Why design solutions for complex problems?


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I constantly send small texts to Michael as part of my supervision process. Recently, I sent him a 3 pager on the theory of my thesis that began with this paragraph:

Colombia is a highly unequal country, and its educational system plays a vital role in reproducing this inequity (García & Fergusson, 2021). Students born in low-income families have the egregious destiny to attend public schools, while high-income students can participate in high-quality private schools. Students attending public schools are not only characterized by lower scores on standardized tests than their urban peers but also have higher rates of desertion and less access to higher education (OECD, 2016). The scenario is worse for rural-public schools, which suffer from the worst quantitative indicators in the educational system. Furthermore, due to their location, rural schools tend to suffer from the detrimental effects of armed conflict, neo-liberal policies, and colonial dynamics. In this manner, public-rural schools are embedded in a complex problem that calls for design solutions that can address such complexity. To attend to this issue, the field of design for social innovation invites us to define problems with and within communities and their contexts (Manzini, 2015). Or, as Costanza-Chock (2020) states: “nothing about us without us.”  In this manner, it is imperative to bring decolonial practices to education research, design, and practice.

Among the several comments and questions, he stated: “I don’t disagree, but this will need to be discussed more, as one could infer that other things are more important than design solutions,” referring to the highlighted sentence in the paragraph.

This post is a small reflection prompted by Michael’s crucial assertion. I must define how I understand “design” and its role in my research project.

Design invites us to change and act upon the world.

Ontological design

Design is ubiquitous, and it is vital to recognize its influence in the current state of the world (Escobar, 2018). It is usual to understand “design” through its Ikea variant, but by doing so, we would fail to grasp the power and reality of this concept. Design is the first human tradition and involves using imagination, inquiry and action, science and art, to do intentional changes in a complex and messy world (Nelson & Stolterman, 2014). In this manner, not only the first stone wheel was designed, but also educational systems (and many other systems) that compose the structure of our current state of things. Thus our present world was designed; design is ontological:

“Ontological design stems from a seemingly ­simple observation: that in designing tools (objects, structures, policies, expert systems, discourses, even narratives) we are creating ways of being” (Escobar, 2018, p.7)

So, how is our current world designed? The critical literature is vast, and many answers arise to this question. As this blog post intends not to summarize the many critical epistemologies and social movements that answer this question, I will use the concept of “elimination design” (Fry, 2011 in Escobar, 2018). Elimination design refers to eliminating all vernacular, indigenous, and autonomous ways of being that portray other alternatives to the hegemonic Western unsustainable perspective. The invitation of many (Escobar, 2018; Manzini, 2015; Costanza-Chock, 2020) is to design for the transition of a new world, a more caring, just, and equitable world: a world where many worlds fit.

Design and action

This week I read two critical articles to understand the relationship between design and action in the context of education, both of them under the field of “Design for Social Innovation.” The first article, “Grassroots innovation for the pluriverse: evidence from Zapatismo and autonomous Zapatista education” (Maldonado-Villalpando et al., 2022), describes through an ethnography how a Zapatist in Chiapas does social innovation through education. It is interesting to note how the concept of “pluriverse” is enacted in this scenario. Escobar (2012) mints the concept following EZLN’s revolutionary demand: “Queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos (We want a world where many worlds fit).” In the words of Maldonado-Villalpando et al. (2022): “The notion of “pluriverse” refers to the matrix of alternatives that exist in the world –  and particularly across the global South – to the Western development project.”

In the rural schools of the Zapatist community, “education” is enacted by problematizing the hegemonical Western definition and developing educational autonomy. The hegemonical Western purpose of education can be found in many systems and institutions: Sustainable Development Goals (Maldonado-Villalpando et al., 2022) and Open Education (Collier & Ross, 2017), among others. Zapatist education is designed to empower the political practices of resistance and the maintenance of autonomy (Maldonado-Villalpando et al., 2022). In concrete, the project is called “Semillita del Sol,” It involves three schooling levels where students learn literacy and artistic skills, Zapatista demands, and Zapatista goals and strategies for the construction of autonomy and political resistance. Other design characteristics are the horizontal relation between students and teachers, the strong connection between school and community, and the design of their own learning resources.

The second article describing the relationship between design and action is “Realising the Good University: Social Innovation, Care, Design Justice and Educational Infrastructure” (Goodman, 2021). In this article, Goodman converses with Raewyn Connell’s book “The Good University” (2019) and proposes embracing design as a practice that allows us to go beyond critique. The main idea is to create a sustainable future for universities through design. Here design is understood as “integrating inquiry into what is true, what is real, and what is ideal, disciplined by a commitment to making a change in the world” (Goodman, 2021, p.36). Goodman’s proposal is to design and create desired capabilities (think of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s capabilities approach) in the persons that compose universities to foster change and innovation. He also states that design can be understood through a post-critical approach, where the role of academics and research in social science is concerned not only with “the critical reflex” but also with the actions to create new realities. The following video, a conversation between Chomsky and Foucault, captures this tension.

Speculative design, digital education, and rural education

Speculative design is a methodology that involves imagining new realities in which many futures can co-exist (Costanza-Chock, 2020) to bring consciousness and critique of our current reality (Markham, 2021). In the case of rural education, this methodology can be fruitful in many ways: I) make a critique of the current top-down perspective of what “quality education” means, ii) analyze, critique current EdTech, and propose new realities in which digital education can align with other ways of understanding “quality education,” iii) propose diverse co-existing desired future rural schools (as the rural is diverse).

It is crucial, though, to position myself as a researcher. This design method would be a platform for rural learning communities to envision and communicate to my audience (policymakers, EdTech funders, ONG, among others) their desired future(s). As I am not a rural teacher, the caring decolonial stance is my minimal ethos; generating possible futures doesn’t mean imposing them.

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