Design for Distributive Agency — Reimagining how designers consider inequalities within current dystopian times

Speculative Design, Design Research

Design for Distributive Agency is a metatheoretical framework that reimagines how designers can collectively work towards shared goals of equity and pluralism, with specific attention to the environmental, social, cultural, political, technological, and economic challenges that society, and thus designers, will face within the next decade.

Designers are increasingly becoming post-disciplinary actors that wield enormous power in shaping the world's technological, environmental, cultural, and socio-political reality. However, the acknowledgement of design responsibilities has not caught up with the expansive roles that designers occupy, resulting in an unclear mode of design that is complicit in upholding systems of inequality. The next decade will present various complex and existential challenges unlike anything before, from environmental breakdown to the erasure of privacy, potentially amplifying and producing new inequalities. Designers are uniquely positioned to mitigate against these challenges; however, few frameworks afford designers the appropriate knowledge and tools to do so.
This project presents Distributive Agency, a metatheoretical design framework that reimagines how designers can collectively work towards shared goals of equity and pluralism - shifting away from current consumer-focused and profit-driven design practices. A design manifesto discusses the framework, presenting six systemic challenges accompanied with six principles of changes that were developed from futures research, speculative thinking, and cross-disciplinary knowledge transfer from design anthropology, visual cultures, and socio-political theory. And two design tools developed from Rawl's Theory of Justice implement the framework into actionable methods that designers can use at present within their process to prevent dystopian outcomes.
The accompanying paper demonstrates the value of foresight analysis and speculative ideation methods paired with academic knowledge transfer to envision detailed futures. Interviews with design academics (n=3) and a cross-sectional workshop study (n=8) validated the implementation of the framework through the design process tools and manifesto, showing that they are practical, contextual, and visionary in their approach. The research in this project serves as a first step in transitioning away from current dystopian trajectories, and insights reveal the scope for the further development of resources and the theorisation of a unified design framework.
Dr Leila Sheldrick
Design Research
Speculative Design
Design Anthropology

Designers as agents of distribution

In recent years it can be argued that design is causing more harm than good since rapid innovation has outpaced a socio-political awareness of the responsibilities of such innovations. This dissonance has become especially evident in recent years, with design playing a significant role in amplifying current challenges, for example, environmental breakdown, growing authoritarianism, weakening democracy, privacy erasure, increasing racial disparities, and growing social-economic inequality.
As a result, design contributes to the development of risks that will threaten human existence over the next ten years. Furthermore, historical periods like colonialism and present systems like neoliberalism have established norms, assumptions, and biases within designers. Designers reproduce these norms through their work and therefore contribute to systemic disparities that marginalise communities across race, gender, socio-economic class, sexuality, religion, and disability. Therefore, existing marginalisation systems create present-day dystopias for such people since their world is not designed for their being.
Navigating away from this current dystopia requires both a vision and steps to acquire that vision. Design for Distributive Agency tackles this by acknowledging the six central themes that contribute towards the current dystopia and providing direct counters in the form of 'Principles of Change'. Rather than designer being subjected to historical systems, they work towards actively changing socio-politcal systems to value equity, autonomy, and environmental justice through acknowledgement in the design process. In this sense, Design for Distributive Agency is another step in the historical evolution of design - from a profession rooted in function and aesthetic, to one rooted in systems and values.

Imagining futures through speculative design

Horizon scanning initially anticipated futures outcomes through identifying "drivers” (underlying causal trends) and "signals" (indicators of potential changes). Then  comprehensive review of existing futures research and speculative media mapped outcomes within a scope wheel, allowing for a taxonomy of signals and drivers across social, technological, environmental and ecological, economic, political, and values factors. The categories were broken into sub-groups and categories in a relational database that defined more granular themes. Through this, 136 outcomes were mapped with multi-categorical relationships.
Trend analysis sought to interpret and prospect the findings using informed and convergent speculative thinking. First, the outcomes in the database were labelled according to the likely time of occurrence. Next, an impact-uncertainty matrix plotted the outcomes to define their urgency and severity. Lastly, a futures wheel considered each outcome and extrapolated a chain of potential consequences.
Worldbuilding defined the broad outcomes into definitive futures by identifying two critical vectors of change, creating a map that plotted different future scenarios. In vector A, absolutism and pluralism describe a tension between hegemony and multiplicity. In vector B, the loss of agency and shift toward privacy describe competing trends of big data analytics and distributed technologies.
Using these vectors, ten worlds were mapped on a scenario matrix. These scenarios were expanded through speculative design fiction and were mapped on a futures cone to illustrate how the scenarios may emerge. The projected scenario was “Surveillance Capitalism”, representing a world where large technology companies centralise power, data, and capital, thus exerting control over individuals and affecting their agency. The preferred scenario was “Distributive Agency”, describing a world where there is a decentralisation of power, data, and capital through market diversity, distributed ledger technologies, and political pluralism; thus, individuals and communities have agency.
Backcasting was a strategic planning process used to work backwards from the preferred future to define actionable steps that create transitions. Similar to how technology transfer seeks inspiration from alternative domains, knowledge transfer was a strategic process of exploring robust research and theories in social science, anthropology, and the humanities to validate the proposed values since they were initially speculative and idealistic. This process developed the final framework, which paired speculation with academic knowledge, resulting in 72 values across six principles of change targeting six systemic challenges.