Impact fixation

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Image taken from the Design Council’s ‘Design delivers for business‘ report (2012)

Clive Dilnot has a nice line on criticality in design: in theory designers should be the most critical of us all, because designing means being able to discern between different possibilities and choose the best one. However in reality (he says) the choices we make in design practice have been long disciplined by the logic of the market – which in turn shapes the language of design, much like that of management in general, to focus on impact, effectiveness, productivity, growth etc. And it’s always delivered in normative terms: how design should be done to achieve the best results. This is to be seen everywhere in commercial design practice – fair enough. But I’m starting to worry about how much of a grip it has on design research and academia.

Ezio Manzini recently lamented that ‘mechanisms and effectiveness’ seem to be the only basis on which people are capable of researching and discussing design. There are some exceptions: this doesn’t apply so much to design history, and there is a growing ‘design culture’ field that seeks to embed contemporary practice in a wider socio-economic and political framework. But if you happen to be researching in that mode it seems you are apt to be constantly misunderstood by others.

I’ve had the experience three times recently, on submitting three different papers (one to a conference and two to journals) of being told that I (or we in the case of one written with Lucy Kimbell) haven’t done enough to say what should be done, or what designers as readers should take forward or do differently. I’ve been warned against taking the ‘barren position’ of critic standing outside of practice.

Why, I wonder, is critique such a problem? And why can’t a thought-provoking critique, or an exploration of possible theoretical interpretations, stand on its own?

The papers in question all reflect in different ways on what might be going on behind the use of design in policy – exploratory pieces that draw on theories of capitalism, neoliberalism, governmentality, politics, etc. My favourite case of misinterpretation concerns a paper that builds on Boltanski and Chiapello’s idea that capitalism absorbs and defuses critique/ dissent, to suggest that the infiltration of design into policymaking might be seen as an example of that mechanism. The reviewer’s criticism implied that they thought we were promoting the absorption of dissent as a selling point for design in policy.

Maybe we weren’t clear enough. Or maybe the paradigm of design research providing prescriptions for design practice is just that strong. But why should all design research end in ‘implications for design practice?’ Isn’t that just another example of the absorption of critique? Not all problems can be so easily solved. It makes me even more defiant, to want to say ‘no you can’t just disable this with some platitudes about reflective practice – it’s uncomfortable and you have to live with it’.

The broader point here is that there’s not nearly enough critical research going on if, when confronted with it, design academics don’t know how to read it. As part of thinking through my PhD, I’ve sketched out the framework below as a short-hand for distinguishing between different kinds of design research. There’s not much of the fourth column going on, and I’m curious as to why this is.

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There is admittedly a large overlap between researchers and practitioners – many people do both, which encourages a certain perspective. If design is about problem solving for an organisation, institution or system, then design research also seems to be predominantly asking questions about how well it does that job, rather than reflecting on the container within which design activity sits. And when design research identifies a problem the designerly brain wants to solve it. Perhaps the design mentality can’t brook the idea of not doing, not acting – which is what critical discernment implies. If you really thought about it you might choose not to act – but if you stop does that mean you cease to be a designer? Reflecting on whether to act might trigger some kind of identity crisis.

A final point: as a design practitioner I find that the thing most design research is useful for at the moment (when it’s not just a show-and-tell of design projects) is in providing some theoretical underpinnings that help articulate to clients why this isn’t all just playing with post-its, but is serious work. In other words, we co-opt research – sometimes even critical research – to keep selling. What’s visibly lacking, given the increasingly confusing times we live in, is anything that sheds some light on what’s going on in public life and the political sphere at the moment and how designers are implicated in that. More of that sort of thing would be very welcome.

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Reflections on designing a public and social innovation lab in health

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Over the last year and a half I’ve been working with the Health Foundation, supporting a team (led by Tracy Webb) designing an innovation and improvement lab that will work with the Q community, exploring systemic challenges in health and care in the UK. Designing an innovation function in an organisation or system is no straightforward task, and I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned through the process.

But first… why a ‘lab’?

There is a long history of corporations and organisations hiving off the innovation function, creating dedicated teams solely focused on R&D and coming up with new ideas, an experimental space freed from the limitations of day-to-day business. Applying the same logic to public and social innovation problems is becoming increasingly popular – only in this case, it’s not corporations trying to invent new products, but governments, public bodies, charities, and foundations, who recognise that their standard operating model is no longer sufficient for addressing complex social and public problems.

‘PSI labs’, as they are known (Public and Social Innovation labs), are proliferating rapidly across the world, and for good reasons. In the past, ‘experimentation’ used to refer mainly to scientifically minded people testing theories in a closed system. While that undoubtedly still happens, there is also a sense now that some of the big problems we are facing defy being solved at a laboratory bench.

The 19th and 20th centuries have left us with an incredibly complex ‘designed’ world: ‘the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer’. We have created complex assemblages of people, structures, objects, meanings – and we have to find ways to tinker with these to create change. But that’s not to say we want all of government (for instance) to throw everything up the air and start experimenting, there needs to be a balance between exploration and exploitation: finding the ideas that work, and spreading them.

There are various reasons you might want to initiate or explore the idea of a PSI lab:

  • You need to find ways to collaborate across a system, or with a range of different players and interests
  • You need to create a safe, dedicated space within an organisation or system for exploration, experimentation and innovation
  • You need to find a way to bring together multi-disciplinary groups to work on complex issues

And if you’re minded to start a lab of your own, here are a few reflections on the conditions for success.

1. Establish a clear aim

As Zaid Hassan (one of the forerunners in establishing and writing about Social Labs) told us – you need to work with the willing. To do that, you need a clear aim and set of values that resonate with people and draw them to your cause. And be honest. People will spot the ulterior motive hiding behind a more worthy-sounding goal.

2. Confront your own assumptions about knowledge

Many people and organisations – consciously or not – like certainty: there are facts that we can know, best practice we can establish, knowledge that we can harvest and spread. In some cases certainty is possible, but, as demonstrated notably by Dave Snowden with the Cynefin framework, complex problems don’t lend themselves to the establishment of objective truths, or even to being solved. In the context of social and systemic change, ‘facts’ become slippery and elusive. The appropriate response is instead an ongoing and imperfect process of exploring, proposing, probing. The concept of the PSI lab rests on this belief about the nature of working with the infinitely evolving question of the public and its problems. And it can be difficult for many organisations – used to being able to ‘know’ things with certainty, and dealing in specific forms of ‘evidence’ – to get comfortable with that.

3. Design it yourself (but learn from others)

There is no off-the-shelf model for a lab – the entity in itself needs designing in response to the thing it’s trying to do (as we did with the Health Foundation). But there is plenty of experience you can draw on. Much of it exists in the heads of practitioners, some of it is in blogs and online. Less exists in the academic domain, although there is some. Luckily, the practitioner community tends to be very open and willing to share – and it’s well-networked. Follow #psilabs on twitter to find out who’s doing what, or contact us for a few pointers.

4. Build the right team

In an exploratory inquiry process, which is the kind of process most labs would advocate, it’s important to have a team that can work flexibly together, holding a goal in mind but improvising around how to get there. As Prof. John Clarkson put it to us, ‘you need to build a team that knows what to do next’. Finding those people can be tricky, and they pop up in all disciplines – although creative disciplines tend to produce more of them.

5. Invest and be patient

Systemic change is a long game – so the sooner you start, the better! Zaid Hassan suggests that investment in tackling a challenge ought to be proportionate to the ultimate cost of the challenge. While that scale of investment just isn’t realistic for many organisations, giving a team (even if just a small one) the time and space to explore challenges and potential fruitful directions does require some resource. And although keeping momentum is important, projects can only proceed at the pace that relationships and trust develop. But by being clear about where you think you’re going, and using design approaches such as prototyping, you can find ways to create impact even within short spaces of time.

Blog originally published by Uscreates.

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Perspectives on method from design and other disciplines

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This post was originally published as part of the Unpacking Social Design blog, in answer to the question: Should design be integrated with other disciplines and methods to enhance validity and impact, or does that fundamentally disrupt what design has to offer?

 

“What passes for theoretical generalizations are really only context specific insights produced by particular discourse communities.” Stephen Brookfield

We live in a world where disciplines and expertises are understood as crucibles of knowledge and authority. Deep disciplinary expertise has helped solve many of the ‘problems’ of the 20th century. It would be hard to imagine putting a man on the moon without long-term investment in a select number of brains and institutions becoming deeply expert in aerospace engineering. The term ‘rocket science’ exists because we think there are some things that a lay person has little hope of understanding.

There have been critiques of disciplinary and professional authority. Political ones, that suggest the boundaries constructed around expertises and professions serve to reinforce a particular world order, and that the ‘problems’ of the 20th century have been so-defined by the powerful. And more practical ones, that suggest silos of expertise may not suit all problems equally. Interdisciplinarity is required. Hannah Arendt has a lovely phrase about training the mind to ‘go visiting’ in other disciplines. Nate Silver’s theory of the failure of prediction draws attention to the value of ‘foxes’, who know many things (as opposed to ‘hedgehogs’, who know one big thing and cling on to it fiercely). Being open to more than one way of understanding allows ‘foxes’ to entertain and evaluate a broader range of possibilities. The kind of knowledge that is useful also depends on the kind of problem in question: it’s hard to apply ‘knowledge’ to new or emerging problems. Interpreting such complex problems* through the lens of single disciplines or professions will almost always lead to a sub-optimal outcome.

In the last year or so, consulting with a community of ‘QI’ (Quality Improvement) experts in health and care, but coming from a design perspective, I’ve been wondering whether the same critique would apply to method. In a literature review of theories of ‘implementation’, Nilsen (2015) finds around 60 different theories, models or frameworks for making change happen in health care systems. 60 different ways that people have codified, and sought academic authority for, a way of proceeding. This is ‘method’ as something to be developed, tested, evidenced, and enshrined in the knowledge system of higher education institutions – and then advocated to other people so they can replicate it. I’ve noticed that people with this worldview can be quite defensive about ‘their’ method being the best or right one.

By contrast, at Uscreates where I work, (an agency that to date has built a practice on a blend of service design, participatory design, behaviour change techniques and innovation strategies) I think we see methods as something more malleable – never definitive, relevant only according to how useful they are in the moment of need, and the choice of method is the selection of one out of many ways of proceeding. To appropriate a social science term, we have I think a kind of inventive practice: constantly designing the way in which we are going to address the problem. This means we are fairly agnostic about method, often splicing things together and borrowing from other fields. More interested in experimenting quickly to see what happens than seeking out pre-existing ‘evidence’.

These two beliefs about method are somewhat at odds. The first sees the second as lacking evidence, reliability, authority, and bound to produce imperfect results. The second sees the first as inflexible and unable to respond to new challenges, and seeking perfection as a fool’s errand. One way of overcoming this chasm is to say that each is useful for a different type of problem. Sometimes there is a known optimum approach to dealing with a problem, and creativity is unwelcome. Not everything needs to be worked out from first principles. But being inventive with method is probably the only way of tackling messy, complex, emerging problems.

But perhaps this is still to mask a deeper epistemic chasm: between an understanding of knowledge as something that is extractable from situations and people, and an understanding of knowledge as intrinsically linked to the ‘know-how’ of an individual or group. The second position would see the idea of creating a knowledge bank of 60 codified ‘methods’ as pointless – because what matters is the ability of people to respond creatively and manage challenges in their own contexts. So, to return to the opening question, it may be impossible to integrate design with some other ‘methods’, because of fundamentally opposing underpinning epistemologies. Rather, there is much to be gained from an ongoing productive dialogue between the two.

*Complex problems are described by Reos Partners as ‘social’ (involving diverse range of actors with different perspectives), ‘dynamic’ (enmeshed in systems that make it hard to relate cause and effect), and ‘generative’ (constantly changing and leading to new situations)

Thanks to Tom Ling for pointing me in the direction of Nilsen, and Alan Boyles for comments on this draft.

Read other responses to this question here.

 

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Effecting structural change through design? Not in the day job.

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This post was first published as part of the Unpacking Social Design blog, in answer to the question: ‘Is it possible for design to address big structural issues, like inequality, or is it destined to the incremental tweaking of existing experiences?’

 

The analysis of the referendum – surprising, momentous, painful – is still unfolding. However one thing seems clear: the Leave vote was an expression of popular discontent. And though the target may be misplaced, we can’t tell people they’re wrong about feeling unhappy. The genius of the ‘Leave’ campaign was to tap into a set of latent frustrations and channel them into a single action.

The reasons for this brewing discontent are only murkily understood as something to do with unequal power dynamics between the corporate world and ‘ordinary people’, between the intellectual elite and the working class, between outward-looking progressives and nostalgic conservatives, between the haves and the have nots. In short, some very long term conditions, difficult to perceive, grapple with and affect.

What can design possibly offer here?

There are already some socially-conscientious designers out there, attempting to make public services more user-friendly, or helping policymakers think more creatively about a particular problem. But in the shadow of challenges such as years of entrenched inequality, this kind of design work can feel like merely tinkering with a broken system. So what is the alternative? Is there anything design practice can do when it comes to the bigger picture? How could it position itself to make a difference? Is there a halfway house between the radical’s ‘design activism’ and the consultant’s ‘design in the service of government’?

In principle, design has some practice that might be useful. For example:

  • Form-giving and representation – the ability to make intangible things (like governance) manifest in media other than words – can be used to question norms, to make invisible things visible and therefore contestable, and to depict possible futures. This is an important task: many Leave voters were expressing their discontent with the status quo, inspired by a narrative and vision spun by politicians and the media. But that desire for agency could be engaged in other more constructive ways, if an alternative vision and set of possible actions existed.
  • And design has different models for grappling with problems – for synthesising needs, resources and opportunities into new scenarios and configurations. Such approaches can go deeply into underpinning themes and conflicting viewpoints, and help move things forward when the right direction isn’t clear: a way of starting to think about many of the complex structural issues that governments struggle to deal with.

However it’s the position of the designer in the system that is the real challenge: the radical’s dilemma. It is always difficult for anyone employed by a system to be overtly challenging to it. So we shouldn’t rely on the design industry to deliver this as part of the day job.

Instead we might want to think about designers taking their skills into other roles – becoming politicians, public managers, business leaders, etc. But I would argue that we also need a new class of critic. Perhaps the 21st century’s public intellectual should instead be the ‘public practitioner’? In fact the design community is on the verge of offering up to the world a community of public practitioners: people with one foot in the system and a critical mindset, mixing thinking with practice with participation in public debates. We can help by opening up dialogue on what this kind of politically-engaged practice means, and could be.

Read other responses to this question here.

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Critiquing design in government decision-making

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Thanks to @MalmbergL for the snap!

This blog is an adaptation of a presentation delivered at ServDes 2016 at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, reporting on early findings from my PhD research. The full paper is available as part of the conference proceedings. Part I of this blog sets out some of the questions and concerns framing my research. Part II reports on findings from a pilot study where I am attempting to start to tackle these questions.

Design is being used more and more – and more strategically – within government. The design community (the bits that are aware of it at least) tend to regard this as something of a win. But with all the optimism I think we’re missing some criticality. If we assume that design turning its attention to social and public challenges is on the whole a good thing, the only sensible questions to ask are ‘how can we do it better?’ and ‘how can we do it more?’ If for a second we suspend any normative judgment about design – it allows us to ask a different set of questions. For my part, I’m aware that, although current ways of ‘doing’ government are admittedly far from perfect, policy and politics is difficult, messy, ambiguous stuff – and this is new territory to design. So if we are going to be actors in this world – how do we do this in a way that is not wide-eyed and naïve? But sensitive to the histories, knowledge and practices of democracy and politics.

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Part I: asking questions of ourselves

First, how can we make sense of what we’re doing in democratic and political terms?

We tend to think of human-centred design as inherently democratising, in theory, but that comes from applying it in a particular (usually highly localised) context. There are far more mainstream ideas about how to enact democracy on a larger scale. However imperfect in reality, there is an agreed theory of democracy in which power and accountability flow in certain ways. By inserting design into the relationship between the machinery of government and the public, what are we changing about those flows of power?

  • Are we bypassing politics somehow – shouldn’t we be involving politicians in the conversation? Do we risk making promises to citizens that can’t be kept, if we don’t?
  • To what extent are ‘users’ empowered, or merely used? Are we mobilising user insight to deliver something that will benefit them, or to understand where we can take services away without causing too much of a fuss?
  • What’s more democratic anyway – holding an election, or doing some really thorough ethnographic studies?

And what happens when there are finite resources, and disagreement about their allocation is inevitable? Can we design our way out of everything, or is there a still an important role for opposition and conflict – for agonism?

Slide3Second, following on the heels of ‘behavioural insights’, ‘big data’ and other recent additions to the public administration toolbox, design techniques are opening up new strategies and options to government – beyond regulation and heavy-handed intervention – furthering the capabilities of a certain kind of ‘soft paternalism’. Knowing this, is it possible to work within the system and maintain some criticality?

  • Whose ends is design being exploited for?
  • What are we bringing into the reach of government? Why do we think they might be interested in making use of design?
  • Who is defining the target group as a group – what kind of politics are embedded in the concept of – for example – ‘troubled families’?
  • How are we conceptualising the public? As customers? Citizens? Users? Patients? People? And what difference does that make to the methods we deploy?
  • How far are we thinking about the ethical implications of our ideas, alongside their efficacy?

Difficult questions, but ones I think any practitioner (design or otherwise) in this space should hold in mind.

Part II: making sense of practices

Over the last year I’ve tried to start to understand what’s happening when design intervenes in the acts of policymaking, by interviewing lots of civil servants about their interactions with Policy Lab and design methods. (Policy Lab is a team in the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, that is actively trying to innovate policymaking practices by working with departmental teams and introducing new practice from different fields, a great deal from design). Our conversations have ranged over multiple projects, however the majority were quite ‘social’, in as much as they were actively trying to change people’s conduct in different ways – so very rich territory for thinking about some of these questions.

Slide6What came out of those interviews was – as well as some opinions about design – a rich picture of current institutional norms, culture and practices.

A practice lens is useful here, partly because there aren’t clear distinctions between designers and non-designers in this kind of work. But also because I think in order to make a contribution we first have to understand – to see what’s precious in the accumulated wisdom about how to manage politics in reality, and what’s useful about designerly ways of proposing change.

The civil service in Westminster has some long-established ways of doing things, and these don’t come from nowhere. Whilst some of them may feel a bit archaic, many of them embody the very issues of accountability, flows of power, democracy, ethical action, etc that I have set out above. They come from a particular environment and set of conditions, which in turn derives from centuries of working how to peaceably run the country.

The dynamic and power balance between the machinery of government (the civil service) and the people behind the wheel (the political party in office) is not straightforward. Civil servants ‘serve’ two masters – their political bosses, and the public. There are all sorts of ways that the machinery of government can speed up or slow down change. This is often seen by politicians as simply being obstructive – but from the perspective of citizens it’s about ensuring some sense of continuity and stability across successive administrations.

There is a tendency to characterise policy as being about rationality and politics as about ideology – but in reality it’s all politics. It’s all about negotiation. And there are innumerable policymaking practices that embody the need to manage relationships when working between ministers/ Parliament and the civil service – and some people become very good at this. Rather than anything so clear as a set of rules, it’s more like a carefully choreographed scene constantly being played out – and those who are artful can make small innovations within the form. It’s this artform that design practices are engaging with.

Slide7So what happens when we introduce design practices? My interviews gave me some insight into where the points of friction are – which also highlights I think where some of the opportunities are.

The first big clash is around the different epistemologies that underpin design, and policy. What constitutes knowledge, and evidence? How do we know we know something? And what constitutes knowing enough to proceed with a course of action? For policymakers, traditionally, knowledge is more of an absolute thing and is generated through, for example,

  • reviewing certain kinds of written evidence, mainly about what has happened in the past
  • educated people thinking really hard
  • asking an ‘expert’
  • quantitative data

This all means that often analysts and advisors in government know a lot about what is happening, but they know less about why – and they aren’t well-served to have new ideas about different kinds of solution. Design, by contrast, assumes that knowledge is always provisional, contextual and situated , and you can best know things through

  • doing, or testing,
  • immersing yourself in an environment,
  • or asking a real person about their experience of something.

So consulting the citizen, for example, whilst an obvious strategy for designers is not at all obvious as a valid way of generating knowledge – to policymakers.

There’s a second distinction – about what knowledge is for, and what makes it useful. Designers are normally interested in knowledge and insight that helps us move forward to doing something that works. For policymakers, the usefulness of knowledge is framed by two things:

  • a constant awareness of what will be acceptable and interesting to politicians
  • the ‘robustness’ of the evidence in question

So design ethnography, for instance, is both intriguing and problematic for policymakers – they like the insights, but not all of them might play well politically, and it’s not robust enough to do anything with. The insights from 6 ethnographic interviews isn’t enough to move ahead with a policy that will affect thousands of people.

So: do we try and blend design and policy practices to generate all these different kinds of knowledge to keep everyone happy? Or do we try and shift policymaking culture to work with other ways of knowing (which might be more suited to acting in complex situations)? And this is a question for all of us because it really comes back to the political requirement to demonstrate certainty about a particular course of action.

95_BaileyThe second point of friction is about performance and personality.

In order for senior civil servants to perform their key task of handling situations, and manoeuvring in order to strategically position the civil service in relation to politicians, there are certain accepted ways of appearing to be competent. Design seems to be challenging to many of these, primarily because of the need in design to admit that you don’t know, and perhaps dwell in ambiguity for a while. It’s very difficult for policymakers to admit to politicians, and for politicians to admit to the public, that they don’t know the answer. Which limits the amount of reflection and exploration it’s possible to do. Quashing ambiguity and providing certainty is usually privileged over taking time to find an appropriate solution to a problem.

And this trickles down into the ways people behave and conduct themselves – even the ways they have conversations. I think this is changing in other bits of government – but the policymaking culture in Whitehall is hierarchical, and competitive, and privileges people who are clever in certain ways. You might say it’s a culture dominated by the ideal of ‘rational man’. More feminine, collaborative, self-effacing modes – which is often what we see in social design – are less likely lead to promotion.

Collaborative design practices require a different way of performing and working as a group. So in fact there are benefits in design creating a space where policymakers are allowed to perform their roles in a different way. But getting the license to do this in the first place is hard.

And in relation to space, the third point is about material and aesthetic culture.

All organisations have an aesthetic, a set of ways the institution manifests itself to the senses. For the departments of government, and policymakers, the dominant aesthetic is closely tied to words and text, such as:

  • the circulation of pieces of paper with words written on them,
  • the act of sitting around in meetings with words on paper on the table,
  • the writing of ministerial submissions in a predefined format.

This practice is important again from an accountability perspective – there is literally a paper trail. And words are clearly felt to be reassuring evidence that proper analytical work has been done.

But aesthetic disruption has many advantages, not least in changing the way people relate to each other by changing the format of interactions, and the objects they interact in relation to. Visual ways of working and sharing ideas allow people to think about and understand things in a different way, and prompt a different set of thoughts. It gets people out of typical patterns of thinking.

However there is a question about how to create an audit trail of the decision making that happens in – for example – a collaborative workshop where people are talking their ideas through in relation to a model they’ve made out of cardboard and lego men. And of course eventually those ideas have to find their way into written form.

Slide8Ultimately it’s all underpinned by…

Unsurprisingly, a pervasive influence on practices is the framing of everything by the politics of the moment and place – political culture, priorities and narratives.

For example, in England at present all decisions are taken in the shadow of a very dominant austerity narrative – the bottom line is saving money and reducing the burden on the state in some way. Scottish politics has a markedly different tone – driven by the agenda around political and democratic renewal, and differentiating from England (crystallised in the ‘Scottish approach to government’). This puts a different spin on the ways that design practices are being mobilised.

And the structure of the political institution in question puts limits around what is possible: in a hierarchical organisation it’s difficult to get everyone involved in a collaborative design process. I can clearly see a far more democratic kind of platform where policy negotiations happen publicly through collaborative design methods and include politicians. But that would require a very different kind of institution.

Finally, whatever the political zeitgeist, for me it seems to be a moral imperative for anyone working in this context – and especially designers who might be introducing into government new ways of meddling in people’s lives – to think broadly and critically about the implications of policy-setting – to zoom out of the practices and practicalities and wonder a bit about the bigger picture.

Slide9So to conclude

What I’ve learned so far from my pilot study is that stewarding design practices through a political environment means developing a rich understanding of institutional culture – and maybe we should be aiming for a blended set of practices. And in relation to those bigger questions – here are some thoughts to end with:

  • Political culture, mood and narratives unavoidably set the parameters for the ethos of design practice
  • Bringing the machinery of government and the lives of people into closer contact should prompt critical reflection: is it purely instrumental, or empowering of people?
  • The language and practices of service, and design, derive from the market – perhaps we need a new concept of service, and design, in the context of democracy

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Whose utopia? Designing for a pluralist society

In June I spoke at a symposium at the ICA on design, fiction and social responsibility, called ‘Tomorrow Today’. This blog is adapted from the paper I presented. There is a write-up of the symposium in Disegno here.

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What role for design in shaping a better collective future?

A question those working in the design industry might ask at any moment in time, but perhaps particularly right now. In the UK we seem to be in a state of chronic political uncertainty: a surprising election result, a crumbling opposition, the rise of identity politics, a debate over the future of our relationship with Europe, and the ever-present possibility that the UK itself might fragment into smaller pieces. And all of this of course in the context of wider failures in the leadership and care of populations across the world.

We are also at a tipping point in the world of design, as the discipline – having argued for decades of its applicability beyond industrial systems – is starting to be taken seriously in other fields of application, including government policy, international development and corporate strategy, etc.[1] My own PhD is looking at the phenomenon of design going mainstream in government: new design practices are being improvised and tested all the time, in the design of websites, transactions and services, and in the making and testing of policy.

In infiltrating the world of government practice, design has found itself an even bigger platform for influence, which, of course, comes with responsibility. Clive Dilnot (Professor of Design Studies at Parsons in New York) has repeatedly argued of the need for design and designers to recognise that design in the ‘age of artifice’ necessarily involves an ethical dimension. He quotes Latour: “by expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers necessarily take up the mantle of morality as well.”[2] So in the context of government, in trying to use design to get to a better future, it behoves us to consider what ethos, what philosophy, what politics that design work embodies.

From self, to user, to collective.

Design has a rather long (and in many cases misguided) heritage of setting out ideal futures. Many more of these visions remained on paper than were realised in bricks and mortar. Nevertheless, the history of architecture and urban design is littered with the questionable experiments of men who thought they knew best. As a young architecture student I found many of these giants of the architectural canon hard to stomach. Take almost the entire output of Le Corbusier, for example. Projects such as the Ville Radieuse (image above), his plan for rationalising and improving Paris, are treated as icons of design history. Interesting manifestations of a moment in time, perhaps, but equally (to me) horrifying. There is something too constraining and prescriptive about this utopian vision, and others like it.

futurist image utopia 2

None of these ideal worlds – with their straight lines and abhorrence of mess – can possibly allow for the multiple different ways people want to live, for the pluralism inherent in any healthy society, and for the autonomy people need to feel over their environment in order to be happy. They are the visions of singular – often eccentric – individuals, that leave no room for the visions of others.

Admittedly we have now – in design – developed a different perspective, whereby we recognise that the people who are subjected to designs have a right to be taken into account in the act of designing. However, even if we have managed to be less egocentric, I think we’re still struggling with the challenge of designing for pluralism. We have become fixated on ‘the user’, with the individual and their behaviours.

usersThe terminology of user-centred design is becoming all pervasive in design culture, and not least in government. This is undoubtedly because it has the appeal of a sheen of logic to it: there is an optimal and ‘right’ design solution to be found if only we do our user research then follow some simple design steps (discovery, alpha, beta, live;[3] discover, define, develop, deliver[4]). Whilst the idea that public services might be arranged so as to be convenient and functional for the people they are meant to serve (rather than the institution delivering them), if the notion of user-centred design is unreflexively accepted as ‘good’, it means that certain questions are rarely asked, such as:

  • Which users are we talking about? What if their needs conflict?
  • Is it possible to isolate a single user from the world and practices they are embedded within and constituted by?
  • Are there functions other than use – and groups other than ‘users’ – that are relevant considerations for design?
  • Is it possible to design in a way that acknowledges plural perspectives, and functions beyond use?

The answer is, we very rarely design for a pluralist collective. We are unused to dealing with, or thinking about, ‘the social’, or ‘the political’. And this is something that designers (and policymakers) need to tackle if we want to get any better at making things better.

Conflict or consensus as a model for design

natalie jeremijenko

Natalie Jeremijenko’s Feral Robotic Dogs.

It’s already happening in some small corners of design practice: those working in critical design[5], or adversarial design[6], have consciously embodied a particular political philosophy in their work. They produce design interventions that point up a particular political issue – an inequality, a paradigm that needs challenging, a potential dystopian future – and many have taken inspiration from the theory of ‘agonistic pluralism’.

Agonistic pluralism (as put forward by, for example, Chantal Mouffe [7]) is one answer to the question of whether it’s possible to make political decisions in a way that acknowledges and lives with difference and conflict, or whether the ideal goal of politics is to achieve consensus. It positions itself against the ‘deliberative democracy’ model, which proposes that democratic authority and legitimacy are grounded in public reasoning, and that it is possible to reach rational consensus through public debate. Mouffe, and others, have argued that this ideal debate scenario is unrealistic: “the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all on matters of common concern is a conceptual impossibility”. For my money, deliberative democracy bears so little resemblance to reality that its value as a model is questionable.

The alternative put forward by agonistic pluralism proposes that the aim of politics is the creation of some kind of unity, somehow, but within an inevitable context of conflict and diversity. This requires converting antagonism – conflict between enemies – to agonism – the opposition of worthy adversaries. All parties agree to the terms of debate, accept the fact that consensus is temporary, and understand political reasoning as the constant process of contesting, opposing, negotiating, and generally working stuff out. In contrast to deliberative democracy, it recognises unequal power relations as inevitable, and conflict as legitimate, and does not try to suppress it. It accepts the fact that bringing any public deliberation to a close entails making a decision that will exclude some possibilities and interests.

The advantage of taking this view, is that it demands a vibrant clash of political positions, as a necessary condition of a healthy democracy. So that rather than a political sphere that purports to appeal to all, and somehow appeals to no-one (sound familiar?), diverse forms of democratic participation and citizenship become available.

Design in government: glossing over the cracks, or surfacing dissensus?

Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.

Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.

Adversarial design takes this philosophy and applies it in what are more or less acts of protest. But what is its relevance for how we use design in acts of governance? Do we think we are rationally proceeding to the most logical solution for a pre-determined set of users? Or might we use something like co-design as a practice of negotiation between different, maybe irreconcilable, perspectives? The former is likely to sound more immediately appealing to civil servants, judged as they are on their ability to traverse ambiguity and reach a decision quickly. It also fits more neatly with traditional linear models of policymaking.

However, anyone who has seen The Thick of It – let alone actually worked in government – will know that policymaking is anything but linear – or even, very often, evidence-based. Civil servants will acknowledge privately that what they do is highly political, is inflected by multiple competing drivers and interests of greater and lesser integrity, and progress requires clever manoeuvring. “Although policy is a big word that covers a lot of things, the centre ground is in making difficult – sometimes impossible – trade-offs between multiple competing aims, with limited resources, in a political context.”[8] The opaque world of Whitehall bureaucrats – the world in which design is making an entrance right now – is just as subject to the demands of agonism as the chamber of the House of Commons.

How we understand and deploy design in this context, then, and what we intend it to achieve, means making some decisions. Do we want to market design as providing solutions, presented as the logical end point of a rational process, and discussed in clear and definitive terms? Or might design (and in particular practices such as co-design) be treated as a form of negotiation between competing interests – between civil servants in different departments, or between government and publics – in the formation of policy ideas and decisions, and in the reconfiguring of actors around a particular problem?

I think we are starting to see design being used in both ways, in Westminster anyway. In the case of the latter, the language around these practices – and even the understanding of what is being done, is as yet much less definitively stated – it is self-consciously presented as emergent, and therefore it is vulnerable to being dismissed as ineffective. But it is also a way of doing design that can deal with the messiness of the world in which it is intervening. As such, it holds much greater potential for getting us, collectively, to a better future.

[1] https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-thinking-comes-of-age

[2] http://pdf.blucher.com.br/designproceedings/icdhs2014/0003.pdf

[3] https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/phases

[4] http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/design-methods-step-1-discover

[5] http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/home

[6] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/adversarial-design

[7] http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971349?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[8] From an interview with a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, undertaken as part of PhD research in May 2015

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User friendly elections


Does this need redesigning?

I seem to have heard a lot recently about how design can be used to increase democratic engagement. This is often a feature of election years – but the angst of this particular political moment seems to have upped the stakes. It came up at the last Design Culture Salon on citizenship and consumerism, at the ProtoPublics sprint workshop last week, and in the Design Commission’s recent essay collection, to name a few instances.  The idea is expressed in varying terms, and could mean anything from making political parties more approachable or creative, to enabling new kinds of democratic participation through digital means, or even devolving power to new political and democratic forms (top of Nicola Sturgeon’s to do list in Scotland apparently). What it often boils down to, though, is making the process of registering to vote, and voting itself, less awkward. There are indeed probably hundreds of ways we could use design to make engaging with the electoral system more user friendly. But should we?

Well of course on the face of it this sounds sensible. This year I was one of the millions who glided seamlessly through the new online registration process (thank you, GDS). But in the back of my mind a little voice is playing devil’s advocate. Is this one of those spaces where design should think before it treads – or at least be very self-conscious about which values it leaves at the door? While I here risk sounding like a privileged white person failing to appreciate the barriers to democratic engagement for other demographics, this gut feeling was corroborated this week by something I heard from two philosophers (also, admittedly, privileged white people), Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett, discussing Crawford’s new book.

‘The World Beyond Your Head’ revolves around a feature of the contemporary condition I’m sure we all recognise – the problems of constant distraction and fragmented attention. He proposes the idea of attention as a resource (collectively we share an ‘attentional commons’), which is in the 21st century being ‘aggressively appropriated by private interests’. Public spaces, spare moments in our lives, and spare corners of our screens are filling up with advertising, often targeted. This is pitched to us in the language of freedom – those offering us choice are only trying to increase our individual liberty. Possibly, but constant bombardment can also leave us feeling that we have little control. He argues that we should much more actively demand and protect our right ‘not to be addressed’, our right to silence, and space – prerequisites for the ability to think.

In his talk he then made a little conceptual leap to the development of skilled practice (harking back to his first craft-oriented book) as a mode of engaging with things meaningfully, of generating agency, creating moments of sustained attention, of joining the world (not fleeing it) by investing in something difficult. However for the purposes of this discussion I want to stick with the idea of how we choose to ‘spend’ our attention.

Both Sennett and Crawford referenced a theory of attention being commanded by ‘difficult’ things, and positioned ‘user friendliness’ as against cultivating attention. The language of ‘user friendly’ comes philosophically from an individualistic view of the world in which we all have unfettered choice, and are free agents whose attention has to be captured and monetised. Making something user friendly means removing all the barriers, reducing the required investment of time or thinking on the part of the individual, and making it as likely as possible for someone to do what it is you want them to do. The perma-culture of user friendly tells us that we don’t need to know how to engage skilfully with the world, as someone else will smooth out the creases and hand us the packaged version.

So perhaps we should resist the concept of ‘user friendly’ when it comes to politics, democracy – and voting. Democracy has been hard won, politics (by which I mean the constantly unfolding act of negotiating how we live together) is serious, complex and difficult, and citizenship is a privilege. Why should it all be made to seem unproblematic, or rightfully ours, or handed to us on a plate? And on what basis do we think making voting user-friendly would increase meaningful political engagement anyway? This proposition seems to be addressing the issue from the wrong direction. Instead of using design to smooth the edges of a single interaction between citizen and state, perhaps, if political apathy is a problem, we ought to be thinking about how people can become more skilled in the practice of citizenship. Rather than asking how we can just get people to vote, we should be asking rather how we generate sustained attentiveness to the question of being a citizen.

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Filed under Craft, Culture, Design, Philosophy, Politics