Grey Room

News from Nowhere: Participatory Design in the Scandinavian Workplace

Samuel Stewart-Halevy

UTOPIA Project. Mock-up of a printer, Stockholm, 1986.


Beginning in 1970, in four Norwegian and Swedish metal factories, and later in classrooms and laboratories like the Arbetslivscentrum (Swedish Center for Working Life), Scandinavian computer scientists, social researchers, and off-duty workers, under the auspices of state- and union-sponsored programs, focused on the effects of automation on workers and workplaces, using methods that would later come to be called “participatory design.”

Yet a paradox emerges that pertains to the entire postwar participatory moment. If designers, architects, and planners sought the participation of their clients and audiences out of a desire to remove indirect representation, why were so many representative artifacts produced for these participatory encounters? A common array of extractive objects and devices can be discerned across (and despite) participation’s broad geography: interactive mock-ups and prototypes, solicited sketches and plans, cognitive maps and transects, questionnaires and mood boards, structured forms of play and immersive simulations, and forms of televisual feedback. How might the proliferation of these props, aids, and prostheses, which in this period were often produced or coproduced by amateurs and laypeople, reveal transformations within the interface of design, and where did they lead once the effervescence of participation had dissipated?