Institutional constraints: the forms and limits of participatory design in the public realm

  • Thomas Lodato
  • Carl DiSalvo


In recent years, participatory design (PD) has increasingly occurred in the context of various public, private, governmental, and non-governmental institutions operating in the public realm. This context has led some to call for more direct attention to the ways institutions frame PD, particularly the practice and process of encouraging institutional change (i.e. institutioning). Building on this work, we introduce the idea of institutional constraints as particular interactions between PD practices and institutional frames. Using the concepts of thinging, infrastructuring, and commoning as analytical lenses on three empirical cases found within so-called smart city efforts, we identify, name, and describe three provisional institutional constraints---the sandbox, the administrative gap, and the ideological mismatch. These institutional constraints provide concrete articulations of PD's form within neoliberalization---a form marked by circumscribed, austere, opaque, and fraught interventions inextricable from processes of urbanization. As a first step for contemporary PD processes and research, we argue that the empirical description of institutional constraints is a means to assess the contemporary limitations of PD and a resource to create new strategies and tactics for doing PD in the contemporary public realm.

Full text at ACM

SESSION: Commoning