This workshop invites participants to use their own experiences with and material from PD projects to explore the political dimension of PD. This exploration will be supported by a set of concepts that have proved helpful in understanding the politics of PD: power, decision-making, and participation. This collaborative analysis will be undertaken with the aim to arrive at a deeper and more specific understanding of what the users participate in and how they can recognize their influence in the design result. It will be based on previous work that identified recurrent steps in PD (Bratteteig & Wagner, forthcoming), which was inspired by, amongst others, the notion of ‘design moves’ (Schön, 1983; Schön & Wiggins, 1992).

Design is, to use a term coined by Rittel and Webber (1973), about ‘wicked problems’, problems that are inherently indefinite, difficult to describe and solve. As design problems are ‘wicked’ and ‘ill-defined’, an important part of the practice of design is to support the possibility to make choices that can be unmade if the trying out of a promising ‘design move’ did not have the wanted effect. The notion of ‘design move’ goes back to Schön who understood design as processes of ‘seeing-moving-seeing’: seeing and evaluating a situation, making a move to change the situation, and evaluating the result. PD is based on the premise that the participating users be involved in all design moves.

Key to the dynamics of ‘seeing-moving-seeing’ is the notion of choice. A choice is ‘an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities’: it presupposes a range of possibilities from which one or more may be chosen’ (Oxford Dictionary).

Our analysis of design decisions is inspired by the writings of Alfred Schütz (1962, 1951) on human action, imagination, reflection, and choice. Choice only happens in situations which ‘give rise to a decisive new experience: the experience of doubt, of questioning, of choosing and deciding, in short, of deliberation’ (Schütz, 1951, p. 169). Creating choices is fundamental to PD and users are invited to contribute to those choices.

Important to add that ‘decisions’ on which of the choices to select and implement are not isolated from each other but closely interrelated and linked. We propose to look at decision-making in design as being accessible through examining the issues at stake and how they are interrelated.

An important building block in analyzing the politics of decision-making in PD is the notion of power. In the tradition of Wittgenstein Pitkin (1972) suggests to look into how the word ‘power’ is used rather than what power is. She makes a distinction between ‘power over’ and ‘power to’. We consider the notion of ‘power to’ a particularly useful concept for PD. It means agency: the capacity to shape action, which partly depends on access to organizational resources, partly on ‘power/ knowledge’ in the Foucauldian sense (e.g. Foucault 1982).

Analyzing how choices are opened and closed and who participates in decision-making as an element of participatory design practice leads to a more precise understanding of power issues. ‘Big’ decisions often close off options that will never be seriously considered. Making some choices material, closes off other possible choices. Some conflicts are to do with the implications of choices that were difficult to foresee or were not clear to some participants because of lack of expertise. The complexity increases when we look at the interwoven network of issues associated with each decision. The interdependencies of some choices constrain power in decision-making.

Based on these concepts we can identify a number of questions that are helpful for disentangling power and decision-making in PD.

  1. How participatory was problem setting or problem definition in a PD project? How did participatory designers arrange for the users to be able to contribute to choices (of problems to be addressed, of possible solutions)? Which methods were used and how successful were these methods?
  2. How did the users participate in the design solution, in what Schön calls ‘design move’, selecting particular choices (while excluding others)?
  3. Did the users contribute to implementing or materializing choices? What types of skills were they encouraged to mobilize? How did the users’ contributions affect the technical part of the implementation?
  4. How important were the users in the ‘seeing’/evaluating part of design moves? Did their ‘seeing’ conflict with the ‘seeing’ of the designers?
  5. How can we understand the interrelationships between choices. How did decisions that were taken before the project (e.g. its institutional framing, temporal structures, available technologies, commitments and aims) shape the design space? Which of the design choices evoked or precluded alternative solutions, enabled a promising new choice? How participatory were the important decisions, those that opened up and closed many choices.
  6. How participatory is the design result in the sense of increasing the ‘power to’ of users? Can users recognize their influence in the design result?

These questions point at what we think of as important elements of an analysis of the politics of PD. One of our goals is seeing how this framework resonates with both, the PD experiences of the workshop participants and their own conceptions of power and politics. At the same time we are open to discussing the limitations of our approach and encourage alternative ways of addressing the issues at stake.



Bratteteig, T. & Wagner, I. Disentangling participation. Power and decision-making in Participatory Design. London/New York, Springer (forthcoming).

Foucault, M. The Subject and power. Critical Inquiry, 1982, 8(4), 777-795.

Pitkin, H. F. Wittgenstein and justice. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1972.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 1973, 4(2), 155-169.

Schön, D. A. The Reflective Practitioner, New York, Basic Books, 1983.

Schön, D. A., & Wiggins, G. Kinds of seeing and their function in designing. Design Studies, 1992, 13, 135-156.

Schütz, A. Choosing Among Projects of Action. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1951, 12(2), 161-184.

Schütz, A. On Multiple Realities. In A. Schütz (Ed.), Collected Papers I (pp. 207-259). Den Haag, Nijhoff, 1962