Today, it is possible to observe a change in the contribution of design to participatory democracy: we are experimenting diverse forms of participation that range from civic hackathons to neighbourhood codesign sessions. We can claim that these formats belong to a second generation of participatory design which is different from previous attempts. Such diverse experiences may be positioned in between two polarities: some of them are long and strenuous processes, while others are held in a superficial and hasty way. Obviously, in the middle of this dichotomy there are nuances, but, often, long participatory design actions are left in half or are inconclusive because they are too much demanding for participants. On the contrary, there are brief experiences labelled as ‘participatory design events’ whose purpose is essentially related to political propaganda or they are limited to be a ‘week-end performance’ with a post-it brainstorming.
Between a ‘post-it participatory democracy’ and an ‘exhausting participatory democracy’ there is probably a ‘third way’ which should be an object of investigation for design researchers.
The other central issue in the contribution of design to participatory democracy concerns the results of such processes: many times they do not produce positive outcomes, especially if we consider their ‘quality’ which is not adequate to design professional standards. But, regardless of their ineffectiveness, some participatory processes are positive in terms of empowerment for the participants. Hence, in many cases, the process is more important than the outcomes, especially if it is able to generate a growth in the community involved. However, today, many participatory design events are popping up without producing neither results nor empowerment in the participants. Again, we have detected the problem but we do not have a clear answer.
Probably the most important issue regards who gets to participate and to what extend and, more specifically, what design can do to make this participation more inclusive and pleasant. As design researchers working in the field of social innovation we usually collaborate with those citizens who are already active in the society: they are innovators who design something for the public interest. Hence, in these design processes, only a small part of the community gets to participate, and they are the most engaged people. This may seem as not democratic, because such citizens represent a minority, but, in our view, an actual participatory democracy needs these types of design contribution because they represent a stimulus for the whole community. The resulting scenario is a small group of committed citizens who design an innovative item that can raise the attention of the government, who finally takes the responsibility to implement it. This is something very ‘political’ because the rest of the community can express their opinion by voting or not that government, actually enlarging (or not) the consensus to that innovative action. Hopefully, as designers, we have to build this bridge between citizen activism and governments, becoming ‘advocates’ of a participatory and active form of citizenship based on civic engagement and collective deliberation, as Hannah Arendt claimed.
POLIMI DESIS Lab, Department of Design, Politecnico di Milano