A couple weeks ago, we were part of the "Industry Day" panel at the 2014 Participatory Design Conference (PDC) held in Windhoek, Namibia. It was an honor to meet the other panelists and the moderator, Jeanette Blomberg, a senior researcher on innovation at IBM and a titan in the field. Much thanks to the organizers of "Industry Day" at the conference: Penny Hagen, a design strategy consultant based in New Zealand (plus ferocious Tweeter -- who first looped us into the PDC community via a Tweet two years ago), and Daria Loi, a UX innovation manager at Intel, for thinking to invite us and making it possible to participate.
What is particularly interesting is that, as a methodology and school of thought, participatory design -- unlike design thinking or human-centered design -- places fundamental emphasis on restoring balance to power dynamics. While the increasingly popular (trendy?) tools of design thinking seek to identify human needs in order to solve them and spur innovation, ultimately the goal is to drive profits for business. In a certain sense then, although no one really talks about it, beneath the surface, the new hipness of design thinking for business has serious potential to drive not only consumerism, but also economic exploitation. However, the alternative regime of participatory design, which emerged from a movement to integrate factory workers in decision-making through "cooperative design" approaches, offers that unequal power relations should be challenged by means of design process.
Thus an intriguing debate developed through the panel discussion, which is that if on one hand participatory design practitioners must extend their activities beyond the domain of pure research, on the other hand, if they embed themselves in industrial organizations they run the risk of abrogating their fundamental responsibility to restructure power dynamics on behalf of the underprivileged. How can designers successfully remain advocates for social and economic reform once they are contractually charged to advance the interests of a specific business enterprise?
We presented our on-going work with the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform, a social R&D start-up incubated in partnership with Panurban, a strategic design consultancy. Despite the fact that we view this project as in a way an "anti-industry" -- given that it is a bottom-up, grassroots initiative to empower youth workers in Ghana's informal sector e-waste industry to remake themselves as a distributed network for sustainable recycling of high-tech material and digital fabrication -- as the project scales it inevitably becomes part of a larger industrial ecosystem. We have not found the answers yet, but are excited to continue exploring the role of participatory design by deploying theory in practice, on both sides of the Atlantic.
See 'Exploring the potential for participatory design in Africa' in the conference proceedings.