we spent quite a while debating what the Good City looks like anyway, and for who. In the end, our ‘magic wand’ solutions included putting something in the water that tempers greed, or at least detaching money-making from property. Our ‘ideal’ solutions included an obligation on those who make money out of money, without demonstrably creating jobs, to contribute to the public life of the city in some other way (funding free child care places for example). We also want to enforce a three day work week. And our realistic solution was an empty homes tax: making it more financially punitive for the global class of uber-rich to own property in London without either living in it or at least renting it out.

For my own part, I think crucially we need the complicity and leadership of politicians, planners and civil servants with vision, prepared to say no to development for private gain in favour of promoting more democratic solutions: Amanda Burden, the New York planner who fought for years for the high line to be turned into a park, is a good example. I wonder if ‘wishing for better politicians’ is in the magic wand category though?

But to end on a more positive note, one of our group (who wasn’t British) pointed out that – cost of living aside – in fact London is already more ‘for everyone’ than almost any other city in the world. ‘You can be whoever you want to be here, whatever that means, and thrive.’ So clearly it’s not all bad. The question is, how do we keep it that way?

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Forward into the past: Italian glamour and sustainable fashion

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The Glamour of Italian Fashion – the current V&A blockbuster – charts the rise of Italy as a fashion producing nation from the post-war years to the present day: a story not just of designers, but of the people who produced the raw materials and constructed the clothes, and of those who wore them. In fact its title is rather too narrow. Beyond simply celebrating ‘glamour’, it lays out the ecosystem of Italian fashion, and reflects on the way it is changing: production, supply chains, and taste itself are increasingly globalised as international markets for elite fashion converge.

In many respects this is a very thoughtful exhibition; however I came away harbouring one particularly strong impression which the show itself said remarkably little about. That is: the striking way in which the relationship between designer and customer (wearer) has changed over the 70 or so years compressed by the exhibition.

The first rooms, featuring clothes from the 50s and 60s, are a quite surprising lesson in the timelessness of good tailoring. The pieces on show – although 70 years old – seem strangely modern in their classic styling, whilst invoking serious nostalgia for a time when people used to take much greater care over their dress. Of course just as persuasive as the clothes themselves, are the black and white stills of beautiful people wearing them: Loren, Hepburn, Taylor, and countless nameless Italian catwalk models, all accentuated, nipped in, and let loose in just the right places.

As the exhibition continues however, through the 70s and 80s to the present day – something changes. Fashion frees itself from tradition and becomes more exploratory. But with this comes a sense of the clothes becoming more awkward, less inviting-looking, neurotic even. A reflection perhaps of wider cultural changes, but also, critically, of a transformation in how fashion relates to the body.

The earlier pieces were quite clearly designed with real women’s bodies in mind, and the objective was to flatter them: patterns were cut to accentuate people’s natural shapes. I was surprised, but then again not that surprised, to note that many of these early Italian fashion houses were led by aristocratic women, presumably designing things they themselves would want to wear.

By contrast, in the later rooms there is a distinct and increasing marginalisation of the wearer. The clothes pay less heed to the body, and rather more to the artistic expression of the designer. Success is not measured by the ability of the clothes to look well on full-figured women. In fact, they begin to look best on bodies that almost aren’t there, tall, coat-hanger figures with no bumps or curves to interrupt the fall of fabric.

Given that this transformation is so striking, it would be nice if the exhibition could have unpacked it a bit more.

Partly, I suppose it has to be acknowledged that the very purpose of the catwalk, and the point of haute couture, has changed: those early shows in Florence’s Pitti Palace were an exercise in selling clothes to (admittedly wealthy) people who might really wear them. Today’s global fashion weeks are more about trendsetting, and defining an artistic identity for a brand.

And, clearly, the economics of the two situations are very different. The exhibition details nicely the centuries-old ecologies of making in Italy’s regions, the network of small tailoring businesses clothing their local population, and the long term view people took in buying and caring for their clothes: in this set-up haute couture and everyday clothes are not very far apart. Today this ecology is being gradually superseded by outsourced manufacture, mass production, and cheaply bought things that don’t last very long: in this system haute couture and everyday clothes are entirely different things.

The contemporary situation is a shame in respect of the quality that’s accessible to the general public. Very few of us can buy made-to-measure or bespoke any more. Rather we are locked into a perverse situation where we live clothed in a second skin that has been designed – not specifically for us – but for a generic body shape, and made by people far away that we will never meet.

But more importantly: the current situation is surely not sustainable or in any way environmentally friendly. The lesson of this exhibition, for me, was that in thinking our way to sustainable fashion – a new ecosystem of making and wearing that provides individuals with high quality clothes that fit well, supports local economies and maintains specialist skills – we don’t have to look much further than Italian history for a role model.

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The Other March of the Makers

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Image courtesy of makerversity
This article originally appeared in a shorter form on Creative Economy 2015.

George Osborne should be pleased with himself for coining the phrase ‘the march of the makers’. He has certainly rolled it off his tongue plenty of times, and it has usefully reminded us all that we shouldn’t forget about manufacturing, which has for so long been cast into the policy wilderness. But the government’s support for the ‘makers’ has been more about attracting investment into the automotive industry, or moderating energy prices, rather than bolstering an army of craftspeople tinkering in sheds. For the creative industries, the term ‘makers’ signifies something quite different from what the Treasury might think. Not steel magnates, chemical suppliers or factory owners, but artisans and inventors.

Although statistics around this amorphous movement are hard to come by, there are clear indicators that something important is happening.

The phenomenon of the communal workshop is taking off, under various names: there are now thousands of ‘hackspaces’, ‘maker spaces’, or ‘fab labs’ globally. The Fab Lab began life in MIT’s Media Lab in 2001, and there are now some 307 worldwide. Prominent UK maker spaces include Makerversity, bunkered under Somerset House, the Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, and Fab Labs in Manchester and Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. There is also the hybrid concept Maker Library Network, embryonic at the moment but growing. Taken together these efforts are partly about providing much needed work facilities for small or single-person businesses in the creative/ manufacturing sector, and partly about allowing the wider community to delve into what is usually the outsourced function of making and fixing.

Other signs of the maker revolution include trendy blogs – for example http://makeworks.co.uk/, http://makeitbritish.co.uk/ – about the pioneers/ rebels who are obstinately still making stuff in the UK. Internationally we have seen the rise of Etsy, the online marketplace for makers that launched in 2005, and by the end of last year had 30 million users and US$1 billion of transactions. These grassroots-driven platforms are slowly shaking off the crusty old (male) notion of manufacturing as a dirty industry devoid of human hand – and often drawing the connection back between craft and manufacturing.

We’re also seeing the emergence of new ‘blended’ businesses – which are often labelled ‘tech’ – but are in reality more of a hybrid between design-digital-craft-tech-fabrication. The Brighton Fuse project highlighted this new blended kind of activity nicely, but in general it’s something we don’t seem to have the right policy/ industrial language to describe yet. Over the last couple of years I’ve met digital start-ups that quaintly describe themselves as ‘foundries’, and businesses (very often in ‘tech city’) that work across what we would traditionally think of as manufacturing, craft, the arts. These businesses embody the spirit of experiment that characterised the first industrial revolution far more than those established manufacturing businesses that are the descendants of it.

What can we learn from these places/ collectives/ trends?

Is it a passing fashion – or is there some deeper systemic change going on? Perhaps, as we move into the digital world, we’re all craving an enhanced connection with the material. It’s also interesting to note the open source/ sharing approach of this movement: might we see hackspaces as the coffee houses of the 21st century? With a predominant demographic of digital/ social media natives, it’s certainly a far more open and social community than the traditional manufacturing sector.

The ethos of the movement is congruent with a wider rebellion against traditional economies, the people-powered move towards ‘collaborative consumption’. And it is a timely reminder in a period of increasing privatisation of city space that cities work best when they are about sharing resources. All in all – this should be seen as a good thing. This is about rebellion against outsourcing and having no idea how the things we depend on in the western world are made. It’s about democratising production and distribution. And it’s about providing spaces that nurture creative activity in an inclusive way.

So – as an alternative spin on Osborne’s policies for makers – how can this resurgence of making be nurtured?

Well, for once, it’s probably not worth demanding that we ‘put it on the curriculum’. Not only because that’s what every business group in the country is trying to do, but also because an assessment-driven environment would be lethal to the culture of tinkering. However, the following would all help:

Above all else, the maker movement needs space. Creative makers are increasingly being priced out of city centres even though the ideas and inventiveness they bring are what make cities exciting, successful places. Planning regulations need to resist the rush to residential and generic commercial development, and local authorities should be prepared to do more to provide and protect the kind of light industrial workspaces that are needed.

Many of the best publicly provided facilities, from kilns to soldering irons, are found in school and FE college design and technology labs, and these should be made more widely available at out-of-hours times. Other community facilities could also be put to use – might libraries’ mandate to provide public access to knowledge extend to ‘knowledge of making’?

More broadly, industrial policy needs to be hauled into the 21st century. I would be amazed if many civil servants had thought deeply about the maker movement, or the idea of the fused/ blended business, their significance and their relationship to traditional manufacturing. We need to update our language, our thinking and our departmental structures, to shake off the false dichotomy between ‘the creative industries’ and other parts of the economy. If innovation policy only focuses on the narrow measure of economic growth via the unhelpfully termed ‘high-tech’, it will miss much of the innovation that promises to revitalize not just the creative economy, but towns, cities and the country as a whole.

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Looking for the real Paris

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The last time I visited Paris, my travelling companion was decidedly disappointed by the place. He complained that the city had none of the life and sparkle and bustle he’d been led to expect. I knew what he meant and I suspect it’s a common experience. Paris is a great city to visit if you’re interested in the history of Paris – but it’s rarely the slightly twee, romantic, ‘gaye Paree’ that’s so often depicted in films.

Recently this seems to have become more of a public concern. The newly elected (socialist) city mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has pledged to tackle the housing problem that is forcing a middle and working class exodus to the hinterlands. This social homogenisation of the city is unfortunate for many reasons, and one big one is the negative impact on its vitality and creativity.

This article on the Matador Network went further, accusing Paris of being a ‘cultural wasteland':

Paris boasts few artists of international recognition, it has a Ministry of Culture that seems to do anything in its bureaucratic power to keep Paris from progressing, and French nationals occupy every notable cultural post… Paris proper seems to be slowly atrophying, a muscle that has long ago stopped being able to afford to pick up a pen or paintbrush.

The piece suggests (among other things) that the city’s cultural policy is too tied to memorialising its glorious past – because there are millions of tourist euros to be earned that way. (It’s striking that another of Hidalgo’s first major announcements is a revamp of the 125 year old Eiffel Tower.) But this means that the living city is slowly ossifying into a monument to a former period of great creativity, rather than continuing to be a fount of creativity today.

Parisians themselves are aware of this flagging, of the gradual disappearance of edgy arty bars, independent cafes and randomly curated shops that are the outward evidence of emerging creative communities. A friend reported after a recent trip:

There was a real melancholy about the place – people were saying how it feels so staid against cities like London that are constantly changing. In London we lament the loss of the true East End character to the hipsters, but in Paris they are still sitting about in cafes in Montmartre like they always have, and they’re bored of it.

There are two things I think about all this. First, London should be wary of any superiority in the creativity stakes. Its own inexorable property price rises may well be driving it the same way, as this Guardian piece by Alex Proud points out. But – second – I wonder whether Paris has become a victim of its own impossible reputation, and is being unfairly judged. There are a number of reasons to suspect this is the case.

Paris, and the life of Paris, has been mythologised like no other city, in paintings, books, and films, and by actual historians – who can’t let it alone but are constantly ‘re-reading’ and re-telling its significant moments. The imaginary city – the one tourists have in their head when they flock there – is a rich accumulation of all these things, layers of fact and fiction and speculation. The real city is disappointingly solid and one-dimensional by comparison. I was quite prepared, on the occasion of my last trip, for the unavoidable difference between the Paris of the mind – exotic, chic, the city of lights, of dancing girls, intellectuals and artists in garretts – and the realities of a modern capital city. But still it’s an anti-climax to find that the place you’ve been hoping to at least catch a glimpse of doesn’t really exist.

So, we then should ask ourselves, did it ever really exist? Or has it been exaggerated by story-tellers all along? Looking back to its periods of great flowering – the Belle Époque, the fin de siècle, the early 20th century – undoubtedly a lot of interesting stuff happened in a relatively short period of time. All sorts of inventions and breakthroughs started life in Paris: in technology (the Eiffel Tower, escalators, diesel engines), art (countless rebellions and movements), design (art nouveau), psychology (think Bernheim, Charcot, Freud), commerce (advertising, department stores) – and all this alongside rapid social change. It is just this, and the fact that the arts at the time were socially so prominent, that makes historians and art historians obsess about it. But hindsight probably exaggerates the sense of compression, and powerful narratives around certain remarkable places (Montmartre) and events (the Worlds Fairs) seep into our picture of the whole period.

A third thought: this great explosion of progress was not unique to Paris. Rather it was a feature of a particular moment in history. Other European capital cities were being catapulted into the modern world in the same way at the same time (we just idolise them much less, for some reason). And few of them in their contemporary state – carefully governed, regulated, constantly surveilled, expensive to live in, and subject to the pressures of global capitalism – embody much of their former creative, disruptive selves. We shouldn’t over-penalise Paris for being the same.

Finally: the accusation that the current cultural administration is backward-facing and protectionist doesn’t distinguish it from previous cultural administrations. The arts in France have traditionally been ruled by an inherently conservative bureaucracy (against which certain artists rebelled of course). Something like Art Nouveau – the powerful imagery that frames our thoughts of this exotic time – grew out of a government-backed project to revive the French luxury goods industry by resurrecting ‘the Rococo’ (the favoured royal house style from over 100 years previously). It was a very historicist project, and it was specifically about protecting the Frenchness of French industry.

So: although it’s terribly depressing that in real life none of us can do an Owen Wilson (ie be transported back in time to hang out with Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and friends, courtesy of Woody Allen), we must be careful to separate this from reasonable criticism of the city. And perhaps visits should come with some sort of advisory warning: if you’re looking for the Paris of your imagination, it’s more likely to be found in a library.

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The Politics in Social Design


This is a re-post from mappingsocialdesign.org

Recent years have seen something of a proliferation of social design work (see here for our working definition of social design). Some of this has been about making objects that ‘solve’ social problems: for example the One Laptop per Child project. But there has also been an expansion of non-object-centric projects, of design methods being applied to social challenges that would normally be tackled in other ways. Much of this kind of social design practice has involved either:

  • designers working with, or within, governments, or
  • governments themselves explicitly adopting design methodologies as part of their own toolkit, or
  • designers working with social groups to develop new offerings that replace eroded public services (the space formerly known as Big Society).

This new context for design has not gone unnoticed. In fact, the idea of design stepping into an overtly political space tends to cause a fair bit of consternation: is it fully equipped for the challenge?

Under New Labour (when it all began in earnest in the UK), designers were liable to be written off as complicit in – and significantly benefitting from – the marketisation of public services, and the move to turn ‘citizens’ into ‘consumers’ (a new identity that not all ‘citizens’ readily recognised).  Under the Coalition, there is a tendency for the (predominantly left-leaning) majority of the design community to be suspicious of any designer willing to fraternise with a Conservative agenda, and to read a malevolent undertone into attempts by a right-of-centre government to make use of design.

For example, see this comment from Jeremy Till on gov.uk (the new single platform government website) winning the Designs of the Year Award 2013. Till suggests that gov.uk’s design principle of ‘do less’ (in their own account, a response to previous government websites that handed out unnecessary pieces of advice like ‘put a jumper on if cold’, and ‘how to recognise a wave’) is in fact the embodiment of the Coalition government’s determination to ‘do less’ for everyone. Justin McGuirk says a similar thing in a piece entitled ‘Design and the Right’, and, following Morozov, points to the use of utopian design terminology to support a ‘hard core right wing agenda’ (participation becomes DIY public services, open source becomes open government, customisation becomes localism).*

The problem here is design’s slightly chameleonic ability to slot itself into any system as a catalytic element – and indeed to actively seek opportunities to do so for commercial reasons. This means that it’s liable to find itself with a range of bedfellows. However in government there is a difference between politics and administration. Most designers working with or alongside the current government, and particularly those working with local authorities – a level removed from national politics – would clearly distinguish between aligning themselves with the wider political agenda, and helping administrations work better for the benefit of the communities they govern. Often that means helping organisations adapt to changes instigated by political decisions (such as funding cuts). Most designers would say they have little power over the political decisions, but can make a big positive difference to the front line, so why shouldn’t they help where they can? They would favour pragmatic action over conscientious objection.

But should they be ‘pushing back’ on some of this, in the case where they don’t agree with the politics? Perhaps a better understanding of systems and theories of power would allow them to tackle problems at that level, rather than just focusing on helping people deal with the systems. At the very least, perhaps they do need a better framework for understanding whatever political context they are launching themselves into.

A similar criticism might be levelled at those designers working with communities on social innovation-type projects, facilitating the development of some kind of new service or system in the absence of state-funded services. Even though many might see such work as ethically and socially motivated, and apolitical, in fact this too can be read as compliance with a neoliberal agenda to dismantle the state – a way of making sustainable a particular political project. Cameron Tonkinwise discussed this very question in an article for Core 77 a couple of years ago, and commented:

‘being ethical, in order to avoid politics, is a political position, most definitely if you are trying to design (or redesign existing innovations in) non-government-based social services… it does put you on the ‘make-government-smaller’ side of the neoliberal-liberal spectrum’.

In the UK this is further complicated by the toxicity of the ‘Big Society’ brand. This has now been fully written off by the left as ‘Cameron’s sleight of hand for scaling down of government in accord with neo-liberal and libertarian ideologies’. And it’s been written off by everyone else as a lot of hot air that didn’t really deliver.

But whilst ‘Big Society’ was undoubtedly a Tory project, actually there is more than one way, in terms of ideologies, to read attempts to rekindle the strata of civil society that has been undermined by globalisation and the natural break-up of closely-knit communities. It’s not necessarily an evil neoliberal plot – and designers choosing to work in this space might be doing something different – even inventing new kinds of ideologies and politics.

The question underlying all of these things is whether we expect designers, as a professional group, to take political and ethical stances on things? Historically – with the exception of activist designers – they have mostly taken the money and done the work. It hasn’t been their job to consider the wider context. If they’re now engaging in big public issues, and social contexts, ought there to be a rethinking of the professional framework? Should there be a Hippocratic oath for designers? In all of the design community it’s only the architects who have institutional structures guaranteeing a certain level of professional ethics. (In theory. Certain people obviously missed that memo.)

So: how do we know, essentially, that whenever designers are peddling their wares to governments and communities-in-need, they aren’t just following the money? And how could those designers who are motivated by a social change agenda do their work whilst taking a stance on the political context?

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*What’s being elided in both these examples is administration and politics: the Civil Service’s attempts to improve its own systems of working (and thereby spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently), and the wider agenda of a section of the political class. Of course those two things aren’t entirely separate – but neither are they, as any Minister would affirm, seamlessly joined up. Gov.uk and the move to ‘open policymaking’ are not, in themselves, especially political projects, neither of them are about shrinking or expanding the state, and it’s important to distinguish between what they’re actually about, and what politicians happen to say about them to align with their own messaging.

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Social design under the microscope

ADF Papers Series 4: architecture and drawing, social design, fashion as installation. Image © OBJECTIF, courtesy of the British Council.

For the next few months I’m working on a research project for the Arts & Humanities Research Council. We’ll be mapping the academic work that’s been done on social design, as well as looking at the practice of it in the real world. The aim is to identify the gaps in thinking about this emergent area of design: what questions haven’t been asked? What might stand a bit more evaluation/ critique? Where are the new frontiers?

Social design isn’t a particularly established term. To some it means designers doing their work with a heightened awareness of the social and sustainability impact. But in the context of this project, we are talking about the increasing tendency of people with a design background to apply their methods/ approach to social challenges. The focus of analysis is more on the process than an end ‘product’ (although often there is a product or service that results). So while there isn’t yet an agreed name for this kind of activity, it’s getting to the point where it could bear being put under the spotlight.

Not least because this seems to be a critical moment for design. Governments around the world are starting to consider incorporating design approaches into their toolkits for policymaking and public services. But it’s still a relatively immature field, and there is plenty of scope for it to underperform: in which case it risks being consigned to the scrap heap of failed government experiments.

If this all sounds overly negative it’s because it’s a field in need of critical friends. In theory, it has a lot to offer at a moment when the relationships between state, civil society, publics and corporations need reconfiguring. It’s a promising field, but not an untroubled one. My fellow researchers (Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell, Leah Armstrong) and I definitely come at it with a critical eye, wary of grandiose claims as to its effectiveness, and conscious of the additional complexities of intervening in social contexts, which a design training doesn’t necessarily prepare for.

For some potted examples of social design working well, see a paper I wrote recently for the British Council’s  ADF series here, and also the ‘social design talks’ blog, which documents two years’ worth of presentations about social design. For some slightly more reflective writing – and to follow the progress of our project – see our blog here: mapping social design research and practice.

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