image despublicsDesigning Publics is an emerging field that aims to link civic design technology with social participation in the design process. With appropriate technology, design barriers are reduced, accessibility rises and engagement in the design process increases. This leads to new structures for designing social infrastructure and other infrastructure projects. 



Designing Publics

Christopher A. Le Dantec



MIT Press

2016 | 168 pages ISBN: 9780262035163


Reviewed by

Jeff Thurston


A new field often referred to as digital civics or social design is emerging. A key aspect of this field is the active participation of the public in the design process, particularly where urban environments are involved. "Designing publics" is oriented oriented around the participants, in this book, a study of homeless communities, and how they can influence and engage in the design process that leads to better solutions. Technology is a primary tool of this phenomenon. 

As the author mentions in the beginning, this is the start of 'deep design' - where practice in design meets deeper intellectual inquiry. "Focusing on collective action through design, Le Dantec investigates the way design can draw people together on social issues and create and sustain a public. By “designing publics” he refers both to the way publics arise out of design intervention and to the generative action publics take—how they “do design” as they mobilize and act in the world."

The first chapter explains the definition of social design. Issues, attachments and infrastructure tied to public spaces are mingle and associate in the design process. Cultural elements together with human values lie within this framework that serves to break down the traditional "us versus them" way of operating within design.

Technology plays an important role in the development of social participation, including homeless environments, since many mobile technologies are actively used within these areas. Simple mobile phones can help to engage citizens in the interactive process. The public sphere in these relationships is noted by the degree of greater accessibility, with technology being only one part of that engagement. Another includes social dynamics that are increasingly complex and changes within structures tied to these services. 

A primary need for digital civics to be successful is recognition that the technologies and accessibility aspects available to the designing publics are aligned with the problem at hand. Consequently, change can take place and participants can feel that they are actively contributing toward change through this alignment. Using the wrong tools, or misunderstanding the critical problem at hand can lead to less beneficial results.

In a sense, we can look at all the design tools on the market today, and probably find that they are designed by large software companies in a more or less general approach that follows the education of designers. Yet, the needed tools for digital civics are, if I might say, more often than not in the open source community with a orientation toward greater openness in the design process. Thus, another challenge remains, influencing current tool design manufacturers. 

If we extend the design process further, and understand the process fully, this book points to the notion of design trajectories that anticipate and understand who will be involved in a design pathway as a project progresses. As a result, these technologies can actively serve to engage certain actors, groups and participants (or exclude them). Even so, having the needed technologies to participate is quite different than educating users to use them and understanding how they work. Obviously simplicity in technology is beneficial, but effectiveness is also critical. 

Consider for a moment that under the current situation, stakeholders often participate in design within a narrow, professional framework. However, in design civics the higher level of accessibility and participatory involvement can lead to actors crossing narrow boundaries and participating along the design trajectory in different ways.This can add to discussions, include new appreciation of facts and knowledge and cause alternatives to rise and ebb. Victims can rise to a different level in solving issues. Authorities might become more socially oriented at certain times etc.

How infrastructure design issues arise and are solved might follow new paths and traditional solutions to problems might be completely changed as the flow of information becomes more widely available. Volunteers might also be gathered together and actively engaged in the design process. And over the long run, history and character of these institutions might reflect all the benefits of social design.

In summary, the book "Designing Publics" is a very thoughtful introduction to social design or digital civics. This book explains and helps readers to understand alternative approaches for engaging the public into design pathways and social issue solutions. Most readers will recognize the key differences between traditional approaches and these new design approaches that aim for greater citizen participation and interaction. This text causes designers, planners, architects and technologists to think deeper about the course of design and how new approaches and alternative frameworks might successfully be explored and used to solve social problems. 

Students, professionals and businesses involved in urban design and social issues will find this book highly informative. This book is near mandatory reading for these groups.