The Optimism of Design Commons Discourse

Whilst design discourse tends to reify the commons as a utopian site of potentially emancipatory ways of living, commons are also fraught with internal struggles often leading to their disintegration and thus ultimately their ephemerality. We refer particularly to the quasi-institutional, cross-border, often self-organizing collective actions in which we often find ourselves immersed, as design academics. We play roles as researcher-observers, design intervention organizers, and activists, in networks and initiatives from conventional academic listservs to online groups to place-based participatory projects. ‘Commons’ and commoning has become a distinct analytical and strategic device for designers working with (and sometimes as) activists in social change (Botero et al. 2020), with “design research” playing various roles. At the same time, we have seen how grassroots activist communities committed to providing positive socio-ecological and anti-capitalist economic alternatives fail to sustain commons they purportedly valued and maintained. Meanwhile, critics of Western scholarship of the commons see its emphasis on governance as reductive, as against commons as embodied, aesthetic or affective communities. We thus see messy tensions related to the production of commons discourse in design academia, stemming from politicised framings, means and ends, and the occasional inability of design research to recognize itself as part of the problem. We aim to illustrate how design discourse tends to reify the commons as a utopian site of potentially emancipatory ways of living that can, in fact, render them as designs from nowhere.  

As commons are intimate to care and ecologies, these issues we observe in commons practices readily speak to our long-term and shared collective socio-ecological responsibilities. Whilst we invoke commons as a site of care and responsibility, an act of leadership of a hopeful form, such claims also present counter-intuitive questions pertaining to concepts and practices of  commoning. Asserting that the governance of commons necessitates forms of responsibility, checks and balances on problematic forms of leadership that undermine their existence and vitality, shouldn’t manifest as rigid frameworks for constructing commons ‘from scratch’ at the behest of listening to community practices that already exist. The question then becomes, how can we negotiate tricky and often ambiguous questions about practices of commoning? How do we reconcile the construction of gendered, circumscribed and artificial spaces of ‘commoning’ that appear detached from people’s daily lives with ideals of participation and aspirations to democracy evident in such models for new forms of social cooperation, and in contrast to manifold contemporary empirical examples of commons appropriation and disintegration? To this end, we argue that a combination of naivety and proceduralism renders design commons research as rhetorical in its idealism whilst also displaying excesses of pragmatism that seem only to conceal power politics in practice. This comes into stark focus when juxtaposed with the uncommoning practices at play in design higher education institutions and this clarity is essential for challenging the abject practices emerging under the auspices of commons framings. We attribute these issues to commons design research having become delinked from critical traditions, which necessarily sit at the heart of a feminist embodied anticapitalist commons practice and an absence of which jeopardizes commons as a site of ecological care.

Except from a paper presented at the Commons in Design conference, Basel February 2023, co-authored with Professor Cindy Kohtala. Prendeville, Sharon and Kohtala, Cindy. From Rhetoric to Realpolitik: The Optimism of Design Commons Discourse. Presented at the Commons in Design conference, 15-17 February, 2023. Basel, Switzerland.