A version of Part I was presented at a talk given at Nottingham-Trent University in June 2017 at the invitation of Professor Tom Fisher. Part II is based on notes for a final lecture to 1st Years at CMU School of Design before my departure back to Australia, a few weeks after Trump’s Election at the end of 2016. I have reframed the arguments from those presentations as a response to the “Stand up for Democracy” initiative – http://www.democracy-design.org/.

I am pretty lost, conceptually, at the moment. I have been for at least 18 months, which means that my being confounded is tied up with Brexit and Trump, so Putin and Facebook, but also #DeleteUber and #Metoo. I am amazingly privileged, so I do not suffer any of these issues personally, which is also why I should have been lost earlier, with #BLM and Decolonizing Design for instance. I do not say this to attract sympathy; just to explain why I am starting so many things I try to write these days with tediously nostalgic reflections.

But before I do that, I should clarify the context of these particular reflections:

Yes, of course: Democracy, as a system for equitable decision-making about our shared futures, is not only worth defending, but demands defending. It is not just that democracy is the least bad form of society. Democracy is, I believe, a political ideal, one whose many values makes its various flawed institutionalizations worth preserving, promoting and developing.

And yes, certainly: Democracy is now in crisis. It is today, unexpectedly to me at least, subject to genuine and strengthening threats. Groups of people, with wealth and power, are attacking democratic processes and institutions. Large numbers of people are disgruntled about democratic governance. Some of these people refuse to engage with democratic politics, let alone resist attacks on it; a major proportion of these people even lend support to groups and leaders with explicitly anti-democratic policies.

And so, yes. Something must be done. If you believe that Democracy is essential to more equitable societies, you are obliged today to declare so. You need to exhort the value of not only Democratic ideals but also imperfect Democratic systems, in private and in public, in workplaces and neighbourhoods, to friends and strangers.

And this goes also for Designers. As individuals privileged enough to design things that thousands if not millions of people will use, as professionals with expertise in future-making, as people others turn to for problem solving and decision-making advice, as influencers whose actions bind networks of people together, from manufacturers, through marketers and retailers and service providers, to various users going about their everyday lives — designers must speak out, loudly and often, in support of something they value but see as threatened. Designers who believe that we need more not less Democracy should be saying so: to their co-workers, clients, customers and kids.

Good on Ezio Manzini and Victor Margolin therefore, for using their widely respected status, at least amongst the academic design community, to call on others to ‘take a stand for Democracy’ and to provide a platform for doing so.

However, it is not enough. And in not being enough, it seems to me wrongly directed. Its vague pluralism is too weak a response; one that fails to identify what is particular about confronting the crisis of Democracy from the perspective of Design.

To explain, some reminiscences:

Part I: Post-Progress

My university education was during the heyday of poststructuralism. It was an exciting time in ways that do not seem possible anymore. There was a distinct feeling that we were at the forefront of radical changes in the nature of knowledge. Everything was being questioned and wholly new practices and institutions seemed to be opening up. It was happening quickly, but not at the speed of the internet, which was only just getting going. Part of the excitement was the expectation of a next book or translation that would further expose the limits of this or that, or experiment with some new form of thinking or acting.

In retrospect, not much really changed. The institutions that were being challenged by poststructuralism successfully housed those challenges until reactionary forces could reinstate business-as-usual. Radical innovations — radical in the sense of fundamentally changing dominant disciplines — failed to prove sustainable outside of the existing institutions and were easily re-appropriated in tamer versions.

An axial text in all this was Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition [1]. This was in fact a report on the state of knowledge in the research university, produced for the Quebecoise government. Lyotard later confessed to this famous text being too hastily prepared. It is book that is certainly more cited than closely read. For instance, most take it to be a prescription for undermining ‘grand narratives’ — mostly because the English edition included a short polemical essay, ‘Answering the Question: What is the Postmodern?’ which concludes with the slogan ‘let us wage war on totality.’ The text of The Postmodern Condition is in fact much more a description of the ways in which ‘grand narratives’ that used to organize university knowledge were losing their legitimacy.

What Lyotard was describing is precisely how the not-yet-a-discipline of Design was able to enter the university. As an applied art that could be learned through apprenticeship, there was no need for (non-architectural) design — which is not a codified practice governed by a professional body — to enter the university. Lyotard’s analysis suggests that design’s becoming a university discipline may have been less the result of design (educators) pushing for institutional recognition, and more a result of changes to the nature of the university pulling practices like design into its orbit. Post-industrial capitalism increased expectations of knowledge production; epistemologies shifted to valorising performance over rigour. In this new ‘postmodern’ era, universities were looking more for ‘what works’ than ‘truth.’

Design, or rather design research, design as research, is exemplary in this regard. It pursues new forms, innovating more valuable patterns of interactions. It does not reveal new universals [2]. A new way for users to interact with a product might be the outcome of extensive design research, but it could not be considered a new piece of truth: sliding your fingers up on a track pad to move screen text downwards as you read is no truer than sliding down. The extent to which a design works will always be contextually specific, a situated practice rather than a rule or law [3]. For disciplines committed to being part of larger historical narratives that aim to reveal reliable principles that definitively explain a wide range of phenomenon, design looks embarrassingly pragmatic.

Nevertheless, design was welcomed by the postmodern university, along with other creative industries, as an exemplar [4] of the university’s new value-generating project. As a result, designers now can, and mostly do, learn to become professional designers at universities. And when they do so, they are not getting lectures on the universal principles of design. Rather the university has modified to tolerate a version of apprenticeship, studio-based learning, within its walls. And when design teachers research, they are not required to validate their knowledge according to the conventions of the sciences, but can instead conduct practice-based research [5].

Preferables, not Progress

Now, this may seem all well and good, but I want to underline one of the claims entailed by Lyotard’s analysis. The modern way of legitimating knowledge was the narrative of progress, the belief that things in general were getting better. We, westerners, were all the time coming to know more and more, which was allowing us to make living easier and richer for everyone. This was so not only with respect to technoscientific development, but, as Kant, one of the major authors of this fable, insisted, there was also an unceasing improvement in the sociocultural existence of humanity. More and more people over time would be treated as equals and have their differences tolerated by ways of organizing society that enhanced autonomy. This was the project of modernity, and it underwrote all that went on at the modern university.

When Lyotard argued that such ‘grand’ historical narratives were being delegitimated by late capitalism, he meant that systems of knowledge that had produced ‘progress’ in the modern era were no longer framing themselves in terms of ‘progress.’ It was sufficient for research to be pursuing difference rather than improvement. Or, if there was improvement, it only had to be in contrast to some existing local condition. Lyotard’s analysis suggested that postmodern university researchers were evaluating their work more in terms of domain specific performativity than overall enhancement of the human condition.

Again, it is worth pausing to think about this in relation to design. Designers are fond of declaring that their objective is the changing of existing situations into preferred ones. This sounds like a modern grand narrative, but note that Herbert Simon’s formulation [6] is in the plural – design pursues (local) improvements, not the attainment of the one, agreed upon preferred future. Modernist designers judged designs with abstract heuristics, like: things should look cleaner – meaning they appear more rational, i.e., geometrical, ordered, or at that there were at least fewer of them; or things should take less time to do (so that you (the worker) can do more). However, these abstract measures of ‘less is more,’ only have agency with reference to specific contexts. It is not possible for a newly designed product, environment or service to “look neater and take less time” for both an expert user and a novice, here on a sunny day but also there in the rain, in a quiet room on a brisk Sydney morning or on a crowded night-time bus in South East Asia; or in manufacture, and use, and disposal; for the global consumer class, but also for resource extractors in Africa, or waste handlers in China. Because there is no universal functionalist measure for design, there can be no measure of design progress [7]. Scrollbars on the side of screen texts have slimmed out of existence, but one cannot argue that they have ‘progressed.’

Design was therefore always postmodern, even when doing modernist ‘form follows function.’ These days, designers are more honest about having given up modernist narratives of human progress, focusing instead on whether customers report that they are happier, or preferably — because who can trust what people say about themselves? — what customers do: did they click through and buy or are they at least a Daily Active User? In many cases these days, designers are not even making judgements as to what is locally preferable; they merely make a couple of variations and then wait for the overnight metrics to tell them which one counts as an improvement. In the end, whatever improvements are made prove temporary. A new technology arrives and renders all previous knowledge around patterns of good design redundant. For a while we try to translate the patterns from one technology’s interface to another, but these are quickly erased like so many skeuomorphisms before flat design, or screen usability before Conversational User Interfaces with AI-powered chatbots.

Design is therefore exemplary of the kind of professional knowledge within the postmodern university no longer structured around a shared historical project of progress.

As I said at the outset, when I first read Lyotard, this delegitimation that he was describing did not seem depressing, but instead exciting. He was not alone in observing this erosion of progress as an overarching framework; Kuhn’s account of science history as a sequence of incommensurable paradigms, rather than a developmental expansion of a single type of knowledge, had opened up this way of thinking; and it had been furthered in different ways by Foucault’s account of history as a series of distinct dispositifs and then various New Historicisms and now the Ontological Turn in Anthropology.

Perhaps the reason why this withdrawal, of the legitimacy of believing things were progressing, did not feel frustrating, is because this withdrawal actually felt like a kind of progress, a different kind of progress, one that was an improvement on previously limited (because colonially humanist) notions of progress. This was the intellectual excitement of the 1990s that I noted at the outset. It felt to me like Lyotard had identified new ways of progressing the project of equality and autonomy. Lyotard himself enthused about the opportunities he found in his analysis of post-industrial capitalism infecting the university. He described a range of new ‘language games’ that seemed possible in the postmodern university. Whilst knowledge production was dispersing into a pluralist series of performance enhancements in this or that particular context, these were affording a certain experimentalism, even to the extent of encouraging direct challenges to existing situations and institutions. Lyotard argued for a general agonistics within the university, one that took advantage of the drive for performance to undertake performances in the more artistic sense, to play with the play in the system in order to play the system.

Again, this theoretical ploy, typical of the great days of poststructuralism, had its direct counterpart in design, the exemplar of the postmodern university. For designers, the hunt for the new involves an eclectic set of tools for generating unforeseen responses to unconventionally reframed situations. These are called methods, but they are rarely methodical; they are more often quick and dirty interventions into situations designed only to disturb them, to provoke reactions that reveal other possibilities. When Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti developed cultural probes for instance [8], they were adamant that these were not tools for truthful data collection, but merely generative tactics for inspiring design directions. Gaver goes on to promote ludic designs [9], and Dunne and Raby create examples of speculative design [10], all radically shifting the rules for what is considered a legitimate research method [11]. Compared to Lyotard’s post structural commitment to the ‘linguistic turn’ – the assumption that discourse is the primary determinant of how humans are in the world – these design research ploys are more thingly, part of the subsequent ‘practice turn’ which is more concerned with materializing living labs for trying out new ways of being-in-the-world. Nevertheless, in each of these cases, post-modern university-based designers are not claiming to be helping humanity determine what is universally preferable and how to attain it, but merely to be expanding our sense of the possible.

This abdication from the project of modernity feels at times regressive, and too compromised with capitalism’s directionless search for novel profit pools, but it can also feel liberatory, as if it just might light upon radically new ways for our societies to be diversely equal. While no longer cohering around a common goal toward which we feel like we are progressing, there is nevertheless still the promise that some disruption could occur that might leapfrog our societies to ways of living and working that are more widely preferable.

Make Regressing Great Again

So it was that, relishing Lyotard’s analysis of the delegitimation of certain forms of progress for instance, I nevertheless felt like things were generally progressing. I had faith that the weakening of certain ‘grand narratives’ was nevertheless part of a larger Enlightenment-based arc that bent toward more sustainably cosmopolitan futures, and that design’s ‘against method’ness was a vital aspect of that. That belief has sustained my excessively fortunate career as a Design Studies academic ever since.

But no longer.

Lyotard suggested that delegitimaton was happening despite our beliefs, as a side effect of capitalism colonizing the university. He was diagnosing a condition that was at the time not being noticed. He did not anticipate, nor did I as a kind of student of his theorizing, that people would actually choose, voluntarily, to renounce progress.

A significant minority — significant because they turned out to vote — have now decided, defiantly, to opt out of cosmopolitanism, but also science, and even democracy. They are not only rejecting liberal versions of general societal improvement, determined to deny the designed accomplishments of modern societies to many different kinds of people, but they also are actively demanding that things regress — not to some idyllic past, but just to an earlier modern condition with its oppressive but stable jobs, cheap but unsustainable goods, and simpler modes of difference-repressing communication. The project of progressing the Enlightenment is not dissipating unwittingly, as The Postmodern Condition purported to discern; it is now being vociferously rejected.

I have taken this probably dull biographical detour through Lyotard because I want to underline the things about the current crisis of democracy that I believe are not being sufficiently registered by Manzini and Margolin’s appeal to designers to Stand up for Democracy. I am dramatizing (though not exaggerating) my own bewilderment at the current state of affairs because I do not think that Manzini and Margolin have framed the current crisis with sufficient affective force. What has happened is a paradigm shift, an historical rupture. If postmodernism was just a theory about an emerging structural break with modernity, it is now, with Trump and Erdogan, the Koch Brothers and Zuckerberg, and all manner of White Supremacy, an actual event. The latter event has nothing to do with the theory of the former; there is no conceptual similarity whatsoever – because the latter is an explicit anti-modern decision.

Let me underline this in a different way. Much of poststructuralism, and arguments about postmodern modes of knowledge production in the university, were a reaction to the fact that the project of modernity manifested in the Holocaust. The North Atlantic version of progress over the twentieth century indicated that universal progress was only possible by violently restricting who was allowed in that universe. Humans designed products, communications and services for effecting systematic genocide of other humans as a result. After this happened, there was a widespread acknowledgement that this had been the absolute worst of humanity, and that it must be proactively prevented from ever occurring again. How to effect this precaution caused some to wonder whether it was even possible to write poetry again [12]. Certainly, speech and demonstrations tending toward any aspect of Nazism, for instance, had to be completely restricted. A rigorous vigilance was needed because Nazism had been, at the outset, a democratically elected political party.

But now, antidemocratic declarations abound, many endorsing racist authoritarianism, and several directly identifying as Nazi. The project of modern progress had allowed if not resulted in the absolute worst, and so we changed our ideas about progress, in order to ensure that we only ever progressed away from such systemic genocide; and yet now large numbers of people are deciding to reassert Nazi-allied forms of antidemocratic sentiment.

This is the scale of what has happened. This is the extent of the crisis of democracy. But this is not a perspective mentioned in Manzini and Margolin’s initiative. Theirs does not register the history-breaking forces that we, who are asked to join them to defend democracy, are now up against. This is what I mean when I say that their laudable initiative is insufficient, and dangerously so. To take adequate heed of the situation requires that we not just affirm democracy in general, but that we concertedly redesign democracy, in very specific ways. That project — designing defences for preferable forms of democracy — is not itself democratic, certainly not a pluralist one, precisely because it is a designing.

Part II: Undemocratic Design for Democracy Specifications

Consider that the current wave of anti-democracy is a democratically expressed sentiment. If a significant proportion of populations in democracies are electing anti-democratic representatives, it is not appropriate to merely call for more democracy. Manzini and Margolin and others who have supported their initiative are perhaps not simply calling for quantitatively more democracy, which may in fact enable greater mandates for anti-democratic parties and their policies. The project is to enhance the quality of democracy by advocating for the strengthening of democracies in principle and not just practice. But this seems to me to demand, upfront, articulation of the particulars of those principles. If an appropriate response is not just designing ‘more’ democracy, pluralizing democracy in general, then the project must stand up for — promoting and facilitating — clearly defined versions of democracy, for example (to my mind):

  • compulsory voting
  • well-resourced, independent electoral commissions governing voter registration and districting
  • restrictively regulated campaign financing
  • restrictively regulated informatively policy-based campaigns
  • paper-based elections (for quality control and security)

What is important to note here is that each of these principles represents a non-democratic aspect democracy. Requiring citizens to vote, and enforcing those regulations, is not a democratic way to practice democracy, but it is a system design that responds to the ways in which anti-democratic forces are eroding democracies. Similarly, restricting freedom of speech, especially when extended to corporations, is illiberal; but that is because democracy is not the answer to everything, especially the protection of democracy. What protects democracy, sometimes undemocratically, are designs, principles removed from opinion and debate by being materialized into structures and processes.

This was precisely Lyotard’s argument elsewhere, the dialogue Just Gaming for instance [13]. Games need rules to be played, even though this precludes moves or statements, and makes different games incompatible. Those rules should be available for occasional challenge, but the forums for those challenges then need other kinds of rules. What Lyotard, a language-centered philosopher underplays, is the necessity for those rulings to take place via designed systems: products, environments and communications that afford and constrain democratic processes.

To put this another way, democracy, despite being a system for inclusion, depends on exclusion. Only citizens for example get the right to vote, so democracies are founded on more or less draconian determinations of citizenship. Much of what motivates anti-democratic tendencies today are attempts to restrict enfranchisement (as a result of unjustifiable racism, sexism and classism), an act that is nevertheless essential to the pragmatics of democracy. To stand up for democracy requires standing up for certain restrictions on democracy. I think that it is dangerous to not be explicit about which enabling constraints one is standing up for, especially when what you are fighting are racist versions of those constraints.

Again, this should not be foreign to the practice of design. Design is the art and science of mass production, so its central expertise involves judging the right way to preserve the quality of an innovation when trying to maximize the quantity of people it can serve (or at least be marketed to). As argued previously, design, as postmodern, embraces context-specific design, satisficing for particular personae from specified market segments rather than ‘universal design.’ Designs that work well do so only for certain groups of people; to design for some is to restrict others (who should therefore be designed for in turn, or prior if already marginalized by existing politics and economics). To stand up for democracy as a designer therefore requires being specific about who you are standing up for; it means arguing for certain restrictions on democracy — for example, to my mind:

  • restricting the scale of democracy, from nations and states, to cities and bioregions
  • enabling societies to specify the timeframes of different kinds of democratic decisions — neither regular, nor too frequently; making mandates and regulations have specified durations before they are subject to subsequent democratic review

Defending against Social Media Markets

To stand up for certain forms of democracy for certain people also means to stand against certain people. Manzini and Margolin politely do not name names. But as one of the great testers of the limits of democracy, Carl Schmitt, once argued, politics is the determination of friends and enemies. If there is a need to be specific about what kind of democracy one is standing for, then it is necessary to articulate who you are seeking to exclude. Xenophobes, to my mind, especially those who celebrate militancy and oppose the rule of law, cannot be tolerated, and must be outlawed from democracy, militantly. Such a contradiction is what taking a stand means; there is no unhypocritical position from which to take a stand. More significantly, to militantly outlaw certain people and positions, is precisely a task for design. Identifying and censoring sympathizers for Nazi perspectives on Facebook and Twitter for instance — which would be justified because, as I argued previously, the scale of the horror that was experienced in Europe in twentieth century justifies any kind of precautionary overreach — is a systems design problem. No such system would function perfectly, and it would certainly never function automatically — which is to say, it will always be a matter of people making judgments, not a technology making identifications — and it may well therefore be expensive, but it could be facilitated through service and interface design. To stand up for democracy as an interaction designer is therefore not a vague commitment, but a very specific, material design challenge. And instituting the outcomes of any successful designs will then require challenging those in power at Facebook and Twitter, whether founders or investors.

(I should note in passing that it seems odd to me that any discourse concerning challenges to democracy could fail to mention, and take a stand with respect to, social media. One of the things wrong with my contextualizing this article in terms of poststructuralism and Lyotard, is the extent to which social media represents a very material paradigm shift from the political context being negotiated by ‘Theory’ when I was a student. Then again, social media represents an extraordinary vindication of the Linguistic Turn, given the extent to which political correctness, identity politics, symbolic violence, and performativity are exactly at issue as our societies try to make sense of what social media designs.)

My talk of calling out the way Facebook and Twitter profit by not taking responsibility for the erosions of democracy they enable, draws attention to another crucial area of neglect in Manzini and Margolin’s initiative: corporate capitalism. Democracy once depended on slavery, and then on invasive colonialism, even if certain democracies have also enabled the ending of some forms of slavery and colonialism. The point again is that democracy is dependent on non-democratic systems, especially economic ones. Contemporary liberal democracies are tightly coupled with capitalism, which bears an ambiguous relation to democracy, one that directly implicates design.

Capitalism begins with inequitable property rights. A capitalist induces workers to make use of the means of production he owns to produce goods that he can sell for the accumulation of profit. One limit on this system of exploitation is that the goods produced need to be saleable. When these goods afford experiences that lie beyond survival necessities, people can lessen the capitalist’s wealth accumulation and so power by choosing not to buy those goods. In this way, the market, though founded in inequity, can operate somewhat like a democracy, with individuals theoretically able to choose collectively which goods they would like capitalists to produce. In practice, the system has many obstacles and lags. To have power, consumers need to have comprehensive, timely information not only about the goods available, but other not-currently-available options with which those goods could be compared. Even in these cases, markets take a long time to respond to flagging sales. In the current era of corporate capitalism, managers are incentivized to force customers into sales that can translate into shareholder returns rather than being responsive to customer feedback. Consequently, to take a stand for democracy means at least opposing incentivizing business managers in terms of share price increases [14].

Nevertheless, formal democratic processes are being eroded by the ideology that customers have more power as consumers than as citizens, that privatized market-based organizations deliver better quality services than government agencies, that brands are more attentive and trustworthy than politicians or civil servants. A crucial way to stand up for democracy given this is to:

  • promote the value of government, government run services, and regulation

The mediaries between customers and corporations who are tasked with democratizing what capitalism produces are designers. Design research promises to poll people about what they really want and designers commit those opinions into the materialized policies that are products, environments, platforms and services. This version of designing then begins to displace formal democracy. With rapidly flexible digital products and systems, designers almost promise direct democracy, with perpetual polling about, and so weekly upgrades to, the forms and features of goods and services.

This existing set of pseudo-democratic relations between design and capitalism should be a central consideration to any attempted reassertion of the value of democracy. Is the democracy designers should be standing up for pluralistly compatible with non-democratic aspects of corporate capitalism? Does standing up for democracy entail endorsing corporate capitalism’s apparent commitment to co-designing for instance? Or is this kind of commercial co-design precisely what has been weakening formal democracy, undermining the capacity of government to deliver services, and redirecting consumer confidence toward monopolistic mega-tech-corporations? If it is the latter, then standing up for democracy means opposing corporate capitalism in some or all forms. Every time a designer concedes that a major priority in any design work should be preserving the profitability of the corporation they work for, either because they believe that ideology or out of some self-preservation reflex, are they not being anti-democratic? Are they not using the innovative power of design to entrench inequality?

Post Normal Participation

Whilst supporters of the Stand up for Democracy initiative may not wish to commit to opposing corporate capitalism, there is a commitment to the tactic of expanding democracy within capitalism. The politics here seems to be: if corporations currently use design to do a version of democratizing the products and services offered to the market, then designers can stand up for democracy by making those moments of design research and codesign more participatory.

It is important to recall here that participatory design emerged from labour activism in Scandinavia to make workplaces more formally democratic. It was unions that insisted that workers should participate in the design of the computers that would restructure their work [15]. The principles and processes of Computer Supported Cooperative Work were the foundation for Human Computer Interaction and then Human Centered Designing. Stand up for Democracy could and should be the re-affirmation of the politics of this lineage (which interestingly Agile in some circumstances appears to do – [16].

But the task is again not just one of making design more participatory. Participatory design, often considered sacrosanct, is now the subject of useful critiques (e.g., Palmas & von Busch [17]), ones that question: Who is invited to Participate (and who is not)? Who has the skills to Participate (and who could be taught those skills)? Who frames the extent to which Participants can participate (and what questions and proposals will not be entertained no matter how insistent certain participants are)? How are participants compensated for their labour and get access to learning from the project (and what happens to issues that are not incorporated into the project)? All these questions concern not just how to design comprehensively and justly, but central questions of democracy — diversity and delegation.

If enhancement of participatory design in commercial designing (as opposed to social designed where it is mostly the norm) is part of promoting democracy outside of conventional electoral politics, then the initiative should be taking a particular stand in this regard – for instance, to my mind:

  • demanding in every project a widening of the scope of who counts as a stakeholder — including marginalized peoples, by race, class or ability, but also including a wide range of non-users, people from across the whole-of-life supply chain,
  • including delegates representing future generations and non-human actors
  • advocating for wide participation in non-project-based aspects of an organization, such as the visions for the future that the organization is working toward and prepared to evaluate its work against
  • advocating for participation in the profits from design for all involved — from makers and maintainers to users and disposers (recoverers)

This leads to a final important deficiency in the Stand up for Democracy project that I need to foreground, one that returns me to Lyotard and The Postmodern Condition. Many current anti-democratic discourses take the form of scepticism toward experts. Modern democratic governance has always required a cohort of expert advisors. This is why the modern university, as the arbiters of those experts, is axial to democracy, even though universities and the notion of expertise is fundamental un-democratic. The crisis of democracy at the moment is not just a collapse of faith in progress toward increasing democratic enfranchisement, but a discrediting of progress in expert knowledge production [18]. It is not a coincidence that anti-democratic populists are also anti-science in their reactions to urban elites. As a fundamental part of the current challenge to democracy, it is essential that defenses of democracy take this into account. As with other problematic aspects of the pluralist version of Standing up for Democracy, a loose version of ‘more democracy’ is actually the cause of the problem rather than its solution. Those refuting key scientific recommendations often do so by appealing to their democratic rights to vote for such skepticism, or to a disingenuous version of their free speech right to articulate such ‘diverse’ denials. Defending democracy by expanding its practice can risk reinforcing the anti-Enlightenment politics that are making Lyotard’s analysis more correct than he knew.

Standing up for Democracy therefore demands very carefully designed responses to the question of experts in postmodern societies. There have been concerted efforts to clarify what enhanced participation in technoscientific expertise might involve [19]: Deliberative Democracy forums for technology assessment; the lay peer review processes advocated as part of Post Normal Science to evaluate scientific research directions, Citizen Juries making delegated determinations about acceptable risk. In each of these cases, the processes have expanded the role of the citizen from occasional election of political leaders to more regular judgements about technoscientific developments. The forms and formalities of each are designed to democratize access to the technical issues without empowering destructive doubt about those technicians. To the contrary, these exercises aim to enhance faith in the work of experts by exposing their processes to diversely lay scrutiny. Seeing how knowledge is constructed is supposed not to destroy faith in those domains but rather bolster it [20].

These initiatives lie very close to participatory design research and prototyping processes at their best. But there are still too few well-formed bridges between Design Research and these ‘Post Normal’ initiatives, ones that involve citizens in well-informed decisions about what goods should be produced, and which bads (risks of harmful social and ecological impacts) communities are prepared to live with. Standing up for Democracy must involve building, demonstrating and promoting those bridges. This would mean not just inviting participants to help with creating a successful design, but creating mechanisms by which participants can scrutinize the wider strategy that any particular design is part of, and evaluate the risks and future impacts that might flow from widespread adoption of those designs.

If democracy is about equitable access to decision-making about our shared futures, then a democracy worth defending would regulate broad inclusiveness in all design decisions. It should not be possible to take a product to market before delegated representatives had evaluated the risks associated with that introduction, making judgements about what that design will design.

Design as Politics

Poststructuralism drew attention to the political — the more personal and material discourses in which new political possibilities were fostered — as opposed to formal realm of politics — electoral politics and parliamentary politicians [21]. This focus opened the way to seeing how design was political, concreting power relations into everyday environments and practices, but also affording niches for experimenting with new ways of living and working [22]. On this side of Brexit and Trump, etc, it feels like in attending to the political, there was an attending away from politics. There was, sometimes, a mistaken assumption that democratic systems, though flawed, were pretty inviolable and so not needing focused defending; or that democratic systems were eroding in the postmodern condition and, as a result, the only games left to the play were micro-political ones.

Formal politics has now reasserted itself, as the active threatening of democracy. Those democratically supported forms of anti-democracy are strengthened by a range of racisms and Nazism on the one hand, and corporate capitalism on the other. The size and force of the latter and the extreme danger of the former demand responses that do not prevaricate. It is no longer acceptable to say “We do not have to share exactly the same idea of what democracy is: to defend it as a core value, it is enough to recognize the strong convergence between democracy and design.” (para 2: http://www.democracy-design.org/open-letter-stand-up-democracy/) The liberal pluralist version of democracies, fearing that they might appear sometimes undemocratic, have allowed the return of the worst of the project of modernity. But democracy can only, and so must, be defended undemocratically, by design. And those designs need to be informed by strong, clear visions of what they stand for. Designers standing up for Democracy must take the form of formal politics, not just a political game. They must be strongly articulated policies that seek to exclude anti-democratic expressions, whether racist or capitalist.


  • [1] Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. U of Minnesota Press.
  • [2] Nelson, Harold G., and Erik Stolterman. (2003) The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World. Educational Technology.
  • [3] Suchman, Lucy A. (1987) Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge University Press.
  • [4] Schon, Donald A. (1984) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books.
  • [5] Tonkinwise, Cameron. (2017) “Post-Normal Design Research: The Role of Practice-based Research in the Era of Neoliberal Risk.” In Vaughan, Laurene ed. Practice-based Design Research Bloomsbury.
  • [6] Simon, Herbert A. (1996) The Sciences of the Artificial. MIT press.
  • [7] Michl, Jan. (1991) “On the Rumor of Runctional Perfection.” Pro Forma 2: 67-81.
  • [8] Gaver, Bill, Tony Dunne, and Elena Pacenti. (1999) “Design: Cultural Probes.” Interactions 6, no. 1: 21-29.
  • [9] Gaver, Bill, John Bowers, Andrew Boucher, Andy Law, Sarah Pennington, and Brendan Walker. (2007) “Electronic furniture for the Curious Home: Assessing ludic designs in the field.” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 22, no. 1-2: 119-152.
  • [10] Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. (2013) Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. MIT Press.
  • [11] Lury, Celia, and Nina Wakeford, eds. (2012) Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. Routledge.
  • [12] Adorno, Theodor W., and Rolf Tiedemann. (2003) Can one live after Auschwitz?: A philosophical reader. Stanford University Press.
  • [13] Lyotard, Jean-François, and Jean-Loup Thébaud. (1985) Just Gaming. University of Minnesota Press.
  • [14] Martin, Roger. (2011) Fixing the Game: Bubbles, crashes, and what capitalism can learn from the NFL. Harvard Business Press.
  • [15] Ehn, Pelle. (1988) Work-oriented Design of Computer Artifacts. Arbetslivscentrum.
  • [16] Bulajewski, Mike. (2013) “The Agile Labour Union.” West Space Journal 2.
  • [17] Palmås, Karl, and Otto von Busch. (2015) “Quasi-Quisling: Co-design and the Assembly of Collaborateurs.” CoDesign 11, no. 3-4: 236-249.
  • [18]Fuller, Steve. “Brexit as the unlikely leading edge of the anti-expert revolution.” European Management Journal 35, no. 5 (2017): 575-580.
  • [19]Callon, Michel. (2009) Acting in an Uncertain World: An essay on Technological Democracy. MIT Press.
  • [20] Latour, Bruno. (2004) “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.” Critical inquiry 30, no. 2: 225-248.
  • [21] Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. (1997) Retreating the Political. Routledge.
  • [22] Marres, Noortje. (2016) Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. Springer.
  • Derrida, Jacques. (2005) Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Stanford University Press.
  • Foucault, Michel. (2003) Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Macmillan.
  • Fry, Tony. (2010) Design as Politics. Berg.
  • Tonkinwise, Cameron. (2006) “Redesigning Theory: The Art of Making Real the Counter-Factual in the Indecent University” in Reuben Keehan ed Artspace Projects 2006 Sydney: Artspace