Regaining our attentional ground: disciplining the smartphone

Last week I attended a conference on design and ethics (curated by colleagues at UAL and the Design Museum) where one of the things under discussion was the ethical no-mans-land that is contemporary technological development. I was already aware – as most of us probably are by now – that something is a little off with much of the hardware and software being pushed at us as the forefront of technology: the nefarious activities of certain social media platforms, the designed-in addictiveness of smartphones, the introduction of ‘helpful’ home devices that are also undoubtedly keeping tabs on us. But – as well as the privacy and trust issues,  and the resource depletion associated with technology manufacture – the discussion made me think again about the personal effects of all this.

While listening to the lectures I was also tweeting, checking my emails, messaging the people I was planning to meet up with that evening, taking photos of slides being shown, checking google maps and citymapper for how I was going to get to the train station later in as short a time as possible, and ducking out in between presentations to take a client call. The act of simply sitting and listening to some interesting talks in an auditorium was constantly being interrupted, my attention being taken elsewhere, and all enabled by this one little device. A fairly normal experience these days I suppose. But what is it doing? We are, as yet, relatively uneducated about this: the effect of our technology diet on our brains and selves. We are starting to be able to diagnose some problems, but the discussion is nascent. While we know we shouldn’t binge on chips and chocolate, we don’t know what the junk food equivalent is with technology. Are we consuming healthily or not?

What we do know is that these things have been designed in an ethical vacuum, and to be horrendously addictive. There is even a methodology (called ‘hook’) that is deployed to design products and services that keep people returning. I’m sure we can all recognise the effects of this: who can resist clicking on an app displaying that little red dot? How many times have you picked up your phone to do something, got distracted by some notification, and put it down again having never done the thing you picked it up for in the first place? Or unlocked it, flicked through your apps, and put it down again? Or found yourself mindlessly scrolling? Rest assured it’s not just you being a scatterbrain: these things have been designed to make you behave in those ways. Everything that is known about addiction in psychology and neuroscience is being deployed to make us want more. If we are gorging ourselves on the tech equivalent of junk food, it is because it has been designed specifically to manipulate and appeal precisely to our bio-psycho-social make up. Our attentional commons, as philosopher Matthew Crawford has put it, is constantly being dragged in different directions by corporate interests (and not only from smartphones of course). We are being disciplined by our devices – manipulated by them – into behaving in certain ways that make money for other people.

Mulling over these facts, I began to wonder exactly how much of my life experience is being affected by this tiny device. I often hear people making comments about how ‘life moves so fast these days’, and I wonder if the constant connectivity, the constant inflow and outflow of bits of information, is part of what creates that sense. Undoubtedly it makes one more distracted and distractable. But what does always being ‘on’ do to our experience of life? What does always having some instant form of entertainment in our pocket do? What does the possibility that one might never be bored, or have nothing to do but look out of a window, or wait patiently for a train, do? (And, in light of this, might we see the contemporary fetish for mindfulness and meditation as a backlash against the condition of never having a moment that is unfilled by some kind of stimulation – whether for fun or ‘productivity’ purposes?)

And then there are the endless representational opportunities: one can’t simply sit in the sun with a friend and enjoy a coffee, now that we have the affordances to photograph the occasion, stylistically edit it, broadcast it to the entire world, and hungrily check and recheck to see how many people like it – the possibility that we could or should be doing that looms over the pure unadulterated experience of having a coffee in the sun with a friend. And perhaps even makes us doubt whether our life is picturesque enough in the first place. A world without selfies would probably be one in which we all felt happier about how we look.

Unfortunately, it seems that no-one at a corporate level is leading scrutiny of this: some whistleblowers from large tech firms are starting to tell us what they have (unintentionally, they might say) designed into their products, but the pushback is probably going to have to come from elsewhere (see e.g. Tactical Technology Collective). And those responsible for regulating barely understand what they’re looking at or dealing with. So while hoping to affect the business strategies of large corporations is an ambitious aim for any one individual, something we can all do is vote with our feet.

Somewhere in the middle of listening to the talk, two things happened. In imagining the idea of not having this pestering little presence in my pocket or handbag, I felt a tiny sense of relief. And in response I found myself thinking ‘oh but I couldn’t live without a smartphone’. But then I thought ‘why not?’ Why do I think that? After all, we lived perfectly well without them until about ten years ago. Do we really need them? Ok, some things probably are useful, but how many are just nice-to-haves that we’ve convinced ourselves are ‘useful’: distraction dressed up as ‘inspiration’ or ‘social connection’. What would life without a smartphone be like? Or, rather, is it possible to find a way of living with a smartphone as a tool that is occasionally used for some things, rather than a device that is constantly mediating one’s experience of everything?

Immediately after this conference I went on holiday for a week, and discussed it with my partner. Once we started paying attention to it we both began to notice the weird effects of the smartphone: look around any café or restaurant, and at least half the people there will be communing with the little tablet in their hand rather than the place they are in and the people they are with. There is a smartphone posture developing, craned neck, hunched over: there is something quite craven about it. I found myself catching my passing reflection to see if I have it too, and sure enough, I am more stooped than I thought I was. Walking down a train, my partner commented on a pronounced generational split: one man in his seventies, sketching, two older ladies knitting and reading sheet music (and talking to each other), and every single person under the age of about 30 staring at their smartphone. Watching over perfect strangers’ shoulders at what people actually do on their phones makes you realise how utterly mindless that engagement can be. You might think you are purposefully checking your Instagram feed, but are you really in control? And once we decided we definitely didn’t want to interact with our phones unless strictly necessary, we began to realise how irritating they are. If a smartphone was a person, we would never put up with such attention-seeking behaviour: a narcissist with no manners constantly tugging at your sleeve saying ‘hey, hey, hey’.

So we decided to do an experiment, for a month. Whilst on the one hand, total uncontactability does hold some appeal, for various reasons we have decided not to go 100% off grid. What we are aiming for is to remove constant connectivity. We discussed replacing our smartphones with ‘dumb’ phones, but then discovered there are quite a lot of things we could do to dumb down our iPhones. So we have stripped them of pretty much all functionality apart from call and text. And we have switched off colour (amazing the difference this makes – turns it from the digital visual equivalent of a sweetie jar, into a grainy photocopy, much less tempting to play with). Of course, there is always the possibility to put things back, but we’re just going to have to try and resist temptation (and if you really don’t trust yourself you can get someone else to put a passcode on the bit that lets you reinstall apps and the internet). There is also a safety net aspect to not going totally dumb: having gotten so used to life with a smartphone, I am assuming there are probably lots of things I haven’t even thought of that I use it for, and I might find myself being caught out. Part of the experiment, then, is to realise what, exactly, I find myself in an ‘emergency’ having to re-install or reach out for. The other part of the experiment is of course to see if life is materially better without one.

So we’re going to keep notes, for a month, about what we are noticing. What is hard? What is great? What is totally impractical? What difference does it make to be unconnected? And is it possible to make an internet-enabled smartphone less addictive, or does one have to go cold turkey? More to follow in a month’s time…

Further reading

Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet.

Self-Defence in the Age of Attention: How to win back our time and minds

Jaron Lanier: ‘the solution is to double down on being human’

Homo Sapiens Versus the Internet

Matthew Crawford: distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind

Jack White has never owned a mobile phone, and says people’s “addiction” is driven by “competition, voyeurism and jealousy

Cracking the plastic habit: one day at a time

In October 2017 I left my job in London to try and finish the PhD I’ve been working on for the last few years. Stepping away from the routine, from habits accumulated over 10 years of London living, and from the pace demanded by trying to combine work in a busy consultancy, a part-time PhD, social life, exercise, leisure, self-improvement etc, has taught me a few things. Now that my brain isn’t filled with the daily to-do list of things I’m meant to be doing for other people, other concerns and interests have bubbled up to the surface. Things I actually care about and think are important have had a little more room to breathe and reassert themselves. (I’d recommend taking some time off work at some point, if you can afford to, for this very reason).

Concurrently, we’ve had this whole public outcry in the UK about the plastic problem. I’ve known about this problem for a while. In 2014 I think it was, I nominated the Ocean Cleanup project for ‘Designs of the Year’. So it’s not new knowledge (to me). But I haven’t up until now really done anything to change my own behaviour. Being off work, and also spending some time outside the UK in different contexts, I’ve had time to properly ponder this. One day in January I sat down and made a very long list of all the ways I was using plastic in my life – and started thinking about how to get rid of it. Here are a few things I’ve come to understand as a result of all this thinking…

Plastic use is deeply tied into and perpetuated by the ways we live and work, and changing habits means recognising that what we think is normal is entirely constructed (and therefore changeable). I had a moment in Marseille when I realised that I hadn’t seen anyone, in the week I was there, carrying a disposable coffee cup: because they tend to drink coffee sitting down, in a café, usually being sociable with someone else. How different to my daily experience of London, which I am used to thinking of as a civilised place. Why do we all participate in this fiction that we don’t have time to drink coffee sitting down?

We have become accustomed to, and consequently demand, perverse levels of convenience and gratification. We equate ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ with having whatever we want the instant we desire it. I’ve noticed myself, when coming to terms with the fact that I JUST CAN’T HAVE SOMETHING because I can’t find it not in plastic, feeling indignant about it, like my rights have somehow been infringed. ‘What do you MEAN I can’t have my favourite brand of salted peanuts?!’ Stopping to think about it, freedom might equally mean a lot of other things. I guess our freedom to buy shit is just a much more tangible kind of freedom than – for instance – the freedom to have the water we drink not contaminated by micro-particles of plastic.

Very often this freedom-as-consumer-convenience seems to mean plastic, perhaps because its cheapness as a material means it’s the only economical way of us continually buying lots of stuff. The reason we demand such levels of convenience is because we have ‘no time’. And the reason we have no time is because we’re so busy working – which for most of us either means helping someone else get rich, or not being paid at all to labour in other ways. We’re in an escalating spiral of earning and spending, and not thinking: it’s only because I’ve got more time now that I’ve managed to make some changes. Consumer capitalism is driving us and not the other way around. (I recently saw an advert on the tube for ‘mindful’ – MINDFUL – recipe boxes, where the ingredients for one meal are delivered to you in a box. These are a supposedly healthier version of the popular idea for those who want to cook but have no time to shop – or, presumably, look at a recipe book or see what they have in their cupboards or measure out quantities of ingredients. So that’s that. Mindfulness has been absorbed and dismantled. Didn’t take long. Anyone who buys one of these idiotic boxes should just receive a letter outlining the definition of ‘irony’.)

I think the normal habits of daily life for Londoners exhibit some of the extremes of convenience-addiction, and these are also some of the easiest plastic uses to knock on the head: carry a water bottle and reusable cup, take your own packed lunch etc (see this top ten list from Westminster Council). But even without the fast food factor, eliminating plastic takes effort, not least because it can be time-consuming: it means planning ahead, going to specific places to get stuff (not just the store you happen to be passing on the way home), buying things in bulk, sitting down to eat lunch (on a plate) rather than getting a takeaway, taking your own containers to shops, returning glass bottles to be recycled. It is also often not simply a question of substituting one consumer choice for another – but setting in train a whole sequence of things, or thinking completely differently about a daily practice. For instance, going to a market, seeing what fresh produce they have, and planning a meal from what’s available, rather than picking a recipe and then going out to buy the exact and probably not seasonal and therefore packaged and flown in ingredients. In other words, there is labour involved – and often what plastic seems to represent is someone else doing that labour, and us paying for it.

Our material choices are symbolic. The existence of so much plastic in our lives is the material manifestation of certain values: disposability, cheapness and abundance, convenience, outsourcing of labour, buying rather than making. Taking different choices actually means valuing different things, and valuing things differently.

The good news is other ways of living are entirely possible. Everywhere else I’ve been in Europe over the last few months I’ve seen great examples of habits, systems and practices that exclude plastic – often because a local culture has somehow resisted the introduction of it in the first place. If you just look back in time, there’s normally a non-plastic way that we were doing something that worked perfectly well (baking soda and vinegar are miracle products). Some of the things we buy and use are completely unnecessary inventions (a lot of cosmetics come under this banner) and you can just congratulate yourself for realising you don’t need to spend money on it anymore. If you ask the internet ‘how do I do x without plastic’ – someone else somewhere will have asked and answered that question.

And the best thing (for me anyway): the non-plastic alternative is a positive aesthetic choice. How much more beautiful are glass, brass, wood, cork, silk, beeswax, copper, tin, enamel, wool, cotton, bamboo, paper, string, ceramic, porcelain, linen etc than the plastic that is so often substituted for these things? Wouldn’t it be nicer, really, instead of having hundreds of cheaply made sweat-labour produced plastic clothes that don’t quite fit our unique shape and wear out in a few months, to own a few well-made items that fit and flatter and will last for years? Choosing not to have plastic in our lives could be – Olivetti typewriters aside – aesthetically enriching.

Some things are hard – plastic is now deeply embedded in many systems and avoiding it completely is tricky. So it’s not only about what we do as individuals of course – businesses and governments also need to do their share. But in a consumer society, where we spend our money – or indeed choosing not to spend but make something yourself – can be powerful too. The supermarkets seem to be taking a while to cotton on, but there are entrepreneurs and companies trying to do things the right way, and we can shop with them. Often it means supporting small businesses over big ones – green grocers over supermarkets, or going direct to producers – and there’s something nice about that anyway. We can participate in the creation of new systems of production and consumption as consumers: it may be hard to find somewhere to get tailored clothing made these days, but that doesn’t mean it will always be the case, if we ask for it. Ultimately these kinds of choices can change the economic equation too – buying something only once, and/ or making things for ourselves, means we need less disposable income: maybe then we could all work less?

So, as I have a bit more time on my hands – and because time seems to be a component part of the problem and I know lots of people who care about this but don’t have time to figure it all out – I thought I’d try and make myself useful. Long lists of actions can be overwhelming, so here and here I’m going to share one thing a day – the things I’ve found out and learned about living life without plastic. Hopefully it’ll inspire and help you too.

Redrawing the lines: design accountability

Getty Images

Recently there’s been a glut of articles and commentary reporting on the remorse of social media techies and Silicon Valley engineers, looking back with regret on the inventions they innocently delivered into the world, and the dystopic side-effects they have had. They argue that these technologies, largely financed and powered by the advertising or ‘attention’ economy, are affecting our brains, our attention spans, journalism and public discourse, politics, and democracy – and not in good ways. This Guardian piece gives a fairly comprehensive overview:

Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet.

Here are some other pieces on a similar theme:

This seems to me to be a new incarnation of an old failing. One could see plenty of problems in the industrialised world as sharing the feature of – somewhere along the line – a designer or engineer or creative professional not thinking beyond the box circumscribed by the interests of the client (which is, most of the time, the interests of profit).

This led to a debate with my partner about the extent to which inventors, entrepreneurs, designers etc are responsible for the longer term impact of things they have designed. (This seems particularly pertinent now given the systemic plastic disaster). On the one hand, it might be very difficult to predict the way things are going to go, to see the specific widget you are working on as part of a broader (future) problem, to see your part in a bigger and complicated system. On the other hand, these waves of public regret might prompt us to reflect on design accountability and where the limits should be drawn.

The typical position of the designer/ engineer in industry is one of buck passing, giving ultimate moral responsibility, or accountability for outcomes, to the client or some higher authority within the business. But when there is little structural incentive for corporations to behave ethically, or seek anything beyond their own profit, designers might want to reconsider this position.

Tracing accountability is admittedly made hard by the fact that our work happens upstream (it’s design, not delivery), and by its methods. Design has been described as ‘serious play’, provisionality is central to its logic and practices (brainstorming, speculating, simulating, prototyping). This serves to obscure the fact that we are always prefiguring certain things, embodying particular prejudices, making some outcomes more possible or likely. And in presenting our provisional ideas, we aren’t simply putting options on the table. We are creating possibilities, and even if we are not involved in implementation directly, we have some relationship to what happens next.

I think we need – especially as design starts meddling in government and social issues – to start questioning the lines and limits of professional accountability, and to relatedly start talking about professional identity: why are we in this game in the first place? Each individual might feel differently – but it’s a conversation to be had, at the very least.

And if there is some discrepancy between intent and outcome, this conversation must include what we would do differently, in practice. To quote Cameron Tonkinwise,

“Ethics that you don’t have to make sacrifices on behalf of are empty and impotent”

Considering my own area – social design/ design for government – I think a good place to start would be to balance out the characteristic optimistic register of practice with a bit of catastrophic thinking and conspiracy theorising. We often develop our ideas through lateral thinking tricks. What if we also asked ourselves, ‘what is the worst that could possibly happen as a result?’ ‘Who might stand to profit from this?’ ‘Who might exploit it?’ ‘Whose nefarious purposes might this inadvertently serve?’ And, as a follow up, ‘how could we do our best to ensure that didn’t happen?’ In some (many?) cases the only answer might be to not do that thing, not present that option to the client, not pursue that line of thinking. And of course it might ultimately mean not doing that kind of work. Not designing needs to become understood an equally valid act on the part of a professional designer.

Space for dissent

We need to create more space for dissent and contestation in the discourse around ‘design for government’ – otherwise we are in danger of straying into groupthink (and worse).

As part of my PhD, I’ve recently completed a literature review looking at research studying the phenomenon of ‘design for government’ – and I think we have a problem. With a few notable exceptions, there seems to be a single conversation going on – circulating through research, grey literature, blogs etc – and which goes like this: government is in trouble/ can’t do ‘x’/ must innovate/ reform/ transform/ be more efficient/ deal with complex problems > design can help with that > here’s how to do it. I’m paraphrasing somewhat, but there is a certain pattern that emerges, and a very instrumental way of talking about design (i.e. focused on what it achieves).

This is not a particularly critical discourse. Rather, almost everyone who says anything on the topic of design seems to be in the business of promoting it, more or less subtly – and there isn’t a great deal of clear water between academic research, and actual design promotion by the sector. What research there is seems to be preoccupied with explaining back to designers, public managers and policymakers what design for government is about and why there should be more of it. As a research community, it’s a very narrow set of questions we are asking and answering, repeatedly. And consequently, we’re not moving the conversation forward much beyond what the Design Council’s RED team said in the ‘Transformation Design’ manifesto that kicked it all off 11 years ago. All the major memes were there – in 2006.

This disciplining of how we talk about design in the context of government happens in practice too. You can quickly find yourself in the minority by asking awkward questions, or taking a different view – and I think this is suppressing some healthy debate. Certainly for me, disagreeing and biting my tongue has become something of an everyday experience: at work, or attending industry events and design research conferences, in reaction to hyperbole on social media – others broadcasting platitudes on twitter, or postulating on Medium. (If I see another primary-coloured slide with a five-word truism about users in helvetica font I might scream).

I hesitate to voice my criticism, because my sense is it either won’t be welcome, or worse – really heard or understood. And I know others have had similar tongue-biting experiences. A colleague recently spoke of fundamentally disagreeing with a fellow panellist at a public event celebrating service design, and feeling unable to express herself, because it would go against the ‘tone’ of the discussion (which she described as ‘women nodding and smiling and agreeing with each other’). A fellow academic recounted some highly questionable assertions made during the recent Service Design Network Global Conference (some of which I also spotted being regurgitated on twitter in a little echo chamber of design cheerleading), that yet went uncontested. As I write this, I’m having a conversation with another academic about how to present a critique of service design to a conference of service design practitioners and researchers without offending anyone.

This squeamishness about giving offence is a problem, because it creates a situation where there’s no comeback. In the absence of any clear source of authoritative knowledge or expertise (because who can really claim that much expertise in an emerging field), anyone who says anything loudly and confidently enough can present as an expert, unchallenged. This isn’t a healthy or helpful situation.

Surely this is a field that – both in development, and highly entangled with questions of politics, social ‘good’, governing etc – demands some healthy and spirited debate. What’s going on? Is everyone being terribly polite? Does everyone really agree? Are we all trying to curry favour with each other by nodding and clapping? Or is no-one thinking very hard about whether some of these assertions actually merit ‘applause’ or retweeting? I wonder if, having for so long campaigned to be taken seriously by government, there is a tacit agreement within the design community – practice and research – to not spoil it by bickering amongst ourselves in front of clients. Or perhaps design discourse, with its almost dogmatically optimistic rhetoric, simply doesn’t have a register with which to express uncertainty, misgivings, scepticism, etc. Whatever the reason, we seem to be creating a discourse space with little room for critical voices, and that needs to change, because we’re not learning anything new, and we are smothering criticality in practice. And criticality is an essential faculty in people who are in the business of proposing new possible futures.

From a design promotion point of view, job done. The single-track message has helped design practice elbow its way into government. It’s time to be a bit more critical about what we’re up to there.

Prototyping in policymaking: the pros and cons

Based on our respective experiences at work and in our research with the UK government, Lucy Kimbell and I recently co-wrote a paper for CoDesign on the use of prototyping – a practice that comes from the world of industry and design – in policymaking.

In it, we try to do two things.

First, to set out clearly what we think the functional added value might be to policymakers of incorporating prototyping into their practice. At face value, it promises some uses and benefits, which we assemble into a framework of ‘logics, pace, objects, uses and participants’ that we hope further research (our own and others) might build on.

“We propose that prototyping in the context of public policymaking can be a flexible practice within the policy cycle, which closes the gap between policy intent and delivery. Prototyping enables organisational learning by anticipating responses to public policy issues through making models of, and materialising, aspects of provisional solutions, enabling assessment of their delivery, acceptability and legitimacy. Prototyping can assemble and bring into relation a diverse constituency of actors involved in a policy issue, with distinct expertise, perspectives and knowledge. It can co-constitute a situated understanding of issues and how future policies might play out, foregrounding people’s experiences of a policy intervention via their material engagement with devices, objects and sites of action, making the practical and political implications of a policy graspable and meaningful.”

However, we also bring forward a specific critique of this ‘new spirit of policymaking’, which you don’t hear very often, but which we think prototyping is highly emblematic of.

Which is that it represents the further infiltration into the highest reaches of government of capitalist logic and modes of organising. As one interviewee pointed out, design methods were born into a specific worldview, with particular ends in mind, and by introducing the method into government we might also (perhaps unthinkingly) be importing the worldview and aims – and this deserves some scrutiny.

“Prototyping presents as-yet unresolved questions about how a processual, materialised and local understanding of problems and solutions intersects with formal democratic structures and processes. It is unclear how small-scale prototyping can relate to concurrent forms of democratic participation producing ‘mass’ policies that can be delivered at scale… Further, as Boltanski and Chiapello argue, the flexibility and provisionality associated with contemporary organising has the potential to absorb critiques of capitalism. Adopted as an organisational practice in government, prototyping can downplay challenges to the dominant neo-liberal consensus, dilute differences in political agency, and mask the politics inherent in deciding who, or what, co-emerges within a prototyping assemblage. Prototyping enacts a local—and possibly temporary—agency for participants in a policymaking process. But, as von Busch and Palmås argue in their discussion of applying design thinking to public problems, prototyping may also serve to reinforce existing power structures and elites.”

You can read the full paper here:

Or there is a pre-publication draft here:

Impact fixation

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Image taken from the Design Council’s ‘Design delivers for business‘ report (2012)

Clive Dilnot has a nice line on criticality in design: in theory designers should be the most critical of us all, because designing means being able to discern between different possibilities and choose the best one. However in reality (he says) the choices we make in design practice have been long disciplined by the logic of the market – which in turn shapes the language of design, much like that of management in general, to focus on impact, effectiveness, productivity, growth etc. And it’s always delivered in normative terms: how design should be done to achieve the best results. This is to be seen everywhere in commercial design practice – fair enough. But I’m starting to worry about how much of a grip it has on design research and academia.

Ezio Manzini recently lamented that ‘mechanisms and effectiveness’ seem to be the only basis on which people are capable of researching and discussing design. There are some exceptions: this doesn’t apply so much to design history, and there is a growing ‘design culture’ field that seeks to embed contemporary practice in a wider socio-economic and political framework. But if you happen to be researching in that mode it seems you are apt to be constantly misunderstood by others.

I’ve had the experience three times recently, on submitting three different papers (one to a conference and two to journals) of being told that I (or we in the case of one written with Lucy Kimbell) haven’t done enough to say what should be done, or what designers as readers should take forward or do differently. I’ve been warned against taking the ‘barren position’ of critic standing outside of practice.

Why, I wonder, is critique such a problem? And why can’t a thought-provoking critique, or an exploration of possible theoretical interpretations, stand on its own?

The papers in question all reflect in different ways on what might be going on behind the use of design in policy – exploratory pieces that draw on theories of capitalism, neoliberalism, governmentality, politics, etc. My favourite case of misinterpretation concerns a paper that builds on Boltanski and Chiapello’s idea that capitalism absorbs and defuses critique/ dissent, to suggest that the infiltration of design into policymaking might be seen as an example of that mechanism. The reviewer’s criticism implied that they thought we were promoting the absorption of dissent as a selling point for design in policy.

Maybe we weren’t clear enough. Or maybe the paradigm of design research providing prescriptions for design practice is just that strong. But why should all design research end in ‘implications for design practice?’ Isn’t that just another example of the absorption of critique? Not all problems can be so easily solved. It makes me even more defiant, to want to say ‘no you can’t just disable this with some platitudes about reflective practice – it’s uncomfortable and you have to live with it’.

The broader point here is that there’s not nearly enough critical research going on if, when confronted with it, design academics don’t know how to read it. As part of thinking through my PhD, I’ve sketched out the framework below as a short-hand for distinguishing between different kinds of design research. There’s not much of the fourth column going on, and I’m curious as to why this is.

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There is admittedly a large overlap between researchers and practitioners – many people do both, which encourages a certain perspective. If design is about problem solving for an organisation, institution or system, then design research also seems to be predominantly asking questions about how well it does that job, rather than reflecting on the container within which design activity sits. And when design research identifies a problem the designerly brain wants to solve it. Perhaps the design mentality can’t brook the idea of not doing, not acting – which is what critical discernment implies. If you really thought about it you might choose not to act – but if you stop does that mean you cease to be a designer? Reflecting on whether to act might trigger some kind of identity crisis.

A final point: as a design practitioner I find that the thing most design research is useful for at the moment (when it’s not just a show-and-tell of design projects) is in providing some theoretical underpinnings that help articulate to clients why this isn’t all just playing with post-its, but is serious work. In other words, we co-opt research – sometimes even critical research – to keep selling. What’s visibly lacking, given the increasingly confusing times we live in, is anything that sheds some light on what’s going on in public life and the political sphere at the moment and how designers are implicated in that. More of that sort of thing would be very welcome.

Reflections on designing a public and social innovation lab in health


Over the last year and a half I’ve been working with the Health Foundation, supporting a team (led by Tracy Webb) designing an innovation and improvement lab that will work with the Q community, exploring systemic challenges in health and care in the UK. Designing an innovation function in an organisation or system is no straightforward task, and I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned through the process.

But first… why a ‘lab’?

There is a long history of corporations and organisations hiving off the innovation function, creating dedicated teams solely focused on R&D and coming up with new ideas, an experimental space freed from the limitations of day-to-day business. Applying the same logic to public and social innovation problems is becoming increasingly popular – only in this case, it’s not corporations trying to invent new products, but governments, public bodies, charities, and foundations, who recognise that their standard operating model is no longer sufficient for addressing complex social and public problems.

‘PSI labs’, as they are known (Public and Social Innovation labs), are proliferating rapidly across the world, and for good reasons. In the past, ‘experimentation’ used to refer mainly to scientifically minded people testing theories in a closed system. While that undoubtedly still happens, there is also a sense now that some of the big problems we are facing defy being solved at a laboratory bench.

The 19th and 20th centuries have left us with an incredibly complex ‘designed’ world: ‘the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer’. We have created complex assemblages of people, structures, objects, meanings – and we have to find ways to tinker with these to create change. But that’s not to say we want all of government (for instance) to throw everything up the air and start experimenting, there needs to be a balance between exploration and exploitation: finding the ideas that work, and spreading them.

There are various reasons you might want to initiate or explore the idea of a PSI lab:

  • You need to find ways to collaborate across a system, or with a range of different players and interests
  • You need to create a safe, dedicated space within an organisation or system for exploration, experimentation and innovation
  • You need to find a way to bring together multi-disciplinary groups to work on complex issues

And if you’re minded to start a lab of your own, here are a few reflections on the conditions for success.

1. Establish a clear aim

As Zaid Hassan (one of the forerunners in establishing and writing about Social Labs) told us – you need to work with the willing. To do that, you need a clear aim and set of values that resonate with people and draw them to your cause. And be honest. People will spot the ulterior motive hiding behind a more worthy-sounding goal.

2. Confront your own assumptions about knowledge

Many people and organisations – consciously or not – like certainty: there are facts that we can know, best practice we can establish, knowledge that we can harvest and spread. In some cases certainty is possible, but, as demonstrated notably by Dave Snowden with the Cynefin framework, complex problems don’t lend themselves to the establishment of objective truths, or even to being solved. In the context of social and systemic change, ‘facts’ become slippery and elusive. The appropriate response is instead an ongoing and imperfect process of exploring, proposing, probing. The concept of the PSI lab rests on this belief about the nature of working with the infinitely evolving question of the public and its problems. And it can be difficult for many organisations – used to being able to ‘know’ things with certainty, and dealing in specific forms of ‘evidence’ – to get comfortable with that.

3. Design it yourself (but learn from others)

There is no off-the-shelf model for a lab – the entity in itself needs designing in response to the thing it’s trying to do (as we did with the Health Foundation). But there is plenty of experience you can draw on. Much of it exists in the heads of practitioners, some of it is in blogs and online. Less exists in the academic domain, although there is some. Luckily, the practitioner community tends to be very open and willing to share – and it’s well-networked. Follow #psilabs on twitter to find out who’s doing what, or contact us for a few pointers.

4. Build the right team

In an exploratory inquiry process, which is the kind of process most labs would advocate, it’s important to have a team that can work flexibly together, holding a goal in mind but improvising around how to get there. As Prof. John Clarkson put it to us, ‘you need to build a team that knows what to do next’. Finding those people can be tricky, and they pop up in all disciplines – although creative disciplines tend to produce more of them.

5. Invest and be patient

Systemic change is a long game – so the sooner you start, the better! Zaid Hassan suggests that investment in tackling a challenge ought to be proportionate to the ultimate cost of the challenge. While that scale of investment just isn’t realistic for many organisations, giving a team (even if just a small one) the time and space to explore challenges and potential fruitful directions does require some resource. And although keeping momentum is important, projects can only proceed at the pace that relationships and trust develop. But by being clear about where you think you’re going, and using design approaches such as prototyping, you can find ways to create impact even within short spaces of time.

Blog originally published by Uscreates.

Perspectives on method from design and other disciplines


This post was originally published as part of the Unpacking Social Design blog, in answer to the question: Should design be integrated with other disciplines and methods to enhance validity and impact, or does that fundamentally disrupt what design has to offer?


“What passes for theoretical generalizations are really only context specific insights produced by particular discourse communities.” Stephen Brookfield

We live in a world where disciplines and expertises are understood as crucibles of knowledge and authority. Deep disciplinary expertise has helped solve many of the ‘problems’ of the 20th century. It would be hard to imagine putting a man on the moon without long-term investment in a select number of brains and institutions becoming deeply expert in aerospace engineering. The term ‘rocket science’ exists because we think there are some things that a lay person has little hope of understanding.

There have been critiques of disciplinary and professional authority. Political ones, that suggest the boundaries constructed around expertises and professions serve to reinforce a particular world order, and that the ‘problems’ of the 20th century have been so-defined by the powerful. And more practical ones, that suggest silos of expertise may not suit all problems equally. Interdisciplinarity is required. Hannah Arendt has a lovely phrase about training the mind to ‘go visiting’ in other disciplines. Nate Silver’s theory of the failure of prediction draws attention to the value of ‘foxes’, who know many things (as opposed to ‘hedgehogs’, who know one big thing and cling on to it fiercely). Being open to more than one way of understanding allows ‘foxes’ to entertain and evaluate a broader range of possibilities. The kind of knowledge that is useful also depends on the kind of problem in question: it’s hard to apply ‘knowledge’ to new or emerging problems. Interpreting such complex problems* through the lens of single disciplines or professions will almost always lead to a sub-optimal outcome.

In the last year or so, consulting with a community of ‘QI’ (Quality Improvement) experts in health and care, but coming from a design perspective, I’ve been wondering whether the same critique would apply to method. In a literature review of theories of ‘implementation’, Nilsen (2015) finds around 60 different theories, models or frameworks for making change happen in health care systems. 60 different ways that people have codified, and sought academic authority for, a way of proceeding. This is ‘method’ as something to be developed, tested, evidenced, and enshrined in the knowledge system of higher education institutions – and then advocated to other people so they can replicate it. I’ve noticed that people with this worldview can be quite defensive about ‘their’ method being the best or right one.

By contrast, at Uscreates where I work, (an agency that to date has built a practice on a blend of service design, participatory design, behaviour change techniques and innovation strategies) I think we see methods as something more malleable – never definitive, relevant only according to how useful they are in the moment of need, and the choice of method is the selection of one out of many ways of proceeding. To appropriate a social science term, we have I think a kind of inventive practice: constantly designing the way in which we are going to address the problem. This means we are fairly agnostic about method, often splicing things together and borrowing from other fields. More interested in experimenting quickly to see what happens than seeking out pre-existing ‘evidence’.

These two beliefs about method are somewhat at odds. The first sees the second as lacking evidence, reliability, authority, and bound to produce imperfect results. The second sees the first as inflexible and unable to respond to new challenges, and seeking perfection as a fool’s errand. One way of overcoming this chasm is to say that each is useful for a different type of problem. Sometimes there is a known optimum approach to dealing with a problem, and creativity is unwelcome. Not everything needs to be worked out from first principles. But being inventive with method is probably the only way of tackling messy, complex, emerging problems.

But perhaps this is still to mask a deeper epistemic chasm: between an understanding of knowledge as something that is extractable from situations and people, and an understanding of knowledge as intrinsically linked to the ‘know-how’ of an individual or group. The second position would see the idea of creating a knowledge bank of 60 codified ‘methods’ as pointless – because what matters is the ability of people to respond creatively and manage challenges in their own contexts. So, to return to the opening question, it may be impossible to integrate design with some other ‘methods’, because of fundamentally opposing underpinning epistemologies. Rather, there is much to be gained from an ongoing productive dialogue between the two.

*Complex problems are described by Reos Partners as ‘social’ (involving diverse range of actors with different perspectives), ‘dynamic’ (enmeshed in systems that make it hard to relate cause and effect), and ‘generative’ (constantly changing and leading to new situations)

Thanks to Tom Ling for pointing me in the direction of Nilsen, and Alan Boyles for comments on this draft.

Read other responses to this question here.


Effecting structural change through design? Not in the day job.


This post was first published as part of the Unpacking Social Design blog, in answer to the question: ‘Is it possible for design to address big structural issues, like inequality, or is it destined to the incremental tweaking of existing experiences?’


The analysis of the referendum – surprising, momentous, painful – is still unfolding. However one thing seems clear: the Leave vote was an expression of popular discontent. And though the target may be misplaced, we can’t tell people they’re wrong about feeling unhappy. The genius of the ‘Leave’ campaign was to tap into a set of latent frustrations and channel them into a single action.

The reasons for this brewing discontent are only murkily understood as something to do with unequal power dynamics between the corporate world and ‘ordinary people’, between the intellectual elite and the working class, between outward-looking progressives and nostalgic conservatives, between the haves and the have nots. In short, some very long term conditions, difficult to perceive, grapple with and affect.

What can design possibly offer here?

There are already some socially-conscientious designers out there, attempting to make public services more user-friendly, or helping policymakers think more creatively about a particular problem. But in the shadow of challenges such as years of entrenched inequality, this kind of design work can feel like merely tinkering with a broken system. So what is the alternative? Is there anything design practice can do when it comes to the bigger picture? How could it position itself to make a difference? Is there a halfway house between the radical’s ‘design activism’ and the consultant’s ‘design in the service of government’?

In principle, design has some practice that might be useful. For example:

  • Form-giving and representation – the ability to make intangible things (like governance) manifest in media other than words – can be used to question norms, to make invisible things visible and therefore contestable, and to depict possible futures. This is an important task: many Leave voters were expressing their discontent with the status quo, inspired by a narrative and vision spun by politicians and the media. But that desire for agency could be engaged in other more constructive ways, if an alternative vision and set of possible actions existed.
  • And design has different models for grappling with problems – for synthesising needs, resources and opportunities into new scenarios and configurations. Such approaches can go deeply into underpinning themes and conflicting viewpoints, and help move things forward when the right direction isn’t clear: a way of starting to think about many of the complex structural issues that governments struggle to deal with.

However it’s the position of the designer in the system that is the real challenge: the radical’s dilemma. It is always difficult for anyone employed by a system to be overtly challenging to it. So we shouldn’t rely on the design industry to deliver this as part of the day job.

Instead we might want to think about designers taking their skills into other roles – becoming politicians, public managers, business leaders, etc. But I would argue that we also need a new class of critic. Perhaps the 21st century’s public intellectual should instead be the ‘public practitioner’? In fact the design community is on the verge of offering up to the world a community of public practitioners: people with one foot in the system and a critical mindset, mixing thinking with practice with participation in public debates. We can help by opening up dialogue on what this kind of politically-engaged practice means, and could be.

Read other responses to this question here.

Critiquing design in government decision-making

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Thanks to @MalmbergL for the snap!

This blog is an adaptation of a presentation delivered at ServDes 2016 at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, reporting on early findings from my PhD research. The full paper is available as part of the conference proceedings. Part I of this blog sets out some of the questions and concerns framing my research. Part II reports on findings from a pilot study where I am attempting to start to tackle these questions.

Design is being used more and more – and more strategically – within government. The design community (the bits that are aware of it at least) tend to regard this as something of a win. But with all the optimism I think we’re missing some criticality. If we assume that design turning its attention to social and public challenges is on the whole a good thing, the only sensible questions to ask are ‘how can we do it better?’ and ‘how can we do it more?’ If for a second we suspend any normative judgment about design – it allows us to ask a different set of questions. For my part, I’m aware that, although current ways of ‘doing’ government are admittedly far from perfect, policy and politics is difficult, messy, ambiguous stuff – and this is new territory to design. So if we are going to be actors in this world – how do we do this in a way that is not wide-eyed and naïve? But sensitive to the histories, knowledge and practices of democracy and politics.

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015
Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Part I: asking questions of ourselves

First, how can we make sense of what we’re doing in democratic and political terms?

We tend to think of human-centred design as inherently democratising, in theory, but that comes from applying it in a particular (usually highly localised) context. There are far more mainstream ideas about how to enact democracy on a larger scale. However imperfect in reality, there is an agreed theory of democracy in which power and accountability flow in certain ways. By inserting design into the relationship between the machinery of government and the public, what are we changing about those flows of power?

  • Are we bypassing politics somehow – shouldn’t we be involving politicians in the conversation? Do we risk making promises to citizens that can’t be kept, if we don’t?
  • To what extent are ‘users’ empowered, or merely used? Are we mobilising user insight to deliver something that will benefit them, or to understand where we can take services away without causing too much of a fuss?
  • What’s more democratic anyway – holding an election, or doing some really thorough ethnographic studies?

And what happens when there are finite resources, and disagreement about their allocation is inevitable? Can we design our way out of everything, or is there a still an important role for opposition and conflict – for agonism?

Slide3Second, following on the heels of ‘behavioural insights’, ‘big data’ and other recent additions to the public administration toolbox, design techniques are opening up new strategies and options to government – beyond regulation and heavy-handed intervention – furthering the capabilities of a certain kind of ‘soft paternalism’. Knowing this, is it possible to work within the system and maintain some criticality?

  • Whose ends is design being exploited for?
  • What are we bringing into the reach of government? Why do we think they might be interested in making use of design?
  • Who is defining the target group as a group – what kind of politics are embedded in the concept of – for example – ‘troubled families’?
  • How are we conceptualising the public? As customers? Citizens? Users? Patients? People? And what difference does that make to the methods we deploy?
  • How far are we thinking about the ethical implications of our ideas, alongside their efficacy?

Difficult questions, but ones I think any practitioner (design or otherwise) in this space should hold in mind.

Part II: making sense of practices

Over the last year I’ve tried to start to understand what’s happening when design intervenes in the acts of policymaking, by interviewing lots of civil servants about their interactions with Policy Lab and design methods. (Policy Lab is a team in the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, that is actively trying to innovate policymaking practices by working with departmental teams and introducing new practice from different fields, a great deal from design). Our conversations have ranged over multiple projects, however the majority were quite ‘social’, in as much as they were actively trying to change people’s conduct in different ways – so very rich territory for thinking about some of these questions.

Slide6What came out of those interviews was – as well as some opinions about design – a rich picture of current institutional norms, culture and practices.

A practice lens is useful here, partly because there aren’t clear distinctions between designers and non-designers in this kind of work. But also because I think in order to make a contribution we first have to understand – to see what’s precious in the accumulated wisdom about how to manage politics in reality, and what’s useful about designerly ways of proposing change.

The civil service in Westminster has some long-established ways of doing things, and these don’t come from nowhere. Whilst some of them may feel a bit archaic, many of them embody the very issues of accountability, flows of power, democracy, ethical action, etc that I have set out above. They come from a particular environment and set of conditions, which in turn derives from centuries of working how to peaceably run the country.

The dynamic and power balance between the machinery of government (the civil service) and the people behind the wheel (the political party in office) is not straightforward. Civil servants ‘serve’ two masters – their political bosses, and the public. There are all sorts of ways that the machinery of government can speed up or slow down change. This is often seen by politicians as simply being obstructive – but from the perspective of citizens it’s about ensuring some sense of continuity and stability across successive administrations.

There is a tendency to characterise policy as being about rationality and politics as about ideology – but in reality it’s all politics. It’s all about negotiation. And there are innumerable policymaking practices that embody the need to manage relationships when working between ministers/ Parliament and the civil service – and some people become very good at this. Rather than anything so clear as a set of rules, it’s more like a carefully choreographed scene constantly being played out – and those who are artful can make small innovations within the form. It’s this artform that design practices are engaging with.

Slide7So what happens when we introduce design practices? My interviews gave me some insight into where the points of friction are – which also highlights I think where some of the opportunities are.

The first big clash is around the different epistemologies that underpin design, and policy. What constitutes knowledge, and evidence? How do we know we know something? And what constitutes knowing enough to proceed with a course of action? For policymakers, traditionally, knowledge is more of an absolute thing and is generated through, for example,

  • reviewing certain kinds of written evidence, mainly about what has happened in the past
  • educated people thinking really hard
  • asking an ‘expert’
  • quantitative data

This all means that often analysts and advisors in government know a lot about what is happening, but they know less about why – and they aren’t well-served to have new ideas about different kinds of solution. Design, by contrast, assumes that knowledge is always provisional, contextual and situated , and you can best know things through

  • doing, or testing,
  • immersing yourself in an environment,
  • or asking a real person about their experience of something.

So consulting the citizen, for example, whilst an obvious strategy for designers is not at all obvious as a valid way of generating knowledge – to policymakers.

There’s a second distinction – about what knowledge is for, and what makes it useful. Designers are normally interested in knowledge and insight that helps us move forward to doing something that works. For policymakers, the usefulness of knowledge is framed by two things:

  • a constant awareness of what will be acceptable and interesting to politicians
  • the ‘robustness’ of the evidence in question

So design ethnography, for instance, is both intriguing and problematic for policymakers – they like the insights, but not all of them might play well politically, and it’s not robust enough to do anything with. The insights from 6 ethnographic interviews isn’t enough to move ahead with a policy that will affect thousands of people.

So: do we try and blend design and policy practices to generate all these different kinds of knowledge to keep everyone happy? Or do we try and shift policymaking culture to work with other ways of knowing (which might be more suited to acting in complex situations)? And this is a question for all of us because it really comes back to the political requirement to demonstrate certainty about a particular course of action.

95_BaileyThe second point of friction is about performance and personality.

In order for senior civil servants to perform their key task of handling situations, and manoeuvring in order to strategically position the civil service in relation to politicians, there are certain accepted ways of appearing to be competent. Design seems to be challenging to many of these, primarily because of the need in design to admit that you don’t know, and perhaps dwell in ambiguity for a while. It’s very difficult for policymakers to admit to politicians, and for politicians to admit to the public, that they don’t know the answer. Which limits the amount of reflection and exploration it’s possible to do. Quashing ambiguity and providing certainty is usually privileged over taking time to find an appropriate solution to a problem.

And this trickles down into the ways people behave and conduct themselves – even the ways they have conversations. I think this is changing in other bits of government – but the policymaking culture in Whitehall is hierarchical, and competitive, and privileges people who are clever in certain ways. You might say it’s a culture dominated by the ideal of ‘rational man’. More feminine, collaborative, self-effacing modes – which is often what we see in social design – are less likely lead to promotion.

Collaborative design practices require a different way of performing and working as a group. So in fact there are benefits in design creating a space where policymakers are allowed to perform their roles in a different way. But getting the license to do this in the first place is hard.

And in relation to space, the third point is about material and aesthetic culture.

All organisations have an aesthetic, a set of ways the institution manifests itself to the senses. For the departments of government, and policymakers, the dominant aesthetic is closely tied to words and text, such as:

  • the circulation of pieces of paper with words written on them,
  • the act of sitting around in meetings with words on paper on the table,
  • the writing of ministerial submissions in a predefined format.

This practice is important again from an accountability perspective – there is literally a paper trail. And words are clearly felt to be reassuring evidence that proper analytical work has been done.

But aesthetic disruption has many advantages, not least in changing the way people relate to each other by changing the format of interactions, and the objects they interact in relation to. Visual ways of working and sharing ideas allow people to think about and understand things in a different way, and prompt a different set of thoughts. It gets people out of typical patterns of thinking.

However there is a question about how to create an audit trail of the decision making that happens in – for example – a collaborative workshop where people are talking their ideas through in relation to a model they’ve made out of cardboard and lego men. And of course eventually those ideas have to find their way into written form.

Slide8Ultimately it’s all underpinned by…

Unsurprisingly, a pervasive influence on practices is the framing of everything by the politics of the moment and place – political culture, priorities and narratives.

For example, in England at present all decisions are taken in the shadow of a very dominant austerity narrative – the bottom line is saving money and reducing the burden on the state in some way. Scottish politics has a markedly different tone – driven by the agenda around political and democratic renewal, and differentiating from England (crystallised in the ‘Scottish approach to government’). This puts a different spin on the ways that design practices are being mobilised.

And the structure of the political institution in question puts limits around what is possible: in a hierarchical organisation it’s difficult to get everyone involved in a collaborative design process. I can clearly see a far more democratic kind of platform where policy negotiations happen publicly through collaborative design methods and include politicians. But that would require a very different kind of institution.

Finally, whatever the political zeitgeist, for me it seems to be a moral imperative for anyone working in this context – and especially designers who might be introducing into government new ways of meddling in people’s lives – to think broadly and critically about the implications of policy-setting – to zoom out of the practices and practicalities and wonder a bit about the bigger picture.

Slide9So to conclude

What I’ve learned so far from my pilot study is that stewarding design practices through a political environment means developing a rich understanding of institutional culture – and maybe we should be aiming for a blended set of practices. And in relation to those bigger questions – here are some thoughts to end with:

  • Political culture, mood and narratives unavoidably set the parameters for the ethos of design practice
  • Bringing the machinery of government and the lives of people into closer contact should prompt critical reflection: is it purely instrumental, or empowering of people?
  • The language and practices of service, and design, derive from the market – perhaps we need a new concept of service, and design, in the context of democracy