by Aishwarya Vardhana, 09/16/22

Just this week, in a win for the anti-capitalist cultural movement, Patagonia’s founder redistributed his wealth and CondeUnited, following in the foot steps of The New Yorker Union, won their card count and is officially recognized as a union [1] [2] [3]. Today, among American youth and young adults, there is immense cultural support for alternatives to capitalism as an economic system but also as a cultural value. The rise in popularity of democratic socialism, Bernie Sanders, AOC, and others is demonstrative of this.

Design thinking

What is the role of the design thinker amid an anti-capitalist cultural movement? My suggestion, stop designing products and start thinking about systems. A product is discrete and individual. It is ignorant of how it exists in relationship to the world outside of it. A (well-designed) system is expansive, integrated, and self-reflexive. Expansive meaning it has the capacity to adapt to changing user needs, integrated meaning it understands where it fits within an ecosystem, self-reflexive means it understands why it exists and is constantly evolving. Our Western world is filled to the brim with products, but our systems, or rather how these products are connected to one another, to us, and to the environment, are broken. Instead of building more versions of the same concept, let us start connecting and fixing what exists.

A (well-designed) system is expansive, integrated, and self-reflexive.

Some context

My worldview, or rather, my ideological stance is one of anti-capitalism. This means I am a student of a long tradition of alternatives to capitalism. It means I believe society, at a macro and micro level, should not be structured around capital, profits, and endless hyper growth, and should be structured around higher values.

I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade, and I am a Hindu by birth and background. Having been raised in both religious traditions I turn to them when I seek to define “higher values“. There is a Catholic hymn where the songwriter tells us to “set our hearts on the higher things, on the things that come from your maker in Heaven. These three gifts are all that remain, faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love.” In Hinduism, or Hindu dharma as we say, we embrace the spiritual values of discipline, peace, purpose, and truth. As Gandhi (an imperfect but unarguably towering Hindu figure) asked of his followers, we must commit to satyagraha, or the lifelong effort for truth. I am a student of Hinduism, Catholicism, and anti-capitalist ideologies such as Marxism, so I try to synthesize the themes and learnings from each tradition and weave them into my design practice. These higher values of faith, discipline, hope, love, peace, purpose, and truth define a framework for the society I want to live in.

So how do we get there? Society is but a collection of manmade systems. When food, educational, medicinal, logistical, governance, transportation, cultural, spiritual, and digital systems interlock, you have a modern society; and since a system will always reflect the values that underpin it, the systems that comprise of a society must reflect higher values.

A mini-guide

In order to stop building products and start building systems, you could try the following exercise. Pick a digital product. It could be a product you’re designing, building, investing in, or using, and try to identify:

  1. Who uses it?
  2. What physical or emotional need is it serving for the end user or is it serving for an organization?
  3. Based on how it is designed, what are its design values?
  4. What ecosystem does it exist within? (For example, if the product is Wikipedia, we exist within the information ecosystem.) Define this ecosystem. What is its history? How did it emerge or develop? What are its design values?