The Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) located in Boston, MA has been researching and prototyping design approaches for enacting social change in the laboratory of Boston’s streets and other public spaces for about 15 years now.
Ideas, Arrangements, Effects: Systems Design and Social Justice, released this year via Minor Compositions, is not their first publication sharing their findings, but it is the first they have put forward officially as a “book.” Like everything else DS4SI produces, Ideas, Arrangements, Effects does not allow itself be placed too firmly into any category, even the category of “books.” Yes, it can live on a bookshelf, but it can’t function there, and it’s meant to function.
From the cover and copyright page of the book onwards a reader must acknowledge that they are in atypical reading territory. The authorship is collective, and the collective process is a significant part of the story it tells. This is a strategic handbook, sharing very specific tactics for questioning and renegotiating seemingly fixed rules about how our daily lives operate, but it’s also a report on, showcase, and catalog of an ongoing collective arts practice.
Ideas, Arrangements, Effects looks at first glance like it will be academic — it has a relatively academic title and cover image, and a thoughtful foreword by a formidable post-structuralist anthropologist. But then the introduction shifts into a handwritten-style font, and much of the rest of the book has a whiteboard-sketch feel that has come, in the 21st century, to signify that we are in the realm of design thinking. You are immediately invited to read it non-linearly, to write and draw in it (co-author it!), and otherwise test its limits as both an approach and a text. Included photo documentation of DS4SI’s work belies a more traditional activist aesthetic (and crystal-clear intentionality) right beneath this. The writing style, which is equally committed to the windows of possibility opened up by design-oriented approaches to creating social, political, and structural change, and the sharp urgency of societal transformation needed within the realms that DS4SI investigates, is as accessible to discontented teens as it is to life-long organizers, educators and policy makers.
Everything is transparent here, and yet it’s a book of practical magic.
Last year, curious readers were frustrated and angered when Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men revealed how women are regularly and literally erased because the world they maneuver within has been engineered to map against men’s bodies and needs. This year, we are digging into a whole slew of titles — many of which have been crying out to be read for decades — that explain how systemic racism and its attendant inequities have been constructed and perpetuated.
But there are very few straightforward handbooks that allow anyone, anywhere — especially teachers, community organizers, artists — to begin immediately and creatively intervening in problematic structures. Ideas, Arrangements, Effects is one such very rare book, introducing several new ways of framing intervention in systems or community problems of any kind or scale (example interventions in the book include intervening in the dynamics of street gang tensions, hunger, flagging educational institutions,) so that it can be done iteratively, playfully, and most importantly, in a way that makes small, manageable actions meaningful. Plus, it highlights the power of personal agency and sidesteps the vacuum of finger pointing/blame.
DS4SI offers techniques for recognizing problematic structural conditions (“effects”) as intertwined with specific social actions/practices (“ideas and arrangements”) and demonstrates how they can be detangled from one another so they can be reconsidered, tested for viability, moved in and out of different contexts, and swapped out for alternatives. The book activates thought-muscles for seeing one’s own culpability in the processes that reinforce seemingly fixed frameworks for understanding situations, and then proves the flip side of this culpability as agency that can be used to subvert the entrenchment of these frameworks.
The book gives examples of these kinds of techniques for shifting meaning being used by creative activists that came before them. For example, Cleve Jones, who conceived of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, tied that most “middle-American, traditional, family values sort of symbol” — the homey handmade quilt — “to this disease that’s killing homosexuals and African Americans and IV drug users.” And Antanas Mockus, Bogota’s mayor in the early 2000s, who brought in mimes to address formerly irresolvable traffic problems.
And DS4SI shares details of their own experiments breaking down presumptions embedded in frameworks and experimenting with creating alternative frameworks of their own. For example, they question why we have public libraries but not public kitchens by setting up an experimental one in Boston in 2012 to discover how people would engage with it. (In fact, it’s not that outlandish an idea: the Basque region of Spain has many collective kitchens people use to create feasts beyond their individual capacities.) Perhaps more critically, DS4SI inquired, together with young people engaged in their regular programming, why a stare down has to devolve into violence, and why it couldn’t be turned into a meme-like situation instead. These kinds of participatory “productive fictions” do as much to imagine other possible futures and social structures as they do to retool the roles a community’s varied members can play within them.
To a certain degree, these strategies are things we already know: When we plan something with someone in the future we are within what DS4SI calls a “magic circle” where we allow ourselves to step together outside of the way things are arranged right this minute and imagine our time and space arranged differently. When we’re hurt about being rejected for an opportunity, our hurt is not just about that one opportunity, but that the experience of being passed over “amplifies the unspoken” hierarchy of value placed on people, and that our value is deemed lower than someone else’s.
Ideas, Arrangements, Effects is a book to read to ourselves repeatedly, so we won’t forget what we might intuitively know: Everything we don’t like about how our society works is something we are agreeing to provisionally. If we band together with others who don’t like these aspects of it either and apply strategies like DS4SI’s, we can start changing the rules of the games, the games themselves, and perhaps even the fact that there are games at all. By showing how we can enable or disable their power over us, Ideas, Arrangements, Effects can also be seen as no less than a modestly pronounced checkmate on some of society’s most rigged games.
Ideas, Arrangements, Effects: Systems Design and Social Justice, by Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) (2020) is now available via DS4SI’s website as both a book and a free PDF download and from Minor Compositions.
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