Wednesday, February 28, 2007

We have never been disciplinary

Designers typically make claims about being able to integrate between disciplines: that "design thinking" and design methods are effective at drawing together knowledges from different contexts in the process of designing. Once that meant different kinds of (design) specialist; increasingly this means the various stakeholders in a process of creating a venture, especially "users" but also various organizational functions needed to design and deliver a new thing. So, design might be seen as profoundly or indeed determinately interdisciplinary - offering a process to enable collaboration across multiple disciplines.

A colloquium (academese for talkshop) on "Interdisciplinarity and Society" held at St Catherine's College, Oxford, the other day provided me with resources to reflect on this. The day was an ouput of a study led by my collaborator Andrew Barry (Oxford University Centre for the Environment), Georgina Born (anthroplogy, Cambridge) and Marilyn Strathern (anthroplogy, Cambridge) funded by the ESRC which is a comparative study of interdisciplinary research involving a survey of interdisciplinary collaborations involving natural scientists and either social scientists and/or artists worldwide.

Another output will be a book which draws on the contributions from several amazing scholars at the event. These included:
- historian of science Simon Schaffer (Cambridge), who took us on a zoom round his understanding of interdisciplinarity drawing on Foucault: that disciplines organize by assembling in space and especiallly by organizing aesthetic objects in space.
- anthroplogist Lucy Suchman (Lancaster), who talked about the currently fashionable role of anthropology in industry, drawing on her time at Xerox PARC.
- Georgina Born and Gisa Weszkalnys, who described the findings of their study of emerging "interdisciplines" in art-science collaborations, in particular the multidisciplinary teaching programme at UC Irvine called Arts Computation Engineering and the emergence of new aesthetic objects.
- Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard), who drew our attention to the ways that academic departments control disciplines, compete for funds and replicate themselves.

Designers and theorists from different backgrounds and contexts have been turning design into a discipline over 40 years or so, and (in the UK) the teaching of design and most research about design has moved into universities. Design is now identifiable as a range of disciplines, some within the arts tradition and some within engineering. Recently I have been wondering to what extent design (and art too?) can be considered to be disciplinary even though it's now embedded in academia. One the one hand, according to Hebert Simon's definition, nearly any purposeful activity is a design activity. On the other there are students, teachers, professional designers, and theorists whose activities enact the discipline(s) of "design". From another perspective, design processes and artefacts cannot be understood without people engaging with them in context. The boundaries are hard to describe. To follow Latour's "We Have Never Been Modern", I wonder if it is possible to make the claim "We have never been disciplinary". If design is un-disciplined/undisciplinary, might this make its practices and methods particularly suitable as a starting point for multi-disciplinary collaboration?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Event: links between management education and design education

Emerging bridges between design, technology and business education a year after the Cox Review

With the (UK) Design Council I am jointly organizing a half-day event which will bring together many of the UK academics and policymakers involved in making links between management/business education and design education.

It follows a year or so of meetings in response to a report by Sir George Cox to the UK Treasury about Creativity in Business, which argued for better links between management/business education and design education (teaching and research) and the creation of five centres of excellence based around teaching and research. Relevant models include the interdisciplinary d-School at Stanford, Rotman School of Management in Toronto and Zollverein Design Management School in Germany. Find out more at the Design Council's blog.

Date: Weds 21 March 0945-1430 (includes lunch)
Location: Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

_ To share knowledge and experiences of UK higher education institutions working at the intersection of design education and business management education
_ To discuss the implication of findings form the US mission and the Cox Review recommendations for UK HEIs and for national policy
_To discuss barriers and support development opportunities

If you want to attend please contact Aviv Katz at the Design Council.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Designing for social issues: Hilary Cottam

Hilary Cottam - who does not call herself a designer but won the UK Designer of the Year award in 2005 - offers a wonderful example of what "design leadership" might be.

Hilary visited Oxford earlier this week to talk about failure, doubt and misdirection - as part of the "Permission to Fail" series at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford, organized by artist Abigail Reynolds. In contrast to another recent speaker in this series, novelist AL Kennedy who talked eloquently about the doubt and amibiguity in her writing practice, Hilary talked a great deal about institutional failture and institutional doubt.

In a range of projects in the UK and internationally, Hilary has developed and used visual and participatory methods to help people in complex and difficult situations make sense of their environment and the sorts of changes they want. She has worked with artists and designers to help people give form to their aspirations, needs and fears. Whether working with her neighbouring slum dwellers in the Dominican Republic, persuading the UK Department for Education to give her £10million to re-design not just a school building in south London but also its processes and organization, and then as the leader of the Design Council's RED unit, Hilary has created opportunities for groups of people to co-imagine and co-design their services.

What I found particularly interesting was the questions she is now asking herself and her team (who have left the Design Council and are setting up a social venture). How do you scale these practices? What institutional forms need to be developed to move away from industrial models of education and health provision? In what ways can we discuss the implications and effects of using what some people call "design thinking" and design methods (visualization, prototyping, user focus)? And if Hilary's goal is "to help people do it for themselves" what are the ethical and political issues that are embedded in this?