Design as Democratic Inquiry: Putting Experimental Civics into Practice | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Design as Democratic Inquiry: Putting Experimental Civics into Practice

Design as Democratic Inquiry: Putting Experimental Civics into Practice
by Carl DiSalvo

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2022
240 pp., illus. 15 b/w. Paper, $30.00
ISBN: 9780262543460.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Mosher
April 2022

Carl DiSalvo gives us a satisfying book that describes his multi-disciplinary design teams’ experiences in local communities, deepened by well-sourced reading and references in several fields. DiSalvo is Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the projects he describes took place from 2014 to 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Design Experiments in Civics “blend imaginative making into politics”, melding specialists’ processes with the involvement of various citizens, inside and outside of formal institutions. The public space, the citizenry, politics in all its interactions…these are historically too often ignored discounted by elites (and their designers) in patrician, thoughtless, or even racist ways. DiSalvo is attentive to the complexity and history of Atlanta, its Black and White populations, its traditions of interactions between government and folks. American history—from Jane Addams’ Hull House in 19th century Chicago to the Tuskeegee Experiment to Philadelphia’s Black Quantum Futurism—offer lessons, pro and con, while various contemporary scholarship limns our urban “sociotechnical imaginaries”.

Local boosters’ “Smart Atlanta” vision is deconstructed in the chapter “Stories.” Atlanta’s contribution to the long history of critical fabulations that too often reinforce who gets included, who gets excluded in the metropolis’s vision of an improved future. This is especially true and germane when the urban information-gathering is essentially surveillance. DiSalvo enlisted a graduate student in his Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments (PARSE) project, and their multiple participatory workshops helped residents articulate what positive improvements they sought from any installed, distributed sensors. Game design and experimenting through play proved useful, and as in eighteenth-century Enlightenment discourse, that these sessions were held in a coffee shop furthered thoughtful visioning and communication. The group’s discursive design process resulted in a report Fictions of a Smart Atlanta; its thirteen scenarios included “Game Day Parking” (certain historically Black neighborhoods’ occasional source of income) and “Sensor Maintenance”, concerns as yet unperceived by City Hall. “These discussions confront racist and classist assumptions concerning who is considered to be an innovator or entrepreneur in the smart city and who is not.

DiSalvo addresses the picking of otherwise-wasted persimmons from trees on public land as a question to be solved with Devices. The Concrete Jungle organization has foraged the fruit and given it to shelters and social service providers to distribute to their clients, but DiSalvo and crew thought technology might further help. Despite laws, logistics, and histories both encouraging and daunting, a system of sensors they called Fruit Are Heavy were created to sense when the pickings were ripe by how much its weight bent the branches. The fact that each non-networked device had to be read on site was a disadvantage. GIS data then helped produce a useful map called Fruit Are Here. Yet these results don’t convey the richness of the projects’ experience of “commoning” (creating a shared commons) and deeper questions raised by its process.  DiSalvo reminds us in boldface text: The Object is Not the Subject of Design Experiments in Civics

In the chapter, “Institutions,” DiSalvo tells of how a neighborhood initiative to report trash, overgrown lots, rodent infestation code violations interfaced with the harried City of Atlanta Code Enforcement administrator. She enters their project called Careful Coding skeptically supportive, and in the process DiSalvo appreciates how institutions are essentially “rules of the game”. Yet that’s no reason that design experiments shouldn’t endeavor to be pathways through them, spelunking their civic caverns.

DiSalvo draws upon a range of very relevant and germane scholarship on democracy, democratic processes, design histories and political philosophy, to which I don’t do justice in my cursory synopsis of this book.

The author draws upon several theoreticians to frame his design experiments as Events and Quasi-Events. This gives fresh perspective to the projects’ expectations, collaborations and frictions, the governing institutions and constituents, and the very act of making. Motivated by Isabelle Stengers’ concept of The Care of the Possible, DiSalvo examines the ethics, results and attainability of design experiments in democratic inquiry, completed and still possible. In the book’s “Conclusion” he notes how the pandemic of Covid-19 quashed some of the “Smart City” plans for Atlanta. While it may have delayed the more intrusive webs of surveillance, we can hope it opens up more opportunities for design with great citizen participation.

I read Design as Democratic Inquiry over a few days during a busy semester, often stealing a bit of time between making the rounds of their easels as my classes drew or painted. My own experience trying to marry effective design process and democracy has been in the organizing and painting of community murals, practicing in California and now teaching in Michigan. This is not part of DiSalvo’s experience, but I urge him to investigate the medium, interrogate its most community-rooted artists in Atlanta and elsewhere.

Now, I have one quibble with the book, not with the author and content but with academic conventions. I imagine Carl DiSalvo as a compelling classroom lecturer, holding students’ attention as he recounts these experiences and their contradictions, bringing his various neighborhood collaborators to life. Yet his text narratives are frequently punctuated with parenthetical citations (Moe, 2015; Larry and Curly, 2016; Shemp et. al, 2017; Joe, 2018; Curly Joe, 2020) that interrupt our appreciation like caltrops to cavalry. Perhaps I’m spoiled by the simple clarity of a John Berger or George Orwell, but if my reading of this interesting book is sabotaged as I stumble over them, what does it to the reading and comprehension by a contemporary student?