The emancipation of Design(-ing)…for the nourishment of all

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‘Emancipation’ is a word with a heavy burden. It is often associated with the liberation of disadvantaged and/or minority peoples from discriminatory, unfair, dominant socio-cultural or political processes. Thus framed it is ‘political emancipation’, but emancipation stretches well beyond the governance and structures of politics, as this definition suggests:

The act of setting free from the power of another from slavery, subjection, dependence or controlling influence’ (1)

For me, implicit in this definition are the notions of re-gaining autonomy, of re-negotiating relationships, of re-setting communal expectations, and of experiencing new freedoms. From the Enlightenment onwards, Design(-ing) has been invoked as a means for promoting or restricting emancipation, and as a way to synergistically satisfy real needs or for inculcating ‘wants’ that destroy freedoms (2).  These embedded restrictions and un-freedoms are often implicit in the socio-technical-industrial-political systems that are normalised within the global mantra of economic growth. Their verification is confirmed in our acquiescence to the moniker of ‘consumers’.

As Design(-ing) moves towards more socially-orientated terrains and domains, it calls on a veritable catalogue of approaches and tools that encourage participation (3). However, we need to ensure that the modes of participation genuinely engage individuals and communities (of practice, place, interest…) towards self- and collective emancipation, and thereby encourage the emancipation of Design(-ing) itself.

If we think, as Jacques Ranciere phrases it, that ‘‘theatre’ …’involves an idea of community as self-presence, in contrast to the distance of representation’ (4), then by Design(-ing) with(-in) communities we can facilitate an ‘unpredictable interplay of associations and disassociations’ which, according to Ranciere, evokes the ‘capacity of anonymous people’ thereby making ‘everyone equal to everyone else’ (5). This was observed in ‘O Alimento’ (‘Food’) a project in Porto, Portugal concerning the potential evolution of the tasco/tasca – semi-private/public traditional cultural places where people meet, eat, and discourse (6). Within this project Laranjeira and Rangel aimed to:

‘…feed the emancipation of groups and people through the discovery, intersection and the reinforcement of their own forces’.

I think the process they initiated was real-time co-designing of the experience by all the participants. It evoked what I would call a synergistic re-vitalisation of the individual and the collective through convivial exchange. This often happens in co-design workshops which I facilitate. The workshops generate micro-emancipatory experiences for the participants.

The possibility for emancipation begins when we blur the boundaries between the binary oppositions of doing/seeing, saying/listening, being active/being passive, and when we actively encourage people to migrate freely between and within these positions. Ranciere believes this too and notes that ‘‘emancipation’ [also] means: the blurring of the boundary…between individuals and members of a collective body’ (7). This implies an openness and transparency of discourse and an exchange. This perhaps confirms why, in these turbulent times, open design, open data and open knowledge are rapidly growing fields of practice and theory. We enjoy convivial emancipation!

So, here is my proposition:  We need to harness our individual and collective intelligences in order to deal with the current storm of global and local ‘wicked [sustainability] problems’. Design(-ing) with(-in) communities offers the potential to emancipate those who participate, and perhaps influence those beyond to reflect on our societal and ecological condition. Concurrently, and significantly, it also offers a pathway for the emancipation of Design(-ing) where the act of Designing can be nourishment for all.

(1)    Wiktionary, ‘Emancipation’, accessed 05.02.2013

(2)    The list of commentators here is long…from John Ruskin and William Morris to Buckminster Fuller, Vance Packard, Victor Papanek, Manfred Max-Neef and Nigel Whiteley to name a few…

(3)    For example, note the increased interest in and practice of ‘open design’, ‘co-design’, ‘co-creation’, ‘collaborative service design’, ‘social design’, ‘design for social responsibility’, ‘design for social sustainability’ and ‘design for social innovation’.

(4)    Ranciere, J. (2009) The Emancipated Spectator, p5, London:Verso.

(5)    Ibid., p17.

(6)    Laranjeira, I. and A. Rangel (2012) ‘Nourishment: A meeting of cooks’, p3, a paper presented at Fooddesign2012, London Metropolitan University, UK, 28-29 June 2012, available here.

(7)    Ibid., Ranciere, p19.

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