The Publics That Design Built

  • This is the first of a series of two posts reflecting on current design practices (in India) and how they re-create divisions between people who design and people who are designed-for. The second post will be a provocation about the absence of ‘politics’ in design thinking.

    Last week a design/innovation conclave titled ‘Design!publiC’ was organised in Bangalore by a multi-disciplinary conglomeration of design and architectural practices, legal and technological research organisations and investment andmedia firms. The first Design!publiC conclave, held early this year, addressed how design thinking can spearhead innovations in governmental processes and service deliveries in India. One major finding of that previous meet was that government in India is generally slow to accept and adapt to innovative suggestions, so what if the might of design thinking is focused instead on directly providing the desired ends (efficient and adequate delivery of basic services — drinking water, health and sanitation, education etc.), without depending on approval of government.

    Taking that idea forward, the second conclave, held last week, was configured around the promise of design and/in ‘public interest.’ Spread over five panel discussions, three break-out groups and a final wrap-up round, the briskly paced one-day event saw a very diverse gathering of people and opinions. Just a sampling of ideas from the event — innovation = invention + commercialisation; big firms in India neither innovates internally neither supports innovative start-ups by buying solutions from them; innovation is necessarily creating something novel and hence can often be un-sustainable, whereas design is creative condensation of the existing and hence much more sensitive and suitable to society; innovation is about going beyond the box, while design is about making the best within the box; perhaps the government is not about innovation but about being stable; if the government is asked to innovate, it must also be allowed to fail; innovation in government services can be best created by private individuals acting in public interests and conversant in the vocabulary of the government; venture capitalists and international donors can join hands to support emerging start-ups with intensive knowledge of ‘wicked problems’ (collated and curated by design research firms) and seed fund to kickstart innovations in public interest etc.

    Now these ideas are neither novel (and can be criticised for neo-colonial influences) nor limited to the geographic context of India (and hence has the possibility to affect global design talks). What is striking is perhaps not their diversity, but their commonality in imagining a ‘design public’. By ‘design public’ I mean a conception of the design community as a particularly powerful and socially-suitable agency for mediating human development — from conceptualising and visualising ‘wicked problems’ for start-ups, government bodies and international donors, to designing behaviours, processes and systems/institutions. This agreement regarding the public role and relavance of the designers seems to create a self-defeating (in context of ‘design and public interest’) division between the public that is empowered by design, and the public that cannot design for itself and must be designed for by the former. The potential threat of this division is greater in spheres such as urban planning and design, where the visual language of maps and plans already suffer from high cognitive and technological entry barriers. Though there were brief mentions at the conclave of the need to create toolkits to democratise design works, the overall consensus was clearly towards a ‘design public’ that must undertake design interventions (through internal collaboration) in the interest of the ‘non-design public’.

    DREAM:IN is a parallel initiative in India, also based in Bangalore, of bringing designers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists together. It is a project generated by Idiom, an Indian design consultancy firm (hailed as “India’s answer to Ideo” by Bruce Nussbaum), and Parsons, The New School for Design, NYC. This initiative has begun to create an archive of the dreams of populations in India, with a focus at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, which is expected to translate in to stimulants as well as initial market studies for start-up innovators and  toaid them in securing funding from VCs (as explained by Bruce Nussbaum). Curiously, these early user interviews and data collection (ominously called ‘dreamcatching’) were all done in a crowdsourced fashion where teams of students contributed towards building up this archive of ‘dreams’. However, unless one of the original dreamers or collectors participate in the Dream:In process of commercialising the dream, it is unclear what kind of claim (if at all) s/he will enjoy over the commercialised/realised dream. It seems that an inherent disempowerment of the user/dreamer (vis-a-vis the designer) is built into this form of user-centric design. The practice of design continues to create two publics — one is the ‘design public’, the sensitive ‘masterclass’ that can design, and the ‘designed-for public’, the community of users who consume the designs of the former.

    Image courtesies: Design!publiC website and Flickr photostream, and DREAM:IN’s Flickr photostreamTitle inspiration: Rick Poynor’s ‘The House that Design Journalism Built’ at Design Observer