Design (Govern)mentalities: Implications of design and/as governance in Cape Town

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Design is enmeshed in power relations and hegemonies, political regimes and ideologies. This is explicit in the discipline of architecture, which has a history of service to states and empires, democracies and dictators. While different from architecture in many and important ways, design is also political. If architecture exerts power through physical means (boulevards or borders for survillance and control), then designed tools, interactions, routines, networks, games, algorithms, etc., etc. exert more subtle but effective forms of regulatory and (biopolitical) power.

Today, it is design, perhaps more than architecture, that is being called upon by governments. A European Commission action plan from 2013 framed the task of “design to drive renewal in the public sector” and “modernization of public administration.” ‘Design for Europe’, which carries out the action plan, highlights the course ‘Design for Government’ for which I’ve been responsible at Aalto University. With design and designers today rapidly and pervasively ‘embedded’ in government through such institutional developments, the political role of design has expanded categorically. While organizations (such as the World Design Organization WDO) highlights this as a new domain of work and jobs, there is much more at stake.

This paper queries design as part of the expanding ‘instruments’ of contemporary governance. Contemporary governance, termed ‘interactive’ or ‘networked’, is characterized by a range of new instruments. New tools for service delivery are designed (e.g. chatbots and other ‘touchpoints’) as are new ways of being a civil servant (e.g. design games, co-design workshops) and new ways of being a citizen (e.g. co-production or participation in service design/delivery). Design is concerned with – and indeed promises and provides tools for the ‘conduct of the self’ (as theorized by Foucault). Design provides new understandings of – and capacities to manipulate – the interface between the personal and the state. This paper queries some emerging political dimensions of design within contemporary governance, including an agenda for further critical studies. These dimensions are unfolded through examples from WDO’s 2014 World Design Capital in Cape Town, South Africa.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDesign and Democracy: New critical perspectives
EditorsMichael Erlhoff, Maziar Rezai
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020
MoE publication typeA3 Part of a book or another research book

Publication series

NameBIRD International Research in Design

ID: 39487572