This thesis surveys the ways in which design practices can contribute to a postcapitalist transition. I study several contemporary product design projects that develop everyday tools, building systems, and fabrication machinery. Together, they encapsulate peer production, open-sourcing, and the maker movement. To me, these trends constitute a coherent methodology of commoning, which manifests itself in three ways: shared creation (designing in common), shared governance (managing designs in common), and shared access (holding the means of production in common). I describe how this shared valorisation of labour, knowledge, and artefacts radically alters the political economy of design practices. To what extent can design be disentangled from its unsustainable condition? Might the project of what I call peer-designing the open-blueprints of maker-machines prefigure a resilient and sustainable basis for material production? Do commoning strategies disrupt late capitalism or merely remedy its shortcomings? How might postcapitalist politics conceive a rapid eco-social transition so as to tackle the great challenges posed by our times and provide pathways towards a sustainable future? In four chapters and a concluding discussion, this study responds to these pressing questions.
The Commodity-Machine: Sustaining the unsustainable
In Chapter I, I follow the trail of commodities in late capitalism. In this context, design is configured as an unsustainable commodity-machine, producing market goods and thereby reproducing exchange relations. Drawing from design and ecological critique, I extend this diagnosis to include prevailing green capitalist design practices, which remain inadequate when it comes to realising an eco-social transition. I conclude that it is less commodities’ materiality than relations of exchange that remain the main obstacle to establishing sustainability beyond the commodity-machine. It is not designed objects in themselves that are unsustainable, but the economic relations in which they are embedded. Design practices can be sustainable only if they are decoupled from this mode of production.
On the basis of this critique, I construct a framework for postcapitalist design practices that are situated outside exchange relations and market mediation. These practices produce shared value, as opposed to exchange value. Theorising how capitalism might end, I put forward the concepts peak carbon and peak capital to distinguish current postcapitalist imaginaries from its historical predecessors. Approaching the eco-social transition from a variety of spatial, temporal, and political angles, I discuss contemporary discourses around how a counter-hegemonic project for an alternative political economy might be built. This allows me to hone in emergent design practices that could contribute to a broader postcapitalist project, but require deployment at a greater pace and scale. As an alternative to conventional object-centric analysis and critique, I elaborate a threefold framework for studying and practising sustainable design. This framework foregrounds value processes that practice commoning.
In Chapter II, I identify organisational characteristics of emergent design practices, exploring the conditions under which designers put productive capacities to common ends and co-produce shared value. Three overlapping subjectivities are considered: the designer in its current state of entanglement in market relations; the peer as the emergent model of the worker beyond hierarchy and competition (originating in software development), and; ultimately the commoner as shared value creators engaged in collective action. After establishing affinities between scholarship on the commons and P2P, I investigate OpenStructures as a prime example of how peer production can be adapted to product design projects. Analysing modular domestic appliances made with OpenStructures reveals a range of challenges and limitations. These are traceable in tensions between designers’ practices on the one hand and their discourses on the other, as expressed in publicly available media and conversations with myself.
Peer designing not only manifests itself in collaborations among designer-commoners at the design stage; it also implies designing for commoning throughout the value chain. These collaborations are transformative for designers, makers, and users alike: boundaries among these subjectivities dissolve as users become makers, makers become designers, and designers become facilitators. Most importantly, all of those engaged in design become commoners, who produce, reproduce, govern, and replicate shared design projects. By establishing institutions and communities based on free association, peer designers can become more resilient. What is more, they have a better chance of securing their livelihoods and socialising their design labour than they otherwise might if they remain in loose networks of peer-designers. Such communities’ organisational and business models prefigure postcapitalist relations while remaining strategically integrated into market practices. In designing processes of commoning around a product, these projects become points of convergence for collective action.
In Chapter III, I explore the technical, economic and social advantages of the digital reproduction and dissemination of design blueprints. Looking at OpenDesk as an example of design practice based on open blueprints, I adopt their methodology of self-production and follow the production process from the computer screen to physical object. I establish whether the blueprints themselves are accessible, freely available, self-explanatory, and easy to build. Further, I consider how additional assembly guides, web platforms, and the like are designed to facilitate the diffusion and appropriation of designs. Much more than blueprints are needed, I argue, in order to achieve openness. While there may be no easy way of precipitating viral replication, projects that focus on single but complete products achieve more than vast open-ended systems.
Although all of the case studies featured in the study make their blueprints available through commons-based licenses, these are of varying levels of sophistication. Whereas some projects have simply uploaded drawings, others present detailed knowledge and provide documentation on sourcing materials, instructions for processing them, source code for electronic components, bills of materials, assembly guides, and forums for troubleshooting. The work of commoning is still far from over when blueprints are made available online. Encouraging diffusion and replication, coordinating improvements and support, and facilitating derivatives and adaptations all constitute essential aspects of commoning, in the sense of shared governance over design knowledge. In turn, this requires institutional arrangements that can guarantee quality and continuity in open-source projects, as well as keep the design process inclusive and accountable. I conclude that openness requires custodian institutions that support a project’s development and dissemination so as to achieve sustainability and circulation without a market.
In Chapter IV, I focus on some characteristics shared by machines that exemplify the counter-industrial paradigm of decentralising and autonomously producing the means of production. These strategies all subscribe to low-tech or appropriate-tech ethics and necessity of leaving small material and energetic footprints. In enabling hacking by design, they invite DIY cultures and maker movements to repair, customise, or reconfigure products freely. These end products are seldom consumer goods but tools for a community: maker machines that facilitate further localised fabrication. To explore the challenges of autonomous production and post-scarcity, I analyse the discourses and machines of Open Source Ecology and discuss the project’s successes and failures.
Sketching the contours of broader debates over technological sophistication and material abundance allows me to reject certain visions of post-work politics that imagine full automation. Rather, I focus on machines that enable makers in unprecedented ways instead of rendering them redundant. I follow the evolution of Precious Plastic to explore the emergence of a new breed of crafts providing both social livelihoods and ecological benefits. That said, none of the projects is strictly autonomous in relation to received industrial infrastructure in that they rely on preexisting machines, components, and supply chains. Postcapitalist design practices embrace the incompletion of the counter-industrial paradigm shift: instead of fetishising meticulously sourced raw materials only to churn out green commodities, they foster sustainable social relations so as to build fair, resilient, and thriving communities. Beyond constituting absolute limits, these challenges indicate some directions for further initiatives.
In this study, I have analysed how commoning takes place in design practices. Commoning in design covers a vast and complex field of collaborative practices and collective actions that create shared value, uphold institutional arrangements, and provide a simple abundance of sustainable goods. Commoning democratises design – not because everybody magically becomes a designer overnight, but because it generates livelihoods for makers everywhere. Commoning enables people to produce quality goods and work fair jobs, to participate in localising, improving, and adapting products to suit an enormous array of needs, possibilities, and desires. When considered as instances of commoning, these practices stand out as early emblematic pioneers in postcapitalist design. Together, they constitute an ecology of subjectivities, practices, and discourses. In every case study I analysed, this strategy of commoning is riven by a productive tension between speculative discourses and prefigurative practices. Through this tension, these practices negotiate creative work and political action.
Given the scale of the task at hand, design’s latent political potential appears to be much the same as that of any other social practice. This potential consists in the fact that designers can contribute to prefigurative activities that produce shared value—in short, they can engage in commoning. Becoming commoners incites designers, makers, and users to take creative, productive, and collective action. It empowers communities to address the world's starkest challenges. The conclusion to this study remains descriptive, though, in that it does not tease out the potentials latent in these practices. Considered in isolation, this clutch of loosely-related case studies might be deemed niche, quirky, or insular. By extrapolating the logic of each disparate initiative and connecting the dots among them, it is possible to tease out a blueprint for the ecological and social transformation of the economy. Through this transition, the economy would move away from market relations and towards socialised ones, from exchange to sharing.
Redesigning the entire infrastructure of energy, food, goods, and housing remains a daunting logistical task. This transition can only be designed successfully if the principles of collaboration, openness, and accessibility displace the commodity-machine’s culture of competition, secrecy, and exclusivity. Recognising design’s potential for commoning opens up a broad range of possibilities for organising the postcapitalist transition. Nevertheless, postcapitalist design is not a silver bullet that can resolve everything. Commoning practices may expand organically by reinforcing and replicating themselves, but they do not systematically replace commodified relations with socialised ones. Ultimately, do any of these practices merit the ambiguous and controversial label of “postcapitalist”? My final case study, POC21 innovation camp indicates that this nascent archipelago of practices is evolving from an attempt to design individual product prototypes towards designing an integrated proof of concept for postcapitalism itself.
Postcapitalist design cannot disrupt the commodity-machine or bring about a rapid and comprehensive transformation on its own. Just as designers are to participate in postcapitalist politics, organisations and institutions that lead the postcapitalist transition need to embrace designers, makers, and hackers as constituents in their broader movement. Postcapitalist design can be seen as one front in the struggle for the eco-social transition among many. Ultimately, its impact depends on the energy and resources of the social movements that support and sustain it. Other struggles for a postcapitalist transition include defending and regenerating (land-based) commons against resource extractivism; expanding and valorising social services and reproductive care work; abolishing intellectual property regimes; and, publicly funding innovation. Such policies legislated for “from above” can supercharge ad hoc, organic efforts “from below”. If given enough space and support to flourish, these newly open, distributed, and collaborative principles can surpass the closed, centralised, and competitive systems of the old world. Only then can late capitalism’s sophisticated scarcity (and disastrous abundance) be replaced with a simple abundance of common goods. Simply put, postcapitalist design is an invitation to unsustain the commodity-machine, urging us to reconcile design with politics, resistance with alternatives, speculation with prefiguration, and technology with ecology.
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