Design and Democracy

Organized as part of ACAS/ACCS2020, in association with the OSIPP-IAFOR Research Centre at Osaka University, this Panel is co-organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Japan (KAS).


For most people the terms “design” and “excess” are vaguely understood—so they are more powerful in the hands of people wanting to use them to influence human behavior and individual choice. This is important if we are to defend the democratic right of all citizens to exercise freedom of choice (and to give them choices to make); yet to also recognise that, in a world based on mass communications, any attempt to manage the democratic exercise of free will, on behalf of all citizens, can produce seemingly irrational results leading to social instability.

From this dilemma has emerged a paradox in which freedom of choice is both a perceived human right and an illusion of political authority. This is an issue of design. But, as has often been observed, “theories of design developed in the twentieth century have ignored these issues”. From the mid twentieth century onwards the design profession expanded in line with the mass production of consumer goods. This abundance of stuff stimulated a culture of desire that served to distract people’s attention away from the human condition and the exercise of political will.

From the late twentieth century onwards the advent of digital technologies revolutionised these earlier systems of production, distribution and consumption to create a world of individuals and tribes where the process of distraction has been further heightened through an excess of stuff and data. As observed by the American sociologist, Herbert Simon, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. This said, the massive changes taking place to design over the last fifty years have largely gone unnoticed. Design has moved from being “a plan to make an artifact” into a space where “to design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”.

If we are to take seriously the claim that “the modern world lacks harmony” then designers need to understand and reclaim this territory—to believe that design has the power to influence human behaviour for better and for worse. What is at stake here is our belief in the right of all people to human dignity through democracy. In this context we may have to recognise that the wealth of excess accompanying freedom of choice is part of the human condition—but learn to manage it productively through design.


In order to explore the intersections of design with democracy there are two (amongst many) potential themes for debate.

The Attention Economy: is a theory that the annual avalanche of data and information we now experience is like anesthetic that neutralizes our attention and subsequent ability to make informed decisions. The economic theory underpinning this is that our attention is now such a scarce commodity that is being sold to the highest bidder. It is a design problem because as our attention spans decrease and we become more exposed to a lot of conflicting stimuli, designers (of products, apps, even art, etc.) need to capture our attention and so steer us to prioritize and give attention to "the things that matter". Defining "the things that matter and are worth our attention" becomes a democratic question because these definitions in most societies are championed by the dominant groups while the marginalized groups try to forward alternative definitions to varying levels of success (be they among classes, between corporations, between governments).

Responsible Design: The new, and powerful, interactions between data, technology, privacy and security, and design raise serious questions. For example:

  • Are designers complicit in heightening the process of distraction and data mining and extraction for private gain?
  • How can we design digital spaces where data owners retain control over who has access to their data? How can we make this process easy, accessible, flexible and mobile? How can we make it more democratic but at the same time responsible and accountable?
  • How has the internet morphed from its democratic origin of "connecting everyone around the world" to an almost anarchic system dominated by powerful corporations where it seems that it’s every man/woman for him/herself?
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