Justin McGuirk. Dreaming of Year Zero

In the grey areas of “social innovation”, policy experts and computer hackers are adopting a design ethos to rethink intractable social problems. Nothing embodies the merging of these two phenomena in the field of design quite like open-source design.

After the financial crash of 2008 there were endless exhortations not to let a good crisis go to waste. Change, everyone from the Obama campaign to the op-ed pages agreed, was the order of the day. Six years later, with the Dow Jones at a record high, CEOs continuing to earn thousands of times what their employees do and austerity policies pulling the rug from under the poor, it is clear that nothing changed. Nothing except change itself.

“Disruptive innovation” is the new mantra of the tech start-ups, as well as the buttoned-up corporates that look to them for clues. Change is a fetish. Disruption is no longer a means to an end but the end itself. That ethos has certainly infiltrated the design world but there are also less mercenary symptoms of disaffection. There is the return to craft, with all the nostalgia, romantic idealism, and longing for authenticity that accompanies it. There is the Maker movement, and its techno-deterministic ambitions to be a counterculture. And finally there is the rise of social design, or “design for the other 90%”. These diverse phenomena, which can be rolled up into a single zeitgeist with the global protest movement as its background music, are scratching at the door of a paradigm shift. Though far from nihilistic, the new generation has a punk-like desire to rip it up and start again.

The notion of breaking with the past to usher in a new era is certainly not new to design. Nor is the belief that design can transform society. Both tenets were at the core of the modernist project. But the difference today is that design has morphed into a meta-discipline that sees openings everywhere, vast fields of influence at its feet. This may be down to a modish moment or the innate elasticity of the word itself, but it seems there is almost nothing anymore that does not fall within design’s purview. Thus, without blinking, one can talk of designing governance, of redesigning institutions, of social innovation and system design, all in the same breath. Objects themselves are so 20th century; it’s the very network, the source code, the ether, that are up for grabs. Designers – a certain breed at least – have wandered into the corridors of power. And there, change can be fundamental and not just aesthetic.

Since the context for this essay is a biennial in Ljubljana, it seems appropriate to illustrate the theme with a Balkan case study. Earlier this year there were protests across Bosnia and Herzegovina. The triggers were numerous and endemic, a catalogue of corruption, mass unemployment and political incompetence. But the root cause was fundamental: a system of governance that was designed to fail. As part of the peace brokered at the end of the Bosnian War of the 1990s, the Dayton Agreement produced a constitution that was simply unworkable. Imagine a political system that revolves around three heads of state chosen from the three main (and mutually suspicious) ethnic groups who are required to agree unanimously on any matters of policy before they can be implemented. Throw in a top-heavy bureaucracy that yields 180 government ministers and what you have is a policy that is not just fundamentally flawed but lumbering.

The popular protests resulted in pitched battles with the police and the burning down of several government buildings, but alongside the outpouring of rage they planted one crucial seed of optimism. This was the citizen plenums. In the capital, Sarajevo, and several other cities, citizens gathered in community halls to draw up their lists of demands. In effect, it was the citizenry’s first real taste of direct democracy. It was the rediscovery of political agency. And while they achieved some limited goals, if they had had their way – or if the EU had been on their side – they would have scrapped the government and rewritten the constitution from scratch. A fresh start – year zero.

Now, am I over-stepping the mark by including that vignette in an essay about design? Am I taking semantic liberties with phrases like “designed to fail”, or by insinuating that the citizen plenums were a nascent design project? Your view will probably depend on whether you are one of the new breed of design evangelists or more of a traditionalist. It’s true that they certainly don’t teach you how to design a system of governance in design school. And I’ve encountered design students who are sick to their high teeth of being told that “everything is design”, or that somehow their practice might be more strategic than object-based. Nevertheless, one can do a lot worse than apply a design methodology to smooth out tangled or dysfunctional systems. And it’s happening all the time.

In the grey areas of “social innovation”, policy experts and computer hackers are adopting a design ethos to rethink intractable social problems. One example is the unMonastery initiative in Matera, southern Italy. Here, a group of would-be social innovators have holed themselves up in something like a secular monastery. Their aim is to tackle the challenges facing this little medieval town, which happen to be the same challenges facing medium-sized cities across Europe: high unemployment, empty property and austerity-hit public services.

What is compelling about unMonastery is precisely what it shares with some of the phenomena alluded to earlier: the desire to return to first principles. In this case, we’re talking about the Benedictine Rule, the code that governed life for Europe’s most successful monastic order. The unMonasterians believe that a new Rule can be written that will provide a fulfilling way of life for (ultimately) millions of disenfranchised youth across Europe. Essentially, they are designing a prototype. And being hackers, they call their Rule a “protocol”. Personally, I’m slightly uncomfortable with the connotations of a programming term (even if it is equally common in diplomacy) describing human behaviour. But this is symptomatic of the way software design practices and terminology are spreading contagiously through the worlds of design, business and policy. It’s as though the monastery of Monte Casino has moved to Silicon Valley and the liturgy has left the chapel for the Apple Store.

Two things are happening here. One is the emergence of a new discourse out of the once arcane language of programming. Software is after all increasingly pervasive in our lives, no longer limited to the machines we work on but inherent in the way we spend our leisure time, the way we communicate and even pay our taxes. In that sense, software design – coding – is emerging as the fundamental design, the DNA of all designed interaction. The other is that this desire to return to first principles – the desire for radical change, if you will – is overlapping with the rediscovery of the collective. This new sense of the collective does not resemble the masses or the proletariat as they were defined in the early 20th century. Instead, it takes shape as a network of individuals loosely connected by social media and able to experience brief surges of togetherness, whether by mass-tweeting the World Cup final or organising a protest in Tahrir Square.

Nothing embodies the merging of these two phenomena in the field of design quite like open-source design. Again, its roots lie clearly in software but it has infiltrated everything from architecture to furniture. The ambitions of open-source – or just “open” – design are: firstly, to strip away proprietary secrecy and let all things be improvable by the collective intelligence, the hive mind; and secondly to make the fruits of that labor accessible to all. In theory, open design is the return of the utopian spirit to design. As an ideology, it takes the social aspirations of the modernist project a leap forward, stripping out the elitism and the emphasis on the individual genius.

In practice, however, it remains the domain of experts and those who can use design software. It promises everything but at the consumer end delivers two-dimensional products CNC-cut out of plywood for prices several times what you can get in Ikea. As a slave to the market, open design is subject to the same economies of scale that make industrial production so much better value. Looked at that way, it’s a kind of luxury industry. In the end, participation has to be its own reward (or, you have to pay more to be “open”). That might not make sense in a climate where the market is everything, but perhaps it is precisely the ruthlessness of market logic that needs to be escaped. We seem to be approaching an ethos where almost anything we make ourselves or collectively is valued more than any product that we can only consume.

There are numerous precedents. Tired of consumerism and an alienating politics, the hippies tried to kickstart year zero in the 1960s with their communes and their geodesic domes. In the early 1970s, and much more obscurely, a group of Italian designers calling themselves Global Tools tried to return to first principles by reprising craftsmanship and hand tools. Today’s impulses have a similar tenor: the rejection of politics as usual, of industrialisation, consumerism, environmental degradation and social inequality. The difference today – and it may well be a delusional – is that all of that can be loosely defined as a design project.

My only worry is that all of this “disruption”, this fetishization of change, suits the market only too well. It’s all very well to talk of “redesigning the institution” but doesn’t this loss of faith in our institutions play into the neoliberal agenda? Silicon Valley is terribly keen on redesigning institutions, or, rather, replacing them with a killer app. They want rid of government and its irritating taxes and pesky regulations against monopolies. San Francisco’s entrepreneurs may think they can change the world one app at a time but they’re only interested in the kind of change that makes us dependant on their products. Let’s hope that this is not an ethos that passes for change among today’s millennials. Because, unless your government really is as ineffectual as Bosnia’s, belonging to an online community is no replacement for an institution like government.

Essay Dreaming of Year Zero was first featured in the 2014 volume Designing Everyday Life, the accompanying publication of the 50th anniversary of the Biennial of Design BIO 50: 3, 2, 1…TEST, curated by Jan Boelen, artistic director of Z33 House for Contemporary Art and Maja Vardjan / Museum of Architecture and Design MAO. BIO 50 was a multidisciplinary experimentation event that devised possible futures of design and responded to issues and challenges of everyday life, thus bringing a unique overview on design with the principles of process and collaboration. The Biennial of Design BIO is organized by the Museum of Architecture and Design MAO, Ljubljana, Slovenia, and is one of the oldest design biennials in the world. 

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Justin McGuirk is chief curator of Design Museum in London, UK. He has been director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow, Russia, design critic of The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank. His book Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture is published by Verso.