Participate! A critical investigation into the relationship between participation and empowerment in design for development

DS 71: Proceedings of NordDesign 2012, the 9th NordDesign conference, Aarlborg University, Denmark. 22-24.08.2012

Year: 2012
Editor: Assoc. Prof. Poul Kyvsgaard Hansen, Professor John Rasmussen, Assoc. Prof. Kaj A. Jřrgensen, Assoc. Prof. Christian Tollestrup
Author: Fladvad Nielsen, Brita
Series: NordDESIGN
Institution: 1: Aalborg University, Denmark; 2: Design Society, United Kingdom
ISBN: 978-87-91831-51-5


Participatory design methods are embraced by most design practitioners and academics working with design for development; design aiming for empowerment and poverty alleviation. That participatory methods lead to empowerment amongst the poor, marginalized participants and communities is left unquestioned by most of the literature, and there is little discussion among the practitioners undertaking such projects. When comparing designers understanding of the relationship between participation and empowerment to development research on this topic, one realizes that designers can benefit from a reality-check on our assumption that participatory methods and empowerment go hand in hand. An improved understanding of the effects of words on policy and research may be needed to fully understand the relationships in this debate and how design projects and outcomes are affected by the words chosen. Sufficient and transparent research to increase knowledge on this field will lead to designers knowing when and where participatory methods are appropriate and beneficial, to better understand the limitations of their methods and hopefully how they can be adjusted for the intended purpose of long term sustainable development for the communities involved. By taking a theoretical stand on a practical “design paradigm”, this article discusses participatory design literature and projects in light of the critical discourse taking place in development theory. Further, some areas for further debate will be suggested, with the purpose to improve the quality of design for development projects as well as design for marginalized and vulnerable groups.

Keywords: participation, empowerment, design for development, development studies


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