Steve Walker

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Archive for August 2011

Notes on design in social action settings

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I wrote the following 2-3 years ago as part of an (unfinished) paper based on work in the Practical Design for Social Action (PRADSA) project of the AHRC/EPSRC’s Design for the 21st Century programme.  It’s unlikely that I’ll finish the paper (in the shot term, at least) but some of the ideas may be useful in other contexts (such as the IBZL project). Hence I’ve tidied them a little and am posting them here (comments welcome!).

A couple of points of clarification – ‘social action’ is the term we used in the PRADSA project to describe what might be termed ‘social change’, ‘social movement’ or similar contexts. TSA refers to ‘technology in social action’ – the primary focus of the project.

Finally, I’m posting this as twitter is awash with comment on last night’s riots in London and elsewhere, and in particular the organisation of clean up activities (using the ‘#riotcleanup’ twitter tag), which would make a fascinating case study of design, technology and social change. I hope (actually, I’m pretty sure) someone is documenting that.


We have identified four perspectives on technology and social action design: design as learning, design as participation, design as social critique and design as entrepreneurship. The learning and participation perspectives on design are particularly closely related. We consider them as distinct elements since they clarify different aspects of the practices of design. Before discussing these perspectives, though, one important point needs to be made. Most of the TSA design literature consists of accounts of interventions by self-identified academic designer-researchers. The papers give detailed accounts of design processes, methods and outcomes. None of the papers claim that their methods are representative of widely-used practices; indeed, many document new methods and techniques; or the use of techniques in novel contexts. Consequently, we do not claim that this review is in any way representative of how TSA design is actually done ‘in the wild’.

Design as participation

Issues of participation in design are central to many discussions of technology in social action settings (e.g. Day, 2002; de Cindio, 2004; Merkel et al, 2004; Byrne & Sahay, 2007; Carroll & Rosson, 2007; Day & Farenden, 2007; Wessells et al, 2008). Indeed the early development of participative design (PD) inScandinaviawas itself a form of social action concerned to increase worker and trade union influence in the workplace (Clement & van den Besselaar, 1993). Participation in design by those affected was seen as a right in the context of developing the ‘good work’. In wider social action settings, participation in design is similarly often seen as a form of emancipation or empowerment, and thus as a goal in itself. Although PD has its roots in social action, it is also widely used pragmatically, as a way of improving the quality (or saleability) of applications. These differences of emphasis are frequently presented as Scandinavian (emancipatory) and N. American (pragmatic) traditions of PD.  These two aspects of PD are both radical in the sense that they challenge what it means to be a designer (Carroll & Rosson, 2007), though in social action setting more weight is likely to be given to the emancipatory dimension.

There are several recurrent issues in PD in social action settings. A common concern is with identifying who should participate in a design process; essentially the problem of determining the boundaries of the sociotechnical network involved in design. PD’s workplace origins focused on giving a design voice to workers affected by systems. In social action settings we have a broader range of actors (or actor roles) including those beyond an artefact’s immediate users but who might also legitimately have a stake in the design process (Byrne & Sahay, 2007; Wessels et al, 2008). Byrne & Sahay (2007), for example, include those who may not be direct ‘users’ of an information system but who might be affected by its users. Consequently, determining appropriate boundaries of participation in community and social action settings might be more difficult than in workplace settings. Closely related to the question of who participates is the nature of power relationships. Despite Carroll & Rosson’s (2007) argument that the absence of a ‘boss’ in community settings reduces the significance of us/them divisions, community informatics development can be the location of struggle between groups in a community (Van Belle & Trussler, 2005). The nature of these power can place limits of the nature of participation and hence needs to be recognised in the organisation of participation (Byrne & Sahay, 2007).  Barab et al (2004) pay particular attention to the relationship between designer and community participants. While space does not permit a detailed review of PD methods which have been applied in social action settings here, there a variety of approaches are documented which address issues of power both within communities and between designer and user communities. These include critical design ethnography (Barab et al, 2004; Barab et al, 2007), ‘facilitative conversation’ spaces (Wessels et al, 2008); and ‘appreciative enquiry’ (West & Thomas, 2005), along with specific techniques such as future workshops (Pilemalm et al, 1998; McPhail et al, 1998). 

 Design as learning

Learning about technologies is important to many discussions of PD and other user-oriented design approaches. PD frequently requires that people who are not primarily concerned with technologies learn about them in order to participate meaningfully in a design process. The need for learning may be exacerbated by characteristics of social action settings, perhaps most starkly where initiatives aim explicitly to address aspects of the ‘digital divide’ but also where for example, volunteers or other participants simply have very diverse levels of ICT expertise. Consequently, techniques such as ‘participatory learning workshops’ (Day & Farenden, 2007) and scenarios (Blythe & Monk, 2005; Carroll & Rosson, 2007; Lee et at, 2007) have been used in PD to help learning and participation.

Learning is not just restricted to the design process, but may also be part of an intended design output.  Here, for example Carroll and Farooq (2007) have proposed ‘scaffolded documentation’ and ‘informal developmental learning’ to address some of the problems of asserting community control over ICT. This control may be important  in addressing the issue of sustainability in community technologies (Merkel et al, 2004; Day, 2002) (though, as Lievrouw (2006) points out, some social action technologies are intrinsically ephemeral, so while sustainability may be a widespread design objective, it is not universal). ‘Pragmatic’ (Bishop et al, 2004) and ‘minimal’ (Rosson & Carroll, 2005) approaches to design take user participation beyond learning about using technology to include ongoing design-in-use.  Mason and Rennie (2007) argue that web 2.0 technologies provide a particularly flexible and accessible infrastructure for communities to implement applications with a minimum of specialised technical knowledge. The emphasis on learning and technology is also linked to the incorporation of technology in to TSA initiatives which promote wider community (e.g. Barab et al, 2004; Bishop et al 2004) or organisational (Creanor & Walker, 2005) learning.

Another, important dimension of learning and design is that of ongoing learning about design (as ‘professional’ development), primarily by those who see themselves as designers. Design patterns and associated pattern languages are currently influential approaches to capturing and disseminating learning about technologies. Indeed, some of the accounts mentioned above (e.g. Carroll & Farooq, 2007) present findings as patterns. The ‘Design for Living Communications’ (Schuler, 2008) represents the most far-reaching attempt to systematise social action design patterns. Many of these patterns address issues beyond the immediate technology concerns of this review, but patterns such ‘Online Community Service Engine’ (De Cindio & Sonnante, 2008) and ‘Mutual Help Medical Websites’ (Dearden & Radin, 2008) address specific classes of ICT applications. 

 Design as critique

All use of technology in those social action settings concerned with empowerment and social justice is to some extent a social critique.  Technology and design, with their potential to disrupt and reconfigure existing social relations, may offer particular opportunities for social critique. This does not necessarily mean that all design in social action settings can be thought of as explicitly embodying social critique; voluntary sector agencies frequently import the ‘economic-technical rationalism’ for ICT use that is dominant in business information systems (Cecez-Kecmanovic et al, 2008). Elements of social critique can be found in both the design process and designed (socio-)technologies.

In the design process the approach taken can itself be viewed as social critique. Where approaches to design, as in emancipatory PD, give voice to those otherwise marginalised in design process, they effectively form a social critique by highlighting and challenging existing power relations. Barab et al (2004) and Barab et al (2007) highlight this view of design as social critique in their critical design ethnography. For Barab and colleagues a particular concern is the tension between a critical design process and its creation of artefacts which carry embodied values into other contexts.

In some social action cases, designed artefacts aim specifically to embody or afford a particular social critique. Floodnet, for example, is a Java application to generate traffic to a target web site by periodically reloading a web page, to slow server performance (see Stalbaum, n.d.). The Floodnet applet only makes sense when used simultaneously by large numbers of protesters; it encodes a collective view of protest and social change (as opposed, for example, to a terrorist view). It is also presented by its designers as a form of ‘performance art’. Perhaps the most significant development of design-as-critique is the free software movement whose very existence can be seen as a critique of centralised software production and intellectual property law and which uses licenses to propagate particular social arrangements for the production of software. Lieverouw (2006) draws out implications of similar technologies for design, highlighting the centrality of access, understood as the variety of resources available to users, the connectivity of such resources and the utility in helping people to ‘do what matters to them’. Participation relies on the reconfiguration of technologies, and the repurposing (‘remediation’) of content. 

 Design as social entrepreneurship

The term ‘social entrepreneurship’ is a complex term with multiple meanings. It is used here to capture two related sets of ideas.

Firstly, entrepreneurship is associated with mobilising or organising resources in innovative ways. In business, this is for commercial gain, but the term is also used to refer to innovation and social change. Alvord et al (2004), use the term social entrepreneurship to refer primarily to the use of innovation to achieve social change in a wide range of settings, including social movements. Earl & Schussman’s (2003) use of the term ‘movement entrepreneur’ discussed above refers to the identification of a particular type of technology-related social movement practice. Similarly, Ward & Lusoli (2003) note the importance of ‘organisational policy entrepreneurs’ in technology-related activities in trade unions, particularly in the early stages of adoption. While neither of these accounts are concerned directly with the design of technologies, the innovation-diffusion understanding of technologies suggests an approach to design in which those responsible for building technological artefacts are rather more distant from the users of those artefacts than is the case in participatory approaches. This also appears to be the case in Rolfe’s (2005) account of the diffusion of ‘electronic repertoires of contention’ and identifies examples of small groups of ‘online activists’ who have developed online campaigning tools such as Floodnet and These small groups are characterised by a “high level of critical awareness, technical expertise in various fields, small organisational structures, an innovative and collaborative mindset, and a flexible ‘rolling agenda’ rather than alignment to a specific ideological cause” (p.70).  Such ‘hothouses’ of innovation are partially detached from the mainstream of particular movement causes, frequently innovating from the margins. In a similar vein, Earl & Kimport (2008) identify ‘warehouse’ web sites, which specialize in supporting particular genres of online protest (e.g. online petitions) for use in support of a wide range of causes.

The second meaning of ‘social entrepreneurship’ is the use of business methods, or at least business relationships, in social action settings. This can be through social enterprises set up with explicitly social goals (Spear, 2006) in effect as a form of social action. Alternatively, it can mean the philanthropic activities of conventional businesses. Social action organisations will frequently buy in expertise to design ICT artefacts and applications, often from individuals or organisations who share similar social values and goals. However well intentioned the relationships, difficulties can occur including ‘ownership’ of learning (Farooq et al, 2005) and the constraints of delivering applications on time and budget (Luke et al, 2004).

Social enterprise models have been particularly prominent in technology infrastructure initiatives where issues of accountability, commitment and sustainability of sociotechnical networks come to the fore. In a fascinating account of the WorkNet email and bulletin-board system in South Africa, established at a time of great political change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Adler (1992) discusses the tensions and issues between democratic accountability, technological innovation and users’ desire for a good service, but lacking the time or interest in becoming involved in its management (not least since the intended users were already heavily committed to other, pressing, areas of the anti-apartheid struggle). WorkNet’s view of accountability moved from the strongly held commitments to political mandate of the anti-apartheid movement to a more market-oriented conception of accountability – essentially, if it retained and recruited users WorkNet was fulfilling a user need. Combining market relations and social action in infrastructure provision has, though, created tensions (Lovink & Riemens, 2004; Finquelievich, 2004). While the financial relationships may not ordinarily be considered elements of design, in considering technologies as sociotechnical networks, this also illustrates the significance in the ways in which people and organisations relate to a technology.

Written by Steve

August 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Posted in IBZL, pradsa