Performativity of Design in Economies: Reflections on Good Interventions Exhibition 2022
November 16, 2022
By: Sharon Counts
Associate Executive Director of Programs, 14Y/Educational Alliance, Doctoral Candidate Educational Leadership & Innovation
To begin, I wanted to share a little more about my background and research as it pertains to this exhibition. In my introduction, it was shared that I am a Doctoral Candidate at NYU. I am studying Education Leadership and Innovation, which is inclusive of the study of organizational theory and management. I am a cultural worker and have lived and worked in NYC for the last 25 years, contributing to the economic engine of the arts and culture sector. The foundations of which are a part of the framing of how you investigated these varied design interventions. You’ve connected economics with thoughtful and innovative design, in order to develop ideas and approaches that use design as a means to address social and economic inquiries, inspire dialogue and that offer strategies to address solutions to the many problems we face economically, culturally and socially.
My own research connects social inequities with the use of civic and community engagement programs in the arts, as a means to catalyze change. In this continued moment of unparalleled disequilibrium, socially, economically and politically, I believe strongly that in order for us as a culture to imagine the way forward, we are going to have to rely on cross sectoral collaboration and integration in order to galvanize our resources to collectively bring about the changes we seek. Through collaboration, we can make an indelible impact on systems, processes, and business at large. Your work is the manifestation of what I see as necessary to the continued evolution of how we as a society imagine and build a better world.
A number of you reference Adam Smith in your work, who as you know was a Scottish economist, considered to be the Father of modern economics, who introduces the concept of the division of labor, or driving the production process into different stages to enable workers to focus on specific tasks (Smith, 2016). Smith examined the workers’ relationship to an organized economy. He asserts that dividing the production process into stages enables workers to focus on specific tasks, however his perspective is that the increase in specialization of work tasks may lead to a workers’ lack of enthusiasm for the task at hand (Smith, 2016). The division of labor, as he sees it, is built on natural propensities that are a part of human nature to have empathy, as well as the urge to better our own personal condition. What’s more, Smith asserts that one would only seek to innovate if it benefitted their own self interests and further, that success without self interest is not possible. I think Smith would be surprised by the design interventions in this exhibition, which sure fly in the face of that theory. Smith believed that this lens would predominantly be applied to our understanding of business, in how we go about constructing organizations, as well as how we think about labor. If the goal is efficiency, which according to Smith is linked to greater profitability, then self interest is right at the forefront. Smith focused on specializations that lead to innovation, but purports that after innovation takes place, workers may become complacent. Today this idea might limit innovation and begs the question, who has the negotiating power and whose self interests are being fed?
In comparison to another theorist Max Weber, a German Sociologist and Political Economist, whose research was shared 100 years after Smith’s, Weber was a witness to the move from farming to manufacturing and is known to have coined the term “bureaucracy.” His perspective was that bureaucracy as a concept should look more like a governmental legal system that has a rational approach, and should be inclusive of elements such as the division of labor, a clear hierarchy, a system of governance, and a uniform application of rules that are not in accord to personalities, and a career orientation that leads to rewards that offer security, like tenure for example (Weber, 2016). Some may experience Weber’s theories in practice in an organization led by someone whose work has been informed by the hierarchical construct that Weber put forth, delineating between his favored approach of running organizations through the authority that one presumes in a position of power, as compared to empowering individual workers. Meaning that one’s social position, in his estimation, is thus guaranteed by virtue of their work position and authority. In my experience as a worker, our culture still embodies this philosophy in part, while we also see a huge shift continuing to happen around blurring the lines of authority in the workplace, and the rise of the collaborative and ensemble based working environment, which is so prevalent in modern organizational and management culture today. This is also reflected in many of your design projects which were developed through a collaborative process.
Let’s pause to acknowledge here that these two theorists that I mention, by way of framing my response to the inquiries you all thoughtfully contemplated in the development of your projects, are two white men, as were the bulk of our founding management and organizational theorists. In contrast, this group of students and designers is a microcosm of the reflection of the diversity that has so enriched our culture and economy and is thankfully continuing to shift, disrupt and challenge the foundations set forward by these theorists. In order to imagine the way forward, as you have done, it requires inclusive and expansive thinking and the incorporation of beliefs and values that encompass the many cultures and the diversity that are represented both in this room and in the world.
All this is to say, we are at an inflection point in history, and what happens in the near term over the next 3-5 years will determine what our world looks like for the next several generations, which is where you all come in. Your generations are considered to be the most diverse, accepting and open minded, which is evident in the design projects that you created. You were asked to explore a series of inquiries such as: In what ways can design be used as a tool to make sense of the world? How can we describe or reimagine our worlds by using design interventions? I don’t have time to address each one of these brilliant design interventions, but I will share some thoughts on several projects that I felt particularly aligned with in terms of my own research as a social scientist and as a human being at this moment in time.
Against the price of the vote: Electioneering in the Philippines, which explores the question: what is the price we pay when the price is right? This prescient exploration rightly points to social media as a means to spread disinformation, which leads to the upending of free and fair elections, and are the cornerstone of democracy. Topically, this is something that we are also experiencing in this country in real time, in the wake of the Presidential election of 2020, and as we are currently in an election period. This project amplifies nefarious political practices in the Philippines and explores the exploitation of citizens’ own money, which was used to sell their futures. As the designer states, this is the price we pay when the price is right, when we buy what politicians are selling.
Behold: The Value Universe after Self-Interest: This deeply insightful project uses a game as a way for the players to be reflective and introspective about how we quantify what is worthwhile and valuable to us. In a culture driven by consumerism, what is value and who defines it? What do we value as a culture and as individuals? These are incredibly important questions that we don’t often take the time to ask in the daily business of work and life. What does it mean to truly be in an experience economy where greater value is shifting toward the accumulation of experiences over stuff? The fact that as a result of this project, the designers shared a collective discovery of strength and allowed themselves to be known in ways that they hadn’t experienced before, to me is evidence that the value proposition of catalyzing dialogue around what we value, is absolutely essential to the continued evolution of our society at large.
CURA, Reimagining Caring Infrastructures: A feminist anti-capitalist manifesto, which explores a society that places little to no value on care labor and reproduction. In a global society where women continue to be devalued and controlled, this exploration struck a chord with me as they contemplated what the impact would be on today’s economy and society, if care was valued. This exploration of a new economic system that values care as work is a way of imagining forward an economy that sets out to strengthen communities in a deeply thoughtful and necessary way.
Discipline, Punish, Design: Policing the Police: A truly comprehensive and expansive project that addresses the recent peaks in racial and social tensions by developing an AI system that seeks to build better dynamics between police, social systems and people. One aspect of this project that stands out to me is the thoughtfulness around the disconnect that has been seen in addressing who is developing AI technology and how that development process, depending on who is developing it, can be riddled with bias. What do justice and equity look like in the world of big data? Cathy O’Neil, the author of Weapons of math destruction how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy (2016) talks about where big data has failed and how in the age of the algorithm, the ways in which we collect data has reinforced discrimination, which this project so brilliantly confronts.
Diversity and Design in the Metaverse: This exploration of the bias, complexity, and dysmorphia from the real world as it seeps into the Metaverse, explores how in a virtual realm identity serves as both a mirror and a determinant of social capital. It asks us to ponder, can we really be whatever we want to be? How are people creating avatars that have anonymity when information about who we are as real people informs our perceptions and our biases? When given the opportunity to create an alternate version of ourselves in the metaverse, what human attachments do we have to how we want to appear in both realms?
The overarching work that has been demonstrated here amplifies a number of thought provoking social justice, economic, design and management issues, that successfully lift up, exaggerate and explore designs that will impact a wide swath of sectors that seek to create and imagine forward a future in a way that rightfully displaces some of the foundational thinking that I addressed at the top of my remarks, to the betterment of the evolution we seek as a society to live in a world where human beings have true agency. Your work fills me with gratitude and hope. We are truly looking to you to continue to pay attention, to seek, to disrupt, to ask questions, to find solutions and to educate the older generations about the continued evolution of expression through design that will be a large part of how we collectively and collaboratively imagine forward a world that we all want to participate in.
O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. Penguin Books.
Smith, A. (2016). Of the Division of Labour. In Shafritz, J., Ott, J., Jang, Y. (Authors), Classics of Organization Theory (pp. 42-46). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Weber, M. (2016). Bureaucracy. I In Shafritz, J., Ott, J., Jang, Y. (Authors), Classics of Organization Theory (pp.78-83). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.