Free software and participatory design

One of the sub-chapters in my thesis is termed “Free Software culture as an illustrative case ”. In fact it is illustrative not only of participatory approaches to software development but also of exclusions and omissions. So far, I have only written this chapter to about one third of the intended scope. And so far I did not find many works that I could use to illustrate this context. But just recently a new issue of TECHNOSCIENZA: Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies came out, in it an article by Giacomo Poderi with the title: “Innovation Happens Elsewhere, but Where Does Design Happen? Considerations on Design and Participatory Processes in Emerging Information Technologies ” (Poderi 2012). I just now found time to go through it and I thought this might make an opportunity to put it to the blog, also because I think this is an important and still much too under-researched topic. I am glad for Poderi’s article, because it very much helps me to go on with the mentioned chapter in my own work.

I will not summarize here his summary on classical approaches in Information and Software Systems (ISS), as the article itself is very compact and well written and the journal is open access. So if you are interested in an overview of concrete software development models, take a look at section 1 in his paper. What I will focus on here is his interest in participatory approaches and the link to Free/Libre and Open Source Software (F/LOSS) development, as this will be also a part in my thesis. His key insight here is that although traditional software development models have been substituted by more flexible and adaptive ones, these still are recombinations of a linear and rationalist model. Or as he writes: “they all share the same fundamental bias: the idea that problems are identifiable, definable and solvable through analytical steps and engineered procedures.” He then focuses on participatory approaches to the design and development of software technology.

Starting from the 1960ies on, such participatory approaches have been constantly (re)developed and meanwhile there are even textbooks on such approaches. These approaches are very much based in academic contexts, as they are condensed in the field of Participatory Design (PD). Yet, Poderi’s focus lies on F/LOSS contexts. This probably is mirrored in his differentiation between classical participatory processes in software development and forms of “distributed participation and continuously designed projects”, which he finds with emerging information technologies, or more specifically: F/LOSS projects. And indeed do such projects provide “a paradigmatic case both for the continuity of design and distributedness of participation.” (Poderi 2012, 68) Here I would contest, that most F/LOSS projects have little to do with what most PD research and development care about. But then again, this is only my personal experience that just has not yet been refuted by empirical research or other personal accounts. So I am looking forward to read more of Poderi’s research. At his website he also gives some brief insights into his PhD project. This might be worth a click, if you are interested in free software and participation from a social studies perspective.

While in my work I will look at Free Software only at the periphery and somewhat critically (although, or much more because I am using almost exclusively F/LOSS products in my daily routines), Poderi focuses on F/LOSS projects in a more intensive and also enthusiastic manner. What I find important is that he highlights the F/LOSS approach as a “participatory technology”. With this focus then, participation happens not only in the design phase (as is the case with traditional participatory approaches) but it “extends into the use phase and it becomes an indicator of the validity, success and efficiency of the technological artefact. [The technology should be] capable to attract and motivate users into active participation ” (Poderi 2012, 69). So there are two aspects of participatory development: “participation is both the means of designing usable and meaningful systems and the goal (or outcome) of well-designed technologies ” (ibid). This is an important point that I recently stumbled upon regularly, when I tried to explain to colleagues and friends what Participatory Design is about. Because on the one side there are projects that aim at supporting participation in specific contexts through technoscientific artefacts. These then do not have to be designed necessarily in a participatory process themselves. On the other side there are projects that aim to develop technoscientific artefacts in participatory processes in order to come to some stable and qualitative product that fits it’s users needs. These products then do not necessarily enable or facilitate participation in its use context – although several of them might just do so by chance or appropriation through the end users. Of course there also are many projects that do both. But analytically it might be helpful to distinguish between those two motives and places of participation.

This also reminds us that there are of course different participants, who act in different spheres of a development environment (this is not to speak of phases in a product’s life-cycle – which would suggest a misleading linearity). With that in mind we than also have to think about who participates where, and why they do participate in those places – or why they do not participate at all. It hints us to issues of exclusion and representation, as also Poderi correctly mentions. But at least in this specific paper he stops at mentioning the “marginal users and not-yet-users” (69). Of course representation and exclusion work differently in distributed processes of continuously designed projects than is the case in classical participatory design projects, where participation happens especially in the (classical) design phase. But nevertheless this is an important issue, perhaps even much more so, as in the F/LOSS context the participation often is not explicitly designed, but rather a side effect of an open distributed process that aims for product optimization through user contributions. I would be keen on going into more detail here, but as far as my working schedule is concerned, I will have to defer this to somewhere in the end of August or beginning of September.

To close I want to just mention what I am still unsure about. Poderi concludes – and I believe correctly so – that with FLOSS projects the design phase changes drastically. While it is traditionally set between the requirements analysis and the actual implementation, here “there is no clear-cut separation amongst phases: requirements analysis and implementation are continuous processes that happen without the formal mediation of a design phase. Therefore, design no longer portrays an interaction.” (70) I think that this is correct for F/LOSS projects, but I think it is too bold to generalize this to “emergent information technologies”. Also I think this is not so unproblematic as it seems in Proderi’s article. Of course it is tempting conclude and close with a sentence like that: “Designing becomes the continuous sensemaking of that enacted and ongoing interaction. ” (70) In the end I am a F/LOSS-enthusiast myself. Nevertheless, to me, it seems often more like a vanishing of the design phase than just a transformation thereof into a continuous and integrative process. Although significant success may lie in ongoing conversations and processes of mutual learning, I still think that critical design phases are necessary to forestall exclusion of marginalized users and usages.

So, does my own experience with software development and F/LOSS communities betray me or do we have to look more into those different spheres of participation with an eye on communicational and epistemological aspects of the production processes? Perhaps any of my dear readers can give me a clue where to look next?


Poderi, Giacomo. 2012. ‘Innovation Happens Elsewhere, but Where Does Design Happen? Considerations on Design and Participatory Processes in Emerging Information Technologies’. TECNOSCIENZA: Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies 3 (1) (June 16): 63–72.

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