Social Innovation Design Beyond Bourgeois Dilettantism

Redesigning social innovation beyond bourgeois dilettantism

More and more people are looking to computers to save the world, but the people who run them certainly don’t know how. Nobody’s in charge [...] They’re all too busy with IPOs and market share, trying to start fads or come up with idiotic names.

– Theodor Holm Nelson, New York Times, December 2011

In recent years, the design community has paid increasing attention to forging a permanent link in the public consciousness between their trend-obsessed and ever-expanding field, and broader ethical and humanitarian concerns. This trend is not without precedent. There have been multiple attempts made to proclaim something like a hippocratic oath for creative professionals – the origins date back at least to the idealism of the 1960s, as exemplified by the First Things First, 1964 manifesto signed by some members of the AIGA in New York as the realisation dawned on them that “the greatest effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on [...] trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.”


Today it has become almost unusual to find a successful design studio that hasn’t also cofounded their very own pet philanthropic initiative on the side. One can almost imagine modern-day madmen design celebrity principals presenting the latest slick designs to market uptown condos, as unpaid interns, often a hundred grand in debt, can be found in the back rooms beavering away at initiatives to bring awareness to fair trade and labour issues in the developing world.

This trend has also caught the attention of the academic industry and various universities now offer masters programs to fully equip future design leaders, such as the esteemed School of Visual Arts, where, for an annual tuition fee of US $40,000 and the ability to live income-free in New York for a couple of years, one may obtain an MFA in Design for Social Innovation, which purports to “prepare students to apply the principles and ethics of social innovation as filters for understanding and as a discipline for engaging with and improving the world through design.” The description continues:

Graduates of the program will be more than graphic designers, filmmakers, advertising creative directors or interactive systems designers. They will be all these, mastering all the skills and knowledge of how to apply them to have a positive impact on business, society and their own lives.

Veering almost into the absurdity of late night TV infomercials, (you too can be a jack-of-all-trades super designer-innovator for only 400 monthly installments of $99.99!!) one would be challenged to imagine a better description of the contemporary bourgeois digital dilettante, and the hucksters who target them.


But this growing popularity of design attention being brought to areas of social inequality and innovation hasn’t been without notable success stories (all of which have helpfully been succinctly captured in a gazillion different TED talks). A seemingly endless stream of Design Innovators/Celebrities have been flown and fêted around the world in a euphoric disregard of their carbon footprints to celebrate a veritable swiss army-knife of designs that improve awareness of the climate change catastrophe, provide innovative access to safe drinking water, reduce the cost of medical equipment, bring viral recognition to social causes, provide hungry children with laptops, etc.


And yet the results on a local scale remain notably absent. The digital age of the last few decades has coincided with a distinct rise in inequality in the majority of wealthy, developed countries. A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed a gap between rich and poor that has widened considerably in the last thirty years, even during the boom years of high employment and economic growth. The average income of the richest ten percent of the population in these wealthy countries is about nine times that of the poorest ten percent – a ratio of 9 to 1. Startlingly, since the 2000s, inequality has grown more in traditionally low-inequality nordic countries such as Sweden than anywhere else. (Though, to be fair, their inequality ratio of around 6 to 1 remains far lower than the average).


Much as the influence of nations and national economic-regulatory policy were prematurely written off as irrelevant and powerless in the face of globalization and market forces a decade ago (thereby creating the very conditions for the still current global economic crisis), perhaps so too have the self-proclaimed design thought-leaders of the digital age over-hastily dismissed not only any contribution from academic intellectualism in the humanist tradition but (more relevant to their aims) any focused attempt to infiltrate and influence the still-very-relevant-and-entrenched power of the economic, media and financial establishment.

As designers are increasingly sucked in by the forces of social media pseudo-celebrity to hastily reconceive themselves as “design thinkers” and “innovation leaders”, (a strange hybrid of showman-preacher-used car salesman), collect air miles and wittily lecture hoards of tittering (and tweeting) strangers whose start-ups presumably claim the extortive attendance fees as tax write-offs – is it all serving any real purpose beyond self-aggrandizing dilettantism? These slideshows are more than media spectacles of image sequences and circus ringmasters – they represent Debordian capital-‘S’ Spectacles: “social relationship(s) among people mediated by images,” contributing to social-media obsessed environment in which “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” including learning, social relationships and interactions themselves. From an Actor-Network Theory perspective, it could be said that the actors are in place, as confident and self-regardingly successful as a caged budgie with a mirror, but the networks they’ve targeted seem to be equivalent to the proverbial Titanic deck-chairs, and their theories are all focused on paying compliments to each other’s belly buttons.


Perhaps there is no automatic correlation between this growing movement of designer as circus ringmaster and the reality of increasing social inequality within wealthy western nations. But if not, what does such an absence reveal? Might it just be fair to say that the influence of the digital age and its self-anointed avant-garde of bourgeois entrepreneurs (very much in the etymological sense and all the superficiality that implies) has been vastly overstated, least of all by themselves? Should we quite so loudly extoll start-ups that rarely manifest into the economic tent-poles they would need to become in order to engage with, and influence, existing political, financial and market power structures?


… I’ve wasted my life.

– Comic Book Guy, The Simpsons, gazing up at an incoming nuclear warhead


There is a good news flip side to all this, however.

Within the design community – ever-broadening, dividing and transforming as it struggles to adapt to the spotlight afforded by its newly central role in the digital age of the last 30 years or so – there is reason to celebrate. There is another, more hopeful trend beyond the creative as independent entrepreneur, public showman, and self-regarding motivational speaker: the ‘Do-It-Yourself, open-source/open-systems’ movement. They are the anti-Zuckerbergs, the anti-Gates, rejecting the very paradigm of a ruling class of techno-élites who fulfill their nerd-revenge fantasies for their presumably bullied adolescences in a bygone era when nerds were not yet cool. And it is not coincidental those responsible for its incubation and rise remain largely anonymous in the public consciousness.

This trend can loosely be defined by initiatives such as open-programming-languages and collaboration-based initiatives (processing, openframeworks, pure data, arduino, etc), open-source coding-languages (PHP, javascript, etc) and many others. These movements are roughly characterized by a willingness of the founders not to emphasize their own personal wealth accumulation, laurels and fame, and related centralized, corporatized control and user-commodification, but rather precisely the opposite. Communities are established, sharing infrastructure/ecosystems are built, nurtured and, if adopted by a community with sufficient critical mass, initiatives evolve from there. They are sketchbooks for the digital age, using code and hacked prototypes and enable learning-by-doing in an pragmatic ethos that can be tracked from John Dewey and Donald Schön: Community members as equal, self-empowered participants in the process of exploration, self-education and discovery. It is technology as non-ego trip, non-spectacle, bringing software into the arts and using play and experiments to realise ideas and innovation.


It would irresponsible to overstate this trend as representing a full 180 degree mentality change from what we previously described – this new appreciation for the power and importance of community and sharing can put towards efforts of any ethical purpose. There is nothing inherently good, or utopian about it. The devil is in the details. Just as the limitations and inherent assumptions required by digital pre-fab structures such as GUI-based OSs and their associated applications, or their contemporary web app equivalents, both initially grant the non-computer programer an engaging digital life in the first place and require a fine (and constantly redefined) balance with a more user-centric model based on engagement, control, customizability, and contribution.

This balance will ultimately enable individuals and creatives, and not just corporate interests and jet-setting narcissists, to contribute to the future trajectories of technologies. Technologies that will affect all of us profoundly, whether or not we have a spare US$40,000.




3 Responses to this post
  1. 11 January, 2012 | Derrick Lloyd Grant

    I over-arching agree with the comments in this article with the exception of the fact that adbuster (finally) actually did something in being the seed and catalyst for the occupy wall street movement.

    If there’s a point here that shines brighter, it’s the inability of schools, colleges and the education system to produce quality programmes that sit inline with the cultural and economic climate. In the US and in the UK our college and university system are failing our youth in ways we’ve yet to perceive.

  2. 12 January, 2012 | Daniel McLaren

    There are definitely projects which are just using the attention garnered by social initiatives as a promotional tool. I’ve seen a lot of the same thing on the technology side with my data visualization work: some companies just want to check off the buzzword with some flashy eye candy. It’s not all bad apples, though.

  3. 24 January, 2012 | Peter

    @Derrick. I loved Adbusters in its time, but in the context of the 21st Century, there is something so intrinsically suburban about nihilism. Can meaningful social critique still be made from the cultural hinterlands?