PhD Proposal Defense: “Graphing Theory: New Mathematics, Design, and the Participatory Turn”

Screenshot 2014-11-02 14.24.30How can we retell the history and rethink the present of participatory design theory by looking at the technical device that its first manifestations rely on? This is the question that I ask in my MIT dissertation (Major: Design and Computation, Minor: Science and Technology Studies), the proposal for which I defended on March 9, 2015. I am privileged to have the guidance of brilliant people: my advisor George Stiny, and my readers Terry Knight, Natasha Schull, and Timothy Hyde. In my dissertation I am writing on transformations of design theory in the 1960s-1970s effected on the basis of computational (formal and mathematical) techniques, across sites in Europe and North America. I am looking into the meanings and circulation of structural and relational mathematical ideas in early design research so as to provide an alternative historical and critical account of the emergence of user-centric and participatory perspectives in design. Stay tuned for updates.

Dissertation Abstract:

In the 1960s and 1970s the design disciplines were marked by fervent theoretical and methodological activity performed on the basis of computational (mathematical and formal) techniques. Despite burgeoning scholarly interest in these early touch-points between design and computation, the role of specific mathematical techniques in the making and circulation of novel design theories and methods remains largely uncharted. With the aspiration to activate analytical and critical opportunities, I shift attention to a particular kind of mathematics that enjoyed wide currency in the nascent field of “design research” in the 1960s and 1970s and use it as lens through which to look at theoretical and methodological transformations that transpired in design.

The protagonist of my story is a type of applied relational mathematics that formed the computational substrate of many new design theories and methods developed during that period: graph theory. I will examine how the structural and relational mathematical properties of the graph, and their associated cultural meanings, made it available to and relevant for designers. I will also investigate how these properties generated thinking about design as a discipline and the roles of its participating subjects – both designers and users.

• In Section I: New Mathematics I will account for the modernizing and unifying visions that structural and relational mathematics came to evoke across disciplines in the 1950s-1960s, and how these visions qualified graph theory in US and European research universities.

• In Section II: Design, I will trace intellectual and institutional conditions that motivated designers operating in academic settings to seek mathematical rigor, and will unearth discipline-specific meanings that designers attributed to science and rationality in the 1960s.

• In Section III: The Participatory Turn, I will study a series of cases that employed graph theory to compute relationships between “users” and the physical form of objects, buildings, or cities. I will interrogate the role of three properties of graphs (predictivity, isomorphism, combinatorics) in enabling a continuous transition from scientizing propositions about design in the 1960s to participatory design theories and methods in the 1970s.

Through this inquiry I will show that despite discontinuity in terms of agendas, the “scientific sixties” and the “participatory seventies” present striking similarities in terms of concepts and computational techniques – both products of a short lived engagement of designers with structural and relational mathematics. By acknowledging this conceptual and technical continuity, I will open possibilities for critiquing conceptual biases that persist in contemporary understandings of “user-centric” design, and for rethinking its computational implementations.