Recap: Resistance as a form of change – Power Dynamics, Social Movements and Design Facilitation

What is resistance? How does power come to be exerted in the everyday? How can be disrupt within set frames?

These are some of the questions posed in today’s lecture and workshop. The aim of the session, one of the last for the Human-Centered Research and Design in Crisis course, was to serve as a launchpad for further discussions. The session was built around the topics touched upon in my MA thesis Fostering resistance: Acknowledging notions of power exertion and politics in design facilitation. More info can be found in this previous post.

The session was divided into two parts:

  1. Exploring together the theory of Resistance
  2. Tackling a real use cause of resistance through collective discussions

Today we explored complexity together. We focused on diving deeper into issues, unpacking, and purposefully asking more and more questions. From activism and social movements, to power, resistance and systemic action.

The unpacking and tackling of complex, unpredictable and systemic issues requires a lot of inquiry, introspection and iteration. For this, questioning what we know and what we are accustomed to becomes mandatory. Knowledge, behaviour, customs, disciplines and relations are built, modified and dissolved on an everyday basis based on how we approach different situations. This, despite having a local and immediate effect, it also creates a larger, long-term and causal effect in the socio-political structures we belong to.

In the first part’s lecture we discussed about how power comes to be exerted, and about the role of power relations in influencing, shaping and persuading the outcomes of different scenarios. We learned that this can be a bifold notion, as power is both the result of those relations, and also their component. This alone becomes already a reminder that there is so much more to what we know already.

Design is no exception. Over the years, design has firmly entered different realms such as politics, social sciences, urban planning, technology, and so on. This also implies that in parallel, its complexity has also increased. Permeating new power structures, cutting across them, creating connections and being an active participant in creating new futures brings along great responsibility, and accountability. Today we stepped outside of design to see how it might benefit from the study of non-designerly notions such as framing, empowerment, control and radical social change, among others.

Finally, we focused on resistance. Going back to the roots of the term, and gaining insights from its origins within social movements and the history of fighting back oppression, discrimination and injustice, we reflected on how to transfer this to other context. Seeking and fostering resistance through the adoption of different lenses such as critique of the status quo, unpacking mainstream practices and analyzing how language is used to create discourses, can be a path forward to finding inflection points.

Turning points, opportunities for disruption, for taking risks. Design is a discipline that plays a great role in upholding, disrupting or shaping socio-participatory systems. So, how can we, as sociologist Jack Barbalet argues, influence the “conditions of reproductions of those social systems” (Barbalet, 1985)?

The discussions that emerged from the first part brought up that it takes solidarity to make a difference through resistance. This came as a difficult actionable conclusion, since it involves taking risks: “Resistance without risk is not really resistance“. Participants added that they are able to influence design by creating contexts that support risk-taking.

In the second part of the session, participants unpacked one of the projects students proposed in the first part of the course: Reforming HCD for Contact Tracing Technologies. The discussion critiqued the notion that technology can solve everything and considered how the political context influences how new technologies may be adopted in society. Through these frames we can then introduce contact tracing and other technologies – it’s not a simple answer about IF we can use technology or not, but HOW people have agency in using and resisting them.

To further delve into these topics and to tune in into the conversation, find the full lecture below:

If you’re interested in continue this discussion, feel free to reach out to me!
Email / LinkedIn / Twitter / Instagram


Villaman, N. (2020). Fostering resistance: Acknowledging notions of power exertion and politics in design facilitation. Aalto University, Department of Design, Helsinki, Finland. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.25566.87368 (11-19; 34-39; 44-45; 100-108) 


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