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The Rise of Relational Design

by Fabian Pfortmuller
3 min read
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What if we designed anything with relationships in mind?

Strong relationships are not a frilly accessory in a happy neighborhood, a thriving school, an effective health service, a flourishing business, or a successful and cohesive society. They are the making of it all. Working towards a world of good relationships, wherever we are and whatever we do, is simply common sense. We want to make it common practice.“ David Robinson, Relationships Project

I see a new field emerging that we might call Relational Design. It is natural to have a relational lens when working with communities, groups, and networks. That’s the obvious use case. But now a new field is emerging that applies the same principle to, well, anything. What if you used a relational approach to how you design cities, how you create housing projects, how you run a non-profit, how you strengthen a neighborhood, or how you design healthcare in a more holistic way?

This nascent design approach shares a few assumptions

  • Relationships are not just a means to an end, but valuable in itself (said most beautifully by David Robinson’s quote above).
  • Relationships are a tremendous and highly under-leveraged source of transformation and well-being. Things, services, offerings, and systems simply become better when we design them in a relational way.

Here are some examples of Relational Design

Intro video from Participatory City (London)

A very new or a very old field?

When you look at the actual practices, none of them are rocket science, and none of them are actually new. But maybe that’s exactly the point. The Einhorn primer puts it beautifully: “Most likely, none of these practices will be radically new to you. But it is precisely the fact that they are radically old that makes them powerful and accessible to all of us”. It seems as this field matures, our job is not to invent, but rather to rediscover old practices and apply them to today’s contexts.

Is this how we’ll change culture?

I work in service of a future where our culture values relationships. Many of us sense how capitalism has stripped most relational elements out of our lives and many of us crave a sense of true belonging and connectedness. Yet how do we get there? I sense that by designing anything with a relational lens we start to change offerings, institutions, systems, and eventually culture.

What do you think?

How does this resonate? Where are you seeing Relational Design emerging outside of the traditional community space? I’d be so grateful to hear your thoughts and reflections in the comments.

post authorFabian Pfortmuller

Fabian Pfortmuller,

Fabian Pfortmüller is a Swiss community builder in Amsterdam. Fabian is also co-author of the Community Canvas, an open-source framework for community builders and Innovator in Residence for the Kauffman Foundation.

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Ideas In Brief
  • The author believes that putting relationships first should be a common practice in every part of human activity.
  • The author sees a relational design as something we can anticipate in the nearest future. It can be applied in many cases – from designing cities to building any type of organization or system.
  • Relational design isn’t new in any way – the fact they are old makes them this powerful. With relationships in mind, we can start designing a new future.

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