2017: Creating space for a multi-truth society

In 2014 I did some research to understand how designers work with non-designers in projects aimed at creating social change. Considering recent commentary about the role of experts, I thought it would be useful to revisit some of the ideas and the suggestions we made at the time to help shape an agenda for myself and Cobanana in 2017.

Post-truth was The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. The challenge of the term is that it suggests that we were previously living in an era of truth politics. Politics, however, has always been the presentation and negotiation of multiple 'truths' relating to individual experiences and perceptions. In 2016 we saw a breakdown in the interaction of these multiple truths.

The collapse of traditional institutions and the rise of alternative modes of public negotiation has called into question the dominance and legitimacy of expert – or sometimes just accepted – opinion in public debate. The response of experts has been to either simplify the presentation of their knowledge, mock the critique as ignorance, or abandon facts all together in pursuit of public support. None of these strategies has adequately dealt with the breakdown in trust and communication between experts and non-experts - or more fundamentally between different groups of people negotiating many forms of interaction.      

In 2014 I conducted some research to explore how participation in design for social change was understood by design experts. In the concluding remarks of a paper presented at the Participatory Design Conference 2014 I suggested that “entrusting designers with Participatory Design has facilitated the development of practices which align to their traditional professional paradigms. … for many designer’s, participation directly contradicts their training which generally encourages making decisions on behalf of others rather than in collaboration with them. This is not intended as a criticism but rather as a recognition of the role society has traditionally assigned to designers. … there is evidence that (this)… has led to conflicts between designers and design stakeholders. (Designers) generally considered that attempts at participation were hampered by the inadequate response of the people designers sought to engage. Society’s readiness for Participatory Design was expressed as a barrier …. Perhaps this lack of readiness reflects limitations of Participatory Design processes to articulate the purpose of engagement. By professionalizing Participatory Design people are either justified for not taking responsibility for decision making, or excluded from doing so due to misalignment of power, expectations, values and traditions of engagement between designers and various non-designers.”

Many of the challenges to public engagement experienced in the field of design can be seen across other domains of knowledge. The dominance of a particular ’way’ of thinking, communicating and acting, a lack of exposure to different knowledge domains while learning, a frustration at the apparent disinterest of alternative knowledge holders and the justifications made to explain traditional ways of engagement have all revealed themselves this year. 

The institutions set up to protect and enhance people and communities have become tangled in their own procedures for years. Their assertions of evidence based decisions – too many times oversimplified or filtered to fit a predefined narrative – are now mistrusted by the public. In the 70s the great liberal educationalist Paulo Freire wrote about how a specialisation of process and a rationality of intent can easily create an ‘inability to think’ and a descent into ‘myth making’. The events of 2016 seem to give credence to Freire’s warnings.

In our 2014 article we made suggestions to overcome some of the challenges we had identified for Participatory Design community which might also be useful for other knowledge domains. In the paper we proposed that “to overcome these existing social expectations of design as a non-participatory mechanism of social change, Participatory Design should no longer be asserted as a validated design practice under the responsibility of designers. Instead, Participatory Design needs to be renegotiated in a wider interdisciplinary and intercommunity space; becoming the responsibility of society rather than ‘experts’… We consider this will better facilitate dialogue between multiple stakeholders by:

  • Removing the assertion of participation when describing any attempt to engage people in a design process
  • Allowing all stakeholders to reflect on experiences of engaging in design and exploring what participation in design actually means in terms of creating social change– both for good and bad
  • Allowing for greater exploration of the meaning behind, and relationship between, Participation and Design including identifying the opportunities and limitations in this relationship. 
  • Allowing designers to explore and reframe their role in developing participatory approaches in design practice and providing the freedom to overcome existing challenges and evolve traditional paradigms.
  • Providing opportunities in design training to discuss ideas of participation in general practice, rather than relating it to specific and generalized processes.”

It is worth noting that our concern is not with the knowledge that experts hold but the way that they share and interact with others outside of their domain of knowledge. We propose that instead of rejecting experts that we create new interdisciplinary and intercommunity spaces where the relationship between different domains of knowledge - or expertise - can be respectfully renegotiated. Ultimately these spaces would allow people to explore and reframe their understanding of the world through articulating, sharing, recognising and critiquing multiple truths across society.

In response to the events of 2016, Cobanana will attempt to enact the advice of my 2014 article throughout 2017. We will work towards redefining modes of interaction in terms of a multi-truth – rather than post-truth – society.  In the next few blog posts I will describe how we intend to do this through specific projects. In the meantime I wish you an opportunity filled - and taken - New Year!


Vicky Gerrard