some notes on Transition Design

CMU School of Design has started developing the notion of ‘Transition Design.’ A model has been developed (by Terry Irwin, Gideon Kosoff and I) that proposes the interrelation of Visions for Transition, Theories of Change, Posture and Mindset, New Ways of Designing. The following are draft notes on the first two.

Visions for Transition

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When at A, you need a vision of B to motivate you to move. You might only get to C, but from C, you can see ‘around a corner’ as it were, to other possible futures D and E. With this idea of ‘seeing around corners’ you avoid the fact that B is never going to be that visionary because it is always going to be the product of worldview at A.

In sum:
1) we don’t do enough of visioning (nor forecasting)

2) when we do do visioning, it is mostly done badly (e.g., horrible architectural ‘artist’s impression’ photoshops), in ways that don’t inspire desire. (What we need is vis.comm design meets media design to create high fidelity futures that can compete with marketing’s visions, or cinema’s dystopias.)

3) when we do do visioning well, there is the converse danger that we are just projecting forward as desirable an idealized version of the current world-view (this is my worry that pictures of ‘cosmopolitan localism’ often look like ‘new urbanism’s slightly denser, and still very white, suburbia).

4) consequently, visioning should be self-consciously situational: B is desirable from A, but on the way to B,
you can glimpse D or E from C as more desirable than B.

Theories of Change

1) Despite design being defined by Herb Simon as intentional change to preferred states, or by Alain Findeli as transforming state A into state B, most designers do not see themselves as agents of (social) change. They see themselves as

  • quality improvers: taking current situations/technologies and making them better (functionally and/or aesthetically)
    or
  • problem-solvers: creating a communication/product/environment that better enable people to accomplish tasks within existing infrastructures/businesses

2) If designers do see themselves as change agents, it is often with only-ever-assumed rationales for how change will happen. For example:

  • ordinary people, and especially business, policy or scientistic people, cannot see the outside-the-box short-circuit change possibilities that creatives like designers can
  • since awareness is more than half the problem of change, designers with their skills in making the complex simple, and information affecting, can accelerate awareness-based change
  • if it is sexy enough, people will buy it and so be changed
  • technology is the answer, it’s just that people cannot take it up because it is not user-friendly enough

3) The field of social design, especially when following ‘research-based design methods,’ often has more articulated rationales for how what designers do enable change. The design process has a commitment to immersive qualitative research, even to the extent of participatory designing, that can empower people in change-making.

4) To be serious about change, as is the ambition of ‘transition design,’ designers need to have deep, well-articulated and applied understandings about how change happens. Transition Designers should always be able articulate the ‘Theory of Change’ that is warranting their interventions.

5) A ‘Theory of Change’ is a model of the system in which design interventions are taking place. It identifies key components and the relations between those components, as well as other systems that may lie alongside the focus system, or systems within which the focus system resides. The model allows responsible predictions about how interventions will change that system -  and those changes could involve the emergence of new components, relations, and contiguous or nested systems. A Theory of Change is never fixed or complete, but always being modified by what is learned about the system being modeled by error-friendly, more-or-less-reversible interventions into that system.

6) There are a range of sources of Theories of Change with which Transition Designers are familiar and from which they generate their design-orienting models:

  • living systems
    especially principles of emergence and transitions in ecosystems, but also ideas about co-evolution, parasitism, virality and migration. Where the former is the slow result of chaos, the latter can be rapid when conditions of resilience finally tip into a series of changes that cascade chaotically through a system.
  • socio-technical systems
    especially ‘Transition Management Theory’s principles of multi-level, multi-stage change. The multiple levels comprise: larger-scale path-dependent infrastructures and ideologies at the macro level, everyday practices – socially hegemonic, routinized constellations of devices, skills and meanings – at the meso level, and niche sites of experimentation at the micro level. Transition Theory, drawing on Sociology of Technology Studies and Diffusion of Innovation research, holds that change requires the staged convergence of a fracturing at the macro level, experiments with new devices at the micro level, and the redesign of practices at the meso level to develop the changed socially cohesive skills and meanings that could take up those experimental devices within new macro contexts.
  • social systems
    especially all that is known the political history of community organizing and social learning.
  • personal systems
    especially all that is known about the (social) psychology of behavior change and the managing of life-stage and health transitions (link to Posture and Mindset)

7) The Theories of Change of Transition Designers are necessarily design-centric. They privilege designerly aspects of change that are invariably missing from non-design, humanities and social science based models of change:

  • - sense-making, making-visible-the-invisible and visioning-the-future (link back to Visioning)
  • - materiality and usefulness (link forward to New Design Practices)

In other words, designerly Theories of Change see that what is missing from many existing Theories of Change is attention to the role of designed artifacts (communications, products, environments). In terms of ‘socio-technical systems’ above, designed artifacts materialize the macro, bind the meso, and so must be the site of experimentation at the micro.

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“Design Transitions” Expert Interview

The following is the transcript of a verbal interview (conducted in May 2012), along with 3 longer emailed responses at the end (written in July 2012), prepared by Joyce Yee for the book Joyce and her colleagues have just published: Design Transitions [BIS, 2013]. A shorter version of this interview appears in that book. A pdf of what follows is available at my academia.edu site.


Cameron Tonkinwise has recently joined the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) as the Director of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon University and Chair of the Design PhD Committee. Prior to this, Cameron was the Associate Dean for Sustainability at Parsons, The New School for Design in New York. Before coming to New York, Cameron was the Director of Design Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and prior to that, Executive Officer of Change Design, a not-for-profit independent research organization (formerly EcoDesign Foundation). His doctoral research concerned the educational theories of Martin Heidegger and he continues to investigate what the ontological philosophy of Heidegger can teach designers. His current research focuses on ‘dematerialization design’ — enhancing societal sustainability by facilitating less materials intense lifestyles through design: in short, sharing.

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Briefly, please summarize what you do in your role and why you do it what you do.

So my current role is Associate Dean Sustainability at Parsons, the New School for Design, and my job there is to try and enhance the ecological literacy of undergraduates and graduate students at Parsons. My role is to increase the presence of sustainable design in all the different disciplines of design at Parsons, which is pretty much every discipline. I also have a role there which may be of more interest to your project in so far as I am the coordinator of the design area of study of an Environmental Studies degree program which runs across the entire university and in that instance my job is teaching design to non-designers.

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The programme sounds really interesting. Can you tell us more about it?

In American parlance it’s a BA and BS in Environmental Studies and one third of the required courses are effectively in or about design. The other two thirds of the programme are Eco-system Science and Environmental Policy and Planning. The students are basically getting Science, Social Science and Design. In that case the version of design they are getting is very much a Design Thinking version of design. We are creating, using the language of Harry Collins, an interactional expertise. Collins describes interactional expertise by using the example of a commentator on a sport; they haven’t actually played the sport and they probably couldn’t play the sport but they can certainly talk expertly about the sport with sports people and even advise them on how best to play the sport. In a sense we are looking at a transactional expertise in design so these students aren’t designers and can’t design but they recognise the role of design in the unsustainability of our society and in mechanisms of bringing about its enhanced sustainability. They would be the best of all possible clients for a designer.

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Did you set the program up when you were there or was it already running?

It’s half and half. There was already the idea of creating a university wide degree program in order to bring all the different facets of The New School together. It was a very federated, strange institution and the president at the time wanted a degree program that would run across the different divisions. As a result, somebody had come up with this tripartite structure that was very loose and so essentially it was my job to fill in what it would mean to teach design to non designers to these primarily liberal arts students.

There is a very interesting problem in the United States that might not occur to people from English and Australian backgrounds: universities in America have an unusual commitment to the concept of the liberal arts. They have a much more early German romantic version of the university than I had anticipated or to put it the other way around, universities in Australia and the UK are extraordinarily neoliberal by comparison. This means that they’ve given up any sort of major commitment to the idea of a liberal art. Whereas the way undergraduate programs are licensed or accredited by different States in the United States is in terms of a set percentage of mandated liberal arts. For example, the Bachelor of Arts has 70% liberal arts and a Bachelor of Science has 50% and a Bachelor in Fine Arts [the primary degree for undergraduate design], which is about as pre-professional as you can get, has 30%. The way they define liberal arts is also strange. No one really has a good definition but in the end it’s something that you can’t make money from. For example if you learn the history of business planning it’s a liberal art, but if you learn business planning it’s not a liberal art. This is one of the big dilemmas in the American system when you talk about design. Normally, design that is experienced in a studio and is taught by a practitioner cannot be considered a liberal art because essentially a studio is an apprentice model in which someone is teaching you a marketable and practical skill. However, with the changes in the nature of design education, people are spending a lot more time doing critical design, speculative design or design research in a design studio. In that case you might be giving them some fairly significant social issues to negotiate and what they might come up with are not so much solutions as interventions. Those interventions might be revealing of the situation rather than correcting, in which case you couldn’t really say that the studio is producing a marketable skill. It’s producing an analytical skill that you’d expect from a liberal arts course; and so one of the interesting things in the American situation is to try and argue whether there could be studio based liberal arts.

Now all of this is very academic and possibly not of interest to your book in the way that you’ve described it except in so far as it’s part of the debate here about what design thinking is. If design thinking is an innovation tool for business, is it an instrumental tool? In the US university context it’s definitely not a liberal art; but then on the other hand, if it’s a radical innovation in the creation of new knowledge it’s definitely a liberal art. If it’s challenging of the status quo then perhaps it is a liberal art; but if it’s just a set of methods for more human-centred empathy-based way of proceeding then it wouldn’t be a liberal art. So in a funny way the debate that goes on in American institutions about how to get design thinking into design schools is part of the larger issue of questioning whether design thinking is just another tool box in capitalism’s perpetual search for new markets or whether design thinking is a rethinking of the way in which society organises itself and attempts to try to understand people differently in order to actually shift the nature of values and value production. So that’s a very long answer for the way in which the position I’ve currently got interfaces with the question of design thinking; and of course it’s particularly crucial when you bring design thinking to sustainability. Are you in the business of making business-as-usual more sustainable or are you in the more revolutionary business of trying to make redundant current business models and whole ways of being economical? Are you actually trying to create new ways in which society resources itself? That’s a very different kind of project for designthinking.

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Where are you attempting to position design thinking between these two positions?

I think we are attempting to do both – or even all three. For example the design subjects in the environmental studies degree programs do deliver some design skills, straight up design skills (not liberal art design skills) to the students, primarily communication design and information visualisation in particular. These students should be adept at the kind of visual thinking that you might associate with design thinking, but also with designing itself, especially in relation to practice-based versions of everyday living. This means taking a lot from ‘practice theory’ as it’s emerging at the margins of sociology and anthropology on the one hand and material cultural studies on the other, including technology studies. Practice-based versions of society teach that the basic unit of society are practices, and that practices are constellations of habits, meanings and devices. These are the things that lock us into particular unsustainable ways of being and that you need to change if you’re going to create more sustainable ways of living. Those skills would service your regular business-as-usual attempts at creating more sustainable offerings. Every innovation is going to need a shift in the practice ecosystem of household living or everyday ways of working and in those cases, these are just tools for better understanding of how people operate and how to make interventions in that space. However, in the background is where design thinking starts to head towards service design thinking, towards product service system, sustainability strategy and the general project of dematerialising society, making society less materials intense. You will naturally have to start thinking about more revolutionary propositions on how it might it be possible to decouple use and ownership for example. You don’t need to own what you use and so could you start thinking about the kind of business models and service systems associated with car share schemes or tool sharing or co-housing. How do you begin to get society to be less materials intense? In relation to this version of design thinking, it is really looking at thoroughly new business models that don’t bear any relation to current forms of profit and loss, valuation and customer relation management.

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How is the programme received?

It’s difficult to answer. On the one hand the students do incredibly interesting work that I’m not seeing anywhere else. Their thesis presentations are very interesting combinations of a demonstration of scientific literacy and an understanding of regular forms of social change in terms of community organising or planning or environmental policy and regulation. Then on the third hand they have rich modes of presentation much richer than you would normally expect from environmentalists and they have a sensitivity to social change which is much more material. The evidence is that this is a rich and powerful combination and something that hasn’t been seen in environmental studies to date, which conventionally heads towards policy. In terms of where they go, we’ve only had three years of graduates and it’s into a depressed job market. Lastly it’s difficult to know where these people would operate. They’re either very entrepreneurial government agents or they’re working in start-ups or small not for profits that have new ways of approaching these issues. You probably won’t see them get corporate jobs; corporations couldn’t really understand the way in which they’re thinking and working. The last way to answer that question is to say that unfortunately The New School is rather idiosyncratic and in fact did it completely the wrong way around. They created an inter-divisional programme to try and get the university together; which meant that the programme totally falls between institutional gaps – they actually should have created inter-divisionality and then substantiated it with a programme. You can’t change a university through a degree programme; so the second half of the story is that I am in the middle of leaving the New School because it’s just proved to be very frustrating and that’s partly an answer to your question about what’s happening to those students.

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What is the new role that you are taking up in CMU then?

The role is twofold. Primarily my job is going to be working with faculty to renovate Richard Buchanan’s old PhD program at CMU. There are very few PhD programs in America and there are none that are wholly focused on design and understanding design. They’re normally social science in relation to design such as those at North Eastern and one in North Carolina State University and IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) has a programme but they’re haven’t really taken off in the States. I miss desperately having PhD students so I was very keen to go to this job and essentially I’ve pitched to them the creation of a practice-based model of a PhD that would be about practice redirection for mid-career practitioners, not academic training which is what PhDs normally are in America. So that’s 60% of the job. 40% of the job is creating a new design studies curriculum for the undergraduate programmes. CMU is one of the leading product, communication and interaction design schools in the US and they used to have a design studies programme, again that Richard Buchanan created which needs to be revived. They have very little liberal arts and so part of my job is to create a new vertical core for the product, interaction and visual communication designers.

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What are your current views of the changing roles and practices of design?

I will give you an American answer to this and then I’m starting to have an emerging Australian answer to this. I have been investigating things there and they’re changing quite significantly. In the US you’re actually seeing quite a concerted backlash at the moment and it’s not just people like Bruce Nussbaum saying, ‘design thinking’s over, let’s come up with creativity quotient,’ or something. It’s still the same idea but to some extent you’re seeing a significant move by leading professional organisations to attempt to jump on the grave of design thinking and reassert the importance of a traditional disciplinary practice and a craft based expertise. One of the indicators of this for example would be Paula Scher, who has been a long time principal at Pentagram and a very old, established and leading voice in old style visual identity branding. She posted a blog a few months ago against the AIGA’s latest competition. The AIGA, which is the main body for designers here in America, is having only one competition this year. It is called ‘Justified’ and to enter ‘Justified’ you have to provide lots of documentation of what the client wanted, what research you did and how the project was evaluated; very little concerns the aesthetics of the final design itself. Paula Scher has just derided this as the bureaucratisation of design and everything that’s wrong with a strategic approach to design and design thinking. In her opinion, it is totally missing beauty and affect and what is actually exceptional about design. It was just a nasty spray by a dying old voice but it’s received huge support and in a funny way I would say that you can see an attempt by lots of people to think that the pendulum has swung too far toward strategic design and client- and customer-centred-ness.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this controversy, but several years ago a design firm redesigned a famous orange juice but unfortunately the customers just hated it and it had to get pulled off the shelves. They returned to their old packaging at vast expense about two weeks later. Paula Scher notoriously said “if this gets pulled from the shelves it’s the worst thing that’s happened to graphic design since user testing”. This is the kind of attitude that is emerging and in a way I would say there’s quite a backlash happening. There are a number of firms that have established consultancies in the design thinking and strategic design space. All the major companies like Frog, Smart, Continuum and IDEO very clearly offer strategic advice but lots of other more established firms are reasserting the importance of a craft based version of design. I think that’s interesting to note and I would say that this is part of the same kind of backlash that you’re seeing against science in relation to global warming. It’s a version of the anti-modernisation that Ulrich Beck talks about in relation to risk society. The only way to navigate risk is through participation, and when you start moving into participation, your old modernist institutions come under threat; and sometimes they react, as Ulrich Beck, says “barbarically”. I think what you’re seeing now is a kind of barbarism and an attempt to get back to a design fundamentalism in reaction to something that is much less able to be controlled by experts. In a weird way, design thinking gets coded here as a loss of control by experts, an excessive democratisation of expert designing. People will blur design thinking with crowd sourcing in order to rubbish it. How will this affect the market place, I’m not sure? I have enough faith that the neo-liberal machine will crunch on and that this kind of design expertise will fall by the wayside. Firms like Google have an internal design unit but they don’t appear to really do design. They just do massive iteration and massive user testing. The hideous Gmail is the result but there’s nothing you can do about that machine. No Paula Scher is actually going to convince these young algorithm addicted guys that they should be redeploying Swiss Typography.

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It’s interesting just to note that the interest in the loss of power has been noted with the people we have been speaking to. Designers are feeling that they’re losing power too, not just the experts, and it seems to be an important theme emerging in our discussions about the future of design.

Yes. I think the other thing to recognise is that these changes happen at the leading edge and then there’s a lag when they finally get taken up in design education. Even then, there’s a lag when all those graduates finally hit the market place but in the meantime corporations, businesses and people themselves are calling for something different. To some extent I’d say this is an exact replication of what happened when computers arrived. You had all these people who’d been taught using scalpels in the marketplace. They were now middle management or principals in design firms and there were all these calls for computerisation of the process by clients and the people who had the expertise were the youngest graduates in the firm. It caused a real crisis at that point and there was a whole market that emerged for evening master classes in which middle aged people could re-skill in computers. I get the feeling that you’re seeing a similar kind of thing happening in relation to design thinking. The client is asking for research from principals who unless they’re progressive don’t have any understanding of what they’re talking about. They ask their middle level designers to do it; those designers quickly read a book by Tim Brown to work out how to do this. In fact the real people who’ve got extensive experience about this are the ones who’ve possibly done an MFA or an MA or an MS which required them to conduct a lot of research. The kinds of people who have good track record and a whole set of techniques and skills for doing this are recent graduates and young people. I think it’s that kind of power dynamic. It’s not that they’re losing power with clients, it’s almost like they’re losing power within their own firms by having to learn from the younger generation how to do this kind of work. I think you need to conduct an embedded anthropology in a couple of firms to see how they navigate this issue. I think it would be interesting to see if the younger designers feel empowered or feel disempowered because they actually have the tools that the middle managers need but don’t want them to get credit for. A lot of design thinking rhetoric these days that I’ve seen more recently just at more commercial conferences is all about how you make the client think that this is their idea and how you make the client look good realising that when presenting it themselves – and it’s the same problem internal to design firms: how do I as a young designer do the design research but then hand it over to the principal or the middle level designer and make them feel like these ideas are theirs?

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Is this a paradigm shift or is it an extension of the discipline?

I think that’s the tension at the moment. I think its being read as an extension to the discipline. There are a lot of people trying to use the key skills of a designer in the research process. So for example people with visual and material thinking are the people who should be doing the researching. This approach is very different from getting an ethnographer to conduct commercial anthropology. At the least, you need both designer and ethnographer to conduct the research, which is always the IDEO approach. You need people who’ve got T shaped skills in a design area and you need anthropologists. To some extent it’s an extension and I would say, and I’m an advocate so I’m biased in saying this, it’s not yet a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense is when the kinds of questions being asked are not even understood. When Paula Scher had that outburst, it might look like a paradigm shift because she is unable to understand the aim of the ‘Justified’ competition because she sees no value in any of that. In her article, Paula literally calls it fluff or noise, meaning it’s the rubbish you create to show a client in order to make it look like they’re getting what they’re paid for – when in fact the design is something the designer came up with on the back of napkin. At that point it’s starting to feel like an anomaly in the Kuhnian sense. Part of the reason why people are trashing design thinking is that it tried to market itself as an extension.

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And you don’t think it is?

I don’t think it should be and again I’m biased because I’m really not interested in helping business at all. I’m in the business of making business go out of business. I want ‘business as usual’ to just disappear because it’s something that is destroying the planet socially and ecologically. This is the reason why I’m not interested in innovating for existing businesses. I’m interested in creating new ways in which society resources itself. Business is a means and it’s certainly not the end. To that extent, I want a paradigm shift and I want design thinking to represent an entirely new way of understanding humans and an entirely new way of understanding households and understanding societies. And I think it is, or could be, when you start to think about practices and their materiality – which the whole history of western thinking has so far failed to do. The number of philosophers who’ve actually managed to give a good account of making can be counted on one hand. Plato didn’t understand it at all, Aristotle has a philosophy of making, Marx, probably; and Hannah Arendt talks about it – and that’s it. You really have to then jump all the way to Bruno Latour to understand what is going on when makers make. I think a primary cause of our unsustainability is the absence of an adequate understanding of the materiality of maing in the entire history of western thinking. We are unsustainable because we don’t really understand our own material practices.

Design thinking should represent the paradigm shift that says ‘I’m going to have a Copernican revolution which realigns not humans with nature but humans with things. I really need to start thinking differently about things and I don’t think of them as economic units and I don’t think about them as chattels, as property, as stuff I own. I think about them in terms of their use value’. The number of people who’ve really understood use value is: Marx – but he got it wrong. So it is quite amazing how ignorant we are about design.

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So that was the American viewpoint. What about the Australian context?

Australia were leaders in thinking about sustainability and they were leaders in design research and particularly practice-based design research. However, what I’m seeing at the moment is the total re-ephemeralisation of design somewhat as a result of the way in which design in Australia has, I would say, been ‘architectured’. This term I’m using as short hand for people who are obsessed with facade and large scale, and not human scale and not inside-out. Australians are spending a lot of time thinking quite technically about creative industries, landscape urbanism and scenography. I think it is really problematic: they are appropriating the research legitimation of design thinking and just handing it over to a society of spectacle. It is not a coincidence that Australia is the last place on the planet to be building Gehry’s. Everyone else has given up on them but Australia is still doing it. Helsinki for example just said no to a Geary commission. It might be because Austrlalia is at the moment a wealthy country being flashy; a lot of money is being spent on large-scale, architectural design. I’m just glimpsing this and I don’t really have any substantiation for it but they do seem to be using design research and it’s technical creativity utterly in relation to innovation and with almost no attention to social innovation. There are people doing world-leading government-centred service design in Australia but I really think they are about to be marginalised. It feels like ASIX – which is the Australian version of SIX, the Social Innovation Exchange [no longer - see http://www.tacsi.org.au/ instead] – was a bright star two or three years ago, but they just don’t seem to be where the funding is going now – it least in relation to higher education research budgets. It’s only a hunch and I hope I’m wrong.

The question of design and social innovation is again at a really important turning point. On the one hand design is being belittled as creative ways of doing participation when conducting community development work. There is a recognition that communities should own some of the services provided by governments for example, and that sometimes those services generate more value when they are co-created. To do that you need post-it notes and brainstorming sessions, and as a result design thinking gets deployed. However, it gets deployed totally as a means and in that case design stops thinking about the larger systems in which it is operating. One of the basic principles of modernist design is that you always design a chair for instance with a view to the next higher system which is the room, and then the building and finally the building to the society. I’m just not seeing that at all in relation to design-based social innovation. People seem to believe that a way the community expresses the problem is the way the problem should be solved and you just provide the tools for them to solve it. To that extent design has become the handmaiden of the neo-liberalisations of government. In the UK, for example, ‘The Big Society’ is a rhetoric for the defunding of community services; in exchange for the defunding of community services you get the handing over of these services to people under the guise of ‘empowerment.’ Consequently there needs to be a lot more work on what design those social innovations should take. There needs to be much more critique going on and a lot more research on the longer term strategies. I’m just not seeing sufficient evaluation work; I’m not seeing sufficient research in fact. It’s like design has stopped being about research, which is where the current deign thinking trend began, and instead it is only an uncritical tool for enabling participation.

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Do you not think also it’s difficult to evaluate because social impact are often difficult to measure?

Certainly that’s a problem and it’s a problem that design should be in involved in. I think that’s always been design’s problem and if anybody has skills in trying to persuade people about value by pataphysically using measurement, designers should. Designers have always been the ones who’ve tried to describe the value that their designs bring to a company. It might be a jump in sales when they have redesigned their logo but obviously it’s a lot more than that. It’s allowed the workforce to cohere around a new style and a new creative management practice. Branding in design was never just about measurable increase in sales and when it was, it wasn’t really design. In the same way I think designers should be in there thinking about social impact. It has to use the measures that it’s funders demand but it should be much more creative about that. I’m really not seeing enough research or work on that. There were moments in which people were talking about fourth generation evaluations but it seems to have faded again. This is due to the kind of urgency of the situation in the UK with the complete un-funding of social services, meaning that people have to rush in there and do something, anything. When somebody asks for a metric, one is pulled off the shelf because there’s a panic about having to go to the next social crisis. The US is in the same situation but in a less urgent way in. No one trusts the government so it has to have extraordinarily robust measures for anything it does which means that it only ever does very instrumental things.

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Do you think the fact that there is enough design research or enough in-depth evaluation happening in this space is because designers aren’t really in that position to control or to negotiate a more holistic and deeper view of the project?

I’m never one to accept when designers whinge about not having enough power. I just think you’ve just got to go out there and get it. Design is a network sport, in which you have to win briefs, then you have to win the nature of the brief and then you have to win the realisation of the brief. It’s a constantly agonistic domain and it’s never not a fight. If I had to come up with a summary conclusion I would go back and say that one of the big problems has been the role of the universities. Universities are in this ambivalent position. On the one hand they have created the research culture that has enabled a lot of the increasing of power and increased value in design. When design moved from polytechnics to universities, schools had to become research active so they started developing higher degrees. This meant that schools had to teach research which led to research trained designers who then move into industry. Design thinking to some extent is the off-shoot of the ‘researchification’ of design as a mutual professional discipline. On the flip side, as you participate as a researcher in a neo-liberal university you chase targeted funding and targeted funding will have EU-specified frameworks or priorities in the Australian ARC system or worse, you have the industry partnerships in the American system. Consequently the only research that is getting done is project specific. No one funds anybody doing larger scale metacritical evaluative work but that’s exactly what design academics should be doing right now. That’s the role of the university. It’s the Kantian definition of the university as the crucial arbiter of what the profession is doing. Universities should be the space in which critical design studies is occurring, in the same way in which you have critical legal studies for example. But this just isn’t happening anywhere. You can ask, ‘where are people critically evaluating social design projects?’ You see thousands of celebrations but I’ve never seen anyone game to critique it. I think it’s really important that there should be a lot more of that unfunded critical work and that is actually where design academics need to be showing leadership.

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POST INTERVIEW QUESTIONS


You talked about Design Thinking as having 3 roles/levels. The first is linked with innovating existing businesses, in your words ‘business as usual’. The second is linked with using DT as radical innovation, creating new services and offering new ways of doing things. The final role is focused on rethinking our current economic model of the world. As we understood it, you are more interested in the last role, in your words ‘making current businesses unsustainable’ and using DT as a approach to understanding what this means, and linked to the idea of materiality. We are really interested in this idea, can you expand more on this?

It is not so clear in the interview – I think I lost track of the counting in my head. I think I meant that the 3 roles/levels are:

1) The thinking that designers do when designing, which is a combination of

a) material thinking (about what materials and things can and can’t do (Louis Kahn’s ‘what does the brick want?’ or Donald Schon’s ‘material back-talk’)),

b) visual thinking (testing sketched forms for buildability, operability, usability in imagined contexts)

c) empathy (an ethnographic sensibility toward not just what people say they are doing, or even what they are actually doing, but to what they would/should do if only they could)

2) The application of the way designers think, by designers or non-designers, to the solving of problems beyond those normally considered design problems – where normal designing concerns the making of things that people will buy to make their lives more efficient, productive and/or pleasurable, whereas not-normal problems (often mischaracterized as ‘wicked problems’) to which design thinking gets applied are more strategy- and systems-based situations, like innovation (whether commercial – increasing market-share or creating new markets on the one hand – or social – helping people to transform their lifestyles so that they can be more healthy or employable).

Both of the kinds of innovation that result from the kind of design thinking in 2) remain, to my mind, innovative within as-usual circumstances. No matter how innovative the new strategic direction that comes from a design thinking consultancy, the proposition would still involve a business, with employees, charging customers for a product-service. And such a proposition can only be profitable if on-going social and ecological damage are externalized as costs (unless the whole system moves to whole-of-life costing, no individual business can afford to). This is what I mean by business-as-usual. More controversial would be say that most social innovations, especially those that involve designers or at least design thinking, are also not radical innovations. The mere fact that social innovations are distinct from commercial innovations is an indication that social innovations are not yet disrupting the larger organization of society – or worse, social innovations in the form of social entrepreneurship allow the commercialization of the social, rather than the socialization of commerce. to put it more starkly, what is often innovative about social innovations is how they enable people to cope with their situations rather change them: for instance, I might need to use a design toolkit to DIY my health or food or education because I am excluded from mainstream commercial provision of those goods and services; but my DIYing perpetuates my exclusion – I can continue and they can continue without either being changed.

All of which is a very long way of saying that I think there is 3rd radical, because disruptive, innovation potential to design thinking. I think that the way designers think accesses a really new ways of organizing our societies. And I think this because of what I consider design thinking to be, as per 1):


Material Thinking

Our societies are unsustainable because we are good modernists: which means we are thoroughly ambivalent – we think that well-being comes from material things, but we pay no heed to the materiality of those things. As Twitchell I think once said, the problem with consumerism is that it is not materialist enough – it doesn’t in the end behave as if it really values material things. Only this double-bind explains on the one hand, how our houses can end up stuff with so many things, and on the other hand, how we can have systems of value that are centered around things and yet can’t account for the ongoing social and ecological cost of those things. The only people in our society who truly understand the materiality of all the things that stuff our households are designers. Good designers know the value of materials, know what materials can and can’t do, why they are good for one device and not another, where they come from and where they go. Within the material thinking of design thinking lies a way out of our unsustainable modernist ambivalence – a radical, Copernican potential to really valorize the products of design, putting materiality at the center of value production, with circular economies of product take-back and materials recovery logistically structured into how society resources itself. (I am also alluding here to some of the work that is occurring in philosophy at the moment concerning Object Oriented Ontology – Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology for instance, or Latour’s work on a Parliament of Things.)


Visual Thinking

Our societies are unsustainable because they are hopeless at imagining the future, let alone factoring those futures into present value systems. Science fiction (which as John Thackara has pointed out is, at its best, social fictions, imagining very different social structures, rather than just techno-fictions where the employed bourgeois family households of the present are just kitted out with new gizmos) remains a marginal area of literature, and future studies is an even more marginal discipline (even though the purpose of a university is to forsee with a critical eye, the consequences of the present). Designers however work in realm of futuring: they create rich pictures of future scenarios where both material environments and lifestyles co-evolve. They not only fantasize about these futures, but they critically evaluate their feasibility, and argue on behalf of the futures that they evaluate to be preferrable. They unfortunately must do all this within the sheer short-termism of market economies, which is precisely why designing must break free from the professional service of design consultancies – hence the radical potential of design(erly) thinking


Empathy

Our societies are finally unsustainable because we do not practice what we preach. We claim to be modern products of the Enlightenment, engaged in basically humanist enterprises, yet we have created economic structures and organizations that are dehumanizing. Households filled with comforts and toys are needed because employment is unsatisfying for most people; and when employment is satisfying it mostly because it still involves successfully producing more stuff. So our material unsustainability is codependent upon our fundamentally non-empathetic society. You need to wonder for example why businesses are currently finding the creative empathetic research aspects of design thinking such a radical breakthrough? If businesses have not in the past been attentive to the needs of customers in empathetic ways, what were they doing – just foisting products onto a market that had no choice. This is what I mean when I claim that our societies to date have been unsustainably non-empathetic (or non-empathetically unsustainable). Designerly empathy is innovative in that regard. But it is radically innovative when enough heed is paid to the way in which designers are not just empathetic to people in the way social researchers usually are – that is, listening to what people say in order to understand what their values are – but are rather empathetic with people as practical, as engaged in habitual practices that are fused with all the things that make up their material environment. I am alluding here to what has been called ‘the practice turn’ in sociology and anthropology, the recognition that a fundamental unit of social analysis is a practice, which comprises 1) devices and infrastructures, 2) skills, know-how and habits, 3) meanings and identities. Social researchers usually on focus on 3), sometimes 2), but only designers bring 1) operationally into the mix. And this more comprehensive form of empathy has radical potential, because it is more accurate account of how we live; of why for example, we can intend to be very sustainable (3), and even know how to be sustainable (2), but not have the material opportunity to do it (1). Real social change requires all 3 – this is design at its most powerful.

To sum up, think of it this way: the modernist dream for design was functional perfection (this is Jan Michl’s phrase); for any problem, there was the perfect solution, and its form would follow. This idealism failed to recognize that humans are changeable and infinite, and that as a result problems are always framed, in modernist times, by capitalist economic systems, systems that restrict the materialist values, future visions and human-centeredness with which designers can work. Nevertheless, ideally, design, released from conventional, commercial design consulting, in the way design thinking hopes, would be freer to create real and lasting value, not just profitable systems of exchange value. We can glimpse this idealism in the emergence of different forms of the peer-to-peer sharing economy, where I can find just the thing I need from a neighbor nearby, who I may or may not pay – the disintermediation promised us by the internet appears now (at the convergence of urban informatics and social software) more or less achievable – except of course businesses are desperate to work out how to interrupt those efficient markets with noisily distracting advertising for things we don’t really need. The point I am trying to make is that within design thinking is an idealistic drive toward anti-capitalism, or at least anti-business-as-usual – that is, business as knowing something we don’t and so being able to trick us to pay more for something than it costs. That is the 3rd level of design thinking that the 2nd level is very eager to see not come to fruition.

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In your summing up remarks, you touched upon the role of design education, and how design research which emerged from the academisation of design has enabled DT to emerge. You talked about the need for more critical voices in design education to evaluate the impact of social innovation projects. But what about the teaching of design? How does the changing role of design impact design education at the UG level? Particularly this shift from design of things for people to design of people. What kind of implications does this have on designers? And design education?

I think there are two big consequences of design thinking for undergraduate education of designers, and both concern design moving from one of the fine arts, separate from the liberal arts, to becoming more integrated with the liberal arts, and vice versa. As design has evolved from the application of fine art to products to the practice of enhancing the efficiency, productivity and enjoyability of human-product (or -built environment) interactions, design has had to do progressively more social research. It is a bit schematic if not mythical, but let’s say that designers originally researched only materials. And then, following a typology that is Liz Sanders’, they start to ask customers what they might want (market research via surveys and focus groups, etc). A person for the purposes of this research is just a bundle of semi-rational consumer desires. Then, to make products more helpful and innovative, designers start observing people, seeing that they do things differently from what they self-report when asked. A person at this point is now a more complicated ecosystem of only ever semi-conscious practices. In Sanders’ typology, the designer then begins to undertake generative design research, which means engaging in co-creative activities and participatory design. A person at this stage in design research now has a history and future; they are an ensemble of trajectories and latencies. Design thinking, and the more strategic new design practices like service design, therefore require designers to have much richer and wider perspectives on the people for whom and with whom they are designing. They need to understand psychology, but not just consumer psychology, but social psychology and perhaps psychoanalysis (that people also comprise unconscious aspects). They need to understand sociology, but not just statistical analysis but also social, political and economic history. They need to understand anthropology, but not just ethnography, but material cultural studies, technology studies. And designers need to be highly honed observers and interviewers, which means they need to know performance: improvisation, character, expressiveness, self-awareness, etc. And they of course need to know much more about living systems, about (co-)evolution and resilience, etc. Design thinking is a performing art.

What I’m arguing is conveyed in the slogan that ‘in service design, humans are your material.’ It is a very dangerous idea, but it contains the warning not to treat people like inert materials, but nevertheless to try to discern what, like a material, a person can be reasonably (via persuasion, design-enabled facilitation) made to do or not do. We need a design education that studies the human along with white space, serif type, glass and steel, molded plastic and organic textile drape. I am reminded of the Eindhoven Design Academy’s undergraduate program with courses that all ‘Man and …’ Maybe design thinking will finally see the insertion of the human into over aestheticized materialism of the still-too-replicated Bauhaus foundation year.

And then, it is not just a matter of dumping a whole lot of humanities and social science lecture and seminar courses onto design students. Design students don’t tend to learn that way, and plus, the point is to integrate these knowledges into the design process. So the liberal arts must be redesigned – and this leads back to what I think I was saying in the interview about critical studies and studio courses that have liberal arts outcomes. 


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At the start of the interview, you gave us a bit of background to your role at Parsons and the inter-disciplinary Environmental Studies programme that you taught on. We wanted to ask what it was like to teach non-designers design?

I am a non-designer (or at least not trained as a designer, though I do plan-the-making-of-stuff – I spent the second half of the 90s designing and maintaining an early website and electronic publications for the EcoDesign Foundation; and every semester I do curriculum and instructional design; and I teach that writing (and so thinking) is a form of designing). So I learned about design by reading the classics from the design methods movement. As a result, I have a very idealistic sense of the design process. I like to argue that this is what design is at its best, rather than just what design is only in the abstract, in theory. My primary engagement with the practice of designing has been through nearly a decade supervising and examining practice-based design research degree students. This is very useful, because these are students who are critically reflecting on their process; so as they recount and analyze their process, I learn very intimately about the process of design practice. But as a result, the version of design I am still learning is very researcherly one; it is one heavily biased toward methodical and research-based designing, not one by contrast that is more tacitly intuitive, or formulaically precedent-based; nor does it tend to be the mature practice of an expert professional with strong style or a large repertoire of successful gambits, as Bryan Lawson calls them.

I say all this to indicate that what I have learned about design is what I teach design to be; in other words, I teach a very idealistic and researcherly based version of designing. And this is quite compatible with more thoughtful liberal arts students ways of approaching the world. As a result, I find teaching design to non-designers both successful and rewarding – they have rich insights into the transformability of the material practices; often, because of their more comprehensive understandings of the social, insights that are more creative, or at least more radical (never ‘beautiful’) than straight design students.

There are two other particulars to note about teaching design to non-designers to Environmental Studies students at The New School. Firstly, Environmental Studies students are obviously well-versed in thinking ecologically. They expect that every thing is in a co-dependent and co-evolving relation to its environment. So the designer’s way of attending to useful-things, things with which certain people in certain situations will fuse in order to better accomplish living, is already what ecologically literate environmental studies students expect of phenomenon. Secondly, The New School is quirky institution – founded by socialists as an adult education institution, the home of exiled European Jewish intellectuals, richly embedded in the arts and politics of Greenwich Village, an institution subsidized by the long-standing design school it purchases in the early ’70s. As a result the kind of student who decides to go to college at the Eugene Lang College The New School for the Liberal Arts, which is where most of the Environmental Studies students I taught were enrolled, is a particular kind of undergraduate, committed to urban engagement more than pure liberal arts. The interventionism of design that scares most humanities and social science faculty and students was not scary to these students, and was even expected. So teaching design, which tends to need to do to know, rather than insisting on knowing before doing, was not hard for these kinds of non-design students.

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Concerning the Thingliness of Communication & Information Design

Last year, and a bit this year, there was some consternation about the relevance of this thing-oriented course for some of the students undertaking more Communication and Information Design oriented programs. So this year, I wrote a rantish letter to those in the seminar to try to make explicit how I see the relevance of thing-oriented-ness to those modes of designing:

About this time in this Seminar, you may be starting to think, ‘this is mostly about product-centered design.’ The students last year did. If you are here to master a version of communication design, like information design, you might begin to worry that this is not so relevant to what you came to learn. So, I thought it might be useful if I gave you my position on this. And I urge you strongly to respond to this letter – to turn it into a dialogue.

Firstly, as you may know, there are two required Seminars in the MDes degrees offered by the School of Design. If you are doing the CPID program, you also do other Seminars offered by English. So this is only just one of the Seminars you are doing, and so it has a particular focus.

As you may be realizing the grad degrees here at CMU’s School of Design center on Interaction Design, or what the changes to the School now in place are calling, ‘Design for Interactions.’ This is what is distinctive about the School’s approach to Communication Design. As the CPID students would know, Dave teaches an ‘interaction-based’ approach to verbal composition. The second English course CPID students take is run by Suguru, a professor in English but a Communication Systems Designer. You will find therefore that the School tends to think about Communication Design as a subset of Interaction Design; or, put another way, that a practice like Information Design is a powerful tool for enabling Interaction Design.

This first Grad Design Seminar you all take has traditionally been an introduction to philosophies of design in general. And given what I just said about the focus of the School and its grad programs, it should be unsurprising to know that this Seminar has traditionally advanced the idea that the essence of all design is enabling interactions.

The originator of the Seminar, Richard Buchanan, taught an account of design as rhetoric drawing heavily on Aristotle. Whilst that perspective approaches design in terms of persuasion, employing language around symbols, semantics, contexts and positioning, it is persuasion aimed at action, not persuasion aimed at meaning-making. Buchanan’s famous Four Orders of Design, place the Design of Signs in the lower left with respect to the historical scale of design.

I am breaking with Buchanan’s rhetorical philosophy of design in how I am teaching this Seminar. There are lots of reasons for that explained a bit below (though not with direct reference to Buchanan). But I am not breaking with what has always been the focus of this Seminar, which is offering to you a particularly interaction-based philosophy of design.

I am giving you an explicitly ‘thing-based’ perspective on Interaction Design. This should have been apparent in the syllabus, but it is perhaps only just now starting to hit you. I want to explain why I am doing that, and then I want to explain why I think that this means that the Seminar is still very relevant, in strategically important ways, to Communication Design. I want to suggest that it is even relevant to less interactionist kinds of Communication Design.

You should be aware that my primary concern is the sustainability of our societies. I left philosophy to pursue design in order to find agency to do something about a situation that too few are working on, especially given its urgency. I see the unsustainability of our societies as deriving quite simply from the fact that we each have, use and dispose of too much stuff. We require far too many things moving far too far and much too fast (in one direction from available resources to unavailable waste) to go about everyday lives. To become sustainable, our societies must find ways of being less materials intense.

I am therefore politically concerned about things, about why there are so many things. The least reason there are so many things is, ironically, because we do not notice these things. Our focus is on going on about our business, our practices. Things are essential to everything we do but we pay them too little heed, so they accumulate around us or pass by us rapidly on their way to becoming trash or just vaporize in the background (into climate-changing pollutants) to provide the energy we take for granted in our houses or cars, etc.

Consequently, you could say that my academic mission is to get people to pay more attention to things. And of course I see designers as my ultimate ‘frenemies.’ Design involves making things (beautiful), but then making things disappear (useful). The challenge is precisely the one that Verbeek outlines: how to make things noticeably useful, how to create worlds in which things are valued for their usefulness, how to sense use value.

As you now know from Bruno Latour et al, this ‘missing of things’ is not recent and has consequences not just in relation to sustainability. It has skewed not just sociology (less so anthropology, where communication gaps meant the only thing researchers sometimes could focus on were the things that comprised the material culture of who was being studied), but resulted in the whole missing third between the sciences and the humanities, the realm Herbert Simon called ‘Sciences of the Artificial.’ (Is all this a cause or effect?)

Design, as a craft (1890s), then a recent profession (1930s), and only very recently a discipline (1970s), still without a well-established research domain (as the Symposium on the weekend might have evidenced), has, when it has tried to explain itself, tended to borrow from those skewed disciplines unfortunately. The very domain that should be defining this absent third dimension of materialized artifacts has, instead, been defined by perspectives that don’t understand let alone value what goes in that dimension.

This is why learning a thingly approach to design is not just useful general knowledge about the nature of everyday practices, but affords different ways of designing (for interactions). Hence, the focus of this Seminar is thing-oriented (which is very different from teaching you anything about how to do product-design).

So now I want to insist that the new(ish) approaches to design afforded by thing-perspectives are also relevant to communication and information design.

First of all, all communication is in the end material: words on paper, pictures on screens, phonemes being vibrated out of throats and lips through the air till they strike ear hairs and bones, ideas residing as reinforced synaptic connections or capacitors in off-on patterns. We so take all this materiality for granted that it has taken poststructuralists like Derrida to point out to us how much we privilege notions of immaterial pure presence in relation to concepts and communication by repressing things like writing. Still in the humanities, the overwhelming tendency is to downplay the material form of a communication (a book’s typeface, paperstock, margins, etc; along with the default MS Word format of critical reviews of that book); what is much more important are characters, plot, themes, metaphors, frames, etc – the content, considered completely separate from its materialization. Very occasionally you find someone like Gerard Gennette referring to ‘paratext’ in the discipline of literary criticism, though it is becoming more common since poststructuralism and with the arrival of multimodal media-studies inflected analyses.

If you are trained as a communication designer, you should think the complete reverse; not just that the way a communication is materialized can be influential over the content, but that the same content materialized in different ways is pretty much completely different content. From this perspective, all Communication Design is Product Design. Communication Designers design books and magazines and posters and maps and websites and business cards, etc. On the one hand, Communcation Design is well aware of this – page through the objects fetishistically photographed in any Graphis Annual. But on the other hand, even Communication Designers tend to forget it, portraying themselves as the magicians of pure meaning, direct affect and valuable experiences. As Karrie Jacobs once said in a keynote address later published in one of the hundreds of Looking Closer series, whenever a company calls a graphic designer, they should also call a dump truck to take-away all their existing letter-head and signage, etc.

Importantly, this thingly approach to Communication Design points to not only the materiality of the communication of itself, but to the materiality of contexts in which it is situated. (Good) Communication Design is not just the design of a poster, but the poster as it will be situated in a certain place at a certain time being viewed by certain people. Communication Designed Things are interventions into (material) practices. A beautifully designed decal prompting you to use reusable shopping bags is useless unless positioned where it can do its prompting work, like on the windscreen of the car that you jump into having left your reusable bags in the kitchen after unpacking your last shop. The thing-based, practice-oriented focus of this course is deliberately aimed at increasing the effectivity of communication design (and is explicitly critical of free floating infographics drifting without any impact around the internet superhighway).

But this is all kind of obvious. And it is a little too materialistic in how it is promoting things. When we say things, we immediately start thinking about material objects. But, as I hope you have been learning in this class, we should also start noting all the uses of the word ‘thing’ that are not quite or more than everyday objects. When I say to you, “How’s things?,” or “The thing is…,” or “I’m a bit lost at the moment; I feel like I am waiting for something, anything,” it is difficult to know if I am speaking metaphorically or not. Bruno Latour (following Heidegger and Austin) has spent a lot of time and words pointing out that in the end, a thing is ‘a matter of concern.’ It either concerns us because it physically in front of us, a hunk of matter, blocking our way, or helping us around a blockage; or it is a concern that weighs upon us as if it were physical; some (seemingly immaterial) things matter to us in much the same way as material things; they burden us, tug at us, trip us up; they disrupt out otherwise habituated practices. Now Latour insists that these two versions of things, things made of matter and ‘the things that matter to us,’ must go together. It is difficult if not impossible for us to be concerned about things that don’t get materialized in ways that make allow us to practice our concern about those things. We forget ideas unless they get noted down in notebook. We need parliaments to sustain our democracies. We need temples (or at least ritualistic places and things) to be religious. We show our love for people by creating protective homes for them. We help other people when we have branded work-places from which, and collated tools with which (in other words, organizations, whether businesses or community groups), to help them.

The job of a Communication Designer and an Information Designer is to thingify things, to find (dispersed) things that should concern us (i.e., issues, ideas, groups of people) and cohere them into a thing, a coherent Communication or piece of Information (which designers judge to be ‘strong,’ ‘clear,’ ‘elegant’). And the way Communication and Information Designers do this is by making things, (material) things that capture, cohere and convey (immaterial) things, turning them into the sorts of things that can be dropped strategically into peoples everyday practices in ways that make them have to be concerned about them. And hopefully in ways that enable them to be more productively concerned about them, restructuring their constellations of devices, skills and object(ive)s so that those concerns become regularized everyday things that we habitually take care of.

Sorry for the lecture, poorly materialized in default MS Word settings without irony. I hope that this Communication is nevertheless some thing that will allow you all to see why things should be the things that this Graduate Seminar in Design (for Interactions) is concerned about, and the sort of things that all design practices should put at the center of their concerns.

If not let me know. Throw some thing back at me.

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Interaction Design as Mattering

The Syllabus (without assessment tasks) for the Grad Seminar I’m teaching to CMU School of Design Masters degree programs. Less thing-oriented, more relations-between-things this year compared to last.

introduction
This course examines philosophies and cultural theories underlying interaction design. Design is understood as the practice of enabling new kinds of human activity through the creation of useful things – and those things include communications and environments. The course begins by asking, why do we have so many things? By mapping networks of things, the course begins to uncover how things afford interaction. How things do what they do is tied closely to why we make things at all, and how we make them. The focus of the course is an examination of the philosophies deployed by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in their Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Underlying the course is the development of the habits of being a reflective practitioner, which involve collecting patterns of interaction and evaluating their value and consequences.

learning objectives
Successful completion of all aspects of this course should mean that you have:
1. A practical understanding of a range of philosophies and cultural theories of interaction design, including:

    a. Affordances (Gibson)
    b. Scripts (Latour & Akrich)
    c. Patterns (Alexander)
    d. Loosely-coupled Systems (Maturana & Varela)
    e. Performatives (Austin)
    f. Ready-to-Handedness (Heidegger)
    g. Focal Things (Borgmann)

2. A capacity to map networks of things, including their pasts and futures
3. An ability to articulate what (lifeworlds) a design designs
4. The habit of collecting and critically reflecting on patterns of human-thing interactions

readings
BOOK:
Fernando Flores & Terry Winograd Understanding Computers and Cognition Addison-Wesley, 1987

ARTICLES:

  • Dvora Yanow & Tsoukas, Haridimos ”What is Reflection-In-Action? A Phenomenological Account” Journal of Management Studies Vol.46, No.8 (2009)
  • Bruce Sterling Shaping Things MIT Press, 2006
  • Kristin Leismann, Martina Schmitt, Holger Rohn & Carolin Baedeker “Collaborative Consumption: Towards a Resource-Saving Consumption Culture”Resources Vol.2 No.3 (2013)
  • Erik Stolterman, Heekyoung Jung, Will Ryan, Martin A. Siegel “Device Landscapes: A New Challenge to Interaction Design and HCI Research” Archives of Design Research Vol.26 No.2 (2013)
  • Alan Warde “Consumption and the Theory of Practice” Journal of Consumer Culture Vol.5 No.2 (2005)
  • Peter-Paul Verbeek & Peter Kockelkoren “The Things that Matter” Design Studies v14 n3 (1998)
  • Bruno Latour “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts” in Weibe Bijker and John Law eds. Shaping Technology/Building Society MIT Press, 1992
  • Brian Bloomfield, Yvonne Latham and Theo Vurdubakis “Bodies, Technologies and Action Possibilities: When is an Affordance?” Sociology Vol.44 No.3 (2010)
  • Bryan Lawson “Schemata, Gambits and Precedent: Some Factors in Design Expertise” Design Studies Vol.25 No.5 (2004)
  • Molly Steenson “Problems before Patterns: a Different Look at Christopher Alexander and Pattern Languages” Interactions Magazine Vol.16 No.2 (2009)
  • Lucy Suchman “Do Categories Have Politics? The language/action perspective reconsidered” Proceedings of the Third European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work 13–17 September 1993, Milan, Italy ECSCW ’93

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A Post Normal Design PhD

Laurene Vaughan organized a session at the recent DRS/Cumulus Conference on “Design PhDs” to which I contributed this very schematic position paper.



A Design PhD is a Neoliberal PhD

Design is a relatively recent profession compared to others – architecture, medicine, law. It is therefore, also, one of the most recent disciplines. In the Anglo-Australian context, design entered the university when technical colleges and polytechnics doing atelier-derived design education were merged with universities in the late ’80s / early ’90s. At that same time, countries with government-funded university systems, such as the Anglo-Australian system, were adopting neoliberal policies that demanded quality assurance performance improvements for tax dollar spending. This translated to the requirement that all disciplines, including new entrants, have certified research training, such as PhDs. So creative industry disciplines like design begin to have PhD programs primarily as an outcome of neoliberal higher education policies.



The Homeopathic Practice-Based PhD

What is interesting, and possibly significant, is that rather than simply conform to a traditional model of a PhD, creative industry disciplines like design responded to the neoliberal imperative for formalized research capacities by insisting on the need for new epistemologies more compatible with the processes and dispositions of their creative practices. It is in this context that the discourse of practice-based research in fields like design arises.

On the one hand, this discourse has a pragmatic motivation. Design educators should be practicing designers according to the studio-based system; but if neoliberal higher education demands that those same educator-practitioners should also be researchers, then that research must be designerly in nature, lest those design educators lose their practitioner quality as they complete their PhDs.

On the other hand, when pressed, defenders of practice-based research offer justifications appropriate to how recently design has become a profession and a discipline. As a relatively immature profession, the primary purpose of disciplinary design research is to substantiate and advance design practice. This requires a practical understanding of designing to conduct such research, but even more importantly, a conversance with design practitioners to ensure that that knowledge is disseminatable to the professionals whose design practice stands to benefit from that research. As with homeopathy, the profession can be disciplined only with more of itself, as opposed to allopathic attempts by techno-rationality to correct design (as was attempted by the Design Methods movement).



Post-Modern Performance

I want to argue that practice-based design research is more significant than these rather centripetal perspectives can indicate. The neoliberal restructuring of higher education that made the design PhD possible was obviously not a neutral force. The disruption that allowed design and other creative disciplines to innovate practice-based design research, was actually followed by a redoubling of calculative reason, or what has been called ‘audit culture.’

In fact, to some extent, this may explain why practice-based research was at least initially acceptable to the neoliberal university. With its primary precedent being Donald Schön’s ‘Reflective Practictioner,’ practice-based research appears to be in line with what Jean-Francois Lyotard identified as the focus on ‘performativity’ in the postmodern university; in other words, practice-based PhDs look like certifiable forms of Foucauldian self-disciplining, enhancing the performance metrics of professionals like designers.



Post-Post-Modern Validity

However, along with this homeopathic self-monitoring was the assertion of a different epistemology, one that I believe remains quite resistant to the neoliberal university’s quantifications. The simplest version of this has been Roger Martin’s claim that whilst business focuses on reliability – meaning the predictable and replicable, i.e., that which can assure stably bankable returns on investment – design has always proceeded by a much more qualitative validity – an interconnected set of pattern recognitions and rapid experiments that can creatively abduct to promising solution fields (see The Design of Business [Harvard Business Review, 2009]). Martin is standing here on a long tradition of people trying to identify how designing is more phronesic judgement than computational technique, more bounded satisficing than rational method – and yet in each case, not nevertheless just an a- or ir-rational art.

In this context, the practice-based design research, especially when certified in the form of an examined PhD, has managed to retain the validity of a sociomaterial craft in the midst of a neoliberal demand for only commoditizable reliability. That non-quantitative validity can be easily recoded as a kind of performance indicator, or worse rendered a merely useful aesthetic distraction. But it can also be reasserted as a force that runs counter to all that seems to be succeeding in removing critique from the university.



Negotiating Risk

This more phronesic form of validity is not just a generally good thing to be preserved in an increasingly reductive university. And it is not just good for design education remaining designerly. It is in fact crucial to our survival no less.

Consider for instance, the emerging discourse of Post Normal Science. Given that ecological phenomenon are inherently wicked, in Rittel’s sense – they are complexes of interdependent relations, including changing social agents, with only ever probabilistic outcomes – ecological science, especially in relation to the politics of sustainability, is forced into being more participatory. Whist maintaining a commitment to the epistemology of scientific method, Post Normal Science acknowledges that these more publicly agonistic processes mean that ecological scientists must negotiate less reliable forms of validity, ones that are more heuristic and argumentative rather than universally factual.

Practice-based design, with its more qualitative forms of validity, is an exemplar of such Post Normal ways making decisions about the future. Design PhDs, especially when externally examined, show the university engaged in the kind of wicked-problem-based knowledge production that is not merely instrumentally performative or calculatively constative.



Reasserting Practice-based Co-creation of Knowledge

Practice-based design research should therefore move beyond self-serving assertions of its significance to the discipline and profession of design. Instead, design, as a mature discipline and profession, must now take its place in the university taking responsibility for wider societal problems. Practice-based research must be, and must be seen to be, playing a central role in larger scale problems like developing more sustainable futures.

To this end:
• no more reflexive PhDs, on the nature of design research
• more practice-based sustainability-oriented PhDs
• only external examination
• make publication and interaction with a non-academic audience (what Post Normal Science calls ‘lay or extended peer review’) part of a practice-based PhD.

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Status of Design Research

Am heading to a Design Research Roundtable hosted by the Design Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts. To brief participants, the organizers sent round a useful set of questions. My responses follow.

In all of the following, I am assuming that PhD Design Research is aimed at either:
• creating new knowledge that is significant to the professional practice of design
• creating new knowledge about the human condition in relation to interactions with designs

I am assuming that academic design research is different (even if related) from the research involved in research-based professional (or speculative) design practice.

And I am assuming that practice-based design research involves not merely that:
• it is done by an experienced, studio-trained practitioner, with critical evaluation by other experienced, studio-trained practitioners (practitioner research)
• it generates findings that are relevant to, if not transform, the practice of other desigers (practice-oriented research)
but also, sine qua non,
• completing a design to some resolution is part of the researching (research by practice)


1. Between Text and Object
PhD-projects in Design Research often (if not always) move in between textual and thingly forms. What is your attitude on this hybrid identity of scholarly artifacts in design? What sorts of text-artifact relationships do you consider appropriate, possible, useful in PhD-level research? If possible, please exemplify your thoughts through a concrete example.

It is important to differentiate between

  • i) researching,
  • ii) communicating that research to (academic) peers, and
  • iii) disseminating that research (to non-academic audiences)

    re: i)
    Design is often characterized as a non-verbal activity, a kind of mute material making in the craft tradition. However, this is a caricature if not a nostalgic fantasy. Whilst there are clearly non-verbal forms of visual thinking and material thinking involved in design, Making is Connecting (the title of book by David Gauntlett, Polity, 2011 – though see instead Madeleine Akrich, Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, And Adrian Monaghan “The Key To Success In Innovation Part I: The Art Of Interessement & Part II: The Art of Choosing Good Spokespersons” International Journal of Innovation Management Vol.06 No.02, 2006). To make requires conversing with others (clients, customers, collaborators, manufacturers, accountants, lawyers, etc). But as Donald Schön identified, it also involves conversing with the materials and the design situation. This is not only metaphoric. Design is always a kind of languaging, receiving briefs that name the kind of thing to be designed, and then, hopefully, developing new kinds of things distinct enough to deserve new names.

  • An essential aspect of academic design research is causing all that tacit conversing and languaging to be articulated. So text is necessary (but not sufficient) for a design PhD.

    re: ii)
    Interacting with designed artifacts can involve experiences that might be part of new knowledge, but that, as experiences, are not well communicated verbally. However, a designed artifact does not speak for itself, despite the traditions of how designers present their work. There are two aspects of any designed artifact that demand supplements. Firstly, Good design withdraws into its use. Or as Chris Alexander characterized the situation: design is about fit, but you can only ever perceive misfit. That means that whatever is significant about the experience of designed artifact may not be apparent, precisely because the designed artifact works. Secondly, the experience of designed artifacts is by definition multi-dimensional. As only certain aspects of those experiences will be significant for what the research concerns, researchers must find ways of isolating those experiences. For both reasons then, if the experience of artifacts is a part of the research’s findings, then that experience needs to be curated (with comparative experiences) and framed (with textual instructions).

    re: iii)
    Being mostly research by and through practice, the outcomes are invariably if not necessarily relevant to practitioners. Contrary to popular caricatures, designers do read, but not normally academic dissertations. To have an impact on the profession, it is important that practice-based research be designed after evaluation into forms that make its findings more likely to inform practice. In some cases, this can and should occur for textual materials submitted for evaluation. Communications of research designed for practitioner (or related stakeholder) audiences are in these cases hybrids of text and artifact: i.e., text as artifact.


    2. Between Theory and Practice
    Practise-based Research, Artistic Research, Research-through-Design: We are happily dancing along the borderline of design and research practice. Or is there a borderline? Please share your thoughts on this discussion.

    Design is: planning the making of useful things. This is ontologically different to art, which aims to create things whose value derives from things other than use, and even from deliberate uselessness. There are clearly overlaps in the design art space, but when it comes to the epistemology of research, the practices of art and design are radically distinct.

  • There is dangerous tendency to claim that the difference between research-based designing and design-based research parallels that between applied and basic research. In other words, if the designing is speculative or critical, then, qua not being instrumental, it is considered to be research, that is, inquiry-based. This is not the case; curiosity is only ever a part of the research process, but research is more; it involves more extensively framed research questions and considered methods and pre-specified evaluation criteria.

    There is also an important difference between design-based research, research-through-design and practice-based design research.


    3. Negotiations
    Like in any other community, some things are discussed quite heavily. At the same time, design research is as much a discipline as it shares similar problems and issues with all research disciplines. What are the pain points/the most discussion-worthy points of Design Research out of your perspective that we do NOT share with other disciplines? What are the sides, and which one is yours, if any?

    Literature Review
    Design-based academic research must engage in literature reviews to identify existing knowledge and gaps in relevant fields. However, designers must also engage in precedent reviews. Bryan Lawson amongst others, especially in the area of knowledge management in design firms, has made clear the extent to which design problem-solving involves pattern matching a current situation with a precedent – though this matching can be creatively analogical. There are few models for what critical reviews of precedents should look like: how many, of what sort, conceptualized in what ways, critiqued to what extent.

    Experimentation
    There is some discussion of the relation between (social) science models of abductive hypothesis formation followed by experimental testing, and design’s experimental interventionism. The latter differs from the former by
    a) often involving experiments prior to the formulation of a hypothesis; an intervention is made to learn about the situation in the first place
    b) abduction of a design concept is a more creative process, often analogical
    c) experiments are far from variable controlled
    d) evaluation criteria for experimental success are rarely articulated and often personal (though, on science as personal knowledge, see Karl Polanyi). Donald Schön’s account of design experimentation as a type of action research cycle might be phenomenological accurate – hence its popularity – but it does not explain how a successful design experiment takes place.

    Reflexion/Reflection
    As just mentioned, much practice-based research claims Donald Schön’s theory of professional expertise as reflection-in-action as its framework. However, that ‘creative practice via micro-reflections on creative moves’ is often blurred with a more general self-reflexive perspective. Whilst design is inherently subjective, practice-based research qua new knowledge generation and dissemination, must attain intersubjectivity. There are many approaches in social research that could help design research shift from the reflexively subjective to intersubjective critical reflection: auto-enthnography, reflexive sociology, critical theory (arising from discourses of ‘the personal is political’).

    Peer Review
    Designing is a process subject to constant critical evaluation by peers in the studio. Whilst (social) science project usually occur within teams deciding collectively on the problem-statement, data analysis and even write-up, a design project usually moves beyond these types of collaborations to formal sessions of critical review, often by outsiders. Can the ‘crit’ be considered a type of process peer reviewing?

    Most design projects conclude with a presentation/exhibition of the design propositions that are then subject to feedback by a formal jury, community stakeholders or a client. If these responses are made durable, do they compare to peer review?

    What would be needed of design criticism (in terms of form and criteria) for a review of an exhibition to count as peer review?

    Materialist Disposition
    The most central aspect to design – that it creates material forms that can influence users to interact in particular ways – remains poorly understood by other disciplines. The concept of affordance remains marginal in perceptual psychology; use value is under represented in economics; the properties of designed artifacts are of interest to only few in philosophy; and until recently, products and technologies were practically absent from sociology (see Bruno Latour’s complaints).

    As a result, a discourse around what constitutes knowledge in the realm of the interface between material forms and everyday human dispositions remains inchoate.


    4. Friends and Relatives
    Design Research adapts and transforms theories and methods from other research areas. We would love to map out the most useful theoretical and conceptual influences of some of the most important influencers in the Design Research landscape. What are yours? Why are they useful, how have they been adapted?

    Grounded Theory
    The (interview and observation) content analysis process of Grounded Theory is very like the ways in which designers make sense of their social research data. Card sorting the results of a brainstorm or target group parallels iterative thematic coding in Grounded Theory.

    Ethnomethodology
    An attentiveness to the way everyday activities are done and spoken about lies at the heart of design research. Design prototypes and cultural probes are direct heirs to Garfinkel’s breaching experiments.

    Practice Theory
    The emerging practice turn in anthropology and sociology, which takes inspiration from Heidegger, Bourdieu and Giddens, adding the sociomaterial perspectives of Latour and STS, is how the social sciences seem to be finally arriving at a more comprehensive understanding of the significance of design. The descriptivism of actor network theory, and the attentiveness to sociotechnical constellations as constituting distinct timespaces (Schatzki) are all important for design research.

    Ecosystems Theory
    Understandings of the interdependencies between species, and between species and their environments, whether symbiotic, parasitic or competitive, provide rich models for understanding designed artifacts as never-isolated-entities. How design innovations happen and diffuse and can lead to radical transitions in these artificial ecosystems can all be informed by ecosystems research techniques and models.


    5. Merits and perspectives
    Design Research has achieved a lot, but can still do better. Here you have some room for strong statements. Please complete the following sentences:


    Design Research has accomplished …

    significantly increasing the quantity of publications not only on designs, but on designing, and by designers. This has given design a capacity to be recognized as a discipline distinct from its profession, even when those publications are practice-based and so connected to the profession. There seems to be an emerging feedback loop between this research and the teaching of design; though less through formal uptake of research findings and more through the fact that educators increasingly have PhDs and so have encountered the research. There is not however yet a substantial enough feedback loop developing between this research and the profession.


    Design Research completely lacks …

    a capacity to engage forcefully in debate with other disciplines. Design researchers collaborate with other disciplines, but are yet to turn their research into critiques of what other disciplines lack – materiality, making, intervention, etc. This is perhaps because design research has been to date emergent, and so centripetal in focus. It is now time that design research move beyond its emergent status and became more assertive about the knowledge it generates; it is not only valid, but invalidates approaches to similar concerns by other disciplines.


    in 10 years Design Research will be …

    a true third to the natural and social sciences. Or more ambitious, design will have displaced the calculative thinking of hegemonic STEM, with more materialistically phronesic approaches to research such as exemplified by design.


    Design Research would be better off if …

    paid more attention to the substantial body of ‘research of design(ing/ers)’ when doing research by design. The work of the Design Thinking Research Symposium over the last two decades, and the research published in Design Studies are rarely cited in more practice-based design research, especially by those undertaking more ‘creative’ research by design projects. Yet, a better account of what is distinctive about the way designers approach situations, is crucial when undertaking research by design, and even more so when trying to account for how significant new insights are generated by research by design. And of course, this body of work should be central in ‘reflective practice’ based work, though it rarely is.


    Design Research is/could/should be a role model for …

    sustainability. The incapacity of our societies, and especially our households (though less so in Germany) to undertake, by design, transformations toward more sustainable ways of living and working, seems to derive from approaches that have ignored or underplayed the role of sociotechnical systems that lie at the heart of design. Attempts to inform or persuade populations to undertake change in their habits, in the absence of technofixes, have not succeeded. Design research, with its proactive epistemology and focus on the material ecologies of our built environments are crucial if progress is to be made.


    Design Research could learn a lot from …

    distinguishing its sub-disciplines:

    > contra architecture
    the difference between the design of meso-scale artifacts and the design of building and urban environments; a key difference being the extent of interactions possible and necessary

    > contra HCI
    what has been adopted from design by digital artifact user experience design is more than has been appropriated by design thinking, but less than all that is entailed in the material practice of crafting plans for the mass production of meso-scale products; there is a literalism to HCI based interaction design that seems to occlude analogue body-thing relations

    > product vs fashion
    though fashion is considered a kind of designing, the practice of fashion design has many aspects that distinguish it from other meso-level artifact designing; different relations to end-users and manufacturers; pace; focus on outside-in meaning over inside-out use; etc

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    Defending the Value of the Sharing Economy

    I was trying to write something about the Avis buyout of Zipcar when John Kolko alerted me to this post critical of some of the collaborative consumption startups as they negotiate regulatory resistance. The post made interesting points but in what felt like an excessive baby with bathwater way. It seemed to get at exactly what must now be sorted out. But I got carried away with a stupid conceit in the form of what I wrote, and it is in the end pretty incoherent. I’m putting it here to be done with it as I try to prepare for semester and finish all that I failed to finish over the Winter break:

    Dear Dean,

    I write to report on the academic progress of Tom Slee, and in particular provide an evaluation of a recent piece of work that he submitted – to the public domain – one that he himself claims to be most proud of.

    I must first try to bracket personal loathing for the ‘open letter’ format. The pretense that you are writing directly to someone but in fact writing about them to a different audience has always struck me as hypocritical. Interestingly, in this case, Tom’s letter concerned some issues of regulating innovations in the emerging sharing economy. What is at issue there is of course the power of property rights. Questions of what is private and what is public and where government regualtions vs free market opportunities overlap with those domains are exactly what is at issue. So it is doubly strange, or else quite appropriate given Tom’s conservative views, that he is in fact seeking to gain profile advantage from a purportedly private communiqué to a fellow investor. Of course all readers are aware that this is not really a private communication and can make the interpretive adjustments necessary without government stipulations for example – though perhaps if Tom was consistent in his argument he would recommend that all such ‘open letters’ come with regulatory warnings about their non-private-domain-ness despite appearances. Rest assured, I will not be ‘mistakenly’ posting this letter to some under-utilized blog. I am only a bumbling academic after all, actually forbidden by the not-for-profit nature of my university to make private capital gains from my work.

    Tom’s ‘letter’ is a response to a short NYTimes opinion piece by Tim Wu about the need for regulation of emerging digital-platform-enabled resource-sharing activities, such as ride-sharing or short-term room leasing. Note that Tim’s piece was indeed calling for regulation of these innovative practices in the name of consumer protection. His proposal – though admittedly somewhat buried in the conclusion – was for what he called data-driven regulation. The piece seemed to be arguing that only such a novel way of regulating would be able to pick up the fine-grained activity that is these peer-to-peer economies. An added advantage is that such regulation could be agile enough to not squash these innovations and preserve the less resource productive incumbents.

    Given the tone of Tim’s opinion piece, Tom’s response strikes you at first as excessively forceful. You immediately suspect that there is something to this topic that is strongly affecting him, something bigger than what Tim Wu has written about. Tom is not just suggesting that Tim’s analysis is incorrect, but that it is dangerous, something that demands a personal letter of appeal for Tim to prevent “a disaster waiting to happen” by “retracting [his] support for AirBnB and Uber.”

    At one point Tom does seem to make explicit his real wider target:

    “And I hope that, if you reflect, you’ll agree that the new peer-to-peer companies are a blight on the landscape of egalitarian thinking.”

    So why does Tom think this?

    It can’t be that he thinks that this peer-to-peer world will be an unregulated state of war. On the one hand, he admits that incidents of consumer harm will always be infrequent, or no more frequent than those occurring within currently well-regulated markets. They happen more often than the “anecdotal” descriptor Tim uses; and they will happen in greater number (though not proportion) as these ‘collaborative consumption’ ventures scale up to a wider market. But they will remain “rare,” by his own admission – though, to his credit he does note that this rarity does not mitigate the “severe consequences” of each incident.

    (There is a fair bit of sleight of hand in this ‘letter’ by the way. For instance, AirBnB’s two widely reported incidents – the trashing of one apartment and the use of another as a brothel are not listed side-by-side in Tom’s letter as the total number of [to date reported major] wrong-doings by ‘guests’, but rather used at different points in the ‘letter’ as hyperlinked asides to make it seem like they are just one amongst many such examples the author could have chosen. Perhaps a more significant argumentative sleight of hand is the argument used at one point that the damage users can do to each other through Wikipedia, eBay or Yelp is less than is possible through AirBnB and Uber. Whilst it is true that the latter involves physical proximity between users, it is still the case that one’s whole livelihood can be undermined through the former. We will see shortly that Tom’s prejudice against what he categorizes as peer-to-peer companies (because Wikipedia, eBay and even Yelp count as sharing economy peer-to-peer companies in some people’s reckoning), blind him to the fact that all these companies are on a continuum, a continuum that extends ‘upwards’ to Kinkos and Starbucks and ‘downwards’ to me borrowing my neighbors ladder.)

    On the other hand, Tom also knows that we are not at risk of peer-to-peer civil war because, thanks to supporters like him, government regulation is not going to be thrown overboard by a modern day Tea Party any time soon. Tom is no neoliberal. He likes his regulatory regimes. And so do I. (When academia is made redundant by MOOCs, I’m starting a service design company called “I [heart] Government.”) But perhaps Tom is too much of a government fan-boy. He totally discounts that regulations might be, if not created by inertial self-protecting incumbents, then at least exploited by them. Again, the argument uses hyperbole in ways that we constantly criticize in our students:

    “why is it that every town and city I’ve ever been to has licensing requirements for people offering taxi services or overnight accommodations? Is there a global taxi cartel or a multinational bed-and-breakfast conglomerate enforcing its will on municipalities from Aberystwyth to Yellowknife? …of course there isn’t, because taxi and B&B operations are usually local and small-scale operations…”

    Yes, there is no global taxi cartel. But that does not mean that there is not a New York or London or Nairobi taxi cartel. And there may be no global B&B cartel, but there is a formidable global hotel industry. Perhaps B&Bs are just the smaller (and so in fact very difficult to regulate without a team of field officers) freeloaders off the lobbying efforts (and propagandistic film-funding projects) of monopolistic multinationals.

    The important point here is that regulation is always over-determined – you know, that academic term we use for when something requires multiple rationale to exist, and having been brought into existence, becomes the rationale for many others. The whole political machine does not construct and police regulations that have only one good reason to exist – we know that from how many very reasonable regulations never make it through the system. So regulations might exist to protect consumers, but they also exist because they are implementable, because they fit with the laws of other countries, and match current technologies and everyday lifestyles, and so on; and they exist because they organize a market in ways that allow certain kinds of organizations to profitable service. Unfortunately, this same over-determination also makes regulations very hard to change: multiple stakeholders have to be convinced that it is worth changing how things are done. We also know this from how many really stupid regulations remain on the books.

    By the way, I am very sympathetic to Tom’s critique of the founders of and investors in these companies who seem to be very late in coming to think about regulatory change in their entrepreneurship. These companies are very at risk of replacing the Segway as the case study about the importance of regulation in Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation. (If you remember, the Segway was going change the world, except that it proved illegal to ride on both the road and the sidewalk, so has been relegated to ‘private roads,’ moving security personnel around large complexes like airports and corporate parks.) Entrepreneurship is an alliance-building process as both Fernando Flores and Bruno Latour have taught us. Non-commercial Sharing Economy people knew this from the start. The leadership being shown by Janelle Orsi and her Sustainable Economies Law Center is exemplary. The Collaborative Consumption outfits are typically forming a lobby group – too little too late.

    It is just that I don’t think that the ineptitude of certain #collcons CEOs and/or their backers warrants unqualified endorsement of current regulatory regimes and wholesale trashing of peer-to-peer companies.

    So what behind Tom’s aggressive ‘open letter?’ If the world is not going to deregulate into tooth-and-claw peer-to-peer transactions, then what does Tom fear?

    At times, he seems to be an impassioned defender of communitarianism.

    “While they invoke the communitarian traditions of the informal economy, these new peer-to-peer companies are more likely to erode that economy than enhance it.”

    In a moment that made me chuckle remembering the “not that there’s anything wrong with that” Seinfeld episode, Tom tells us

    “We all know the informal economy. I used to hitchhike to university, my neighbours have yard sales, friends help each other move house.”

    But Tom has a confused sense of when these communitarian activities formalize. At first he implies that it is money that makes the difference, even though his second example of the ‘good’ type of informal economy, is money-making. So instead he says that it is when an activity stops being “at the most minimally commercial… for little or no money is OK.” His line in fact has more to do with frequency: it is when you do these activities often, “every weekend,” that “a level of accountability is needed.”

    So now we are at last getting somewhere. Though Tom says he supports these activities, he doesn’t actually seem to want these communitarian activities to become regular. When they are regular, regular enough to make a living from for example, then they must be regulated, and being regulated means being “commercial… play[ing] by different rules.” You see, Tom has very clear lines in his head about the world: there is the social and there is the economy; as Polanyi argued all those years ago, the latter only exists by disembedding itself from the former; heaven forbid the two should be contaminated.

    Now this is where things get tricky, which is in fact the real reason for my writing to you about my evaluation of Tom. I need some help nuancing this.

    Because you see, in one way, I wholeheartedly agree with Tom. His primary annoyance is with the mixed-messages AirBnB uses in its marketing, and which Tom implies it is now using to promote deregulation (though again, this is the deceitful coupling in his article of Chesky with Kalanick – I’ve not seen evidence that Chesky is seeking a Randian “I don’t need permission” free market). I also am on record for being appalled at the way AirBnB and most #collcons startups inmix rhetoric about ‘sharing’ with rhetoric about ‘profiting.’ Apart from anything else, it is poor Lakoffian framing.

    But the reason I am interested in the sharing economy is because it can be an ‘economy.’ It can scale in breadth, without, I utopianly believe, allowing itself to be commoditized in delocalizing ways. Whilst it is a source of more sustainably efficient resource usage, it is socially inefficient: it has the frictionfulness of people dealing with people as people (as opposed to customers dealing with employees following McDonaldized service scripts).

    Of course there is something unethical about hoping that peer-to-peer platforms can be as commoditizable as spam. But in fact these interactions are uncommoditizable which is why they must be encouraged to scale, and must be made to confront the regulations that make only commoditized offerings scalable. Regulations in turn might just be innovated to be less commoditized as well – wasn’t that Tim’s argument?

    Anyway, it is very much a point of emphasis. I am just very worried that this student is using poor critical thinking skills to foreclose on one of the more interesting opportunities around at the moment, using absurd oppositions (“callous selfishness [masquerading] as community-mindedness”) to reinstate absurd oppositions (the communitarian and the commercial). Things are always more complex, just as they are more dangerous.

    There is a fair amount of Capital from nasty sources washing around in this domain. But there are also large numbers of people playing new kinds of roles in these systems – far from employees, not quite members, all those people opening their homes and cars to strangers, using a mixture of platform-based reputation indicators, community-based everyday intuitions and managed risk escalation. All those ‘users’ are participating for a wide variety of reasons, some ecoleft, some fiscal, every now and then one evil. That to me is very interesting, something where Big Corporate investors seems to be biting off more than they can chew.

    Do please let me know how I should proceed with this student.

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