Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 143, April 2016

Engineering, Design and Power

Among designers, the work of engineers arouses a mix of emotions. Engineers are important, they have power, but they have also gotten themselves a bad name. Indeed, it sometimes seems design often use engineers as some form of anti-thesis of itself, which of course may not be that odd, as much design evolves out of the engineering discipline. In the act of distancing itself from engineering, design sees engineering as using a very narrow form of rationality to address the world. Whereas “function” in design is traditionally an aesthetic quality, in engineering function is so rational it is boring.

Designers say engineers cannot understand real beauty, and never think “outside the box.” Today’s complex problems are caused by engineers but can only be solved by designers, with our special design thinking. Compared to engineers, designers are supposed to be cool and contemporary, while their engineer colleagues are a species from the past.

Also historically it seems engineering has got itself a bad name, at least in relation to design. Wasn’t it the engineers’ technocratic thinking, of modernity, rationality and efficiency, which set loose the radical evils of last century, such as totalitarianism, industrialized warfare, concentration camps, the atom bomb, and even today’s climate change? And what about ethics? Engineers seem to be so narrow minded they can’t take responsibility for their own actions. Evil dictators easily dupe them, and their rational thinking just never reflects on the consequences of the stuff they produce. Engineers happily produce weapons, pollution, surveillance and all kinds of evil stuff.

Designers, on the other hand, always seem so nice. Most design journals are indeed propaganda channels for the profession of design, rather than critically examining what design does in the world. Designers are portrayed as “socially engaged” and use “social innovation.” They always think of people first. Indeed, if you listen in to discussions at our design schools it seems like all bad things are engineered, while all good things are designed.

The dichotomy between engineering and design may have served a historic purpose, helping at time to distinguish and cultivate professional qualities. But if engineering happened to end up in trouble at times, at least history taught some important lessons for engineers to look out for, mistakes so serious that they become school-book examples of how not to be an engineer. And as designers we should be more attentive to such lessons. What should designers learn from the mistakes of the engineers?

To put it very bluntly, the perspective of engineering is formed by enlightenment ideals of reason and rationality, guiding decision making processes towards optimal solutions. Some key categories may be “function”, “reason” and “progress.” But, as history has taught us, all such concepts also potentially covers for deception, exploitation and power.

If today the concept of “social engineering” is seen as a form of manipulation, and has a bitter tone to it, how is not “social design” a form of manipulation? Today the engineering ideals are replaced by categories such as “desire”, “disruption”, “creativity” and “innovation,” and we must ask; in what way do they deceive us? If there was a historical misuse of rationality and reason, enforced by engineers, how are today the concepts of desire and creativity misused and enforced with the help of designers?

On an everyday level, designers cover up displacement of power and agency under the label of desire. We facilitate appropriation and gentrification, not only in cities, but also of whole cultures. We make systemic and political problems seem like a problem of individual agency, which can be solved with a little more entrepreneurship, some brainstorming, post-its and some more symbolic empowerment.

The lessons of history become even more urgent as designers move towards positions of power. Engineers have a specific role to play in the development of stuff. Designers float around, connecting management, producers and users, and try to get closer to where the real decisions are made. But that also requires more attention to ethics and responsibility, and recognition of the realism that comes with power.

When we ask for power, we also ask for the troubles that come with power. If designers really want more power, we need understand that power is also at the mercy of larger power dynamics. It is hard enough to serve both the weak and the market. And be certain; with power comes corruption.

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