Design anthropology and deteriorating environments – thoughts before going to a conference on Design Anthropological Futures in Copenhagen, August 2015

Design anthropology is not yet quite an established subdiscipline, but it’s getting there. Alison Clarke’s wonderful collection Design Anthropology was published back in 2011 and the conversation continues.Design for Real world cover

Tomorrow I head for Copenhagen for the conference on Design Anthropological Futures hosted by the Research Network for Design Anthropology. I’ve followed their work at a distance, now I’ll get to be immersed in it for over two days.

So some one and a half thousand words of pre-conference thoughts.

Anthropologists – who study people wherever they are whatever they might be doing – were bound to become interested in design if only because in so many ways we live in an age of design. We’ve done so really since Papanek’s influential book (right) first published in 1971.

Today value, especially economic value, but also public good, is imagined to accrue from good design. Design in turn is imagined increasingly as emerging locally and interactively, but always also as part of globalization and profit making.

These days “everybody” designs, not just the experts. Or at least change today is being produced by potentially anybody. Ezio Manzini’s Design, When Everybody Designs, shows that alongside professional or expert design, which has roots in industrial design, we already have a significant arena of what he calls diffuse design, where people do what they can to address problems themselves that corporations and governments either ignore or contribute to.

That’s what the urban environmentalists (whose activities I’ve been following on and off for a very long time, and whom I’ve written about a bit) are engaged in.

Not only is it the case that everyone designs, everything is being designed: so this is also the age of creating environments. The Anthropocene debate is a good indication of this, however contested the term itself may be.

Design anthropology is particularly focussed on the problem of change. Specifically it focuses on the creation of new artefacts together with shifts in social relations and shared expectations. It draws attention to the links between material objects and ways of living, and nurtures curiosity about changing conceptions of the normal.Adbusters Are We Happy Yet

Copenhagen’s conference is organised on the theme of futures. Indeed, at first glance, because of design’s goal of intervening in the world, it might seem like an odd partner for anthropology. Design engages in efforts to change the world, to make it better (creating novelty gadgets or solving “wicked problems”). By contrast, anthropology is about documenting what exists, curious about the variety of what passes for common sense and, indeed, good design.

Design and unsustainability

Design has particular salience in an age of crisis. Facing scary futures is perhaps what makes “everybody” so interested in how they are being designed.

It’s not just the practical efforts of those who want to drop out of the rat race that are important. Design’s entire conceptual apparatus and its vocabularies are potentially useful for facing planetary ill health. Designing opens up tools for thinking (my argument in the position paper I prepared for the conference, uploaded to Design in its critical mode – or design anthropological mode – after all attends rather precisely to the many different dimensions of future making. And it doesn’t buy into the romance of “innovation” and believe in designing ex nihilo, rather it recognises the importance of the past as creator of existing infrastructures, problem definitions and techniques as well as ideals.

All this makes design anthropology well suited to addressing a key challenge for all institutions these days, the overlap between concept and materialisation. It’s always interested in the relationship between the possible and the actual. The point is made over and over again in the work of the Research Network for Design Anthropology (e.g. here on the web).

Design and environmental anthropology

Arturo Escobar, an anthropologist with a long-term interest in environment and technological possibilities, and latterly also in design (as I wrote back in 2012), suggests that the contemporary world is a design failure. Indeed.

Having recognised this, and with help from anthropology, we are well placed to analyse the mindlessness of projects based on stuff rather than on human experience. We can robustly question the wisdom of idealising both economic growth and western science.

Escobar sees signs that design (diffuse or professional) is becoming more mindful and certainly more aware of the embodied and local everyday experiences of ordinary people. When it combines with an anthropological sensibility, it attends to the textures created as life is woven in and out of material and immaterial conditions – to use typically design-anthropological language popularised for instance by Tim Ingold.

Mike Anusas and Rachel Harkness have written a paper for one of the network’s seminars from 2014 is titled simply, ‘Things Could be Different’. It picks up fruitfully on the convergence of anthropology, environmentalism and design.

Anusas and Harkness argue that what we term ‘the environmental’ best opens up understandings of the limits as well as the possibilities of designing feasible future lives. Dealing with stuff (design) and dealing with each other (anthropology) are inextricably linked, and everything potentially comes up against obduracy, that is, resistance to change. Environmental change is where matter in general rather than innovations as discrete objects, pushes itself into view and calls attention to itself. In environmentalist thought design turns out often to have been socially problematic simply because once discarded from use stuff tends to become polluting. Yesterday’s design is thus tomorrow’s waste. The environmental then ‘crystallises the importance of [a …] temporal approach’ (2014: 10).


Reflecting on all these questions is exciting and hopeful, but it also makes me sad about just how much design there is to do.

I see the future as cluttered with competing dystopias and utopias. I’m not sure I want to participate in any of them. Yet I look back with nostalgia at a more hopeful past.

I have found a word for this. Solastalgia, distress caused by environmental change. Environment in this context appears to be interpreted much as it is in anthropology, as what surrounds. Solastalgia is thus not quite a home-sickness or a nostalgia, but close.

In a paper in Australasian Psychiatry, it is defined as the “pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation”.

The word is usually attributed to Glenn Albrech, an Australian philosopher, but its career as a term has not been particularly lively. Yet.

But it has been something like solastalgia that has forced itself into my consciousness this summer, not design futures. In fact I have pondered timelessness. Once – in my childhood of the 1960s and 70s – I took a certain timelessness for granted even though, like most people, I was educated into a belief in almost automatic progress. Though it’s clear that my interest in environmental anthropology and hence design futures was shaped above all by my recognition, as a child, that change happens, including bad change.

I spent much of the summer on a perfect paradise island, the same one where I spent my childhood summers. Off the coast of Finland lie thousands of them, a ready-made playground for sailing and enjoying cottage life. Just like in the 1960s, the naturalness of the environment is what delights most.We watched swans glide across still waters in couples and as families parading their young. Two deer had made themselves so at home in our neighbourhood, that our human presence barely fazed them. We got to see them from very close up. Flight practice ara moonlit nightound a wagtail’s nest was a captivating sight. Very poor weather notwithstanding, the sky and the sea were as lively as always.

The sea has been so cold all summer that our old favourite pastime, swimming, did not appeal much. Twenty and even ten years ago, it was routine to have a morning swim. This year I only managed one in my more than thirty days on the island. We admired the sea then more for its looks.

If only it had been the temperature alone that affected my routine. Unfortunately, blue-green algae that produce various skin irritations and kill marine organisms, have been abundant. A true sign of a deterioration. Besides, the Baltic is now so filthy, we no longer think as we used to that swim equals getting clean.

It feels important in approaching the topic of design futures to keep in mind that I owe it to this island environment to have become curious about environmental change generally. I recall being perplexed as a teenager that adults were allowing what seemed to be a brilliantly designed environment to turn into something nasty. (Earlier this year there was a children’s protest demanding that adults save the sea).

So I read the Pope’s Encyclical that inspired me to blog while on the island with a feeling of gratitude that someone with some clout was finally saying what had needed to be said for so long.

I look forward to the conference as a place to learn how to articulate futures and pasts, designs and documents with the help of design anthropology. It’s certainly an enquiry that will aid my teaching, my activism and my research.

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