XXV.6 November - December 2018
Page: 70
Digital Citation

Between empowerment and exploitation: PD ethics in the era of participation

Per Linde, Anna Seravalli

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When addressing societal change and civic engagement, the idea of participatory culture as a cultivator of issue formation and collaborative engagement has, for a long time, been a foundational aspect of participatory design (henceforth co-design). It has also been a vivid and dynamic topic of discussion in this Interactions forum. We have observed the ways in which the problems and issues that design aims to address are becoming increasingly challenging to formulate in projects. This is because the participating sets of stakeholders most often are quite diverse and have conflicting agendas and interests. To address this complexity, participation is becoming a widespread approach in traditional innovation processes and in processes aiming for societal change. The era of participation carries both promises of empowerment as well as risks of exploitation. We argue that co-designers engaging with participatory processes need to pay particular attention to ethical concerns regarding representation, accountability, tradition and transcendence, and mutual learning.

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Models of co-production and innovation that bring together industry, academic researchers, and end users are becoming more common. In parallel, the European public sector is increasingly interested in exploring different modes of relationships with citizens, introducing more participatory and democratic approaches in the development and delivery of public services. This has created multilayered territories in which different organizations and communities populate the same ground, engaging with the same issues from different perspectives. As a consequence, the co-designer is often positioned in a cumbersome situation in which they must navigate a plurality of innovation policies and local practices. At times, these aspects weaken the design space, inviting the problem of tradition and transcendence: While design is about creating future change, we run the risk of staying put in the hegemony of fixed relationships. It is no coincidence that collaborate shares the same semantic core with collaborateur and that the word machine is etymologically related to deception. These semantic and etymological connections help illustrate the call for designers to focus even more on ethical issues, as they often clash with the mundane constraints of what participatory research can actually achieve. The question is: How can one ethically navigate co-design projects aimed at social change while in this complex mesh?

Addressing this complex set of challenges in future civic engagement, service development, governance issues, and critical inquiry calls for a multidisciplinary perspective. Although we recognize the need for bottom-up approaches and cooperation with grassroots movements and local communities, we still don't believe that to be enough. On the contrary, research must include policymakers, municipal initiatives, and decision-making mechanisms within the scope of participation in order to be sustainable. In our engagements with local communities and grassroots movements, we have often hit a glass ceiling that limited the opportunities for participatory processes and their outcomes to move forward. This ceiling was made of public policies, organizational structures, and professional cultures that were shaped in arenas to which both we and our partners had limited access—for example, public organizations or major tech companies. Like other co-designers, we started to engage with these arenas by experimenting with possible connections between grassroots initiatives and established organizations. This called for experimenting with governance models and learning new ways of doing cross-sector work. A previous discussion in this forum also highlighted how a new configuration of government and citizenry is needed, one that is relational rather than transactional, and in which political thinking and action can be co-produced and co-owned through dialogue across differences in experience, values, and knowledge [1].

ins02.gif Weaving accountabilities (Macramé workshop at ReTuren Lindängen in Malmö).

This kind of work raises a number of ethical questions. In co-design, ethics has been framed as a matter of phronesis [2], experience-based ethics oriented toward action. Pelle Ehn and Richard Badham [2] highlight how doing the right thing in collaborative design processes requires an ongoing confrontation with the practical situation at hand. Ann Light and Yoko Akama [3] discuss ethics as a tension between obligations and care. Obligations represent an ethics of rights, general principles that a co-designer should follow when engaging with people (such as giving participants the right to represent their own practice). Care calls for an ethics of mutuality that builds upon the recognition of preexisting relationships and interdependencies between people and things [3]. Thus, it is important to pay attention to the specific context in which the design action unfolds; to acknowledge designers' own stakes and positions in the design process; and to recognize the limited power of any participant or artifact in controlling the design process and its outcomes [4]. In our engagement with participatory processes that cut across societal structures, we are meeting ethical challenges related to representation, accountability, and tradition and transcendence. To cope with them, we see mutual learning playing a central role.

back to top  The Limits of Representation

In some sense, the tension between obligations and care has, from the outset, been a challenge for co-design in the Scandinavian tradition. This tension comes from combining the political ambitions of increasing democracy in work life with the wish to simply create better designs based on valid information from contextual use. Such an alliance of motivations is not a bad thing in itself, but combining democratic aspirations with business models and technological innovation does make for a complicated set of agendas that pose problems for participation in several ways. On the one hand, the introduction of technology and innovation has been foundational for financing research. That fact in itself highlights how design and technological development are integrated with the politics of market economies and, however strong ambitions for social well-being or inclusion are, technical design projects run the risk of drifting as the interests of the powerful are maintained through the legitimacy of collaborative design. In the worst cases, agendas and design briefs are already fixed, although not in a visible way, and co-design efforts cannot challenge existing hierarchies of power. Instead, designers have to position themselves in a complex entanglement of different agencies.

On the other hand, participation is subject to the same challenges as democracy itself; it is a matter of representation in different degrees, formats, and configurations that will always be in the service of someone. Representation is an issue of biased operation, implying that participation can never be complete: For each act of inclusion, there will always follow a series of exclusions. Neither is representation pure. As collectives are formed, they take on a networked character wherein the collective doings and endeavors transform participation. As participants already "burdened" by representing a multitude of others, they are changed themselves in ways that detach them even further from what they originally represented. What follows is that participation is the effect of network configurations. The collective designer acting as facilitator must rely on ethics in order to sustain what he or she conceives as a good balance of participation. For the active engagement of communities and citizens, representation becomes an issue that must be looked at humbly and with a great deal of care.

back to top  Preexisting Accountabilities

Another aspect that requires careful consideration is that of accountability. Designing with and for communities entails that different accountabilities are at stake. Designers juggle responsibilities toward participants, funders, and their own design community. This already complex landscape becomes even more intricate in projects engaging different stakeholders, where the aim is to foster collaboration between not only designers and users but also citizens and civil servants, entrepreneurs, and activists. A key issue is how to navigate diverse interests and power relationships, as well as how to deal with interdependencies. Co-design ethics indicates that the obligation should be toward users and, in general, the weakest participants. Embracing this responsibility entails carefully considering aspects of interdependence and looking at accountabilities that predate the design action. This means recognizing that participants are already bonded by relationships, rights, and obligations that are the expression of societal norms and rules. These preexisting responsibilities tend to end up outside the scope and aim of co-design projects, yet they play a key role in determining if and how participation can be developed within the specific project. They shape relationships (and expectations) among different societal actors, and they determine how single participants representing an organization (or community) might engage in collaborative processes. Thus, attention should be given to participants' responsibilities toward professional and community cultures, organizational structures, and policies. Tracing and exploring these preexisting accountabilities often reveals contradictions among the interests that are carried by single participants. They can be accountable at the same time to ideals of democratization and logics of economic efficiency and technical rationality. As a consequence, opportunities for democratization and risks for co-option always coexist in a participatory process. Thus, designers should pay attention to whether and how these preexisting accountabilities come into play in participatory processes. Designers should always be extremely cautious in the ways in which they engage and facilitate these processes. We think it is key to work together with participants to make these accountabilities explicit in order to foster shared awareness about them.

ins03.gif Exploring representations (participatory intervention at ReTuren Lindängen in Malmö).

back to top  Tradition and Transcendence

Taking an extreme position, one could argue that all design is eventually ideological; designs either aim at supporting and augmenting already stabilized ways of working, living, or engaging in societal affairs or they propose a radical departure from the status quo. The problem of tradition and transcendence has also been extensively debated as being fundamental to design. Tradition refers to how the designer improves the present, with the risk of naturalizing objects and systems that carry embodied but invisible meanings that are really not desirable from an ethical point of view. Transcendence aims at more fundamental change, where designs can take on a new role that is perhaps impossible to conceive under current norms. While the idea of design for social change and other value-driven movements has grown immensely in the past decade, we can still observe how a great deal of co-design projects take a normative starting point and do not move toward transcendence. This observation is no critique against design as problem solving; surely it is needed to support people in managing mundane problematic situations. But from an empowering perspective, and in relation to ethics in design, this is of great concern to the co-designer. Designers are immersed in complex entanglements of different value systems—their task is not easy. Attempts at acting upon values that are so culturally and politically embedded as to become invisible paradigms can seem like Don Quixote fighting windmills. Such values can be ingrained so deeply that we run the risk of unconsciously supporting values we really don't believe in. One example of such hegemonies that are hard to challenge is the idea of economic growth as an essential and indispensable element for the well-being of a society. Consequently, it becomes hard to collaboratively develop other aspects of well-being that do not prioritize economics. There are many other examples in relation to community work. If we want co-design with communities to provoke interest, critical engagement, and collective action, we need to take this tension seriously.

back to top  Mutual Learning as Collective Critical Thinking

We have highlighted several ethical dilemmas that designers face in engaging with(in) processes bringing together different actors and interests, and in dealing with larger societal, organizational, and policy frameworks. A fair question would be whether and to what extent a designer should engage with such complexity. We claim that we don't have much of a choice, since participation has gone mainstream. From industry to the public sector, there is a growing and transverse interest toward multidisciplinary perspectives, and new alliances across sectors and organizational structures. Yet, even when the best intentions are at play, participation is always at risk of becoming instrumental to logics of exploitation and control rather than empowerment and democratization. How and why that happens is often beyond the control of single individuals; rather, it depends on preexisting interdependencies, which are often difficult to influence and change. Should we then give up on participation? Is the democratic design agenda outmoded? Our view is that this agenda is becoming even more urgent. This urgency is shared by designers and other societal actors who are looking with anticipation at the developments around the sharing economy, open innovation, and new models for public welfare.

There is a need for a more nuanced understanding of opportunities and risks with participation and, out of that, more reflective and cautious frameworks and approaches for action. In particular, the notion of mutual learning is key. Within the co-design tradition, mutual learning emerges among people who collaborate in a design process, learning about each other's practices and the process's point of focus. In line with a renewed interest in mutual learning within co-design [5], we see mutual learning as key in creating awareness among participants about the limits of representation, preexisting accountabilities, and struggles between tradition and transcendence. We propose that an ethical design approach in complex participatory processes has to focus on supporting learning between participants as a matter of actively fostering collective critical thinking about the conditions in which participatory processes emerge, as well as their opportunities to move forward.

Key in this effort is the collective articulation—together with participants—of the role of cultural norms, organizational structures, professional cultures, and policies in facilitating and hindering democratization efforts. Additionally, particular attention should be given to how participatory endeavors can be adopted by participants in their own practice and promoted within their communities and organizations. Here, the collective effort should be about the articulation of opportunities and risks in the scaling and spreading of participation. By integrating these elements, co-designers and participants can navigate the complexity and challenges of the era of participation in an ethical way that addresses the conditions and scaling of participation.

back to top  References

1. Boyte, H.C. Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2004. Referred by Olivier, P. and Wright, P. Digital civics: Taking a local turn. Interactions 22, 4 (Jul.–Aug. 2015), 61–63. DOI:

2. Ehn, P. and Badham, R. Participatory design and the collective designer. Proc. of the Participatory Design Conference. 2002.

3. Light, A. and Akama, Y. The nature of 'obligation' in doing design with communities: Participation, politics and care. In Tricky Design: Ethics Through Things. T. Fisher and L. Gamman, eds. Bloomsbury, London, 2017.

4. Suchman, L. Located accountabilities in technology production. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14, 2 (2002), 91–105

5. DiSalvo, B., Yip, J., Bonsignore, E., and DiSalvo, C. Participatory Design for Learning. Routledge, 2017.

back to top  Authors

Per Linde is an interaction designer and assistant professor at Malmö University. He is chair of the management board for the Internet of Things and People research platform and coordinates the project Exploring Sustainability and Security in Future Living. His current research addresses ubiquitous computing, IoT, and participatory design processes.

Anna Seravalli is a designer and senior lecturer at Malmö University. In her research she collaborates with citizens, civil servants, activists, and entrepreneurs to explore questions about democracy and participation in urban production and city making. She is the coordinator of Malmö University's DESIS lab.

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