Social Design Rant 5 — Cameron Tonkinwise: Social Design & The University in the Age of Neoliberalism

As part of our Expert Workshop, we asked participants to each make a 4-minute rant on a designated topic.

We are blogging the text of some of them, with thanks to their contributors.

The third of these is by Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design Studies at the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University


Social Design & The University in the Age of Neoliberalism 


Why ‘social design’ here, now? What is society, today, in certain parts of the world, such that it is not unusual to think that designers might have a role to play in reforming society? What is design that designers think reformed sociality is the outcome, if not also the means, of what designers do?

The most succinct answer – dangerously succinct – is Ezio Manzini’s reappropriation of the Young Foundation’s talk about “unmet needs.” (See for example Victoria Thoresen, Francois Jegou, Ezio Manzini, Sara Girardi and Carla Cipolla’s “LOLA (Looking for Likely Alternatives)” in SCORE: Sustainable Conusmption Research Exchange: Proceedings Sessions III-IV, Belgium 2008, which quotes the Young Foundation’s 2006 definition of social innovation as “new ideas that work to meet pressing unmet needs.”) The claim is:

  • There are people who have needs
  • Society is no longer succeeding in meeting significant aspects of those needs
  • through governments
  • and through markets
  • So designers can and should help those people to meet their needs in other ways.

Despite its succinctness, there are lots of assumptions in this formulation. Society comprises

a) governments
b) markets

which are two different things. But society also comprises

c) people with needs
d) whatever it is that ‘social designers’ develop to meet those needs in ‘innovative ways.’

One challenge to these assumptions is ‘Neoliberalism.’ This piece of critical theory jargon at the least refers to the argument that there should be no difference between a) and b), that society should in the end only comprise b). If people have needs, those needs should only ever be met by the market. If the market is not yet satisfying all significant needs, it must be, says the Neoliberal, because governments are getting in the way.

From the Neoliberal perspective, design is an agent of marketization: d) is not distinct from b). The outcomes of ‘social design,’ better termed ‘social entrepreneurship,’ should be financially self-sustaining, if not profit-generating, enterprises.

Much social design is in fact design in the service of government – d) is not distinct from a) – or design in the service of improving the effectivity of government services, so that government agencies can better meet needs not being serviced by the market. This government service design could still be neoliberal if its outcome is corporatization – d) is not distinct from a) which in turn should become b) – requiring service recipients to think of themselves as customers with market choices, and government agents to conform to retail models of service delivery. But it could also be anti-Neoliberal, boltstering non-market-based relations between strengthened governments and those they serve.

There is another assumption in the “unmet needs” version of ‘social design’ that I won’t go into much now. By putting “people with needs” as a distinct line item, there is the claim that those things are also outside of, or more precisely prior to, the servicing of those needs by a) or b) or perhaps d). There is a version of critical theory that says that what feel like needs to you and me are in fact constructs of marketing – c) is increasingly a product of b) rather than an external driver – just as they could be the constructs of social engineering by dictatorial and/or propogandizing governments – c) is a product of a), not vice versa.

But let’s move on to the more interesting proposition, that the real concern of ‘social design’ is the creation of ways of meeting people’s needs that are distinct from existing forms of government and markets. To put this another way, is there a ‘social design’ (d) that is not merely Neoliberal (a) or Anti-neoliberal (b)?

There are two easy answers to this. The first is to insist that ‘social design’ happen by way of ‘third sector’ organizations. By definition these should be neither a) nor b), though obviously some ‘community organizations’ are under pressure to enhance their governance and even marketize, just as many NGOs are criticized for being too commercial or too bureaucratic.

A second answer, which is what I take to be interesting about the DESIS perspective (, is that ‘social design’ should only ever happen in terms of innovations already being undertaken by the people with the unmet needs. A social designer’s job is not to create d)-like innovations, but to find such innovations and just help them to become more sustainable for their initiators. (See Ezio’s recent papers in Design Issues – “Making Things Happen: Social Innovation and Design” Vol.30 No.1 (2014) – and in CoDesign, co-authored with Francesca Rizzo – “Small Projects / Large Changes: Participatory Design as an Open Participated Process” Vol.7 No.3-4 (2011).) Perhaps, along the way those innovations might be able to be scaled-up, or preferably (because I am not sure what non-Neoliberal scaling-up is), scaled-across (this is Margaret Wheatley’s concept) – that is, the model might be translated to other people with related unmet needs.

These easy answers belie a larger issue. The fact that these innovations arise from what we call the third sector, whether incorporated as community organizations or merely manifesting as the informal economies of families and neighbors, does not guarrantee that they are distinct from government- or market-based solutions.

There is an assumption here that capitalism, despite its frequent claims, is not an all encompassing ‘be all and end all.’ There are plenty of domains and activities within our societies that are distinct from capitalism.

Take family life. This set of practices, essential to capitalism as the (re)production of the labor supply, takes place within capitalistic relations – the purchase of food and housing in the market, for instance. On this reading, the domestic workers known as parents are just dupes, failing to get paid for the work they do for the capitalistic system. But on the other hand, it is absurd to reduce the diversity of what is involved in being a family member to that reading. So much more is going on – as is particularly apparent when family life goes wrong. Being (in) a family in certain ways is clearly compatible with wider capitalistic systems, but the former is more than its role in the latter.

Yochai Benkler has a nice illustration of this general point – attempting to give economic sector codes to practices of intra- and inter-family sharing. [See below image from “Sharing Nicely: On Shareable Goods and the Emergence of Sharing as a Modality of Economic Production” Yale Law Journal Vol.114 (2004).]

Benkler Sharing Codes

On this point, you could say that one hunch emerging from a range of ‘social design’ cases is that a d) that is distinct from a) or b) has something to do with ‘sharing systems.’ Clearly most of those identifying as a startup in the ‘collaborative consumption’ domain are very market-based ways of delivering needs, explicitly monetizing what could have been social relations. But there do seem to be possibilities for non-market-based forms of sharing between communities outside of or under larger-scale governmental structures. I do not have time to defend this further, but it foregrounds the role design can (or cannot) play in regularizing informal systems of sharing before those systems turn into commodified markets.

There are many examples of these practices upon which capitalism depends and/or is compatible with but which are not – or were not – capitalistic: communing (as opposed to being in an organization), learning (as opposed to training), enjoying music (as opposed to buying recordings or concert tickets), ideating (as opposed commoditizing and marketing), etc.

A special example of such a practice is: the university. Universities, ideally, are unique spaces and times for questioning. They are domains of respite from, if not critical distance on, the market, even when market-based, and from the government, even when government-funded. Certainly, as neither a) nor b), universities are under threat, and the name of that threat is Neoliberalism. Nevertheless, as with families, or music, there remain special opportunities in universities, opportunities to ask questions like, for example, what would ential a d) that is not an a) or b).

I think it is worth remembering that design is only a recent entrant to the university. This might explain something like the rise of social design: it is the consequence of design having the capacity to engage with unmet needs now that some of this profession resides within this not entirely a)-ed or b)-ed territory.

This seems an important factor that a project like ‘Mapping Social Design Research and Practice’ might be taking for granted. In the USA, where research degrees are still oddly rare in relation to design, ensuring that ‘social design’ happens in critical and questioning ways, within the kinds of frameworks that non-a) and non-b) research demands, is something that you cannot take for granted. So it is important that the ‘Mapping Social Design Research and Practice’ project re-foreground that ‘social design’ should be able to, and might only be able to, negotiate the forces of Neoliberalism, when it takes place in the unique domain that is the researching university.

This is not a new point. Ezio Manzini and his colleagues have written extensively on the special powers that lie with universities for undertaking social (innovation) design: the often-global diversity of the student body provide ‘antennae’ on signals of innovative ways of satisyfing unmet needs; university-life affords opportunities to ‘living lab’ efforts at scaling-across those innovations (see for example: and Carlo Vezzoli and Lara Penin’s “Campus: “lab” and “window” for sustainable design research and education: The DECOS educational network experience” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education Vol.7 No.1, 2006).

My point is more political than functional. And in some ways it is more two-way: not just that the university as a locus for social design can help the latter negotiate Neoliberalism, but also that social design projects can help the university deal with its own Neoliberal threats.

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