Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 162, Feb 2018

Changing Worlds and Action Spaces

Your world is as large as that you can change. This world is my action space; the space through which I enact my agency in the world. Our world and our choices are interconnected. In order to live with a sense of freedom, we need to be able to make informed decisions, choices that stem from a sense of controlled opportunity for change. We need to experience that not all our possibilities are placed downstream, dependent on rivals or on abstract and uncontrollable forces. If we think of everyday choice, what we usually mean is the ability to exercise control over our environment and ourselves. In order to choose, we must perceive that control is possible and our sense of agency matches the opportunities we can reach for. Controlling our world and making informed choices that affect our lived experience is central to our sense of being, freedom, as well as possibility. But when designers say they want to change the world, what is that world really?

From a perspective of agency, we can say that the world extends as far as that you can reach, control and change. Starting from the body, from its abilities, we get frustrated when it does not do what we expect it to do. From the body we reach outwards. For a child the world of change may be the play space, but not the living room where parents try to regulate how much toys should be spread around the floor or if one can draw on the walls or not. Later it may be the playground, but not across the busy road. Later, my world of the house may stretch to the garden fence, yet in a blizzard, it may drastically shrink, as I cannot go outside. For the citizen, the world is usually what is considered the private realm, as opposed to the public realm, which is controlled by that abstract entity we call society and its formal structures. Every world is thus framed by a frontier where negotiations happen towards the wills and worlds of others.

Within consumer culture the avenues for change are framed by the project of individual identity. When I buy everyday design things, I add to an armory of tools to change my subjectivity, manipulating my online presence and social networks. However, I often lack access to tools and skills that can affect my real action space in the world, the physical world I can access and change. There thus seems to be a huge disparity between our everyday actions and choices as consumers, flooded by stuff, yet with an increasing powerlessness concerning our larger choices in life; political, such as voting, or the possibilities to change our lives on a larger level, such as social mobility.

Change may start in the private world, it may be the first space we are to address the world in, or “be the change.” We recycle or do good deeds on a private scale and in my home. If I “think global and act local” I can try to affect my politicians, so every fourth year or so I vote for the party or person I think will promote social virtues for the world we call the public realm. If we as citizens extend the reach of our will beyond the ballot, we may join groups that engage to change the public realm, more actively and hands-on than that limited political interface offered through parliamentary democracy. Through civil society, we may venture out in the larger world, taking on issues of the local community, a charity or a soup kitchen for the poor or homeless, or more large-scale environmental action through global organizations.

So in order to change my world, I would need to get hands-on, stretching out the borders of my world. I can learn new skills to access new elements; such as swimming or climbing, or learn to utilize vehicles to reach further, such as a bike or car. I can learn a language to open a new culture for me, or some other profession that expands my agency and world. Design should, at its best, help me access new worlds and make me able to affect and control them to some degree. Yet as designers we often cram more of our designs into the action spaces people already have, rather than build outwards from their existing worlds. We make freedom dependent on money and other assets as we make people pay for agency.

Instead of thinking that design solves problems, perhaps we can think of design as a way to open access to new worlds, create new freedoms in these worlds, and help users build worlds from the body outwards. The challenge is to offer deeper reach of agency, more informed choices to a wider society, to reach into worlds we also share with other agencies, human as well as nonhuman. If we want to open new utopian worlds, we need to also open new visionary action spaces. It is not a zero-sum game; I would love to share my world with you.