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From the Technical to the Political: Democratizing Design Thinking


Abstract and Figures

Design thinking has recently garnered widespread recognition across a variety of sectors including education, business, and development, in the non-profit, private, and public spheres alike. In contrast to some other areas of design, advocates of design thinking focus on human needs, aka those of the end-user, as a space for increased empathy and potential social impact. Innovation of this type is then implicitly (and oftentimes explicitly) linked to social progress. In this paper, we will explore the ironies around the use of design thinking for social impact in its contemporary market-friendly iterations. Namely, mainstream design thinking methodologies are limited by their myopic focus on technological innovation and failure to address political power dynamics. After identifying a need to reformat design thinking for the social good, we present a curricular framework that integrates design thinking with social justice to transcend these flaws and address complex social problems.
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From CONTESTED_CITIES to Global Urban Justice
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Article nº 5-008
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democratizing design thinking
Brooke Staton
Julia Kramer
Pierce Gordon
Lauren Valdez
University of California at Berkeley
Design thinking has recently garnered widespread recognition across a variety of
sectors including education, business, and development, in the non-profit,
private, and public spheres alike. In contrast to some other areas of design,
advocates of design thinking focus on human needs, aka those of the end-user,
as a space for increased empathy and potential social impact. Innovation of this
type is then implicitly (and oftentimes explicitly) linked to social progress. In this
paper, we will explore the ironies around the use of design thinking for social
impact in its contemporary market-friendly iterations. Namely, mainstream
design thinking methodologies are limited by their myopic focus on technological
innovation and failure to address political power dynamics. After identifying a
need to reformat design thinking for the social good, we present a curricular
framework that integrates design thinking with social justice to transcend these
flaws and address complex social problems.
KEYWORDS: design thinking, curriculum methodology, social justice, Right to the
City, neoliberal critique
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1.1 Democratizing Design Thinking
1.1.1 Introduction
“In order to do something different you must do something different.” Sean Donohue
and Rama Gheerawo, two scholars and practicing designers/design researchers articulate
this insight in their 2007 pitch for inclusive design.1 In context, it is an argument for the
expansion of traditional design practices to innovate towards social change. In order to
“do” or achieve something different, one must use a different process.
Similar sentiments underlie the current fervor around design thinking (DT) and human-
centered design (HCD). Design thinking, according to Stefani Di Russo (2016), may be
understood as “a broad term used by professionals outside of the design industry to
describe the activity involved in design practice.”2 Importantly, she notes that “in this
sense, design thinking may be synonymous with the term “design” but places emphasis on
the mindset behind design practice.”2 (emphasis added)
The utility naming DT in this context is to imagine broad applications of design as a
solution-driven, creative problem-solving process. In practice, these applications include
abstract issues in complex social contexts.
The urban context is rife with such challenges. Cities are dynamic and complex, offering a
unique hotbed for design opportunities. Technical, legal, political and social systems
intersect in countless ways to shape the lives of people and communities in geographic
proximity. In urban environments and beyond, “design thinking” has been deployed with
a particular human-centered framework. In contrast to some other areas of design, human-
centered design (HCD) centers the focus of design work on the needs of the human
recipient of the project, often called the “user”. The premise holds that people-focused
solutions will garner the most relevance and success. Methodologically, HCD deliberately
holds space for increased empathy in the design process that is attractive for practitioners
seeking innovative social impact. In this way, DT as HCD has been implicitly (and
oftentimes explicitly) linked to social progress.
However, there are ironies around the use of design thinking for social impact in its
contemporary market-friendly iterations. In this paper, we examine the history of DT to
understand the evolution of its current apolitical, ahistorical methodologies. Then, we will
use the Right to the City framework to critique these methodologies and related
alternatives on the basis of their aspirations to create social change. Finally, we draw on
practice-based evidence from politically-conscious methodologies to present a curricular
philosophy as an attempt to address these shortcomings and capitalize on the creative
possibilities of DT for radical social transformation.
1.2 History of Design Thinking
Herbert Simon first posed design as a particular way of thinking in 1969. While he
discussed design as a way of thinking in the sciences, design thinking has since garnered
widespread recognition across a variety of other sectors including education, business, and
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development in the non-profit, private, and public spheres alike. In his 1969 book The
Sciences of the Artificial, Simon writes:
“The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different
fundamentally from one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient [...] schools of
engineering, as well as architecture, business, education law and medicine, are all
centrally concerned with the process of design (p. 111).”3
Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber expanded the possibilities of these insights with the
seminal 1973 paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. In this paper, they write that
social policy problems are “wicked” in that they are ill-defined, complex, and lack a unique
solution.4 Rittel characterizes wicked problems by ten different properties (Rittel &
Webber, 1973):
1. “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no
opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of
potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that
be incorporated into the plan
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in
numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's
10. The planner has no right to be wrong”4
In 1987, Peter Rowe credited Rittel and Webber’s conception of “wicked problems” as
inspiring the emergent area of DT. His 1987 book “Design Thinking” was the first usage
of the term “design thinking” in the formal literature.5 Rowe’s book represented a shift
away from the scientific logic behind a science of design, established previously by Simon.2
Rowe and others, including Nigel Cross, Donald Schoen and Richard Buchanan explore
the “human” (ambiguous and cognitive) facets of design thinking.2
In 1992, Richard Buchanan popularized the notion of wicked problems in design thinking.
He rejected the notion of design as a science, saying that design is a “liberal art of technical
culture,”6 further opening up space to engage with complexity (an opposing Herbert
Simon’s view). In his discussion, Buchanan notes the contradictions inherent in the history
of design:
“One could … say that the history of design history is a record of the design
historians’ views regarding what they conceive to be the subject matter of design.
We have been slow to recognize the peculiar indeterminacy of subject matter in
design and its impact on the nature of design thinking.”6
Despite some conceptual ambiguity among academics and design theorists, design thinking
has been unequivocally linked to “wicked” social problems throughout most of its history.
However, DT entered mainstream markets via IDEO, a global design consultancy founded
in 1991 by Stanford University Professor David Kelley. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, wrote
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a 2008 paper “Design Thinking” in the Harvard Business Review illustrating their
methodological brand which remains prominent amongst professionals engaging in DT
practice. This paper explicitly tied together the tenets of design thinking with innovative
and marketable design outcomes.7 Brown relates design thinking to human-centered design
through the following definition:
“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the
designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology,
and the requirements for business success.”8
1.3 Critiques of Design Thinking Methodology
The tail end of the above definition“requirements for business success”—alludes to the
conflicts of interest that complicate the use of DT for social progress. Yet, a cursory
Google search reveals the widespread popularity of DT and HCD across multiple sectors
for professionals with just such aimsfrom private business interests to academia,
nongovernmental organizations, and public institutions. The ever-expanding scale of DT
adoption can be attributed in part to a robust body of case studies that preliminarily
indicate success by selected metrics.9 However, despite this wave of hype, and, arguably,
genuine potential, critical theoretical analysis indicates that DT has yet to realize a set of
practice norms that would allow it to meaningfully impact the wicked problems it purports
to address.
We can begin to make sense of these shortcomings by examining Lefebvre’s Right to the
City framework. Marcuse (2009) identifies Lefebvre’s definition of the right to the city as
“a cry and a demand. [...] the right to information, the rights to use multiple services, the
right of users to make known their ideas on the space and time of their activities in urban
areas.”10 David Harvey notes that this right is tied to urban sociologist Robert Park’s
observation that as much as mankind may shape its environment, the environment in turn
shapes those who live in it. Therefore, the right to mold the city after one’s “heart’s desire”
is another way of articulating a right to self-determination.11
The framework around “rights” links us to explicitly political territory. From the legal to
academic circles, scholars have used the terms “rights” to examine questions of power,
especially as it intersects with the distribution of high-value material resources such as
water, housing, and education, as well as immaterial resources such as “opportunity”,
safety, and input into decision-making processes.12,13,14 Defined by the Merriam Webster
dictionary as “the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled,”15 “rights” are
understood across these arenas as (contextually contested) entitlements accorded on the
basis of classifications of belongingness on various scales, such as citizenship or
membership in the human race. Institutions and organizations, in turn, use these contested
baselines to inform policy, programming, and design for both the allocation of resources
and the nature of the decision-making processes behind these allocations. The keyword
here is contested: understandings of rights, while imagined as immutable, are the rhetorical
constructions of ongoing tangible power struggles between various groups. The resources
and opportunities accorded by “rights” are controlled in reality by individuals and networks
of influence that are pressured by other groups for access to these items.
Returning to Lefebvre and Harvey, the aforementioned Right to the City (and its corollary,
the Right to Self-Determination), like all rights, are discursive indicators of power dynamics
at play. From this perspective, we can see that the “wicked problems” of urban spaces are
political contests at the core: competitions between powerful and disempowered classes
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over access to resources, location, and decision-making power over the forces that impact
their lives. Timothy Mitchell (2002) and Tania Murray Li (2007) teach us that exclusively
technocratic interventions within such contexts are inherently limited.16,17 Their analysis of
flawed development projects reveals a critical insight that goes unrecognized by presently
available design thinking methodologies: Design, conceived as a politically agnostic
technical discipline concerned with the (in)efficiencies of systems, cannot solve problems
generated by the larger political contexts in which it operates. In fact, such design
interventions risk perpetuating rather than challenging the power dynamics at the root of
the social issue it is deployed to address.
Especially in today’s global context in which privatized, market-dependent interventions
are increasingly prevalent in social impact work, exposing issues endemic to political
contexts is of prime concern. This increase of private power and corresponding decrease
in public influence is discussed at length in the literature around neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism itself is a controversial term that many argue has been invoked so often that
its definition(s) are unclear.18,19 Still, contemporary brands of “social entrepreneurship” that
promote DT’s supposed potential to catalyze “innovative”20 approaches to community and
international development recall several core aspects of neoliberal frameworks as described
by James Ferguson (2010):
“The key elements of the doctrine are variously described, but always include a
valorization of private enterprise and suspicion of the state, along with what is
sometimes called “free-market fetishism” among other features.18
Modern mainstream DT methodologies demonstrate just such a reliance on private
enterprise as they emphasize market-friendliness (often coded as “sustainability”) as a
prerequisite for successful solutions. This widespread practice norm, consistent with the
neoliberal paradigm described by Mirowski (2013) as a framework “whereby the market
stands as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and where freedom is recoded to mean anything the
market allows”21 can discourage the examination of underlying market mechanisms by
which these design projects are supported. Thus, the fundamentally political dimensions of
“wicked problems” are rendered invisible before the design process even begins. The
creative potential of DT/HCD methodologies for transformative change may be
foreclosed upon by this oversight. Worse yet, such failure to assess the role of power
dynamics in a given social issue exacerbates the risk of perpetuating the violent forces at
the root of the problem.
We are not alone in this critique. Janzer and Weinstein (2015) draw on insights from
scholars such as Paolo Freire and Edward Said in order to link uncritical applications of
DT/HCD to neocolonialism.22 They warn that “without first considering processes,
methodologies, frameworks, ethics, and foundations for the field, the freedom and
dynamism currently present within social design weaken the legitimacy and potential
efficacy of the field” and “can and [do] contribute to causing harm and negatively
impacting populations in an attempt to make social change.”22 David Booth (2015)
contends that development work, including iterative design, “works best, and is least liable
to do harm, when the people designing it are thinking and working politically.”23
Such observations parallel insights from the environmental justice movement. This
movement draws on a theoretical framework of procedural justice: the right to fairness in
the terms on which decision-making takes place. Kaswan (2003) explains that a just
scenario of resource distribution is impossible to achieve without just procedures that
confer agency to underprivileged groupsthat is, by including affected communities at the
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decision-making table.24 If extrapolated to design practice, this notion underscores the
connection between design process and design outcomes in matters of power. These
insights have been verified and replicated in the field of participatory action research
(PAR), also known as community based participatory research (CBPR), discussed in more
detail in the Practice-Based Evidence Section below.25,26
Furthermore, DT suffers losses in quality by using politically problematic conceptions of
knowledge and expertise. These critiques, also leveled toward other research activities,
contend that democratized partnerships lead to more accurate, richer, and relevant data
than is otherwise possible.27 While DT as HCD superficially attempts to procure insider
knowledge by researching perspectives of the “user” and/or beneficiary of the design
solution, scholars Lucy Kimbell (2011) and Marc Steen (2011) point out the difficulties in
accurately assimilating such perspectives through the current top-down paradigm in which
designers are “privileged as the main agent in design.”28,29 Put simply, the biases and
interests of HCD practitioners inevitably filter their perception of user needs. Participants
with insider knowledge must be privileged with decision-making power in the design
process to avoid losing that knowledge in translation.
1.4 Alternative Approaches to Design Thinking: Gaps
Alternatives approaches to design thinking aimed at increasing its utility for social impact
exist. However, a review of these methodologies indicates that they fail to fully include the
democratizing principles necessary to address power dynamics and wicked problems.
Participatory Design (PD) is one such example. A design tradition started by the socialist
democratic values of Scandinavian union workers, PD has developed a tradition which
focuses on engaging the user and/or intended beneficiary of the design intervention in the
design process. In PD, “genuine” participation is achieved when designers facilitate an
expansion of the users’ role from being “merely informants to being legitimate and
acknowledged participants in the design process.”30 Prioritizing local accountability,
researchers and practitioners of PD ideally consider local members to access local needs
and build participation in social innovation.
However, despite the emphasis on user involvement, PD has exhibited limitations in
practice. Published critiques touch on the difficulty in executing PD for all but small scale
projects.31 Methodologically, PD hinges on an outside designer initiating and likely leading
the design process. Even in the best case where designers and users establish deep
partnership, the process was still initiated by the designer.32 The users are not afforded the
agency to choose when to be involved in such a design process; they are free to opt out,
but they are not free to opt in. Most insidiously, PD suffers from institutional pressures on
researchers to “‘publish or perish”--threatening the scope and representativeness of the
Value Sensitive Design (VSD), proposed by Friedman, Kahn, and Borning (2013) goes
farther than PD to include all values (particularly those with “moral import”), including
democracy and participation, as a core pillar in the design process.33 VSD does aim to
consider a range of social and technical factors in its design methodology, and it frames the
design work on human values. However, it still falls prey to similar critiques as those of
PD, in that it is still initiated by an outside designer and hinges on this designer’s efforts
rather than the efforts of those affected by the design.
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Another field called Public Interest Design (PID) tackles social interest from another angle
by offering pro bono or otherwise affordable work by professional design firms. While
useful in some instances, the very nature of the work is focused on design for individuals
and not for pervasive structures. It’s dependence on traditional methodologies and the
designer’s altruism, which is in turn usually supported by an accumulation of resources via
unchallenged market dynamics, limits its transformative potentialas well as privileging
those who are visible to the designers and ignoring those who are not.
Practioners “D-Lab” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may come the closest to
political empowerment through design with their Creative Capacity Building (CCB)
methodology. CCB, described as “a methodology that encourages and trains people to
make technologies that generate income, improve health and safety, or save labor and
time,” addresses the need to feature users as agents through the design process. While
research shows that technologies can be employed in the service of political
empowerment,34 the narrow focus on technological solutions in CCB does not cover the
full spectrum of possibilities for addressing the political dimensions of wicked problems.
There is room to build upon this work with methodologies designed to go beyond
technology and inspire new tactics, programs, strategies and actions in the service of social
Practice-Based Evidence
The push for such a design methodology is informed by other proven techniques of
transformative co-creation. As Lee (2015) observes, the political approach to social
intervention advocated in this in this paper has its roots in the participatory, bottom up,
community-led traditions that have evolved within development and research.35
Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), a style of development intervention that subversively
addresses problematic power dynamics in theory and practice, is one such methodology.
PRA is described as “an approach and methods for learning about rural life and conditions
from, with and by rural people.”36 PRA builds partnerships between outside experts and
disempowered communities to “share, enhance, and analyze their knowledge of life and
conditions, to plan and to act.”37
Similarly, Participatory Action Research (PAR) and CBPR methodologies exemplify an
attempt to build procedural justice into research for the explicit purpose of social change.
Notably, evidence demonstrates the potential of these methodologies not only to garner
higher-quality research, but also to build the capacity of oppressed groups to advocate
effectively for their interests even beyond the original research project.38 The success of
these methodologies has caught the attention of other designers engaged in wicked
problems: Katoppo and Sudradjat (2015) developed an alternative research method that
combines PAR and DT. They propose that the combination of PAR and DT offers a
uniquely social and participatory framework through which to conduct architectural
design.39 While they focus specifically on architecture, the mentality underlying the
proposed design approach can be applied across design domains.
These methodologies are imperfect. In practice, participatory development approaches
such as PRA are critiqued for the prevalence of officializing and muting practices which
silence and exclude non-dominant communities that could otherwise contribute to more
nuanced understandings and design solutions of PRA initiatives. Also, the logistical
difficulty of coordinated, wide-scale involvement of development actors necessitated by the
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methods and requirements of participatory inclusion can consume capacity necessary for
other development tasks and priorities, including administrative and agricultural activities.27
Similarly, PAR/CBPR suffer from similar concerns as well as challenges related to
feasibility and expediency. Participatory processes generally require additional time and
resources in order to develop collaborative capacity and genuine partnership between
communities and “expert” outsiders. Partnership investment must be balanced with
practical budget concerns and sensitive political timelines.25 Still, a substantial body of
evidence indicates that these methodologies can facilitate empowerment.
A Social Justice & Design Thinking Curriculum
Given this potential, we have developed a design thinking methodology that is explicitly
political in its aims and process called Design Thinking for Social Justice (DT for SJ).
Social justice is described by respected philosopher John Rawls as a set of “principles [that]
provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society.”40 This idea
of justice is more specific than the larger umbrella of well-intentioned design work for
“social impact.” For Rawls,
“[T]he primary subject of [social] justice is the basic structure of society, or more
exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights
and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation.
[These basic institutions include] the political constitution and the principal
economic and social arrangements.”40
In other words, the pursuit of social justice is the pursuit of fairness in these contests of
power, influence, and resource distribution. While the specifics of what constitutes fairness
can be debated, social justice describes our guiding principle in reimagining DT as a tool in
the greater struggle for rights, self-determination, and the democratization of space.
Our Design Thinking for Social Justice methodology consists of a curriculum of exercises
that engage design practitioners with considerations of identity and power. These exercises
are intended to enhance, rather than replace, mainstream apolitical DT techniques. Full
description of this methodology is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is
summarized here in contrast to mainstream DT methods in order to illustrate the
possibilities for concrete shifts in practice.
DT for SJ, like all DT, can be understood as a non-linear progression through different
phases of structured-creative problem solving. Industry leader IDEO names three core
spaces in the design thinking process: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.20 These
core phases are further broken down into the five sub-areas as described below by the
Stanford University, an IDEO affiliate:
“Empathize: Work to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are
designing. Do this through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in
their experiences.
Define: Process and synthesize the findings from your empathy work in order to
form a user point of view that you will address with your design.
Ideate: Explore a wide variety of possible solutions through generating a large
quantity of diverse possible solutions, allowing you to step beyond the obvious and
explore a range of ideas.
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Prototype: Transform your ideas into a physical form so that you can experience
and interact with them and, in the process, learn and develop more empathy.
Test: Try out high-resolution products and use observations and feedback to refine
prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine your original point of view.”41
As mentioned above, these spaces of DT are meant to be human-centeredthey aim to
unlock the creative potential for social good (and other goals) by considering the needs of
the people the design is meant to serve. DT for SJ improves on this baseline with
additional design spaces meant to transform social ills via the political empowerment of
marginalized groups (compare figures A and B). These additional spaces, their function,
and example design exercises for each are described below.
Figure A: IDEO Design Thinking Process Spaces
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Figure B: Design Thinking for Social Justice additions to IDEO Process
Sources: Staton et. al, adapted from
Reflect”—a space for designers to cultivate critical awareness of their social
Paulo Freire describes the work of liberation of the oppressed as praxis, a two part
undertaking that consists of the “action and reflection of men and women upon the world
to transform it.”42 The reflect space in DT for SJ is an opportunity for design practitioners
to locate themselves within the flows of power in which they seek to intervene. One’s
positionality, the extent to which one is privileged or oppressed along different axes of
identity, influences the presence and perspective that one brings to a design process.
Reflexive awareness of this positionality is critical: privilege creates blind spots and
opportunities to harm and/or exclude design partners with less structural power across a
given dimension, undermining the empowering potential of collaboration. Furthermore,
depending on one’s group membership, the same action (say, taking the lead in defining a
design challenge) can either perpetuate a problematic power dynamic (e.g. colonialism) or
subvert a pattern of domination between groups by according influence to the less-
powerful party. Examining one’s positionality is tantamount to revealing opportunities for
transformative change within design partnerships.
In the reflect space, DT for SJ leverages exercises that cultivate this political self-awareness
of identity. Such practices have been used in social-justice education for decades.43
Contextualize”—a space for designers to contextualize the design
challenge/social issue within a larger history of identity, culture, place, and power
struggle between groups
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As IDEO CEO Tim Brown discusses, mainstream design-thinkers are encouraged to “go
out into the world”20 to understand the nuances of their design challenge. However, this
approach of diving deeply in a single slice of time can be compared to cross-sectional
research: it may yield rich data, yet it cannot show the temporal changes that longitudinal
studies offer. Historical context is often critical for understanding the political dynamics
relevant to the design research. For example: a designer might go into a poor Black
neighborhood in a U.S. city and conclude that the community’s lack of connection to
mainstream financial institutions can be attributed to a simple lack of knowledge, expertise,
or technology. Yet the history of institutional segregation and racist exclusion from
financial services (e.g. mortgages) in those neighborhoods paints a very different picture of
deep economic disenfranchisement that will not be undone by any one-dimensional “hack”
Design Thinking for Social Justice requires exploration of this critical contextual
information. Furthermore, designers must be sensitive to biases in knowledge sources that
favor dominant groups while misstating or erasing histories of the marginalized. DT for SJ
incorporates alternative sources of knowledge, such as oral histories, storytelling, and art
forms to reveal perspectives that are missed by mainstream sources.
Democratize”—a space for the very meaning of “designer” to be challenged,
where the right to self-determination is actualized via concrete capital investments
in creative-problem solving lead by marginalized peoples.
Communities at the margins have been innovating as a matter of survival and in the work
of liberation since time immemorial. The very work of navigating life between forces of
exploitation, violence, and neglect requires ingenuity in devising solutions around dominant
social structures. These practices of “making a way out of no way” are recognized here as
subversive, innovative work. DT for SJ adds value to this struggle in two ways: First, by
connecting participants from marginalized communities to the resources, credibility, and
influence available in the design world, and second by offering a structured set of tools
through which community members may focus their creative potential if they so choose.
While the “democratize” space consists of specific exercises designed to facilitate politically
subversive, equitable partnerships, democratization continues throughout the DT for SJ
process. All participants are considered co-designers at every stage with a focus on
promoting the agency of the most marginalized of the group. The DT for SJ framework
shifts towards a perspective called for by Kimbell (2010) and others to recognize design as
a “distributed social accomplishment” in which multiple contributors together “constitute
[its] meaning and effects.”28 In this way, the line between designers and designees is
blurred, interrupting the “design as transaction” and creating opportunities to define new
forms of social and economic value.
The participatory-focused research and development approaches from which we draw,
detailed earlier, suffer from several limitations that may apply to DT for SJ. These
limitations can be summarized as the exclusion of non-dominant groups, and temporal and
financial resource constraints. Design thinking through a social justice framework would
inevitably run into similar logistical challenges as relationships are built and maintained.
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However, these concerns can be addressed by forming networks of practice that transcend
any one organization, institution, or community’s capacity. Coalition-based models of
fundraising and activism can be activated in order to secure resources for democratized
design practice in the pursuit of justice. Furthermore, the investment in community
relationships themselves can be seen as a worthy goal separate from a fully-realized design
intervention: CBPR with high levels of partnership has been found to build civic
empowerment amongst participating communities.38 Whether or not an intervention
materializes (in the face of time and budget constraints exacerbated by investment in
collaboration), participants in a democratized design process gain tools and relationships
that can enable increased influence going forward.
Theoretical analysis and practice-based evidence indicate a need to rethink current
approaches to design for social impact. The Right to the City framework offers insight into
the fundamentally political nature of design aimed at addressing the “wicked” problems of
the urban space and beyond—indicating that the pursuit of “social impact” must in part be
understood also as the pursuit of social justice.
Our curriculum poses not only a skillset, but a transformative space for participants to
engage in a more just design process framework. We add reflexivity as a cornerstone of our
design curriculum and work in a dual paradigm of design thinking and thinking about
design. We also emphasize various methods of contextualization, inclusion, and
democratizing decision-making across lines of power and privilege.
Our curriculum is limited in several ways that may pose issues in further implementation.
These limitations pose areas for our future work and must be reflected upon further. In
particular, we must address the following questions in our future work:
How are design challenges chosen or identified?
How is our curriculum tied to the way in which design is monetized? Does
this stand in opposition to our core tenets?
How can concerns around feasibility, sustainability, etc. undermine the
work, even if framed this way?
Still, we see procedurally just design as an important area of exploration in the face of
increasing reliance on market-based interventions to address disempowerment and
suffering. Moving beyond user consideration or superficial participation, design is
imagined here as restitution for stolen agency in an unjust world. Hopefully, our
curriculum at the very least renews considerations of the political dimensions of a technical
field and opens possibilities for transformative potential.
1. Donahue S, Gheerawo R. Social concerns-new challenges for inclusive design. Proc. Incl. 2009.
2. Di Russo S. Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments. 2016.
Available at:
Accessed June 5, 2016.
3. Simon HA. The sciences of the artificial. Camb. MA. 1969.
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4. Rittel HWJ, Webber MM. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sci. 1973;4(2):155
5. Rowe PG. Design Thinking. MIT Press; 1991.
6. Buchanan R. Wicked problems in design thinking. Des. Issues. 1992;8(2):521.
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... Their concerns included the assumptions about designer's objectivity, the level of engagement with communities, and the underlying power-imbalance within the design process. These concerns align with the increasing number of critiques about DT -and HCD at large (Irani, Vertesi, et al., 2010;Iskander, 2018;Janzer & Weinstein, 2014;Sanders & Stappers, 2008;Staton et al., 2016). ...
... (p.1312). Kimbell (2011) points out that the dominating discourse around DT continues to "privilege the designer, however empathetic, as the main agent in design", implying a rather top-down approach (Staton et al., 2016). Iskander (2018) criticizes that: ...
... Iskander (2018) argues that like other "disciplines that rely on empathetic engagement for data collection", designers need to reflect on their "identity and political positioning". An increasing number of scholars and designers have been advocating for incorporating reflection on positionality in design education and practice (Anaissie et al., 2016;Aye, 2017;Iskander, 2018;Schiffer, 2020;Staton et al., 2016). ...
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The demand for learning Design Thinking (DT) as a path towards acquiring 21st-century skills has increased globally in the last decade. Because DT education originated in the Silicon Valley context of the at Stanford, it is important to evaluate how the teaching of the method- ology adapts to different cultural contexts.The thesis explores the impact of the socio-cultural context on DT education. DT institutes in Cape Town, South Africa and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, were visited to observe their programs and conduct 22 semistructured interviews with local educators regarding their adaption strategies. Grounded theory methodology was used to develop a model of Socio-Cul- tural Adaptation of Design Thinking Education that maps these strategies onto five dimensions: Planning, Process, People, Place, and Presentation. Based on this model, a list of recommendations is provided to help DT educators and practitioners in designing and delivering culturally inclusive DT education.
... The similarities between design thinking for social justice and critical pedagogy provide exceptional ways for learners to engage in critical, rational and transformative learning [15], and present a productive context for the development of the critical learning community. In the critical learning community, all stakeholders operate as co-learners and collaborators, and are actively engaged in the construction of knowledge beyond the traditional canned and objective course content. ...
... The critical learning community is foregrounded and benchmarked by critical reflection, and is intended to help students transition through self-awareness and positionality within the critical learning community (inward reflection); development of critical consciousness (outward reflection) and awareness and appreciation of the broader impact of their engineering design solutions (backward reflection). A modified Staton design thinking process [15] is used to demonstrate that reflection is facilitated through writing activities which serve as discussion prompts at crucial points throughout the course (Figure 1). ...
... Atau memang desain paling mungkin hanya dapat dibayangkan sebagai strategi? (Staton, dkk., 2016). ...
... It underscores that building a preferential option for oppressed people necessarily involves building it with them; taking part in their liberation involves standing by their side and sharing their path for a while. This perspective shares important themes with other social justice, feminist, and postcolonial approaches to design (Bardzell & Bardzell, 2011;Costanza-Chock, 2018;Escobar, 2018;Irani, Vertesi, Dourish, Philip, & Grinter, 2010;Janzer & Weinstein, 2014;Staton, Kramer, Gordon, & Valdez, 2016). ...
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As digital technologies play a growing role in healthcare, human-centered design is gaining traction in global health. Amid concern that this trend offers little more than buzzwords, our paper clarifies how human-centered design matters for global health equity. First, we contextualize how the design discipline differs from conventional approaches to research and innovation in global health, by emphasizing craft skills and iterative methods that reframe the relationship between design and implementation. Second, while there is no definitive agreement about what the ‘human’ part means, it often implies stakeholder participation, augmenting human skills, and attention to human values. Finally, we consider the practical relevance of human-centered design by reflecting on our experiences accompanying health workers through over seventy digital health initiatives. In light of this material, we describe human-centered design as a flexible yet disciplined approach to innovation that prioritizes people's needs and concrete experiences in the design of complex systems.
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Engineers---often characterized as paragons of problem solving---are typically ill-prepared to adequately address social and environmental challenges as a result of their narrow focus on the technical dimensions of their work. In this paper we present an educational framework that integrates sustainability theories, design thinking methods, and maker education principles. We pull these three components together to motivate and empower diverse students to become "activist engineers" who develop holistic, systemic solutions to complex social and environmental problems through collaborative making that centers around the collective good.
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In this paper we present a way of thinking that clarifies concepts of participation not only across diverse design areas but across other disciplines, allowing clearer comparisons and cross-referencing. We see this clarification as a significant first step to remove multidisciplinary barriers to the productive building of a knowledge base around participation concepts. We suggest that design is the best field to lead this elimination of barriers, and we show specific connections to several other disciplines.
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Architecture as knowledge and practice is expanding its fields more than ever in this now entangled exciting new collaborative world network. We argue that the true nature of architecture is participatory one. Thus, architecture should be positioned as a social situation–it is neither affecting nor within. With this, we propose Participatory Action Research (PAR) that promotes ‘empowerment, equality and social justice for all’ as a framework for an alternative research methodology in architecture. Although PAR is still debatable as an academic research methodology, its growing popularities since the past decades could not be simply overlooked, especially when the reality of the world is now the connected one. With the same spirit, we adopt Design Thinking (DT) as a tool to complement PAR in architectural research method. Undoubtedly, the combination of PAR and DT will eventually enrich architectural research with new social and participatory dimensions.
Conference Paper
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This paper is written as a commentary outlining key challenges and questions that face the inclusive design community at a level of ideology and discovery. It describes the current context for inclusive design practice and asks how this could be developed. The paper draws on the project work and experience of the two authors – Donahue's work with graduate and undergraduate design students at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, USA and Gheerawo's work with Royal College of Art (RCA) graduates at the Helen Hamlyn Centre. The paper looks at how inclusive design can address juxtaposed connections with education, business, research and the social issues around us. It looks at the evolving role of the designer within inclusive design and probes the designer's relationship with the user and the larger social contexts with which they engage. Whilst empathy with users can challenge designers to move beyond their established individual limits, a balance has to be struck between user insight and designer interpretation as neither voice should be lost. Further topics include the ability of inclusive design to engage with research communities outside design and to move beyond the limits of an ideology to becoming an established process in the practice and pursuit of impactful and innovative design. The paper looks to the unique affordances that the discipline of design has to offer and utilises them to expand what and how inclusivity is defined.
This paper is a critical exploration of the of the term neoliberalism. Drawing on a wide range of literature across the critical social sciences and with particular emphasis on the political economy of development, it evaluates the consequences of the term's proliferation and expanded usage since the 1980s. It advances a case that neoliberalism has become a deeply problematic and incoherent term that has multiple and contradictory meanings, and thus has diminished analytical value. In addition, the paper also explores the one-sided, morally laden usage of the term by non-economists to describe economic phenomena, and the way that this serves to signify and reproduce the divide between economics and the rest of the social sciences.