Design for Democracy: A stepping stone towards systemic change
What does design for democracy mean, how does design fit into contemporary politics and society, and can it be implemented into our systems to enhance the quality of life for everyone? These were some of the burning questions that motivated PDR’s Project Manager and Researcher, Piotr Swiatek to pursue a Global Academies fellowship, aimed at investigating the link between design and democracy.
About the fellowship & Global Academies
The Global Academies is an initiative led by Cardiff Met University which brings interdisciplinary researchers together to collaborate with the intent of enhancing their personal growth and helping them address global challenges. As part of that, every year the Global Academies in conjunction with Santander fund three academics to undertake a scoping study with the prospect of creating a new research field, a new research funding proposal or a new commercial service.
Defining design for democracy
Design for democracy typically refers to the practice of designing products, systems, and processes that promote democratic values such as inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability by considering the needs and viewpoints of all members of society. Piotr explains more…
“As I’m based within PDR’s design policy team, we focus heavily on using design in government to improve public services and policies. This academic field has rapidly evolved over the last 25 years, shifting from solely improving economic output to also promoting well-being and sustainability. Our goal is to adopt a creative, user-centric approach to government and public sectors.
“But I kept thinking about what’s next in this field, and what stood out to me was a set of statistics showing consistent discontent within the public sector and declining trust in government across all democracies, particularly in the UK.”
Democracy in crisis
Based on a YouGov article from 2015, over 50% of citizens in the UK want to be involved in major policy decisions, but only 7% feel their voices are heard. There are several other reports with similar statistics supporting this statement including the Community Life Survey 2017-18 from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, and the Audit of Political Engagement 16, a report from 2019 by the Hansard Society.
Piotr notes, “The most recent report would be the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed 36,000 individuals across 28 countries about the cycle of distrust in governments. The study found that just 50% of people trust the government, and only 42% believe it can effectively address significant societal concerns. Additionally, 64% of respondents believe that society has reached a point where it is impossible to have constructive and civil discussions on disagreements. When distrust is the default, we lack the ability to debate or collaborate.
“Upon further research on these statistics, I thought we can put everything into policy to improve public services. However, the major challenge here, is how we restore trust in democratic processes and institutions, and how can design research fit into this. Ultimately, the possibility of restoring trust in governments by enabling them to create a more equitable and just society through design thinking and principles was the starting point for my fellowship.”
The fellowship started in the spring of 2022 and concluded at a summary event in January of 2023. The study was approached through a combination of extensive research, meetings and workshops with experts and fellow researchers, building networks and identifying funding opportunities.
“I started off with a knowledge-mapping exercise, identifying any existing research and main academic institutions that specialise in the subject; this allowed me to connect the dots and paint a full image of how design can fit into democracy, as well as pinpoint any gaps that could allow for new research routes and potential funding.
“Various sources, such as publications, reports, online communities, podcasts, and webinars from design and policy studies, were analysed during the initial stage. Current debates in sociology, philosophy, economy, and politics were also explored to broaden the perspective.”
Piotr continues, “During the second half of my fellowship, I engaged extensively with academics, policymakers, experts, and other stakeholders to gain deeper insights into the knowledge gaps, industry requirements, and potential opportunities. I took part in a total of 14 meetings that were relevant to my research, including delivering workshops and international talks, participating in roundtable discussions and networking.”
Results and what comes next
Piotr’s investigation of design for democracy and engagement initiatives associated with the fellowship resulted in the procurement of multiple consultancy contracts and the discovery of several opportunities for both commercial and funding ventures.
When asked what’s next, Piotr said, “It’s important to note that this fellowship was an explorative study, systems cannot be changed overnight with a single blueprint. The purpose of this study is to act as a stepping stone for an actionable plan that could result in systemic change. It’s a big task but I intend to continue this study, dig deeper and apply for funding.”
Learn more about PDR’s work in research or if you have an idea you’d like to discuss, contact us.