DESIS Philosophy Talk #6.2 Regenerating democracy: a design contribution

The conversation on design-based democracy started in Kolding during the Cumulus conference, continues in Rotterdam during the TRANSIT Conference “Learning for Change: a Journey through the Theory & Practice of Transformative Social Innovation”. In this session, we will engage in a dialogue with other disciplines working on social innovation, and question together how can the experiences of participatory design in general, and the ones of design for social innovation in particular, help to update and upgrade the ideas and practices of democracy (and, specifically, those of participative democracy)? In order to start this discussion a scenario is proposed, i.e. a scenario of a collaborative, design-based democracy.

When: Thursday 14 September (11:30-13:00) 

Where: TRANSIT Conference “Learning for Change: a Journey through the Theory & Practice of Transformative Social Innovation” (BlueCity Maasboulevard 100 Rotterdam)

Chairs: Ezio Manzini, Virginia Tassinari, Carla Cipolla 

Who: Nurul Azlan, Liesbeth Huybrechts, Tamar Shafrir

In the face of a democracy in crisis, in all its forms, and convinced that democracy’s core principles are more valid today than ever, we propose a discussion around the following question: Can the experiences of participatory design in general, and the ones of design for social innovation in particular, help to update and upgrade the ideas and practices of democracy (and, specifically, those of participative democracy)?

In order to start this discussion a scenario is proposed, i.e. a scenario of a collaborative, design-based democracy. 

The idea is to extend the definition of democracy by considering its ‘designing’ dimension: democracy as a hybrid, physical and digital space, equipped to offer people an increased possibility to meet, to start conversations, to conceive and collaboratively enhance their projects. That is, a democracy that not only gives people the freedom to meet and collaboratively design their lives and their world, but that also has to be seen as a space equipped to give these conversations and co-design processes a better chance of concrete results. 

This idea of democracy resonates with what the German philosopher Hannah Arendt says that democracy is more and nothing less than a set of discourses/actions on common “in-terests” taking place in local contexts. She says that in democracy, citizens collaborating together have the “power” to transform the conversations on common “in-terests” into action. This power is not given to them, but arise from the same collaboration. If one follows Arendt’s reasoning, this means that if one can make these interests visible and tangible, and provide the contexts in which “conversations for action” on common in-terests can take place, this will em-power people to eventually bring these conversations into action. 

This design-based collaborative democracy clashes with the idea of a direct democracy online: an idea which, in using the appeal of digital technology and social media, proposes a dangerous simplification of reality if pursued unilaterally, reducing choices relating to the public good to a sort of continual plebiscite in which everyone is invited to express his/her individual opinion, without the effort of creating shared opinions and mediating between different opinions.

In contrast to this drift towards plebiscitary democracy, design-based democracy enriches the general idea of democracy with a new dimension: one which, when added to representative democracy, feeds it with meaningful conversations. It is democracy intended as a space of possibilities in which the (often long and difficult) construction of shared ideas and practices takes place. In turn, precisely because they emerge through dialogue, and the effort it involves, these ideas and practices may lead to results that are more coherent with the irreducible complexity of the world.

In this session, design researchers reflect and discuss on if and how their experiences can be seen as contributions to this scenario and what could be done to increase the possibility of collaborating with other disciplines, such as the pletora of disciplines working on social innovation that will be represented during the TRANSIT conference. Also, we will question the risks connected to a design-based democracy, and question how we can avoid this contemporary citizen activism to become – despite its intentions – a tool in the hand of the establishment. How can this new form of activism – what we call here design-based democracy -be aware of this risk and yet not be paralysed by it?

This DESIS Philosophy Talk will also be an opportunity to create a interdisciplinary dialogue amongst different academic fields working on social innovation, and questioning the values and meanings generated by a design-driven approach towards social innovation.

Program: 

11:30 – 11:50 Welcome, position paper and questions (Ezio Manzini)

12:00 -12:05 Philosophical positioning (Virginia Tassinari)

12:05-12:35 Panel discussion moderated by Ezio Manzini (participants: Nurul Azlan, Liesbeth Huybrechts, Tamar Shafrir) 

12:35 – 13:00 Wrap up & Closing words (Carla Cipolla, Ezio Manzini and Virginia Tassinari)

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