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Teaching Design for Democracy

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Learning & Education

Linda Blaasvær and Birger Sevaldson

This proposal reports on a new studio course at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), which started in the autumn semester of 2016. The course will be repeated in autumn 2017 and the coming years. The aim is to slowly develop pedagogic approaches and a curriculum for teaching Design for Democracy.

The proposal will briefly present the course, and we wish to spend time on discussions and input on developing it further. We need to present this work in progress, share our experiences, and have ideas, feedback, and criticism to develop it in the coming runs. At the time of the presentation, we will be in the middle of the second run of the course, and we will be able to present our recent experiences. The course is a master-level studio, and its length corresponds with 24 ETCS duration is one semester.

The course is suitable for all sub-domains in design like service and product design, interaction design, design management and other new fields of design like organization, strategy, and policy. It is also relevant for architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture. The course ranges from micro to macro scale, and students can develop and choose their perspectives. Systems Oriented Design (SOD) is the integrated basis of this course.

We are experiencing significant unrest globally; democratic values are at stake, people are fleeing from their homes and war. Many nations are heading towards democracy, but it is a cumbersome way forward. The party system is under stress, and even established democracies are struggling. Norway is not an exception for the need for better participation and accountability of voters and citizens in general. The representative democratic systems’ inherent reinforcement of short-term perspectives, together with the complexity of the driving processes, make it difficult for citizens to voice long-term considerations and acquire the know-how to claim participation. Local dialogic democracy is underdeveloped compared to the tasks that communities face. These range from sustainability to economic development and integration.

Workplace democracy is also under pressure. The neo-liberalist wave of the late last century, new economies and cultural changes have weakened the labour unions, their influence and their power. With this, inequality is rising globally, while the sense of fairness is crumbling. These are cornerstones of functioning democratic societies.

On the other hand, design has a long tradition of developing processes from a democratic perspective, and universal design and participatory design processes are examples of this. In addition, designers have been involved in democracy in designing voting processes and information distribution for a long time.

However, design for democracy can be developed further. Can we, through design, envision and describe a future that supports a balanced distribution of power, values, and resources? Can we contribute to building democratic cultures and lowering the threshold for participation in democratic processes? Can we design processes that make it easier to think long-term and, through this, encourage sustainable development? Through the design of our surroundings, can we help the emergence of democratic organizations?

Design for Democracy seeks innovation to support small and large-scale democratic processes. Democracy is under pressure, and there is no guarantee that democracy will prevail without a comprehensive effort to protect and develop democratic processes. This effort for developing democracy may, in many ways, be perceived as a design process, and designers have a lot to contribute.

In our age, where the Internet has made it possible to reach out with one’s opinions and where Democracy 2.0 has been relevant for a while, we must find out how designers can help.

The theme may involve several areas and issues where design can be a crucial factor:

  • How to convey democratic history?
  • How do help people to vote for their long-term interests?
  • How do we make discussions of sustainability more accessible?
  • How to vote on behalf of others, children, grandchildren, future generations or others who cannot vote? (Agency)
  • How designing the voting process as an interactive service?
  • How Reveal/uncover and communicate processes that undermine democracy?
  • How to fight for democracy? (Activism) What is the role of digital media in the ongoing popular uprisings?
  • How do we build democratic cultures?
  • How do we design our environment, cities, architecture and nature in democratic processes and democratic expression?
  • How designing new democratic arenas?
  • Networks, Technology and mobile phones as the venue for Democracy 2.0.
  • Design for variety, tolerance and integration.
  • Crowd Sourcing. (Self-organizing systems)
  • How can design fight oversimplified solutions and populism?
  • How can design make economic processes transparent?

Systems thinking is a foundation for developing a deeper understanding of sustainability, ethics, culture and society, and understanding communication, technology and innovation. Students will gain a general understanding of systems thinking and especially on SOD. They will develop skills in adaptive expertise, Very Rapid Learning, collaborative processes and participatory design.

The course is principally politically neutral. However, understanding society, including power structures, are necessary for this study. Ethical considerations are essential, and we think that social systems should not oppress and marginalize any participant or citizen nor harm non-humans.

We do not think that design can fix problems easily. We do not think every change does need long-term commitment, but we think change is a continuous process. It is a misunderstanding to focus on change processes like if they would be different and separate from an imagined normal state of no change. We do not believe in the traditional designer role, providing plans for people to implement. The best we can do is to use our designerly creativity to suggest actions that might trigger new directions in the flux of society. We, therefore, think of this project in the framework of versioning and iterations, and the design activity is an integrated part of this ongoing flux.

In line with this position, the suggested design interventions need to consider these issues. Further, we want to demonstrate how they might evolve into new versions and how they will work and develop independently after the designers have left the field.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: Teaching Design for Democracy
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 12 October 2017
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