Apology in advance: more links available later – I’m posting this via my phone.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about an event in Southampton I had attended. I felt a bit like a voyeur, or whistleblower – someone writing an exposé. This feeling was amplified by the fact that I hadn’t asked any questions or raised my issues during the actual event. I wasn’t confident or quick enough to get my questions/comments taken in the main session, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay for food (and drinks?) after the event, to discuss them in person with the presenters and other attendees. I did feel a bit guilty, therefore, as if I was going behind their backs by writing the post.
The guilt was, of course, lessened by the fact that this blog hasn’t exactly got an audience of millions.
Nevertheless, I’m feeling a bit of the same sort of guilt today as I write about another event I attended. I’m not criticising so much this time, though, so perhaps it’s a bit better.
I went to an ESRC-funded seminar at the University of Bristol today, which was looking at urban spaces and ‘neuroarchitecture’ – that is, how neuroscience can inform planning, design and architecture. There was a range of speakers from various backgrounds, and lots of interesting ideas flying about.
Here, I want to concentrate on just one, which relates to my concerns about nudging.
Dan Lockton gave a really interesting presentation about ‘co-designing’ public space. In this formulation, design can be not about directing people to do what designers or planners want – they’re actually there to help people (potentially) using these spaces achieve what they want to.
This conception appears to get over some of my fears about nudging – that it’s just the same old exercise of power using a different means. To accept it as an approach, we do have to set aside the issue that humans don’t have fixed preferences, and actions aren’t aimed at single objectives or problems. I know lots of people – whether you call yourself a conservative, libertarian, economist or something else entirely – won’t feel they can legitimately set aside this point and accept stated preferences. However, there is something in this point, as we have to do this for any policy issue: whether explicitly, tacitly, or unknowingly, balance up competing perspectives, objectives and preferences.
So, setting those concerns aside for a moment (and I know that dismissing them like that is a bit flippant), the idea of co-design suggests that people are involved in discussions about what the ‘aims’ of the development are. And they should also be involved in the continual review and evaluation of any design – as Dan observed, you can see the ‘purpose’ of a system as being the effect it produces, so if that isn’t what you want, then you need to redesign.
If we see design effects at the individual level as this form of facilitation of individual objectives, then nudging doesn’t seem so bad; it’s making it easier for people to do what they really want to do.
(Writing that makes me want to take back the previous paragraph – I do really struggle with this idea of what people ‘really’ want to do. Anyway, I said I’m setting that aside to raise a separate issue.)
However, design – especially of public space – isn’t at the individual level. To perhaps overstate my case: no building is private, in the sense of its effects being confined to a single individual. This issue of power and control was raised by a couple of participants – notably Sam Kingsley. The fact is that although it’s possible to imagine a community all agreeing on the desire to use less energy, other objectives aren’t so clear cut, but we need prior agreement on the values underpinning the design aim.
In a way, this is a pretty basic insight, that isn’t specific to the issue of co-design, and just raises the broader issues that always surround discussions of democracy and community engagement.
However, there is a fundamental point that questions the very model that initially made Dan’s version of co-design seem more acceptable to me. Dan’s argument runs that design helps people achieve what they actually want to do. But although the summing up by Joe Painter proclaimed ‘the death and cremation of the rational actor model in social science’, this is in fact precisely that: a continuing model of rational, individual actors. The space or design is not in fact individual, it is necessarily social, as are the actions of individuals in their genesis and effects.
That is, we simply can’t conceive of co-design (of public space, at least – but certainly any architecture) in terms of individual preferences and actions.
To be fair to Dan, it wasn’t him who proclaimed the death of the rational actor – and there are two key saving graces of co-design that mean it still works for me as the best (or more accurately ‘most acceptable’) formulation of nudging I’ve heard yet.
First, if we think of the ‘people’ (in Dan’s phrase of co-design helping people achieve what they really want) as a collective, then it makes complete sense – but the problem is that this then makes the whole idea less straightforward, and takes us back to the need to agree collectively on aims and values.
Second, as Dan explained in response to Sam Kingsley’s comment, it’s not as if he’s suggesting co-design is perfect, and you’d still need to have checks, balances and evaluation; the thing is, it privileges the values and perspective of the designer less than the alternatives, so it’s at worst a good start. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s just hope it’s more like co-production than the parody I stumbled across browsing Twitter on the train back from the seminar.