Friday, July 21, 2006

Why the language of design must enter law and politics (part one)

I'm a designer and I want to talk briefly about the concept of design itself. Design is the first signal of human intention. As we look around at the tragedies that we see in the making, we realize that we have to ask: Did we really intend for this to happen? Is this something we designed?
. . .
Once you realize that our culture has adopted strategies of tragedy, perhaps it's time to have strategies of change.

First we have to start with great humility. We don't know what to do. We have indigenous traditions we can draw from, but we don't know what to do. If anybody has any problem with the concept of design humility, reflect on the fact that it took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.

So as an assignment, let's design an industrial system for world culture that treats nature as an enemy to be evaded or controlled; that measures prosperity by how much natural capital you can cut down, dig up, bury, burn, or otherwise destroy; that measures productivity by how few people are working; that measures progress by the number of smokestacks (if you're especially proud, put your names on them). It is a system that destroys biological and cultural diversity at every turn with one-size-fits-all solutions, requires thousands of complex regulations to keep us from killing each other too quickly, and while you're at it, produces a few things so highly toxic that it will require thousands of generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror. Can you do this for me? Welcome to the first Industrial Revolution.

It's time for a new design assignment.

Extract from William McDonough, " Designing the Next Industrial Revolution", Timeline #58, July/August 02001.

Futures and design are, it seems to me, natural bedfellows.

1. Design is predicated on deliberate choice between options available. If there's only one way for something to be, there's no scope for design. Designs can be -- are made to be -- adapted, improved.

2. Consequently, a design approach to anything encourages the taking of responsibility for what we can change.

3. Good design has creative, imaginative elements. It has aesthetic (what pleases) as well as a functional (what works) dimension.

We'll come back to these.

So, McDonough's central insight here is that unintended outcomes, once their tragic nature is acknowledged and understood, are as good as intentional -- not retrospectively, of course, but from that point on. Failure to respond to the consequences of bad design makes it a case of negligence by omission. Another way to put it is that if unforeseen negative consequences emerge, the fact that they were unforeseen is no good as a defence for sticking with the original strategy.

What does all that have to do with law and politics (advertised in the title)?

Well, McDonough implies that there's a systemic problem with industry which leads to the destruction (substitute "compromised integrity" if "destruction" seems too shrill) of the environment, among other ills. I think that's a sound argument. But as a student of political science, and a reformed (and repentant) one of law, these two domains are foregrounded in my thinking as a locus of individual and collective action. Design is the first signal of human intention, says McDonough. But industry, as he uses the term, does not denote a strictly designed structure, so much as an emergent set of practices, many of them accidentally pernicious. In contrast, as I see it, at a macro-social level human intention is nowhere more clearly signalled than in the effort to shape society directly through these mechanisms: legal and political processes. They are the principal method by which we collectively design our world.

What this means is that, to whatever extent our systems of law and politics are failing us, we have not just the potential, but also the obligation to redesign them. Lest I should be misunderstood to suppose too much, I should clarify that it also means there's a concomitant responsibility to try to ascertain the extent, and the nature, of that failure, which is naturally a big and contentious debate.

Returning to the three points above, then.

1. Design is predicated on deliberate choice between options available.

Politics is also about choice. I mean this not as a shallow "three cheers for choice", but as an observation that its fundamental function is the process of negotiating what's important, who gets what, who's in charge and so on, from among competing possible outcomes.

2. A design approach to anything encourages the taking of responsibility for what we can change.

Jumping up one layer from choice within the political process, to choice about the shape of political process itself: this too can change. Cast as a design issue, it's not an ineluctable given, but a system that can be ignored, repaired or replaced at will. This mindshift is sorely needed when "politics" appears to be disparagingly thought of as simply the nasty way things are and ever will be -- as in the realist school of political philosophy, which designates the nation state as the natural unit of governance.

3. Good design has creative, imaginative elements.

The language of design helps frame political discussion in a way that appears useful for accommodating both affective and practical aspects. It is in that sense congenial to the discussion of values, which are one of the primary bases of political difference, but which somehow strike me as wearyingly dull when addressed in those terms (Let's talk about values! Yawn. Enter stage left pretension and absolutism. Let's talk instead about what you want, what you respond to, what you love. What your community can do for you, and what you can do for your community. How your ideal would look, and how we could approach it.) At any rate, what politics as such seems to lack almost entirely, in the main, is creativity and imagination. Bring in the designers. Bring on the artists. McDonough's right: it's time for a new design assigment. Any takers?

/To be continued.../

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