How are cities and urban designers responding to the challenge of population ageing? How can we as ethnographers understand the social and material transformations underway in their efforts to shape ‘ageing-friendly’ cities or cities ‘for all ages’? These are two of the leading research questions of our ethnographic study project “Ageing Cities” on which we worked together in the academic year 2021-2022.
Our main concern has been to explore the distinctive intergenerational design challenges of what some architects and urban planners are beginning to call “Late Life Urbanism” (check the video of the final presentation).
Our exploration included an excursion in April 2022 to Alicante, Benidorm and neighbouring urban enclaves in the Costa Blanca (Spain). The area is relevant as ageing bodies and practices have become, since the 1960s, a sort of vector of urbanisation in the region: developing into what some geographers call “the Pensioners’ Coast.”
Considering the intriguing history of migration of this region, with pensioners from all over Central and Northern Europe (but also from other regions of Spain) relocating there, the “Pensioners’ Coast” is an interesting experimental ground to witness what happens when older bodies take centre-stage. Over the course of seven eventful and exciting days we had the chance to explore how sensitised urban designers from the area respond to the intergenerational design challenges these bodies bring in different ways.
In a joint endeavour with STS-inspired architectural researchers from the Critical Pedagogies, Ecological Politics and Material Practices research group of the University of Alicante, the visit allowed us to explore different approaches to architectural practice where older people have more active roles in the design and management of ageing cities (from cooperative senior cohousing to inter- and multigenerational housing projects, as well as accessible public space infrastructures, ranging from sidewalks to beaches and public transportation).
With this Zine we wish to share some of our main reflections, learnings to engage ethnographically with late life urbanism in Costa Blanca (or should we say eng-age?). The Zine could be taken as a long thank you note and a memoir of our encounters with different initiatives. But we also see it as a relevant intergenerational gift of sorts, lent to future urban researchers on these topics.
Welfare states and market actors across the world have transformed what ageing as a process and being old as an embodied identity might be today, through a wide range of equipment, services and infrastructures. This ‘material’, when not ‘materialist’ drive is the object of analysis of the proposals gathered in AJEC‘s 32(1) special issue, which features different case studies aiming to foreground hitherto under-analysed ‘age-related matters’ to offer conceptual and ethnographic proposals to better understand what the editors call ‘landscapes of ageing and pressing gerontological concerns.’ The backbone of this special issue addresses how ‘material culture’ works in anthropology might be affected by what in other neighbouring disciplines like STS and Ageing studies is being addressed as a ‘socio-gerontechnological’ approach: that is, a joint attention to how ageing is a material process, as well as how materials inscribe or support peculiar meanings or ontologies of ageing.
Drawing from the recent experience of teaching the Studienprojekt ‘Ageing Cities: The Crisis of Welfare Infrastructures’ – and particularly reflecting on a field trip where we visited Benidorm and other ageing enclaves in the Costa Blanca (Alicante, Spain) – in my editorial response I wish to take issue with the need to widen this material agenda around ageing bodies and their situated enactments, thinking beyond classic ‘material culture’ objects of study – the home and everyday technologies – and venturing into wider and more convoluted urban arenas, with their variegated scales and material entities. These problematisations, I believe, would force us to provide less metaphorical uses of ecological vocabularies, hence addressing the challenges that these materialised ‘landscapes’ entail for to our conceptions and practices of care: perhaps pushing us to consider the very environmental effects of ageing-friendly modes inhabiting and terraforming, and the new forms of care these landscapes – deeply affecting, in turn, ageing processes — might need?
Next Tuesday 19.07.2022 2:30-4pm (CET) please join us for the presentation of the Studienprojekt Ageing Cities by Maximilian Apel, Erman Dinc, Christine Maicher, Adam Petras, Doreen Sauer, and Anna Maria Schlotmann, the wonderful group of people with whom I have had the immense luck to work with in the last year.
In this year we’ve been exploring ethnographically how cities & urban designers are responding to the challenge of population ageing, and how we could understand as ethnographers the social & material transformations underway in their efforts to make ‘ageing-friendly’ cities (check the syllabus of the project)
In this choral presentation we aim to show our findings, searching to answer these questions through specific cases, most of them taking place in Berlin (on variegated issues like intergenerational and intercultural gardens or queer housing projects; the urban activism of the gray panthers; the controversies in public space design, focusing particularly on the conflicts of bike infrastructure; and VR projects to enable urban displacement or travel for older people living in residential care homes).
The course has also included an excursion in April 2022 to Alicante, Benidorm and neighbouring urban enclaves in Costa Blanca (Spain). This is a very relevant area because of how ageing concerns have turned, since the 1960s, into a vector of urbanisation in the region – developing into what some geographers call “the pensioners’ coast.” But also, and perhaps more importantly, they have sensitised urban designers from the area to respond to these intergenerational design challenges in different ways. In a joint endeavour with STS-inspired architectural researchers from theCritical Pedagogies, Ecological Politics and Material Practices research group of the University of Alicante, this visit allowed us to explore different approaches to architectural practice where older people have more active roles in the design and management of ageing cities.
In showing all of this we not only wish to tell specific stories, but want to share our conceptual and methodological explorations, and the many questions this process brought about around the contested scripts and the distinctive intergenerational challenges of late life urbanism projects.
This will be the last session of the Instituskolloquium of the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie (HU Berlin), which this semester had as a theme ‘Collective Access‘.
Abstract: In this presentation I would like to discuss with you a book project on what I am calling ‘an uncommon city.’ The book is an anthropological exploration of bodily diversity and its impact in the material and knowledge politics of city-making. Drawing on field and archival work of independent-living and disability rights movements, paying attention in particular to their urban accessibility struggles as well as their pedagogic interventions in the training of architects, city planners, and designers (with materials mostly from Barcelona, but also from Munich), I trace a wealth of activist initiatives caring for an epistemic, material and political activation of urban design. These initiatives have or had at their core the production of singular situations—made out of policy documents and building codes, infrastructures and standards, collaborative design processes and prototypes, and manifold sensitising devices and documentation interfaces—through which designing technologies, urban landscapes or institutions and political spaces is to be attempted from the appreciation and articulation of bodily diversity: from the demographic identification of bodily patterns to the invention of inclusive and universal design, also connecting with the contested history of urban accessibility struggles, or the perpetual emergence of many access issues in contemporary forms of city-making where bodily diversity appears as the main concern to address by different actors. In particular, the book wishes to unfold three ways – (i) activating prototypes, (ii) activating public infrastructures, and (iii) activating design studio projects – in which a concern with bodily diversity mobilises the uncommon prospects of the city, opening up other possible urbanisms.
El próximo 25 de noviembre de 6 a 7:30 pm30 de noviembre de 4 a 5:30pm [pospuesto por enfermedad] (CET) estaré impartiendo una sesión en el curso online de ANTIARQ (plataforma que busca crear espacios de complementariedad universitaria orientados a la producción de conocimiento interdisciplinar entre la Antropología y la Arquitectura) titulado EL URBANISMO COMO DISCURSO. ENFOQUES ALTERNATIVOS PARA RESIGNIFICAR LA PRAXIS
El curso consta de seis sesiones en donde analizaremos varias categorías empleadas de manera recurrente por los discursos promotores de las trasformaciones urbanísticas en la actualidad -tales como participación ciudadana, innovación tecnológica, sostenibilidad, accesibilidad universal, escala humana, etc.-, con la intención de analizarlas desde enfoques alternativos para evidenciar sus contradicciones, pero también como oportunidad para repensar los fundamentos de la práctica urbanística. Además, el contenido del curso rema a contra corriente de la proliferación de fórmulas urbanísticas que han surgido a raíz de la pandemia generada por la COVID-19, y que se difunden especulativamente como “mano de santo” para resolver problemáticas ligadas a la afectación entre el entorno urbano y las formas de sociabilidad que alberga, obviando e rol instrumental del urbanismo para el fortalecimiento de las políticas neoliberales, que son en última instancia, las que han dado innumerables pruebas de atentar sin reparos contra la reproducción de la vida –urbana-.
En la primera sesión se analiza la retórica proyectual del espacio público, ofertado como símbolo ligado a la democratización de la ciudad para ocultar la privatización de la gestión urbana y las políticas de control social. En la segunda sesión, se analiza el sentido de la participación ciudadana en el urbanismo neoliberal, evidenciando lo que opera tras su fachada de fácil consenso y sus efectos en la vida de los ciudadanos. En la tercera sesión, se presenta una mirada crítica de las ciudades inteligentes, poniendo de relieve la crucial implicación de las empresas de tecnología en las operaciones privatizadoras del espacio urbano, mostrando cómo los algoritmos suelen normalizar sus efectos de exclusión social para rehusar las contradicciones o conflictos, justificándolos como errores del sistema. En la cuarta sesión, se profundiza en el tema de la sostenibilidad y su conversión en un discurso vacío, al ser uno de los eslóganes necesarios para dar valor al producto ciudad como mercancía en el mercado global y nos invita a preguntarnos si urbanismo sostenible no es un oxímoron. La quinta sesión está enfocada en los retos pedagógicos e institucionales del diseño urbano en materia de accesibilidad universal, lo que supone no solo la democratización técnica de los procesos de diseño urbano, sino también la desestigmatización cultural de unos cuerpos considerados impropios. Finalmente, la sexta sesión pon en el centro del debate, la noción de ´escala humana´ empleada como coartada para el montaje de ciudades humanizadas, en donde ciertos usuarios o usuarias serán excluidos sistemáticamente del usufructo de las zonas reformadas por actuaciones urbanísticas.
Mi sesión: “Aprender a afectarse: la accesibilidad como reto pedagógico e institucional del Diseño Urbano”
Desde su eclosión en los ciclos de protestas civiles de los años 1970 en adelante, los activistas por los derechos de las ‘personas con discapacidad’ – actualmente ‘diversas funcionales’ – llevan luchando para que nuestras ciudades sean hospitalarias con la diversidad corporal. Esto no sólo ha supuesto articular procesos de desestigmatización cultural, buscando sostener la autonomía de unos cuerpos hasta ese momento considerados impropios. También, ha promovido el debate de la democratización técnica de los procesos de diseño urbano e infraestructural. En consecuencia, varias ciudades del Norte Global han desarrollado acciones para sensibilizar a arquitectos, ingenieros y funcionarios públicos, para que tales entornos pudieran existir, creando condiciones favorables para un diseño inclusivo de las infraestructuras urbanas. En no pocas ocasiones, este proceso de sensibilización requiere una profunda transformación pedagógica de las personas implicadas en el diseño y en el rediseño urbanístico. Este reto institucional y pedagógico que se analiza en esta sesión, implica un ‘aprender a afectarse’ por la diversidad corporal y visibilizar lo que ello supone desde la implementación de políticas de ‘supresión de barreras’ y estándares arquitectónicos, hasta problematizaciones en torno a enfoques ‘culturales’ y ‘multisensoriales’. Se expondrán ejemplos recabados desde un trabajo antropológico acerca de la transformación accesible de la ciudad de Barcelona, mostrando su constructo institucional en un intento de sensibilización de los técnicos municipales. Pero, también, se compartirá el impacto de este trabajo antropológico aplicado desde la docencia, como pedagogía experimental orientada a impartir otras metodologías de diseño desde la formación de arquitectos en la Universidad Politécnica de Múnich.
Lo aprendido en En torno a la silla, así como siguiendo a técnicos del Instituto Municipal de Personas con Discapacidad y formando arquitectos en Múnich me lleva a sugerir que esto supone una democratización técnica de los procesos de diseño urbano, así como la desestigmatización cultural de cuerpos considerados impropios.
Una democratización del diseño que antes que proveer soluciones para otros implica “aprender a afectarse” por los derechos, necesidades y aspiraciones de cuerpos diversos, experimentando con otras formas de hacer ciudades más hospitalarias.
Lo que contaré, por tanto, son tres modos de activar urbanismos posibles: prototipos, infraestructura pública y cursos de proyectos. En todos ellos late esa aspiración por fabricar, sensibilizar o convocar una ciudad poco común (la de los cuerpos impropios y los encuentros extraordinarios con la posibilidad de una otra manera de hacer ciudad)
Mi sueño sería que esto sirviera para poder trabajar en paralelo en una copia en castellano del libro en inglés, para poder abrirlo a discusión densa y profunda, pero las fuerzas son las que son y por eso me hace especial ilusión poder contar el argumento en forma seminario.
Blok, A., & Farías, I. (Eds.). (2016). Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, Assemblies, Atmospheres. London: Routledge. Callon, M., & Rabeharisoa, V. (2008). The growing engagement of emergent concerned groups in political and economic life: lessons from the French association of neuromuscular disease patients. Science, Technology & Human Values, 33(2), 230–261. Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., & Barthe, Y. (2011). Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Hamraie, A. (2017). Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability.Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press. Latour, B. (2004a). Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Latour, B. (2004b). How to talk about the body? The normative dimension of Science Studies. Body & Society, 10(2–3), 205–229. Marres, N., & Lezaun, J. (2011). Materials and devices of the public: an introduction. Economy and Society, 40(4), 489–509. Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of care: Speculative Ethics for a More Than Human World. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. Stengers, I. (2019). Civiliser la modernité ? Whitehead et les ruminations du sens commun. Paris: Les presses du réel. Vilà, A. (Ed.). (1994). Crónica de una lucha por la igualdad: apuntes para la historia del movimiento asociativo de las personas con discapacidad física y sensorial en Catalunya. Barcelona: Fundació Institut Guttmann.
In this intervention I summarise my particular urban anthropological interest in accessibility urbanism as a peculiar form of a technical democratisation of city-making. ‘Technical democracy’ is a term used in STS to discuss different approaches participatory forms of technoscience, where an expansion of expertise to knowledges beyond hegemonic technical ones has been approached and experimented upon. It has many versions, but nearly all of them are concerned with the need to reverse the effects of technocracy and expertocracy. This has been done in a wide variety of ways: from searching to make science and technology amenable for public discussion and deliberation to expanding the who and the how of technoscientific practice (for an overview, see Callon, Lascoumes & Barthe, 2011).
This concern is particularly important in a context of planetary urbanisation with its concomitant development of urban infrastructures. A concern with technical democracy becomes crucial when these urban infrastructures are not only heavily managed by all kinds of experts, but are redefining in uncertain ways the scopes and practices of urban modes of togetherness. Following also in this an STS concern, rather than as large technical systems, infrastructures should be appreciated as sites for the controverted relational re-articulation of social and material worlds: that is, particular forms of bringing together and apart agents, material entities, knowledges… Or, to say it better, relational configurations that foreground some of these agents, material entities, knowledges neglecting or, even, excluding others (Farías & Blok, 2016).
Precisely because of this, urban infrastructures are also the sites where new forms of the demos are emerging: Indeed, multitude of concerned groups and affected publics mobilise and undertake research around these highly technical issues; sometimes they train themselves to become quasi-experts in order to challenge expert control, when not searching to manage those urban infrastructures themselves. Contemporary urban infrastructures are one of the most crucial sites where an experimentation and a reinvention of particular forms of technical democratisation are taking place: not just because of how urban infrastructural design might need to be democratized, but also because of how we might be engaging in and designing infrastructures of urban democratization (Harvey, Jensen & Morita, 2016).
In what follows I will show you a few instances from my work on the technical democracy of accessibility urbanism. Since 2012, I have been doing research on urban accessibility issues in Spain and Germany, with a comparative European gaze: in particular, I have been studying and engaging in a variety of emergent publics mobilised around accessible design and urbanism. As a pioneering field in the democratisation of urban infrastructures, urban accessibility teaches us that in order to democratize infrastructures, we might need to engage in the experimentation with and implementation of different infrastructures for urban democratisation. As I will show: (a) To manage complex socio-technical issues like this one requires the creation of infrastructures for inclusive policy-making, engaging publics and concerned groups in different forms of participatory governance; (b) The democratization of modes of designing and doing urban infrastructures also implies setting up infrastructures for epistemic collaboration with emergent publics; (c) But as I will suggest, in closing, for any of this to make any sense, we also need to intervene expert education: experimenting with pedagogic infrastructures for the ‘sensitization of experts.’
II. Participatory Governance
Since the 1970s, and through different forms of contestation, disability rights advocates have been searching to create public concern on the discrimination they suffer, making their bodily experiences of exclusion palpable to articulate more inclusive urban infrastructures (Hamraie, 2017; Williamson, 2019).
Allow me to give you an example. In what was known at the time in Barcelona as the cripples’ revolt diverse small associations of people with disabilities united to hold public demonstrations demanding ‘a city without barriers.’ These protests paved the way for the creation of a newly democratic municipal institution governing these matters in a participatory fashion since the early 1980s (the Institut Municipal de Personas amb Discapacitat, or Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities, IMPD, in its last denomination): in whose ‘hybrid’ board politicians and technical staff are joind by elected representatives of people with disabilities (IMPD, 2019).
The IMPD was quintessential in re-designing Barcelona’s urban infrastructures in preparation for the 1992 Olympics: this hybrid institution engaged in a comparative search for urban accessibility and inclusive design policies around the world; it was also a fundamental site for the legal training of disabled representatives to address highly complex technicalities, as well as the experiential training of professionals. This combination of comparative policy analysis, together with experiential and technical forms of knowledge exchange was important to develop new urban standards, building and technical codes that became a model in the country; a lasting urban infrastructure developed thanks to the participatory engagement of disability rights advocates.
But what this case shows is that a public engagement in the field of urban accessibility cannot just be an issue of merely allowing people to take part in, or to give very vulnerable people the means to appropriate technical knowledge or to transform technologies through consumption and user-led innovation. In a context in which regulation tends to happen in the extrastatecraft form of market-based building standards, ISO or DIN (Easterling, 2014), public institutional infrastructures are crucial to bring together concerned publics and experts to regulate, and assemble together inclusive forms of policy-making. Not only to be able to deal with the legal technicalities that policy-making on these issues requires, but also to ensure their implementation and sustainability for neglected actors. This is far from being an easy task. And it has usually entailed shaking the grounds of the classic means by which experts produce knowledge about these bodies.
III. Documentation interfaces
In the last decades, emergent publics and concerned groups with accessibility urbanism have been crucially developing particular infrastructures to mobilise and articulate their experiential knowledges, many times mobilising spatial registers going beyond expert-based Euclidean notions (Hall & Imrie, 1999; Imrie, 1999). I have been addressing them as ‘documentation interfaces’ (Criado & Cereceda, 2016): that is, not only as situations to frame, elicit and discuss diverse bodily experiences and the environmental and material affordances to host them; but also as situations that produce a trace in different kinds of media, forms of record whereby their experiential knowledge is mobilized to have an impact in design situations, such as in: (1) video-camera records to show what it means to move using a wheelchair; (2) urban explorations with blind people to discuss in situ whether different pavement textures, light settings or colours can be distinguished; (3) not to mention the increasing use of digital platforms for the audio-visual documentation of inaccessibility experiences by all kinds of disability experts, such as collaborative mapping apps.
These documentation interfaces are also interesting empirical sites to understand how particular alliances between concerned groups and experts or technicians are attempted, sometimes way beyond state-run institutional frameworks. One of the most interesting domains for this techno-political experimentation are the many do-it-yourself initiatives, makerspaces and hacklabs emerging throughout the world, and seeking to ‘democratize’ the access to technical knowledge and the users’ engagement in prototyping. I have collaborated in such endeavours as part of my long ethnographic engagement between 2012 and 2016 with the Barcelona-based open design collective En torno a la silla: part of a wider DIY network in the country including engaged professionals and technicians as crucial allies for people with disabilities.
Being able to work together in those settings entails implementing and managing infrastructures of documentation, requiring particular events and digital platforms. These infrastructures, in turn, have allowed intensive learning experiences of collaborative doing and making creating the conditions whereby alternative urban accessibility arrangements can be critically explored and tried out. Yet, despite the crucial importance of DIY forms of engagement for the democratisation of design they are far from being a ‘solution for all’. As we’ve also learnt, these engagements are extremely exhausting and time-consuming for people who also need many social and technical supports to take part in them. Also, without some degree of institutionalisation they prove fragile. Hence, they do not necessarily serve the purpose of bringing into existence safe, economically sustainable, and lasting urban infrastructures for personal autonomy and independence. Nevertheless, they are very relevant as documentation interfaces: that is, as infrastructures of epistemic collaboration where not just a redistribution of technical skills is being attempted, but where an exchange of knowledges becomes possible.
IV. Expert Education
But engaging in infrastructures of more inclusive policy-making or epistemic collaboration are not the only forms in which to create conditions of technical democracy. In closing, I would like to highlight another strategy that we could learn from accessibility issues: perhaps a more important one that we tend to overlook, even though it might open up fertile avenues to play a crucial role as scholars in technical universities like this one. What if democratizing technical decision-making did not just require citizens or lay people to become experts or hackers, but that professional experts in the private and public sector would be aware of the limits of their own expertise? What if technical democracy had to do with building pedagogic infrastructures to train these experts to open themselves to other forms of sensing, knowing and valuing?
Indeed, most urban designers do not usually receive proper accessibility training. This hinders the use of existing accessibility codes and policies. Beyond that, understanding the singular experiences and conditions of diverse bodies neglected by design disciplines is something that needs to be learnt by doing. When confronting with these issues many designers have to ‘retrain’ themselves, challenging their own expertise. For this they need to develop other skills as another kind of practitioners: not only inventing or adapting multi-sensorial gadgets to make possible co-design situations, but also creating collaborative devices to learn from disability advocates what it means to be different kinds of bodies. To make this process easier would require intervening early on in formal training and curricula, as in the ground-breaking experiments of Raymond Lifchez incorporating accessible concerns in design studio teaching (Lifchez, 1986): where disability rights advocates rather than being treated as end users in projects addressed at them were engaged throughout the duration of the course as design consultants of any kind of projects students were working on.
This became a key concern when having to teach at the Department of Architecture at the TU Munich between 2015 and 2018, together with my colleague Ignacio Farías (Farías & Criado, 2018). We realized that the space of the classroom and the training of future design professionals were largely unattended but critical aspects of the project of ‘technical democracy.’ In fact, training professionals to commit to other forms of producing knowledge and making things might be crucial to make more democratic forms of science and technology possible. But this requires inverting the so-called ‘deficit model’ of participation that aims to enhance the public engagement in science and technology: that is, we need to address the potential knowledge deficits of experts.
In the nearly three years we worked there, we plunged in the development of a series of teaching experiments called Design in crisis. In them we felt the need for STS to move from the ‘expertization of laypersons’–a classic public engagement trend, such as in citizen science–to the creation of pedagogic infrastructures for the ‘re-sensitization of experts.’ One example of what this might mean could be the ManualCAD:
“a portable game for architectural design in which both blind or visually impaired architects, and architects who have the sense of sight can participate and create together.”
Taken from https://designincrisis.wixsite.com/designincrisis2017
It was developed by students in the MA in Architecture in a studio project I taught in 2017. After a several weeks’ intensive training to raise awareness of the need to re-appreciate the multi-sensory features of the built environment they had to undertake a group assignment: to collectively prototype a new architectural toolkit for a blind architect. This led them to explore and do research about multi-sensory devices, methods, and skills. Rather than a solution for an almost impossible challenge, the device they came up with was an interesting object to ask good questions or, rather, to open up design as a problem: A tool, perhaps, to re-learn what it might mean to engage in non-visual forms of architecture?
After engaging in this and many other similar teaching experiments, I have come to believe that for technical democracy to take place in city-making, it has to be always reinvented in specific terms from within the technical practices of experts, sensitizing them through different pedagogical experiments and interventions to be another kind of professionals, more open to the wide diversity of actors they could be designing with.
Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., & Barthe, Y. (2011). Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Criado, T. S., & Cereceda, M. (2016). Urban accessibility issues: Techno-scientific democratizations at the documentation interface. City, 20(4), 619–636.
Easterling, K. (2014). Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London: Verso.
Farías, I., & Blok, A. (2016). Technical democracy as a challenge to urban studies. City, 20(4), 539–548.
Farías, I., & Criado, T.S. (2018). Co-laborations, Entrapments, Intraventions: Pedagogical Approaches to Technical Democracy in Architectural Design. DISEÑA, 12, 228–255.
Hall, P., & Imrie, R. (1999). Architectural practices and disabling design in the built environment. Environment and Planning B, 26, 409–426.
Hamraie, A. (2017). Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press
Harvey, P., Jensen, C. B., & Morita, A. (Eds.) (2016). Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion. London: Routledge.
IMPD. (2009). Barcelona, una ciutat per a tothom : 30 anys treballant amb les persones amb discapacitat. Barcelona: Ajuntament de Barcelona, Institut Municipal de Persones amb Discapacitat (IMPD).
Imrie, R. (1999). The body, disability and Le Corbusier’s conception of the radiant environment. In R. Butler & H. Parr (Eds.), Mind and Body Spaces: Geographies of Illness, Impairment and Disability (pp. 25–44). New York: Routledge.
Lifchez, R. (Ed.). (1986). Rethinking Architecture: Design Students and Physically Disabled People. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Williamson, B. (2019). Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design. New York: New York University Press.
Estando en Helsinki para el NORDES tuve el placer de charlar con Mariana Salgado en Diseño y Diáspora sobre el cuidado como una activación de otros diseños posibles: aquellos que aparecen pensando desde la diversidad funcional en En torno a la silla o desde el re-aprender a diseñar para todxs.
Diseño y Diáspora: El podcast de diseño social en español y portuñol. Conversaciones entre una diseñadora y Otros: a veces amigos, a veces investigadores en diseño, la mayoría de las veces diseñadores trabajando en innovación social o en practicas de diseño emergentes. Desde Helsinki, con ganas por Mariana Salgado.
En esta charla Tomás Criado nos cuenta sobre su trabajo en el ámbito del diseño desde la antropología. Él es antropólogo con especialización en STS (estudios de ciencia y tecnología). Trabaja en la Universidad de Humboldt en Berlín (Alemania). Nos explica conceptos como el cuidado, la diversidad funcional y las tecnologías de la amistad. A la vez describe algunos proyectos de diseño concreto en los que se comprometió luego del 15M, en España. Nos convoca a pensar el diseño desde la incertidumbre y entender los vínculos que se producen en procesos de diseño colaborativos. Al final de la entrevista también hablamos de la enseñanza de diseño a partir de un proyecto donde exploró con alumnos el diseño en situaciones de crisis.
Séverine Marguin, Henrike Rabe, Wolfgang Schäffner and Friedrich Schmidgall have recently edited a compilation in German featuring interesting and relevant work in different creative disciplines foregrounding modes of experimenting.
Forschen und Gestalten sind experimentelle Vorgehensweisen, die darauf ausgerichtet sind, etwas Neues, noch nicht Existierendes hervorzubringen. Sie haben beide Projektcharakter, denn sie führen an einen Nullpunkt des Wissens. Doch welche Strategien und Verfahren sind es, die aus diesem Nichtwissen, diesen Vermutungen und Ideen zu konkreten Ergebnissen führen?
ForscherInnen aus 23 Wissenschafts- und Gestaltungsdisziplinen berichten in diesem Band über ihr Experimentieren und geben Einblicke in ihre Praktiken und Versuchsaufbauten. Er bietet damit eine Bestandsaufnahme zeitgenössischer Experimentalkulturen im Spannungsfeld zwischen Wissenschaft und Gestaltung und skizziert eine Praxeologie des Experiments.
Erfahren: Experimente mit technischer Demokratie in Entwurfskursen
In diesem Aufsatz erzählen wir von pädagogischen Herausforderungen, denen wir an einem der größten deutschen Institute für Wissenschafts und Technikforschung (STS), dem 2013 an der Technischen Universität München gegründeten Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), begegnet sind. Konzipiert als „integratives Forschungszentrum“ mit Lehrstühlen an verschiedenen Fakultäten, will das MCTS nicht nur verschiedene STSTraditionen unter einem Dach zusammenbringen, sondern auch mit Formen der Kollaboration und Intervention in den Natur- und Technikwissenschaften experimentieren. Zwischen 2015 und 2018 lehrten wir an der Fakultät für Architektur, wo wir einen vom STS geprägten stadtanthropologischen Ansatz zu aktuellen Herausforderungen technischer Demokratisierung vertraten. Im Folgenden möchten wir experimentelle Strategien aufzeigen, die bei den Entwurfskursen für Masterstudierende der Architektur zum Einsatz kamen. Unsere Experimente hatten ein zentrales konzeptionelles Anliegen: die Bedeutung und die Möglichkeiten von technischer Demokratie für die Ausbildung zukünftiger EntscheidungsträgerInnen in Sachen gebaute Umwelt entfalten.
Thanks to the joyful invitation by Joanna Latimer & Daniel López–possibly two of the best editors in the planet, capable of hosting the nicest people and make all of us enjoy wonderful and lively debates–, I am honoured to take part in their absolutely flabbergasting Sociological Review monograph ‘Intimate Entanglements’ with an impressive line-up. Do not miss this one!
The monograph focuses on rethinking the relation between “the abstract and general connection between entanglement and knowledge-making by grounding it within specific sociomaterial relations”, proposing us to pay special attention to intimacy not as a category of the local and experiential as opposed to the scientific or universal. Instead, as the editors suggest, “by foregrounding what is often made invisible in extant accounts of how knowledge is done, the authors explore how a focus on affect restructures possibilities for more situated knowledge, that involves non-anthropocentric modes of relatedness in a wide range of substantive domains and communities of practice”.
My own humble contribution to this collective effort is a particular ode, entangling intimately with the practices and spaces of ‘mutual access’ we pried open when searching to inhabit En torno a la silla.
Technologies of friendship: Accessibility politics in the ‘how to’ mode
This text is an ethnographic account of a singular, Barcelona-based activist endeavour called En torno a la silla (ETS): a do-it-yourself and open design and making collective engaging in a very peculiar form of accessibility politics beyond a ‘disability rights’ framework. In it, I entangle intimately with ETS’s relational interventions, in the form of making and documentation processes. What animates me is a political engagement with the practice of ‘re-description’, paying attention to the singularity of what relational vocabularies and practices bring to the fore. In describing the context of its appearance, as well as several of the collective’s endeavours, I address ETS’s relational register. Rather than being a clear-cut activist group with the aim of materialising the ‘inclusion’ of ‘disabled people’ through ‘technical aids’, ETS engaged in producing what they called ‘technologies of friendship’: frail and careful material explorations opening up interstitial relational spaces of ‘mutual access’ between bodily diverse people. Through circulating tutorials, poetic accounts, digitally and in workshops and presentations, ETS’s technologies of friendship became also ways of addressing how relations can be materialised and reflexively described, making available in its wake ways to re-enact them. Thus it produced an inspiring ‘how to’ accessibility politics: a material-political concern with the speculative opening up and materialisation of conditions for the very happening of relations, relating at the hinges of unrelatability.
This article has benefited from a series of kind spaces functioning as ‘technologies of friendship’ in themselves. I would here like to warmly thank: Isaac Marrero Guillamón and the 2016 Goldsmiths’ Anthropology ‘Research >< Practice’ seminar series; Gonzalo Correa and the 2016 MA in Social Psychology students at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo; Marisol de la Cadena and the attendees at a 2017 UC Davis ‘STS Food for Thought’ event; Joanna Latimer, Daniel López, and the commentators at the 2018 ‘Intimate Entanglements’ workshop in York; and a 2018 seminar of the CareNet group in Barcelona, all of whom greatly helped me finetune the article’s main ideas. I dedicate this account to my friends from En torno a la silla, in the hope that this could serve to bring ourselves closer to yet-to-be-found intimate others.
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.