Organized Conflict: A Genealogy of Design as Politics

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.

This project traces several mutations of expertise in planning thought and practice around the idea of wicked problems that prefigured and made possible the entry of designers into government. I focus particularly on moments in which an increasing demand for orchestration and coordination of conflict and the staging of disagreement between experts and laypeople shaped thought around the technical configuration of democracy and opened up spaces for new methods in planning. Combining contemporary fieldwork with archival work, I investigate several sites in Europe and the United States: West German science planning in the 1950s and ‘60s and its relationship to the Marshall Plan; urban planning and systems science in California in the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly as it was influenced by prominent think tanks at the time; labor planning in response to increasing automation in Scandinavia and California in the 1970s and ‘80s; innovation policy under British New Labour and its precursors among the young British left the 1980s and ‘90 as well as the rise of innovation labs and policy design that followed in the early 2000s.

Public sector design renders visible two conflicting tendencies in modern mass democracy: a pragmatic sense of collective problem solving and the generation of a new type of data for government – lived experience. This project thus offers a broader perspective on how democracy continues to become reconfigured in relation to ostensibly technical questions.