i.club気仙沼 – i love kesennuma
Having done a research trip through several cities in the US (which was all awesome), I’ve landed in Japan and travelled up to one of the towns, Kesennuma, along the northeast coast that was hit by the earthquake and tsunami last March. I went to take part in an amazing project born out of Tokyo University’s i-school initiative (Maru NPO), funded partly by SCF Japan (horrah!) and private companies.
I arrived at dusk and saw the massive vessel, eerily marooned in the middle of a highway, quite a distance from the harbour. When we re-visited it the next day, I realised that its surroundings was once peoples houses, shops, schools and businesses – though nothing remains but concrete foundations and wrangled debris. Underneath the hull were several crushed cars. Next to it, a temporary shrine of paper cranes, flowers and toys was erected to remember the family and friends who had died that day. Kesennuma had lost 1038 (+ 259 still missing) people. We then visited several homes to understand how they were getting by – some better than others. I was heartened by how welcoming and positive they all were, demonstrating their strength and resilience. Though their stories weren’t all encouraging. I felt a fresh surge of anger in discovering that the government were slow and inadequate in assisting the community on all fronts – infrastructure, services, industry and basic housing – many were going into another bitter winter in temporary fibro shacks. I was there on the last day of the national election and understood, first-hand, the apathy and lack of confidence (60% voter turn out – shocking but inevitable) – electing the least worst of all parties.
The role of non-profits and university-led projects are salient in this context. i-school’s initiative is using design and social innovation as a way to re-build Kesennuma’s devastated local seafood industry. It involves local high-school kids and their input to re-discover their native food resources and generate many ideas that could lead to new businesses. This project, ‘i-club kesennuma‘, focusses on dry foods – products that doesn’t require refrigeration so it could be made and distributed easily as well as be a nutritious provision in an emergency. Its focus is to shift the attention from raw food like sushi and sashimi (used to be its main industry) which is costly to keep and limited in what can be eaten, often resulting in a large amount of waste and high energy bills. The kids’ vigour was generating another effect – pride and hope for their town – infecting the adults with a renewed optimism to face day-to-day difficulties.
The photo above shows a scene from a workshop I took part in – the young people conducted quasi-ethnographic research and talked to local residents, later sharing interesting insights about customs and products that they discovered. There was a lot of laughter and lightness. The next workshop is in January and February that involves them making the actual dry-food products in partnership with local businesses. I won’t be able to take part but I hope to keep in touch with the researchers at i-school to see what happens. I felt that there was a huge value in this project than evaluating whether it succeeds in producing a viable product.
The trip to Kesennuma was mixed with many thoughts and it’ll take me a while to digest all of these feelings. I still feel powerless and frustrated, living so far away from home but the connection with the kids and the community was a real, tangible feeling that I’ll remember for a very very long time…
Lessons from Fukushima – a systemic organisational failure of Tokyo power company (TEPCO)
TEPCO is one of the largest companies in Japan, producing 30% of the country’s entire energy needs. Critical reflection on why the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster occurred has now swung its attention from the tsunami towards the internal mechanisms of the organisation. The criticisms they’re facing is similar to what the CFA had experienced.
One major failure was largely due to systemic inadequacy in the organisation. It was built on a heirarchical, pyramid structure and the nuclear energy department were perceived as the ‘elites’, immune to scrutiny and input from other departments. This led them to ignore the concerns of the public on nuclear power, which was accutely felt by the sales department, though the communication between these departments had been inadequate.
Public anxiety and outrage has now become so severe that many employees, especially the new, younger people, are leaving the company. Unable to gain back the trust of the citizens, these employees are feeling that their values for social contribution is no longer being relfected in the company. Many observed that this was having a detrimental effect on others.
Interestingly, their past lack of awareness to public concern and arrogant attitude have also caused them to be adverse to failure, responding only to obvious risks. They had become too risk-averse to think of the worst case scenario, leading to insular thinking and making them more ill prepared. Again, this reflected the shortfalls that were observed in Black Saturday.
As a way to counteract this prevalent thinking, rhetoric on having a ‘manual’ has been raised. It is a typically safe and ‘Japanese’ response – a one-size-fits-all template – and it seemed to me that it would only compound the problem rather than breaking the negative cycle.
Same old problem… but a fresh openness?
I was invited to take part in a workshop on Ageing, attended by several leading Japanese companies (Hitachi, NTT, Ajinomoto, Kao, Omron; Ricoh etc). The participants were either designers (working internally), or R&D people who were excited by ‘Design Thinking’ methods as a way to innovate new systems, services and products for the senior citizens thereby addressing a social issue and creating new opportunities in a ‘growing’ market.
The stage where I participated was a follow-up of several previous workshops that begun with an ethnographic study of senior citizens and followed by an introduction to Design Thinking as a method to generate new ideas. They were then asked to report what they had attempted to do subsequently in their respective departments/companies and share any problems and potential avenues they have encountered since.
Familiar problems were heard such as, lack of ownership and buy-in by fellow staff or support/endorsement from the powers at be. Many shared their attempts to involve their colleagues, inspire them with their ideas and methods, though almost all of them reported that they were unsuccessful. It seemed, from my perspective, that the emphasis they placed on the main ‘user’ (ie, the senior citizen, in this case), they forgot to think about other stakeholders, ie, internal staff, that they are also the main ‘user’ too that needed to be involved in the process of change. Other common themes were the cause and effect proof that such new ‘thing’ can create profit. Although many had agreed that the future vision of empowering senior citizen was essentially a good thing, it was hard for their fellow colleagues to translate that more practically into what they do now. It seemed that the scenarios were too future based that lacked tangibility and belief – they were forcing people to run before they could walk. A ‘buffer’ scenario was needed – perhaps, generated through co-creation from colleagues in other departments, even involving the CEO.
These were interesting observations – commonly heard in other countries – and reflected the experimental approach that the Hakuhodo innovation lab were attempting to create through such initiative. I was also struck by how non-competitive everyone was, and rather than holding on to trade secrets or censoring criticisms or internal company problems, they were all very open in sharing, empathising and, in some instances, celebrating the small success of some other team. That, I felt, was the greatest and most rewarding aspect of being part of this workshop. I wondered whether this ‘culture’ could be observed in Australia or the UK (I can say for sure, not in the US!) – and that they were all supportive, collegial and non-competitive, was a really lovely thing to experience.
Japanese universities under threat
Who would’ve thought that tertiary education in Japan would become under threat. Currently, there are 783 universities that are unable to sustain their programs, due to prolonged decline in childbirth. In a bid to make themselves more attractive, some universities are making their entrances easier, leading to poor graduate standards.
Horikoshi Gakuen University has been ordered foreclosure. Unable to sustain their staff, their 220 students will have to find another university to graduate from. Mr Harumi (anthropologist and graduate of Tokyo University) mentioned over coffee, how many university students, even at Tokyo Uni, were lazy. The pressure placed upon them prior to entering was so immense that he said that many became lazy once they started. Some lecture-based courses with few hundred students rely on final exams to pass, allowing the students to fool around most of the time…!
In contrast, I was invited to an open presentation of student projects in Shibuya last night (see photo). These students are attending i-school at Tokyo University who were carving out new business opportunities for Japanese companies (like Ajinomoto, Meiji etc) using Design Thinking in an emerging market like India. Based on an ethnographic research trip to India, their task was to create novel and unique business ventures. Echoing a similar model to our GRC, the students presented their work confidently to a panel of business people and academics, who were not shy in putting forward their sharp critique. Some of the points, particularly on the way certain assumptions, generalisations and lack of awareness of context was very insightful and hopefully help the students learn from the feedback.
I was pleasantly surprised by how brave the students were in entering into such ‘unknown’ territory, whether that was a foreign culture like India, having complete trust in a design and bringing that into business and to be critically evaluated in front of the public. It was a really well-attended event, and judging from the number of suits, many people were probably corporates. This framework of learning is something we take for granted in Australia, UK or the US and so its refreshing to witness it here in Tokyo.
Naked bodies, suicides and earthquakes
Friday December 07th 2012, 7:22 pm
Filed under: Some ranting
I was enjoying the rusty, salty local onsen (hot springs) with Mum yesterday. It was early afternoon with a light breeze and wonderfully sunny for a winter’s day. As we bathed in the outdoor area we saw many local women, usually in pairs, all sizes and ages. Short, fat, skinny, bow-legged, wrinkled, freckled… its actually very humbling and heart-warming seeing the diversity. It reminded me that there is no ‘normal’ person.
On the NHK Japanese news today, they reported that the number of suicides for this year has gone down for the first time in 15 years, dipping below 30,000. I know. 30,000. It’s a crazy number. The highest being Tokyo. The journalist said that the government are working out a strategy to deal with the situation. What a palarva.
7th Dec, 5:25pm, there was a mag. 4 earthquake. We were watching the telly at the time. The warning came on, and then for a full minute, the whole house shook, throwing things off the shelves. I half picked up my laptop, Mum went to clutch the porcelain doll and Dad turned the kerosene heater off. It was pretty scary – the lights swung around and the pendulum clock stopped working. Once it had passed, we contined to watch the seaside town, Kesennnuma further north evacuate to the hills – the tsunami was on its way. Since the Great Eastern Japan earthquake, the language used to warn people has shifted from ’suggesting’ to evacuate to ‘telling’ people to do so. The urgency of tone used by the news broadcasters was very persuasive. Though, it was comical to see them on the TV with hard-hats on.
I’m meant to be going there next week… with continued after-shocks, maybe I might get to experience the ‘real’ thing and add another dimension to the disaster research I’m doing…
This experience has caused many to recall the horrors of the Great Eastern Earthquake last year. Later, it was reported that many people did evacuate, but in their cars, causing heavy traffic jams on highways, despite being told to leave on foot. The authorities are re-examining their messages and strategies again.
With the general election coming up on the 19th December, many people (including my vocal parents) are angry and dispirited by all candidates and parties. The mood is incredibly dark and negative. Electroral turnout is still very low, particularly among the young generation (below 50%). This has led to interesting initiatives where schools are conducting ‘mock’ elections for highschool kids to experience what it means and feel like to take part in an election.
Some are promising to get rid of all nuclear power stations, reflecting the wishes of most Japanese citizens. Though none have come up with a viable alternative energy source, making their promises hollow and unreliable. Even a previous Prime Minister Abe (who threw in the towel before) has come back to run again, vowing to rebuild the economy, making empassioned speeches about not forgetting those affected by the disaster. Its laughable how naive and ridiculous they all sound. How will they rebuild communities, especially in Fukushima, and why would they trust the government when they’ve done so little? These residents have become immigrants in their own country, having found a temporary shelter or a relative to live with elsewhere but all desiring to return to their homeland. Some related this to purgatory, unable to start new businesses and a new life.
A broken public system
A week in Pittsburgh has flown by and I realise how much this place is a car-culture. Some places have a ‘prohibited’ sign of humans – we laughed at that thinking whether it meant that ‘no people are allowed’, but it’s simply a sign that means no pedestrian crossing. Sometimes, there is no traffic lights for pedestrians, and this is where it gets hairy because you have to dart across whenever there’s a gap in traffic. And there’s a crazy Pittsburgh-only rule of turning on red… I wonder what the statistics are on traffic accidents here.
Bus stop signs are very obscure, a medium-sized blue rectangle simply tacked on to electric poles. There’s one on the corner of Friendship and South Atlantic that we took to the strip. I wondered why were were hanging around on this corner until Laurene told me that we’re waiting for the bus. As any cities, their timetables are unreliable. $3.50 buys you a return ticket that’s only valid for the next 3hrs. That’s kinda expensive, especially for low-income families. The only thing I liked about the bus system is the rack at the front of the bus where you can load your pushbike onto. The School buses are mainly empty but for a handful of children – that must guzzle some serious amount of petrol.
Tom took Cameron, Sophie, Laurene and I on a tour of the steel works today. Having grown up in Pittsburgh most of his life and taking summer jobs in the steelworks, he knew a great deal about them and its history. He pointed out the massively long ‘coke’ trains that brought the materials to the smelting factories, and the hills dotted around the place that were made from slag heaps. He took us to a neighbourhood (equivalent to our suburb) called Presston where there were factory-owned cottages for the workers in Press Works who were paid in company credits, so they could only buy from company-run shops, trapping them in that job and life forever. The rich factory owners would live high in the hills where the air was less polluted. Basically, a tough life for the ordinary family.
He also took us through Braddock, a pretty scary suburb that partly looked like a ghost town. Houses were dilapidated and general neglect hung in the air. Though the story is fascinating – a gung-ho Mayor who looks like the Hell’s Angel gang member has adopted Braddock as his own (the word is that he tattoos the names of those who had died in Braddock on to his body) and is leading the battle on injecting some love into this neighbourhood through community projects.
Pittsburgh is a fascinating town, full of paradoxes – there is a resilient beauty in its chaos and industrial ugliness. The houses originally built by the steel works wealth is still evident in the wonderful architecture of Penn Station building, the Cathedral of Learning and the residential houses such as those in Friendship or Oakland. And this butts against the long coal trains, the abandoned warehouses, disused steel factories and ramshackled streets. The dirty rivers (a health hazard when in rains, because of the combined sewage overflow) confluence here but the concrete and steel bridges are magnificent, often pained in light yellow and blue.
It’s a beautiful autumn day outside, top of 4 degrees today and slightly overcast . I see college students (super intelligent) criss-crossing the green lawn, kicking the brownish leaves, on their way to class. An American flag gently waves in the background. This is what an American college campus feels like, and I love it!
Since arriving at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, I’ve been warmly embraced into this campus life. I’ve literally jumped into classes, often not knowing exactly what the classes are or what I was required to do, but its often (thankfully) turned out ok. The two classes I’ve been in so far has been ones where there’s a mixture of student levels – from undergrad, postgrad and research candidates. What seems like a pedagogical nightmare to me, fellow colleagues shrug and accept this as how it is here. The breadth and depth that the students are required to perform at is also very interesting. For example, I took part in a class run by Kristin Hughes, Bruce Hanington and Tim (forgot his last name). This class is called “Design and Policy for Humanitarian Impact”. It has 20 students split into 8 project teams, a mix of design grad and undergrads, and some from the Heinz school of public policy, and a few from HCI, Engineering, etc. The inter-disciplinary mix was fascinating to see, and each group had to research an issue of their choice, which was very meaty and rich. I was really impressed by the quality of their work and the insights they’ve gained already, though was concerned how they would manage such a huge task in a short timeframe. Big issues like enabling teenagers to discuss sexuality with family members; creating hands-on extra-curricula activities for high schools; combined sewage overflow; addressing cross-cultural discrimination between black African Americans and Black Africans… that the students weren’t afraid to tackle these ‘real-world’ problems was great to see.
I also got to see Aisling’s class on Critical Design. Students had to create a fictitious campaign on any issue of their choice. Many of these were imbued with a wicked sense of humour (’Design your ideal man’ or ‘Electric shocks from a guitar to make you practice to perfection’, ‘A mirror that records and plays back’), and produced very convincingly. Some of them sparked discussions and questions about gender, race, values, privacy, identity… it was all fascinating. I was really amazed by the way the design students weren’t pushed in providing ’solutions’, and as research, provoke questionings and open further avenues. These are great projects that I could learn from.
The presentations I did briefly in Kirstin’s class, Jodi Forlizzi’s class on Service Design, and in Laurene’s class on research methods was received well (I think). In these presentations, I had aimed to emphasise the ‘imperfection’ of methods, showing instances where things went wrong and having to improvise but what you can learn from making those mistakes. Another bug-bear of mine that I spoke about was that methods aren’t always replicable and generalisable. I feel that some of the critique I made, especially about service design had ruffled some feathers… perhaps in a good way?
What is it to be a designer..?
When I was in London recently, Alison and I had a mammoth discussion in the British Library about service design (since we were attempting to write a paper together) and one of the things we touched on is something that I’d like to write more about another day – so here’s some thoughts to get me going (for later).
I can’t quite remember how our conversation began, possibly from me recounting the discussion from PDC12 where there was a concern about the literal separation between ‘designers’ and ‘users’ (and even the term ‘users’ is also problematic, but this will do for now). There is an underlying ideology in participatory design that desires ‘users’ to become ‘designers’, so that the ‘users’ can design for their own context and keep designing after the ‘designers’ exit. This is seen as a form of empowerment.
Alison, in her classic ways, then took a whole detour telling me about her encounter with a dad in Scotland – he was massively overweight, Yorkshire working class, unemployed, chaotic, loud but friendly, his wife also had all sorts of health-problems – long and short of the story is that a middle-class impression of this man could pull him down as a parent lacking aspirational qualities, but he adored his children and they were bright as a button. And here was Alison who had come to the library with me for most of the day, leaving Tate and Flo at home alone, and one could say that she’s not a good parent if asked, what’s more important? In fact she’s a fantastic parent and her brilliant kids are a testament to that. Notions of ‘what is a good parent’ is shaped by class and culture (again – Bourdieu). Alison’s role as a ‘parent’ are qualities that you can’t separate out objectively to name it as a ‘parentness’ thing. Its not fixed.
Could the same be said about ‘what is it to be a designer’? We are shaped by so many things (remember the stew / bolognese pasta sauce analogy) and so how can one separate out certain bits like choice cuts in beef – rump, oyster blade – its not that simple in a person. So, when ‘users’ and ‘designers’ are separated out, I think similar things happen. We point at things as if they can be separated. Sure, technical skills and experiences in designing do count. But when it comes to closely examining what is really design and what is it to be a ‘designer’, I reckon we are deluded by thinking that it can be pointed at. When in fact, its design, because it can’t…?
The immanent landscape 内在の風景
I know I know – I stole this title from my Japanese friend’s exhibition title – but it was something that resonated with me now, that we pay so little attention to the ‘inner’ workings of our being. Call that thinking, feeling, sensing – all that stuff that goes on inside of ourselves – what happens when we design and how does that change?
I was up in Sydney yesterday, doing a workshop with staff at Ku Ring Gai council who’re undertaking a Climate Change Adaptation program and piloting a series of workshops with their residents to strengthen their resilience through networks, to deal with multiple hazzards (heat, floods, fire etc). Their municipality is right next to a National Park – and the council are keen to support an awareness-raising program initially on bushfires.
So, I talked about my work, what we’re currently doing with social network research etc, and then got them to experience using the Playful Triggers and scenario cards, so they can ‘get a feel’ for how they work. Later, we workshopped how this approach can be customised to their own contexts. I was really pleased with their openness and ability to take this on – we were on the same page anyway, so this wasn’t difficult – and during our discussion, I was glad to see how confident they grew in feeling that they were able to ‘make it their own’.
On reflecting what had happened, I was struck by how obsessed we often are with ‘outcomes’ (achieving intended goals) but pay little attention to the shifts/transitions we make internally, during such processes of design. What happened during my time with council staff was definitely internal – Michelle and I talked in the car on the way to the airport that she understood what I meant by ‘feeling your way through the workshop’, relating it to her experience as a Yoga teacher. She said she was now able to be more confident in ‘designing’ it the way it should be for the context and people she’s wanting to engage. The Playful Triggers and scenario cards – the so called ‘methods’ – is like a ‘Dumbo feather’, an initial scaffolding to help you support what you’re doing, but what really counts is your confidence to do it, to know how to do it in the way that you feel comfortable. That’s when you realise that that feather is just a feather – like a method is just a method, really.
One could say that the ’success’ is in its outcome, for Michelle feeling more confident as a facilitator, or for the participants being more aware and prepared for bushfire, but the interesting thing for me is the internal transformation that had taken place – that’s what stays with them – its embodied, experienced and apprehended directly.
I’m becoming more and more obsessed with this ‘internal stuff’ – linking back to the tao of practicing self-reflection – what are the ’scaffolds’ that can help us do this more effectively? More meaningfully, more noticably, in a more disciplined way..? What are the scaffolds that help us ‘design’ ourselves?
A dialogue in the ‘We-space’
Thursday August 30th 2012, 12:09 pm
Filed under: no category
This writing was submitted to the editor of Design Philosophy Papers, in response to Lisa Norton’s article which was written addressing some points made in my published paper, ‘A way of being’ (DPP, No. 1, 2012). It has been published in Design Philosophy Politics in August 2012.
Discourse on design favours the apolitical and the anonymous. Lucy Suchman1 lamented the culture of ‘design from nowhere’ – anonymous and un-locatable designers who continue to be ignorant of their own positions within the social relations they engage through design. The lack of connection and awareness that Suchman laments is still prevalent, and it is not an easy task for a designer to develop this instantly. As a designer and researcher in human-centred design, interrogating my practice was a challenge. It necessitated a critical introspection that felt uncomfortable at times. For me, this process began crystalising through my PhD and continued to form over the last five years through practicing as a human-centred designer on live projects. My article, ‘A way of being in design: Zen and the art of being a human centred practitioner’ 2 took a similarly long time to gestate. The process of putting the concepts it contains to paper necessitated a prolonged period of personal, reflective thinking on what being human means. It required me to become aware of and articulate not only my genderised perspective but also my essential Japanese cultural values. Writing the article also allowed me to express my dissatisfaction with the hard-line prescriptive ethical discourse that appears to want to tell designers how they should act and with the popularity of the ‘commodification’ of human-centred design methodology. I thank the reviewers and editors of DPP for their feedback prior to publishing the article, as I know the thoughts I have expressed have provoked some consternation and discussion.
So I was very pleased when I read Professor Lisa Norton’s reply3 to my paper. She didn’t exoticise my Eastern perspective, dismiss my personal ramblings or find issue with my somewhat vehemently expressed opinions. Instead, her considered elaboration reconciled dualistic tendencies in design discourse (eg. self/other, subject/object, body/mind etc), through two key points. Firstly by reminding us that reality is not a given but a conditioned, multiple object, and that ‘individuals are representative of various worldviews and developmental levels’4. Her critique of the discourse highlights that ‘we do not share a common worldview or ethical framework yet we persist in seeking one’5. This hits the nail on the head and describes, far more eloquently, my article’s concerns with well-meaning scholars that place an ethical and ideological judgment-call on designers alone6. Its as if these ethical specialists forget that designing is inherently social and relational. Designers design with and for other people. All kinds of perspectives, practices and often conflicting values are, by definition, immanent within relational interactions. The process of designing can often force these to surface and be actively engaged with, but this cannot be reduced in a way where the ‘ethical’ designer determines how, why and what certain values should manifest through the designed outcome. It is a view that aggrandizes the designer’s role and social agency. Assuringly, Lisa argues instead for an attention (both cognitive and affective) to the inter-subjective exchange through reflective practice, reinforcing my point that it necessitates a continual process of self-awareness to reflect on our activity, behaviour, relationship – how we are with others.
Secondly, Lisa introduces a framework called Integral Theory that ‘brings discernment to the faculties of sense, cognition, shared values and behaviors, and their respective truth claims, demonstrating their mutual irreducibility’7. In doing so, Lisa further builds on my argument for ethics to be practiced in the relational, in-betweenness of humans, objects and the environment – what she calls the ‘We-space’. There is strong alignment between our arguments to not separate ethics as a ‘thing’ that can be applied or be removed:
Ethics, as a quality of our interpersonal We-space, cannot be dis-embedded from design or any other interaction. Ethics names the nature and texture of the relational space and in this sense there is an ethical dimension to all our encounters with human and non-human life regardless of whether we are aware of it. The term ‘unethical’ refers not to the absence of ethics but to a lapse of ethical consciousness that results in a co-arising lack of inter-subjective mutuality8.
Both of us are attempting to side-step the abstraction and detachment of ethics that is limited to rational analysis and individual consciousness, by situating it in the personal, embodied, living encounter in our world. Ethics resides and enacts in the betweenness of people and the betweenness of people and objects, and this is what I mean by a human-centred practice.
And so the strange irony is that despite our best intentions, what both of our discussions still frustratingly do is create yet more cases of embodied ethics within rational, cognitive explanation. We are both trapped in a catch 22 of writing or talking about an ‘ethical consciousness’ or a ‘human-centred practice’, when in fact it needs to be enacted and experienced. It cannot just be read and talked about. It needs to be lived and practiced, as part of our every-day being. Otherwise, it will all just become a theoretical exercise. It is a point I wanted to emphasise by bringing in the example of the Eiheiji monks who practice Zen meditation as they wash, cook their meals and clean the toilets, staying clear of a rule-governed, direct mediation from the Zen masters9. Practicing human-centredness is just the same – one can only begin to embody it by doing it and it must be apprehended directly.
Whilst this only goes part way to explain what I mean, let me give you my experience of practicing human-centred design from a project I’ve been involved with for the last three years. It explores ways to engage communities on bushfire (wildfire) preparedness, which is a critical problem in a place like Australia with extreme and prolonged cycles of droughts and floods. Entering into an arena of community engagement and bushfire research, I quickly realised my position as an ‘outsider’, stepping into a politically complex and emotionally volatile terrain. I was an ‘outsider’ because I was totally naïve to the issues, a non-local (non-Australian) and an academic. The ethics guideline provided by my research institution was no use with regards to gaining the community’s interest and commitment to this project. It wasn’t a simple process of engaging a coherent and motivated group of people – doubts, fear and confusion was rife, as well as skepticism about academics that made participants feel like ‘lab rats’ for research. Compounding this issue was the apathy that they felt for fire experts or government authorities, attributed to too many ineffective meetings and generalised advice, gradually leading to a mistrust of authorities that were seen to tow an official line, and providing poor assistance the community at the grass-roots level.
The blessing in disguise came from my honesty in admitting that I knew nothing and I was not pushing any agendas. From day one, I applied myself to listen and learn from all encounters. One woman was particularly significant in making the problem ‘real’ for me, as well as provoking alternative design approaches to this complex issue. Her house was on a narrow, winding dirt track through forest, isolated in a valley where, if the fire came, it would engulf her and her husband from all sides. The couple had no car. In preparation, they had built a fire bunker in their garden from designs downloaded from the internet. She gladly invited our design team to see how proactive and prepared she was. She did not realise that the bunker could become a serious death-trap, increasing her vulnerability through a false sense of security. With barely room for two people to sit in, they could potentially suffocate or be fatally exposed to radiant heat through the thin metal door. This conventional ‘design solution’ in the form of a fire bunker, shocked and frightened our team.
Some would label this as valuable ethnographic data for design that demonstrated the local’s vulnerability to fire – how at risk they were from poor understanding and the enormous task of overcoming misguided advice for preparedness. Indeed, this is true. But the most powerful impact was realising how much I cared. It sensitized me to the life-threatening risks and to take this project seriously. It became a personal commitment, to her and others in similar vulnerable positions, to want to make a difference to their situation. Numerous encounters like these layered one on top of another over several months as we undertook the fieldwork. This enabled me to be saturated in the issues and attuned to their world-view. I developed a way to feel my way through this complex problem and become an embodied conduit to share our learnings through community engagement workshops, so we could, together, create a greater awareness of the risks that affected this community. These workshops emphasised the participants’ taking ownership through collective knowledge-sharing and planning within neighbourhoods, in an attempt to mitigate the risks exposed to individual households like the woman with the fire bunker10.
This project is on-going in many ways – in developing greater understanding about community bushfire awareness, and equally as significant, in the continual transformation of my practice as a human-centred designer. And I am still learning. It is a gradual process to become more attuned to people, contexts and surroundings, whoever and whatever that may be. The practice of practicing human-centred design is a continuous reflection on my experiences and encounters. It is a process of evolution that takes place, not only during projects and fieldwork, but even when I cycle to work or having a cuppa – this is my ‘way of being’, that enables a greater understanding and connection to the people and the world I live in.
My warmest gratitude to Professor Lisa Norton and Design Philosophy Papers for making this enlightening conversation possible.
 Suchman, Lucy. ‘Located accountabilities in technology production’, Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, vol. 12, no. 2. 2002: pp. 91-105.
 Published in Design Philosophy Papers, no. 1. 2012.
 Published in Design Philosophy Papers, no. 2. 2012.
 Norton, Lisa. ‘A response to a ‘way of being’ in design; Zen and the art of being a human centred practitioner, Design Philosophy Papers, no. 2. 2012: p. 2.
 Akama, Yoko. ‘A way of being in design: Zen and the art of being a human-centred practitioner’, Design Philosophy Papers, no. 1. 2012: p. 2.
 Norton, Lisa. ‘A response to a ‘way of being’ in design; Zen and the art of being a human centred practitioner, Design Philosophy Papers, no. 2. 2012: p. 3.
 Akama, Yoko. ‘A way of being in design: Zen and the art of being a human-centred practitioner’, Design Philosophy Papers, no. 1. 2012: p. 7.
 Details of the workshop are published in several papers. Most relevant to this article are Akama, Yoko & Ivanka, Tania, ‘What Community? Facilitating Awareness of ‘Community’ through Playful Triggers’, in proc. PDC 2010, 2010; and Light, Ann & Akama, Yoko, ‘The Human Touch: From Method to Participatory Practice in Facilitating Design with Communities’, in proc. PDC 2012, 2012. Both published through ACM.