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Structure (is all that) Matters: A Meditation on Programming versus Designing Governance

John A. Sweeney

“This class is a graduate level introductory course in governance design. Students will work in teams to
design new forms of governance at different "levels" according to one of four "generic alternative futures".
Each class period will include a general discussion of the day's topics and of several design challenges and
options. Then each design group will discuss and decide tentatively and in principle its preferred solution
to the design challenges of the day. During the last sessions of the semester, each group will finalize and
then present to the rest of the class its governance design for its future.”

Using the course description from the syllabus as a guide for my comments on the

POLS673 2.0 experience, I would also like to use this paper as an opportunity to reflect a bit

more sharply on the distinction between programming versus design, as I see it, especially with

regard to futures-based governance innovation and my group's project. It strikes me that there

exists a handoff, even if unconsciously, at some point in the innovation process where one moves

away from creation (design) and instead focuses on the pragmatics and logistics of how the

design operates (programming). In the parlance of computer programming, this turn in the

creative process is what Jaron Lanier calls “lock-in.” He notes, “The process of lock-in is like a

wave gradually washing over the rulebook of life, culling the ambiguities of flexible thoughts as

more and more thought structures are solidified into effectively permanent reality” (Lanier 2010,

9). While I would like to situate this claim within the specific contexts of futures work a bit later

in this exposition, I do want the reader to keep this in mind while working through the text as a

general theme by which my remarks are framed.

Lock-in, perhaps best conceived of as a design challenge itself, was a particularly sizable

concern for my group as we sought to demonstrate the inextricable link between the socio-

economic and the political within the context of our scenario and in futures-based governance

design in general, which forced us to find novel ways to address how we might integrate futures

thinking/un-thinking across both spheres. As we were the only group not to produce a preferred

governance design, I think this decision, regardless of outcome, encapsulates our affirmation of

Dator's maxim that governance is “how things get done” while government is something else
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entirely, and our design was meant to bridge the two as I felt strongly that design

inevitably becomes programming—as The Who put it: “meet the new boss, same as the

old boss.” With that said, governance design was our primary charge in the course, as the

syllabus dutifully explains, but after taking some more time to think about the three

“designs” and how they orient bodies in space-time, it would seem that class participants

focused their efforts on the formation of government, which remains mired in the murky

milieu of actually preventing things from changing, not as it relates to getting things done

endogenously but rather in relation to the adaptability and evolvability of the design itself

—were all the designs delivered d.o.a? This, however, might have more to do with

contemporary notions of design and the creative process more than a mere failure to

implement dynamic and innovative projects, which I found all three to be in various ways.

From my perspective, the current fashionability of “design thinking” has its roots

within the neoliberal economic agenda as a means to unencumbered the flows of

transnational capital. Noting the place and function of designers, Brown and Wyatt

explain, “Design thinkers look for work-arounds and improvise solutions—like the

shrimps, crabs, and snails—and they find ways to incorporate those into the offerings they

create. They consider what we call the edges, the places where 'extreme' people live

differently, think differently, and consume differently” (Brown and Wyatt 2010). Why the

authors chose to use bottom-feeders—no offense is meant to either mollusks and/or

arthropods—as their compatriots in design is beyond me, but this likening provides an apt

metaphor that sheds some light on the state of design today, which locks its recalcitrant

gaze squarely focused upon either furthering or merely tinkering with the economic
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machine of the present—global capitalism: the ultimate effectively permanent reality!

Present concerns over sustainability, of which I have previously been a vocal advocate,

remain ensconced within the tacit assumption that we need only summon the ability to

sustain what we have rather than radically reconsidering the nature of merit of what it is

that we are using our energy to produce/consume; innovation, as it were, applies to

everything except the tenets of the market whether it is local, global, and/or simply a

farmer's stand. Terms such as evolvability and/or futurability grant more significant

weight to the original ethos of sustainability, but as they are not incumbent to the

machinations of capitalism, they are rendered insensible, which affirms the postulate that

sustainability has been co-opted and now operates merely as a facet of capitalism—a rabid

and voracious wolf clad in all organic, grass-fed sheep's clothing. As such, the purpose of

much of contemporary design—particularly social and sustainable—centers on the

inclusion of such outliers into the all-encompassing norm, which can only affirm one's

individuality through choice as nothing more than selection—will you be having Coke or

Pepsi this evening, Dr. Dator? The movement to absorb the periphery into the

mainstream, as with sustainability, has done nothing more than inculcate another

dimensionality to the workings of capitalism, which as recent history has evidenced

requires the appropriation of communism if it is going to survive. As I am already

beginning to sound a bit like a Marxist and as any such association will severely hinder my

chances at gainful employment in the future(s), I think it is best to simply cut to the chase:

much, if not most, of contemporary design thinking relegates itself to a singular vision of

the future where one projects a spatio-temporal unity of the world and one's experience of
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it so that design itself becomes an all-consuming totality where the line between subject

and object breaks down. This, as it were, makes it far more similar, both in content and

form, to programming as the process is solely dependent upon parameters drawn around it

—lock-in indeed. To learn to be a designer one must break out of the bounds of the

present, and immersion into the future(s) as a spatial configuration more than a temporal


In my opinion, the apperceptive unity of experience infects design, even within

futures scenarios, especially as one finds ways to design-out or program-around voices of

resistance within the scenario itself. This was what led our group to design-in three

divergent perspectives as part of our presentation—1) ROTADCORP's attempt to hijack

the HIGOV project; 2) extremist Baha'i protester caught between ROTADCORP and the

parameters of the HIGOV privacy policy; and 3) the seemingly invisible HIGOV4.2 cabal

who was present only through their absence. As the only tangible artifact of our actual

governance design, the privacy policy aims to outline the conditions of inclusion within

the governing bodies present on Oahu, and as our scenario crafted a future filled with a

litany of ownership and privacy issues, we saw this as key to organizing a novel

governance design with challenges centered on one's embodied experience of life within

that future. In collapsing the “levels” of governance, we sought to remedy, perhaps

unsuccessfully, the divide between governance and government in that the HIGOV4.2

project is an ongoing endeavor, but this required us to pick and choose challenges as we

saw fit, and I do not think our group was alone in struggling with this concern. In other

words, instead of crafting “our preferred solution to design challenges” it feels a bit like
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there was actually a movement to “design solutions to preferred challenges.”

As these challenges were not directly tasked for us to address even though we

methodically progressed through the major concerns of governance, this clearly weighed

heavily on each group—including my own—and while this freedom supported significant

diversity in the designs, which I found to be the most interesting and rewarding aspect of

the class as a whole, it also clearly impacted their efficacy and tangibility. It seemed to me

that even though we were given considerably relevant and thoughtful scenarios that the

distinction between macro- and micro-futures was lost on a portion of the class, and while

I certainly think that the attempt to frame the myriad “levels” of governance was fruitful,

finding a creative way of integrating them, as the designs demonstrate or perhaps do not

demonstrate, remains the crucial and final challenge. It is one thing to envision a totalizing

governance design where structure is all that matters, but it is another thing entirely to

offer a fragmented and radically diverse sensorium of governance within a particular

context—a governance design for a living, breathing futures scenario. As my group chose

to pursue the latter, both in content and form, I am certainly partial to this methodology—

if that is even what it is—but I think it also allows for a critical point of entry to think

about governance design as a far less positivist process than our tidy historical lens

typically grants us; futures is not, as it were, history in reverse, and I felt a bit like this

ethos permeated some of the design features of all three projects.

If the primary task of the futurist is to see, smell, hear, taste, and touch things that

escape sensation in the present, then it is crucial that one's imag(in)ing of the future(s) is

itself sensational—in every sense of the term. Offering a way of ameliorating this
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distinction, Tunstall outlines the difference between Design and design in her work on

design thinking and governance, which is based at the School of Art and Design at the

University of Illinois in Chicago. She observes:

In summary, I approach Design, with an uppercase D, as the processes of abstract, strategic, ideal
creation that is open to everyone. In the context of government, it is often the intellectual domain
of the political science, management, and policy fields. I approach design, with lowercase d, as in
many ways its complement – tangible, improvisational, reality creations that is the mostly
professionalized and within the intellectual domains of design, communication, and usability
(Tunstall 2007, 3).

Echoing Dator's distinction between governance and government, Tunstall's separation of

design offers a useful heuristic for re-thinking the process of futures-based governance

innovation as a process where both d's must receive rigorous attention. Linking this dual

functionality of Design/design with the task of the futurist, as I conceive of it, Tunstall

continues, “They are the formation and implementation of the thought behind the

practices of government. As such, the intersection of Design/design and governmentality

is an important area of design research because Design/design mediates the trust people

hold in the practices of government by making them tangible (i.e. able to be seen,

smelled, tasted, heard, felt, and experienced)” (Tunstall 2007, 5). Dividing the two

concepts a bit more clearly, I would like to apply this formulation to Futures Studies and

differentiate between Futures/futures with particular consideration to the question of

governance innovation as an aspect of scenario development. Couched in Tunstall's

framework, I felt like there were two Futures (Beginnings, Growth) and one futures

(Transformation) presentations, and while I'm certainly partial to the latter for obvious

reasons, I consider the question of value and meaning between the two more a matter of

qualitative rather taste than objectively quantifiable criteria—if anything, the true
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product, in many ways, is the process of sensing governance as embodied politics.

While Ranciere has certainly become fashionable, there is nothing intrinsically

new about his link between sense and politics. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle

professes that the constitution serves as “a certain ordering of the inhabitants of the city-

state” and is tantamount to a “way of life” (Anon. 2011). Dator's integral maxim—

structure matters—works in both directions as the apperceptive structures that contour

one's experience and creation of reality matter just as much as one's actual engagement

with material phenomena. It is worth noting the conditions of possibility present within

our historical moment that drive this renaissance of sense, and it is not coincidental that

as we have become inundated with sensory media across various fronts that sensation,

which has become a form of information itself, should return to the forefront of our

thoughts on politics and governance. Again, there is nothing new about this formula,

which Alvin Toffler noted in The Third Wave, many moons ago. He observes, “It is

difficult to make sense of this swirling phantasmagoria, to understand exactly how the

image-manufacturing process is changing. For the Third Wave does more than simply

accelerate our information flows: it transforms the deep structure of information on which

our daily actions depend” (Toffler 1981, 159). Toffler's concern for making sense is

exactly what is at stake in the Futures/futures divide as it affirms the decidedly and

inherently political nature of futuring, which is just as equally and fundamentally an

exercise to de-stabilize and problematize the present. This overlooked facet of futures is

crucial as one's alternative scenarios modeling is always-already predicated on a

particular sense of the present, and this concession is of particular importance if one aims
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to utilize the four-futures Manoa School methodology. As this relates to the proposed

Futures/futures divide, it is simply not enough to provide a lens from which others might

think differently concerning “images of the future.” Rather, one must find novel and

engaging ways of examining “sensorum of the future,” especially in regards to

governance as a site of apperceptive and embodied agency.

Stuart Candy's engaging work on experiential scenarios provides a clear way of

thinking through the Futures/futures divide with regards to governance design. In a

critical passage—one that is worth quoting in full—from his doctoral dissertation, Candy

traces the unique obstacles of governance design in light of divergent conceptualizations

of politics grounded in, what I would like to term, affective agency—or the centrality of

sensation and subjectivity. He contends:

The design of novel governance systems, then, is a challenging and noteworthy thought
experiment, but it is all but bound to remain just that. Politics, meanwhile, operates full-time,
permeating the very fabric of our lives, every meal we eat, every day at work and every night in
bed asleep. When we regard politics as incorporating usually invisible operations of power, the
meaning-making and habitus-shaping incentives or constraints that extend well beyond the ballot
box and the party platform; when we take to heart the by now long-established insistence on the
part of the feminist movement that ‘the personal is political’, and the Foucauldian revelation of the
dispositifs (apparatuses) of power at the minute, ‘capillary’ scale; at this point we may begin to see
the need for quite a different mode of engagement with the ‘politics of aesthetics’ (different from
that called for in light of the politics of the obvious). We must elaborate engagements with culture
directly, yet on a manageably tactical, rather than grandly strategic, scale” (Candy 2010, 125).

Candy's call for imaginative engagements with the entirety of one's governance sensorum

is a call to arms for futuring—with a lowercase f—as both a content and form of design

thinking as described by Tunstall. The tyranny of the Future—with a capital F—should

not preclude the equal and, at times even more, compelling place of futuring; in other

words, how one says something is as equally important as what one is saying, and this

contention is actually a longstanding futures studies principle.

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Pulling from Dator's 2nd Law, which affirms that any useful idea about the future

should evoke a sensory and somatic response, the framework for sensation within futures

design, especially governance projects, is ripe for ridicule, and I feel that this concern

was expressed in earnest by a classmate who professed his desire to focus on the how of

futuring in a future seminar. During my short time as a college educator, I have found the

simple maxim—if you can get them laughing, you can get them learning—to be true, and

there is an emerging body of research on the ways in which sensory engagement,

neuroscience, and education interweave. Working to alleviate the design challenge at the

root of all design challenges, this nascent methodological framework, which I think I

would like to call affective futuring, presents a unique and innovative lens with which to

practice and problematize governance innovation from a futures perspective.

Anon. 2011. Aristotle’s Political Theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. January 26.

Brown, Tim, and Jocelyn Wyatt. 2010. “Design Thinking for Social Innovation : Center for
Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Candy, Stuart. 2010. The Futures of Everyday Life: Politics and the Design of Experiential
Scenarios. PhD Dissertation. University of Hawaii at Manoa, August.

Lanier, Jaron. 2010. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. 1st ed. Knopf, January 12.

Toffler, Alvin. 1981. The third wave. London: Pan Books.

Tunstall, Elizabeth. 2007. “In Design We Trust: Democratic Values, Design, and Civic
Experience” presented at the International Association of Societies of Design Research
Conference, Hong Kong.