Let’s See What We Can Do: Designing Agency

‘What does energy look like?’ drawn by Zhengni Li, participant in Drawing Energy (Flora Bowden & Dan Lockton)
‘What does energy look like?’ drawn by Zhengni Li, participant in Drawing Energy (Flora Bowden & Dan Lockton)

How can we invert ‘design for behaviour change’ and apply it from below, enabling people to understand, act within, and change the behaviour of the systems of society and the environment?

[This article is cross-posted to Medium where there may also be readers’ comments]

As our everyday lives are increasingly pushed and pulled by technology and the systems around us, from infrastructure to quantification to government to horrifying combinations of these, understanding these complex systems, and how to change them, is something we should be paying attention to. In ‘As we may understand’, last year, I looked — at excessive length — at the understanding bit, but not the change. Hopefully here I can address that, to some extent, though my thinking’s moved on a bit.

Some empty chairs in Munich

Paralysis and regret

We are surrounded by, and enmeshed in, complexity which at once causes us paralysis over not being able to take action, and regret over the actions we do take (and continue to take). We simultaneously worry and do nothing about issues such as the military-industrial surveillance state, ageing populations, inequality, war and privatisation of the commons. We fudge our responses to planetary-scale crises such as climate change, pollution or poverty because our understanding of what we are able to do locally does not match our understanding of what is possible at a larger scale. We face a crisis of agency, in the phrase used by Gyorgyi Galik, Natalie Jeremijenko, Zygmunt Bauman and others.

How can ‘we’ (at the level of individual people — and I’m speaking from the position of a middle-class Western consumer, with all that entails) act? We don’t know what to do, and even if we did, we are not individual “micro-resource managers” (to use Yolande Strengers’ phrase), but people acting within the constraints (and enablers) of family, society, social groups, cultural contexts, norms and expectations. We lack the ability to hold different visions of possible futures in mind simultaneously, or even to think through the consequences and possibilities at multiple levels. We are entangled in social traps, double binds and knots around everything from participation in democracy (why bother? it won’t change anything) to dealing with terrorism (be alert, but not scared, because that’s what they want, so still be very very very alert).

Tomorrow's News Today, Edinburgh

What can designers do?

What is designers’ role in this? Both design and sustainability, in its broadest sense, are about “the future” — bringing into being a world where humanity and other forms of life will “flourish on the planet forever” (John Ehrenfeld) or where we can “go about our daily affairs… [knowing] that our activities as civilised beings are expanding our future options and improving our current situation” (Bruce Sterling). Design might be one of the mechanisms by which much of our current predicament has come about (Victor Papanek), but perhaps “the future with a future for “us” can only be reached by design” (Tony Fry).

Designing for behaviour change at the mundane level of helping people recycle things, or use their electrical appliances more efficiently — the sort of thing a lot of my previous work has focused on — might be part of the solution, but it’s clear that design really needs to address things at a much higher, more systemic level, including designing things out of existence. Perhaps, in terms of producing a new generation of designers ready to engage with this degree of challenge, this is what transition design can bring us. I hope so.

A tangled ethernet cable cupboard at Goldsmiths

Understanding complexity

To engage with this complexity — not destroy its variety, because we can’t and we shouldn’t — requires designers to understand society better. Yes, we need designers to understand people’s lives, and appreciate the realities of situated decision making and subjective experience, but also to understand complexity, connectedness (in a technology sense but a people sense too) and the effects of design, and its politics, to a degree beyond what might previously have been common. We need designers to engage with the invisible ‘dark matter’ (Dan Hill) even though it may often be experienced as an impediment to action.

We need designers to understand (and be allowed to deal with) the wickedness of the problems we are facing: they will not be understood until ‘solutions’ have been attempted (which will in turn create new problems, as John Gall pointed out); there will be no stopping rules; there will be no right or wrong answers; and all attempts to deal with a problem will only highlight its uniqueness and contextual peculiarity. We will not be able to step in the same river twice, nor even once (as Ranulph Glanville suggests), and we must make peace with that. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn from what we’ve done before, but we cannot presume that patterns always transpose effectively. Deterministic top-down approaches promoted by behavioural economics and simplistic notions of the ‘Quantified Self’ and ‘Big Data’ are not going to work.

A You Are Here sign at Goldsmiths

Understanding how to act

Of course, understanding complexity is not the goal in itself. The real goal is understanding what agency is possible, and how to enact change. So, we need design that enables people to understand the wider contexts of their actions, their agency within society, and how they can act to create different outcomes, different futures.

Understanding how to act to change the systems we’re in is arguably the biggest meta-challenge of our age. We need not just information, but tools for connecting our understanding of how things work and how we can act, around everything from the environment, cities, our own bodies, networked infrastructure to social, civic and political contexts, emerging technologies and plural considerations of the future itself.

This is design for behaviour change, but is not about designers trying to change ‘public behaviour’ as if it were somehow a separate phenomenon. Designers are members of society, and there is only one Earth: we are part of the same systems. It is about design which enables people to change the behaviour of the systems of which they — we — are part.

Some tar road repairs at Carnegie Mellon

Ways of doing this

What do we do, then? I imagine a ‘Designing Agency’ research / action programme, which would rethink how we engage with the systems of everyday (and future) life, through developing new approaches to understanding and action. Designing Agency would use ‘design’ — in the broadest sense — as a way to:

1. understand the world
2. understand people’s understandings of the world
3. help people understand the world
4. help people understand their agency in the world
5. help people use that agency in the world

We could see these as a progression from understanding to action. But how would we do it in practice? Different techniques would be effective at different levels. Some would be investigatory, some practical, some speculative or critical. Some would give us tools for understanding and learning, some tools for doing, some provocations for reflection. The examples I have here are quite pedestrian.

A ‘comfort timeline’ heating practice diary developed by Natalia Romero Herrera, TU Delft, being used here by a householder in Dartford, UK.
A ‘comfort timeline’ heating practice diary developed by Natalia Romero Herrera, TU Delft, being used here by a householder in Dartford, UK.

For example, at Level 1, using design to understand the world might involve designing and deploying probes (e.g. the heating diary shown here), and running designed experiments, which investigate phenomena in the world (including society) through gathering data in a way which provides meaningful scaffolding for the next level. This is essentially using design as a way to do science, or social science.

Level 2, in attempting to ‘understand understanding’ (in Heinz von Foerster’s phrase), would take things a stage further: using activities which practically try to explore the different ways in which people imagine, conceptualise and think about how things work. Very basically, we could use techniques such as drawing (as in the image at the top of the article, from the Drawing Energy project), but there’s a whole world of possibilities here. It is partly about making the invisible visible, tangible or legible, from the point of view of people themselves (i.e. what is legible, or not, to them), but also about surfacing people’s different understandings of situations, and how that leads different people to act.

Claustrophobia simulation apparatus, developed by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon as part of ‘One Another: Empathy and Experience’, AcrossRCA course by Katie Gaudion & Dan Lockton
Claustrophobia simulation apparatus, developed by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon as part of ‘One Another: Empathy and Experience’, AcrossRCA course by Katie Gaudion & Dan Lockton

At Level 3, we’d be designing ways which help change people’s understandings of the world and the systems they’re in. This could take the form of new kinds of interface, designed experiences, educational activities — a range of things.Some of the examples collected by Dieter Zinnbauer’s Ambient Accountability project perhaps fit here. It could be about changing mental models, expanding horizons, reframing of situations, or even trying to facilitate empathy (as in the image). I want to make it clear here that this isn’t about ‘correcting incorrect mental models’ but about enabling and supporting people to construct and refine their own models of the world, experientially, which serve them better. And learning how to reflect on that.

I don’t really know, at this stage, what Level 4 would look like. This is the “let’s see what we can do” of the title. I have some ideas, but they need work: I imagine new forms of interface, new ‘senses’, new metaphors (in the sense suggested by Margaret Mead and also by A. Baki Kocabelli — see below) and new analogues: not just behaviour quantification and data dashboards, but highlighters and contextual explainers of agency. I am very excited about this, and aim to come back to it with another article very soon, once I’ve actually built something. Let’s just say, qualitative interfaces…

At Level 5, among other things, we would pretty much be challenging and inverting common ‘behavioural design’ paradigms. We have a whole load of them, of course, but what can they do if you turn them upside down? What does it look like when the public uses a technique like Commitment & Consistency or Are You Sure? or Watermarking to change the behaviour of a system like policing or energy policy? Can it be more constructive than ‘fighting back’, and actually be about co-designing systems of society that behave more effectively, and work better for more people? Again, these could be applied critically, or provocatively — a what if? — or they could be direct ways of enabling action, empowering people to change the behaviour of the systems in which we live.

At this level, we should be mindful of our roles as designers within the systems we are aiming to help people change. The power dynamics, and our assumptions about the people we are designing with or for, need to be surfaced and questioned. We need to be aware of — and honest about — our inherent subjectivity: as Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro point out:

“Framing wicked problems requires explicit values and viewpoints, accompanied by the responsibility to justify them with explicit arguments, thus incorporating subjectivity and the epistemology of second-order cybernetics.”

In this vein, A. Baki Kocaballi has written very usefully about agency sensitive design, particularly the notion of relationality (recognising that assumptions of neither full technological determinism, nor full social determinism, are useful when understanding agency in context):

“In design processes, the quality of relationality asks for three sensitivities: (i) understanding of mutual influence, shaping and co-constitution of actors and artefacts; (ii) embracing and supporting emergent and improvised action and (iii) consideration of the system as an assemblage/network of actors, artefacts or collective hybrids. In order to develop these sensitivities, we first need to stop formulating design solutions based upon the assumption of a well-defined individual with fixed characteristics and capacities of action. Design solutions should recognize and support the existence of the multiple individuals embodied in one individual and the possibility of multiple enactments of one individual within a network of other human and non-human actors interacting with each other and exhibiting different capacities for action.”

Kocaballi’s six qualities for agency sensitive design — relationality, visibility, multiplicity, configurability, accountability and duality — could be a valuable set of considerations to explore in relation to the design of these ‘Level 5’ attempts to help people use their agency in the world.

Somewhere on the D2 near Grèoliéres, France

What next?

I need to stop writing about things like this, and get back to doing it. I’ve had my own career-related crisis of agency in 2015, but 2016 is going to be better. First up is an amazing opportunity working with Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Superflux, Future Cities Catapult and UNAM on a joint project between Mexico City and London, funded by the British Council’s Newton Fund, in which (I’m hoping) at least a bit of levels 4 and 5 can come into play, in the context of helping people understand their agency, and act in relation to policy in the built environment.

We’ll have to see what we can do.

Thank you to Veronica Ranner, Gyorgyi Galik, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and Laura Ferrarello for conversations which have led to ideas in this article.

[See also readers’ comments / responses on Medium]

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