Who are we (not ) designing for? Part 2

27 June 2019
Caroline Butler

Caroline Butler

Spotless Alum

Creator of meaningful interfaces, services, and experiences

Did the design of the House of Commons cause Brexit?

…. In part two we look at how the design of a building can shape politics and a country’s future

Too much order, order?

British Parliament is one of the oldest continuous representative assemblies in the world. The House of Commons, in the Palace of Westminster, UK is based on the design of Convocation House, at Oxford University. With its two groups of facing benches and the speaker’s chair, the design was created to stimulate tension and encourage lively, heated debates. Convocation House’s primary use was as a debating hall and it was used as a meeting chamber for the House of Commons during the English Civil War and later in the 1660s and 1680s.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

In debating, two teams aim to persuade one another of their views based on a motion (a statement, idea or policy). The teams are the government, also known as the proposition and the opposition. The government, supports the motion, whilst the opposition argues against it. After the debate, the judges decide which team was the most persuasive.

Not only is the design of the House Commons based on a debating chamber but the principles of debating are also echoed in how British parliament deliberates. Opposing parties conduct lively discussions, presenting different arguments and opposing views. A speaker presides and maintains order. Debating has provided UK parliament with the basic DNA on which democracy can be discussed and built.

In fact, when bombs destroyed the original parliament hall in World War II Winston Churchill ordered for it to be recreated in the same specifications as before, despite the fact that parliament members had significantly grown. However, Churchill was convinced that this was the right approach, as the opposing benches, immediately made the positions of the debate clear.

Commonwealth countries have evolved the opposing benches design. By joining the opposing seating at one end and bending the sides towards each other to form a horseshoe. In Europe, the semi-circle design is common. Germany’s Bundestag is a good example, based on the amphitheatre design found in the ancient democratic societies of Greece and Rome. The semi-circle fuses the Members of parliament into one entity, eliminating the visual signs of power. Members sit beside one another. The design is also flexible, seats can be added to reflect the proportion of the vote a party received.

Photo by Massimo Virgilio on Unsplash

Both the semi circle and horseshoe design allow for multiple party views, fosters working together and offers a degree of flexibility.

Blame Brexit on the seating

The UK parliament design is built around two dominant parties and two opposing views. It’s design doesn’t allow for more than two parties to get their voices truly heard and for multiple positions on a motion. The design encourages combat rather than collaboration between parties.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

When the positions are not so black and white and more grey, the design fails to scale. Recent Brexit woes illustrate what happens when the topic fails to align to the debating model of opposing and supporting views. When the opposition agrees with the government, when Members within the government or the opposition disagree with their own party’s stance, things are thrown into utter confusion and disarray.

Followers will be leaders

People are expressing their frustration with the status quo, by putting power in their own hands. It is the followers rather than the leaders that driving the winds of change.

Democracy is becoming increasingly more multi-channelled. Marginalised groups and causes considered peripheral by the dominant political parties, are finding their voice and support. Activism is being ignited through social media, podcasts, Ted talks and forums. Petitions are circulated and signed online. Micro-sites are springing up to get global reach and fuel support.

Anti-Brexit group, Led by Donkeys are gaining national and global exposure. They replay old tweets and quotes of Brexiteer politicians they have followed since the 2016 referendum result. They scale up these messages to become ‘in your face’ billboards and giant banners, using the words of Brexiteers to point out the inadequacies and fickleness of their position and support for a hard Brexit.

A 800-square metre banner was unrolled and carried by thousands of protestors at the People’s Vote march in London. It featured a quote by David Davis, ”If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”. Using walkie talkies and a their own helicopter, the group were able to ensure the banner got maximum press coverage. Not bad for a tiny group of four followers, who conceived their activist approach one night in the pub, whilst laughing over the tweets of politicians.

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

The power of one

Greta Thunberg, took a powerful solo stance by staging her “skolstrejk för klimatet’, a school strike for climate. She wanted to highlight the inability of governments to take action on the multiple issues causing climate change. Her actions encouraged others to follow. Through the exposure in the media and social media, the issue has grown from a lone protest in Swedish to a global one.

Most parents worry about their children spending too much time online, but left to their own devices, school children from over 100 countries, used their smartphones and Facebook and WhatsApp to connect with like-minded pupils and organise their own climate change protests. More than 10,000 school children were estimated in the UK to go on strike across the UK in February.

It appears the UK has listened, following a visit to Parliament by Greta Thunberg, the school strikes, the broadcast of David Attenborough’s Climate Change documentary and 11 days of protest by Extinction Rebellion in London. MPs have passed a motion making the UK parliament the first in the world to declare an “environment and climate emergency. A symbolic move recognising the urgency needed to address the climate crisis. It appears that the leaders have listened to the followers.

Digitalising democracy / designing democracy

Governments are slowly waking up to the fact that their models are not working for their democracies. Some governments are looking at ways to extend debates beyond their Parliament halls and are looking at digital tools to help achieve this.

The Australian Citizens Parliament has created an ‘Online Parliament’, a closed group of 300 randomly selected people from across the country. The aim to create the conditions for debate and to gather insights that will shape recommendations on how to strengthen Australia’s democracy.

Common Ground For Action, in the US allows for small groups in closed online forums to rank and filter ideas that have previously been discussed by face-to-face groups. This allows for insights to be gathered that are difficult to elicit from polls, surveys and focus groups. A map is produced to show the common ground of where citizens are or aren’t aligned.

In the UK, some local councils will soon be piloting face-to-face deliberation, online platforms and apps with local residents, so they can vote and inform local decision making. The aim is to bridge the gap between the public and the government and to increase broad engagement and transparency with local issues.

Coming soon…

Part 3: Airbnb and the impact on long term renters and communities

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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