In April, London’s Design Museum awarded its top honour, the Design of the Year Award, to the British government’s website, gov.uk. A few observers grumbled that this was an unfortunate endorsement of a government that is busy ruining the country (and, ironically, doing its best to remove design from the national curriculum). But viewing it in such partisan terms was missing the point. What was being rewarded here was not the government but the design of a public service. Gov.uk will eventually replace 2,000 different governmental websites, currently hosting a billion transactions a year, with one simple platform. By using an in-house team, the Government Digital Service, to create this mini revolution, the government will save itself millions of pounds – and we all know how keen it is to cut spending. Nevertheless, this is a rare return to the public service commissioning of Britain’s paternalistic heyday in the 1950s, when Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert were hired to design a national road signage system. Indeed, the fact that Calvert also designed the font for gov.uk suggests a certain nostalgia for the good old days.
If critics wanted something to sink their teeth into, they might instead have turned their attention to the ways in which politicians have co-opted the methods and especially the language of cutting edge design, and are using them to achieve very different goals. Just take a few of the buzzwords that are changing the way we think about design: “open source”, “participation”, “mass customisation”. These are pillars of what is sometimes referred to as “the third industrial revolution”. We think of these terms as inherently progressive, leading to a more collaborative, proactive and ultimately gratifying future. And yet it doesn’t take a genius to see that each of them has a political analogue with less progressive intentions.
Replace “participation” with the Big Society, prime minister David Cameron’s aborted policy of encouraging citizens to volunteer time towards public services, and you have a collaborative design method being used to get people to do the government’s job for it. In other words, participation is proposed to cut costs and roll back the welfare state. Replace “open source” with “open government”, or what in the US was dubbed “Gov 2.0″, and suddenly an idealistic way of designing something (software, say) becomes a means of getting Silicon Valley to sell apps to provide services that government used to provide. Replace “customisation” with “localism”, another Coalition government policy that ostensibly allowed local authorities to customise how they provide public services, and suddenly you’re not talking about designing your own Nike trainers but privatising those public services and shrinking central government. How easily the idealistic terminology of design translates to a hardcore right-wing agenda.
What is happening here is that both design and politics are absorbing the discourse of the new technological paradigm. And the language of that paradigm is utopian, it is “open” and “social”, “networked” and “collaborative”. As we just saw, the way we use those words can encompass everything from freedom-of-information idealism to free market fundamentalism. It’s not that this language intrinsically lends itself to the politics of the Right, it’s just that the political avant-garde, in the UK anyway, happens to be on the Right and not on the Left.
This idea that somehow political rhetoric and the emergent methods of design have been overlapping began with a couple of observations about current design practice. In his lectures, the San Diego architect and theorist Teddy Cruz outlines a new role for architects as local community developers. Working in the interests of communities, they are more like activists than traditional developers, relying heavily on citizen participation, or what Cruz calls “creative acts of citizenship”. This is design as a radical social strategy, and yet even Cruz acknowledges that it sounds uncomfortably like the kind of strategy that the Coalition government would have embraced in its “localism” and Big Society agendas, even though these were really a means to achieve the standard neoliberal ambition of privatising public services.
Similarly, last year the Helsinki Design Lab, a design think tank working for the Finnish government, designed a tool for crowdfunding public space projects. Called Brickstarter, the aim was to see if there was a way of giving citizens a more active role in shaping their local environment. Though only a trial product, it would fit perfectly in a political toolkit aimed at devolving financial responsibility for the public realm, even though crowdfunding is not intrinsically democratic (just because you can raise the money for something doesn’t mean that a majority wants it). Here was a design tool, with the participative ideals of web platforms such as Kickstarter, being brought into politics.
“Crowdfunding originated in the market but we were interested in how you can use market tools to reinvigorate designing for the public, especially in a social democracy like Finland with no tradition of citizen activism,” says Dan Hill, one of the architects of Brickstarter.
Design’s traditional relationship with politics has been rather straightforward. An instinctively commercial discipline, design follows the prevailing ideology of the day because that’s where the money is. In the mid-20th-century heyday of social democracy, governments were patrons. In the last 30 years or so, however, designers have had to rely on the market. But now that the market is busily reinventing itself with new technologies that provide “platforms” and allow participation, design has become much more useful to politics. Now it can be the means of connecting governments to citizens.
Both politics and design are adopting the language of Silicon Valley. “Open source” and “open government” come to us via software design, embodying the notion of a more participative experience. Similarly, the notion of designing “platforms” is a metaphor derived from computer programming, and is now key to understanding the ecosystem of apps. But, as Evgeny Morozov hammered home in a recent profile of Tim O’Reilly, the media magnate responsible for terms such as “open source” and “Web 2.0″, tech speak is nebulous enough to sound progressive while concealing the vested interests of private enterprise.
Where “open source” design had once embodied a communitarian ideal, Morozov argued that “now [thanks to O'Reilly] it was all about recasting ‘openness’ in government in purely economic and innovation-friendly terms while downplaying its political connotations.” Why? Because it would open the door to serious profits in Silicon Valley. And so, just as Apple’s App Store was a “platform” for getting independent developers to provide content that it could sell, so “government as a platform” would be a way of shrinking government by getting the private sector (including tech companies) to deliver public services.
These are Californian entrepreneurial ideals, which, though they propagate a language of platforms and openness, are essentially market driven and individualistic. As Morozov points out, spinning such terms away from freedom (of the political kind) and freeness (of the economic kind) works in the interests of businessmen and right-wing politicians.
In design, however, these terms have so far retained their idealism. The design equivalents of open source software such as Linux or Firefox include OpenStructures, initiated by Thomas Lommée. This is a modular system for designing and building your own household goods using a catalogue of parts to which anyone can contribute. Lommée describes it as “collaborative Meccano”. It is not just participative but ecologically sustainable, because all the parts can be reused. Moreover, it is simply routine in such systems for people to share tips and YouTube how-to videos. And that is the kind of idealism brought about by the shift from centralised industrial production to production through distributed networks – a culture of trade secrets is being replaced by one of peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.
This kind of open source platform is increasingly used in the political sphere, particularly in the upheaval that followed the financial crash. One thinks of the way Iceland bravely crowdsourced a new constitution after the collapse of its government in 2009 (although the current parliament just rejected its implementation). More recently, the Pirate Party in Germany has been deploying what it calls “liquid democracy”. Using open source Liquid Feedback software they’ve developed a method of participatory policy-making that allows all members to propose or revise policies in a meritocratic system. Both initiatives emphasise the progressive dimension of open source design.
While such practices remain marginal in politics, the rhetoric of “openness” has really taken off in the UK and the US. Commenting on the Design of the Year Award, David Cameron said, “The government is committed to being the most transparent in the world.” He elided his new website’s effectiveness and financial efficiency and instead used it to promote the policy of “open data”. Again, Silicon Valley speak.
Despite a raft of socially regressive policies, the Coalition government was an early adopter of openness, and indeed was open to using design to reduce the burden on government. It was an advocate of “choice architecture”, which (based on a book called Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, argues that by designing experiences a certain way – for instance by placing fruit before dessert in a school canteen – you can persuade the public to make choices that are in their best interests. It even formed a “nudge unit”.
Such open-mindedness towards the intractable problems of the welfare state led some of the more socially minded architects to spot an opportunity. Indy Johar of 00:/ architects saw the potential for architecture to become once again a social discipline, instead of what he calls “an orphan child of the financial markets”. Johar, who got David Cameron to write the introduction to 00′s book Compendium for the Civic Economy, believes that we live in a time when “the state is more inventive than the private sector”. And while 00:/ is symptomatic of the shift that thousands of architecture practices have taken away from icons and speculation to more socially conscientious pursuits, I can’t think of a single policy that the UK government has brought in to aid Johar’s cause.
As Morozov makes clear, the “openness” agenda as embodied in British and American politics now follows an entrepreneurial logic (the logic of Silicon Valley) and not a utopian one. It is perhaps predictable that the Anglo-Saxon political cultures, which invented neoliberalism in the first place, are so quick to manipulate otherwise idealistic terms used by software designers. We’ve seen how the language that filtered from the tech world into common parlance – one of openness, of platforms, of sharing and the social – is easily appropriated by politicians who use it to spin their own ideological agendas. The question facing design, then, is how long the open source design movement can retain its innocence.