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.

ville radieuse

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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Filed under Architecture, Design, Politics

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