The Nordic Design Research Society (Nordes) organises its 8th biannual conference next 3–4 June 2019 at the Aalto University in Helsinki (Finland), under the timely topic ‘Who cares?‘, whose call looks fantastic:
What do, or should, we care about in design and design research today? Underpinning the question are issues of culture and agency – who cares, for whom, and how? Taking care, or being cared for, evokes the choice of roles, and processes of interaction, co-creation and even decision-making. Caring, as a verb, emphasizes care as intention, action and labor in relation to others. Care can be understood as concern for that beyond oneself, for others and, thus, human, societal and even material and ecological relations are at stake. The question of care is also a call for questioning relationships, participation and responsibility, democratic and sustainable ways of co-existing. From this expansive societal standpoint, we could even ask who cares about design? And what should we do about it? The 8th biennial Nordes conference poses the question, “Who cares?”, exploring related questions, issues and propositions concerning responsibilities, relationships, ways of doing and directing design today.
In the 2019 Nordes conference, we draw inspiration from notions of care as a lens through which to reflect upon and critique as well as potentially to refocus and redirect design and design research. Care might be understood in relation to philosophical lines of inquiry in other disciplines exploring theories, politics and ethics of care. Care might be understood concretely in relation to the ideals and infrastructures of welfare and healthcare systems, or service interactions. Care might be understood personally as a mindset seeking out what is meaningful for people, and for life, and with design as reflective and skilled action concerned with improving things and preferred situations.
Thanks to the generous invitation of the organising committee I will have the immense honour to act as one of the keynote speakers, contributing to one of the main themes of the conference: ‘How to care?’ (Care and care-ful materials, methods and processes in design and design research) – For this, I will be sharing my anthropological work on and my different modes of engagement with inclusive design (see the text of my intervention below)
HOW TO CARE?
Keynote speech, 3.06.2019, Helsinki (published online on 9.04.2020)
Before anything, I would like to warmly thank the organizing committee of the NORDES conference for their kind invitation to speak here today.
When I received your proposal I thought this was a fantastic occasion to attempt to think collectively on how to care in and through design practice. But also, an occasion to think through the recent popularization of the term.
Why such a recent fuzz about ‘care’, you might ask?
As the organizers of the conference have aptly identified, care has indeed begun to pop up in many design domains and situations beyond the arena of social and health-care services. And the concept is now being vindicated when discussing particular modes of architectural and design practice: ranging from participatory approaches to discussions around the ecological crisis as requiring designers of all kinds to engage in ‘critical care’.
Care, hence, has become a politically and morally-laden vocabulary for designers to engage with issues of energy transition, environmental concerns and social inclusion. This interesting expansion of the term is indeed bringing about interesting new repertoires of action for designers, but also newer problems: it is sometimes used as an all-purpose and generic term. Having worked in the vicinity of different uses of this term by professional and amateur architects and designers in the last decade, I have trained myself to pause a bit whenever I hear it being used.
To me, care as a concept has a very specific origin in the feminist politicizations searching to make palpable our constitutive vulnerability and to grant value to the ecologies of support and interdependence put in place to sustain our lives. As such, this term not only highlights the practices that can lift what might be heavy, might serve to protect and support. But also it is a fraught terrain with a very thorny legacy of asymmetries and further violence: sometimes, when coupled with a clear-cut knowledge of what needs to be done and how, care could also be a way of imposing understandings of what it might mean to lead a good life or a good death. Perhaps the best thing we might keep in mind is that, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Hence, in what follows I will invite you to share a reflection that, at best, will try to incite you to think on your own practices on how to bring forth more careful modes of designing, rather than attempting to tell you what to do. My aim is to lure you in considering that rather than having clear and straightforward ideas on what caring might mean, perhaps to care is always an intervention into the very meanings and ways in which practicing care could be possible and desirable, or not.
In the last decade I have been practicing what I call hyperbolically an anthropology of, through and as inclusive design–having worked on a wide variety of settings where care was vindicated as a domain or concern, from telecare for older people to urban accessibility infrastructures, and in a wide variety of engagements as an anthropologist, from providing ethnographic input to design processes, to working in activist collectives or formally training architects.
Drawing from my work, I will sketch out different versions care: namely, as (i) domain of intervention, as (ii) a method (of inclusion or participation), as (iii) a mode of inquiry, and I will close (iv) advocating that perhaps the best way in which we could mobilize care would be as a way of activating the possible, what is not here yet, what could be otherwise, hence weirding our understandings of care in design, enabling to speculate with alternative knowledge distributions and materialisations of togetherness not based on clear-cut understandings of the good nor consensus and commensurability. Perhaps this is what we might need, to navigate the uncertain conditions of the present.
I. Care as a domain
Most people think that to care about care as designers relates to a particular domain of intervention: namely, that of care services and technologies. Indeed, since the 1990s and as a result of the fear of what some call the ‘silver tsunami’–the alarming prospects of population ageing and its alleged catastrophic impact in welfare systems and everyday informal chains of support–, many designers felt the call to engage in conceiving services and products attempting to bring solutions to this conundrum. Largely conceiving their role as that of technologizing or, more specifically, digitalizing these relations, the last decades have seen the advent of many promising devices and platforms, commonly advertised as solutions bringing a technical fix to care burdens. The list might be long: telecare, AAL, robotics, etc.
After my initial involvement in understanding the prospects of this technologisation, I learnt that despite the great investment put into them, these innovations sit on very problematic grounds: These projects and services tend to work articulating and bringing into the mix private actors, such as insurance companies, perpetually claiming that this could lead to more efficient ways of caring for care. However, the potential for their widespread use still resides on the state sustaining via pensions or direct payments the lives of a vast majority of vulnerable populations. An economy of hope that piggybacks on social states and their incentives to grant solutions for those who could not afford them.
After the 2008 crisis, this machinery was exposed at least in many countries of the European south, and it began to show darker contours: in deflating economies, and in the advent of a crisis of welfare systems, the technologisation of care and the prospect that we will all be taken care of by 1m€ robots seems to me rather flawed.
These innovations usually travel within the closed circuits of a handful of countries of the rich North; not only they do not substitute informal care, which is usually rendered even more invisible as an essential work for them to operate as solutions. Not to mention that we know very little of their polluting footprint. Indeed, making an educated guess, critical work on e-waste, such as Josh Lepawsky’s Reassembling Rubbish, indicates that we should include in the calculations of the impact of many digital innovations their environmental effects: not just in terms of its post-consumer polluting externalities, but also those related to the extraction of materials and their production. In fact, if we held all these things in sight, most of our understandings of welfare tend to be premised upon a human exceptionalist, colonial and extractive project of techno-centric innovation.
Welfare, seen in this light, is revealed as a deeply unsustainable machinery. I don’t mean to say that innovation in that sector is not important or even crucial, precisely to tackle our many social and environmental challenges, but we need to think hard beyond the present-day regime of innovation, revising the promise that nitty-gritty technologisation and hardcore digital infrastructuration will automatically bring the common good, as it risks not only creating further social divides when social states cannot work to redistribute wealth, but also further damaging our environment.
How to do it then?
II. Care as method
Against this background, a popular register for care in product, service and urban design has tended to reinvigorate it as a concern around inclusive methods or means of designing: namely, a worry for non-tokenistic forms of participation and inclusion of concerned publics in the creation and articulation of a wide variety of social and material arrangements. Care, then, here reads as an agenda for processes so that users’ voices, wishes or needs could be heard, discovered, interrogated, made available, shared and discussed in the hope that we could find a more inclusive common ground. In the desire to be more careful, more standpoints should be brought into the equation.
These issues are, for instance, constantly made to emerge in attempts at building urban accessibility infrastructures. Let me share an example: all over Europe a new pedestrianized paradigm has popularized, the ‘shared street’. It is premised upon a gigantic infrastructural transformation of squares and sidewalks using more durable and hard-surface materials, with the idea that if the zoning of street uses–and with it the differences in patterns and heights–was dropped, pedestrians and bikers would be safer, because cars would have to slow down, and pay attention to their surroundings. However, with mounting cases of older or blind or deaf people being hit by cars or motorbikes all over the place, many find these spaces paradoxically much more dangerous than before. Yet, finding a solution by consensus doesn’t look very promising here. Perhaps for these spaces to allow for good forms of pedestrianization the views and needs of some must prevail over others, for this to be a lasting good, and protective solution.
As this example shows well, participation is much more complicated than just bringing all concerned people in or back into the design fabric. Composing a common ground tends to be very complicated when we are not only in the business of the concertation of already known interests of well-articulate parts of a whole–that is, when we are not dealing with mere stakeholders–, but when we operate with wicked problems affecting us in strange and emergent ways, for which we have no simple nor common definitions of the problem, and therefore much less solutions, and where the process might need us to take part not as a clearly recognizable part of a whole but engaging in more agonistic, critical, and dissent-oriented design practices.
What about those whose views are not that articulate, those whose ways of being and acting do not make of them adequate liberal subjects in the social-democratic search for consensus? What about ‘the part of those without part’, to paraphrase philosopher Jacques Rancière?
In situations like this, to care might not be to enact consensus through the concertation of interests. This doesn’t work when we have incommensurable positions, and when we’re in a situation of uncertainty. How to care, then?
III. Care as a mode of inquiry
What these situations show is that care, rather than a clear path towards a solution, should be addressed as a domain of problematisations, in the sense that Foucault gave the term: that is, as problem spaces whereby we probe into and articulate competing and sometimes opposing versions of the world through particular material and semiotic assemblages.
In that vein, care as a mode of inquiry became an analytic in feminist initiatives: As a descriptive tool, it conveyed the importance not only of invisible or undervalued work — that is, the everyday reproductive tasks of supporting fragile and interdependent beings in both informal and formal settings — but also of affects and emotions going against the grain of modern societies obsessed with efficacy, justice and rationality. As a category of political intervention, it helped give value and articulate a wide variety of forms of interdependence.
These two meanings can be appreciated in the notion of care famously coined, almost thirty years ago, by Berenice Fisher and Joan C. Tronto as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.” (Fisher and Tronto 1990, p. 40)
Many designers have been involved in producing conditions for such a feminist inquiry, in projects of mapping, visualizing and debating alternative cartographies of interdependence and invisible labour.
These projects search to make exclusions and forms of supports visible so as to debate alternative arrangements, also opening up discussions on the very effects of making visiblet.
The feminist legacy of care also points out at the requirement to practice care even though we might not know how to do it, even though we might not be fully sure of how we’re doing it, even though we might constantly be in a search for better ways of being and living or dying together, and even though we might fail most of the time.
Recent feminist works in STS have indeed readdressed care as searching to engage in understandings of ‘doing the good in practice’, to paraphrase Annemarie Mol; not only to dispute generic understandings of how, what or who to care for and why– in fact, care tends to be an art of the singular and the practical, rather than of the generic and the universal–, but also in some other occasions so as to not forget the violent prospects of care interventions. Highlighting the importance to remain, to rejoice, to learn from being troubled from the ways in which we care, not searching to explain them away.
As such, it resonates with the particularly lucid call by Michelle Murphy for a politics of care that unsettles its often-hegemonic histories, as well as contemporary alignments and circulations. Perhaps that might be the best way of caring: not taking for granted how to do so, doubting without ceasing to find ways to act, remaining aware of the potential exclusions it might bring to the fore, so as to find ways to retrace our steps and act towards more just modes of togetherness. And for this, care concerns with practices that stress not just the finitude of our particular bodies and their vulnerabilities, but also their openness and unfinishedness.
Seen in this light care, then, care could be understood as a way of protecting the constitutive vulnerability of being in a way that doesn’t easily conflate to the certainty of who these beings are and what their contours might be: securing hence our ways of remaining open to the unknown, perpetually ‘assembling neglected things’ as María Puig de la Bellacasa has so vehemently put it.
But how to do it, then?
IV. Care as activating the possible
Perhaps the current situations of planetary distress have made us aware that care is now more than ever an issue affecting us all. And yet, although vulnerability and the need to find supports cuts across social divides care risks becoming a too generic a term if not considering the different forms and gradients of intensity to exposure and carelessness.
My warning is raised in a context in which care is also vindicated for the worse in the brutal responses: with its connotations of good will and humanitarianism, care can be problematic if not extremely violent analytic for many collectives and ecologies of practice. For instance, refugees or other collectives subject to social are tend to oppose a vocabulary that renders them into passive subjects of someone else’s attention.
Yet, this problematization or troubling of the care analytic might have become more generic today, when the likes of Trump or Salvini regularly word out “we must take care of our own” as an exclusionary project, be it in the building of more steep and brutal borders or preventing rescue ships from having a safe port in the Mediterranean.
When care is invoked in violent nationalist, supremacist and macho projects of cocooning against our own constitutive otherness; but also when care is vindicated as an expert vocabulary of professional certainty, some of us feel we might need another word.
However, care is too important to be abandoned to its own fate. It is precisely under the influence of these brutal, palliative and reparative understandings of care–that is, those that want to keep things as they are, or restore things to an imagined or aspirational Valhalla of how nice things once were, that we should insist in vindicating and pluralizing care. As I see it, in such a context, care might be understood as a task of what philosopher Isabelle Stengers might call ‘activating the possible’: a way of making available what isn’t there yet, what could be otherwise.
Practiced in this unsettled way, care might be expanded even, not only to many other-than-human and more-than-human ecologies but also beyond the regular modes of politicizing care in all too human affairs.
One of the most interesting places for the recent renewal and expansion of careful design practices have been the many community-making endeavours that emerged after the doomed landscape of the 2008 financial crisis. In Spain, for instance, the indignados protests gave way to a wide variety of crowd-sourced, low-tech and DIY community explorations–analogous to others that appeared in many other locales–exploring forms of activist design with hackers, makers, maintainers, and menders experimenting with recycling, re-use and up-cycling, activating design as a practice bringing forms of care by other means.
Revitalising the critical debates of the 1970s these projects started to show how design practice, as a sometimes technocratic and consumerist-driven modernist endeavor, might as well be part of the many problems of our contemporary predicaments rather than a solution.
As a reaction to these modes of practicing design, these initiatives have created conditions for shared and distributed expertise going well beyond the technocratic pact of social utility of design: whereby designers act as experts in the closure of political and social conflict through solutions–services or products–for the common good, sometimes asking different groups their opinions, or enrolling social scientists like yours truly in learning about users and uses through methods like ethnography or participatory fora.
To me, the most interesting thing is that many of these projects reveal care as a project of what in STS is known as ‘technical democracy’, when searching to remain open to uncertainty, dissent and probing into complex yet collaborative modes of inquiry, with the aspiration to bring forth divergent ecologies of support.
Indeed, these different design enact other roles for designers: as facilitators of ‘socio-material assemblies’ or ‘design things’, as Thomas Binder, Pelle Ehn and colleagues would call them: staging and infrastructuring problems and different modes of engagement in design after design; or as bringing forth critical, speculative, poetic and more explicitly adversarial forms of design practice that elicit and provoke material modes of collective interrogation around design and its effects.
As I see it, these divergent design practices elicit a wide variety of repertoires of caring for the possible, precisely because they operate against how anthropologist Arturo Escobar defines modernist design practices, as operating under the ontological occupation of modernity and its natural and cultural, expert and lay clear divides. Indeed, these projects enact or activate the possible because they practically carve out alternative ontologies of the world and relational modes to the classic modernist ones, however unknown, unfathomable or scary they might seem at first. Indeed, caring for the possible in these endeavours is far from being an easy task.
Activating things: En torno a la silla
But allow me to exemplify. From 2012 to 2016 I actively participated in a collective space of this kind in Barcelona: an exploratory activist design initiative called En torno a la silla, a wordplay in Spanish signalling an attempt at situating ourselves around, en torno, wheelchairs, sillas, so as to activate other possible environments, entornos, for them. And have been searching ever since to learn from our hyperbolic aspirations, fraught methods and experimental practices to open up inclusion not as a solution but as a problem-space.
En torno a la silla emerged after the indignados protests of 2011, after the recognition that we had no spaces to meet in bodily diversity, and that we might need to make or carve out those spaces so as to keep knowing each other. It started operating as a collective including an architect, professional craftspeople, members of the independent-living movement in Barcelona and me in the role of a documenter.
What gathered us was the intention to prototype a toolkit to turn the wheelchair into something beyond a chair that moves with wheels, but rather as something akin to “an agora that produces agora”: that is, a political and collective space that brings further people in. This was not a participatory design project where designers lured us to work with them in their own solutions or aims, but a collaborative space of inquiry through making where all present contributed in different ways.
For instance, we discovered a lot in the process of creating from scratch a portable wheelchair ramp: not only that we needed to elicit a lot of knowledges about our partners’ bodily diversities and their different types of wheelchairs; but also to think through the technical modes of folding, transportation and unfolding, or the right materials for it to make sense. We also learnt a lot from using it, from the particular effects it created, and the conversations it opened up.
Upon using it the first time in an accessible bar, and publicizing the result on our blog, a debate with colleagues in the independent-living movement ensued; we were accused of undermining the collective struggle by proposing an individual response, but we tried to remain true to what the experience had allowed us: being together in places that had not been imagined for us, opening up an encounter with the people populating them by the sheer act of irruption.
We learnt that the ramp was no solution, but a way of unfolding the problem of inaccessibility in particular situations. And in the joyful way in which we always operated, we started doing it more purposefully: calling the practice that there ensued one of a-saltos, playing with the double meaning in Spanish of jumpy walking, as we were entering places after a jump, as well as one of assaulting, irrupting and disrupting the static normalcy that those places enforced.
Rather than being a project whereby designers cared for known needs and conditions, the intense 4 years that En torno a la silla worked at full steam was rather a process of learning together to care for forms of mutual access, and mutual exploration of whomever wanted to live in bodily diversity, making but also repurposing and recycling all kinds of materials to do so.
This is the reason why we speak in a weird way about what we discovered busy doing: as we came to understand, were not designing technical aids for the of inclusion of the disabled, but caring for the emergence of technologies of friendship, as we called them. That is, spaces of encounter without clarity of purpose beyond the very desire to keep on finding ways of relating at the hinges of unrelatability. Our open approach to design became in time for us a form of inquiring into the conditions of mutual access in bodily diversity.
But working in conditions of ontological occupation, to reiterate Escobar’s appreciation, tends to make things difficult for these attempts at sustaining critical, collaborative and speculative initiatives search to pry open other modes of relating and living together. Many of these projects prove extremely fragile and vulnerable. How could we care for them?
In the last years, much efforts have indeed been put to sustain the liberation of modes of designing that these practices entail. One of the most notable examples has been a concern to infrastructure and generate conditions of exposure to a wide variety of knowledges, through the critical involvement in open-access publication platforms and open-source infrastructures. In opening up to other knowledges and in making them available there lies a hope that we might create alternative resources for alternative modes of living together.
En torno a la silla’s legacy, for instance, remains in the open-source platform that I allowed to put together, with a careful attention to the documentation of our processes of doing and thinking in tutorials, accounts of processes or events, or poetic reflections. However, this liberation of design and its knowledge also needs a welcoming ecology. And for this we need to be aware that open design and its knowledges tend to be framed when not diminished by particularly market-centric and expertocratic conditions of circulation, subject to many disputes in deeply asymmetric contexts of variegated expertise, in many circumstances putting these strategies of opening in danger.
The fraught prospects, hopeful versions and capitalist deformations of the sharing economy are, indeed, here a case in point. As I see it, care here becomes a practical issue for designers whenever searching to test experimental modes of inclusion into the fabric of products, services, platforms, cities or environments. This way of understanding care, then, might demand from us to become activators, so that this openness might flourish. And, for this, to care might mean to open up experimental pedagogic spaces.
Activating pedagogies: Design in crisis
I especially learnt of the difficulties not just to sustain this openness but to create situations of openness when I moved to Germany in 2015. I started working from the belly of the Bavarian beast–if you allow me the pun to talk about the leading German technical university at the core of one of the golden cradles of global corporate capitalism, teaching architects and other types of designers more formally in the chair of participatory design, where I was hired to bring what I had learnt in my variegated engagements in Spain.
From the beginning I faced the many difficulties or sheer impossibilities of translating the modes of thinking and doing I had learnt in the previous years to a context I couldn’t relate to very easily. In fact, this stupid idea of believing I could do it has made me feel a great sense of loss in many a dark night.
I also had to face my naiveté or sheer audacity in having forgotten that institutional spaces of alleged financial or funding abundance are not devoid of other problems of scarcity: a chronic lack of time created by the many commitments and compromises that ‘spending money reasonably’ entail; but also, the lack of a generic care for free processes of collective thought that an individualist focus on career and unit-centric demarcations might create; not to speak of the problems deriving from how well-greased hierarchies might operate in places of monetary power…
Hence, for most of the first year, I was constantly accompanied by a sense if failure: a failure to carve out openings in a hierarchically conceived academic culture; a failure to capture the students’ attention beyond ready-made humanitarian gestures, facing an overall tendency to understand their role as one of ‘problem solving’ and perpetually reenacting technical-social divides, demanding from the social professionals that we provided information about users and uses or methods to deal with the problematic prospects of ‘the social’.
Indeed, and much to my dismay, students and colleagues seemed many times uninterested. But I also realized that perhaps my teaching methods were the problem: lecturing, reading and commenting proved deeply inappropriate.
Under such circumstances, I realized that the best thing one could do is to attempt to put the students’ design in crisis, forcing them to engage in processes of learning to unlearn, to undo, or even to undesign the trained habits, goals and practices of modernist design ontologies, and its market-centric and deeply unsustainable effects. But how to do so? Indeed, such was the premise of a radical pedagogical approach in a series of design studio settings called ‘design in crisis’ put forward together with my colleague Ignacio Farías, which lead to a collective reflection on ways in which STS could be made to matter to design and architecture students in the edited volume Re-learning design, published by the Chilean bilingual journal Diseña.
In our particular approach, we sought to design studio practice, searching to sensitise future designers to other forms of understanding their practice, exposing and confronting them with somewhat impossible tasks that force them to engage in other learning process, as well as exposing them to the potential exclusionary effects of their practice.
That became our aim in a series of design studio projects that we framed under the title Design in Crisis, where we tried to work on creating experimental situations that should function as operating a reflection on our student modes of designing, although
the idea was also to show that this was feasible to make students aware that, however crazy or strange our proposals were, the briefs responded to ‘real’ situations where their particular mode of designing should be readdressed.
In Design in Crisis 1 we made them design at great speeds a series of architectural solutions in a fake competition to provide solutions for a series of humanitarian disasters, such as the refugee crisis, then devoting 3 months to undoing and unfolding the problem of their proposals, making them confront their projects in a wide variety of ways with those who might suffer from them.
However, we realized that we might need to train them to practice these confrontations, and for this, in the following versions, we devoted great lengths to train them in multi-sensory approaches to design, then producing toolkits for an alternative architectural practice: in Design in Crisis 2, for instance, we confronted them with the impossible task to design a toolkit for a blind architect, which led them to develop a tool they called ManualCAD, a multi-sensory tool for co-design processes; and in Design in Crisis 3 the challenge we confronted our students with was to re-learn green space co-design by creating a set of devices–simulation and co-working suits, pipes and chemical substances– to establish enter in a relation with the beavers populating the river Isar, attempting to enable them to participate on its renaturalisation.
The outcomes our students produced might be conceived as potential toolkits for a different kind of architectural design practice. Despite being ‘gadgets’ these toolkits should not be seen as closed ‘objects’, nor well-packaged ‘plug-n-play solutions’.
Quite on the contrary, being accompanied by an open documentation of all the shaky learning outcomes the groups had been through in becoming a group, they function as a re-learning device of sorts: as pedagogical devices performing an ‘intravention’ into architectural practice with the potential of having an impact on our students’ future professional practice and allowing others to follow their steps.
Intraventions, hence, whereby students were exposed to forms of designing more carefully, activating the possibility of alternative architectural modes of designing.
But En torno a la silla or Design in Crisis are just some of the many examples of a potential design practice understood as a form of care for the possible. That is, a form of designing so as to activate other forms of designing. But I am sure you could contribute with many others.
In times of planetary distress and complex future prospects for any form of living together, perhaps we need render ourselves amenable to activating our modes of designing in unforeseen ways.
As I would have liked to propose, perhaps the best thing we could do is to decidedly engage in the design of situations to explore different speculative engagements, demanding from us to engage beyond the strict role of ‘advocates’ or ‘activists’: sites, venues or forums to problematize the worlds we live in by making and provoking distinct registers of appreciation of complex conditions in a wide variety of aesthetic registers and design genres, from the parodic to the fictional. Hence acting as ‘careful troublemakers’, un-doing or un-designing the conditions of those whose actions have the potential to be harmful, so that we could attempt to create uncertain practical openings into the possible, where we might experiment and learn to engage in alternative and hopefully better ways of living together.
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