Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 88, April 2010

Design from Zero to One

Zero is a fascinating number. It is a tiny line encompassing a small world, an endless circle that represents nothing. The history of zero goes a long way back, from Babylonian positional values over old Hellenistic zero symbols to the Indian establishment of the modern decimal-based place value notation, the very foundation of our mathematics. The innovation of zero is the creation of an immensely powerful nothing.

How can we as designers create such a powerful thing as zero – as nothing? A nothing but which is not just waste. It would be a gift to humanity, a design which indeed has changed the world. Such design would be a true act of generosity.

However, a fundamental question for any gift or charity, even if small, is how generosity can be enabling in the sense of a number like zero. Of course there can be unselfish giving and sharing as generosity, but many acts of generosity become pacifying, at least when they leave the hands of designers. The gifts of designers usually take agency away from the receiver, yet with the best intentions from the giver. It is most often part of the paradoxical phenomena of “user-friendliness”. These are items which require almost no understanding or engagement from the user to function, but which often also limits the possibilities of own investment from the user. Basically, this is a fundamental problem of all welfare, the politics of redistribution, and recently also the initiatives in the context of “social design”.

As “design thinking” is applied to even more fields of application, design appears to be the most positive force in world – just like engineering was a century ago. At that time “social engineering” was perceived as the best way to create a better world through the understanding of society and its inhabitants as a well-made machines. This thinking created big wealth, raised life expectancy and formed some welfare states. But also immense problems arose with this mechanistic and black-and-white perspective.

Today, instead of the engineer, the designer is regarded as the chosen one to save the planet. Everything seems to be able to be re-designed to the better, from business and tax systems to solving unemployment and homelessness. But a fundamental question arises – how “deep” to the roots of human conditions and suffering can design practice really go? How generous can design really be? We design things or services that aim to make the world better, to reduce suffering. But will transformable benches in the streets that can house homeless people really change the world? Will safer cars really make the world safer? Where will traditional parliamentary politics and its institutions and bureaucracy be more affective? To be more precise - how do we chose which issues to address with “design thinking” – and which do we leave for others? How will we know how to design that which leads to the better? Or perhaps we should avoid social issues, simply because design, applied to these political matters of concern, will simply not make things better. We need to design with caution. I have before discussed the ideas of designing for small change, prototyping for tiny interventions that are easily reproduced and inherited by all stakeholders, but maybe we need to be more radical.

Perhaps we need to learn to design nothing – and to be very good at it. If we are true about the values of community, solidarity, care and mutual attention we cannot design it into objects or commodities or services. At least not with the classical toolbox and thinking of design. We need to learn to design that which in itself cannot be designed, meaning fostering the courage of users to use human skills for voluntary co-empowerment. This might sound paradoxical, but is rather a shift from the designer as deliverer of value to someone which highlights assets and values that should be more visible, but already exist. Values such as these are not themselves designed, at least not in the way we usually think of design.
Designs with such intentions could be tools that help us turn attention to the everyday and help us foster cooperation and understanding. It can be designs that pinpoint problems to which we must go beyond design to solve.

One such example can the be the Zero Rupees note by the 5th Pillar organization (, a note made to be given as a tool to reveal or highlight corruption and make the involved officials think twice. They have been very successful with over a million notes printed and many stories where people have managed to shock grafters into changing behaviours. The notes are a remake of the 50 rupee note with anti-corruption comments available in many Indian languages.

zero rupees - 5th pillar

The notes have become tokens around which to muster strength among a community to fight corruption and make one feel that one is not alone in this struggle. Likewise, many officials are taken aback by the fact that someone highlights the bribery, which has become almost a ubiquitous phenomenon in the everyday management in Indian bureaucracy, even if it is punishable with jail when revealed.

It is a zero rupee note with no market value. But for some people it can make a real difference in their relation to bureaucracy and corrupt officials, and it is a manifestation of courage which can make others engage in the struggle against corruption. Several stories are published on the organization’s webpage which tells about how the note has been used by people to successfully stand up against bribery.

In this sense the note is a small design which adds a rituals of attention and recognition to an everyday situation of despair, but turns it into an act of empowerment. With its zero value, it reveals the corrupt black hole in bureaucracy. It represents values of solidarity which money otherwise easily strips from the community.

Such small design can be a token of healing, and if we want to take social design and community building we have a lot to learn from rituals of absolution. For social design a key task is to somehow learn to heal social wounds without asking for a price or an exchange, as this depletes the act itself; to ask for forgiveness and be given forgiveness is to build community out of distress. But it is one of the hardest things to make.

I often get the question – but how can you believe there can be change by such modest means as you propose? A zero rupee note or an act of forgiveness - can it even count as a design for change? I often come to think of sentence I met when I was younger.
Where I grew up I sometimes passed through a graveyard on my ways. In a desolate part of the cemetery, along the pebble-covered path, one stone always caught my eye. Its inscription always made my mind wander. On its faded surface was carved a name and one sentence:

“For the world he was just one, but for one he was the world.”

I believe even the most modest design, something between Zero to One, for someone, somewhere, can make a world of difference.


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