Design with an Agenda

It was not long ago that the world emphatically threw its support behind the modernist movements, self-assured that a strategic, centralized, top-down approach would yield greater efficiency and bolster progress at an astounding rate. But as we came to recognize the limitations of the beasts we'd created in superhighways, suburban landscapes, and systemic mass-consumtion at an unprecedented scale, we found solace in a paradigm shift leading us towards the proverbially local and post-modern aesthetic. This reframing offered validation for just about any individual style or contribution to society. In some respect, it's a revitalization of Adam Smith's invisible hand, the notion that the market works itself out, if we all play fair. In another respect, it absolves us from taking a stand concerning the current path of social development, all under the liberal ethic of absolute subjectivity. 
As designers, we find ourselves in this delicate space. By definition, our work shapes the way people engage with their peers and environments, and in that light there is nothing we can do to not drive progress. However, as open-minded well educated human beings, we respect everyone's individual right to behave in accordance with his or her own values. To suggest that we are entitled to shift behavior implies a sort of authority, hinting at superiority, that our notions of good and bad are elevated to the point that we have the right to drive people one way or the other. This sounds almost modernist, almost fascist, and none of us wants to end up the next Big Brother accidentally just by virtue of trying to make life a little better. After all, we all make mistakes.
There have been various reactions in the design community to this challenge, because of its potential to be so fundamentally paralyzing. An increased investment into research and development in the movement of User-Centered Design shifts much of the moral authority from designers on to consumer needs, freeing us up to mass-produce in good conscience. Crowdsourcing means that ideas that are popular get carried forward without bias. Many more designers are turning to data as the fundamental justification of their contributions. While I believe this conscious consideration of public opinion is vital to the viability of design in the future and our collective resilience, it is important to recognize that we are still in fact in a reactionary phase. My fear is that we overshoot the place of balance, and risk thrusting our decedents into an unforeseeable future that is so mass-democratized that it is impossible to make any large scale changes that serve the collective good rather than individual needs. In such a scenario, I would imagine the trends might shift back towards the rigid, centralized systems we are dealing with today.
How can we avoid such a situation? The goal must be to find balance between a strategic and an emergent process. Both have benefits and shortcomings, and it is only by playing them off one another that we can minimize the shortcomings and find ourselves a stable, resilient path. An overly strategic process neglects the needs of the people it serves, but an overly emergent process only serves immediate small-scale needs based on already existing infrastructure. Raymond Loewy used the acronym MAYA (most advanced yet acceptable) to articulate the role of the designer to push the envelope of social acceptance. He posits that the designer should not be only responsive to the trends and needs of the public, but is actually a driving force, opening people up to technologies and behaviors that might have otherwise been averse to. As designers we must take responsibility for the power we've been given, and own our personal feelings about the way things should be. To pass it off on the public is evasive, to disregard the public is insensitive. The balance is up to each designer personally, one project at a time.
In the midst of this degree of subjectivity, it falls on designers to consider the distant future, the large-scale, the planet, the species, and it is therefore our place to help people make the choices that will ultimately serve the communal good. As the Jewish proverb goes, "It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but you are not absolved from doing your part."