Design, Design Activism and the Democratic Production of Future Social Natures (Feb 2012, New York)

American Association of Geographers, New York City, Feb 24th-28th 2012
Session Proposal/Call for Papers: Design, Design Activism and the Democratic Production of Future Social Natures
Deadline for abstract submission: 14 September 2011

In this session we would like to consider the genuine tensions as well as possibilities that design activism and the idea of social design politics generates for a politics of space and possibly a new politics of the environment. Modernist design has always been centrally linked to the consumer economy and technocratic modes of thinking. Nevertheless, it could be observed that in contrast to the maudlin and exhausted feel of much radical left and green politics, the interface between design and diverse struggles for social, spatial and environmental justice and appears relatively buoyant, optimistic about the progressive potential for human agency and imbued with a sense of possibility about the opportunities for ‘remaking reality’. How can we politically evaluate the new design activism? Could a new social and democratic politics of design –beyond technocratic and reductive ‘design fix’ modes of thinking – provide some kind of material substance to a new progressive politics of the environment? Could historical and contemporary engagements with design bring real content to the endlessly iterated but materially unsubstantiated and institutionally vague request in political ecology for a ‘democratic politics of nature’ (Smith, 1984; Braun and Castree,1998, Swyngedowu, 1996/2004)? Could a focus on design and the ‘politics of making’ add material content to the suggestive but often decorative and rather exclusive feel to the politics advocated by a-modern and post human geographers (Barry, 2001; Whatmore 2003; Thrift 2004; Hinchliffe,2010)?

Session Organizers:
Damian White (The Rhode Island School of Design);
Cameron Tonkinwise, (Parsons, The New School for Design).

David Harvey’s Space of Hope (2000) suggests that there is a desperate need in critical geography and critical theory to return to small, medium and large scale reconstructive visions so as to envisage alternative productions of social natures. Design – as a deeply materialist, agential and often utopian social practice, could play an important role in this discussion. Yet, Spaces of Hope tends to read the history of design primarily as the history of technocratic and ‘design fix’ modes of thinking. Progressive and working class traditions of social design (as championed by Colin Ward and others) tend to be sidelined. Little attention is given to traditions of ‘liberatory design’ as advocated by Bookchin or Illich or the increased interweaving between design activism and ‘rights to the city’ discussions. Indeed, design ultimately plays a minimal role in Harvey vision of an alternative future. In contrast to Harvey, Bruno Latour (2008) has recently argued in more open ended ways that in a ‘made world’, a social politics of design could potentially become central to the materialization of the parliament of things and the politics of social nature. Design, it is argued could play a central role in ‘making things public’. Such interests in possible points of engagement between design, art, the politics of space and the politics of making have indeed have become central to the thinking of Doreen Massey, Nigel Thrift, and Matthais Gross and many others of late.

This session will explore how geographers, radical artist/designers, design theorists and other fellow travelers can find productive and critical ways to engage with any of the following topics:

  1. explorations of the utopian and dystopian geographies of historical and contemporary modes of eco-design and design activism –from counterculture ventures to contemporary forms of community design and architecture;
  2. examples and discussions of urban social movements and eco-urban social movements and other design activist movements that have productively transformed or helped rethink the relationship between the built environment, diverse ecologies, non humans and democracy;
  3. sociological and geographical explorations of phenomena like the Transition Towns movement and forms of design politics/activism motivated by fetishized dystopia-avoidance;
  4. implications for spatial, social and environmental  justice of the new politics of design based on scenario based design;; living labs; community design; the utopian possibilities of design beyond the object; ‘rights to the city’ activism;
  5. reflections on the relationships between design, design activism, the construction of democratic experiments (eg:Latour/Stengers/Gross) and ideas of alternative hedonism/the new politics of pleasure (Kate Soper);
  6. historical and contemporary reflections on potential relations between the field of design, the writings of radical design theorists such as Tony Fry, John Thackara, Victor Margolin etc and discussions in geography around ‘the democratic production of nature’ and the politics of posthumanism a/modernism.

Format: A paper based session consisting of 15 minute papers to leave time for discussion.

Please submit an abstract of c200-250 words together with the title of their proposed paper and the names and affiliation of authors not later than September 14th 2011 to:

Damian White, Associate Professor of Sociology, The Rhode Island School of Design; 2 College Building, Providence, Rhode Island 02903-0480, USA,; 434-202-9159

Cameron Tonkinwise Associate Dean for Sustainability, Parsons, The New School for Design, 72 Fifth Ave, NY 10011.USA, 1 212 229 5321 ext 3416.

About Fil Salustri
I'm a design methodologist and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. Adjectives that describe me include: secular humanist, meritocrat, and long-winded. Some people call me a positivist too, as if that were a bad thing. Go figure. My real home page is

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