Designers today are increasingly ubiquitous in government where they are part of a global network that aims to radically transform how public policies are formulated and implemented. They take up technopolitical questions in avowedly democratic regimes that have evolved a large bureaucracy of unelected civil servants, many of them scientists and other specially trained experts. Rather than promoting straightforwardly technical measures, characteristic of bureaucratic systems, public sector design seeks to reframe the relationship between government and citizens, promoting greater attention to the users of government by redesigning services, infrastructures, or mechanisms for resource allocation. What transformations in our conceptions of politics and democracy have made it possible for designers to enter into government? Conversely, what has design become so that it can articulate a program of administrative change that is intelligible to government? This project investigates these questions through a genealogy of planning and design.
Bound up with multiple histories of planning and policy analysis throughout the second half of the 20th century, today’s public-sector design depends on a crucial definition of complexity which interprets governmental problems as “wicked problems.” The term was coined in the 1960s by the mathematician and design educator Horst Rittel to denote the sometimes intractable challenges facing public policy in complex modern societies, where problems are multifaceted and multi-causal. Over the decades following the term’s coinage, designers increasingly invoked the idea of wicked problems to redefine their practice. Subsequently, they began to move into a variety of public policy and planning contexts where their arrival signaled a shift away from the dictates of social scientists and management experts toward greater consultation with ordinary citizens.