Cameron Tonkinwise talk — report

‘It’s not a good moment for social design’ were the less-than-uplifting initial words of Cameron Tonkinwise, Professor of Sustainable Design and Parsons New School for Design, New York. Social capital is being eroded as recessionary America bites deeper, further individualizing people and sucking away any spare time they might have to participate in civic life. And yet, New York is alive with social design.

Drawing on two years’ observation of social design projects undertaken through his academic institution which were supported by a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Cameron Tonkinwise mapped out a typology of different ways within which social design takes place. Firstly, he noted that social design is by and large an activity where non-commercial interests take precedence. It is, as indeed the term emphasizes, primarily about doing things with people. It engages local issues and enthusiasms that are none the less connected, often, to global challenges. And in placing people at the centre of the process and then connecting their world to wider conflicts and questions, problems get framed and re-framed. In so doing, social design can become an open-ended activity. Solutions are only temporary. Indeed, social design by its very nature in engaging with the shifting parameters and conditions of people’s lives is on-going.

Contrastingly, social design may also involve the prototyping and establishing of toolboxes. Social designers work in a given context to fashion ways of doing things for social benefit which can then be upscaled or replicated elsewhere. Their work here is the development of forms of metadata that has the flexibility to address specific challenges that are shared across contexts whilst still being applicable according to various social, cultural and economic conditions, it is hoped.

Social design may also be directed at creating new forms of sociality, we heard. Within this, social design then becomes the design of social relations that are mediated through artefacts. Thus materiality has a function both in providing the ‘glue’ between social practices and constituting those activities in themselves. After all, one might speculate from this observation, internet social networking sites, for example, are both the platform for interactions and the thing its participants ‘do’.

In the final section of his talk, Cameron Tonkinwise provided a critique of social design’s potential problems. The conditions of neoliberalism demand a shrinking of the state and its attendant role in providing social support and welfare. Is social design therefore a distraction from this reality? Is it just a way of fashioning coping mechanisms for people by helping them to be more resilient in the face of an increasingly alienating and difficult world? Is social design really just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, he asked?

Stemming from this our speaker made a case for the idea of social design as a way of opening up what he calls a ‘critiqual space’. This is where design creates ways by which people can assert their agency. For instance, we heard how social design might allow non-stakeholder citizens to voice their concerns over something. You might ask whether someone can ever be a ‘non-stakeholder’ if you take the view that all things are connected. Thus the critiqual space of social design becomes a politically mobilizing device.

Extending along the lines of the earlier observation regarding social design’s power to re-frame problems, this kind of creative activity provides ways by which people can actually live and work in a range of contexts. Social design equips people with a nomadic kind of flexibility. Perhaps this is where resilience might kick in in a meaningful way.

This last area of social design might be where social design meets ‘design as activism’ or ‘design activism’, suggested the respondent, Guy Julier. It is where design is more self-consciously and politically charged with an ambition toward change.

It is interesting to think of the parallels between today’s interests in social design, design activism, participatory design, co-creation and so on and what was happening in the early 1970s, he argued. As now, that era was marked by huge national debt, US entrenchment in a seemingly unwinnable war, steeply rising oil prices coupled with rising politicization and environmental awareness. These provided the context within which new forms of design that engaged closely with public questions were experimented and discussed.

As in the 1970s, the growth of social design has in the 21st century found a willing and important home in academic institutions. It is perhaps not surprising that – as with critical design – social design has included an energetic discursive element where its activities are reported on and discussed through academic networks. In addition to this, Guy Julier noted that academia provides a certain political economy for social design through funding mechanisms. It is entangled with the competitive research agenda that now exists; but this also reflects changes within universities where critique meets moves for them to engage more directly with public issues and challenges within the public sector.

The respondent then suggested that a parallel way to think of social design typologies is through their various economies. Beyond (but sometimes linked to) the academic context has been the development of social design within the private sector of consultancy, for example, by Ideo or in among service design. Subsequently this can become a kind of ‘franchised knowledge’ as social design methods get trademarked, rolled out or sold on. For commercial consultancies, undertaking pro bono work not only makes them look good but also provides laboratories for testing out ideas.

An important sector for social design, though, exists in NGOs, charities and thinktanks – including the Young Foundation. Their relative independence and closeness to their end-users may be an asset for them. Finally, a fourth economic sector might exist in the voluntary, grassroots sector which is perhaps the most free from financial constraint but, of course, the least funded.

As an opener to the series of social design talks, the event provided a useful map of its practices, potential and areas for critical debate.

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