Design in transition: Interview with Cameron Tonkinwise

Cameron Tonkinwise has been one of the most outspoken voices at the crossroad between design theory and continental philosophy. Francesco Degl’Innocenti virtually sat down with him for an informal conversation on the paradoxical state of innovation and the political stance of design in ever-shifting spectrums.

Over the last 100 years that vision-driven designing has evaporated, transformed into the lean startup.

FDI

What is transition design, how does it fit within the design world?

CT

Design is a recent profession and an even more recent discipline. It began with a certain ideal, transforming the nature of the human condition by changing the objects, products, environments, and communications that people dealt with. So it began with this ambition: if you really wanted to change the nature of the human, you needed to change its environment. And it wasn’t sufficient merely just to make ‘machines for living’ in the Le Corbusier sense; you needed to understand something about the furnishings and the devices in those apartments. And although it started with this very large vision, almost immediately the North American version – compared to its European counterpart – became subservient to capitalism, merely about skinning products in order to make them more desirable. Interestingly, that didn’t imply the absence of a large-scale project there as well, but that US project was to encourage people to quickly cycle through things because things were being continuously re-developed with a view to perfection, so if people just hung on to a single set of things in their house, that would stall the progress to perfection. The American project was therefore very much about stimulating serial consumption every year, a pared down version of the European modernist idealism. 

 

Over the last 100 years that vision-driven design has evaporated, transformed into the lean startup, agile development process, which is: find the pain points in the present, create something of value that reduces those pain points, and then follow how your lead users are innovating with your product. Then, pivoting to stick with them and their market value, which means you’ve completely abandoned any kind of vision, any direction to a distant future. Transition design is an attempt to recover something like ‘vision-led design’; in designers we need to stimulate the courage to begin to identify non-dystopian futures – we seem to be quite good at that already – nor architectural utopias, too far from everyday life. Designers should articulate, at the level of detail, rich ways of living futures that are both really distinct and really desirable, because now these two seem to be incompatible: either flirting with current desires, so not really distinct, or so distinct they are not to be recognized as desirable. Nevertheless, transition design as vision-led designing is an attempt to recover agency against the “there is no alternative” neoliberal mantra. Transition Design’s mission is aimed at non-architectural designers, say service designers, interaction designers, product designers, communication designers, fashion designers. We quickly realized that designers are appallingly educated. Being a recent discipline, unlike architecture, design never had a research culture. You know, it only discovered user-centered design two-thirds-of-the-way through its history – all of a sudden [it was said], “we should really be paying attention to questions of usability, and we should be understanding the nature of use and use value, and we should be researching people” and so on. So, we really need to re-educate designers in the ways in which designers design, the ways in which design is ontological, even at a human product scale, because it creates worlds, habits, dispositions. A designer is never just designing an app, never just designing a product, never just designing the communication: they are reinforcing particular models of the human, and that’s why they need to understand where those models come from, and how to constitute different models of the human. So transition design then became an attempt to curate the things that designers needed to know to be responsible vision-led designers. A lot has to do with living systems theory, with transition management, in the kind of Northern European sense that is a legacy of technology assessment and innovation management. Designers should spend a lot more time learning about social change in order to understand these systems, because they are crucial participants in it.

FDI

This lack of systemic understanding is even starker once you are inside the conventional innovations space. Back in the day I had a Foodtech startup incubated in Copenhagen, and I was absolutely flabbergasted by the minimal number of designers that were part of the founders kernel. They were usually being delegated to design things. And I remember we must have won two or three hackathons, not because our idea was better or more developed, but just because I was a designer and automatically tended to think at different scales and stages. But at the same time, I realized why the innovation space seems to be doing good without us: the use of dumbed-down service design toolkits and ever-present business canvases seemed – to them – to have the magic ability to turn even the driest accountant in a ‘good enough designer”’ with no vision of any future whatsoever, but with the glimpse – and the pathway – to incremental change through its little product. Have we all adopted the North American version you mentioned, despite the need for drastic change?

CT

That’s a beautiful account. It makes me think of a book – a good book with a tragic title, Just Enough Research – that was very successful at convincing innovation teams of what you described: we should abandon the 20th century version of the inventor, a man – always a man – coming up with some crazy widget and then walking out to the world. Instead, anyone should definitely be engaging with the world and find out what it is that people want, even the design-thinking accountant with a canvas and a pack of post-it notes. And in a weird way this is good: we’re actually getting the people in the machines of capitalism to engage with other people. But we do it ‘just enough’, and ‘just good enough’. The point is that, as David Graeber argued, capitalism for a long time has failed to come up with any significant innovations: I mean, any global middle-class consumer household is now filled with more appliances than really necessary. Life is as convenient as it gets, there’s no next level of convenience, and in a Fukuyama End of history way, when there’s no demand because demand is saturated, capitalism has ended. So now, there’s this desperation in which capitalism is trying to hope that the design-thinking accountant might by chance stumble upon the mutation that will allow just a tiny new piece of value creation. But the crucial point is, it must be ‘just enough research’, because obviously, if you do more research, you enter the realm of criticality: “Wait, I am now seeing system connection, I’m seeing constraints to my innovation, I’m seeing how difficult it will be for this innovation to actually be adopted, I see that adoption will require a massive transition in the rest of the infrastructure, habits, practices and values”. This whole charade is just enough to keep generating a little bit of incremental value, but it sure isn’t enough to radically innovate in the direction of equitable futures, sustainable futures, decolonized futures.

FDI

If business can only hope to achieve marginal gains, are you advocating for a central role of academia in the design of longer-term futures of society?

CT

I’m an idealist about the idea of the university, but unfortunately after 1000 years it cannot fulfill the dream that you’re asking of it, be it North America, Europe, or Australia at least. I tried to run this argument once in Interactions magazine which is a bit like Volume, an attempt to speak to both industry and academia within the world of human-computer interaction. There was a moment in which they foolishly allowed people like me to have an opinion page: at that time, I was working at Carnegie Mellon University, and it became clear to me how many of current tech giants had not been created by tech bros in garages, but instead had their origins in the hard research conducted by university academics, particularly at the technical elite universities in North America; whether Caltech, CMU, or MIT. These were the places creating real innovation. The amount of money involved was staggering: a Google executive sits on the trustee Board of CMU, that’s the strength of the symbiotic relation between the two. So one of my complaints in that opinion piece was that, out of all the tenured academic positions in computer science anywhere in North America, you have almost never heard any of those academics being critical of Google, or Facebook. I see that finally some people – like Kate Crawford, Margaret Mitchell, and Timnit Gebru who had just got fired from Google – are now standing up these tech company monopolies in the field of AI ethics, but these have been very recent initiatives: for the last 30-40 years of the development of the internet, academics have been servicing, making innovations with PhD students, and licensing the patents to the tech giants. In the humanities there are tons of people being critical, but the actual people who have incredible power to redirect the course of events, none of those people actually use that tenure to be critical. So of course, I’m calling for a different type of academic.

FDI

But could it be any different, when 95% of the innovative ventures in incubators and accelerators dream not of actual change, but of an exit by acquisition? This is how the GAFA stack innovates by now, phagocytosis. I don’t think that Amazon has developed anything actually significant for the last 10 years, other than swallowing any smaller venture that might have dented its expansion.

For a long time, capitalism has failed to come up with any significant innovations, only little bits of incremental value.

CT

It’s the flip side of running out of real innovation. The internet for instance in its current form consists mostly of social media and gaming pastimes, not innovation improving human equity, it is just somewhere for the giant pool of investment money floating around to enhance its own financial value.

FDI

In another article we investigate the cultural imagination of AI in China, and a peculiar aspect that emerges is very much connected to what you say: social engineering. After modernism in the West we grew incredibly wary of the notion and of the concept itself to a point of undebatabilty, and consequently it seems we gave up on morality (agreeing on what is good) to instead try to achieve ethics, which is a minimum standard. At the same time, as tech merged with behavioral economics, that’s what it substantially does in disguise. In another talk you argued that that modernist burden revolves entirely around guilt, so how can transition design eradicate it?

CT

Giant questions, interesting questions. To say that so-called Western countries have stepped away from social engineering for moral reasons, and therefore abandoned a large opportunity for innovation is really an intriguing argument. I would counter that by just saying we have lots to do around ‘technologies of cooperation’, kind of like the originally espoused vision for the internet, although it should now be re-contextualized as part of what Barbrook calls the Californian Ideology. But it’s fairly clear that we have to think in a completely opposite direction to that one which you’ve articulated with respect to China. I’ll give you an example, about distributed energy: In Australia right now there’s a really interesting problem facing the government, a conservative bunch of climate deniers. The country is highly educated and very urbanized and those urban concentrations don’t vote for the government, so they have been voting with their feet [and hands] now, putting photovoltaic cells on the roofs of houses on a scale that sees Australia as now having one of the highest per capita installs of household photovoltaics – currently one in five, and it’s going to be one in three in a few years. This oppositional action on climate change is leading to an absurd problem: Australia has too much energy in the middle of the day. Too much electricity is being fed into the grid from individual households. There’s so much solar that it is actually too much, because no one’s actually been controlling and overseeing all these households installing PV. In some parts of Australia the price of electricity is going negative, with incentives to paradoxically turn off householders’ photovoltaic cells. 

 

But there’s this interesting consequence which I’ve been involved in recently, trying to get people to think about how they could be more dynamic as both producers and consumers of energy. For the last 100 years electricity came to your house, you could turn on anything you like at any point; we are now moving to a situation precisely because we’re producing and distributing ourselves, so people need to have a dynamic understanding of networks, they need to modify activities accordingly. One thing being discussed overseas is the need for devices that now engage in negotiation with users at every point. Imagine your washing machine suggesting hold-off for a couple of hours, but not in the nightmare of the smart automated home – the last thing you want to do is have the setup and security and fragility of an automated system. You want this to be a negotiation. And it may sound terrible for now, but one could imagine designing these interfaces to trigger not an economic calculation, but a participation in our local community, understanding that your decision to use or generate power is impacting somebody else’s energy practices. Now that would be a really interesting design brief. It’s not the tech startup pain-points-and-grow-exponentially kind of innovation. It’s a different type of practice, designing technologies of cooperation with respect to distributed energy. Of course, you cannot do it alone; you cannot simply put a washing machine on the market right now that refused to go whenever you said, but it is a design proposition that strikingly goes in the opposite direction to that version of Chinese social engineering. It becomes the reverse: social negotiation. Trebor Scholz is trying to do it in relation to platform cooperativism, encouraging people to start digital platform-based user-owned cooperatives to take back the sharing economy. So, it seems to me there’s this totally new domain of interaction design, product design, household design, interior design: it’s a complete modification of what it means to be a global consumer class person, precisely because you’re not just consuming now, you’re also producing. There is a completely different radical innovation pathway available to us.

FDI

Energy and data are easier to transfer, and probably that’s why they have been impacted first. But that doesn’t mean that the transformation might not impact other verticals in the future.

CT

And you know, the people that are in charge of this transition – engineers, econometricians, economists – they only think in terms of market design, price signals. Their dream is everybody being a kind of high frequency energy trader, but only freaky tech bros want to live like that. People want a break from the market in their homes. And it would be possible, if you think about it; if energy becomes a type of currency with different economic mechanisms, perhaps it could be gifting. There’s a whole informal ecology of care – I do something for my neighbor, my neighbor does something for me – yet that is not an economic exchange. You can imagine that all the informal economies which continue to exist within capitalism, could be mobilized by these technologies of cooperation.

FDI

In Amsterdam, De Ceuvel has a similar experiment with energy-sharing tokens, called Jouliette. It’s been running for a couple of years now, a very interesting way of empowering communities to manage and share the energy they produce locally.

CT

Yes, at the moment the blockchain space is full of techno-libertarians, and whether that infrastructure could lend itself to cooperation is a matter of reclaiming the social practices involved in the interface with blockchain infrastructures. But at the moment, inmates are running the asylum.

FDI

We recently released an interactive documentary called Trust in the Blockchain Society, the result of a long investigation on the cultural aspects of this technology. The concept of trust was intriguing, being either the foundation of civilization or the base of economies, according to who you ask. But also another inflection, as monopoly: the hypercentralization that the bidirectional web 2.0 has brought about, and a space to redesign the web 3.0. Our objective was to start a conversation beyond the technical points, around the values of technology, and as a society we can discuss about those values: is cooperation in a blockchain network aligned with our idea of cooperation, or it’s simply another way to structure incentives and achieve the transactionalization of every aspect of the human condition.

CT

And that’s great because otherwise where would one have these conversations? It goes back to your question about the university: to me, a university should be activist in that way. And again, we’re seeing some examples of that kind of activist scholar with respect to data politics, so I’m encouraged to see these types of scholars weaponizing the research against certain futures being baked in by these technology companies. But it’s knowledge versus money so there’s no guarantee we’re gonna [sic] win, but I’m intrigued to see these new types of strategies being adopted.

FDI

In your practice one syllogism emerges very clearly: if “design is everything” and “everything is politics”, then “design is politics”. But at the same time, especially this last remark on structuring cooperation in different ways at different scales, it seems to me that you are advocating for a step further: la politique. Remember when 6-7 years ago everyone was quoting Carl DiSalvo’s Adversarial design? In that book he was making a distinction, derived probably from the French post-structuralists, between ‘le politique’ (the political) and ‘la politique’ (politics). It sounds like you argue beyond the political role of design, but really for the participation of design in politics, I mean formal representative politics. Am I wrong?

The left-right spectrum has pivoted 90 degrees: what historically was red and blue is now black and green.

CT

Not at all, I totally agree with it. Design has always been dealing with micro politics because it structures everyday life through materialisms, weak forces that do the politics outside of representational politics (if you live in a democracy). And through the work of people like DiSalvo, design has recognized that it can even claim a type of agency by speculating and being critical. It is true though that design has tended to be apolitical, and designers themselves still are scared to be voicing a particular political position, precisely because if you do so it chops your client-base in half at least. This wasn’t the case early on, at the birth of design at the beginning of the 20th century: it was a strongly socialist project, with various moments, but it was all about using the cheapness of mass production to enable the building of equity. And it was equity in physical capital, meaning you may not have much money, but you’ve got quality furniture, and I can get quality into everyday life even cheaply in that mass-produced kind of way. Now it seems to me that designers are very hesitant to take explicit positions, either in Latour’s sense that “technology is society made durable,” or in terms of those micropolitics, being out there saying something political. Maybe that’s because the political spectrum is shifting, and the conventional left-right dichotomy will make you miss nuances. Steve Fuller has made this argument, that the left-right spectrum has pivoted 90 degrees: what historically was red and blue (conservative and progressive) is now black and green, with green as the alliance between progressives and conservatives in the name of sustainability, while black characterizes the embrace of acceleration as technology cuts through the spectrum. That’s just one example. Otherwise, there is the rise of eco-fascism, which is a terrorist movement in the name of sustainability (you may remember the Australian terrorist who slaughtered 50 people in mosques in New Zealand espoused some environmental population management views). I think it’s very important, as designers get explicitly political, that they understand the nuances of the technological and political shifts, and the power dynamics that these new alliances create. This is what Transition Design tries to educate designers about. 

Volume 59 – Futures Implied is the result of a collaboration between Volume and the Media Architecture Biennale. This year’s edition MAB20 will take place from June 24-July 2nd as an online event. For more information about the program, see www.mab20.org

Media Architecture and its Futures Implied