Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 124, April 2014

The Two Hands and the Limits of Empowerment

Since the 1960s the fields of design and international development seems to have grown closer. Today, many design educations address issues such as participation, service and social design, where users are part of the design process or active in the implementation of the design. Similarly, in development projects, also the locals are closely involved in the projects, rather than mere spectators or final users.

Under the name of “empowerment”, designers have become agents for the introduction of new skills and social innovation schemes, where communities have gotten the opportunity to amplify their local ideas and concerns into larger design projects. Here, both the designer and development “change agent” are mere facilitators, leading the process, giving advise and supporting the stakeholders. What counts in the end is the local abilities, the local inhabitants’ skills to build their own life, start their own business, and run their own communities. As we see the small scale results, however modest, we are happy social designers and can pat our selves on the back for a job well done. At the end of the day, we did indeed create some “empowerment.”

However, even when finished transmitting these very useful skills, we may end up in a trap, caught by our own modesty and limited perspective from the grounded experience. As most empowerment and cultivation of capabilities still mainly happens on an individual scale, we may miss the systemic perspective on the issue we just engaged with: under the flag of “empowerment”, the skills as well as responsibility for change falls upon the shoulder of the individual.

For a designer this seems natural – we are individuals too, and we have most often been part of the change-making processes ourselves. However, the individual skills cultivated in workshops and projects do nothing systemic, they cannot affect the larger systems on which they depend. Perhaps they even only add to the frustration and the long process of grinding down any form of long-term hope. A locally empowered craftsman may be very skilled, love his work, earn some money on the market or even start a small business, yet still be robbed of any chance of actually affecting his local situation on a social or political level. He may still be perfectly exploited by those who profits from his own individual “empowerment.”

A typical example can be the design of a “good” sleeping condition for a homeless person. It may be a bench that may be individually beneficial (nice to sleep on, etc) or a vehicle to transport stuff in, but it produces no systemic or long-term change. The design solution does not challenge the society that produces homelessness.

As designers we often seem limited to only work with one scale or method at the time. Either we work building stuff, teaching, doing small scale change or interventions, working from the bottom up, or we do a systems analysis, or “critical design”, critiquing capitalism, corrupt hierarchies or politics, and work on systemic change from the top down. How could we work on both levels simultaneously?

Following the ideas of feminist Barbara Deming, we should be better at using “the two hands” in our practice. We should use one hand that stops an injustice from being done, and the other hand building the alternative, leading the way towards social change. We could use this metaphor in design too: we must become better at working on both a small craft level and on a systemic level, resisting and constructing, simultaneously. As we make our local, small scale interventions, we must also make them speak on a systemic level, adding policy instruments, mobilizing communities to publicly challenge laws and protocols, cultivate affinity groups, train civic action and speak back to the system with a language of power.

Next time we are to design a bench for a homeless person, we must make sure this local solution also challenges the unjust laws and social and material conditions that produced the homeless situation. The design of the bench is not complete without also including a way towards legal protection, permanent housing and employment, full rights and citizenship, and the sustained convivial well-being of a true and living democracy.

In a democracy the poor must rule, as there will always be more poor people than rich.


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