Cameron Tonkinwise: Creating visions of futures must involve thinking through the complexities

July 22, 2019

James Auger talks with Cameron Tonkinwise, one of Speculative and Critical Design’s fiercest and most insightful critics, about future paths of the approach.

Cameron Tonkinwise is the Director of the Design Innovation Research Centre at the University of Technology Sydney. He returned to Australia after being the Director of Design Studies and Doctoral Studies at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, and the Associate Dean Sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design and co-Chair of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School in NYC. Cameron has a background in continental philosophy and continues to research what design practice can learn from material cultural studies and sociologies of technology. His primary area of research and teaching is Sustainable Design. Cameron is widely published on the ways in which Service Design can advance Social Sustainability by decoupling use and ownership – what these days is referred to as the “Sharing Economy”. He has also been a strong advocate for the importance of critical practice-based design research. Cameron’s current focus, in collaboration with colleagues at CMU and an international network of scholar-practitioners, is Transition Design – design-enabled multi-level, multi-stage structural change toward more sustainable futures.

Your background is in philosophy of technology – how did you arrive in the domain of design research and what does your background bring to design? Or I could rephrase as “what is missing from design education that makes your contribution important?”

Three things moved me from philosophy to design. Firstly, my university education was during the heyday of poststructuralism. It felt very exciting then, as if each week wholly new perspectives were being opened up by some new translated book or lecture course. These were not just new ideas, but attempts to change the material conditions of idea generation and dissemination. Jacques Derrida in particular committed to building new kinds of educational institutions and experimented with new modes of communication, exposing me to what I only later came to realize was graphic design and even hypertext. So the philosophy I was enthralled by was always pointing to the political agency that lies in how things – texts, but also learning environments – are materialized. Design felt to me like a natural extension of politically-engaged philosophizing.

The tendency of much of the first wave of Critical Speculative Design, for example, to adopt the aesthetic of fashion editorial or neo-noir cinema, seemed to me to show a quite ironically uncritical visual politics.

To put that in terms of your second question, I was however, surprised by how apolitical, if not politically naïve, design as a practice, but also a discourse, was, once I got into it. The idea that design is the mechanism by which political values are materialized into everyday practices (a variant of Latour’s “technology is society made durable” or “morality delegated”) seems still insufficiently understood by design practitioners and educators. I wish I came across more designers with astute critical capacities to read the implicit sexism or racism, etc., of designed images or environments; let alone designers with rich side projects of culture jamming or subculture creating. The tendency of much of the first wave of Critical Speculative Design, for example, to adopt the aesthetic of fashion editorial or neo-noir cinema, seemed to me to show a quite ironically uncritical visual politics.

Secondly, my doctoral research focused on the teaching style of Martin Heidegger. Apart from being an anti-Semitic Nazi (at the time, I believed him to be that rare instance of a non-anti-Semitic Nazi), Heidegger is significant for having focused philosophy on material practices, everyday actions that philosophy had previously overlooked. If you are trying explain the nature of existence, you should, the early Heidegger argued, begin with things like tools, a hammer for instance, which only makes sense through the experience of hammering, an act in which the hammer is not really present like a solid, static thing, but instead withdrawn into the act of building. When I first started turning to design, I expected everyone to be familiar with Heidegger because he had such a clear account of designed artefacts in use. (There are key people at the beginning of interaction design who did make this connection: Pelle Ehn and Terry Winograd via Fernando Flores.) So again, I turned to design because it felt like a practical manifestation of Heidegger’s revolutionary-at-the-time account of what makes for a meaningful existence.

A consequence of this is that I have tended to find myself a much greater believer in the significance of design than most designers I know. Design education often begins by explaining that “design is everything; it is the decisions behind the what and how of every single thing in every one of the built environments in which we dwell”. But the philosophical significance of this is rarely sustained beyond that opener. Designers are for the most part intolerably arrogant, but mostly because they are defending design’s superficiality, the technical skills involved in making something elegant for instance. It is common for leading practitioners to deride other practitioners, or especially design academics, who try to insist that designers could and so should “save the world”, belittling such exhorters for not understanding the realities of clients and customers. We need more design philosophy, in design and in philosophy, demonstrating that the human condition is conditioned by designers; every designed product or system in turn designs certain kinds of humans, or at least certain ways of being human. Speculative Critical Design, insofar as it is a form of Design-focused Science Fiction, can be, at its best, an applied example of design philosophy, explicating how designs materialize particular kinds of futures, and/or lending particular kinds of futures plausibility by fleshing out their designed socio-technical material practices.

The third and primary reason that I shifted from philosophy to design was because I started to work with Tony Fry. Tony Fry was trained academically in the first wave of British Marxist Cultural Studies. He was a critical reader of Heidegger, initially as a way of understanding the ontology of television, then as a way of explaining the world remaking scale of the challenge of sustainability. I did a PhD under his supervision while working for his newly founded EcoDesign Foundation, which aspired to create a new kind of university appropriate to the civilization-redirecting project required as a part of the “war against unsustainability”. Tony Fry convinced me that the agency I was looking for as a result of the poststructural politics I had been educated into (and my wider green political activism) lay with design, but with a design whose practice had been entirely reimagined in terms of “sustainment”.

Tony Fry is an important corrective to the voluntary servitude of so much dilettantish design. His books and numerous projects (for instance, metrofitting, the urmadic university, the studio at the edge of the world, and currently a war café theatre) quickly reveal the compromised timidity of much Critical Design, let alone Sustainable Design. Everything I write and teach tries to preserve the breadth and urgency that I learned from Tony Fry.

SpeculativeEdu is about education – what are the key texts, from your field, that you would recommend to design students to provide a better platform to design from?

When I left high school, I asked the history teacher from whom I had learned the most for a list of books he recommend I read. He got angry with me saying I should not try to live my life through other people. Then again, I see my job as a teacher to be one of the people who takes responsibility for not only suggesting what other people read, but even forcing my students, to the extent of my power, to read certain things.

It still surprises me that most designers have read very few books about design, though there are not many that are both sophisticated and up-to-date.

I am not a trained designer and came to design by reading books about design – which did not take long as it was not an extensive section of the library (especially the design books with more words than pictures). It still surprises me that most designers have read very few books about design, though there are not many that are both sophisticated and up-to-date.

Given that designing is about (1) discerning the difficulties that diverse peoples experience with the ways in which the world is currently designed, (2) seeing the possibility of radically new ways of living, but also (3) understanding the current conditions that constrain the realization of those possibilities, I expect all designers to be reading continuously a wide range of (1) anthropology, (2) (science) fiction, and (3) history (of technology). I think every design school still located within the lineage of 100 years of the Bauhaus urgently needs to decolonize itself, especially heeding what Yuk Hui has recently titled The Question Concerning Technology in China. I am finding Francois Jullien’s work very insightful in this regard. The decade I taught in the US exposed me, in ways I should have understood earlier, to structural racism and the rich political history of attempts to resist that. At CMU, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was required reading for undergraduate design students. The Australia I returned to is just now starting to engage with the extent to which Indigenous perspectives require the long and thorough dismantling of all aspects of higher learning and research. Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which documents the extensively designed systems of Aboriginal nations in Australia prior to colonial invasion, is surprisingly becoming widely read here.

Ideally, I think every designer needs to have a thorough grounding in the “histories of the present” of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s notion of a “dispositif”, of the way an ideological discourse manifests in designed objects and built environments, is essential for designers to realize that (a) they are only ever designing within wider ontological settings, and that (b) everything they design reinforces that ontology if it is not an explicit struggle to redirect it. Foucault is also useful for realizing how our ways of being a person are also historically variable. This is what is wrong with so much Design Fiction, from Dunne and Raby to Black Mirror: it always presumes that though material conditions have changed, the people are more or less the same, with the same values and practices and pleasures and pains as now (with that disjuncture driving the drama we find amusing).

Almost everything I write references Elaine Scarry and in particular her The Body in Pain. The final chapter is, by a very long way, the best account of the how and why of artefact creation that I have ever encountered, and the whole book is incredibly insightful with respect to torture, labour and value. I understand that book to be a sequel to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition which has a related account of the artefacts of Work, as opposed to Action. We need a contemporary account of digital artefact making which Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism does not quite amount to, in my mind.

It surprises most that designers are not in general avid film watchers. Students these days seem too often to have very little experience of any kind of cinematheque back-catalogue, sufficing with the thin algorithm-based films of Netflix’s impoverished library. Speculative Critical Design sometimes seems to me to be an attempt by designers to attain the affect of a film without actually making films. If I could legislate a requirement for every designer it would be to have the privilege to attend at least one major Film Festival a year, with a focus on independent documentaries and cinema from non Anglo-American directors.

Focusing on your Medium article “Just Design: Being Dogmatic about Designing Speculative Critical Design Future Fiction” (which does provide one of the better descriptions of the various approaches) you suggest that these qualifiers allow commercial design to not have to do these things and this encourages the “artificial ecosystem of academic design research”. I agree to a point (although fail somewhat to see the connection) – I would suggest that commercial design (in its current guise) does not want or need to do these things, even if it should. Can you see ways through which design research could escape its bubble to genuinely influence commercial design?

Design is the discipline of making. Speculating about what could or should be designed, though part of designing, is not yet the act of designing. Speculative Design recognized this by actually making products, services or environments that were not (yet) wanted, or that were for worlds that did not yet exist, but may, for better or worse. If speculating critically is something designers should do, then, advocates argued, designers should do that through making. And to some extent, because it did manifest as made objects, Speculative Critical Design did manage to get designers being more critically speculative than they had been.

This need to make, which drives design, tends to make design conservatively pragmatic. Designing, practitioners insist, is a realist exercise, one that always involves negotiating with clients, producers and users about what is feasible, viable and desirable. Some designers often get quite shirty about this, decrying any external criticism of a designed outcome with “you can never know what went on between a designer and a client”. In other words, there are always mitigating pragmatics that excuse outcomes that appear worse than outcomes that can be dreamt up in the abstract.

However (as I indicated in answer to the question about readings), this realism is only ever half of design. Designing is also idealistic. Designers take responsibility for imagining, on behalf of society, that there can be very different ways of practicing everyday life. Designers can be annoying for believing that every little thing could be improved. Their job is to fight against what is, on behalf of something else, something better.

This means that most of designing is actually arguing: arguing with the client about how the problem has been framed; arguing with the users about options that lie beyond what research suggests they currently want; arguing with materials to take on new forms; arguing with users again to interact in new kinds of ways with communications, environments or products; persuading clients to accept the design; persuading suppliers and manufacturers to realize the design; arguing with marketers to diffuse the design through particular kinds of strategies; arguing with users a third time to change their lives to incorporate their design. At almost every point are things that commercial design sponsors do not want or need, that skilled designers have to make them want or need, or at least consider.

All those prefixes and suffixes are valuable, if and only if they are brought into argumentative confrontation with corporate capitalism by commercial designers designing.

Given this, it is odd that so few design programmes explicitly teach argumentation and persuasion. Again, this was the great value Speculative Critical Design, versions of which were called “Design for Argument” or “Discursive Design”. That “Just Design” piece was a polemic in part directed at Speculative Critical Design’s retreat to the gallery. It was an attempt to say that all those prefixes and suffixes are valuable, if and only if they are brought into argumentative confrontation with corporate capitalism by commercial designers designing. Of course, our corporate overlords do not want these critical speculations. But that is exactly why we need to be in there fighting for those other possibilities. In a gallery, only people who already agree with you can hear you scream.

This is of course easy to say from my position of academic purview and much harder to do. However, I would say that part of my position at UTS now involves doing corporately partnered projects (I discuss this below) and in my recent experiences, corporate capitalism is in a state of panic, one that makes them surprisingly open for speculation if not outright critique. There are three reasons:

(1) The first is what has been called the “Death of Demand”, the fact that profitability from secondary and tertiary industry sectors (manufacturing and service economies) seem to be stalling due to a combination of saturation (in the global consumer class – too much stuff, not enough time), too-expensive creative class cities, and casualization as a result of automation on the employment side. The only money to be made is in money itself, financial engineering, etc.

(2) The second is what has been called the “Talent War” or “Millennials”, which is code for the difficulty of retaining those tolerant of constant change because of their cultural capital, and so the search for ways to make work seem “meaningful” to them.

(3) The third is that the completion of the neoliberal erosion of the state and its systems of welfare coincided with the arrival of Big Data, etc., with the result that surveillance capitalists find themselves with more agency in regard to social challenges than governments. Banks for instance know more accurately and faster, as a result of the real-time data they have from their customers’ earning and spending, about who is subject to wage theft, addictions, financial abuse, etc. The people in these corporations, at the middle level, are, in my experience, really feeling the ethical challenge of knowing that they, of all people in society, are currently the best placed to do something about many societal challenges, but also recognizing that “doing something”, beyond gestural Corporate Social Responsibility, would require radically challenging what the corporation considers core business. This is why “innovation labs” are increasingly saddled with “social innovation” problems as middle-managers plead for ways of resolving this “can-ought” dilemma.

So there seems to be a quiet desperation at some levels of many corporations at the moment, which creates odd requests for speculation, even critical speculations if well-concealed by non-disclosure agreements, to find out what on earth to do, about new kinds of customer value, retaining talent and taking up social governance as asset-stripped governments collapse into populism. This, it seems to me, could be the context for concerted efforts to reassert ways of speculatively critical designing, though that would take a much more articulate and well-coordinated community of practice.

And a related question – I was lucky to receive free education in the UK (before fees were introduced a few years ago). This provided a great platform for free-thinking and the challenging of (the role of) design. In the current situation, how can we help students resist the allure of six-figure Silicon Valley pay packets when they have massive loans to pay off? You seemed to achieve this with the Transition Design programme at CMU.

One of the odd things about the USA is that its elite universities are inequitably expensive, and yet those tuition dollars do not hone offerings to only what is a marketable skill. Because you are buying more symbolic cache than specific content, degree programmes in all sorts of disciplines and professions mostly have more “liberal arts” and “inquiry-driven” aspects than their equivalents outside the USA. I am obviously not defending these exclusionary costs, but less debt-saddling degree programmes (for local students) in the UK, Europe and Australia for instance seem much more market-utility oriented, in both tone and content.

Just on this, I do want to draw attention to one of several successful follow-ups to Occupy Wall Street, the Rolling Jubilee. This a designed system for retiring people’s student debt. To some extent, this seems to me to be an excellent example of Critical Design: it is a working prototype of how to exploit a system that at the same time foregrounds an unsustainable situation. I worry that the photogenically exhibitable version of Critical Design occluded these kinds of actually critical, because not just speculative, designs.

Transition Design was so-named not only because it concerned the role designers (of human scale interactions) can play in facilitating social system level transitions to more cosmopolitanly localist ways of living (the field of “Sustainability Transition Management” which has to date lacked design perspectives), but also because it aimed to help designers to transition out of commercial servitude and into ways of working that are more focused on longer-term equity-oriented social change. This is why one of the four domains that my colleagues at CMU and I insist are part of Transition Design is “New Ways of Designing”. In other words, design is itself in transition at the moment, from finished artefact, communications and environment design, to more continuous service and social designing, and these transitions afford opportunities for designers to acquire new kinds of agency for effecting transitions to more sustainable futures.

When we first started talking about Transition Design, I spent time trying to articulate how I felt that the political project of Transition Design related to the then current concerns of design practice, especially in the digital domains (though this unfortunately led to unproductive fights with thought-leaders in Interaction Design who were CMU School of Design alum). As design begins to take responsibility for what Heather Wiltse and Johan Reström have recently called “changing things” – products which do not have fixed form because of their operation, customization and constant updates – designers have to learn to make multiple interventions over time within complex systems with different “pace layers”. To develop a behaviour change oriented app and then facilitate its diffusion into a range of use contexts for different communities means “staying with the trouble”. In other words, interaction designers are already having to learn to be designers in and of transition, so there is a basis for expanding those new approaches to designing to the wider challenge of facilitating societal transitions.

Unfortunately, almost all design schools have persisted with 20th Century form-giving Bauhaus-based atelier-style education. The gap created by that anachronism has been filled with the Lean Agile Design Thinking deluge outside of design schools. The focus of all these methods is in-market speed rather than studio deliberation. As a result, the vision-driven designing that is the basis of Transition Design’s response to these more fluid conditions proves to be the complete opposite of the just-follow-where-value-drifts of UX, for example.

Designers seem more aware these days that their practices are lacking good theoretical frameworks that can guide how designers go about designing more responsibly.

Another somewhat paradoxical example of Transition Design’s attempt to be pragmatic about how it could interface with professional designing concerns it being explicitly focused on “Theories of Change”. The term “Theories of Change” is horribly instrumental, having annihilated any chance of “Critical Theory”, but these days funders, whether government or philanthropic, especially in the “social innovation” domains, demand that every project have explicitly stated rationales for their interventions. A designer’s Theory of Change has tended to be the implicit rule that if it works, it will work: if a design makes an act easier, faster, cheaper and/or a little more delightful to do, then people will adopt the design and so start performing that act more regularly. Designers have not to date been taught to think much about the consequences of what they design, except insofar as the problems that are pursuant to the take-up of any solution present opportunities for subsequent design jobs. The scale of design, whether physical in terms of mass production or digital in terms of the numbers of Daily Active Users, now makes responsibility for those consequences unavoidable. As a result, designers seem more aware these days that their practices are lacking good theoretical frameworks that can guide how designers go about designing more responsibly. The few “theories” that designers are aware of – Maslow’s  hierarchical account of needs, ideas of Nudging Choice Architecture, or maybe affordances – are not adequate for the complex ecosystems of “staying with changing (digital) things”. Transition Design assembles a range of different “Theories of Change”, all from outside of design, but compatible with new ways of designing, so that designers can deliberately take responsibility for designing longer term consequences – for example, Social Practice Theory, and the histories of Sociotechnical Regime Change, Complex Social System Change, Living Systems, etc. On the one hand, these take advantage of the way North American elite grad education not only tolerates, but encourages, more diverse scholarly study as part of nevertheless profession-oriented degree programmes. On the other hand, practicing professional designers are often grateful for more robust principles and patterns to use when designing.

Learning Transition Design at university certainly does not guarantee a tech job with a starting bonus sufficient to pay off your student loans. But it can help with interaction, service and strategic design work. This is in fact a weakness in Transition Design. It is possible to do Transition Design to effect social transitions to mid-term futures which maintain the presence of profiteering corporations. This is why the nature of the vision that you bring to Transition Design is so important. When teaching Transition Design, we promote the development of visions for future societies that are “cosmopolitan localist”, or what Ezio Manzini calls “Slow, Local, Open and Connected”.

Can you point us to one or two projects, initiatives or groups that we can be inspired by? Describe why they stand out for you.

I have recently been doing work with colleagues at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. That project was called “Cooling the Commons”, researching more equitable and shared forms of cooling in the coming climate, as opposed to privatized forms of air-conditioned interiors. The ICS team are world-leading advocates of “commoning”. This practice has two components, the first being to re-common aspects of society that have been marketized, which often requires acts of resistance if not revolution. But the second component involves learning to see, sustain and celebrate how much of our societies continue to be outside of market economies. This is an extension of Katherine Gibson-Graham’s feminist approach to post-capitalism (Katherine Gibson is faculty at ICS), which famously uses the iceberg model to insist that visible forms of capitalism are a much smaller part of the more diverse social relations that in fact sustain most people’s existences, even in avowedly capitalist nations. Capitalism’s power is only ever its capacity to claim to be the only system, obscuring all the friend gift-giving, neighbour lending, family sharing, community convening, etc. that is going on. So, one of the projects that I am inspired by is the book Take Back the Economy by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy (U. of Minnesota Press, 2013), which has a series of tools and exercises that very effectively refocus your attention on actually existing alternative economies. In an era in which so many people are very aware of the dystopias current arrangements are leading to, but then respond to such critical speculations with, “So what are you going to do? There is no alternative”, the process this short book takes people through is absolutely vital: it takes the torch that is the basis of the “cone of the futures” and points it in directions other than the Eurocentric left-to-right, to find plausibles and possibles all around us already.

A more focused version of this post-capitalist project that I am currently involved in is “Platform Cooperativism”. This is the attempt to take back the Sharing Economy from the monopolistic surveillance capitalism of Tech Venture Capital. There are sustainable alternative futures within the socially embedded economic interactions that characterize Sharing Economy initiatives; but these potentials have been appropriated by their conversion into transaction skimming Gig Economies. However, the core interaction designs of these platforms are not sophisticated and could easily be “disrupted” by service provider owned collectives. Platform Cooperativism, a clunky phrase developed by Trebor Scholz and colleagues at the New School just as I was leaving there to go teach at CMU, is the attempt to provide the designs by which cooperatives could acquire the power of platforms, and platforms could be cooperativized.

Speculative Design and Design Fiction seem to be gaining in popularity (as a method not a purpose). How can we resist or overcome the situation where avant-garde design practices, established as a resistance to the dominant system, ultimately become appropriated by the system?

I am not sure Speculative Critical Design was ever an act of resistance to the dominant system. It was a marginal practice, but it was never something that threatened “the system”, as evidenced by the fact that it never prompted counter resistances. It was not directly commercial when design normally presents itself as subservient to market imperatives, but it quickly found a comfortable home as art, research and/or education. Designing was already inherently a speculative process (the starting point for that “Just Design” article), and all studio-based design education involves making speculations, which, when done on the basis of an adequate education, will have critical aspects. But there was never a strong articulation of the difference between a Speculative Critical Design and the commercial client education-oriented concept cars of Raymond Loewy’s “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”, nor to the more artefact-oriented side of entertaining science fictions that are now just revenue raising Netflix series. Has a technologist ever renounced their project as a result of seeing Speculative Critical Designs extrapolating the consequences of what they were doing? This may have been possible if there had been a side to Speculative Critical Design that involved politically organizing to get the intent of those designs in front of those technologists.

So, there cannot be appropriation of what was never inappropriate. There may now be poor copies of the specifics of the style that Dunne and Raby prescribed in Speculative Everything, but perhaps Speculative Critical Design was never really more than fashion editorial.

There is much to do to decolonize the practice of design, given how integral it is to modern imperial Eurocentrism, but at least, it is no longer possible to do Speculative Critical Design, even cheap appropriative copies of it, without taking into account the demands of decolonization.

Interestingly, times have changed quickly, and I think that the arrival of neo-fascists like Trump, on the back of shitposting meme wars and now deep fakes, make whatever could have been the resistant power of something like Speculative Critical Design completely impossible. On the other hand, the discourse of decolonization has also grown in the time since Speculative Critical Design was first being practiced. As should now be well-known, various events led Speculative Critical Design to be one of the first prominent, but also warranted, targets of substantive critique from people participating in the politics of decolonization. In some ways, Speculative Critical Design was therefore unwittingly useful in bringing the project of decolonization to design, or at least design academia. There is much to do to decolonize the practice of design, given how integral it is to modern imperial Eurocentrism, but at least, it is no longer possible to do Speculative Critical Design, even cheap appropriative copies of it, without taking into account the demands of decolonization.

I think that I am more interested in change than resistance. To change a system may require resisting it, but resisting can also be a way of merely protecting yourself from the system that nevertheless continues unchanged. What risks seeming like collaboration in Transition Design should rather be read as a commitment to engage with the dominant system in order to change it rather than just resist it. The difference lies in having a positive vision of alternative futures that you are trying to design toward.

You told me recently that you’re running a design project at UTS, could you tell us a little about that?

On my return to UTS, I inherited the Design Innovation Research Centre (DIRC), or rather, the task of expanding that organization’s operation beyond applied research consultancies to wider research programmes. DIRC has its origins in a now decade-long research project entitled Designing out Crime. The local state government had a tender out for the development of Crime Prevention products – lighting, CCTV, defensive architecture, etc. Kees Dorst, Professor of Design at UTS at that time, pitched instead a Crime Prevention process and was successful. Kees is a leading researcher of Design Expertise, having been a key part of the Design Thinking Research Symposium, a collection of people who studied the cognition of designers designing for decades. Kees’ work has always emphasized that designing involves a process of ongoing “co-evolution of problem and solution”, rather than problem-defining followed by solution-finding. Seeking to prevent crime rather than just protect from crime emphasizes the importance of creative problem-reframing. Kees called the process by which collections of stakeholders come to understand how they have to date framed the problem, in order to then try to develop alternative perspectives on the problem that might afford new kinds of responses, “Frame Creation”. The Design Innovation Research Centre was established to bring Frame Creation to contexts beyond the criminal justice system. Broadening to commercial design-driven innovation proved too ambitious for a process whose power lies in foregrounding shared social values. So, the Design Innovation Research Centre now has a full palette of projects ranging from service design to facilities and product design, in relation to social housing repair systems, preventing sexual harassment and elder abuse, improving the safety and quality of health and legal consulting spaces, etc. Kees is developing a range of transdisciplinary degree programmes at UTS and leading some international Sustainable Development Goal work, so I have been asked to further DIRC’s work by adding Transition Design to Frame Creation.

The project work of my colleagues at DIRC has taught me some important aspects of design that I was not previously alert to. Most designing is for the majority, the mainstream, the average. Victor Papanek foregrounded the importance of designers also attending to the marginalised – for him this meant people afflicted with a disability or developing nations – but only as a small and distinct part (a tithe) of what designers do. DIRC’s “design for social justice” work draws attention to the importance of design always taking into account minorities who are impacted by designing for the majority. I do not mean this in the “edge case” or “positive deviance” sense, nor just in the sense of Microsoft’s Inclusive Design principles, which suggest that design for accessibility benefits not only the permanently disabled, but also the temporarily or situationally disabled. I mean instead that the mainstream, in Inclusive Design’s case, the abled, can be opened to new values and practices when privileging designs that service others than them.

Let me put this another way. Most design is positively oriented (TU Delft even call it “Positive Design”) aiming to make everyday practices easier, faster, happier. There are again specialist contexts in which designers are asked to slow things down and even actively prevent certain things from happening. But the bulk of design is enabling, empowering, proactive. We are however these days suffering from the many “bad actors” who undermine the systems we otherwise find useful or depend on, from terrorists and trolls to the merely self-interested obstructing collective action on our various social challenges. In this context, designers seem under-educated for creating ways of limiting the number and reach of “bad actors”. Product designers are supposed to be able to anticipate risks of accidental or intentional misuse; spatial designers do not really get trained in thinking about safety issues – perhaps in relation to fires or flood, but rarely in terms of violence – as a core aspect of their designing; and interaction designers certainly learn nothing about principles of managing (online) commons or systems of content moderation (which by necessity remain a human labour). And yet, to enable users by design always requires anticipating the need to somehow discourage and even censure abusers.

I would suspect for example that most designers try not to spend too much time thinking about prisons; when they do, they perhaps suspect that they are a necessary evil for keeping the mainstream market for most of the products they design free from the complexity of those with malign intent; to imagine a society, one that is diverse and changing, not some dull utopia, but a society that is nevertheless without prisons, is not something most designers are disposed to do. And yet, it is now very apparent, given our fractured societies and the resurgence of surveillance and authoritarianism, how important it is for designers to embrace designing for, not just the positive, but also the negative, for co-existing minorities and not just policed majorities.

Speculative Critical Design prided itself on bringing material granularity to design fictions, giving those scenarios affective plausibility. My work with DIRC, especially in relation to efforts to reframe “crime”, are indicating to me that creating visions of futures must involve thinking through the complexities of dealing with many kinds of actors, ones with various levels of ability and ones with a range of intents, not only good ones.

It is interesting for instance how much of Black Mirror, which has been the true “appropriator” of Speculative Critical Design, is obsessed with criminal justice, but in the most unimaginatively punitive ways. The really creative challenge is to design fictional societies without such persistent moralistic vindictiveness.

It is interesting for instance how much of Black Mirror, which has been the true “appropriator” of Speculative Critical Design, is obsessed with criminal justice, but in the most unimaginatively punitive ways.