The Art of Invitation
published on 18/5/2016
Participatory policies and governmental programs can be looked at as social designs, which do not function well.
Jaap Warmenhoven thinks this could change if governments learn to open up to inhabitants the negotiation about what cities are and could be.
A few weeks ago my mom joined a program for waste separation. She went to a local briefing session and listened through an hour-long presentation by an enthusiastic civil servant. Significant effort and consideration had been invested in the program. My mom noticed the colorful logo and the great variety of governmental and facilitating organizations involved. She realized that many people wanted the program to work. However, it became clear to her that next to the actual waste separation, she would also have to put a lot of effort into daily registering the waste with a digital tool. She joined the program because she wanted to be a part of a solution, but then gave up after a week, exasperated. An older man who did not own a computer did not even get that far. Does this story sound familiar?
While local governments in the Netherlands are struggling with a multitude of (new) tasks and responsibilities, tackling some of the most urgent urban issues, such as social inequality and sustainability, seems to lag behind. Ideally, governments can delve into the social capital of cities, activating volunteers and initiators who then can become part of the problem solving process. But, as my mom experienced, it is hard to make this collaboration work. Most people don’t know how to relate to the refugees that are housed in their neighborhood or how to address carbon emission reduction. To many people, problems lack ‘a way in’. Working on wicked social problems with artists and designers has offered me a perspective on how this could change.
In short: local government needs to get better at social design. It needs to get better at inviting citizens to collaboratively solve problems and co-create society. To me the Social City project by Droog, OSCity, Jan Rothuizen en TD architects is such an invitation. To explain my take on social design and why I think it is crucial to problem solving on a local level, I will now turn to a specific social design intervention, ‘The End of Sitting’ by RAAAF.
I am inspired by this work by the brothers Erik and Ronald Rietveld and their team. It has been widely publicized and last year it received an endorsement by ‘The Art of Impact’, a governmental program supporting artistic projects “with a clear impact on societal problems”. Do you know it? ‘The End of Sitting’ is an office landscape that invites you to hang, lay, stand, pose – anything but sit. The idea behind it is that sitting is killing us, literally taking up to four years off of our life expectancy. The work is now travelling to public and private organizations throughout the country. RAAAF created it as a prelude to a future in which we don’t sit as much as we do now. What ‘The End of Sitting’ made me realize is that I sit on a chair at a desk not because I especially need or want to, but because it is there and because certain specific interactions with chairs and desks are familiar to me. It offers simple, few and known affordances, or options for usage. But at the same time our furniture is holding us down.
‘The End of Sitting’ to me is social because it invites us to a negotiation of context; it makes us reconsider our routine behaviors and makes us ask “what is it that we are up to here?” It is design because in this negotiation it offers us new perspectives for action. ‘The End of Sitting’ makes us see new investment options for our social capital (I could be outside talking to people about this instead of sitting behind my laptop, for instance). To me this is why social design is crucial for our problem solving on the local level, and governments should get better at it fast. This is what I try to achieve in my work for public organizations. I have come to realize through the works and the workings of designers and artists how important a vivid negotiation of context is for cities.
When I talk about a negotiation, I don’t necessarily mean a conversation. For instance, by choosing to have breakfast on the pavement in front of my house, I negotiate my own and my neighbors’ habit of not greeting each other. With this small intervention, I am not pushing anyone to do what I think they should be doing, but I invite them to a new way of relating. At first sight RAAAF invites us, instead of becoming expert chair sitters, to become expert loungers. But to me the work resonates with a desire for change on many more levels. A work like ‘The End of Sitting’ strengthens my desire for the end of consultancy – why are we still writing so damned many reports? But also for the end of my anonymous street, and the end of cities as we know them. I think the real value of any social design lies in the inherent invitation for people to become part of a solution that fits their desires and diverse expertise. A good social design offers new affordances or possibilities for action. It is this quality many policies and governmental programs lack (elsewhere I have coined this quality ONAF). They do not speak to the desire and expertise of citizens, they just confirm our status as expert sitters – or sittizens, if you like. My mom wanted to get up and do something but – paradoxically – was sat down by the people that were desperately looking for her participation. We can change this.
Jaap Warmenhoven is a musician and social designer, and co-founder of Is Ook network for co-creation. He helps realize change and transformation processes and works on subjects like citizen participation on the local level, the energy transition, and transformation in the healthcare sector.