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…
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 started with a simple venn diagram…
The frustration I felt when I saw the presentations on sustainability at the research stream of AGIdeas is that there’s a limit to what design can do if its still locked in the same old paradigm of producing better products (eg. using less energy, using recyclable / renewable materials). Its what Fumi said at the DESIS talk – the explosion of eco-friendly market in Japan over the last 20 yrs has had a ‘rebound effect’ (offset from the introduction of new technology) making little to no impact on CO2 emissions (see the line graph at the top of the chart – in fact, the CO2 emissions have gone up over the last 20 years)
“Since late 1900s, Japanese industries together with academy and the government aimed to develop environmentally efficient products, applying eco-design methods. The results were so fruitful that the market was filled with ‘eco products’. And as a result, the total amount of material and energy consumption have increased, so as GHG”
Perhaps this is why the DESIS framework, with the inclusion of social innovation AND sustainability interests me. If design is about creating meaning, experiences and relationships, it is centred on people – not products – and so the processes and outcomes of social innovation needs to be sustaining for people and sustainable for the environment.
I then drew this diagram – an addition to the venn. I don’t know if this is ‘cheating’ but instead of the overlaps (which venn is good at showing), I wanted to visualise the agency of design as practice/process-driven. I tried drawing ’stitching’, ‘bridging’, or drawing a ‘cog’ but none of them seemed to capture what I’m thinking.
The ‘bridging’ resonated with me because of the readings I’m doing at the moment on social networks and social capital. There is a well-trodden hypothesis that innovation comes at the edge of a ’structural hole’. ‘People whose networks bridge the structural holes between groups have earlier access to a broader diversity of information and have experience in translating information across groups. People whose networks bridge the structural holes between groups have an advantage in detecting and developing rewarding opportunities. Information arbitrage is their advantage. They are able to see early, see more broadly, and translate information across groups … brokerage across the structural holes between groups provides a vision of options otherwise unseen.’ (Burt 2004, p. 354)
So, then I interrogated that social innovation, it being a field, but it too is also process-driven. That social innovation and design is, in this instance, the two sides of the same coin. The field in which it operates within could then be visualised as many – for social inclusion; disaster preparedness; community cohesion… bringing in stakeholders who represent/advocate/contribute different knowledge or practice perspectives.
Design brokers that process, bringing people together from different backgrounds, thereby creating a fruitful space for social innovation to take place. Because design always operates outside of itself (designers shouldn’t design for designers – that’s called incest), perhaps this gives them the ’structural hole’ edge advantage…?
Compassion and ethics..?
A few weeks ago, I was invited to take part in a facilitated workshop on ‘building a vision for Melbourne’ with Green’s MP Adam Bandt at The Hub Melbourne. There were a range of participants from education, like myself, and others from non-profit organisations, local government, greens members and various industry groups. This workshop was organised so that we, as a group, could contribute to this ‘vision’ for the city of Melborune and for Adam to potentially campaign and implement through his role and input in policies. We broke up into tables that each had a theme – sustainability, equality and compassion – and the groups were given roughly 45min to identify the problems and suggest ideas for implementation.
With the recent contentious Carbon Tax debate, this workshop potentially was a way to generate practical ideas and avenues to address sustainability and social inclusion – two key agendas of the government. The workshop seemed to be mainly greens/labor supporters – so no climate skeptics there – and with a one-sided discussion, it could easily promote an idealistic, skwewed perspective, which was a concern.
The workshop and group discussion sounds good in theory, but there were several issues that were problematic. I was on the ‘compassion’ table and with such a value-laden word, there was no time to agree on what ‘compassion’ meant which led to divergent interpretations about ‘caring’, ‘diversity’, respect’, ‘voice’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘empathy’. Broad generalisations were also made, for example, ‘people don’t care about eachother anymore’, or ‘people don’t have the time’, that also hindered a collective understanding of the issue. The conversation on our table was fraught with tension – those who had the largest voice usually got their point across – some talked over others – we quibbled over terminologies – and ironically, there was very little ‘compassion’ manifesting and being enacted on our table. I felt that the ideas that we proposed, was therefore ‘hollow’ in meaning.
Attending this workshop highlighted a critical neglect in our own discourse in design. It made me realise how ‘compassion’ or ‘empathy’ is a cornerstone for designers, yet little is discussed about its importance, possibly owing to the engineering, sciences or Modernist traditions that highlight roles and functions insead. Designers who have empathy for those they design for and with, are able to engage and create authentically trusting relationships, thereby leading to more meaningful interaction and outcomes. But how do we generate /educate empathy or compassion? Are these values we are born with, nurtured through our parents or taught through formal/informal education in culture/society? Some of these questions also surfaced in our table’s discussion and they seemed very philosophical and deep to be tackled in 10 min!
Disaster Risk and Resilience
Resilience will be a significant conceptual framework in tackling immense problems facing our society and environment of our time. The statistics of death tolls, injury, damages and loss caused by natural and man-made disasters is unfathomable. Yet, resilience is not a new thing – I would imagine that our ancestors were extraordinarily resilient – but perhaps in the modern society, and in developed countries, we have begun to take things for granted. Just as our immune systems are beginning to break down (greater numbers of those with allergies), we may have begun being less resilient as well..?
In being resilient, terms such as diversity, modality, distributed systems and networks, and indigenous-based practices was highlighted as being key notions and practices for design, as well as the planning for infrastructure (which also include non-physical things like culture, energy, connection among community members etc). Though often, disasters that were ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ were distinguished. Aren’t humans part of the natural dynamic system too? Humans are also capable of giving and receiving ‘disturbances and disruptions’, being in a constant state of ‘flux’ whilst trying to establish a momentary stability. Is the separation between humans and nature – a very cartesian view of the world – weakening our ability to be resilient?
The notion of ‘Community’ also seems to be a bit of a buzz word these days, used in conjuction with disasters and resilience. On one hand, it is perceived as an ideological, mythical concept – a sense of belonging. On the other, community is often used for pushing political agendas by the government, authorities, businesses and worryingly, the aid agencies as well. I think there is tension between the desire for individuality and being part of the collective at play.
Bushfire and resilience
Our team, ‘Birds of a feather’ is partnering with Southern Otways Landcare Network in facilitating effective communication and planning strategies around bushfires. The Otway communities are particularly vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic fires that threatens the region next summer. The area is poor in communication infrastructure including radio, TV, internet and mobile coverage, making communities even more vulnerable and dependent upon their own resources and networks in the face of a bushfire event. The issue is not only related to infrastructure and communication technology, though these impact heavily on managing bushfires. The team have conducted an initial field visit to the Otways, met local residents and CFA volunteers. These discussion have identified several other issues, for example, influx of tourists and temporary residents in the local area which complicates the risks; false sense of security led by the belief that the CFA will come to the rescue; lack of multiple risk management plans in place (Plan A, B, C and so on). Some of these issues we have found echo a lot of the work that you have done already with the bushfire CRC.
Our aim is firstly to develop a heightened sense of bushfire risk among a ‘community of place’ (ie those who are located in the same geographical area) through a series of workshops. Our main methodology is the use of ’scenarios’ that are constructed by participants from the ground-up. Each individual’s situation and household context is different and the community themselves have the expert knowledge of the people, land, topography, vegetation, likely direction of the fire, access routes etc. We are going to pool this knowledge and develop a variety of scenarios that capture and illustrate potential risks that are specific to individual households and their local area. The collective pooling and sharing of knowledge is a way to ‘educate’ the residents who have little knowledge of the area. We also feel the ‘first-person’ account is a key aspect to how the scenarios are described and engaged with.
These risk-focused scenarios will then be the driver to discuss and brainstorm ideas on planning effective strategies to mitigate and manage the risks identified. Again, the emphasis here is active participation in generating the plans among neighbours, thereby strengthening networks and bonds within the community of place. We are also working on tapping into the networks of the temporary residents (holiday makers, weekenders from Melbourne etc) who have little knowledge of the landscape and awareness of the risks and bring this group together using the scenarios. We intend on having input from the fire authorities and individuals who have experienced bushfire as a way of bringing the stories and scenarios ‘to life’. We are hoping to commence the workshops in January 2010 and we are looking to expertise in the field who can assist and help us with this approach.
Our design project, which is currently underway with a community, utilises the ‘tools of the trade’ in communication design such as designing artefacts, mapping and visualisations, to firstly, bring a fractured community together around a common concern, highlight the risks that communities face, and then plan strategies to mitigate those risks. The photos show how the use of Playful Triggers was effective in pooling knowledge specific to a particular location. It shows how a group of people from a community of place, identified where houses are located, which households were permanent and temporary residents, those who had children and the likely direction of the fire. Undertaking this exercise was valuable to our research team who had no knowledge of the local area, but also for the participants as well. The Playful Triggers facilitated the revelation of knowledge that they each had, and it helped them make it explicit to us and to one another, to the point where one participants was amazed by how much local knowledge they actually had between them. Natural conversations flowed where certain geographical sites suddenly ’stood out’ as being conducive to build a bush bunker. This design approach empowered the community to plan and generate effective strategies themselves.
What do artists add – indeed?
I watched the Sunday Arts program on the weekend (because Fergie was interviewed). The program also showed Heat: Art and Climate Change’ exhibition, which is on at the RMIT gallery.
When I saw the program, I was skeptical about what these artists were doing – promoting an issue that was already getting extensive coverage in the media anyway. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a say – an indeed artists should say what they think they should say – but I am getting a bit bored of well-known issues being put forward in a way that isn’t unique/provocative, for example, about polar ice-caps melting (hence there’s a polar bear in the exhibition), coral are bleaching (hence there’s reference to it too)…
The thing that was most revealing was when the artists were asked how sustainable they are/were in creating their work. They clearly looked uncomfortable in being asked this question, and some had really lame answers, like ‘I used recycled wood’, or ‘I car pooled to the exhibition’. In creating their work, they forgot to interrogate their artistic practices seemed beyond belief, and renders their work hollow.
I guess artists and designers are all in the same boat, guilty of the same ‘crime’ of not examining their own conducts and behaviours. I had naively assumed that artists would be more ‘principled’ and that they had a better chance of changing their practice because they often operate alone and express what they think and feel more easily, rather than designers in a studio who work for clients. Though, I shouldn’t generalise about all artists and designers, of course, artists and designers can be equally compared this way when thinking about the impact and engagement of the work they create with the public.
Designing ‘the other’ – not ‘ourselves’
I was commenting on a MA student’s topic on sustainability and this is what I wrote:
“I am also cautious of tackling sustainability only from a design perspective. That in itself is a harmful way of thinking about the issues of sustainability – surely, if one was to integrate the philosophy/ideology of sustainability, it should permeate throughout one’s entire life/activity, and not just when one goes to the studio. Sustainability should influence the way you eat, the way you travel, the way you buy things, the way you invest and inform, the way you participate in the world. Just wearing the ’sustainability’ hat when you’re in front of the computer or advising clients to choose recycled paper makes no sense to me.”
It is a detachment that designers seem to fall into time and time again. To design seem to assume that it is to design for others, to fix other people’s problems. When do we begin ‘designing’ ourselves? A practice of ‘being in’ or ’starting within’ our own thoughts and reflecting on our way of being?
Neal’s PhD uses the concept of ‘the other’ to represent the sociality of the practice – though I am not yet clear whether ‘the other’ is physically someone else, or using a mental concept of ‘another’, like a third-person objective thing.
Anyway, I think I am beginning to collate some thoughts on what I could write with Terry in the future..
A potential course on sustainability
From a conversation with Tania on a potential Masters course on sustainability, she illuminated that there are various courses offered on this subject that range from very heavily academic/theoretical; MBA-style quick-fixes (she mentioned vegan packaging); or the one by Tony Fry, which I assume would be to make designers feel terribly guilty for not ’seeing the light’.
So, what would this course teach?
We then circled around a lot of the issues that I had posted here before – and my lack of definition on what the ‘design’ aspect is to a lot of service design examples. When students are entering into a course such as this with their firm skill based and knowledge of communication design practice, how do we nurture and develop this? How do we educate, what Ideo call, ‘T-shaped’ people (in-depth, as well as broad, general knowledge)?
I then talked to her about Terry Irwin’s keynote speech at New Views 2 and her squiggly diagram of the wicked problem.
The red box is what her role was – where her usual practice boundary existed. Even though she was given a logo to design for a crystal shop, where the usual procedure would be to research the context and apply that to a visual outcome, she then decided to ask questions about where the crystals were from, how they were transported etc. By engaging the client in this conversation, they were both entering into the wriggly lines where it gets complex but begins interconnecting with other things. Terry talks about this being a way of shifting our paradigm / world views – stepping out into this territory that is outside of our comfort box.
Then, with Tania, we also highlighted how confronting for us (designers) to be that red dot in amongst the wriggle-lines. Where do we anchor ourselves, where to begin? Would this lead to more confusion for the students, or nurture a kind of apathy/heaviness that we are too powerless to deal with?
At the end of the 2hr discussion, however, we highlighted that there were key things that we could start with, for example, building an awareness of the largeness of the issue, but still relating it back to our practices. So, maybe the students could look at an existing project (like as basic as designing a logo) and analyse how the actions, resources and other elements connect with other things. The idea is to locate ourselves in relation to this activity, and also identify what surrounds it. Who is it for, what is it? We thought that creating diagrams would be a good way to ‘make sense’ of this. Designing as sense-making, firstly for ourselves, for our peer group, and then, through a process of redeveloping it, how it could be used when talking to a client.
Obviously, this needs more thought, but its a good start anyway..
Ursula Tischner talk at Melbourne Uni
… recently was disappointing. I think she pitched her talk too low for a general audience. Her talk was half convincing the audience to care more for the environment (yes, yawn..) and a scattering of example projects that her company econcept (www.econcept.org). I would have liked if she went into those projects in detail to explain how and what has been done more thoroughly. More case studies of ‘what went wrong’ would have been helpful too, considering that her audiences were mainly designers from various disciplines.
Though, what I walked away with was the necessity to have a design practice that is really placing socio/environmental concerns as the core value of their activities. Nothing really innovative really exists in Australia yet. Ursula shared with us how she begun her practice initially as a researcher/student working on industry-based projects. This gave me an idea that an ideal model for practice will include four key pillars illustrated below:
• Research: This is key driver to ensure innovation and constant desire to seek new knowledge. It is also motivated by the desire to share and disseminate knowledge and push/lead the practice.
• Funding: Through research, funding could be generated to work on projects or to work alternatively in projects.
• Design practice: This ensures that projects are completed and realised in a practical, productive manner. It is also outcome driven and ensures that one-foot always stays in the ‘real world’.
• Education: This is vital in ensuring that knowledge generated through research and practice is fed back into the curriculum and educate students with the skills/questioning capacity required to create an alternative practice.
This alternative studio model consists of fluid movement of people who are collaborating within a site of interest. The dotted line is defined by time/resources/ opportunity presented by the project context, where the red circles are people/knowledge/skill base that move through each project. I really like the idea of a ‘collective’, rather than a ‘company’ as the emphasis of this model is based on networks of people that come together for a shared purpose.
I feel as if I know enough open-minded, talented, knowledgeable people who share similar values as me to carry out such practice. I am hoping that the current project with M could be a trial of such model… then to be documented, made into a case study to be shared with other designers and students…
Lets hope so!