(An edited version of this book review was first published in Business Standard.)

What are the ideas and tools needed to imagine and create the world we want to live in? Can we move from blaming people to scrutinizing arrangements that normalize forms of power and practices of discrimination? Is a wholesale overthrow of dominant structures absolutely necessary for social interventions to have lasting positive effects?

These questions are at the heart of a new book titled Ideas Arrangements Effects: Systems Design and Social Justice (2020). It has been put together by Lori Lobenstine, Kenneth Bailey and Ayako Maruyama at the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) based in the United States. Written in a conversational style, it builds on academic scholarship and activist work to show how social change can be viewed through the lens of design.

The authors state, “Many times as humans attempt to create change, we go back to the ideas behind the injustices we are trying to address. Whether those ideas are notions of democracy, justice or race, we often get trapped in familiar discourses — complete with familiar arguments and even familiar positions and postures. We argue heatedly and repeatedly about the big ideas, and we get trapped there without inspecting smaller ideas and what opportunities for change they could open up.”

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This book is a sincere attempt to examine how social change discourse itself can become a trap when the people involved become more invested in defending their rehearsed standpoints rather than in being curious, experimental and rigorous in their search for solutions. The authors urge people who think of themselves as changemakers to recognize how they collude with the systems they are also trying to fight. When they are inclined to focus only on ideas that are replicable, scalable and fundable, are they being pragmatic or counter-productive?

The foreword, written by anthropologist Arturo Escobar, does an excellent job of locating DS4SI’s work in relation to frameworks and approaches such as design for social innovation, the decolonization of design, transition design, just design, design justice, and designs from the South — all of which characterize design as “a collective practice concerned with the creation of the very conditions of social life”. According to Escobar, DS4SI’s vision contributes to this field by articulating “a radical sense of politics with a practicable set of concept-tools for enacting such politics in concrete settings.”

The book is made up of three well-connected parts: ‘Breaking Down Ideas Arrangements Effects’, ‘Making A Case for Arrangements’, and ‘Designing The Social’. The basic premise that the authors are working with is this: “Ideas are embedded within social arrangements, which in turn produce effects.” Here is an example: The arrangement of chairs in straight rows facing forward promotes the idea that knowledge flows only in one direction — from the teacher to the students — and this produces the effect of hierarchy, submission to authority, and stifling of creativity.

The authors write, “Many workshop facilitators and adult-ed teachers rearrange the chairs into a circle, with the idea being that knowledge is distributed across the participants and could emerge from any place within the circle…The rearranging of chairs is much easier to do than rearranging our conceptions of time, sociality, or other institutions that glue daily life together and give shape to our collective experiences. To make things more challenging, the older and more codified the arrangement, the more it falls from the capacity to be perceived, let alone changed.”

Going further, readers can also probe why sitting in the same place is considered to be an effective arrangement for learning or why students are expected to be in classes they are not interested in or why a bell is used to signal an arbitrary transition from one subject to another on a school timetable. What effects would be produced if students could choose to not study mathematics at all or if homework was optional or if they could speak without hand-raising and turn-taking conventions? What ideas are served by enforcing arrangements such as school uniforms, attendance-taking rituals, timed examinations, and penalties for students who return their library books after the due date?

There are other social arrangements at play, which one can look deeply into. While the authors do not go into such detail, their Ideas Arrangements Effects (IAE) framework can be an extremely helpful tool for reflection. While some might argue that schools must be abolished because they reproduce class inequalities, others might want to think about these questions: If children were to create their own curriculum, would their interests be better served? What could be some alternatives to detention? If the idea of transphobia needs to be rejected, how can schools come up with new arrangements to create the effect of making all transgender students feel safe and affirmed?

According to the authors, the answers lie not in one person or institution but in a collaborative engagement between people who bring different kinds of knowledge and experience with them, and are audacious enough to examine their own practices with a critical gaze. Their vision of growth is one that “cultivates and celebrates site-specific differences” instead of looking for one-size-fits-all strategies that can be imported and applied. After all, design is not only about reshaping the world but also renewing our consciousness.

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