Boundary Work, Education and Design

Following on from my last post on Political Design and Social Change I wanted to write something about doing or at least planning interdisciplinary research. I recently participated at a conference on interdisciplinarity at the University of Manchester so I’ve been thinking about disciplinarity and cognate terms. Although, apparently the new thing is trans-disciplinarity and the mixing and melding of different disciplines to produce new approaches to research and knowledge.  Also, Sylvie Allendyke asked me to share my experiences of my interdisciplinary entanglements, and it didn’t feel too much like homework, so…

I guess a first thing to admit is that I don’t really have a discipline. My undergraduate degree was in psychology (apathy and torpor), and since then I’ve done degrees in development studies, politics and then in education. So I don’t really have a firm grounding to multi/ inter/ trans from.  My lack of grounding means that I’m not working towards a complete mastery of a specific domain or sub-domain of knowledge – indeed if that is possible – and so I have the constant anxiety of not having read all the books, not having done all the required/ assumed reading.

In my recent engagement with exploring social design, I’ve found the usual benefits of working across boundaries. In this post I’d like to focus on the recurrent findings in tensions and omissions in knowledge work.  As an example of these tensions I draw on Robert Cox’s and Max Horkheimer’s delineation between problem-solving and critical theory. I’ll blog about this another time but the basic idea is that the purpose of problem-solving theory is to accept and operate within the parameters of the problematic that serve the hegemonic interest. The purpose of critical theory is to question the parameters and produce a ‘perspective on perspectives… from which the problematic becomes one of creating an alternative world’ (Cox 1981). The interesting thing for me is that in this distinction is that there are a whole host of jobs performing particular problem-solving functions that work with the sectional interests of the hegemony, from accountants and economists to academics and potentially designers.

I see the 15 Below Jacket as illustrative of the potential problems of design becoming a problem-solving technology when applied to complex social problems. A collaborative project between Steve Mykolyn and Lida Baday, the 15 Below Jacket is a solution to people sleeping rough in cities such as Toronto and dying due to the cold.  The jacket is designed so that its lining can be stuffed by newspaper as a cheap and effective solution to make a sufficiently insulating coat.  The product of the trendy and the fabulous the project is funded by a celebrity auction with a stellar set of luminaries from REM to Heidi Klum and the cast of the Jon Stewart Show.

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It is important to recognise that this is something that will save lives and do a lot more for homeless people than I ever will. Also, the makers of the coat are clear, “Our approach to solving problems – of any sort – has always been to question convention. This won’t eliminate homelessness, but it can make a lot of people more comfortable.” (Paul Lavoie, co-founder, chairman, and chief creative officer of TAXI)

The project feels more problem solving than critical ‘theory’ or engagement to me.  Again, a life saved is a great thing but where does it take us?  Should we be happier when it’s safer for people to sleep rough in the bitter cold?  Perhaps more importantly, what happens when we stack up the many attempts to redesign services for the elderly, disabled and poor?  No doubt these improve people’s lives and well being, providing measurable improvements on patient satisfaction questionnaires.  The smart and focused projects for, for example, tele-health or expert patient schemes are no doubt impressive and attractively marketed but are these “the type of change we need?” (TradeMark) Does this shift all causes into a market place where the cute, niche and marketed oust the standard, boring and everywhere social issues we face?

There are people working in design who are interested in using design practices in line with critical purposes, such as Blyth and Kimbell 2011,

We argue that Design has to reclaim the value that it places on making social problems visible, understandable and graspable, reminiscent of the stance of earlier generations of designers such as Victor Papanek who saw their work as a kind of social activism. This refocuses Design from being principally about problem-solving, to being involved, crucially, in how problems are framed and shared. In a context in which designers are now being invited in to help solve complex, messy problems with high social impacts, this means Design has the potential to play an important role in making issues public.

It is this type of design that we hope to explore in the Political Design and Social Change project.  The interesting thing in design for me is the recurrent challenge of how to engage, to change things for the better?  There is much we in education can learn from design practices, especially those of us who prefer to critique and add questions rather than seek to improve by 1 or 2% a particular metric of learning within the existing framework. So if we seek to engage perhaps design is something we can learn from.  Design is however in effect the quintessential problem-solving technology, whether this makes it necessarily problem-solving theory in the Coxian sense is not so cut and dried but I would think so.

I’ve been influenced by a quote that I thought was Bertrand Russell but I can’t track it down so who knows where it came from? It is, if you keep the [analytical] categories then you maintain the status quo.  Thus if you are seeking to improve or change something then you have to account for both the lineage of your thinking and the stuff of that which you are engaging with.  I think the issue with design is that there is a potential for it to keep much of the biases, assumptions and lenses from its industrial origins and within the technologies, processes and organisational relationships that it is seeking to change.

Bit of a damp squib ending but I need to think more about this.

James Duggan


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