Design anthropology – from an environmental p.o.v.

Thoughts on an emerging field, finally organized in writing and rather random hyperlinks, with thanks to Zoy Anastassakis who introduced me to these networks and encouraged me to write up my thoughts. What is design anthropology? In addition to essaying an answer to that question, I ponder how it speaks to those concerned with the destruction and degrading of our environments.

Design anthropology may be an emerging academic field, but even more it can be thought of as a collective imagining[1] that draws together professional roles, personal biographies and embodied experience. It uses eclectic and self-consciously inventive research methods, which are simultaneously tools for intervening in socio-technical and eco-geological arrangements. Design anthropology continues to produce variants of itself and seek institutional homes, but its potential to engage fruitfully with frightening problems of an ecological nature is beyond question.

I became persuaded of this after attending the Entremeios symposium in Rio de Janeiro under the auspices of the Design and Anthropology Laboratory (LaDA)/State University of Rio de Janeiro, in August 2014, and then at the Research Network for Design Anthropology’s meeting a year later in Copenhagen. The contents of these meetings are impossible to summarise. Topics ranged from the design of beautiful bodies and profitable architecture to the ontological status of algorithms or potential for applying Aristotelian phronesis to policy making (O’Rafferty 2015). A recognizable methodological framework or underpinning for the practice of something discernible as design anthropology is, however, already in place. Descriptive, analytical and interventionist all at the same time, design anthropology appears to be not so much about problem solving as about problem making (Lindström & Ståhl 2015) or issue making.

The contrast with capitalist technocracies – for example the Finnish state – that make endless calls for solving problems of their own creation and then respond with replicant innovations and prefigured solutions that often deepen socio-ecological troubles, is stark. Instead, design anthropology develops a countervailing tendency: to generate and sustain critical debate and perhaps, if the Rio meeting is a model, to generate and support particular urban publics whose voices and very existence otherwise threaten to disappear.Rio view 2014

Renewing anthropology

In a sense every human being designs (as Ezio Manzini has recently put it), professional designers just do it differently and sometimes they do it for pay.

For anthropologists and other social scientist, to invoke design as a necessary human propensity rather than a professional practice (Ingold 2014) is an intuitive way to deal with the fallout of centuries of the institutionalized division of intellectual labour, which has divorced the work of heads (disembodied rational minds at the top of the social hierarchy) from the work of bodies (fleshy mortals whose physicality puts them at the bottom of the social hierarchy). Design as an idea offers a compelling bridge across many troublesome pairs of terms (Latour 2008 and 2011). It means working simultaneously with the conceptual and the material; it builds on the past even as it builds into or for the future; and to borrow from Tim Ingold, design is capable, at its best, of respecting the way “the forces of ambition rub up against the rough edges of the world” (2013: 72). Such characteristics make design an attractive conceptual toolbox for anthropologists like myself, who are interested in environmental (including urban) change and what produces it.

Anecdotally speaking, recent decades have seen many places or landscapes, about which anthropology claims expertise – environments – transformed to the point of being unrecognizable as the places they once researched. Where two decades ago was agricultural land, now there may be a city of hundreds of thousands or millions (think Shenzhen), a power plant or a mining operation.

As reorganizing the planet progresses at all scales, it would seem that the not everyone is attentive to the edges of the world or to their obduracy in the face of human designs as Ingold is! Gargantuan projects and violent evictions at least draw our attention to professional design projects that are technology-intensive and capital-intensive. As these futures and not those are made real, history, linear and irreversible, becomes more and more interesting to a scholar-activist or scholar-citizen. The linear temporality of a designed world appears to contrast, after all, with the predominantly cyclical temporal dynamics documented by early generations of anthropologists.

As shorthand terms for this empirically observable change-making, design, experiment and the prototype also become academically interesting tropes. These words indeed capture something of contemporary society with its economics-led government, in general. Certainly under the banner of global environmental management – climate change politics in particular – the redesign of environments has become a widespread preoccupation. The imperative to design better so that the future might prove habitable if not more, has become a recognized personal, professional and policy goal.

Design anthropology offers a way to reflect on all this: against the background of only a few hundred years of fossil-fuel-based industrialism and a little over 100 years of professional design, perhaps design anthropology might even allow us to take seriously the politically explosive possibility that the modern-industrialist era really is anomalous and coming to an end or at least some kind of revolution.

WDC balloonSuch thoughts may appear dramatic, overdrawn and naïve, but it is undeniable that the last two or so decades are certainly discernible as a historical shift to an age of design. Design and its products are overtly and increasingly valued and promoted across economic, political and cultural domains. Today design is recognised not just as a source of economic value, but also as a route to better cities and more public good (Julier & Leerberg 2014) (though frequently also a sticking plaster-type substitute for the adequately resourced public infrastructure of weakened social welfare systems).

The timeliness of design as an actor in everyday life as well as policy was clear from the Rio meeting in 2014. LaDA-based advanced scholars as well as masters students demonstrated how interdisciplinary scholarly and local lay knowledge together can be put to use in identifying and opening up shared issues. There were presentations about street signs, buildings, markets, beaches, but also about the city administration, national transport infrastructure and Kuva0219global trends in urban and regional planning.

The fusion of design practice – making an intervention – and an anthropological curiosity about people appeared in these both as problem solving and problem making, with an ethical attentiveness to what it is right to do in situations where so many people have been abandoned to find their own solutions.

The city’s striking beauty and the context of great urban transformation in Rio itself was obviously a fertile, not to say provocative, space for seeking to intervene in collective futures. The changes taking place, their gentrifying and entertainment-oriented rationale so squarely embedded in the spectacular and globalized capture of resources for capital rather than people, immediately gave a set of co-ordinates and comparisons.

Copenhagen, where the Research Network for Design Anthropology’s meeting took place, also exhibits the influence of spectacular late capitalism clearly visible particularly in waterfront locations, the favoured hotspots of the neoliberal remaking of city life.

Eeva's Lumia_20150814_002 At the same time – especially in the warm August 2015 sunshine – Copenhagen presenteditself as site of conviviality and the many intersecting infrastructures of the modern city. Indeed, the very idea of the city, at least the big city, carries within it design both at a grandly utopian scale and the micro-designs of the thousands (or millions). In big cities self-organizing can be understood as a complex of organic and cognitive processes, and certainly not as a blueprint or plan. In the un-measurable complexity of the city, design as practice, object and environment suddenly appear to be everywhere, a kind of meshwork for design anthropology to investigate and engage.

At yet another level, design anthropology’s timeliness connects to the condition captured in the neologism ‘Anthropocene’.[2] It conveys the notion that the planet itself is being designed, that humanity is now going beyond altering landscapes for its own needs and actively intervening in forming the global environment.

The idea that we are now shaping the world in some qualitatively new way, goes back at least to the counter-cultural publication, the Whole Earth Catalog, published in California in 1968, which began with the rather design-inflected words “We are as gods and might as well get good at it” before offering its reader a variety of resources by which he [sic] can cultivate his own power to educate himself and shape his environment.

Interestingly, the author of those lines, Stewart Brand, claims to have found the words in the anthropologist Edmund Leach’s Reith Lectures broadcast on the BBC in 1967![3] Whether or not it is admissible or constructive to designate an actual new geological epoch such as the Anthropocene to convey the impact of industrial capitalism-cum-“humanity” on the planet, (see Malm & Hornborg 2014), to argue that we have designed the world we now inhabit is also to argue that we can and indeed must redesign it, a sentiment also in some way at the core of design anthropology.

Another phenomenon promoting the growth of design anthropology is that so many in government, business and civil society, have latched onto “design thinking” as a panacea for the multiple crises facing political leadership today. Panacea it is not (Kimbell 2011). It has affinities with neoliberalism, but design might also be offering a kind of epistemology whose ends are not yet clear. In contrast to an all-flattening neoliberal ideology of frictionless flow, design anthropology appreciates boundaries and distinctions but at the same time it follows problems and concerns across institutional and intellectual barriers. The epistemological challenges posed by collaborative and dispersed intellectual work fusing ethnographic as well as interventionist impulses are also fostering research practices that need not necessarily progress under the banner of design anthropology yet are clearly related to what I am calling design anthropology here (Corsín Jiménez, 2014, also the wonderful Limn magazine).

This kind of thinking has promoted the idea that design could be a model for a postcolonial anthropology, an experimental, engaged and collaborative discipline that constitutes a distinct style of knowing (Otto and Smith 2013). While many anthropologists no doubt see their discipline as inherently critical and imaginative, Keith M. Murphy and George Marcus (2013), drawing on ideas of design pedagogy, compare anthropology unfavourably with design education. It is the latter that they see as the real location of critical thinking and discourse today.

If one is looking for something revolutionary in design anthropology there is, however, also the uncomfortable thought that the emergence of design anthropology may have had more to do with revolutionizing commerce to strengthen its position, than with overturning it.

design anthropology hellobook

Design’s social visibility actually has much to do with the anthropological contribution to consumer culture: for one, it helped lead to the corporate discovery of local specificity. It is now commonplace to suggest that a novel product can achieve better commercial success with the help of anthropological tools, not least ethnographic studies of users (Clarke 2011: 10 from the book pictured above). This makes anthropology not just a handmaiden to professional and therefore corporate-led design, but to environmentally damaging as well as historically narrow definitions of novelty, creativity and imagination and even humanity. Design anthropology may thus be fostering intellectual activity that fulfils contemporary capitalism’s criteria of usefulness whilst making environmentally and socially sane lives actually more difficult!

For some then, design is a model for anthropology’s future. For others design is a problematic object of study for anthropology. For instance Lucy Suchman, a pioneer of anthropological engagements with professional design, advocates a relationship between the two disciplines that is not hyphenated but rather a more conventional but also more critical “anthropology of” (2011). A generative tussle between engagement as endorsement on the one hand and a preference for critique on the other (ethically more defensible) akin to what Suchman’s paper spells out, was also discernible at these two meetings on design anthropology. It may be a sign that we are living through a good crisis, that there is a chance that the turbulence we are experiencing will lead, as the science of the Anthropocene at its most optimistic suggests, to better designs: of things, of subjects and of environments.

Reorganizing design

It became clear at the Rio and Copenhagen meetings that designerly knowledge is produced at multiple sites in many collaborations, but also that what this knowledge is for and what it is good for is often a source of anxiety. This was heightened no doubt because design knowledge also generates things that non-designers may not want – like algorithms or gadgets that emphatically do not respond to real people’s real needs (real needs being a concept that may be ripe for rediscovery by critical scholars). In fact, even the supposed beneficiaries of some design projects can be appalled by the way research funding is allocated to the work of innovation and product design. Seeking to put distance between useless and possibly damaging innovation and useful and hopefully constructive critical analysis, the conversation at both conferences periodically turned to the distinction between scholarly knowledge versus designerly making. Unsurprisingly, the distinction was just as enthusiastically collapsed by participants.

At a minimum, design anthropology’s contribution to design and design research is to offer ingredients for de-familiarizing and re-familiarizing aspects of being human through comparative ethnographic investigation. Beyond that, what a designer does and wants – whether they want to know or to make – will depend on overlapping but never identical biographical and professional commitments. In addition to being a question of personal morals, this is an epistemological question. It hinges on the collaborators involved and the things, issues and publics that they collectively generate and remain committed to. It almost – but not quite – goes without saying, that epistemology here is highly political: “elaborating and multiplying possible futures is an exercise of power, even if position or preference is not articulated or neutrality is claimed” (Maze 2015: 6). Longstanding feminist arguments to incorporate situatedness in our knowledge practices have a strong, perhaps inadequately acknowledged, place in this conversation (Haraway 1988).

Mainstream political institutions as well as self-consciously ethical or green activists (the two groups overlap) seeking to redesign futures often fail to recognize this. In the face of crisis, they may offer moralizing and policing, together with an insistence that the same socio-economic structures that created our problems in the first place are irreplaceable. The result is that many people experience life as an uncomfortable paradox: well-meaning green credentials (lifestyle choices) are cancelled out by resource-hungry urban lives, and notions like “environmental struggle” and even “political radicalism” begin to appear old-fashioned, confused or meaningless. The idea of design for good comes to sound awkward, and so unsurprisingly there was debate at both events about the way alternative design projects get co-opted or cynically exploited for the usual fun-oriented but profit-seeking activities of urban elites, infatuated as many now are, with the edgy but productive vibe of the activist grassroots. The formal tends to subsume the informal, the official can take credit for and neutralize opposition by co-opting it.

This mix of profit-driven and social sustainability, of top-down and bottom-up or activist, was also the topic of my presentation at Rio’s Entremeios meeting (some of which I wrote up on this blog earlier). Since the symposium was titled ‘Ways of life and creative practices in the city’, I felt that the efforts of volunteer-activists in Helsinki, many of whom have design and architecture backgrounds, was an interesting window onto creative practice in the city. The activists I talked about – who have built greenhouses on derelict city-centre land in Helsinki and, in the process, ignited imaginations and promoted more slow-paced ways of life – could be presented as radical opponents of business-as-usual, that is, as design activists, change makers or agents of alternatives (Fuad-Luke et al. 2015). This was the line we took with Cindy Kohtala in our recent edited volume on urban transformation in Helsinki.

However, they could also be seen as products and even promoters of neoliberalism themselves, even as politically naïve and socio-economically advantaged tinkerers, who hardly add up to a social movement. After all, they can easily leave the truly downtrodden and marginalised just as vulnerable as before, while they pursue their own middle-class green-tinged utopias.

Back to scholarship

I will conclude by returning to the anxieties around what the outcomes of design anthropology might be. Although George Marcus, in his keynote speech (video available via this link), seemed to re-establish a division between anthropology as scholarship and design as practice, the conversations in Rio, Copenhagen and beyond do not support his view. The meaning of scholarship is obviously contested, but as people involved with design anthropology, participants seemed very aware of the need to respond simultaneously to many constituencies working at many speeds. There was also a sense that responding is a form of responsibility (even response-ability), a quality of intellectual life that allows a design anthropologist to articulate or narrate a certain kind of reflexivity not to say recursive quality.

In a paper by Mike Anusas and Rachel Harkness (2014) written for the Research Network for Design Anthropology titled simply, ‘Things Could be Different’, the authors push design anthropological thought by drawing on an ecological idiom. But instead of a closed understanding of ecology or temporality, they capture the reflexivity of knowledge production today by invoking time more generally, not just as the future, as it typical in design and design anthropological conversations. The designer may be focussed on producing something new, but she has to work with the past, building on existing infrastructures, problem definitions and techniques and, as Anusas and Harkness so compellingly remind us, existing matter.

Their approach is, I think, very fruitful. Design anthropology can hover uneasily between fine detail on the one hand and vagueness and lack of groundedness on the other. But what it does well is to keep in view the social, cultural and political dimensions of design.

In drawing attention to the temporal qualities of the materials and ideas that are shaped and reshaped in practices of design, one is alerted to the constant and always consequential interplay of the material and the conceptual. And vice versa. The material and conceptual impinge in time, they wield consequences through time.

Anusas and Harkness also note that the popular concept of innovation and its supposed link to novelty is implausible. To design is to imagine, to mix unknown futures with selectively recalled as well as obdurately persistent (e.g. as waste) histories. In the current conjuncture, as they argue, it is what we term ‘the environmental’ that best opens up understandings of the limits as well as the possibilities of designing feasible futures: in the complex demands of environmental concern, dealing with stuff and dealing with each other are inextricably linked, and everything potentially comes up against obduracy and resistance to change.IMG_1994

Instead of timelessness, a kind of elevated but impossible condition of immortality, or an endless capacity to go backwards in time (or pretend we can, insuring ourselves against trouble or even terrorism or paying for eternal youth) a design anthropology grounded in the environmental attends not just to complexity but to consequentiality.

Clearly not everything calling itself design anthropology is or needs to be about undertaking such a task. Working with the anxiety or unease of endorsing or protesting business-as-usual is, however, creating an exciting and timely conversation. To understand what it means for design to be part of society like this, to narrate its roles and impacts as local, vernacular and interactive, as well as born of globalization and corporate profit making all at the same time, to appreciate what ongoing alterations in expert practices and authority mean for policy and government as well as commerce, are all issues taken up by scholars in design anthropology.

As such, it is certainly a scholarly pursuit as Zoy Anastassakis has made amply clear. Here, by scholarship I refer to a disciplined collective endeavour of sustaining and developing human intellectual capacities. This is so even as many non-scholars participate or set the horizons and co-ordinates of this activity. Where, exactly, this exercise gets carried out (in universities or elsewhere), is perhaps less important than the fact that it is being developed, taught and applied. Of course, as I’ve suggested, design anthropology can also leave everything as it is. In that respect too, it is rather like most other kinds of scholarship.

Certainly design anthropology may find it hard to flourish despite its obvious alignments to popular political and commercial imperatives. Anyway, I am grateful to have been able to participate in these two events. They are testament to an emerging conceptual framework that is neither anthropology nor design, but design anthropology.

Works cited

Anusas, Mike and Rachel Harkness (2014) Paper for the seminar “Ethnographies of the Possible”, April 10th, 2014, Aarhus, DK, The Research Network for Design Anthropology. (Forthcoming also as Anusas and Harkness (2016) ‘Presents in the Making’ in Design Anthropological Futures, Edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Ton Otto, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Joachim Halse, Thomas Binder, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard. Bloomsbury.)

Clarke, Alison J. 2011. Design anthropology: object culture in the 21st century. Wien: Springer.

Corsín Jiménez, Alberto (2014) ‘The right to infrastructure: a prototype for open source urbanism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol.32: 342-362.

Haraway, D. (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: the science question in feminism as a site of discourse on the privilege of partial perspective’, Feminist Studies, Vol.14(3): 575-99.

Ingold, T. 2013. Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. Routledge.

Tim Ingold (2014) ‘Designing Environments for Life’, in Anthropology and Nature, ed. Kirsten Hastrup.

Kimbell, L. (2011) ‘Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I’, Design and Culture, Vol.3(3): 283-306.

Latour, B. (2011) ‘Un Prométhée circonscpect? A Cautious Prometheus?’, Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. No. 381. 2011: 109-119

Lindström, K. & Ståhl, Åsa (2015) ‘Inviting to co-articulations of issues in designerly public engagement’,

Malm, A. and Hornborg, A. (2014) ‘The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative’, The Anthropocene Review, Vol.1(1): 62-69

Mazé, Ramia (2014) Paper for the seminar “Ethnographies of the Possible”, April 10th, 2014, Aarhus, DK, The Research Network for Design Anthropology.

Murphy, K. M. and G. E. Marcus (2013) ‘Epilogue: Ethnography and Design, Ethnography in Design… Ethnography by design’, in Gunn, W.; T. Otto; R. C. Smith (eds) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, London: Bloomsbury Academic. Pp. 251-268.

O’Rafferty, S. 2015. Design as a phronetic approach to policy making,

Otto & Smith in Gunn, W.; T. Otto; R. C. Smith (2013) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Suchman, Lucy, (2011) ‘Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 40: 1-18.

[1] The idea was present at the Rio meeting. It turns out the idea is also developed in a book of that name by Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd (1999), which draws on Spinoza’s philosophy to deal more optimistically and satisfactorily with human knowledge than most conventional understandings of epistemology do.

[2] The use of the term Anthropocene has been growing since 2002. Writing in the journal Nature, the Nobel-prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen suggested it as a way to capture the idea that scale and intensity of the changes caused by technology were producing irreversible and lasting damage to the global environment. The result is a new, human-dominated, geological epoch, the Anthropocene where the global environment is thus the product of human endeavour.


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