Participatory design for some often implies common purpose, stakes and equitable dispositions among participants engaging in a consensual process towards amenable design outcomes. Much has been written about the nature of participation, power relations, and the socio-political challenges of ensuring co-determination, reflexivity and agreement in participatory design. What happens in social contexts or publics “characterized by heterogeneity and difference with no shared object of design”, harkening the “agonistic pluralism” posed by Chantal Mouffe? The concept of agonism runs counter to tacit consensus and highlights inherent disagreements and confrontations in many contexts that may well lead to productive deliberations, resistance or contestation.
In my research, teaching and creative practice over the years, I have worked with many artists and activists using participatory media and tactical urbanism to engage with contested issues in Occupied Palestine, Guatemala, Russia and New York City. As part of research for my Faculty Fellowship with the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography and Social Thought (GIDEST) at The New School since Fall 2018, I have been examining how design practitioners critically tackle various forms of dissensus, agonism and conflict emerging in urban design and civic initiatives. In my forthcoming GIDEST talk (April 12, 2019), I will share outcomes from interviews, workshops, and case studies conducted over the past few months to reveal the ways in which conflict and agonism can be leveraged to nurture or inhibit productive design alternatives, expand social inclusion, and spur civic action in contested urban contexts.
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