Do we really need each other?

Maybe more than you think.

The apple you ate. The road you walked along. The toilet you used. The words or wave or nod with which you greeted a neighbor. They are all products of human making and they all make our lives interconnected and interdependent in ways that we can never disentangle.

SVA Products of Design and the Omidyar Network are collaborating this summer 2018 on an initiative that explores how we can harness our interdependence to build a stronger, more tolerant and tolerable society; how we can reveal to one another the ways in which we are already deeply interdependent; and how design can facilitate a consciously, radical interdependence that draws on emotional connections with loved ones to more clearly invest in the vast network of humanity that provides the interconnected framework of daily life.

Mayha Soltani, Will Crum and the author mapping our our interdependencies. Photo credit: Alexa Forney

Our small but agile team consists of emerging designers from SVA: Smruti Adya (PoD ’18), Alexia Cohen (PoD ’18), Will Crum (PoD ’18), Andrew Schlesinger (PoD’18), Mahya Soltani (Graphic Design ’18), and Qixuan Wang (PoD ’19). They will ideate, prototype and create design interventions that examine how we can mitigate social and political polarization. The team began by exploring the conditions for achieving functional interdependence across domains.

We identified ten core factors:

· Shared sense of purpose
· Intentionality
· Conscience
· Adaptability
· Shared material resources
· Ritual
· A contract or covenant
· Acknowledgement of individual and collective vulnerability
· Information-sharing, including knowledge passed down through generations
· Built-in system for meaningful disagreement

Designing for a young adult population that has yet to form rigid conceptions of “self” in relation to society, our goal is to:

· Identify opportunities to visualize or reveal our existing interdependencies with the hope of building new bridges of cooperation among currently feuding or polarized communities.
· Create mechanisms for mitigating conflict, thereby building individual and collective resilience in communities that are feeling increasingly disconnected.
· Initiate new interdependences by drawing on the wisdom of communities that have demonstrated their own resilience in the face of disaster.
· Reveal future potentials in the face of either diminishing inter-group reliance or an embrace of our collective capacities.

Our core assumption, as established by the Omidyar Network’s design brief, and so clearly articulated to us by project lead Roy Steiner:

We simply are interdependent.

Agriculture, infrastructure, language: each is evidence of how deeply we need each other to fulfill the daily functions of life. We can have none of them without the toil, intelligence and generosity of generations of human beings from every part of the world contributing to their existence.

Tomb Chapel of Raemkai, Egypt, ca 2400 BCE. Credit: Met Museum, Rogers Fund, 1908. Early agriculture, shared globally and passed down through the ages, feeds us all.

The cultivation of seeds in the Levant more than 10,000 years ago provides the wheat for breads, pastas, cereals and desserts that line supermarket shelves today. Aqueducts built in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago served as precursors for modern plumbing including the smart fridge that taps into your clean water supply, the tub your children play in and the toilet that washes waste away from your home. The emojis littering your screen were born at the dawn of civilization when early humans carved pictograms on rock, turned sound into meaning, structured language systems that spread around the earth through storytellers along trade routes and then printing presses that codified those thoughts on paper, in books, and now on screens for billions of people across the world to engage with synchronously, with global repercussions.

Designer Andrew Schlesinger developing concepts. Photo credit: Alexa Forney

Where our political spaces often enforce the feeling that we are more divided than connected, our cultural spaces often fill in the gaps. How can we re-affirm our collaborative human pursuit to reinforce that we all, all of us, need each other’s talents, insights, knowledge, generosity and goodwill to sustain life? The fact that we often feel so fundamentally disconnected from each other, from community, from meaning, from ourselves has been lamented in many articles, books and TED talks over the past generation. How can we be so in need of one another to survive and yet so disconnected from our sense of collective being?

As we spend the next four weeks exploring and designing around these questions, we will draw inspiration from philosophers and cultural critics. Among them, the written work of Kwame Anthony Appiah, Arjun Appadurai, Zygmunt Bauman, Arturo Escobar and Sylvia Wynter. We will hear from colleagues and thought leaders like Douglas Rushkoff, Alexa Courtney, Marc Dones, Travis Granfar and Richard Tyson who will visit with our team to share their reflections and raise more questions.

In the course of this project, we seek out constant reminders of our global, cultural and functional points of interconnectedness. We reflect on the various threads of collective being:

Food: dependent on farmers who cultivate the soil and seeds that grow every single food we ingest; and those same farmers depend on the consumer’s part in an economic system that gives value to their labor.

Feast of Sada, Tabriz, ca 1525. What we have in common is greater than what differentiates us: codified language, social exchange, ceremony, the fruits of agriculture and sense of community.

Household products: Every bottle, ballpoint pen, asthma dispenser, smartphone, guitar pick, basketball, diaper, rain boot, scooter, garden hose, lightbulb and tampon is produced by workers around the globe in factories that are regulated by complex systems that establish safety guidelines, distribution methods and ultimately a retail presence that brings those Must-Have objects right to a shelf or doorstep near you. Without those workers, those factories, the regulators, the methods of distribution and marketplaces, we would, none of us, enjoy the fruits of our common, contemporary lives.

Social media: Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter could never exist were it not for our collective understanding that each solitary being yearns for meaningful connection with the many, varied others in this world.

Cultural expression: The musician whose ideas provide the backdrop to more moments in our lives than we might recognize — from Soundcloud to TV soundtrack, from supermarket to hospital waiting room, from hold button to sports arena to the ringtone on your phone — is the product of global, generational, cultural exchange. Music — each intentional composition of sound, every new instrument and lyrical form — exists as the product of our interdependent, apolitical, cultural being. There is no musical form that does not exist independent of outside influence, from across the globe and through time immemorial.

We simply are interdependent.

The theme of interdependence, as we see it, is a means toward a still undefined end goal. Perhaps at the end is a clearer path toward social cohesion that disrupts the current state of political polarization, social isolation and cultural anxiety. Perhaps in some small way, the work we are doing here will ripple outward, bringing more people into the conversation about how we are connected and why we should continue to strive for the messy possibilities that interdependence enables. We feel that we have already dropped a pebble in this pond and we look forward to our further engagement with the Omidyar Network, adding our voices to the collective good.