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The transitioning role for designers in democracy

Throughout her work and studies, Elisabeth has developed her expertise in traditional design with a commercial perspective. In tandem, she also devoted her time volunteering in political organisations, working for social and sustainable startups in Austria and Germany, and took part in political and environmental activism. Despite her contribution, Elisabeth still sought to have a more positive impact on society. Her urge to explore more impactful actions through design and her frustration towards business-centric design continued to grow, which drove her to go back to her studies, thus, starting a new chapter as a master’s student in TU Delft.

Elisabeth saw the SPD master at IDE as a great opportunity to study the strategic value of design and its impact. However, this alone was not enough to satisfy her personal quest. Consequently, Elisabeth decided to parallelly take her Honours Programme Master at IDE. The HPM provides her with a personal pathway to explore questions such as: Can designers have a transitioning role for society? How can we use participatory design for an inclusive transition? 

Ingrid Mulder, coordinator of the PCM Lab, mentors Elisabeth in her exploration of these questions. Through Ingrid, Elisabeth was introduced to the Lab community, which has become a nurturing environment for Elisabeth with inspiring people and space to learn and grow.

Investigating the responsibilities of designers in societal transitions

One of the central questions occupying Elisabeth in her work is the role of the designers. Up until recently, teachers and work colleagues had communicated to Elisabeth that designers are brilliant solution providers – to the questionable extent that they often force their perceived solution on people. Elisabeth believes that this conception of the designer is rooted in design originating in art. The artists’ motivation is grounded in their personal needs and self-expression – to state their mind and perception of the world. However, Elisabeth thinks that design should be grounded in human needs, not designers’. Unfortunately, this artist-like perception of design is often adopted and preached by companies and academic institutions. As a result, we see a lot of signature designers with self-expressive tendencies, venturing into art-like design instead of producing practical solutions for society.

When contemplating the role of designers, Elisabeth is more intrigued by their role as facilitators and enablers of people’s exploration of complex problems and their potential solutions, as she sees this as a meaningful contribution to societal transitions. The role of the designers, Elisabeth believes, is not to find the solution but to facilitate the process and translate it with the people into a solution.

However, this power needs to be handled with care, since the role as a facilitator in a participative design process could be abused due to the power structures and hierarchy. Strictly speaking, it could even be framed as a new tool for tyranny by communicating unscrupulous regulations as what the citizens want. For example, in urban planning, a participatory method or approach could be abused to justify unjust regulations by saying that these “are what citizens want”. Therefore, such powers need to be handled with care.

These insights Elisabeth gained on attitude, power and responsibilities that designers may face in their part of societal transformations, make her wonder “What does it mean for designers to help?” A question that she decided to further explore through a case study within her research.

Fostering citizen engagement in the European Union democratic process, exploring bottom-up approaches

To investigate the designers’ role and contributions to society transitions, Elisabeth decided to take as a case study the increasing disengagement between citizens and the European Union (EU). Brexit is one of the many examples of this phenomenon. Her initial research however showed that the topic had a very broad scope. To narrow down her topic of interest, Elisabeth conducted desk research and multiple interviews with experts from diverse backgrounds.

Moreover, she leveraged her C&C assignment of a short paper in collaboration with the PCM lab to further create order and structure her HPM journey. Elisabeth’s aim in the paper was to analyse the direct involvement opportunities available to the citizens within the EU, which she found to be very limited. This led Elisabeth to explore the potential impact of participatory design within the Union to restore the citizen-union relationship.

In her research, she identified two major factors damaging the citizen-union relationship. Firstly, citizens do not want to be governed by a foreign executive power in Brussels or regulations created behind closed doors. Secondly, citizens cannot see the direct benefits the Union has on their lives.

As a potential solution to tackle this gap between citizens and centralised policy, Elisabeth sought to investigate a project centred-democracy platform in her HPM research with the goal to unite the citizens, designers and decision-makers to collaborate within an EU-wide network. From her research and personal experience, Elisabeth infers that citizen initiatives such as grassroots movements and community movements based on a bottom-up approach (for example the food sharing communities she has been active in) could be the potential sources of solutions for local problems. Such initiatives have the potential to be applied to other cities facing similar obstacles.

More interestingly, those citizen-led initiatives can be valuable to policymakers. In fact, they would help make the citizens’ needs visible and tangible, giving policymakers opportunities to understand how they can provide infrastructure and enable solutions. In such a scenario, designers would have a key role to play. In particular, designers would facilitate collaborative processes towards solutions; on the one hand, helping citizens develop their solutions by supporting them with the creative process and on the other facilitating the collaboration between citizens and policymakers.

To inspire designers to evolve for societal impact

Overall, Elisabeth aims to find answers to the questions introduced in the beginning, and by that, inspire herself and fellow designers to make a positive impact on society. This work should make designers reevaluate their role since their multidisciplinary skillset can be utilised beyond the business scope. Currently, designers aren’t trained enough to take up the facilitation role of complex dynamics involved in politics and power structures. Although they have the potential, they do not have the capabilities yet. Designers also need to evolve to match the required role. Therefore, another transition for designers and people who take the first step are needed to create an effective and successful participatory design.