Design and Democracy: Transformative Agency within Indigenous Structure

Qually, Byron Alexander (2018). Design and Democracy: Transformative Agency within Indigenous Structure. PhD thesis The Open University.



South African democracy is perceived and evidenced to be under duress. This research questions how design, when underpinned by transdisciplinarity and abduction, can articulate and address this problem.

The literature is reviewed to map how designed objects, processes, and philosophy enable and hamper notions of democracy. Within this literature, two concepts are identified as key to a South African context, and require further research - Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) and cosmopolitanism. The African concept of Ubuntu, a subset of IKS, is argued to function as an authentic context, however, its ability to influence urban and diverse environments is questioned. Cosmopolitan theory, and Dewey's focus on experimentation, is argued to promote normative organisation, and its application to facilitate urban and dynamic participation is questioned.

The Cape Town precinct - Long Street - provides a case study with which to unpack these two key concepts, and obtain empirical data to answer the research questions. Qualitative data is firstly obtained, from key informants who have the authority to influence the case study delineation. Based on this data, an Abductive instrument (Ai), based on Experience Design (XD) and Designing For Participation (DFP) methods, obtains quantitative data from public actors.

Findings from the research include: political philosophy is increasingly enabled and countered by design; design is required to deconstruct and not fortify South African democracy; design is capable of operationalising decolonisation as a constructive, and not reductive, act; indigeneity is being reclaimed in urban contexts, and reinterpreted by design; reflective participation, and not historical assimilation, is a fundamental challenge for political studies; publics experiment with, and not on, themselves.

The key implication of the research is designing critical representation, which is at the intersection of design, IKS, and cosmopolitanism. Here, empowerment is an indigenous imperative, design synthesises direct and representative democracy, and design intent is hyper-transparent.

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