Copenhagen’s #Designanthroresearch – reflections from Helsinki

A very stimulating two days it was with the Research Network for Design Anthropology (DA) meeting that ended with a set of musings from Irvine’s George Marcus.

Some years ago he had expected that design and anthropological research would fuse. His view was shared, he recalled, with that other US-based pioneer of a design-anthropological-style, Paul Rabinow. Yesterday, however, Marcus took a provocative step back: anthropology remains scholarship while designers make things…

At their core they certainly do, but the discussions and exercises of the meeting demonstrated a more dynamic situation. There are many strands to the domain of design anthropology but I think I recognised a whole: a collective imagining drawing together professional roles, personal biographies and embodied experiences and much, much expertise into a particular, significant conversation.

Empirically grounded work where innovation is what people do – making things to change the world – jostled comfortably with conceptual contributions. In this group of 100 people it was easy (kind of) and productive to interweave teaching literacy to autistic children and questioning the ontological status of an algorithm (and much more) into one session.

Sticky Note 2015What gives DA, and design itself, a perhaps less serious image is the ubiquitous post-it-note of the design workshop. These were part of the conference too. I am waiting for someone to write a paper on the post-it note and knowledge practices.

The dominance of the usual consumer-capitalist colour palette notwithstanding, the workshops were highly productive.

The conference distilled an important conversation. Perhaps even more importantly, there is a significant domain of practice – design in its most diffuse sense – that really is crying out loud for critical commentary. It’s not just the design critique Alison Clarke called for, but a critique of algorithm (if I could put it like that). Important too is the fact that, as Alison also pointed out, the network works from Europe, relatively free of the corporate strings attached to much innovation research (as compared to the EPIC network).

Marcus noted that design is not as “scholarly” as anthropology. But in-depth expertise was not lacking anywhere. And the incisive interjections of some of the younger participants were testament to an emerging conceptual framework that is neither anthropology nor design, but design anthropology.

That’s not to say that this DA thing is fully formed. And that was a point I made (without arguing) in my own position paper for the conference. This, and all the other texts are now available on the conference website.

So what was a little surprising was how few people there were from Finland! Apart from myself – and I describe myself these days as “very adjunct” – there were just two PhD students from Aalto.

Fortunately Ramia Maze, whose contribution to the network has certainly inspired me (her text is available here) is starting a professorship at Aalto this month.

Looking forward!

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