The Social Design Toolkit is a guide for the community leader in Latin America who want to use post-colonial theory to help social designers understand how neoliberalism promotes unequal power dynamics.
A toolkit is usually a set of tools and condense knowledge to facilitate a task for its user. Toolkits can take many shape and sizes. Within the emerging field of Social Design, toolkits are seen as a useful way to organize and support innovation by collaborating with people, thus shortening the time of assessing needs. However, some can be conceptually problematic.
In the article, Frog Creates An Open Source Guide to Design Thinking by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan for FastCo, the vice president of creative at Frog is quoted as saying: “These [NGOs] are organizations focused on how to crowdsource design,” says Robert Fabricant, vice president of creative at Frog. “Yet most of the people they’re trying to reach don’t have any pattern for how to collectively approach a problem.” (Campbell-Dollaghan). Fabricant makes no distinction to what people the NGOs are trying to reach and assumes that collective problem solving is a design method only.
Such as The Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) by Frog. This toolkit’s aim is to help people develop problem-solving skills. However, it assumes that its targeted audience does not have a framework for collective problem solving to begin with.
His statement becomes even more problematic when considering the fact that the toolkit was inspired by an initiative Frog carried out in Nairobi, negating models for collective organizing like Savings and Credit Co-operative. SACCO is credit union model owned, governed and manage by its members. While a SACCO model might not be a scalable framework to solve every problem (it is meant to solve a finance issue), neither is Design Thinking.
Tim Brown, CEO of the design consultancy IDEO, defines design thinking as “…a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”(Brown, Design Thinking). While this is not the only definition of Design Thinking in existence, it seems to imply that commerce is key which means that it is not necessarily concern with ideas like social equity, governance or post-colonial theory.
The Collective Action Toolkit seems to foster ideation hegemony of First World Industrialized values. Frabricant’s view seems similar to those of the US idealist Ivan Illich talks to in To Hell with Good Intentions. “You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously – ‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these” (Illich). The kit creates a small elite of people that can validate their approaches instead of being culturally sensible to their own problem solving methods.
Confronted with the CAT and inspired by Illich, the Social Design Toolkit was born. The Social Design Toolkit mimicks the visual language of the CAT to explain two complex concepts: how neoliberal strategies replicate unequal power dynamics and ideation hegemony.
When social designers frame their design consumer products as acts of generosity, they replicate the material dominance of First World industrialized countries with their Third World post-colonial counterparts and create more entrepreneurial opportunities for themselves. Some argue these contributions become nonreciprocal gifts: Third-World populations are not able to economically gift back the same way, thus placing them always at the receiving end. However, Illich suggest that while this type of tactics are definitely for the benefit of the giver, he also argues that Third-World populations can reciprocate, just on form that is unrecognizable to the Third-World dweller.
The Social Design Toolkit allows the community leader in Latin America to reciprocate with a palpable gift of knowledge. The kit uses post-colonial and populist theory to help social designers learn real collaborative practices through the principles of “horizontalidad” and explain how neoliberalism promotes unequal power dynamics.
The Golden Nugget
During Mid-terms, the Social Design Toolkit was presented to one of the Frog designers that participated in designing the Collective Action Toolkit. The intention was to use the guide as a prompt; a conversational object that would allow me to discuss the idea of neutrality within the field of Social Design. Upon reviewing the kit the designer said:
“…You can hijack the Social Designer’s power position and use it against them? So you are saying you are interested in a Social Design-Free Environment? This is extremely political”