Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #10

Can design be non-political?

Is design not always a manifestation of the socio-economic and political context in which it is conceived?

Depending on the type of design, does it not either enforce, or act against, that political context within which it operates?

When we talk about non-political design, are we not instead referring to design which perpetuates the prevailing mainstream socio-economic and political narrative or orthodoxy in which it is developed?

Today’s mainstream design seems to focus mainly on responding to the needs of security and profitability. Beside them lie personal comfort, sustainability and “smart”-ness, but most often these are merely facades for the former. There are exceptions, but they are offered as an alternative or in opposition to the main trend.

At the same time the profession of the architect is being progressively eroded. It has been reduced to the production of illusory eye-catching renders alongside the administration of often useless time-consuming bureaucratic procedures. From the small to the large scale people question if they need an architect at all, and if the role is not redundant amongst the myriad of technical experts on one hand, and on the other the common knowledge that we all believe ourselves to hold.

In navigating this context as designers, we have to repeatedly compromise our ideals to be able to survive in today’s low-waged competitive market.

I do ask myself though: to what point have we all become tacitly complicit with this system?

In most countries qualified architects must commit to specific obligations towards the public interest and the environment in which they operate. How often are these obligations overlooked or ignored: by us, by our clients, and by society?

Is it not time to reclaim our role as designers and acknowledge that not only we play an important part in shaping socio-economic and political dynamics, but also that we have an incumbent responsibility towards society and the planet in doing so?

If design is a powerful tool to shape the future, then how can we use it to move towards a better world than today?

I would like to suggest some initial steps that I hope can lead us in the right direction:

  1. The world around us is changing so rapidly that we need to embrace iterative and participative forms of design that allow us to experiment and learn in parallel while developing schemes that foster the growth of the positive initiatives that are already present.
  1. A myriad of new economic and technological innovations are growing around us (platforms, open source, commons, etc.). We need to understand how they work, their potentials, and their downfalls, so as to learn how to implement them to the best effect in our design.
  1. There is an urgency in understanding, learning and educating ourselves on the mechanisms by which economics, finance and politics inform design, and vice-versa (i.e. land value, PFI, mortgage segregation, tax etc.) so as to protect and develop appropriately our common resources.
  1. We need to have a more public and critical voice, generating productive debate with the general public and within institutions, openly opposing and resisting negative forces, while nurturing and fostering positive initiatives.
  1. We need vision and direction, so as to inform the iterative steps we take, to identify the positive forces to build on, and the negative ones that are pulling us in the wrong direction.