At the Intersections of Design, Ethnography and Global Governance

By Aditya Dev Sood

2010.06.21_3QD image

At my table were two diplomats and a cultural researcher. My own role was designated as 'designer.' We were told that there was a post-conflict situation in an African nation where the U.N. had been called in. Local institutions and forms of self-governance had been eroded during the long and bloody conflict. Child soldiers had been involved in the civil war on both sides, and the competing ends of Justice and Rehabilitation had both to be balanced. Our job was to plan the series of activities that would result in a contextually-appropriate program of activities for the U.N. teams working in the region. We had two hours.

We began by trying to itemize all the different internal and external stakeholders in the situation, from U.N. agencies to neighboring countries to international investors, and gave up once we got into double digits. Then we tried to bound the problem by trying to establish what kind of time-line and terms of reference we were working with. It seemed foolish to try to do anything in less than six weeks time, for meanwhile the country was burning, and the U.N. agencies would need a plan to start working with as soon as possible. But six weeks was also nowhere near enough time to collect meaningful cultural and socioeconomic data on twenty or thirty million people. We agreed that we would have to rely on secondary data from prior sociocultural research, while also involving regional and in-country experts. We also wanted U.N. agencies to pre-pone our terms of reference to a period well prior to the U.N. flag going up in the nation in question.

So we revised our ideal scenario again, to ensure that we had social and cultural data as well as resource personnel at hand for the region that would tell us enough about it before the conflict started. We would then be able to do highly targeted data gathering activities from the time the U.N. became responsible for the country. Very rapidly, we imagined, we would acquire preliminary data on combatants, local cultures of masculinity and violence, what in local terms were the cultural valences of 'laying down one’s arms' ? What threats to security were likely to be perceived by different local stakeholders? What could we therefore do to minimize the likelihood of their appearance? Even with all these insights, the diplomats reminded us, although we had established the possibility of local knowledge, we still had no program for action.

The cultural researcher among us proposed waiting for the data to come in, for in his experience, sanding the grains of culture could yield deep cultural insights, and these might then guide the on-ground actions of the state machinery. We conceded that such insights might arise, but worried that we could not leave the U.N. agencies hanging for weeks on end without a clear articulation about what steps we were going to take in translating that knowledge into a program for their action.

This is where design entered the picture.

I proposed a data review session where local experts and U.N. officials would both be in attendance. I suggested that based on sociocultural data, we might be able to identify representatives of key stakeholder communities, and make life-sized cut-outs of persona, articulating elements of their particular aspirations and concerns. Based on prior work we'd done in other areas, I suggested an innovation workshop, wherein the data collected could serve as stimulus for cross-functional teams to generate and propose different governance and program implementation solutions, no matter how outlandish or difficult to realize. I suggested listening sessions, wherein the same stimulus materials would be reviewed and then discussed by different local communities, and feedback rendered publicly as well as reported up to the U.N. command. We discussed ways in which proposed solutions could be visualized as storyboards, and means through which feedback and commentary might be solicited from local groups, even as the reconciliation and accountability concepts were prioritized and evaluated for impact and feasibility. We imagined a design team to be continuously involved, organizing the information collected, visualizing it, reconciling differences of understanding and perspective among different players, imagining new common grounds for understanding and creative action between the governing and the governed.

We had worked through lunch, and as time was called, our group stood up to present to the other five tables, each with a similarly constituted team. Our diplomats were sufficiently excited by the prospect of having developed a community-centered design mechanism that they agreed to present it to the rest of the group. There was something very heartening about seeing U.N. diplomats talking about ‘innovation workshops’ and ‘storyboards,’ and ‘user-feedback.’ It very nearly gave one faith again in the international system and the prospect that it might actually empower and enable the beneficiaries of its global interventions.

Once, in a very long while, there will be an occasion at which all that you have been doing is illuminated, organized in new terms, given new perspective. Something like this happened for me last week at the Glen Cove Conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy, hosted by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. The event proceeded from a critique of the modularity of U.N. discourses and practices around peace-keeping, disarmament and security, which often failed on the ground, because these international concepts had not been adequately translated into local social, cultural and political terms. The concept of security, it was repeatedly pointed out, was meaningful only in local social and cultural terms to different local actors. Without an understanding of the lay of this land, securing the peace could only operate through hit-and-trial.

The second and more trenchant observation made by the Conference organizers was that such local socio-cultural knowledge and insight, acquired through ethnography and filtered through any array of disciplinary frameworks from the social science and humanities, while valuable and necessary, was also proving insufficient. This was because cultural knowledge in terms of observed behavior and practice was being presented as observed fact, rather than dynamic operational opportunity. To move from local knowledge to programmatic action was still a challenge, and this is where Design could play a critical role. Perhaps Design and Cultural Research and Public Policy really do fit together, as we had demonstrated to one another in our working group. But if so, why is there such a disconnection between these disciplines and practices? A brief review of their disparate origins and development will be necessary to understand this.

The scientific study of human practices, belief systems, and social structures is itself a relatively recent phenomenon, albeit with a deep prehistory, in the form of traveler’s accounts of foreign lands and similar writings prior to the early nineteenth century. The acquisition of cultural knowledge since the Age of Discovery were motivated first by the desire to proselytize and to save newly Christian souls and then from the need to effectively administer European colonies in the Old and New Worlds. If one could not have effective knowledge of local customs, one could not create positive law for the colonized, one of the great gifts of European Civilization, it was often perceived, and a common justification for colonial intervention in the wider world. The purpose of colonial anthropology, therefore, was in fact to acquire just the sort of local knowledges that might aid exogenous authorities to proceed with their programs of on-ground action — to secure the peace, to promote trade, and perhaps even to promote the welfare of the local populations.

Much had changed by the late nineteenth century. The emerging standardization of International trade and governance practices in multiple colonized regions of the world, thanks in part to the establishment of Anglo-Saxon and international law meant that local practices, behaviors and customs were less of an impediment in colonial governmental processes. Anthropology was no longer necessarily an applied science, but could be freed up to become an academic discipline, searching for more and more fundamental truths about the nature of language, culture, kinship, hierarchy and other elements of being human. Training in Anthropology no longer led to a career, however peripatetic or erratic, in colonial administration, but became a disciplinary specialization to be pursued within the academy.

The discourse of Design on the other hand had an entirely different origin. It was born in the Industrial Age, from the split between the act of making an artifact, and the process of visualizing, conceptualizing and continuously improving it, which were hitherto conjoined in the artisanal mode of production. Design was both a means of enabling industry, and a means for diverse regional cultures to adapt to its by now changed mode of production. From the beginning of the twentieth century, emerging conceptions of revolution, emancipation, and anticipation for the future found expression in the artistic, visual and material cultures of both Fascist and Communist avant-gardes, such as for example the Italian Futurists, the Russian Constructivists and the German Bauhaus schools. In that shared, technologically-inspired and factory-fabricated future, local cultures were no longer relevant, be they European or otherwise. Inspired by factories and industrial techniques of manufacture, the discourse and practice of design was a vector for refashioning culture in the image of industrial modes of production. In the famous words of Le Corbusier, for example, the house was a machine for living, a chair was a machine for sitting, and so forth. Designers were visionaries who had seen that techno-industrial future, and who could lead others, consumers as well as industrialist patrons, to achieving it. Modernity was therefore the desirable condition of having technologized one’s culture, of having made it compatible with patterns of industrial production and massified consumption that defined modern urban life. These broad cultural and ideological trends are what we called Modernism, and they achieved their apotheosis in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Lev Manovich has pointed out that in electronic, digital and media art and design activities that arrived at the demise of Modernism, the exact reverse trend is observed. If modernism was about the technologization of culture, innovations in the world of electronic and digital technology involved the acculturation of machines, the better to situate them within everyday life, for them to create value for their users. User-Centered Design, perhaps the dominant mode of design-thinking at present, was born as a specific response to the challenge of making intelligent and interactive products, complex systems, and distributed networks easy, intuitive and effective for everyday people. As objects of design became more ethereal, insubstantial and distributed, including the design of services, the means and mechanisms of design became more collaborative, interactive, and collective. More and more, to be a designer means to be able to engage in role-playing, brainstorming, dynamic visualization and to be able to see the world from the point of view of those quite different from oneself.

Between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, further theoretical trends in Anthropology and Cultural Studies, moreover, excoriated these disciplines for having once served as hand-maidens to colonial governmental processes and for having been means and mechanisms for either exoticizing or else objectifying or otherwise subjugating various Others. In this context, of course, methodological and theoretical approaches which might actually subserve either State or corporate interests were marginalized, in favor of approaches promoting academic autonomy, the net consequence of which was the effective divorce between contemporary Anthropology and the pragmatic ends of any apparatus of power and organizational mechanism for change in the world. Even as contemporary thinking in Anthropology was busy evacuating the discipline of its original epistemological foundations, Anthropology students were finding work as corporate ethnographers, who observed and described the degree to which new products, technologies and systems could be adopted and adapted by their users.

The first major challenge to the application of Anthropology to contemporary global challenges is the degree of unease that most trained Anthropologists have with the idea of using their knowledge for Cultural Engineering or, more exactly, Cultural Re-Engineering, which non-specialists take for granted as the normal practice of Governance, Development or, in fact, Business. The persistent gulf between Anthropology and applied sciences of all kinds that must be addressed through further conferencing, research and perhaps through curriculum redesign. At the Glen Cove Conference, we did address the challenges of effecting a conversation between Humanities and Social Science disciplines with the applied and professional disciplines of Law, Management, Policy, Medicine among others, and the further remove that the discipline of Design represented. Perhaps to a greater extent even than other disciplines of practice, Design relies on a live, transactional relationship within the world: To be a designer, one must have found a client with a problem that can be solved with a product, no matter how hard, soft or conceptual that product turns out to be. For designers, acquired social, technical or industrial knowledge must eventually be put into motion, for the resolution of actually existing challenges, that real people or groups of people have.

Both Design and Ethnography require one to look at the world in a visionary way: to see with one’s mind’s eye the subtle and hidden relationships that are not always visible on the surfaces, but discerned in the interaction of people and things. To see the way things are, however, is not precisely the same as to be able to see how they could be. I often think of the ideal dynamic between ethnographers and designers as akin to the heat cycle of the internal combustion engine. For the process to work right, we have to be able to move from people to product and back again, but as of now, we mostly train people to become virtuosos of material-cultural production with an amateur or folk knowledge of culture and social behavior. Or conversely, we train specialists in observing culture, who are painstakingly shy of actually producing new cultural artifacts in the world. To extend the metaphor of the heat cycle, this means that the sum of Design and Anthropology can be plotted as a line that courses back and forth without creating an area, a polygon, corresponding to new value. In the professional sphere, of course, designers and ethnographers do work together to create such value, but they must first learn one another’s languages and ways of working.

The second major challenge, however, must be the nebulous self-understanding and incomplete thematic articulation of Design in its contemporary avatar. A leading design theorist among us at the conference presented a conception of four orders of design, beginning with the design of two and three-dimensional objects (‘posters and toasters’). The third order refers to the design of human interactions, perhaps including the artifacts, platforms and systems that enable them. The fourth order of design, therefore, addresses the enabling environments, organizational logics, social networks and institutions within which human interactions take place.

These orders of Design have a familiar, perhaps Platonist ring to them, for they move from simple, hard objects-in-the-world to artifacts of increasing complexity to more and more abstract objects of human construction, each supervenient to the other. Such an organization of the diverse activities undertaken in the name of design is comforting because it brings a kind of abstract order to a life-universe that appears otherwise confused and promiscuous, employing every different kind of business model and encompassing the entire range of human material culture, while dynamically, moreover, evolving and updating its own self-understanding from decade to decade.

Notwithstanding the merits of the orders of Design approach, this classification nevertheless disguises deep polarities among the different orders. Thanks to its origins in processes of industrialization and massification, including advertising, packaging, and product styling, Design is still often viewed as an optional appliqué upon more essential, more core elements of the business process. This tension divides the four orders of design into two halves, with the ‘posters and toasters’ on one side, and the design of human interactions and social institutions and networks on the other. To this extent, the word 'design' may be considered to operate as a pair of homonyms, the first referring to non-essential and practical presentations or representations of the essential object, and the second to high-order conceptual and cognitive achievements that make possible a new proposition in the world and which are integral and inextricable from it. In my own experience, when such a situation of novelty and cognitive transformation comes about, the mind immediately grasps that there has been an irrevocable fusion between process and product, that something new has been brought into the world: an in-nova-tion.

Many things were accomplished at the Glen Cove Conference, not the least of which is the idea that what we should mean by Design henceforth are always its highest orders, the means and mechanisms of transforming systems, organizations, institutions and the enabling environments of people, under which lower orders are always implicitly included, in supporting roles, to tactical ends. The words 'Strategic Design,' therefore, may now be read as redundant, for if it is to have any value for the worlds of Policy and Governance, Design must always be strategic, and so far as possible, clearly named.

At the end of the conference, a leading scholar and practitioner of participatory and inclusive programs in Public Health offered up a new conception of Design as a way for different stakeholders to articulate their distinct interests and aspirations and for these divergent interests to be synthesized, as well the means and mechanisms through which diverse extant knowledges could be organized and integrated in creating a solution. She had long been practicing Design, but she had just never called it that!


The Glen Cove Conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy was organized through the collaboration of several different individuals and organizations. Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick, associated with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDR) specialize in International Relations and Cultural Research, respectively. They are both senior researchers and project co-managers for the Security Needs Assessment Protocol project, which has pioneered this new approach to cultural research, design, and public policy witin the UN system. Lucy Kimbell teaches Design Leadership at the Said Business School at Oxford. Gerry Philipsen teaches the Ethnography of Speaking at the University of Washington, where he is also the Director of the Center for Local Strategies Research. More comprehensive documentation of the event will become available in due course of time from the Conference organizers.

The Conference followed Chatham House Rule, which proscribes the attribution of particular points of view to named individuals. This convention, in part, is responsible for the absence of specific quotations in the above article, which is an account written from my own point of view. I take sole responsibility for the inevitable errors.