Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 134, March 2015

100% Change

Over the last decade design has become evermore linked with the concept of “change”, from Bruce Mau’s towering book Massive Change (2004), to Tim Brown and IDEO’s influential overtures about Change by Design (2009). It seems much of these endeavors try to induce “change” in ways that are radically different from what the paradigm of consumerism has to offer: the new “change” in design lies beyond the scope of the traditional market.

When designers talk about “change” it thus means a lot more than the change of colors on a product or the change of a font on a poster. “Change” for designers is a word of hope, that design itself may move beyond its prison in the market of consumer goods, and no longer share its deeply intertwined fate with mass production and its entrenched economic injustices, unsustainable practices and sweatshops. It thus seems designers try to escape some of the dilemmas of consumerism: that it is essentially unfair, sustains an asymmetric division of power in society, keeps reproducing addiction, submission and eventually slavery. As author Ivan Illich famously argued, “In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.”

Yet, what is this “change”? Design is usually connected to individual change, that I can affect and alter my own lived experience with the stuff I acquire: such as new tools and gadgets for my convenience, or new clothes and accessories for my identity project. No, this new “change” has to be more than that, and I guess that is why this new change often comes with the word “social” attached to it: as in “social change”, or “social innovation”, or “social design”. This is a change that affects more than just me, and more than just the consumer: it aims to change the social conditions of man, that is, the political realm. It is a change that challenges the conditions of slavery in consumer society. “Change” promises something: to set humans free.

In some way design has always had political consequences, yet most often submerged underneath the surface of the market. The introduction of many new designs has transformed also the political landscape: new technologies replacing old types of labor, making many people unemployed, or new innovations opening up for new structural organization of society. But except for some cases, the intention of the designers has not been explicitly political, or these intentions have usually been hidden behind labels such as “beauty”, “function” or “ergonomics”. But today designers speak explicitly about social issues and politics: that they want to help “change” the world, and do so beyond the traditional scope of making new products.

So how could we map out a basic representation of our agency? Let us make a simple matrix, a geometric map of design agency for “change”.

Along the X-axis we put the design agency used in order to implement the desired “change”.  At 0% design agency I make no use of my specific skills, workshop or network. I try to promote change in society by the tools that available to most people: I vote for a political party, I follow the news, discuss and try to raise opinion amongst my friends.

At the other end, at 100% design agency, I use all assets I have got in order to induce “change”. I build the change by myself, using all my tools, materials, workshop and network to maximize the impact of my efforts.

But what is this change for? What can I change by myself? And is it only change for myself? Let us introduce an impact axis, stretching from “alone” to “together”, or from individual to convivial.

Along this axis we move from my own activity at home, which affects only my life, and all the way up to a change that has impact on the lives of the many and on a systemic scale. But it is not only a matter of numbers, from unique pieces to mass-produced bestsellers. Instead it is a qualitative axis, it measures social impact, how it affects us together: how the change has consequences on the convivial lives of the many, how we live in a spirit of shared togetherness.

Both these axes have political implications: the X-axis goes from inaction to full action, the Y-axis from individual change to social and systemic change. As we move into collective action we start challenging the status quo of passivity. We start rocking the boat.

Let us take an example. I am concerned about the freezing street cats this exceptionally cold winter. If I find a political party that has an explicit agenda to help the cats, I can cast my vote on them. In this case I use my political vote, but still 0% of my design agency to help the cats. But as build a cathouse on the street, I start using my agency as a designer: I use my professional assets. As I optimize the design, utilizing special materials and tools in my workshop and so on, I use more of my agency. As I put out my cathouse in my yard one cat gets a bit more cozy winter, and I can feel I used my agency as designer to add something positive in the world.

Along the Y-axis I may write a small note to the local newspaper about the poor freezing cats, hoping people will read it and get together to help the cats. But I would still only be using 0% of my design agency. Once again, it is at the absolute 0% we usually think “politics” happen: I cast my vote in secrecy to make sure I am isolated.

But as I move towards the top right corner of the matrix I start disseminating design, using all my networks and tools to help the cats, and I do it together with others. I spread the blueprints of the design, I negotiate with my suppliers to get a better price on a thousand houses, I mobilize people to act in concert to help the cats. A design movement has taken off to help the cats on a massive scale. At the top right corner we will “change” things even structurally, in policy instruments, governance and the very conditions of being a cat. No more freezing! No more cat-slaves!

Soon however, we will encounter resistance, from bureaucrats, police, and politicians. It is dangerous to move into action: as citizens we are only allowed to take action if it stays on an individual scale, and preferably any such action should generate tax-revenue. The technology of the vote makes sure we stay inactive.

Of course, we must not be naïve: the same agency we can muster can be used to further other means of power, mobilize in order to coerce, to induce submission and concentrate power to those who are already powerful. Perhaps the dogs do not want any change, simply because most of them are too big to fit in the small cat-houses. Perhaps they get jealous. There may be unrest and riots in the streets. There are vast interests invested in keeping us inactive.

Most probably, if our “change” would really matter, if it would really change the conditions of slavery, it would be illegal. Any real change the dogs would not allow.

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