Interaction Designer
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Essays

Through a concentration in Nature, Culture, and Sustainability Studies, Peter brings an eye for psychology, sociology, and the natural sciences.

When Everybody Designs // A Contemplation of Design, Tradition, and Power

Through the lens of the sociological imagination, human civilization has been not only incredibly diverse throughout its development, but could also be perceived as immensely strange from the perspective of those foreign to a specific cultural time and place. The diversity of this four-dimensional construct, human civilization, is both astounding and heart-warming. In humanity’s most recent chapter, “a new culture and new practice appeared to deal with technological innovation and industrial development, making them part of everyday life and, more importantly, building a shared vision able to give them meaning”; this new practice was the development, over the past century, of professional design (29). While the industrialization, modernization, and globalization of contemporary human civilization has produced technological marvels, from the internet to space exploration, it has likewise wrought immense impact on the planet and its systems as well as weakened many community bonds and social systems within highly modernized societies. Thankfully, global leaders have begun to recognize the scope of past sins and, justly, are meeting in Paris this week to discuss what measures must be taken to salvage humanity’s future. As designers were instrumental in creating the industrial culture which drove past mistakes, the time has come to reconsider the role of the designer and develop a new operative mode for the design profession.

In his recently published book, Design When Everybody Designs, Ezio Manzini discusses the role of designers in driving social innovation and the role of social innovation in creating the new social, cultural, and economic systems which are desperately needed to move beyond the modern-industrial-global system of the past century. Manzini sees social innovation “as a potentially powerful agent of change in the entire sociotechnical system”, envisioning a world in which individuals connect through co-creation networks to collectively define and build a new world (12). In this new world, co-creation “[blurs] boundaries between production and consumption” as “many products are now offered to the general public in an openly incomplete version, in order to be able to harvest the improvements or extensions that are suggested by users”, causing an overall reduction in consumption as individuals’ needs are met, rather than with products or services, but with experiences of co-creation and self-initiative (15, 16). In Manzini’s vision, humans will “compensate for reduced consumption with an increase in something else that they consider more valuable”, becoming actively involved in the process of co-creation and the design of the world around them (23).

In Design When Everybody Designs, Manzini offers a rare gift, not only citing numerous positive examples of the impacts of social innovation and the benefits of discovering a new design paradigm, but also laying out a primer for how such a transition might occur: what designers should do, learn, and need to care about. However, although Manzini’s vision for the future of the design profession is highly laudable, he discounts the roles tradition and spirituality can play in defining a new paradigm, especially in the context of local-global interactions, while furthermore choosing to ignore the pushback such a new system would receive from those with vested interests in the current, unsustainable, sociotechnical systems, pushback which must be considered and addressed when conceiving any comprehensive vision of the future.

Expanding Expert Design Interaction

Manzini honors the professionalism of the design discipline, seeing the role of designers extending far beyond that of a skilled human knowledge bank and recognizing their vast potential for observation and organizing complex systems into understandable quanta. As “what [social innovation] requires is not so much a specific set of skills and methods as a new culture, a new way of looking at the world and at what design can do with and for people living in it”, in Manzini’s new world, designers bring fresh eyes and a critical mind to the development of society, utilizing critical design thinking and observation to recognize both opportunity and where intervention is necessary in defining new paradigms (55). Furthermore, through “framework projects”, “second-level projects that seek to align, coordinate, and systemize a multiplicity of enabling solutions”, designers, with their unique ability to understand both the macroscopic vision as well as the finest details, can combine and connect local social innovations in order to impact “the great sociotechnical systems such as health, social service, education, food and nutrition, and so on” (92). With designers as both facilitators, guides and critical observers of social innovation, Manzini brings to question the scope of the design discipline, advocating for a greater connection between designers and the general public.

To provide a model for such connections, Manzini turns to the process of design research through the mode of co-creation. Following Manzini’s primer, “in the transition toward a networked and sustainable society all design is (or should be) a design research activity and should promote sociotechnical experiments” (54). Following the virtues of an open-source mindset, with design activity focused on research and experimentation, it will be “necessary to develop a design knowledge repository where the knowledge”, generated from research, “can be found and applied rapidly, when and where needed” (38). With critical observation driving design research and sociotechnical experimentation, Manzini envisions “the specific role of design experts” as triggering and supporting “large design processes by building the necessary coalitions among different partners” (43). For Manzini, the designer is instrumental in every aspect of social innovation: from the first critical observations, to triggering and conducting design research and setting the direction for a project, even acting as the facilitator and coordinator of smaller projects and coalitions brought together to perform comprehensive action.

As much of Manzini’s heightened vision for the designer would fall under the umbrella of co-creation, in which the professional and other actors mutually collaborate to define and drive innovations, Manzini also considers the role of the non-designer, the individual, the user, the (god-forbid) consumer, in the aforementioned, design-driven, process of social innovation. In traditional design theory, humans are degraded to the level of mere ‘users’, or ‘consumers’ of a product, losing all humanity and becoming little more than puppets, acting according to the designers will. As Manzini puts it, “twentieth-century modernity has led us to an idea of well-being as liberation from the weight of everyday activities, where our skills and capabilities are replaced by a growing series of products and services to be purchased on the market or received from the sate” (95). In traditional design acumen, humans become subservient, losing all freedom to the product.

Manzini proposes a novel idea: “instead of considering people as carriers of needs to be satisfied, it is better to consider them as active subjects, able to operate for their own well-being” (96). By restoring humanity to the traditional design ‘user’, the entire context and purpose of designed objects and systems begins to change. Rather than designing a static system to last for all time (the dream of modernist high design), the ideal system becomes fluid, perhaps chaotic, allowing users, through their use and interaction with the system, to change and adapt the system to best fit their needs, to apply their own creativity and interpretation of designed objects and interactions. Recognizing that “people’s behavior cannot be designed” and preferring instead to “create conditions that make some ways of being and doing things more probable than others”, designers can facilitate lasting, sustainable, resilient designs, which respect and utilize the user as an essential element of the design process and action (151). For Manzini, “the role of design experts is no longer that of developing finished products and services. Instead, their task is to design to expand the capabilities of people to lead the kind of lives they value. This means that, rather than trying to identify needs and design solutions to satisfy them, design experts should collaborate in creating favorable conditions for those directly concerned to come up with and put into practice ways of living and acting to which they themselves, the protagonists, attribute value” (98). In the coming centuries, Manzini sees professional design as expanding well beyond any scope it has held in the past century of its existence, with designers acting in a diverse, highly involved, set of roles, from the initiation of a project, to facilitating co-creative research and experiments, and coordinating diverse coalitions to instigate social innovations, all while elevating the creativity of the user through capacity building and focusing on adaptable, resilient designs.

Leveraging Tradition

As with technological innovation in the past century, “building a shared vision able to give [innovations] meaning” forms a central part of the responsibilities of design and adds incredible relevancy to design as a part of everyday life. According to Manzini, “we are in conventional mode when tradition guides us in what we do and how we do it”, especially in the context of forming shared meaning for new innovations (30). Manzini sees tradition as a crutch, a useless tie to outdated ideas which only serve to limit the freedom of actors within the societal network. As a boon, “the more tradition is weakened, the more subjects must learn to design their own lives and shift from a prevalence of activities carried out in a traditional way to one in which choices are mainly of design” (31). While increasing an actors’ freedom, allowing greater choice and flexibility in the direction of one’s life is certainly a positive, viable to reap many positive benefits throughout society. Manzini fails to recognize the vast potential for tradition to inform the direction of social innovation as well as become a key element preserving the beauty and diversity of local communities.

As a contrast to Manzini’s ignorance of the power of tradition, Michael Ben-Eli, associate of Buckminster Fuller and founder of Sustainability Labs, recently began a design project in Waddi Attir, Israel, focusing on revitalizing communities plagued by few economic opportunities, a lack of education, and extreme difficulty in meeting many essential human needs. Project Waddi Attir, following closely to Manzini’s vision of the role and impact design can have on a community, began with a process of vision finding, hoping to create a shared meaning of place for the community to connect and rally around. In this process, rather than eschewing traditions, the project utilized traditional knowledge on the brink of being lost to activate the community’s economic potential. While still following the strict gender roles of its predominately Muslim society, the community began producing desert-hardy cheeses from ancient recipe’s as well as traditional herbal medicines, connecting on their common beliefs and spirituality while utilizing traditional values to incentivize younger members of the community to reinvest in the place they were born and call home. An all-around success, Project Waddi Attir demonstrates how traditional values and knowledge, particularity a shared spirituality, can be used to both build a shared vision and instigate social and economic innovations within a community.

Tradition, while perhaps a barrier to freedom and innovation, serves as a fundamental element in defining local identity, a powerful tool in forming shared meaning and cultivating a vision for the future, processes Manzini stresses as essential when designing for social innovation, citing that “discussion cannot be limited to technical grounds; it must also concern the realm of meaning” (44). Manzini should be cautioned to distinguish between his concept of “conventional mode”, in which traditional ways of thinking are blindly and stubbornly adhered to for the sake of convenience, and the pertinent traditions which inform and support local culture. While Manzini argues that “the diffusion of the design mode”, the society outlined in his vision for the future of the design profession, “is compatible with a scenario in which people reflect on what they wish to do and be: in which more people define their own aims in life”, tradition and spirituality can play an essential role as a compass guiding an individuals’ moral direction and aiding in the self-definition of life projects (32). As Michael Ben-Eli outlines in “The Cybernetics of Sustainability”, the spiritual domain is essential in cultivating perceived value for nature and the compassion necessary to recognize the importance of sustaining the biosphere. There are few better drivers for action than social empathy.

Tradition further fits very nicely into Manzini’s vision of a reimagined globalism. Manzini sees the world connected through a vast collection of networks in which “short networks generate and regenerate the local socioeconomic fabric [while] the long ones connect a particular community to the rest of the world” (25). For Manzini, “It is possible to imagine a new and viable form of globalization as a mesh of distributed economies and connected localities” (178). As “the field of possibility within which people define their life projects is determined by the context in which they find themselves: by the characteristics of what we have called their enabling ecosystem”, individuals perception of life possibilities is informed by the local network as well as any links that local network exercises to the global, networked community (121). While it remains important to strengthen these local networks, as well as their global connections, in order to provide for more people richer opportunities to invest in as a life project, local traditions must remain strong in order to preserve the local character and distinctiveness in an increasingly connected world. As Manzini aptly notes, “although [the sociotechnical systems in which we live] character and identity are human constructs, they actually existed long before each of us and will continue to exist after our lifetime”, bringing an even stronger argument for the development and conservation of important local traditions as a key means of connecting to past, and impacting future, generations (194). With local cultures and economies constantly becoming more and more connected to and affected by global forces, tradition must be utilized as a focal point in created shared visions, place-making, and defining meaning while also serving as a distinguishing characteristic of a new locality, uniquely contributing to global culture while strengthening local networks.

The Friction of Power

As Manzini elects to focus on the more positive aspects and true capacities of designing for social innovation, he does admit that he has “not discussed the powerful forces that are fighting against the emergence of a new sustainable world: the forces of those who do not want to change (in order to protect their existing interests)” (27). In order for the emergence of a new world to occur, there must be a comprehensive consideration of the forces Manzini mentions yet chooses not to address.

In the modern world, there is no dearth of dark forces, from global oil corporations who seek to infest doubt surrounding the legitimacy of climate change, to conservatively minded curmudgeons who ignore any potential for positive change in order to stick to their guns, any social or technical innovation will always be met with a host of pessimists and skeptics, people who will often go above and beyond to prevent forward progress. As noted in E.M. Rodgers Diffusion of Innovation Theory, society is full of a host of character types that will collectively react in different ways to new innovations, ranging from advocates and early-adopters to laggards and leapfroggers. Those with vested interests in older societal paradigms, such as coal and oil corporations, big tobacco, and agro-chemical corporations, will fight with all their assets and willpower to prevent innovations which challenge their supremacy from jumping over the chasm and spreading from small groups of innovators into mainstream culture. Any new social innovations, particularly those involving distributed systems which challenge the industrial model of centralized production, will be met with extreme resistance from corporate powers, and will need definitive strategies to overcome such friction. Designers, particularly those involved in communication design, can play an essential role in combatting the skeptics and conservatives, aiding social innovations in their breakthrough into the dominant societal paradigm.

On a more localized scale, there will also be many barriers to the effectiveness of collaboration and co-creation as an essential part of the design process. As Manzini duly comments, “to collaborate, it is necessary to come to an agreement with other people, and this is perceived as a limit to everyday personal freedom” (97). For many, particularly in freedom minded societies such as the USA, limiting everyday freedom is an atrocity warranting international conflict. In a politically polarized environment, in order to encourage collaboration and bring all voices to the table, designers will need to borrow many strategies from the toolbox of moderators and activists, people with experience balancing the diverse opinions and emotions of differing interest groups.

For Manzini’s vision of a new world to be realized, designers need to play a central role in the entire process of social innovation. However, before society can change with the help of designers, the structure of professional design must be liberated from the same forces which fight against social innovation at every turn. In its current model, the design firm receives a contract from a client, outlining specific goals for the design project with a true end-goal of generating greater profit for the company. So long as professional design is driven by clients, corporations, and contracts, the ability of design professionals to become involved in design for social innovation will always be limited. As “design is a specific culture… design experts should be selected for their creativity and trained to use that creativity to transform their design culture into visions and proposals” rather than products and services which demand subservience of the general populace for the benefit of a select few (66). The design profession, as a sub-network of larger societal networks, must undergo a process of social innovation, building new connections and bonds, empowering its actors as humans rather than users, and developing autonomy as scholars and innovators.

Conclusions

While Manzini offers an excellent path for the development of design professionals as a catalyst for social innovation, incorporating the potential of tradition as a unifying motivator as well as addressing how best to overcome the many opposing forces could only strengthen his primer for envisioning and creating a new society. Although Manzini focuses primarily on professional designers, he also mentions that “design schools may work as independent design research agencies”, perhaps functioning much the same as Manzini’s vision for expert design but without the many forces limiting the scope and possibilities of professional designers (74). Through a co-creative design process, designers can be instrumental in building a new dominant societal paradigm and a new culture, “such a culture could help everybody to find the convergence between perceived well-being and sustainability, in an easier, lighter way” (204). With global leaders currently meeting in Paris to discuss the state of global climate change, it is now an absolute necessity that designers work to bring such a vision of society rapidly into existence.

"New social innovations, particularly those involving distributed systems which challenge the industrial model of centralized production, will be met with extreme resistance from corporate powers, and will need definitive strategies to overcome such friction. Designers, particularly those involved in communication design, can play an essential role in combatting the skeptics and conservatives, aiding social innovations in their breakthrough into the dominant societal paradigm."


Bibliography

Manzini, Ezio. Design, When Everybody Designs : An Introduction To Design For Social Innovation. n.p.: Cambridge, Massachusetts : The MIT Press, [2015], 2015. Fleet Library at RISD/Providence Athenaeum Catalog. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

Peter SchwartzComment