Personal Constraints on Design-led Change

A quick, incomplete note: As of January 2017, I will be relocating back to Sydney, Australia to take up the position of full Professor of Design at UNSWAD.

The move is primarily personal – ailing parents are deserving some close care. For me, this has been an untimely reminder that the capacity to make change in the world is always a contextual privilege. It is a truism, but without good health, or the good health of those around you – upon whom you depend and who depend on you – you cannot try to transform a profession and discipline like design toward more responsible futures. Or to put it the other way around, minimizing societal infrastructures for health care is a great way to limit people’s capacity to change that society, like for instance, improving health care systems – catabolic iatrogensis perhaps.

The work I have been doing on Transition Design with Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff and others foregrounds the disposition of the change-maker in systems-level change processes, what we have been calling ‘Mindset and Posture.’ But our focus so far has been on the voluntaristic aspects of that disposition, not the systems that in term make space for voluntarism at all. So I am now personally being forced to think through the more constraints side of ‘Transition Design.’

After nearly a decade away, I am excited to be getting back to a land, and especially a coast (since us invading colonialists mostly cling to the coastal fringes of that ancient country), for which I have only recently realized how much I have ‘Nostalghia.’ However, in my and my family’s time away, Australia has adopted a fair amount of US- (and now UK- and Euro-)style politics that I am not looking forward to: xenophobia and climate denial are mainstream, and pro-gun libertarianism and religious fundamentalism have noisy elected representatives.

I am joining a very large university that is justifiably proud of its world-ranking, but at a time when higher education policy is doubling-down on neoliberalism. There is for instance a beautiful catch-22 impending: government university funding will reward research activity, something that is measured only by the amount of research funding won (no longer for instance, publications – conferences were removed a while ago). I took a position in the US at the start of 2008 in part to escape the malaise of ‘middle-career research status’ in Australia which forces academics to work on other people’s funded research projects until you have enough track record to be a Principle Investigator in your own right. It was a real privilege – resourced by inequitable tuition-based universities in the US – for me to spend the last 9 years in a system designed around time – the Summer – rather than money. And it was a real privilege to be at universities that not only allowed, but promoted, the academic freedom to pursue critical research agendas. This is what has allowed me to produce a wide-range of speculative articles that have in the end fostered the new approach to sustainable and social design that is Transition Design.

My family circumstances have interrupted the special work that we have been doing at CMU School of Design. Since Terry Irwin brought me over to Pittsburgh, new curricula from undergraduate to doctoral have been introduced, but the first undergraduates to have experienced all 4 years will only graduate in May 2018, as will the first candidates in the restructured PhD program. UNSWAD has distinctively interdisciplinary design degree programs and a strong transdisciplinary PhD program, and the wider UNSW has a clear commitment (a 2025 Vision) to bringing a next generation of Design Thinking to all disciplines across the university. I am excited by these opportunities. As Transition Design is now a widely recognized idea, with other institutions joining the process of elaborating this approach to design-research-led structural change, I will build out a Transition Design applied research unit at UNSWAD. Formal partnerships between CMU School of Design and UNSWAD will see me returning to teach intensives at CMU in the first half of each Spring semester starting in 2018. I will continue advising CMU Design PhD candidates online and attending annual progress reviews.

But I am also disappointed that there are things that remain incomplete at CMU School of Design. For instance, the restructure of the CMU Design PhD and our new DDes program aimed at fostering Practice-based Design Research in North America. Before we can graduate candidates, it looks like a North American chapter of the Design Research Society will be established. From my limited exposure to this initiative, it looks to be committed to an unsustainable pluralism at best, and to the colonization of design research by HCI’s pursuit of funded research at worst. I wish I were remaining at CMU to help assert a strong alternative of social and sustainable, practice-led, critical design research.

There is much else to say, about what remains to be done, and about what will now have to be done in and from Australia and via partnerships. So, I will of course persist with my ‘fist shaking at clouds’ tweeting from the other side of the planet in 2017. For all of you in the North Atlantic, my vitriol for the way the techonomy is perverting design’s capacity to take responsibility for societal sustainability will now only be occurring at the Trump hour of the night. For those of you on the West Coast of the US, most of you have blocked me already, so no matter.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s