Temporal, Contextual, Situated: Design Practice and Research for Future-Making

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Rootoftwo is a research-driven and practice-driven hybrid design studio. Our goal is to create a condition in which we can perceive ourselves, the here and now and the future differently. Through humor, play, interaction and participation, we work to disrupt, undermine and reframe systems, infrastructures, and networks. In the contribution below we contribute to the dialogue about current developments in social design and we give some examples of how we deal with these developments ourselves.

Authors: Cezanne Charles and John Marshall

What is rootoftwo about?

We research issues, materials, and technologies; develop related themes and narrative cases; and create prototypes to test ideas and assumptions physically, conceptually, and contextually. We have worked with clients, collaborators and institutions to present work in Australia, Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Both of us work to shape design research, education, public policy and the creative economy through our work outside of the studio as well. JM: Director of the MDes Integrative Design at Stamps School of Art & Design at University of Michigan. CC: Director of Creative Industries at Creative Many Michigan.

What is design about?

CC: Is there a shift happening in what we mean by design?

JM: I think so. The field is moving from an emphasis on what design 'is' to what design 'does'. There is an imperative now for design to expand beyond its traditional domains of expertise. So questions of boundaries, terminology and foundational values are being rethought. There are four ways that we have explored this shift within our practice:

- design 'as' (craft, mass production, user interface, innovation)

- design 'for' (service, social innovation, transition, anticipation)

- design 'is' (discipline and intellectual field)

- design 'does' (process, habits, actions, behaviors)

CC: So is this replacing what we historically meant by design?

JM: No, it's not that straightforward. Take industrial design. According to the Industrial Designers (IDSA) Society of America: industrial design (ID) is the professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer (Industrial Designers Society of America, 2015). The expansion of design into hybrid, critical, speculative, discursive or social design does not render this older definition obsolete. All of these definitions coexist and at times may be held in tension against one another.

CC: Okay, so if our basic disciplinary work remains relevant, what is driving the shift towards expanded domains for design practice?

JM: Design is a process by which aesthetic, cultural, social, technical and economic potential is imagined. This process gives order to objects, systems, environments and activities. Designers, and for that matter design education, needs to be more responsive to 21st-century paradigms of the current political, economic, environmental, social and technological moment. It is about acknowledging the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that exists now and into the future.

CC: So it's not hype? Or just an attempt at arguing for a greater license or jurisdiction for design expertise to assert itself?

JM: There may be some of that. Rob Girling asserted that the role of designers increasingly is to shape behavior towards generating preferable future(s) as the outcome (Girling, 2012). I think this is part of what is driving the evolution of design practice. But it is fair to believe that this shift is also a response to the pervasive dissemination and application of design thinking. There are those that feel that 'design thinking' has eroded the traditional expertise and domain of a designer. For a designer, 'design thinking' is just thinking.

CC: So I know that we both prefer talking about our work in and out of rootoftwo as engaging at the systems level. Is this a better way of thinking about an expanded field of design?

JM: Systems thinking as defined by Frederick Edmund Emery is 'a set of habits or practices based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation' (Emery, 1969). This is what is most often currently labeled 'design thinking' when it attempts to leverage the sensibilities and methods of designers to reconcile what people desire, what is technically and organizationally feasible, and what is financially viable (IDEO, 2011). The intent behind this is to convert needs into demand for products and services (Brown, 2009). So, it sits happily under the late capitalist umbrella beside the more traditional ways of practicing. However, in also expanding the field beyond its traditional domains of expertise '...designers have become applied behavioral scientists, but they are woefully undereducated for the task' (Norman, 2010).

CC: So what are the implications for practice? For design education?

JM: Well, for both of us, we took different paths to gaining expertise and standing. I think what the Norman quote points out is that designers need to acquire tacit and explicit training in the social sciences. In part the training I received and the process of completing a PhD addresses this. The role of designer as researcher, skilled in qualitative and quantitative methods is the first step. I think the harder part for a practicing designer in this expanded space is developing a methodology. Education up to a point can provide a core set of skills, tactics and credentials for a designer interested in social impact that can give a point of entry into other domains. But you really need to know how to approach other people and communicate what your unique value is within this space.

JM: You completed a Masters of Public Administration in a school of public policy. How do you think the expanded field for design plays out within policy?

CC: I was drawn specifically to comparative public policy, quantitative and qualitative methods, anticipatory governance and participatory practices, especially within science & technology studies. I think so much of our work directly relates to the idea of design as shaping behavior or at least influencing it. It's clear that on some level design and designers need the expertise and credentials to influence policymakers and the policymaking process.

JM: Can these efforts to expand what is understood as design generate societal value and contribute to sustainable future-making?

CC: Well, I think you touched on this a bit. There is tremendous opportunity for design to be instrumental to adaptive change processes. But there are some clear obstacles. The first is the longitudinal nature of this work. Self-initiated and client-initiated work may allow a designer to make successive impacts, raise awareness or build engagement but it is often 'project-based' and therefore can be incredibly short-lived. So a designer in some sense must build into a project their own obsolescence as in most cases the impacts and change happen well after their specific engagement. This may be addressed through the rise of 'diffuse' design or design by non-experts within community participatory practices (Manzini, 2015).

JM: What are some other obstacles?

CC: The second big obstacle centers around the construction of 'expertise'. Social change can happen in the context of movements by activists, philanthropists, private interests, etc. There is a clear history of designer-led and artist-led activism and agency in this space. What is less clear is how designers will engage in future-making within government processes. Government, at least as experienced in the US, has a '…heavy-handed focus on "means" (campaigning, politics, legislation and oversight) rather than "ends" (preferential outcomes for all)' (Girling, 2012, p. 8). The value of design for policy is not yet pervasively embraced.

JM: MICA defines 'social design' as design that is mindful of the designer's role and responsibility in society; and the use of the design process to bring about social change (Maryland Institute College of Art, 2016). If the object is for a designer to intentionally and ethically participate in processes of social change this seems to bring up obvious additional issues around expertise for a practitioner.

CC: Yes. Despite the number of programs at the Masters and PhD level in design and art that may provide the skills needed to actively work on issues of social transformation; those credentials are not always recognized by other technical experts. Even with our best efforts it is the exception rather than the rule that a creative practitioner is seen as fundamental to the effective identification, framing and work on high-value societal issues. The danger is that the designer and artist become valued only for their ability to disseminate and communicate to publics the work of 'technical experts'. An issue that art and design education programs focused on social practice and social design have to address is: do the qualifications create standing or expert recognition for the practitioner?

JM: What do you mean by that specifically?

CC: So you and I have both been working on projects which attempt to influence or frame issues at the policy level. Our work outside of the studio has often brought greater levels of success at influencing the policy level. If we think of work by other designers, such as Adam Harvey, that have been influential in shaping the debate within the media and more importantly with the public on issues such as privacy and surveillance, it has largely been ignored by policymakers. At its core this is due to the way we construct and think about expertise as the performance of power for sustaining knowledge monopolies which create influence and grant access to resources. The scientific community have long enjoyed a special place as experts in this vein, through consultative bodies designed to exploit social and political capital (Kleinman, 1995, pp. 52-73). The expanded notion of design in part seems to be about positioning designers to enjoy a similar privileging of their expertise, but I don't think we are there yet.

JM: This raises questions about the object of design at the level of socio-technical imaginaries, material worlds, regulatory frameworks, and public policies.

CC: Definitely. Time is running out on the existing socio-technical imaginary. Design engaged in social innovation can effectively interrogate the process, benefits, and risks of transformation. However, it also contributes to 'problematic situations and democratic dilemmas that arise in the context of what is called designing conditions for the social' (Ehn, et al., 2014). There is so much bound up in the way that expertise, knowledge, power, legitimacy, and responsibility are constructed and understood. As a consequence, the expansion of design into these realms is inherently more complex for practitioners to negotiate. rootoftwo: Two projects are illustrative of our approach to hybrid design that is temporal, contextual and situated. Each project works to influence behavior, re-imagine potential, engage publics, and interrogate systems.

Whithervanes: a neurotic, early worrying system

Spending much of our lives connected digitally, we are as affected by the 'weather' on the Internet as in the sky. Whithervanes tracks the orchestration of fear in real time through monitoring newsfeeds for alarmist keywords. The five headless chicken weathervanes revolve away from the geographic origin of each story, indicating the intensity of fear through changing colored lighting and the number of rotations each Whithervane makes. The image of the headless chicken perfectly expresses the sense of panic that corporations, governments and the media use to keep consumer-citizens acquiescent. Originally commissioned by the Creative Foundation, Ltd. for the 2014 Folkestone Triennial, Folkestone Artworks has now acquired two Whithervanes as part of their permanent collection. Whithervanes will have its US premiere in Miami with Locust Projects in 2017. Whithervanes is also part of the international Neo-Nomad Project (an initiative of SAPAR Contemporary Gallery + Incubator, NYC) curated by Basak Senova.

We spent four years developing this project. In the course of doing this, we've had to tackle the Linux operating system, the Python programming language, and the DMX512 communications protocol for the first time. We've hired a lawyer, a structural engineer, a computer scientist and a crane. We never really thought about the Whithervanes as public sculptures. Rootoftwo always starts working at the level of systems – the chicken-shaped, physical objects are just a small part of that. The project is made up of hardware, software, mechanics and electronics. People are part of it too – the journalists in the field, the people on the street in Folkestone, and the people that simply find the website and press the #keepcalm or #skyfalling buttons to influence the ambient amount of prevailing fear. To us, it is an informatic system – a network of sensors and actuators that responds to data. The chickens are like a blinking light on the dashboard of your car – they are there to let you know that something, somewhere is not quite as it should be, and it needs your attention.

We plan to launch the Whithervane system as an open source hardware kit – to put the entire software and mechanical systems we have developed in the hands of different groups as a platform to be modified and re-purposed for different locations and for different streams of data. 'Big data' really isn't visible unless you're looking for it. However, it's hard to ignore a headless chicken (or some other totem) that is being 'blown around' by an invisible hand and changing color. We imagine any number of other groups and individuals could build on this system to make evident a variety of concerns.

The 2014 Folkestone Triennial was curated by Lewis Biggs, OBE (former Chief Executive of Liverpool Biennial and Director of Tate Liverpool). The Whithervanes got a lot of attention. Photographs of the headless chicken proved a popular image with journalists with many using it as a way to introduce or summarize the title and theme of the exhibition which was 'Lookout'. The Whithervanes project was the subject of interviews and articles in Wired, Fast Company, The Guardian, Dezeen, Yahoo! Tech, Port Magazine, Studio International and on the Discovery Channel. The project was featured on hundreds of blogs.

Realia Marketing were commissioned to undertake a survey of the impact of the 2014 Folkestone Triennial. This was the third Folkestone Triennial. 135,000 visitors attended in 2014. A program of 203 community, school, further and higher education engagement events reached 18,402 participants through talks, tours, workshops, conferences and other activities. Media coverage was excellent, with 119 articles printed in regional, national and international publications. There were 14 radio and TV features on the Triennial. There were 202 web articles with an estimated 1.7 billion page views for a public art festival in a small, English seaside town.

From the beginning, we understood that creative placemaking and regeneration were an important context for the Triennial. We were also consciously aware that the intent was to directly address multiple audiences, including the international biennale-goers, day-trippers from London, and importantly, local people. The exhibition and its impact had to work for all of these. Our chickens were distributed through the town, like a breadcrumb trail between the other sites. The path between them brought visitors through a diversity of socio-economic and ethnic demographics in the town. Folkestone is the first point of immigration in the UK from Europe via the Channel Tunnel. There was a lot of anxiety in the town about large numbers of Central and Eastern European migrants coming through the Channel Tunnel from France. This led to some very complicated local opinions.

The direct economic impact of the Triennial in funding, support and visitor investment was just under £5 million GBP. Media coverage was a major contributor to the exhibition's indirect impact with a PR value of £59 million GBP. All of this only uses economics to frame the impact, but we know that those numbers represent at least temporary jobs and modest infrastructural stabilization in a town with some very serious social problems. We are not so naive as to think that only good came of this event, but as far as we are aware, the only alternative was continued decline. We know artists and designers are the shock troops of gentrification, so the onus is on us to understand and be selective about the non-art and design agendas our work supports.

Anyspace? Whatever: Influencing Behavior and Interrogating Systems

'Anyspace? Whatever.' is a series of two architectural installations and dialogue/workshop events designed and curated by rootoftwo in development for 2017/2018. Current technologies pervade and penetrate physical structures rewriting what is thought of as public space. 'Anyspace? Whatever.' proposes methods for designing/building architecture, garments and objects that incorporate strategies for evading electronic, sonic, and visual means of detection.

Each event will see a new structure deployed in Detroit and will host nationally/internationally significant figures discussing the future of the Internet, privacy, networked cities, civic technology and open data. Most of us will sleepwalk into the fully sensing, fully autonomous big data world. 'Anyspace? Whatever.' is a project which asks: what kind of technological futures are we heading toward, and how are artists and designers creatively and critically responding?

'Anyspace? Whatever.' takes as its starting point Gilles Deleuze's characterization of 'anyspacewhatever', the propositional spaces visualized in glossy architectural renderings and discussed in corporate and policy literature about the 'smart' city. By reasserting inflections that express both curiosity and ambivalence with the role of technology in shaping the social and the civic, the public and the private, 'Anyspace? Whatever.' makes a place for an open discussion and a series of creative actions centered on this topic. 'Anyspace? Whatever.' evolved from rootoftwo's residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah, USA.

'Anyspace? Whatever.' is equal parts architectural installation and public forum and is an open examination of the social and cultural aspects of big data, privacy, internet of things and the networked city. The project is an opportunity to provide reciprocal exchanges between artists, designers, policymakers, creative technologists, science facts and fictions, and the public exploring the nature of living with these mechanical and electronic agents in responsive systems. Our intent with this project is to explore methods for designing and building structures incorporating strategies for evading machine-vision and electromagnetic sensing, producing a literal and figurative architectural security blanket as a platform for dialogue and workshops.

'Anyspace? Whatever.' intends to initiate a conversation about the many ways military-grade technology has increasingly been deployed in civilian spaces. It aims to stage public debate and open speculation on how 'Big Brother' and 'little sister' are watching us by means beyond the visual spectrum. While the work will attempt to tackle some practical and technical problems, it will also allow for the examination of the social and cultural aspects of privacy in the 21st century particularly through the work of artists and designers who often use humor and irreverence as strategies for critique and inquiry.

The project makes readily evident the social and cultural implications of the connected world and will create opportunities for both dialogue and ideation through making over the course of the two events. Our anticipated outcome for the project is concerned with the ability for the public, invited partners and presenters to interrogate the systems at work and develop a shared sense and framing of the issues. This will be the first project we have undertaken that specifically and directly bridges policy, research and practice through making.


Brown, T., 2009. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: HarperCollins.

Ehn, P., Nilsson, E. M. & Topgaard, R., 2014. Making Futures: Marginal Notes on Innovation, Design, and Democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Emery, F. E. ed., 1969. Systems thinking: selected readings. New York: Penguin.

Girling, R., 2012. 21st Century Design: Shaping behavior for preferable outcomes.. [Online] Available at: https://www.artefactgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/21stcenturydesign.pdf [Accessed 16 March 2016].

IDEO, 2011. Human Centered Design Toolkit: An Open-Source Toolkit to Inspire New Solutions in the Developing World.. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Authorhouse.

Industrial Design Society of America, 2015. What is ID?. [Online] Available at: http://www.idsa.org/education/what-is-industrial-design [Accessed 17 March 2016].

Kleinman, D. . L., 1995. Politics on the Endless Frontier: Postwar Research Policy in the United States. Durham(NC): Duke University Press.

Manzini, E., 2015. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Maryland Institute College of Art, 2016. Social Design (MA) Overview. [Online] Available at: https://www.mica.edu/Programs_of_Study/Graduate_Programs/Social_Design_(MA)/Overview.html [Accessed 28 February 2016].

Norman, D., 2010. Why Design Education Must Change. [Online] Available at: http://www.core77.com/posts/17993/why-design-education-must-change-17993 [Accessed 10 February 2016].

Twitter + Instagram: @rootoftwo


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