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Design (Activism) for Social Change

Design (Activism) for Social Change

In this article we will examine whether design theory and practice have a role in the international development sector, and especially in the creation of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) projects in the Global South. We will present two aspects of design that are highly related with the development discourses, one positive and one negative. The former is the claim the users’/locals’ Participation is very important in the project creation process, but also, it is the connecting link between design and development. The latter is the argument that design needs decolonization, as it is a field that has a colonial heritage and past, with power structures and dominant discourses. Lastly, we will present another use of design, that is not in the mainstream international development sector, that is its use in activism.


It is undeniable that ICTs are present in almost all the aspects of our lives (Bentley, Nemer and Vannini, 2019, p.477), and that has both positives and negatives sides, especially in the context of the Global South’s development. As a positive side, we have the belief that ICTs “can address the major problems of the planet” (Heeks, 2017, p.3) by providing digital solutions and thus, positively affecting the poorest and most marginalized citizens (Unwin, 2017, p.175). Conversely, as the negative one, we could claim that, although their good intentions, the majority of ICT4D initiatives fail (Heeks, 2017, p.103), and instead of reducing poverty, they have increased inequalities, and thus, they impact development negatively (Unwin, 2017, p.191; Heeks, 2017, p.16). After all, technology is not neutral, but it is a specifically designed product full of the designers’ political, social, and economic interests and intentions (Unwin, 2017, p.13).

Consequently, by drawing from Walsham (2012, p.87 as cited in ibid., p.23), we could claim that we must approach the design and use of ICTs by having ethical goals, and above all, we must start including other disciplines in the creation of ICT4D projects. In other words, we need a modern and dynamic multidisciplinary development mindset and practice, as a way to enrich the old, quasi static, and not so effective methodological framework, by “undermining the asymmetry of local-global power relationships, and effecting the decentering of Eurocentric/Western-centric universals” (Ali, 2016, p.21).

Design for Social Change

With that in mind, we could argue that design, with its modern social, sustainable, and user-centered concerns, is a very relevant discipline that could be useful in the design and implementation of development projects, ICT4D included, because, among other things, it can “suggest and realize new materializations for our world” by challenging the contemporary dominant narratives by offering counter ones (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.xx-xxi). With that being said, design has the power to transmit messages and to influence people’s decisions and opinions, and thus, affecting the values of the society by raising awareness and creating new knowledge. Unfortunately, it has been exploited extensively by the for-profit sector in order to promote consumerism products (First Things First Project, 2018). Nevertheless, the last decades, the social and ethical role of design has been understood, as it is exemplified initially during the 60’s with the First Things First Manifesto that called designers to start being more critical on their societal impact (Berman, 2009, p.159). Even today, there is the need and space for designers to use their communicational capacities and designing skills in order to address societal issues, create appropriate solutions, and thus, be a key player towards our collective attempt for social change. After all, design as a communication practice, it is indeed a political act by defining the “who gets what, from whom and when” (Karam and Mutsvairo, 2022, p.xxv).

In that sense, design could offer a toolbox that could help ICT4D projects to be more impactful, efficient and sustainable, by co-designing and envisioning our entangled and decolonial futures, but also by providing technological solutions that have relevant and well-defined affordances, as Tufekci (2017, p.xi) would have said, that fit to the needs and values of the end users, which, in the context of ICT4D in the Global South, are the silenced poor from the margins of the society (Unwin, 2017, p.175).

Participation in Design and Development

Having said that, one of the most important mindset and tools, that, on one hand, is crucial for the success of ICT4D projects, and on the other hand, is the connecting link between design and development, is the notion of user’s/local’s Participation. In other words, Participatory Design (PD) is a process of including all stakeholders in the different design phases, and especially the intended end users and beneficiaries, which are, in the developmental context, those who are marginalized in the communities of the Global South (ibid., p.24). It invites into the conversation the locals “who have been excluded from the production of knowledge by colonial modernity” (Ali, 2016, p.19), and it respects the specificity of their local realities (Heeks, 2017, p.108). Furthermore, PD allows for transformations to happen from the ground, and can help to positively affect and emancipate those who live in poverty and in silence (Bentley, Nemer and Vannini, 2019, p.478). This pluralistic approach has the power to decrease the “gap between ICT4D design and local reality” (Heeks, 2017, p.110), and can affect the conditions for a project to be successful (Unwin, 2017, p.175).

In that way, Participation can be seen as the common ground of design and development. Indeed, for the latter, we could claim the case of Postcolonial studies within the context of the international development of the Global South, where local cultures and ethnography are key players in social change (McEwan, 2019, p.137). That theory has been opposed to the previous paradigms in development and their colonial perspectives that originate to the Western ideas of modernity, and it critiques the development projects, as it perceives them as “the dominant, universalizing and arrogant discourses of the North” (ibid., p.37). These old paradigms are rather excluding, and they reinforce colonial power positions between the designer/aid worker and the end user/beneficiary, as the former are designing for the poor and not with them (Unwin, 2017, p.176). Through Participation, design and development could achieve “a swift towards a ‘pluriversal’ perspective” that includes also the ones who live in the margins of the system (Ali, 2016, p.20), and they are more likely to offer culture- and place-specific solutions that are based on the acquired local knowledge. And that applies also to the case of ICT4D initiatives that are being created by outsiders from the developing countries (Unwin, 2017, p.29), with the assumption that their universal solutions could fit to all situations without considering the South’s “cultural, regional, ideological and other differences” (Tufte, 2017, p.46).

Moreover, this established type of top-down development with ICTs, resembles the design approach that Saffer calls as the ‘Genius Design’, as opposed to PD, where designers do not invite the end users, and assume knowledge on their needs, desires, and aspirations (Saffer, 2007, p.79). In that way, Participation can help both design and development to be emancipated from the assumptions of the dominant Northern ‘genius’ designer/aid worker, and start considering the specific local conditions of the end users/beneficiaries, and eventually, offer solutions that are more likely to be successful and sustainable (Chetty and Grinter, 2007, p.2331).

Nevertheless, even though local’s Participation in ICT4D projects can have a positive impact, there is an obstacle, that is the existing digital illiteracy in poor communities in the Global South, that can sometimes make difficult the co-design of a project, due to the lack of technological knowledge and the related vocabulary (ibid., p.2330).

Decolonization of Design

To continue further, and despite design’s potential to do good, we should mention a relevant-to-development critique, that is the fact that colonialism is inherent in design theory and practice, not only through the lack of local’s participation, but also because its dominant frameworks, discourses, and aesthetics have been heavily influenced by the thinking of the dominant Global North (Khandwala, 2019). After all, ICTs, but also design, are both part of the European idea of modernity (Faud-Luke, 2009, p.49), and “there is no modernity without colonialism” (Ali, 2016, p.18). Indeed, in the development sector, the dominant western assumptions for the living conditions of the Other, are based on the modernist rationality, and they are not always in accord with the traditional sociocultural context of the beneficiary (Heeks, 2017, p.172), and thus, they create more unequal power positions and strengthen colonialism.

Consequently, as in politics, it is important to find and remove the colonial mechanisms that inform and shape also all the aspects of design, if we want to create more relevant and sustainable ICT4D solutions that do not reproduce unjust colonial-based structures. In fact, as Karam and Mutsvairo (2022, p.xxvi) claim, those who work on decolonization, must eliminate “certain parts of the ways in which the ‘system works’”, and that applies also to design field, because it is being influenced by the dichotomy of our modern post-colonial world, with its uneven power relations between the previously colonizers and colonized (Awori et. al, 2016, p.226).

In order to do so, it is not enough that the western designers include and invite into their process the locals from developing countries. There must be initiatives from Southern designers as well, as they will bring into the process new, but also local-based, social and cultural insights, and they will provide with alternative narrations that will enrich the knowledge creation and challenge the established power relations. Of course, the place of the design education is highly important as well, because the West, as the main design educator, carries its own colonial and dominant mentality and aesthetic, and that can influence the students of that system (Khandwala, 2019). For that reason, it is crucial that design education, on one hand, must be decolonized, and on the other hand, must be expanded also to the South, as ways to “lay out new grounds upon which desirable decolonial ideas and practices can be envisioned and practiced” (Karam and Mutsvairo, 2022, p.xxvii).

Ultimately, and by drawing from the emancipatory politics by Karam and Mutsvairo (ibid., p.xxiv), we can claim the importance of the notion of emancipatory design within the anticolonial struggles, as a condition that affects, on one hand, the local beneficiaries, but on the other hand, the local designers themselves, that are being also decolonized through this process. Indeed, the decolonized, and thus free, designers from the Global South, have the potential to see their world for which they are about to design though an alternative lens, and not through the colonial visual languages and logic that have been established by the western designers; and by doing so, they can then “claim sovereignty over their situations” (ibid., p.xxiii).

Design in Activism

ICT4D and its design can help finding solutions for social change within the official international development sector, but there are also ICT4D projects from alternative actors that try to tackle various societal issues, as it is the case with Design Activism (DA). More specifically, DA uses design methods in order to create alternative narrations that could challenge and change the established social, political, and institutional realities and relations. By using Markussen’s definition, DA uses design for “promoting social change, and raising awareness about values and beliefs” (Markussen, 2013, p.38), and as such, it is highly related with various development issues (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.27).

More specifically, DA combines the notions of design and activism. For the former, we can recall Simon’s claim (1996, p.111) that “everyone designs who devices courses of action at changing existing situations, into preferred ones”. Although it is a broad definition, it points out the importance of achieving change within the design practice. For the latter, activism, which also has various meanings, and ways of practicing it across time, space, and cultures (Schwedler and Harris, 2016, p.3; Zhang, 2013, p.258), we can claim that it is about acting towards sociopolitical and cultural change (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.6). In that way, we can see that the ‘aim for change’ is the connecting link between design and activism.

Moreover, in DA, the combination of the design practice and the resulted aesthetic effect, is extremely important, because it promotes social change by shaping, in a designed manner, the way people feel, think, and understand their sociopolitical realities (Markussen, 2013, p.41). In that sense, a design activist benefits from the numerous design disciplines in order to create relevant and impactful design artefacts. Ultimately, they “use the power of design for the greater good” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.xxi), as it is also the case with the design of ICT4D, where internet, social media, and new technologies offer a plethora of tools on that regard. Similarly, a design activist gains also from the disruptive characteristics of activism, and DA, with its ‘disruptive aesthetics’, relates both with political activism and art activism. From the former, it borrows the political power to challenge or subvert established power relations, and raise awareness. From the latter, it borrows the aesthetic dynamics that connect the actions and the emotions of the people (Markussen, 2013, p.39). In other words, DA is extremely relevant to the development discourse, because it delivers solutions through products and services that aim to “enhance the quality of life for the other 99%” (Design Indaba, n.d.).


All in all, although design aspires to positively affect the ICT4D, we must be sober-minded and acknowledge that “there is no one solution, that will transform ICT4D” (Unwin, 2017, p.174). Moreover, up so far, the ICT4D projects are not able to enhance the life conditions of the poor and marginalized from the Global South, because they perpetuating colonial structures and mentalities. For that reason, both design and development need profound change, and that can be realized, we argue, through locals’ Participation in the design of ICT4D projects, but also, through their decolonization process. Indeed, in order to have a real transformation we need to counter the colonial discourses based on the Northern superiority that creates power relations (Heeks, 2017, p.116), culture identities and knowledge. We must move towards a Post-Colonial multidisciplinary mindset, that challenges the unifying universal assumptions that are based on Western modernism, by including the local culture and context when we design for the international development. Lastly, the struggle for social change must be open and including, as a way to increase society’s pluralism, and Design seems to be an appropriate and valuable tool for both the formal development practitioners, but also, the ‘unofficial’ development actors, the activists.


This exercise was an interesting opportunity for us to think and read about the contemporary topic of the role of activism and digital technologies in development. Of course, activism is not in the official development practice, but nowadays it uses the digital technologies as a way to tackle a plethora of societal issues across the globe, and especially in the Global South. By that, ICTs and activism are important actors for social change. Moreover, we had the chance to discuss the need for the decolonization of our societies and minds. Having that in mind, I tried to decolonize also my self, by considering my temporal and spatial position, but also by using Global South authors, that they have been silenced and marginalized for so long. Of course, we must always keep in mind that both decolonization and social change are processes that need iteration and time, in order to be realized in a sustainable and impactful manner. Additionally, the blogging part of the exercise had its own value, for it exposed us in a real life scenario, and we actually used the ICTs themselves in order to create interactive conversations about them. All in all, by considering my academic and professional background, this exercise was a great opportunity for me to further explore the role of design in social change.

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