NowHere – in search for the utopian designer

Professor Pelle Ehn


‘So the impact of UTOPIA is continuing to expand, and the idea that workers and their unions have an important role in the design of new technology is reaching a wider and wider audience. Today Scandinavia, tomorrow, perhaps, the rest of the world.’ This is a quote from an enthusiastic editorial published in MIT Technical Review in 1985. UTOPIA was one out of many projects starting in the 1970’s and shaping an approach to IT design, sometimes referred to as the ‘Scandinavian approach’. This development took place at the time when information technology stated to became ubiquitous in Scandinavian workplaces and paralleled major reforms in labour legislation concerning work environment and co-determination. Democracy at work, tools for skilled workers, and user participation in the design process, were key values espoused in shaping and in legitimising the approach. As the approach developed and got international recognition it became a major source of inspiration for and assimilated into the emerging general research field of participatory design.

When Thomas Moore in 1516 constructed the original vision of UTOPIA, he did so as a play of Greek words, making it mean both ‘a good place’ and a place that exists ‘no-where’. From this perspective I will reflect upon what became of the Scandinavian approach and its utopian designers. To what extent has UTOPIA become a ‘now-here’ as an existing reality? Have social and technical changes made the approach obsolete? Was it, in a market economy, possible to design sustainable information technology based on ‘soft’ values such as skills, democracy and participation? Were such values just espoused, legitimising the research approach but never part of real design in practice? And if the approach has survived, how does it look today – in research and in practice?

In reflecting upon these questions I will also put the Scandinavian approach and participatory design in a broader design historic perspective and look at the more general utopian design vision of moving towards a ‘digital Bauhaus’. This will also imply a reconsideration of the Aristotelian virtue of phronesis and what it in practice, beyond utopian dreams, may mean to carry out design as ‘anxious acts of political love’.