The following post was written to mark International Women’s Day, 8th March 2020
Donald Schön is an important figure in the world of design theory. His best known book, The Reflective Practitioner, used architectural designing as a model for the performance of all other types of professional activity, as processes of experimentation and learning through framing problems and moving towards solutions .
I recently came across the full list of Schön’s publications  and was astonished how productive he was over the course of his life (1930-1997). Looking through the list there are publications I recognise – his first book The Displacement of Concepts, for example, about the nature of creativity, and four papers in the journal I edit, Design Studies  – but what I hadn’t realised was how well-known he was before publishing The Reflective Practitioner.
This is no better illustrated than by the Reith lectures Schön gave in 1970 (Figure 1). The Reith lectures, inaugurated in 1948 and still given today, are the BBC’s annual ‘flagship lecture series’ that feature ’significant international thinkers’ giving six, half-hour lectures.
Just to give you an idea of the company Schön was keeping, the years previous to 1970 had featured Bertrand Russell (1948), Robert Oppenheimer (1953), Nikolaus Pevsner (1955), and JK Galbraith (1966). The full list and archives of transcripts and recordings is available on the BBC website  and well worth exploring.
So being invited to give the Reith lectures at age 40, the youngest man to have then given the lectures, would have been a very big deal indeed. The BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting in Britain and several million listeners would have heard Schön speak, not just in the UK, but through the renowned BBC World Service.
The theme of Schön’s lectures was Change and Industrial Society. In his first lecture  he outlines what he calls ’the loss of the stable state’. The meaning of ’state’ here is deliberately vague. Schön embraces the state of the individual as much as that of the organisation or even nation. This is a way of thinking that he would carry forward in his future work, identifying concepts that could be applied broadly across people, groups, organisations, and society. A good example of this is the idea of ‘learning’, the process through which, in Schön’s work, change happens .
The lecture is a fascinating and worthwhile listen. Dear reader, I implore you to listen now if you haven’t already, then you can properly judge what I go on to say below.
– INTERLUDE –
Schön’s delivery is effortless: debonair, lucid, fluent, and persuasive. He paints a picture of a technological world changing at an ever increasing rate and warns of our inability to cope with this change. The change is so rapid, he argues, that the very idea of stability is illusory. We’d better get used to it, he suggests, and find some ways of coping.
The vision of this opening lecture is bold and provocative though you can imagine the live British audience looking sceptically at the upstart American, peddling transatlantic homilies.
Finishing his lecture after 25 minutes, it is then the turn of the audience to ask questions.
‘Are you telling us that the US is more advanced than Britain?’, the first bumbling questioner asks (I’m paraphrasing, of course). ’Not at all’, Schön retorts, without missing a beat.
On to the next question: ‘Is the American computer industry deeply conservative while claiming to be innovative?’ Schön agrees, his work with IBM being a case in point.
‘Is the changing concept of stability itself a cause of instability?’ the third questioner asks. ‘very interesting’, Schön answers, ‘but no’.
‘Maybe the interaction between different technologies increases the rate of change at an even greater speed?’ the fourth questioner asks, ‘if so, how will we cope?’. ‘We need to learn new things’ Schön replies, ‘particularly learning how to adapt’.
The fifth questioner asks the first hostile question: ‘aren’t you just being hysterical?’ he asks, ‘things aren’t changing much in the UK, and anyway we’re coping fine’. ‘Mark my words’ Schön responds, in his only faltering reply, ‘if America is changing, then Europe will need to change in response’. He adds rhetorically, and a little patronisingly, ‘perhaps this is a “round the corner” issue for you?’
Questioner 6 asks: ‘Is there a distinction between persons and organisations in respect to change’. ‘What do you think a social system is?’ Schön smoothly replies, though concedes that ‘to some extent stable institutions are necessary to maintain a sense of the self.’
The final questioner, somewhat sceptically and citing the military as an example, asks: ‘isn’t this just a conservative view that preserves stability without questioning the aims of that stability?’ Schön is taken aback. ’I’m not capable of such malign intent!’ he declares, ‘but stable organisations can exist in unstable contexts, though progressively less suited to those contexts’.
The lecture comes to an end with a round of applause.
To summarise, a man gives a lecture about the rapid pace of change to what sounds like a male audience, and is asked seven questions by seven men.
Where are the women in all this?
Listening to an historical lecture on change, and especially the clipped British male accents in the questions that follow, is a window into a certain kind of stability in the 1970s. If you throw in the internet, the ideas in Schön’s lecture could easily apply today, but the framing of the speakers and audience has changed considerably.
Looking at the entire list of Reith lecturers, the first woman to give the lectures was Margery Perham in 1961, who talked about colonialism . The second woman was Marina Warner, a whopping 33 years later in 1994, who talked about Myths . That’s two women in 46 years!
This particular stability, of men doing intellectual and technological stuff and women doing, well, the womanly stuff – often mythologised and reinforced by the technologies that Schön talks about – has taken a long, long time to change. The increasing speed of technological change doesn’t seem to have increased the speed of social change if, indeed, change has happened at all .
It was ironic, even in 1970, that the BBC, a bastion of stability, would present a lecture series on change but nearly 50 years later – the length of time Schön mentions it took the automobile to diffuse into the marketplace – in 2017, the top 12 best-paid television presenters for the BBC were all male . Until then an unquestionable stable state that hitherto women had only been vaguely aware of.
The BBC represents stability to the British people, but in 2020 that stability is beginning to erode fast. The values of independence and considered development that stability brings doesn’t fit with the current Boris Johnson-led UK government. The BBC is under question not just in terms of equality, but also now in terms of technology. New models of streaming that organisations like Netflix have made profitable are challenging more conventional broadcasting models and forcing change. The BBC heard it from Donald Schön first.
Technological change happens fast but social change happens slow; in the light of history the two processes perform an uneasy dance. When we look at the mother of all change – climate change – perhaps we need to learn how to tango fast.
Notes and References
 Full disclosure: The Reflective Practitioner is one of my go-to books for thinking about design processes. It forms a large part of my teaching and its central themes of learning and inquiry through ‘design’ – in the form of constructed possibilities – continue to be relevant today. Schön is one of the few people who have put a compelling argument for designing as a fundamental form of acting in the world; something not particular to designers. Designing as changing existing states into preferred states, in his contemporary Herbert Simon’s terms.
 A comprehensive list of all Schön’s publications is available here: http://graphicdesign-research.com/Schon/Bibliography-DonaldSchon-1.pdf
 Schön published four papers and an editorial in Design Studies, one of which ‘Designing: Rules, Types, and Worlds’ earned the 1988 best paper award. https://www.sciencedirect.com/search/advanced?pub=Design%20Studies&cid=271099&authors=donald%20schon
 A full list of the BBC Reith Lectures (1948-2019) is available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/episodes/guide
 Schön’s ouvre is defined by two central questions I think. First, where do our ideas come from? Second, how do we change?
 Two of Margery Perham’s lectures on colonialism are available to listen to at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hbd2d
 Marina Warner’s lectures on Modern Myths are available to listen to at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gxpbh
 One of my first blog posts was on the representation of women in architecture and also involved the BBC: https://iprofessdesign.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/the-curious-case-of-the-disappearing-woman-in-the-story-of-architecture/
 BBC Pay: Men still dominate star salaries list: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-44779292