Melbourne Australia


Social Pleasure and Design and Social Innovation: Community Work in Greece 2015-2017


I’m interested in borders and how people manage their communities and identity.


This is on a scale from the individual, to local to national and global borders. I also see this as one of the main places where inequality gets played out in the scheme of globalization and neoliberalism.


For about 3 years I’ve been working in communities in Florence, Belgrade, and Greece, (as well as connecting with others in places like Cairo).


This started as a broad comparative project working across a very disenfranchised area of the EU. I use maps and other designed things in order to understand and develop long-term connections and dialogue in the community, so that my students and I can now assist on design projects through principles of ‘design and social innovation.’


Social conflict is inevitable in this work and trust is not easy to establish. Hegemony is a factor in working in disenfranchised communities.


Hegemony is the domination of unique or contextual viewpoints, eliminating differences between dominant and subordinate groups. It can operate on the level of nations and global economies as well as in how we work with others ‘as designers’ or other specialists.


The dominant way of “seeing the world” becomes internalized in social and individual identity.


My talk is about social pleasure and design and social innovation. How do we frame ‘design and social innovation’ in ways that are not dominating or objectifying the people we work with?


Social pleasure in the community is one factor, as well as seeking out many different stories and viewpoints.


It is about adopting a stance towards things rather than applying arbitrary methods “to” people.


I’m going to show two contrasting examples. Both have the goal of creating positive social interactions in communities to solve problems. One is a problematic, and the other is a partial ongoing success.


Hunt Library opened in 2013 at my university. It is touted as a design solution for propelling my university forward. The idea is that it will create social community in my university across disciplines. It’s also to connect the larger community around the latest digital technology. It is designed by renowned national and international designers, researchers and architects. These include Second Story / Sapient / Nitro (interaction design), Gallagher (exhibition design)— Snøhetta (architecture), and others.


It is a showpiece for the latest thinking on architecture and interaction design used to create positive social and community dialogue. It also houses very expensive design objects. Massive amounts of public and private money have been spent on it, possibly exceeding 120 m USD.


The Institute for Emerging Issues is part of the library. The Institute seeks to connect people, and other institutions through a network of shared innovation in areas such as education, the economy, the environment, health, rural populations etc. The Institute conducts outreach and engagement, organizes conferences and events, and has at its core the “Commons,” which is an interactive space where stakeholders can come together to solve issues through communication and idea-sharing.


The Commons has three architectural sections— the first tells the story and history of the state, and ends on an appeal from a former governor. The second section has a large interactive panel where data can be called up in group presentations and discussions. The third section is based on interactive tables. This is where face-to-face discussion is designed to take place and new ideas are entered in to the database. There is also a parallel web and mobile platform that is connected to the Commons.


It has garnered numerous IXD awards nationally. The library is also very celebrated. Un-officially it is acknowledged as not working- no one is actually participating. It is seen as a failure in communication design and therefore needs to be fixed, despite the big-ticket investment by cutting edge designers.


The second example is a partial ongoing success, taking place with several sponsors in Greece. It’s now moving into a phase of “design and social innovation,” which according to Ezio Manzini is the idea that sustainable and socially positive changes through design activities are based to large part on a communities own knowledge, resources and social capital, that the basis of change is within rather than imposed on a community.


The exploratory research I, and others, did prior to this might point to some of the issues about the IEI Commons and ‘imposing a language’ through design. I did exploratory projects in Florence, Belgrade and in Cephalonia.


Starting in 2013 we developed digital maps that would be used by different communities living in the same space. We researched and created visualizations of different metro spaces and uncovered a very different notion of what the city was, rather than the official, branded idea of the city.


This also comes out of research my students and I did in the US in our own city, where as one of many examples, an undeveloped beltline tract used as a soccer field might be a very important social nexus for recent immigrants from Central and South America. To the urban planning and developers, more attention has been paid to city centers or corridors that are the focus of large investment by economically powerful groups.


In Belgrade in particular, visuals, objects and environments that came up for discussion were viewed very differently based on two different categories: one as a ‘hegemonic’ urban space (such as a museums, schools, commercial areas and malls, etc.) versus social spaces where daily practices take place in immediate neighborhoods and homes.


I found that people had an acute awareness of the slipperiness of language, symbols and the urban environment, that domination and subordination of language and meaning changes quickly as one moves across these two kinds of spaces, and that this ambiguity had to be negotiated as part of daily life. As an example, the Tito Museum (aka the Museum of Yugoslav History) was created during the Yugoslavian Federation period. Part of it is referred to as an ‘ethnography museum.’


In a section of the galleries, the displays create a narration of traditional cultures, downplaying historical and long-term regional conflicts. Using primarily handcrafted items to show the daily life of people in the different regions, the displays use crafts to appeal to home and family life and local environments. The story that surrounds the artifacts is about domestic work, the neighborhood, particular events and celebrations, food and food preparation, and other things. Curated into the collection are examples where symbols of the Yugoslavian Federation become motifs in craft objects, including portraits of Tito, the “Hammer and Sickle,” etc. in the mid-20th century.


These and other ways the ‘story is told’ share a lot of similarities with the Common’s appeal to a single shared history, set of values and single story to describe a lot of complexly interacting communities, which have been and continue to be in conflict.


The story is clearly ideological- it naturalizes symbols of the Federation period into documentary images and a story of a common ethnographic reading. Unresolved competing interpretations, sensed if not completely articulated still exist. Part of the language (and history) for expressing those differences is erased from the exhibition design.


Interviews and discussions within those kinds of urban spaces contrasted sharply with interviews that took place in someone’s home and as part of social conviviality. The some of the same objects from the museum, for example, could be found in my friends and colleagues home.


Rather than being narrated as ethnographic objects, they were part of common daily practices. They also led to other objects and photographs in the home referenced in personal stories and competing interpretations. Practices and roles adopted in the home included sharing, making, the pleasure of company, talking about common things, the pleasure of the food, gifts, and social experiences after dinner. These conversations emphasized relationships between friends, mother / father / daughter, and guests.


These examples show two different ways of thinking about communication. The US IEI techno story telling and the Yugoslavian Federation era ‘ethnographic museum’ are controlling and hegemonic, while the convivial practices of home and community, while certainly not an idealized or perfect state, is at least an unfinished state where negotiation can occur in some kind of sense of solidarity in daily practices and social pleasure. This is not a method that can easily be transferred- it’s more about a stance towards being responsive with people. What it is in part is designing in (rather than for) dialogue acknowledging social pleasure and conviviality.


At the very beginning of my exploratory work in Greece in 2015, when dialogue was framed in abstract ideas about the EU and globalization, the result ended up more about a ‘consumer choice’ based on a particular left / right / center reading of political figures and events. The kinds of images and references available to me in media were not effective in discussion.


Again, I noted a split between a suspect public language and the language and practices in daily life in the community. My program changed in the exploratory phase. It was rethought based on a daily cycle of work and being embedded in the community, where social interaction occurred at dinner, in discussions in homes and in places where people worked, in social events and festivals.


Having dialogue directly with people in the community in their homes and the places that they worked allowed me to interview them and record their own ideas about their families and communities, rather than abstract appeals to ‘emerging issues,’ which is suspect in many ways— the abstraction is where the language breaks down, where hegemony comes into play in our language.


At the same time, this is not a return to an appeal of home, family, and nation (Hegel and etc).


The differences in Belgrade, Florence, and Greece have a lot to do with peoples interconnection regionally and internationally through travel, social media and otherwise. It’s a different idea than design as ‘instrumentalist’ practice through technological innovation and research, or Richard Florida inspired ideas of local cosmopolitanism, with access by an elite in creative industries.


This is one of the many disconnects in my country right now regarding those that are pro-globalization and in the neo-liberal mindset of the 90’s. (For reference see Butler- Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence- and Thobani- Nationality in the Age of Global Terror).


Participation and social pleasure became the focus points of all conversations. As I was invited into homes, people used their own photos and other items at hand to tell their own stories through their practices and stories. From the interviews, I found common themes emerging from our dialogue, as well as a set of relationships between the people that I had gotten to know.


My process was to gather exploratory research through unstructured interviews, analyze common references, and then create those references as titles and visual symbols. These references then became part of a mass produced portable kit that are constructed out of cheap, light-weight materials. The next round of interviews in 2016 used the kits as a mediation and visualization tool. People can sort and discuss the references into a simple taxonomy in the box, that visualizes their answers, Different patterns emerge from discussions alongside the recorded discussion.


Since the discussions occur in environments like homes and offices or etc. the participants also reference their own objects in their spaces to explain ideas further. In part they are based on how people I observed in Belgrade used objects in their home in their dialogue and their practices around the dinner table or the elsewhere. The original research and exhibition work 2016 (Cephalonia) led to more specific discussions about community issues and local problems / solutions and the need for ongoing community research and design assistance.


Topically the projects we are working on now include exhibition design, signage, and information visualization on projects in education, bio-diversity, local history and archaeological research, with students, professors, business people, and those working in NGO’s. My colleague Dr Vasiliki Levantakou (TEI) and I have responded by creating ongoing ‘service learning courses’ that bring together Greek and American students working together. In Thessaloniki we are beginning research to create dialogue in the community around urban regeneration and social capital to for sustainable economic growth.


This is a joint project working with colleagues at ACT and the Dukakis Center, Dr Maria Patsarika and Dr David Wisner.




In contrast to the two examples of museum and the digital commons, ‘oikos,’ or the hearth is the social pleasure of shared community.


It is key to Manzini’s idea of resources and knowledge within the community itself.


Toni Morrison speaks to the sense of dread when one is confronted by the kinds of things many more of us in the US are feeling now- the kind of disenfranchisement that has been a given historically for others.


She counters the sense of dread and disenfranchisement with the thought that—


‘…there is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’


The nature of community undercuts the individual sense of ‘despair, self-pity, silence and fear.’ For those that are disenfranchised, social pleasure provides more than the anger of fighting back against the social forces that are dominating them, or the confusion of a compromised ‘official’ story, which squeezes out their own language putting experience into words and competing stories. Social pleasure in the community creates opportunities for social innovation that spring from unique insights and language and most importantly a sense of agency. Likewise, for outsiders like myself, and my students, it also is a lens for finding and negotiating a fit between what the outsider may have to offer working in the community.