Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #13

Two vignettes:

– Recently I had the great privilege of advising a young woman standing in the election for London Assembly, the candidate of a new formation called Take Back The City (TBTC).[1]

Now TBTC, collectively, can’t quite figure out if it wants to be a political party, a social movement, or a little bit of both. It’s nevertheless clear that they wish to present themselves very much in the mould of Occupy, los Indignados, Syriza, and the other assemblages that have brought people into the streets, across the whole European movement of the squares. And so I spent most of my time with the candidate discussing the idea of “the commons,” and the principles of horizontality, solidarity and mutual aid that did so much to animate and sustain those movements, all of which were more or less new to her.

If I may say so, she remains less convincing speaking to these subjects than she is when she takes up other issues. I want to emphasize that this is no reflection whatsoever on her intellectual agility, or her commitment to change. It’s that up until this very moment, these notions simply hadn’t been part of her vocabulary. So when she speaks to them, it feels a little rote. It doesn’t come from a place of profound conviction, it falls on the ears of an audience who for the most part also have other ways of framing the issues they face in everyday life, and so it doesn’t resonate in quite the same way as the other things she says.

– As it happens, I also co-teach an M. Arch cluster at the Bartlett, in the Urban Design program. Our cluster is called Architectures of Participation, and it is entirely dedicated to the same set of questions we’re taking up here.

Our students work in London communities like Peckham and Newham. These are places where the acute phase of gentrification is transforming a physical, social and cultural environment, and (in the case of Newham, at least) where political representation has broken down completely. Their brief is to develop means and infrastructures of active community participation. If you saw the Designing the Urban Commons show, you would likely find that their responses are familiar to you: by and large, they responded to their brief by proposing the very same kind of physical platforms, communication campaigns, and technical and social networks.

Despite our students’ best and most diligent efforts, I’m afraid very little of this material resonates with the people they so sincerely intend to serve. Some of this, no doubt, is simple “consultation fatigue.” Some of it is down to a broader sense that nothing will make any difference. Some of it is surely because my students are almost all privileged native Mandarin speakers, working in relatively deprived immigrant communities. But some of it is the result of what I almost think of as an impedance mismatch. What my students frame as a crisis of public space, public representation and the commons simply is not understood that way by the people most in harm’s way.

What concerns me, then, is the disconnect between ways in which we tend to frame contemporary urban challenges, as academics, activists and self-appointed public intellectuals, and the way those same issues are understood by the broader population (especially in cultures without a strong tradition of bottom-up activism, or where that tradition has successfully had its back broken). I suppose this is not an issue, if one holds to Leninist principles of putatively advanced currents of thought and a vanguard party. I’m afraid, though, that as a horizontalist myself, it very much is an issue — vanguardism being neither ethically acceptable to me, nor by my lights likely to be effective.