Is metadesign a mode of politics?

A discussion between Juan Carlos Garzon and John Wood

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Juan Carlos GarzonDesign as PoliticsJohn Wood

N.B. Juan's questions are italicised on white and John's responses are green. Juan's quotations from Tony's books are shown against a grey background.

Juan: I finished reading Design as Politics by Tony Fry last week and I was surprised to see so many similarities between the 'Design as Politics' project and Metadesign. I collected a couple of quotes that reminded me of Metadesign and I am sharing them here (with a short comment) so I can broaden my understanding of Metadesign with feedback from this group.

The unimagined

“Now is a new time: A time of ‘unsettlement’ in which we are starting to live. It is a moment when the destiny of humanity and its future modes of worldly occupation are not only unclear but still unimagined.” (Fry, 2011, 50)

Thank you for these observations - as I recall, at the start of the 21st century, we were still in the grip of a rather negative pragmatism that masqueraded as political 'realism'. The term 'idealism' had been carefully associated with failure (i.e. mainly communism in Russia and Eastern Europe). This made people wary of any new ideas that were out of step with de-regulated, monetarist, globalised, consumerism. This still contributes to a world in which it is more customary for citizens to side with particular politicians (usually about economics) rather than imagining how they would really like to live after price rises (energy / food etc) force changes that offer little room for manoeuvre. Metadesign followed on from our work with Attainable Utopias in asking us to dream beyond the possible.''

“…it is possible to envisage the building and linking of ‘change platforms’ by ‘change communities’ that both expose and demonstrate directional change, while liberating powerful and transformative ideas…” (Fry, 2011, 67)

Metadesign is a change platform mobilized by change communities. By 2002 we had launched our Attainable Utopias project that sought to explore new pathways between the unimagined and the possible.
See also J., (2005), “How Can We Design Miracles?”, introduction to Agents of Change: A Decade of MA Design Futures, pages 10-14, (June 1, 2005), Goldsmiths College, (Hardback), ISBN 1904158617

“What it (a politics of design) can do…is to confront attempts to cover over dangers, establish proto-communities of ‘change agents’ and make a chorismos (a separation, a space of withdrawal) that can alter the proximity of change agents to the familiar.”(Fry, 2011, 79)

Does 'a politics of design' sound familiar? (i.e. 'metadesign')

“In essence, a politics of design, so disposed, is the designing of the redirective designer into a position of critical action.” (Fry, 2011, 79)

We are thankful to Tony Fry for coining the term redirective design, and for writing about Design as Politics. We claim no credit for these terms, which push some of our ideas into a more public and helpful arena of discussion. However, their precepts are clear in the programme criteria for our original (1989) BA(Hons) Design degrees and (1995) MA Design Futures programmes at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Metadesign empowers communities into that position of critical action.

“…’creative communities’ could and should put themselves before the challenge of developing new, realizable…political imaginaries.” (Fry, 2011, 103)

Again, dreaming beyond the possible.
Not sure he goes this far, but it is a true and helpful call to action

“Essentially, living politically…takes power away from existing institutional politics as it upholds the status quo. The spell of centralized power is broken and the reality of dispersed power is animated in action, and so made visible.” (Fry, 2011, 103)

Can metadesign teams be the descentralized sources of action in this post-democratic revolution?
We don't think it can be - nor do we think this is needed. Unlike design metadesigning does not work in a predictive way because it is intended to be a collective seeding process, rather than working from a clearly defined purpose (see pre-purpose).

“It is a question of changing the ways things are. While design cannot do this as it is, it does have the potential, if it becomes a redirective practice (design as a prefigurative agency employed across a vast sweep of disciplines)”

Metadesign is that ‘redirective practice’, it takes interdisciplinary teams and produces true transdisciplinary results.
Yes - not sure I quite see Tony's caution about saying that design can 'change the way things are'. Metadesign emphasises languaging as a vital addition to the repertoire that design teams use. By changing words you instantly change the meaning. And by changing the meaning you may also change the 'reality' that governs our behaviour, habits, etc.

“Design as politics is a ‘practical politics’ that is radical in effect rather than gesture.” (Fry, 2011, 134)
“We cannot design in silence. It demands conversation and stories into which design-led redirection can be accommodated and from which it can speak.” (Fry, 2011, 135)

This reminded me of the importance of narratives in Metadesign processes.
Of course, Wittgenstein and the pragmatists gave designers a (linguistics) legacy from which to develop metadesign. For me, design is almost always practical, in the sense that it creates affordances that encourage, invite, or facilitate a different way of being. Changing hearts and minds is even possible with the least 'practical' form of 'design' that I can think of - i.e. Critical Design, which seems more likely to deliver 'radical gestures', rather than 'radical effects'. This may be an unfair observation, as we have not yet managed to run a full-scale commercial or community-based project to full-term success. However, I see metadesign as having the potential to reconcile shared aims of top-down and bottom-up initiatives.

“…the development of a politics that can gather the plural around a common cause based on the common good and a recreated foundation of ethics.” (Fry, 2011, 152)

Is this a Metadesign workshop?
I see what we doing as re-designing the framework upon which politics is based. A decade ago we used Dewey's notion of creative democracy and reframed it as a reminder that our democracy is choice-based, rather than vision-based.

“Sustainment is seen then as the imperative of the task at hand, and as such has the status of a moment of imminence driving a nascent practice.” (Fry, 2011, 156)

Is this nascent practice Metadesign?
I can't see how the term 'sustainment' is any better than the much misused term 'sustainability'. While 'sustainment' may be marginally less prone to ambiguity, it also emphasises the temporal sense. I prefer our term co-sustainment because expecting situations to endure (without wise adaptation to new conditions) is a presumptuous and dangerous conceit.

Design as politics = Neu Bildung, ontological design, care, craft = Metadesign
I think this 'Design as Politics' project is already being implemented as Metadesign, specifically through Metadesign workshops. Can Metadesign be a facilitator to dream and implement a post-democratic form of governance rooted in co-sustainment? can Metadesign be an 'institution' in a new political paradigm?

We hope so....a paradigm change is overdue...see some of our guidelines for how we might set about achieving this.

Your thoughts and comments will be much appreciated! Thank you
Please continue discussion:

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OR reply to Juan Carlos on this wiki website
OR email: john at metadesigners.org

See Juan's interview
Download John's article Auspicious Reasoning
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