Design, is it not merely politics?

The association between “design” and “politics” is not a straight forward one.

Typically those working in the design field (engineering, architecture, software, systems, etc.) do not necessarily see the link with politics. And those working in politics do not necessarily see the same link with design.

However, in researching (web search – Thank you Google!), one can find that the topic of “design and politics” is indeed being addressed at the philosophical level through the works of people like Tony Fry, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) as well as students like Marcel Münch along with many others.

Ton Fry focuses on sustainability and the role of scientists in politics in his book “Design as Politics”. His point of view is well described in his book which is a heavy read and one that I can only really take  in bits and bites. Honestly, I am currently still digesting this particular work. However, it should be noted that there are at least two points of view being expressed on the web with respect to Fry’s “Design as Politics” work.  One review (Keith Owens) suggests that  “The book packs a wallop and extends the thinking Fry voiced in two earlier works,  A New Design Philosophy (1999) and Design Futuring (2009)” and underlines that “Fry argues that designers should answer this challenge by transforming themselves into politicized change agents who will confront blinkered forms of ecological thinking and who can overturn many long established and deeply entrenched political, economic, ideological and technological foundations upon which rest human’s current self-negating ways. ”.  On the other hand, another review (Mohsen Shahmanesh) underlines the need for humanity to pursue sustainability as described by Fry as well as highlights that Fry’s point of view on democracy  as “…But when Fry goes into providing what he sees as a road to solution he goes badly wrong…   …Moreover, despite his repeated assertion that his solution is the only one that is not utopian, the world of Design as Politics is essentially built on a series of unsupportable assumptions.”.

Luhmann is credited as being a pioneer in developing and applying a “systems” point of view for the design of social systems which comprises systems theory as societal theory, communication theory and evolution theory.

With respect to Marcel Münch, I should note that his blog post “Systems theory for design thinkers” pointed to Luhmann. Münch’s blog treats many interesting subjects. However, the point that I found the most interesting was found at the end of the Luhmann post. There Münch underlines that “Ultimately this (systems theory) leads us to the question if design itself could be a system, in line with Luhmann’s theory…   … Design seems to be omnipresent and intrinsic to every system. One could even interpret it in a way and say the binary code of a system is design”.

However, design is indeed a system.

There are a number of different definitions and points of view on what is design especially when referring to technological development and innovation. Further, the range of such definitions can be multiplied by a few magnitudes if the point of view of different practitioners were to be included. I am no different.

For me, design is a system that is composed of a number of interactive and interdepend components that work together to accomplish some desired task (see “Why Rock n Roll?” post). The design system components can be defined as “recognizing a need”, defining the problem, gathering information, developing alternative solutions, evaluating those solutions, detailing the design and implementing it.

Recognition of need and phrasing it in so many words often constitutes a highly creative act because the need may only a vague discontent, a feeling of uneasiness, or a sensing that something is not right.

Joseph E. Shigley, the Later Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering, “Mechanical Engineering Design”

One way to illustrate the interactive and interdependent relationships between these design system components is through the development of a concept map.

Figure 1 Creative Tension

Figure 1 Creative Tension

Consider a desired yet undefined state (fig 1). As time moves forward the distance between where one is and the desired yet undefined state increases creating a form of “discontent”, “uneasiness” or some form of creative tension. At some point, this forces one to start to recognise what is the source of this tension or need. At that point the design process starts (fig 2), followed by problem definition, information gathering, etc. and finishes with the implementation of the design and hopefully meeting the desired state.

Figure 2 The Design Process

Figure 2 The Design Process

The process is driven by a design environment which in turn is driven by a client which can be an organization or society at large and a designer “master” of the design process and associated tools and methodologies.

Considering that the design process as described is a dynamic between people (designers) living in society (client), is not design merely politics as defined as “the total complex of relations between people living in society”?

From Rampart to Rubble

Mr Gordon Gibson in his 2004 essay “Challenges In Senate Reform” underlined that one of the original intentions for the Senate was for it to “be the Canadian analogue to the House of Lords”.

At the time of Confederation, Canada did not have a “Noble class” which led Sir John A. to state “that these Senate worthies would surely be representative of the best of the colonies, “men of the people, from the people” ”. Gibson continues that Sir John A. argued “that these people would be drawn from “the best men in the country” and that this was guaranteed because the lower house and the whole world would condemn the appointments otherwise.”

Today, Sir John A’s prediction has turned into fact with the recent suite of Senate scandals (Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb, and Pamela Wallin).

The impact on public opinion has led to a large portion of the electorate to be in favor of abolishing the Senate. Each of the provinces, territories and federal government has laid out their positions on Senate reform and abolition in the frame of the hearing surrounding the Supreme Court reference on Senate reform.

If the tenents of abolishment win the day, the only “rampart to elected dictatorship” will have been turned to rubble.

Senate – Rampart against dictatorship

The first time that I heard someone mention that we, in Canada, live in a dictatorship, an elected dictatorship, was back in the 70’s in North Vancouver. Trudeau (pere) was in power and Western Canada was not very happy with his politics at the time. Today, it is with reference to Harper’s government and Eastern Canada is lamenting over this particular brand of politics.

In our electoral system, the “first past the post system” typically produces a majority government with less than 50% of the popular vote. The resulting majority government can be quite efficiency in passing legislation due to party discipline along with its majority in the House of Commons. This efficiency can come at the cost of limited debates both internally with the governing party and externally in the Commons and in public. As a result, a majority government, elected by a minority of voters, can be perceived as an “elected dictatorship”.

In this parliamentary context, I would expect that even a government with the best of intentions can slip into the tyranny of a “dictatorship”. The issues might be related to vision, ideology, dogmatism or simply “saving face”, but in the end any such issue will provide any majority government the challenge of dealing with the dilemma of weighing parliamentary democracy against turning quite dictatorial.

The only avenues, some feel, to mitigating the potential of any government to becoming an “elected dictatorship” is either through a proportional electoral system or a two ballot run-off electoral system.

However, it is very unlikely that any duly elected government, despite its stated good intentions, will ever change the “first past the post” electoral system. At the end of the day, the “first past the post” system brought them to power so why should they change it? Why should they even consider sharing power with some party holding a small number of seats and have views different that theirs?

In the Canadian parliamentary system, the only two avenues to counter an “elected dictatorship” is to petition the Queen (or Her Majesty’s representative – The Governor General) or the Senate.

Tradition and precedent dictates that the GG will not ever refuse any duly passed government legislation leaving only the Senate as the “rampart against dictatorship”.


“No nation should be under unchecked, single-chamber government … It must also be remembered that, under our system, the power of the Cabinet tends to grow at the expense of the House of Commons … The Senate is not so much a check on the House of Commons as it is upon the Cabinet, and there can be no doubt that its influence in this respect is salutary.”

(Sir Clifford Sifton, “The New Era in Canada”: 1917)

– gleaned from Wikipedia.

Why “rock n roll”?

Why “”?

Well, “Rock n Roll” was taken. So why not go to the Latin root: “petra et volvo”(according to Google translate)?

So, why “Rock n Roll”?

“Rock n’ Roll” describes ofcourse a form of music. It also describes just that: a rock and a roll.

A “rock” is an element or a component while a “roll” is an interaction of a rock with another element or component.

This describes a system.

A system is a set of interactive and interdependent elements that work together to accomplish some desired goal.

Break down the system into its elements and components, describe and model those elements and components, investigate the interactions and interdependencies and model them, simulate how they behave and contribute to accomplishing the desired goal. Validate that indeed the system behaves as simulated. Ultimately, investigate if the path to reach this desired goal can be quantified by time, energy, mass and strength and determine if it can be optimized. If so, apply it.

So, what do you get when you have many rocks and many rolls?

Yes, the Rolling Stones and It’s Only Rock n’ Roll (but I like it)!