We need new ways to create a more inclusive, effective and engaged democratic process. One that does not oversimplify societal challenges and limit possibilities to negotiate them. In the UK our model of democracy appears very closed and ‘top down’ offering few ‘options’ as to how best to shape the future. Restricted choice and information leads to poor decisions about how we move forward and who will lead us, as exemplified by Brexit and Trump.

To distribute and diversify democratic decision making, to open up the process to include more diverse perspectives and possibilities, Design has a significant contribution to make. Design’s concern with understanding ‘what is’ to shape ‘what might be’, making visible peoples’ experiences, needs and values so as to gain insight and inspire future possibilities – understanding the present to shape the future, is relevant here. Still more relevant are the approaches of design for social innovation, focused on finding new ways of addressing societal goals and challenges. Here, appreciation for the complexity, contextual specificity and socially situated nature of societal challenges has fostered approaches that distribute complexity and apply the principles of participatory and collaborative design in attempts to ‘democratise innovation’. Inclusive and equitable practices are developed and applied to overcome the limitations of hegemonic constraint and engage a diversity of actors in problem definition and problem solving, bringing a diversity of skills and resources to bear on societal challenges. This is an agonistic process, one in which perspectives and preferences are shared and negotiated. This negotiation is essential given the ‘wicked’ nature of societal challenges, which predicates that there is no ’one right answer’ that will meet with the approval of ‘all of the people all of the time’. The best we can hope for is resolution rather than solution in response to such complexity and subjectivity, and resolution is achieved through negotiation, not dictation.

Such understandings have potential to deliver a democracy that is co-produced and constitutive (power with) rather than conventional and constituted (power over). A constitutive democracy must afford agency to diverse actors engaged in collaborative problem definition, visioning and decision making. Societal challenges must be equitably negotiated from the bottom up rather than consulted upon from the top down according to a limited set of possibilities derived from a limited set of interests. Denied agency to negotiate and co-conceive possible outcomes in this way the singular majority (accepting of a preconfigured ‘solution’ rather than demanding of a negotiated ‘resolution’) may well leave the plural majority disappointed – and ultimately disengaged.

This understanding supports the proposition of design as democracy, whereby enabling platforms set a stage on which diverse actors can come together to share constitutive power in shaping the present and future world they live in, applying the equitable and inclusive principles of participatory design to participatory democracy – from ‘democratising innovation’ to ‘innovating democracy’.

Adam Thorpe

University of the Arts London DESIS Lab

London, United Kingdom

Fields of Action
It sets a stage on which diverse actors can come together and democratically collaborate in shaping their present and future world. It engages diverse people and publics in co-design and co-production processes concerning different aspects of their everyday life.
It increases the opportunities for citizens to participate in deliberative processes. It focuses on transparency (which enables citizens to be aware of the on-going process of governance) and deliberative methods (which is the opportunity to be better involved in decision making processes).
It refers to all the design initiatives that are particularly responsive to the goals of democracy. It may deal with the provision of basic human rights (such as access to food, shelter, health care, and education) and, more in general, with the transition towards a more resilient, fair and sustainable society.

local government

participatory democracy