DESIS Philosophy Talk #6.4 Regenerating Democracy: a Design Contribution

PDC2018 (Hasselt & Genk, B), Tuesday, 21st of August 2018

Organisers: Virginia Tassinari, Liesbeth Huybrechts, Ezio Manzini

This DESIS Philosophy Talk aims to provide insight in and research collaboratively with the participants how Hannah Arendt’s philosophy can contribute to the discussion about ‘Participatory Design and Democracy’. It addresses and discusses how Arendt’s understanding of democracy can support design research in questioning if and how far PD is currently regenerating the democratic discourse in local and international contexts.

The issue of design and democracy is an urgent and rather controversial one. Many scholars are currently researching this topic, and also design conferences, such as this PDC conference, but also the previous NORDES and the coming DRS conference, particularly focus on this issue. One of the difficulties encountered when discussing this issue, is that the word “democracy” has many different understandings and configurations, in relation to the traditions and contexts in which it is framed. Another challenge relates to the complex relationship between design and democracy. Many authors also discuss that democracy needs to be debated in different ways in the different contexts in which design research is working. Finally, some scholars are also currently pointing to the fact that there is an increasing need to question whether we are not often dealing in a naive way with the issue of democracy, and we risk not being effective or – even worse – being instrumentalised. Therefore, we question which discussion on the idea of democracy and the values and meanings connecting to it can add something to the ongoing discussion and help to address this issue in all its complexity. As we are here dealing with meanings and values, it makes sense for us to nurture the content for this lexicon by looking – amongst the many possible different traditions dealing with the issue of democracy – into philosophy, and, in detail, into Hannah Arendt’s philosophy. She addresses the idea of democracy in a way that in our opinion resonates with some of the key principles of PD research, as she imagines active citizens’ participation to play there a mayor role.

The current discourse in design research and, particularly, PD research that has been working in a participatory way on common issues in given local contexts, has developed an enhanced focus on rethinking democracy. This is the topic of this PDC conference, as also of other relevant conferences (for instance, the previous Nordes and the coming DRS conference). To reflect on the role of responsibility of designers in a time where democracy in its various forms is often put at risk in many ways (see also Manzini’s and Margolin’s call Design Stand Up seems to us an urgent matter.

Democracy has always been a core theme in PD research, but in the past years it has shifted in meaning. This happened when PD stepped outside the boundaries of the large institutes and factories and became engaged with the scale of the home, the neighborhood, the urban scale, but also with the meso-scale of regional policies and conditions and the macro-scale of global economic movements and an increasing variety of societal areas. One needs to look at different traditions – for instance, philosophy – to better question the implications of this work in these different contexts, and their political value.

In relation to this year’s topic of the conference, following – and many other – questions will be addressed: How is Arendt’s understanding of the concept of democracy helpful in framing how PD research is regenerating democracy? In which ways Arendt’s concepts of action, interests and power can possibly be translated into our PD research? How does it contribute to generating contexts where conversations on common interests are made possible? What are the preconditions for these conversations to be possibly translated into action? Are we design researchers contributing to regenerate the democratic discourse in local contexts? Are we succeeding to reintroduce action in urban environments, em- powering citizens? And how do we contribute to the discourse on democracy in global contexts? Where are we possibly failing? Can Arendt’s ideas help us to question our work, our limitations and constraints and to possibly learn to do it better?

If you are interested to participate to this DESIS Philosophy Talk, please contact us and get your inscription for the PDC conference at

Registration deadline: May 2nd, 2018 (extended until May 18!)