D-Schools and Social Entrepreneurship

I’m still experimenting with the blogging functionality here, so as with many other bloggers here, this is by no means a completed essay. Rather, this is meant to be some transient thoughts about an article I recently read.

Alix Rule’s recent article in In These Times, The Revolution Will Not Be Designed, points to problems with the apolitical "design" trend in solving social problems.

"Various theories exist about how this fresh thinking will transfer to the world-saving sector. For one, the development of progressive products is causing a stir with ‘Superlow cost’ items for the developing world and ‘Green’ gizmos for ecologically minded customers in the United States and Europe.

A May 29 New York Times article headlined ‘Design That Solves the Problems of the World’s Poor’ gushed over a mobile wheel-shaped carrier that ameliorates some of the pain (if not the drudgery) of peasant women fetching water.

… most of the recent buzz is about the ‘designer’ as template for the social activist. A common wisdom today dictates that effective change isn’t about reforming public attitudes, but discovering practical, realistic fixes. This belief has become powerfully institutionalized through funding bodies (and at universities), most evidently in the wild enthusiasm for ‘social entrepreneurs.’

Like designers, the new changemakers are supposed to discover innovative solutions to intractable problems. They accept the given problem, the specs and the budget, and get the job done. This new approach adheres to a ‘post-ideology’ ideology: Yes, there are problems in the world, but what we need isn’t theory but solutions.

This generation’s design movement is built less on a coherent set of ideas than a simple, can-do attitude. As BusinessWeek’s Nussbaum puts it: ‘The natural optimism of a design approach is refreshing and relevant when tackling global social problems as well as business [ones].’

In other words, when it comes to the nastier socioeconomic and environmental corollaries of growth, everything is going to be just fine. No need to reevaluate or contest the road to economic development. When we run into ‘problems’, we’ll simply innovate our way out of them."


Along with Rule, I don’t think the problems with the design approach is that it prioritizes reform over revolution. There are many reforms, even some championed by social entrepreneurs (e.g. online carbon footprint trackers), that could be helpful to left popular movements.

Instead, the problem, as Rule points out, is that the manner in which many of these design solutions are proposed. Large corporations and wealthy foundations who sponsor "d-schools" have no interest in pointing out the power structures and inequalities of capitalism–  that democracy stops within the workplace; that corporations have the legal rights of people; that middle class wages have fallen steadily over the past 25 years in the U.S.; that top-down globalization creates a race to the bottom which ends up hurting both workers in underdeveloped countries and workers in the West; that capitalism would destroy itself if not for the principle of public subsidy, private profit, etc, etc.

However, corporations and foundations do have an interest in portraying free-market capitalism as the best solution to the social problems that capitalism creates, and in denying the possibility of viable alternate social and economic systems– thus, d-schools.

(Tangentially, I notice that on the Wikipedia entry for social entrepreneur (as of 1/12/08), someone had the gall to claim that utopian socialist and founder of English cooperativism Robert Owen was a social entrepreneur. Owen’s paternalism may have been odious, and his support of intentional community as the sole means to establish a better world may have been naïve, but at least Owen had an understanding of the destructiveness of free-market capitalism– more so than free market ideologues and well-meaning but ignorant "social designers".)

Social design reforms can be useful to left popular movements, but only if they are coupled with a clear understanding of the limits of those reform, and of the underlying power structures and inequalities of society.

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