A Short Guide to Neoliberalism for Social Designers

This is a proposed abstract for a talk at Design Ethos at Savannah College of Art and Design in April


Social Design is an exciting new kind of designing that aims to help people instead of just making more stuff for the 1%. By working in human-centered, participatory ways on wicked problems, the down-trodden of the world can gain access to the power of design thinking.

But beware! Did you know that Social Design can also be a form of ‘neoliberalism’? Neoliberalism makes people think that free markets are the only, and best, option. It makes people believe that they can only make a difference as hard-working individuals. It cleverly turns people into flexible and even free sources of labor.

This presentation will highlight some of the things that might tell you that your social design project is in danger of being neoliberal, such as when it:

– promotes small group Coping rather than social Changing

– promotes small group Resilience through crises rather than societal Avoidance of crises

– avoids systems that let people escape Money, especially Electronic transactions

– avoids systems that let people operate Anonymously or Collectively, preferably getting them to use a fixed Digital Identity

– aims at making people more Flexible in terms of employable Skills

– aims at making people more Mobile with less attachment to particular Places or Products

– encourages Participation only at lower levels of systems and only ever in matters in which participants have a Direct stake

– encourages Voluntary contributions in systems that nevertheless have not-collectively-owned components

– celebrates Individual freedom, especially in the form of Choice

– celebrates Elegant Design as a Universal taste

Keeping these things in mind when you social design will ensure that you don’t accidentally exacerbate the very problems you are trying to solve.



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2 responses to “A Short Guide to Neoliberalism for Social Designers

  1. tylergalloway

    these are great criteria for evaluating projects, and i understand them generally as notions that empower individuals or groups on their own terms, not in the context of — or for the benefit of — a larger neoliberal system. i definitely appreciate that. i don’t understand, however, the negative implications of a project that would celebrate “Individual freedom, especially in the form of Choice”. is that about the project or system providing predetermined choices, as in our typical two-party political system, rather than allowing the participants to determine the nature of their choices?

    • The argument that will be made in the presentation is twofold:
      1) Neoliberalism as an ideology promotes, it has been argued, individualism in order to discourage collect action. By endorsing the power of individuals, it ensures that people pursue individual agenda rather than developing what the old left would call ‘class consciousness,’ the de-alienating recognition that what we thought we were suffering alone is in fact a condition shared by many others, who, if they acted together in their common interest, are much more powerful. Neoliberalism often takes the form of celebrating entrepreneurs and celebrities to make it look like it is possible to bring about change, or have influence, as an individual. In this context, the old Margaret Mead quote – ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world’ – can be read in the other direction: stay a small group, don’t try to operate at a larger scale.
      2) Neoliberalism promotes the idea that ‘freedom’ = choice. To conceal from people that they are less free than they think, neoliberalism always recommends a trip to the shops, to reinforce the idea that ‘it is all just there, available to you (if you have $); you are free (to choose).’ To perceive this ideology, it sometimes needs to be asked: am I free not to choose? A more beautiful and design-based version of this argument is in AnneMarie Mol’s The Logic of Care where Mol contrasts freedom-to-choose based approach to health-care with one that is more concerned with (expert service) care.

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