[Design Justice – Chapter 4] Placing co-production: How to make genuinely inclusive spaces of contemporary design?

[Design Justice – Chapter 4] Placing co-production: How to make genuinely inclusive spaces of contemporary design?

Placing co-production: How to make genuinely inclusive spaces of contemporary design?

A review of Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design Sites: Hackerspaces, Fablabs, Hackathons, and DiscoTechs in Design justice: Community-led practices to build the worlds. The MIT Press. Chapter 4.

The relation between production and place is what Constanza-Chock explores in this chapter. But not any production space, but the ones dedicated to subverting the traditional means of technological design: hackerspaces, fab labs, disco techs, and even hackathons are the locations to be interrogated by the design justice principles that they explore through the book. The main question that the chapter examines is how these principles can contribute to making radically inclusive design spaces.

The chapter combines a series of histories and anecdotes from the author´s experiences as a civic technologist with some of the history and critical literature about co-laboratories of design. With this project, Sasha questions the normative narratives about innovation and design that we carry from the last three decades to place design justice principles in who, where, and how innovation happens in the first place. In that way, the book chapter can be followed doing three readings: a physical one, about the configuration of the spaces themselves; a social one, centered on the subjects that are included or excluded in these spaces; and a political one, which offers an assessment of the ideological and cultural consequences about contemporary design sites.

First, the material characterization of design spaces is evenly distributed throughout the chapter. The opening exploration of Disco Techs offers a less common kind of space as the protagonist of the argument. Then, a delicate description of fab labs (that emerged from her same institution) and hackerspaces and makerspaces are described with the attention to the techniques, practices, devices, and objects that convey those spaces of creation for their intended members. One fascinating characterization that they offer is about hackathons, which aren´t bounded by a specific location conditioned for co-creation of technological devices like the others described in the chapter, but for the temporal and economic constraints that private or public organizers have. Hackathon’s limitations are not just explained but contested with an alternative set of practices to support more inclusive events. Sasha signals examples from the last decade to recognize the intellectual and social traditions of making an inclusive design worldwide, emphasizing Western Europe, Latin America, and mainly North America, as given as a fact. 

Nevertheless, design places, as design justices are features established by communities situated in their own context. The lack of geopolitical analysis on those examples provided by the author makes me wonder how much those places differ between regions, cities, and even neighborhoods. 

Second, the social discussion about spaces for making is blended with intentional attention to their inhabitants. Dr. Constanza-Chock does not hesitate to call out the lack of diversity in their convenors and the effect of that restrictions. With counterexamples from Brazil or the Netherlands, the chapter draws dominantly on situations in the United States to frame how marginalized peoples are still absent from these communities for resistance. A lengthy discussion in the chapter points to the participants’  intentions, between the self-convocated ones and those created by corporations and/or governments, appropriating the message for their capitalist interest. 

The author crystallizes by saying, “when design sites emerge organically, they are not islands: they are hubs within thick networks of practitioners or gathering places for vibrant cultural scenes.”Furthermore, the author demonstrates that white, cisgender, ableist, masculine, and even patriarchal are based on numerous representation experiences, no matter their foundational intention. Nevertheless, the author emphasizes that this is not just about representation but about power distribution. In that way, they do not restrain to just making a sociological revision of the experience and academic evidence about the maker and hacking communities but elaborate on the relevance of design justice principles to achieve their self-imposed goals to subvert the commercial dependence.

Lastly, The author calls on the ideologies behind those spaces, identifying similarities and differences between them. One trend discussed in multiple cases is how capitalism has ingrained the models behind fab labs, disco techs, and hackathons, turning them into spaces that, in providing infrastructure for material subversion, have become places of intellectual extraction from local companies and governments. This political dimension is obvious in the hackathons section. The author explores how the participants are seen as cheap labor under a series of promises and expectations that rarely are fulfilled. In addition, the role of design justice in bringing new and diverse participants to these communities does not limit making them part of a cycle of capitalist exploration but reframing relations in non-extractive ways, where the non-experts communities also have an opportunity to genuinely participate in the making and doings.

In that way, design justice does not just include a larger spectrum of society’s members to design sites. Still, it reasserts how expertise, practice, community, and ownership are happening in each of these examples.

One strength of the chapter is the strong evidence shared for each type of place. There is a large diversity of examples, references, and resources offered by the author in the understanding of the spaces. A clear missing part was a more explicit reference to the design justice principles. The article does an excellent job of reviewing the histories, communities, and ideologies behind different design spaces. Even so, it fails to justify why design justice, in particular, is a necessary condition to improve these places. The chapter does a great call-out on the limitations and mistakes those communities have conveyed in the last decade. Still, the suggestions provided to make inclusive spaces and means of action can be considered part of other inclusive frameworks for design, like nature-centered design. The proposal of design justice seems a bit unspecific with other counter-hegemonic values systems on design processes. 

I would recommend the chapter for anyone interested in design spaces to get a deep breath of cases or examples to explore their genealogies and some of their differences. In terms of design justice, I think the chapter left too much room for interpreting the principles. In particular, they lack the operationalization of these principles in situated communities that design new technological ways. In that way, I invite the reader to explore in-depth the resources offered in the last quarter of the chapter or to explore the publications after-publication that have done a better job outlining actions and new experiences that place design justice in renewed places for inclusive co-creation.

Photo by Valentin Petkov on Unsplash