EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Anthropologies of collective design experiments

Location A-402
Date and Start Time 03 August, 2014 at 09:00


Eeva Berglund (Aalto University) email
Hannah Knox (University College London) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel explores the role of collective design experiments in today's crisis-prone urban politics. From local mobilizations to state/citizen collaborations, how do and how might anthropologists navigate this new terrain of 'co-creation'? What theoretical tools might help grasp its implications?

Long Abstract

Cities are important sites of new political mobilizations, which have recently attracted anthropological interest (Susser and Tonnelat 2013). Based around types of 'commons', these activities offer 'a glimpse of a city built on the social needs of a population'. They are often about designing futures based not on centralized control, but rather on collaboration, experimentation, probing and responsiveness. In many cities, self-organization and co-creation are seen as preferable to the elitism of more modernist practices, challenging the organization and validation of expertise. Many governments and corporations also support experimentation, particularly in relation to global issues like climate change.

As state, citizen and corporation all increasingly champion experimental co-creation, it can become hard to see where low-budget self-help seeps into anarchist-inspired DIY-cultures and in turn into corporate-sponsored product or service design. Indeed, are these ways of coping with an uncertain future related to each other? Are they really glimpses of 'common' rather than 'private' or 'public' control?

In their potential for radical social transformation, collective design experiments undoubtedly push against modern political theory and established knowledge practices. How might anthropology navigate this domain? What theoretical tools would grasp its unfoldings? How do design experiments seek to configure people and things, how do they affect expertise? We invite ethnographic descriptions and analyses of collective experiments that carry promises, however implicit, of making the world a better place. Aware that these practices are susceptible to hype, we are particularly interested in careful description as well as in explorations of potentially useful theories.

Discussant: Adam Drazin (University College London)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Shared imaginings of a Greater World: forty years of collective architectural design experiments in the New Mexican Desert

Author: Rachel Harkness (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

The builder-dwellers of a self-build eco-settlement in NM live to Lefebvre’s famous maxim that to change space is to change life. The trials and tribulations of their off-grid experimentations suggest that successful collective designs must remain attentive to both social process and spatial form.

Long Abstract

On the New Mexican mesa lie a good number of experiments in ecological off-grid housing. Evolving their architectural designs since the 1970s, builder-dwellers here live to something like Lefebvre's famous maxim that to change space is to change life (1991). A particular self-build settlement - rather grandly called The Greater World - provides a prism through which to consider the interlacing themes of imagination, experimentation, intention and collectivity. It is a rural, green-field example of a revitalizing (Wallace 1956, Love Brown 2002) social movement in eco-architecture that is pursuing Lefebvre's 'radiant dream' of an actualised utopia (Merryfield 2000), but pursuing it without fixed nor predetermined plan (Ingold 1986, 2000). Drawing upon the works of Harvey (2000), Ricouer (1986) and others, careful description reveals that the settlement's homes constitute living experiments, and that they, and the settlement more widely, are forged and maintained through their builders' shared activity and shared imagination. When the sites and occasions for this sharing, or 'spaces of public appearance' (Arendt), no longer exist, the settlement seems to atomise and home-building tends towards the commodified. However, the impact of the changed space on dwellers and wider world, both, is still significant. The Greater World still demonstrates a place where theory and practice meet in design-build activity, where imagination is of this world, and where the openness of possibility is embraced. Design - a process of cyclical 'bettering' (Orr, 2005) - in the Greater World at least, has the potential to be 'revolutionary' in the broadest possible sense (Graeber, 2001).

Cocreation or coercion? Tensions between individual freedom and social order in a self-organised intentional community

Author: Anna Kovasna (Lund University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the tensions between individual freedom and social order in a self-organised community. Examining how local social institutions are designed in attempts to safeguard freedom and cocreation, it sheds light on some of the complexities of collaborative social experiments.

Long Abstract

The spiritual community and ecovillage Findhorn is a 51-year old self-organised collective that includes several settlements and a network of approximately 600 people and 40 organisations. Central to the community's ideology is the idea that the inner self is the primary source of authority, direction and truth. Loving, honest and collaborative relationships with human and non-human alike are held in high regard, but external authorities and social institutions are considered potentially alienating and detrimental to the full expression of the self, as well as to humanity and the survival of the planet.

Being a community, however, necessitates some form of social order, and many local organisations also balance the emphasis on inner truth, collaboration and individual freedom with desires for efficiency and earnings. How is this paradox and ambivalent attitude to social organisation dealt with? What ensures that social institutions are based on collaboration of authentic selves rather than alienation and external authority? How is inner truth and direction safeguarded against centralised control? In short - how can the ideal of a free, cocreative and participatory society be translated into local social practice and institutions? Questions like these are constantly alive in the community, and investigating local responses shed light on some of the complexities of collaborative social design.

While based on fieldwork in the Findhorn Community, this paper also examines what insights a long-term collaborative experiment like this provides for research into other movements where autonomous agency, self-organisation, and community are considered central to social transformation.

Let's try to save the Ruhrgebiet: exploring design and its products

Author: Alexander Schwinghammer (Bauhaus University Weimar)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the new routes product design is taking recently as it is apparently deserting its foundation as a material and or object oriented profession.

Long Abstract

The notion of design is popular in recent anthropological research. Commonly either design objects are perceived from through an anthropological lens or the processes of or in design is appropriated for (experimental) anthropological research. Both approaches allow to productively transplant the trade of design within the disciplinary area of anthropology: either through a material culture or a somewhat metaphorical-methodological perspective.

This paper tries to refer to both approaches by exploring the actual happening of design as it focusses the actual trade of product designers in the 21st century.

The empirical base for this paper stems from the observations of design education pathways in Germany. Terms like "Gestaltung" and "Entwurf" form vital and affective aspects in German design education, reaching beyond its common translation as "Design". Traditionally this vocation as part of the industrialization of the material world seeks out to generate object is the very literal sense. However, in view of recent changes immaterial products as well appear to be included in the scope of product design.

A recent example for change is an urban development project in the German city of Dortmund in which designers formed the central group setting out to provide alternatives to a challenged neighbourhood. In this assemblage of different collaborative spheres, it became apparent that the actual undertaking of the designers might eventually not entail a material object, the genuine outcome of a design process. This paper is a tale of product design becoming contested as it questions the tasks expected from a designer.

Self-care(d) prototypes?

Author: Tomás Criado (Humboldt University of Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

A materio-semiotic analysis of several commons-based experiments in Spain that are seeking to produce DIY prototypes for the self-care of disabled people in the current context of harsh spending cuts, focusing not only on their empowering and promising effects, but also on their many compromises.

Long Abstract

Self-care policies are becoming widespread in many European countries because of different ethical and market drives. As a consequence, a burgeoning market of self-care devices for older and disabled people has arisen in the past years in countries like Spain. In this paper, I would like to focus on the promising articulation of several experimental and commons-based projects that seek to intervene this trend: DIY and P2P self-care prototypes devised by independent-living 'concerned groups' who embrace such strategies as a way to have a greater control over the materialization of their everyday products, seeking to more accurately convey their needs. I have come across some of these projects as part of my involvement since 2012 in a Barcelona-based activist design collective making low-cost and open technical aids for and by disabled people. Grounding on Callon & Çalışkan's (2009, 2010) materio-semiotic approach to the anthropology of markets, in this paper I would like to analyse ethnographically the promises and compromises for the assemblage of alternative economic agents in these commons-based self-care experiments. Despite their empowerment promises to enable more 'habilitated agencies' (Callon, 2008) -that is, more self-managed and active people through an infrastructure of free/libre, cheap and personalised technical aids-, in this paper I would like to dwell on several of their practical compromises: what I term the economic 'self-cared status' of their craftspeople, having severe 'disabling' effects in a context of harsh Welfare state spending cuts and general lack of funding, and hence limiting their potential.

Collective future of Istanbul: bridging solidarities with design practices

Author: Pekka Tuominen (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

Approaches emphasizing that unexpected affiliations formed through practical action can be catalysts of social change have been used to theorize recent political activism in Istanbul. I will discuss how the design of collective futures and prototyping creates new forms of sociality and solidarity.

Long Abstract

The recent political activism in Istanbul has been associated with efforts to discover novel forms of participation and agency. The events and their interpretations have drawn attention to unexpected encounters, affiliations and forms of solidarity that contribute positively to people's social needs. The Gezi Park protests have become famous for bringing together groups of people not expected to meet otherwise, as well as for the innovative ways that participants made their claims. In these processes, people are often seen as literally designing collective futures and prototyping new forms of sociality together. In my paper, I wish to relate this design-influenced thinking with historically evolved notions of subjectivity and belonging. How are common design projects among heterogeneous groups different from other efforts to rework forms of social organization? Arguably, many of Istanbul's long-standing struggles have been over the control of communal relations and forms of solidarity in spaces associated with different social orders and moral frameworks. I am interested in how various senses of belonging are combined with design-driven practices that emphasize shared practical goals and co-creation, and in tracing how they operate in redrawing the urban spatial boundaries, rendering ethnic, religious, citizenship and identity-based belonging in new, more ambiguous ways.

Hand made urbanism: urbanizing the experiment

Author: Adolfo Estalella (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)  email

Short Abstract

Hand made urbanism is a collaborative practice for the construction of mundane infrastructures in the public space. It establishes the conditions for redistributing the capabilities for designing the city and intervening in the epistemic culture of experimentation urbanizing the experiment.

Long Abstract

I present in this paper the ethnographic/collaborative work that I have been carrying out in Madrid with two architectural collectives. Unlike conventional construction architects their work is organized around the intervention in urban vacant spaces through the collaborative construction of pieces of furniture and mundane infrastructures. They call this practice Hand Made Urbanism (HMU). It is inspired by free culture and DIY practices and is characterized by the use of recycle materials, the documentation of the process and the openness of participation. I will argue that these material interventions that are inflected by the imaginary of commons can be interpreted literally as an urban experiment. The historian Hans Jörg Rheinberger has referred to experiments as machines for producing questions that researchers still don't have. In their effort of infrastructuring urban vacant spaces the HMU establishes the conditions for destabilizing the conventions of the urban planning and reformulating with new questions the sites, practices, materials and actors that are responsible for designing the urban fabric. In this sense we I will argue that HMU is an example of urban experiments that redistributes the capabilities for designing the city while at the same time it intervenes in the epistemic culture of experimentation urbanizing the experiment.

Common ground: the struggle by the Manor Garden Allotment Society to hold the London (Olympic) Legacy Development Corporation to its planning promises

Author: Gillian Evans (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores what it means when gardeners down tools and try to resist what it means for the London Legacy Development Corporation to ‘grow a new piece of city’ in the East End of London?

Long Abstract

What does it mean when gardeners down tools and try to resist what it means for the London Legacy Development Corporation to 'grow a new piece of city' in the East End of London? How do they mobilize a communal sense of participation in the collective design of their future growing plots, and, at the same time, adapt to the new skills required to interact effectively with and resist the expertise of urban planners and state bureaucrats tasked with designing and delivering the new Olympic Park in post-Games legacy mode?

Inspired by Latour (2009), this paper 'follows the files' and analyses the documentation of the process of consultation and community planning involved in the relocation, or dislocation, to the Olympic Park, of the gardeners of the Manor Garden Allotment Society in the East End of London.

The paper traces the procedures through which the inalienable gift of the allotment land and the deeply emotive sense of sociality it has engendered, are transformed through the obfuscation of planning expertise, into an 'objective' technical decision, (at a planning application meeting in February 2014) to deny the allotment holders what had been promised to them, which is a better world after the Olympic Games.

The paper contrasts outcomes for the two proposed allotment sites and suggests that the politics of collective design relies for its success not so much on mass mobilization, but on the cultivation of 'the right kind of social relations' with actors in a supposedly impartial and impermeable state bureaucracy.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.