Congratulations to James Duggan, who has won a seed fund from the Communities and Culture Network (CCN+) for the project ‘Sans Duty – Making Tax Visible.’ James will work with Joseph Lindley (Highwire Centre, Lancaster University) and the Brixton Pound local currency community.
The Sans Duty project uses a design fiction approach to interrogate the complex relationship between tax and local communities, exploring with community members the ethical and practical issues in implementing a grassroots, community-led, digital, transparent system around the payment of tax. The Sans Duty project will work with communities to explore how they can use digital technologies to build local economic resilience through the tax system.
Tax is a significant social and economic issue in the UK and internationally. The payment of tax is currently seen as economic, private, hidden and opaque. One consequence is that through, for example, business norms that deny the moral imperative to pay tax and processes of economic de-regulation and liberalisation businesses can operate in the UK but avoid paying tax by ‘offshoring’ profits (Urry 2014). The tax gap, describes the amount of tax owed but not paid in the UK, is estimated to be between £35bn and £125bn (Tax Research UK 2012). The dynamics and consequences are complex but manifest in local areas such as Brixton, where this project is based, in terms of the unfair commercial advantage to companies that do not pay national corporate tax contributing to the death of the ‘independent’ high street through an increase of chain stores and franchises (Potts et al 2005), and the rise of Internet ‘delivery’ services such as Amazon (Urry 2014).
The Sans Duty project’s response to this complex issue is cross-disciplinary and innovative. Ranciere’s (2010) concept of the sans papiers illuminates those who are ‘present but not part’ of a community, such as undocumented workers. The concepts of the police and the distribution of the sensible explain how the politico-aesthetic field of a community divide those who belong to a community, can benefit from political rights or not, are literally seen and heard or not (Rockhill 2010). Following on from this, Ranciere argues that democratic emancipation is possible by making the invisible and inaudible, seen and heard in conditions of equality. We invert the focus of sans papiers from undocumented workers to the businesses that are present in the UK but not part of the community in that they do not pay national corporate tax. We label these businesses the sans duty. We seek to explore how communities can utilise digital technologies to initiate bottom-up processes to redistribute the sensible by re-configuring the politico-aesthetic field of the community in relation to the payment of tax, more simply making the payment of tax a visible social good.
Critical design and design fiction were selected as the methodological approach for developing the intervention. Critical design shifts design’s relationship with existing and preferred situations (Simon, 1969). In critical modes design projects accept and build upon the inherently plural nature of ‘futures’. In doing so the design process becomes part of a ‘research through design’ process (Frayling, 1993). Inspired by art, design and activism these practices provide novel representations of complex social issues by, for example, representing structural causes of inequality in the local, challenging and provoking society to change (DiSalvo 2010), which here is exploring and re-configuring a community’s relationship to tax. Design fiction is a close relative of critical design, in particular because of a mutual realisation that the future is plural, and in its speculative form it provides ‘a counterpoint to the world around us and encouraging us to see that everyday life could be different’ (Dunne and Raby 2013). Design fictions combine elements of science fiction, science fact and design (Bleecker, 2009) in order to ‘suspend disbelief about change’ (Sterling, 2009). Design fiction has matured around the realisation that science fiction has an uncanny ability to prototype the ‘technology of the future’ (albeit within a fictional world). Using design fiction to do ‘research through design’, speculating with fictional prototypes serves as stimulus for conversation and comprehension about where preferable futures sit on the spectrum of possibilities.
The project will bring together members of the B£ community to reflect on this issue and then co-produce a docudrama depicting a near future scenario where the open, visible tax system exists to explore and engage with the intended and unintended consequences.