The Technopolitics of Wicked Problems: Reconstructing Democracy in an Age of Complexity. Critical Review, 2022.
“Complexity” is ubiquitous in contemporary political commentary, where it is invoked to justify innovative governance programs. However, the term lacks analytic clarity. One way to make sense of it is to construct a genealogy of the notion of “wicked problems,” a concept that highlights the intractability of complex problems and problematizes the technocratic management of complexity. The term wicked problems originated in science planning in postwar Germany and urban planning in the United States. In both cases, planners rejected a naïve optimism about the potential of technical expertise in favor of recognizing that many problems transcend the knowledge possessed by experts. This appreciation of complexity led to attempts, still ongoing, to accommodate both participatory and expert-based decision making in the face of wicked problems, producing a form of technical democracy in which problem solving requires the orchestration of conflict.
Design in government: City planning, space-making, and urban politics, with Stephen Collier. Political Geography, 2022.
In recent years, design has appeared in an ever-broadening range of government processes and projects, particularly in cities. What has design become, such that its methods and practices could be applied to urban planning and public administration? And what are the governmental problems that design methods and de- signers are being mobilized to address? This article answers these questions by tracing the tangled intersections of design, city planning, and urban administration in the last century. Through a genealogical analysis, it shows how a number of designers came to redefine design as a set of procedures for formulating and proposing solutions to “wicked problems.” This understanding of design—which developed in fields such as industrial and product design that were remote from government—has recently gained salience in public administration and city planning. In contrast to an influential geographical analysis of design as spectacular architecture that is divorced from any broad social objective, the article argues that design in government can be analyzed as the design of politics. Its concern is not with the aesthetic or functional qualities of material objects—whether a manufactured product, building, or article of clothing—but with the ongoing work of organizing argumentation and decision making about complex, large-scale problems.
Symmetries of Ignorance: Assembling Democracy in Public Sector Design, PhD Dissertation, 2020
Designers today are part of a global network that aims to radically transform how public policies are formulated and implemented. They take up technopolitical questions in avowedly democratic regimes that have evolved a large bureaucracy of unelected civil servants, many of them scientists and other specially trained experts. Rather than promoting straightforwardly technical measures, characteristic of bureaucratic systems, public sector design seeks to reframe the relationship between government and citizens, promoting greater attention to the users of government by redesigning services, infrastructures, or mechanisms for resource allocation.
This movement, bound up with multiple histories of planning and policy analysis throughout the second half of the 20th century, builds on the assessment that governmental problems are “wicked problems.” The term was coined in the 1960s by the mathematician and design educator Horst Rittel to denote the sometimes intractable challenges facing public policy in complex modern societies, where problems are multifaceted and multi-causal. By the 1970s and ‘80s, designers, invoking the idea of wicked problems, began to move into a variety of public policy contexts. Their arrival signaled a shift away from the dictates of social scientists and management experts toward greater consultation with ordinary citizens. Building on successive transformations of design methodology, a new form of participatory interdisciplinary design orientation became prominent in software and service design, and eventually, following a disillusionment with New Public Management, was adopted in government, where today it both builds on existing procedures and seeks to reform them.
As a result, public sector design, perhaps unexpectedly and without having its own distinct political vocabulary, has opened up a new perspective on democracy in which embodied experience enables and limits the participation of ordinary citizens in formulating and implementing public
policies in various governance domains. As such, it contests the technical nature of public administration and therefore allows for a broader perspective on how democracy continues to become reconfigured in relation to ostensibly technical questions. Public sector design, therefore, renders visible two conflicting tendencies in modern mass democracy: a pragmatic sense of collective problem solving and the generation of a new type of data for government – lived experience.
“Plurality,” in Designing in Dark Times: A Lexicon, edited by Eduardo Staszowski and Virginia Tassinari. Bloomsbury Publishing 2020