Post-capitalist design

Kevin Rosenberg, Collaborative Commons

For our third sprint in year one of the CMU D.Des program, we explored how interaction design might evolve in an emerging post-capitalist age.

What do we mean by “post-capitalism,” exactly? Peter Drucker defines it as an era when knowledge—rather than goods and labor—becomes the primary engine of wealth. Progressive economists have envisioned this transition for decades (Drucker predicted it would happen between 2010 and 2020), but some are increasingly convinced that we are now witnessing the beginnings of a transition to a new economic era.

Journalist Paul Mason sees three principal forces at work:

  1. Information technology, now nearly ubiquitous in most of our daily lives, has “blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.”
  2. Information products, flowing freely across the global network, disrupting legacy business models and “corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly.”
  3. Collaborative production, in which the creation of value happens between peer actors on a network, acting outside traditional corporate and managerial hierarchies.

These interconnected trends are transforming our social, cultural and economic systems so deeply and rapidly that we may not yet comprehend the full effects. “Almost unnoticed,” writes Mason, “whole swathes of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.”

In an increasingly participatory economy, individuals—rather than corporations— create non-monetary forms of wealth (like photos, blog posts, videos) and engage in value exchanges involving markers of social (rather than financial) capital. Meanwhile, goods and services flow increasingly through liquid, networked marketplaces (like eBay, AirBnB, or — yes — Etsy) where the principal value creators are individual actors rather than hierarchical corporate entities.

As the global network continues to shrink the distance between producers and consumers, the global economy is also beginning to respond to a set major systemic shocks: climate change, growing income inequality, mass migration, and the rise of populist right-wing nationalism, to name a few. Taken together, these dynamics are, as Mason puts it, “altering the dynamics of capitalism and making it unworkable in the long term.”

As we start to recognize the effects of two centuries worth of “rampant economism” that has tended to prioritize monetary gain over other considerations, we are also seeing the rapid proliferation of a set of counter-movements springing up: environmentalism, the local foods movement, a growing appreciation for handicraft, and a renewed interest in spirituality, to name a few. These forces are creating powerful counter-currents in the culture that invite us to reconsider a wider range of forms of “capital” beyond the financial kind: social capital, environmental capital, intellectual capital, spiritual capital, and so on.

Yet so much of contemporary design practice remains rooted in a set of deeply capitalist assumptions predicated on the primacy of financial capital: that economic outcomes are the primary gauge of human well-being; and that efficiency and productivity are the keys to human flourishing.

If the world is indeed moving towards a post-capitalist age in which those assumptions may hold less true, what implications could that have for the design of digital products and services?

The business of design

The design professions—graphic, industrial, fashion and so on—have grown up hand-in-hand over the past two centuries with the rise of industrial capitalism, a period characterized by the growth of free markets and mostly private control of the means of production. During that time, designers have emerged as powerful generators of business value. As former IBM Chairman Tom Watson, Jr., famously put it: “Good design is good business.”

The past two decades have also seen the emergence of a new field of design practice—interaction design—concerned primarily with the creation of digital products and services. This field has emerged in tandem with the same forces that may be giving rise to post-capitalist dynamics, although its methods have taken shape in the context of late-stage capitalism—a system built around “instrumental, and predominantly economic, criteria such as efficiency, cost-effectiveness and utility,” as Alwyn Jones puts it.

As a result, “most of today’s digital products and services are driven by consumption and the promise of comfort,” as Ralph Ammer puts it. “Based on the problematic idea of infinite growth, many of them ruin our living environment, damage our social cohesion … dumb us down and confuse us while things around us get ‘smarter.’”

Yet the core practices of interaction design, rooted in human empathy and understanding, could easily lend themselves towards a different set of considerations in a changing economic climate. Interaction design, then, stands poised at a historical inflection point: forged in the container of late-stage industrial capitalism, it may also harbor the potential for new and powerful forms of social, cultural, political and economic reinvention.

Redefining need-states

Interaction designers often position themselves as advocates for the end user in navigating a particular set of interactions with a product or service. That work often happens in the context of a customer journey focused on completing particular goals and tasks (locating an item, completing a purchase, booking a room, etc.) with measurable economic value. But is creating economic value alone sufficient to justify the designer’s work?

In a post-capitalist world, what other considerations might come into play?Gideon Kossoff points to Max-Neef’s matrix of needs, a model of human motivations and desires that bears some resemblance to the better-known Masloff hierarchy, but featuring a level of nuance that seems far more actionable for working designers:

Max-Neef’s Matrix of Needs


Applying this lens, we can see how much contemporary interaction design work takes place at the base levels of subsistence (buying and selling), participation (exchanging social signals), and protection (ensuring security and privacy), while higher-level needs such as understanding, identity, freedom and idleness—let alone transcendence—go largely unaddressed.

Schumacher argues that in order to navigate the transition to a networked, highly distributed economy, “our ethical horizons must expand from the immediacy of our surrounds to embrace a planetary, even cosmic, consciousness.”

Such a shift in consciousness could have profound implications for the practice of interaction design. If we could ground our work not solely in an economic calculus, but embrace a more nuanced understanding of human needs, we might reframe the priorities of digital product and service design.

As Kossoff puts it:

When projects and initiatives begin to be connected and integrated in particular places (the farm and forest with the market, the cafe, the grocer, the health centre, the garden, the larder and the competing toilet; the workshop with the laundry, the cinema the factory, the transport system and the renewable energy facility; the school, the bank, the art studio, the councils with all of these) they will create ecosystems of interdependence and mutual benefit, parts and wholes of everyday life at all levels of scale enfolding and reciprocating one another.

In such a world, we might proceed not from a single-minded fixation on maximizing economic outcomes, but rather from a “whole systems” understanding that balances a wider range of considerations. If interaction design practitioners were to embrace such an interdependent world view, we might begin to envision the practice not just as a mechanism for monetary gain but as a potent and timely form of cultural renewal.

In future research, I plan to probe further on these questions to begin exploring a set of interaction design principles built around a deeper, more inclusive understanding of human needs.

See also:

Peter Drucker, The Post-Capitalist Society, 1993.

Gideon Kossoff, “Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: A Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society,” 2011.

Brenda Laurel, “Gaian IxD,” Interactions, 2011.

Paul Mason, “The End of Capitalism Has Begun,” The Guardian, 2015.

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, 1973.