As part of the Participatory Design Conference, we hosted a virtual workshop on Tuesday, June 16, 2020, and worked together online between June 1-16 to prepare for a robust and generative session.
We examined the potential opportunities and dangers of using a design approach within grassroots movements that are building alternative social structures. Workshop participants investigated possibilities and limitations of design as a way of thinking by practicing the practice, in the context of designing for alternatives to policing.
Participants built on community-based precedents to brainstorm and imagine tools and technologies that could replace a call to police in response to a threat. Then, we used our collective experience to discuss and debate what design might or might not offer in this context.
Designers claim to be able to shape future ways-of-being by designing artifacts that invite new socio-material interactions. Yet, design is only one way to create the future.
Police departments across the United States and elsewhere vow to ‘protect and serve’ their publics. However, activists have pulled apart this promise to show that the system of policing is designed not to protect people and communities, but to maintain a particular organization of wealth and power. Originally created to control slaves and immigrant populations , the institution of policing has always served some groups while targeting others. In 2015, police killed 1,134 people. 15% of those were African American men between 15-34 years old. This group faced police-related deaths at a rate five times higher than white men of the same age . Overall, contact with police carries deadly risks for racialized poor, Native people, immigrants, Black and Brown youth, LGBTQI and gender-nonconforming people, the homeless, sex workers, and others .
Even when people recognize these failings, and sometimes personally experience them, it can be difficult to imagine an alternative. City governments and police themselves often frame policing as the only option to address crime and prevent a descent into chaos and disorder. When people face real or imagined violence and conflict, calling the police is a concrete action to take, even when it may not result in safety or resolution. Yet activists, organizers and everyday neighbors have been enacting alternative forms of justice for generations, simply to keep themselves safe, or explicitly in order to make prisons and policing obsolete [9, 14].
This year’s conference focuses on Participation(s) Otherwise, asking us to broaden our field of vision to see these many histories, presents and futures where people believe, know and act differently from the status quo. For example, the Black Panther Party began policing the police in Oakland, California in 1966, legally bearing arms to monitor the behavior of Oakland Police officers and challenge police brutality. Later on, the Black Panthers developed free breakfast programs for school children, free health clinics, and other public services to address needs that were not being met . In Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, the Zapatistas rebelled against the Mexican government to seize their own territory, where they continue to enact their own social structures, including a justice system based in community accountability . Recently in the United States, an array of prefigurative initiatives enact alternatives to policing, for example the #Letusbreathe Collective occupied a vacant lot in Chicago for 41 days, vowing to address all conflict without resorting to punitive forms of justice or calling the police . Creative Interventions operated temporarily in Oakland, California as a resource center to create and promote community-based responses to interpersonal and especially domestic violence, documenting their learnings in a publicly available ‘Toolkit’ .
As strategic and human-centered design becomes familiar in governments and nonprofits, designers are also taking on projects that address policing and the racial disparities of the criminal legal system. For example, the Los Angeles “i‑team” is one of many Innovation Teams funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, built around human-centered design practices. They are working on improving the Los Angeles Police Department’s police recruitment and hiring process to “strengthen and diversify the police force” . And New York City’s plan to replace its famously abusive Rikers Island jail with neighborhood ‘justice hubs’ was generated through a competition called “Justice in Design” .
Rather than strengthening the system that already exists, what would it look like for designers to embrace activists’ visions and help build alternative systems? This aligns with the political roots of Participatory Design, focused on alternative futures and democratic changes .
However, even when aligned with activists envisioning alternatives, it is important to question what we bring to these issues ‘as a designer’ or when acting in a ‘designerly’ way. Is it possible to contribute to relational, non-hierarchal, cooperative and dynamic systems using a practice that came with the birth of expert knowledge and modern institutions? Professional design began at a time when the determination of social norms was being lifted from regular people in their everyday lifeworlds, and instead decided “heteronomously” by designers, scientists, policy makers, and other professionals . This is inherently opposed to the self-determination for which these activist groups are fighting.
Participatory designers fundamentally criticize the forms of expertise inherent in modernist design, arguing for a design practice focused in local knowledge production  done consensually together, and focusing on the process rather than the outcome . Instead of rational problem solvers, many participatory designers strive to act as reflective practitioners, facilitating conversations-with-the-material-of-the-situation .