Design and Innovation at STS@RPI: Reflecting on 20 Years of STS through Design

In the Fall of 2018, the STS Department at RPI celebrated the 20th year of its "Design, Innovation, & Society" (DSIS) program, an undergraduate major and research program focused on the pursuit of STS scholarship and social justice through the practice of design. For the past 20 years, DSIS has been the only studio-based, undergraduate design program housed completely within a social sciences & humanities department in the world. DSIS teaches practical design skills--drafting, prototyping, CAD, problem definition, design ethnography, and organizational design--while also using STS literature and conversations as a vehicle for deconstructing and critiquing the popular assumptions of design and designers. As such, DSIS treats design simultaneously as critical technical practice, an imagined community of practice, and an epistemic/ideological position.

While all of the DSIS Studio classes are taught by STS faculty, many of our students dual-major with Engineering, Architecture, Graphic Design, or Computer Science, and the vast majority of studio work results in the design and development of physical products. While DSIS leverages similar literature that have contributed to the more recent "Critical Making" circles in STS, many DSIS projects are self-consciously market-centered and consumer-facing. DSIS thus thrives on exploring productive tensions between activist/anti-capitalist orientations of STS with designing for mass production, as well as the tensions between criticisms of technology & "innovation culture" and our students' drive to create & desires to enter industry.

This interactive essay tracks the history of DSIS @ RPI, speaking to how DSIS serves as both an innovation of and critique of STS itself, and how DSIS as reflexively evolved over the past 20 years in response to changes in faculty, institutional capital, the popularization of "design thinking," and the politics of STS. Materials include timelines--both in a long-poster format to be showcased at 4SNOLA and in a digital format, physical and digital student projects, syllabi, photography & documentation from the history of the program, and writings and reflections from DSIS students and faculty.

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