Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 108, April 2012

Designing capabilities

If you open any design magazine it will most probably document and discuss the design of commodities. Its pages will be packed with images of stuff; smart technical gadgets, fantastic layouts of exclusive kitchens, and the latest collaboration between a fashion designer and a car company. As soon as a designer comes up with a brilliant idea, it is almost always rendered into a tangible object which may later be produced and sold to the style savvy customers. Over the last decades some magazines have come to address more abstract aspects of design, such as interactions, services, experiences and even theory, pushing the traditional boundaries of what can be published as design, yet still illuminating the discussion with glossy photos of smart-looking geniuses in black polo shirts. It is the fact of the day in the world of design publishing; without professional looking photos your ideas will hardly be considered. What can be photographed can be published. What is published will be considered good design. Good design is what we are interested in.

What most of us consider as design is the design of commodities. Designers may have social or political agendas, but only so far as they can be commodified or at least take physical shape. We see this in teaching, magazines, fairs and exhibitions. Some projects may be critical or subversive, with a few addressing fuzzy concepts like empowerment and engagement. Even when working with marginalized groups, setting out to reinvigorate forgotten crafts in the outback or amplifying social initiatives, the outcomes will still be objects and most often the project will be judged according to how these objects look. The designer may try to convey that the project had another agenda, often mumbling something about the “process”, but the design world yawns and quickly dismisses the project as yet another naively failed attempt to make the world a better place. The design world knows that the only way forward is better-designed commodities, and if you want to work with the poor or marginalized, just make cheaper stuff that can reach the “bottom of the pyramid”. More products will be sold, the economy and GDP grows and “the other 90%” will be happy. This is progress by design.

Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics, has over the last decades made vast efforts to create alternative measurement tools, other than GDP, when evaluating social development, adding parameters such as education level and life expectancy. Sen’s key message is that a rising amount of money in a society does not account for higher development.

Of importance to this discussion, Sen makes a crucial difference between commodities and capabilities. Having the possibility to buy a commodity, like a bicycle, does not actually mean you can use it; that you have learned to bicycle. Commodities may be good for the economy, but does not necessarily account for better-developed abilities and opportunities for the general population. Capabilities, on the other hand, are “what you can be and do in the world", that is, what skills you have and are able to perform in your world. The education or craft skills you have are internal capabilities and these are paralleled by the external capabilities of society, the social formations through which you can actualize your capabilities. For example, the internal capabilities of highly educated women may stand to nothing in a society where the social formations in society puts women as secondary citizens.

Sen means we should understand development as freedom. Development means that we can do more and we are free to employ those abilities. Freedom means to put capabilities to use, cultivate our talents and excel at what we do. Even if the main problems that Sen addresses concern issues of developing countries, his thoughts also impact the design paradigm in which we all act. When we design commodities we may only look at the surface of things and miss what the user can “be or do in the world”. We may put every interaction and experience on the drawing table, but still fail to advance the actual capabilities of our user.

From a social perspective on design, Sen’s approach helps pinpoint some urgent issues. If we want to make design address empowerment and social concerns, we will have to accept that the commodity is only the visible tip of the capabilities iceberg. Likewise, the design project or process in itself must be judged from how it deals with internal and external capabilities, rather than the “process” or looks of the final outcomes.

A capabilities approach to design may also help explain the last decade’s growing interest in DIY-activities in wealthy countries. Even as many people have become better off commodity-wise, as stuff has become more accessible, we may still not feel that our action spaces have grown, that what we can “be or do in the world” has increased. More commodities surround us but not a corresponding amount of capabilities: we can buy more stuff, but we may understand less of them, and we are hardly encouraged to service or repair them. We drown in cleverly designed stuff we have no relation to.

So when people turn to build their own fixed gear bicycles rather than buying the stylish Italian one, learn to knit instead of rushing off to the fashion sales, or spend the weekends baking special kinds of bread instead of going out to supermarket getting the pre-packaged ones, we actually see people who challenge the boundaries of their market-sanctioned capabilities. They want to break out of the constraints of consumerism. They can afford to buy the commodities, but they want more than the object itself. They want to enact and cultivate their capabilities in the world.

All this comes down to a very basic form of freedom; if you know how to repair your bicycle you have a choice you do not have if you don’t know how to repair it. If you have the capability, the knowledge and tools enabling you to repair your bicycle you can decide if you want to leave it to the mechanic or do it yourself. You can prioritize how you want to spend your time and efforts. From that basic ability a whole new world of freedom can grow.

A perspective on design informed by Sen may reveal another side of what we usually see in the design magazines. The shiny commodities, like cool cars and technical gadgets, may promise new freedom, such as driving fast or interacting in new ways. But our real capabilities may be diminishing with such designs; we may be locked down at the mercy of the complex company structures with bad service and very expensive or disempowering software. We may be looking cooler, but what we can do and be in the world may actually have been severely constrained. However, we can’t see those aspects on the glossy photos.

For far too long we designers have thought that we can produce freedom by creating cleverly designed products. It is time for us to shift focus from the design of commodities to the design of capabilities in order to get a serious discussion going on what we really can be or do in the world.

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