Drinking outside of the box – constructed worlds and designer frames

Kees Dorst’s new book, “Frame Innovation” arrived today [1a]. His first case study refers to how the proposed route Dutch high speed rail project took 15 years to get off the starting blocks due to the limited frames utilised by the politicians involved. So the book seems like a good prospect from this point alone. Also though, and more pertinently, because Dorst’s earlier work [1b] reflects, and is part, of the design canon.

Dorst’s thesis examined the different descriptive paradigms of design expressed by Herbert Simon’s technical rationality on the one (positivist) hand and Donald Schön’s reflective practice on the (constructivist) other. Although Dorst concludes that these two perspectives both have a role in the understanding of design there is a persistent tendency to position these perspectives in fundamentally opposing positions. I’m not sure that there’s much room left on my mental bookshelf at the moment for any more debates about constructivist (good) and positivist (bad) that are predicated on persistent fundamentalist and oppositional tendencies. It seems to me that they’re not that different, just as it seemed to Meng [2] that Simon and Schön weren’t so far apart in the end. The only book that separates “The Fundamental Guide to The World” and “My Fundamental Guide to The World” on my bookshelf is Woolgar and Latour’s Laboratory Life [3] with it’s exploration of the construction of academic papers. And even though this book would separate the other two it’s also holding them together. There’s a bit more to it than that I suppose but there does seem to be quite a lot of positivist faith in the constructivist project.

And it’s Dorst’s faith that struck me as I read through the book. Particularly striking is his faith in his case study 8 which describes a design intervention to curb late-night alcohol-related violence in the streets of Kings Cross in Sydney. He talks about the Designing Out Crime Research Centre’s proposals to turn Friday and Saturday night Sydney into a twice weekly “music festival” with chill-out spaces, better way-finding, better toilet facilities, approachable and cheery stewards who can offer help where needed, and more regular and easily accessible public transport to get everybody home. All very sensible responses that make a festival experience run more smoothly, and music festivals have come a long way since the Rolling Stones played Altamont.

Turning the city-centre into a festival site then is presented as a “designerly” solution” to what he calls a “complex, networked problem”. The solution was  created by designers “quickly reframing the issues that were presented to them by the local council”. They may also be designers who like going to music festivals but this isn’t made clear.

It’s also not quite clear from Dorst how much of this reframing has been implemented since the project originally reported in 2009. Drawing on other sources it seems that in 2011 there were already more minibuses, more lighting and more urinals in the district [4] and the Designing Out Crime Research Centre Winter School in 2013 reports that several of the proposed elements have been trialled in subsequent months and years although the results of these trials don’t seem to be referenced [5]. Some of the ideas have been incorporated into the City of Sydney’s strategy and action plan for Sydney at night [6]. But in Frame Innovation Dorst maintains that “until it is thus tested, the proposed frame is just a possible way forward” [7].

During this period of testing, if that’s what it was, two people had been killed as a result of alcohol related violence. The second of these, on New Year’s Eve 2013, led to a series of government reforms that imposed shorter opening hours, restricted licensing and better training for bar staff.

So on the one hand the designer frame encourages more people to come to the fair with the promise that it will be cool and easy to get home again afterwards. And on the other hand the authorities, whose hand holds the keys, implements a lock-down that attempts to discourage people from turning up at all. The New South Wales Department of Justice report into the impact of these official interventions  concludes that they successfully reduced the incidence of violent assaults in  Kings Cross by 32%. This reduction, the report concludes, came about either through a change in alcohol consumption or a change in the number of people visiting the area. It is also reflected in the alleged fall in business revenue of between 20 and 50%. [8] And so the problem, and its solutions, remain complex and networked into the collective attempt to bring about positive change in a challenging world.

It made me wonder how far out does the designerly way of reframing a situation need to go. Designers are surely tied into their own networks that lead them to reframe things in certain ways. While a cool music festival vibe looks like a good solution, especially if you like music festivals, it may also be too good if it encourages even more people into the same crowded streets. Perhaps, like the Dutch high speed rail project, the innovative frame is elsewhere.

For the railway project the successful frame was, for Dorst, the one that went beyond the obvious confrontation about where the train would be routed and more about the fostering of magnanimous gestures of compromise made by those who lived along the route. For the late night drinking in Sydney it is perhaps less about the booze, and the economics of its consumption, and more about, for me, how we have become accustomed to accommodating it.

1a: Dorst, K. Frame Innovation. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. 2015
1b: Dorst, K. (1997). Describing Design – A comparison of paradigms. Thesis. TU Delft.
2: Soo Meng, J. C. Donald Schön, Herbert Simon and The Sciences of the Artificial. Design Studies, 30(1), 60–68. 2009
3: Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. Laboratory Life. The social construction of facts. London: Sage Publications. 1979
4: Designing out crime Sydney style. The Conversation. June 2011.
5: Kings Cross Revisited, Designing Out Crime Research Centre, 2013
6: Open Sydney, Future directions for Sydney at night. City of Sydney
7:  Frame Innovation. p.54
8: Lockouts and last drinks. Crime and Justice Bulletin, April 2015.

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