The sheer level of disengagement apparent in this election suggests we must rethink the design of democracy, says Sam Jacob
More from: General election 2015: the profession reacts
For some of us, a quinquennial trip to the polling station is our only visceral engagement with democratic process.
The polling station, with its large, bold capital sign propped outside, volunteers, deck chairs, rosettes, wobbly-framed voting booths, clipboards, paper slips and pencils seem to come from a different age. But these are still the objects that make up our physical contact with democracy. Among these relics, voting feels as much a ritualistic act as it is exercising one’s franchise.
None is more ritualistic than the black enamelled ballot box. It’s the thing that houses the transaction between citizen and state. Its dark interior is the space of democratic process, the dark space of our privacy, but also a darkness that we put our trust in. This black space is the magical space where the act of voting is transformed into the will of the people.
We need to rethink how where democracy really takes place
The design of this moment – of the act of voting – is, of course, vitally important. The legibility of the ballot paper, the accuracy of registering voter intention, the accessibility of the polling station itself are among the very real issues that design can improve.
But is the polling station really the space of democracy? And might design’s role in making democracy, well, more democratic be more than just functional legibility?
We could think of other examples of democratic space. Take Parliament itself, with its opposing banks of raked seating that embed a particularly British political tradition of parliamentary democracy in its spatial arrangement. The chamber’s relationship to the atmosphere and mechanics of the debates it hosts was eloquently outlined by Churchill. Surveying the wreckage of the chamber after it had been bombed in the Blitz, he insisted it be rebuilt as it was, instead of taking the opportunity to rebuild it to suit contemporary politics.
Churchill insisted on two principles. First: ‘it must be oblong, and not semicircular’. Second: ‘it must only be big enough to give seats to about two-thirds of its Members’.
In other words, it was to be rebuilt as a deliberately dysfunctional chamber – to a ‘bad design’, according to most standards.
‘We shape our buildings and after they shape us,’ Churchill said, and one might wonder if reconstruction with a more Continental-style chamber with semicircular arrangement and enough seats for every elected representative to sit at one time might have altered the combative Punch and Judy tendencies of British parliamentary behaviour.
The chamber might be where politics happens, but is it really the space of democracy? Might it even be part of the reason why so many feel disengaged from politics? Might democracy even be the media through which it is communicated – the TV studios, the column inches and the radio cars and websites that broadcast political debate? These may bring the political world into our front rooms but the media’s own agenda – whether driven by ideology or entertainment, or shareholders’ interest – shapes the way this debate takes place. The medium, as Marshall Mcluhan said, is the message. Media brings political debate into our homes, giving us far more access to debate than physical space ever could. But its window onto this world is not transparent. Is it even possible for politicians to break through the formats and roles media pre-ascribed to them? Could the redesign of these formats be a way of reinventing the dialogue we have with politics? Or does the supposedly direct contact that social media bring between citizens and politicians only ramp up the fear and loathing between elected and electorate?
Growing disengagement with democratic process suggests we need to rethink how and, maybe more importantly, where democracy really takes place. Could new thinking about the space of democracy help to reengage a disaffected public?
Could the simple public bench become a new form of cross-bench politics?
If we trace the history of democracy back to its Athenian origins we find the city and its citizens were all intertwined in the idea of the polis. And maybe, even in the 21st century, this is where the real political arena lies: not in the institutions and mechanisms of democracy, but in the world that they try to shape. The city and the landscape we inhabit: that is the living force of politics, the real shared space of democracy; that is where everyday life and abstract ideological, economic and social ideas intersect.
Could we imagine the city as the map and the territory of democracy? The product of and also the site of participation, discussion, and engagement, the common ground of the collective polis? This, I would argue, is the real design project of democracy: to make our cities places of open engagement where we come together and actively participate in society.
It might mean thinking of even the most ordinary moments in the city as democratic devices. Take the park bench. The bench is something provided for the good of all, a moment to pause and think in the midst of daily life, or somewhere to meet. But think, too, of its own intrinsic politics – those benches so designed that you can’t stretch out and sleep on them, for example. Or think of the possibilities suggested by the ‘Park Bench Statesman’, Bernard Baruch, the US statesman who would sit in Washington DC’s Lafayette Park or New York’s Central Park discussing issues of the day with whoever might sit beside him.
Could even the simple public bench become a new form of cross-bench politics – the embodiment and site of real democratic engagement? After all, as Churchill suggested, it is the way we shape the city that in turn shapes us.
Former FAT director Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio