Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Social sciences and design: managing complexity and mediating expectations

For reasons of pedagogy and social responsibility, Tony Dunne is one of my favourite designers and I'm particularly taken by his ideas about designing for debate. In setting briefs for students in Design Interactions at the RCA, he says "design proposals should pose questions rather than provide answers, making complex issues tangible, and therefore debatable." To purposely intervene in an issue without trying to solve a problem is a difficult activity, but one with extraordinary possibility if done well. Plus, the archaeologist in me knows the ability of material culture to make "tangible, and therefore debatable" things that are complex, fragmented and strangely ephemeral.

For details on how to design for debate check out this talk from last year's Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign event in Potsdam:


Now, the idea that design can play a productive role in managing complexity is hardly new, but I do see a lot of potential in designing and using objects (things) to engage publics around particular issues, or matters of concern. Pushing this connection between sociology, anthropology and design, I see this kind of work as another way to facilitate public understandings of emerging technologies, or to mediate public science and the co-production of scientific knowledge--but there's no reason to limit its application to the realm of technoscience as it is equally well-suited to intervening in many aspects of everyday life. (Proboscis' Feral Robots and Snout projects also demonstrate a lovely combination of technoscience and everyday life.)

Paola Antonelli writes in Seed Magazine about curating MoMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition:

"Fundamental to this emerging dialogue between design and science is the appreciation of the role of scale in contemporary life. Today, many designers have turned on their heads several late 20th-century infatuations, for instance with speed, dematerialization, miniaturization, and a romantic and exaggerated formal expression of complexity ... The focus now is on ways to break the temporal rhythms imposed by society in order to customize and personalize them. If design is to help enable us to live to the fullest while taking advantage of all the possibilities provided by contemporary science and technology, designers need to make both people and objects perfectly elastic ... These new principles embody the great responsibility that comes with design's new power of giving form and meaning to the degrees of freedom opened by the progress of science and technology."

It's certainly nice to see designers seriously take on something other than the creation of consumer products, but I'm not sure design has that much power to change the world. Still, this general perspective ties in with some interesting theoretical and methodological issues in contemporary social and cultural studies that are worth exploring further. (In fact, Goldsmith's Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process ran an interesting seminar series this year on design and social sciences, featuring friends and colleagues including Matt Ward, Alex Wilkie, Tobie Kerridge and Nina Wakeford. I also see that Mike Michael and Bill Gaver have been working more on the intersections of sociology and design, so that should also be interesting to follow.)

My dissertation deals quite a bit with the expectations that surround urban computing and locative media, or the ways that particular technosocial visions serve to shape relations in the present and delineate future scenarios that include some things and bracket out others. While this may appear to be of purely sociological or anthropological interest, by acknowledging the role that design plays in these processes, design can also reflexively and responsibly intervene again through the creation of objects that mediate these expectations. Such activities also bring issues of scale and temporality to the forefront, arguably better enabling a wider range of people to act in situations that affect them. But in order to get a sense of how these activities can also limit what we can do, check out this assessment of UK think tank Demos' Mobilisation document and the enactment of future users (pdf).

In any case, as soon as I've got the dissertation defended (stay tuned for news on that!) I'd like to do more work in this area. There's just so much to think, and do and make...

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Anonymous Narration said...

Ok, another great post, in my book, and good links to look at.

I think you were writing to some extent in the spirit of your opening idea, Anne.

Thank you,

Anonymous Anne said...

Thanks Clive!

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