GATHER Advisor Dr. Ceasar McDowell Speaks on Ethics, Design and Democracy

Ceasar McDowell, a professor of civic design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a longtime senior adviser to the GATHER curriculum, gave an inspiring lecture in Chicago recently attended by several Chicago Peace Fellows as well as Goldin Institute board and staff.

Ceasar gave the 2019 Ikeda Lecture entitled “Dialogue in Demographic Complexity: Overcoming Our Discriminatory Consciousness” before a packed room of several hundred people at Depaul University’s Student Center on Tuesday, October 1.


As a teacher of urban planning and community development at MIT, Ceasar coordinates cross-department initiatives that leverage technology for community engagement, and he began his talk by talking about ethical principles for design, among them Design for the Margins, which he explained was a way to think about creating solutions that work for those who are in the most difficult situations.

[quote]“If you design for people at the margins, you automatically get the people in the middle. People at the margins are living with the failures of society.” -- Ceasar McDowell[/quote]

To illustrate this principle, he brought up the example of curb cuts, which were originally carved into American sidewalks after the Second World War to help veterans in wheelchairs get in and out of transportation. After being installed, however, curb cuts unexpectedly also helped strollers, bicycles, shopping carts and other persons with disabilities. Nevertheless, Ceasar added that properly following this principle also meant continuing to question solutions so that new solutions are constantly innovated.


Ceasar articulated other principles such as Design for Collaboration, Design for Equity, Design for Systemic Change, and Design of Ecological Solutions, for which he cited the example of the president of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who responded to a protest by the Rainforest Action Council by spending several weeks with the organization, and then taking back their ideas to the company, where he made changes to their procedures to reduce waste and refocus on human relationships, looking at families as resources.

Design for Analog as well as Digital, Design for Healing and Design for Empathy were other principles, though the latter, Ceasar cautioned, had a dark side. Empathy required reflection, or else it “enables aggression to those causing distress to the person we feel empathy for.”


[quote]“We have to support the things we want to change while we maintain the vision of the thing we want to be.”[/quote]

Truly practicing these principles, Ceasar said, requires living in transition. In that vein, he talked about a campaign he implemented at MIT in which they initially asked individuals “What do you want to know about the future of democracy?” But after getting many confused responses, they realized many people were ambivalent about democracy, so they modified the question to ask “What do you want to know about the future of America?”


After the talk, Ceasar took questions from the audience. In response to one young man who identified as African American and gay, Ceasar counseled him to be ready for extraordinary responsibilities.

[quote]“To act as a conscience of society – a moral compass – you have to act from that position even though it feels so unfair to carry that burden.”[/quote]