As a child of 1968, Pelle Ehn has always been engaged in changing society. For over forty years, the researcher has been a pioneer in what is now known as co-design. As Professor of Interaction Design at Malmö University, Ehn examines the role of design in enhancing democracy, particularly for those in the margins of society.
“The driving force –even though the specific content has changed over the years– has had to do with how people can have a say in their everyday lives, be it at work or at home,” Ehn says. “It has always been a question of how people, in a democratic way, can participate in making their futures.”
In the early seventies, Ehn worked at the former Swedish National Institute for Working Life, conducting research on worker’s influence on new technologies in the workplace. He then went on to pursue an academic career in informatics at the universities of Aarhus and Lund, while obtaining his Doctorate in Information and Computer Science. In 1998, Ehn co-founded the Malmö University School of Arts and Communication, a kind of “digital Bauhaus”, exploring the design of creative working environments before delving into how people in the margins of society could rejoin in the making of futures.
As a prolific author, Ehn has led the discussion on various subject such as computers and democracy, participatory design and design thinking. His recent publication, “Making Futures: Marginal Notes on Innovation, Design and Democracy” served as the basis for his master class at the University of Twente as a Design United Research Fellow. Entitled “Collaborative Future-Making”, the course touched upon the legacy of the Scandinavian participatory design tradition, specifically, Malmö’s efforts and perspectives on how democracy can be enhanced and design’s place in this endeavor.
“The city of Malmö is like many other cities in the world,” Ehn claims. “So what’s the role of design in a city like this, characterized by creativity, multiethnicity and at times violence? We’ve chosen to engage with different groups in the margins and see how they can be a resource for society and for themselves in changing futures.”
Driven by curiosity
Ehn anchors his democratic design experiments on the concept of “design research through design”. By conducting such experiments “in the small”, the researcher is convinced that many lessons can be learned that are essential for the future and for the participants involved. That being said, Ehn believes that a designer’s motives for conducting research should be well-placed. “If you ask me, beyond the political agenda or value driven design, I think that design research, like all research, has to be driven by curiosity.”
With his wealth of knowledge and experience, Ehn offers a piece of advice to young designers: “Go where your heart is, where you passion is,” he says. “For design to survive, it has to reinvent itself all the time and it has to stick to the good-old values which have to do with both uniting art and technology and engaging in society for more just living conditions for people.”