Our Year One PhD candidates opened class today by preparing breakfast in a specific way. We had vegan and gluten free foods on three tiers, each representing the Sustainable Development Goals, and selected questions for discussion that had been intermingled with the food. Examples included “How small is small?” and “What opportunities do the SDGs offer for the field of design?”
Next, we heard from each of our session leaders on the theme of the morning: small, local, open, and connected (SLOC). The talks varied, though they all touched on each person’s work in relationship to their theme, and ended with provocations for the class.
- Donna has done a lot of work in fashion, but started small, with Barbies. As she developed in her career and started making clothing for adults, she learned more about the fashion industry. We buy more clothing and wear it less than ever before, and innovations in the industry have engineered humans out of much of the garment construction process. Everything we wear has been touched by a pair of hands, however, because it’s hard to re-engineer machines to match pace with changing trends. If you send your clothing to a recycling center, it doesn’t necessarily get recycled. It’s sold, burned, or buried.
- My Pads Program operates in Uganda and works with girls and boys on reproductive health. In a nine-week after school program, participants learn how to make reusable menstrual pads. Donna learned through iteration on the toolkits for making pads. The first set of materials required too much translation, and so she tried to make an IKEA diagram for the second round. To date, they have taught over 5,000 girls and boys how to make pads.
- In Brooklyn, Donna and some collaborators volunteered at a textile sorting mill. She wanted to work with people who weren’t designers and didn’t necessarily know how to sew. They sorted through garments and came up with ideas for what to do with the material. They had lots of people that came in to help sew, and on the last day they opened up to the community. She wanted to understand mental models of how the average person thinks about waste in order to make conversations about zero waste more accessible.
- Project Drawdown focuses on women smallholders, who own about five acres of land. Its goal is to fund women while sequestering carbon dioxide.
- “Design with/for/of Place.” Erica opened with a photo of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Jane led the fight against Robert to protect urban spaces and what happens on the ground: “local living economies.”
- Small business (five or fewer employees) makes up 80% of the U.S. economy. When Erica worked at Etsy, she had the opportunity to co-found an organization called Good Work Institute with money from the IPO. They took Etsy’s mission — to reimagine commerce — and invested $4 million in Hudson Valley communities. They felt strongly that everyone was part of the economy. The fellowship program they designed is about building community and reinforcing its connection to place. Local currencies, for example, are a way to keep the focus on local because it can only be spent locally.
- Local does not mean a sustained focus on isolationism or exceptionalism. We are the only species in the digital; everyone else is “down to earth.” We might think about natural boundaries instead of political boundaries — bioregions, for example.
- The open posture in design practice is a source of strength. For example, designers can exhibit a neutral response when listening and gathering feedback. We have comfort with ambiguity, curiosity to explore unexpected connections, and draw inspiration from the ends of the bell curve. In organizations, we pursue external collaborations, partnerships, shared data, and shared processes. We seek to be surprised: to disprove your assumptions, to roll with and play with incongruous ideas, and to take risks and learn from mistakes.
- When we think about open postures in systemic design, we need to ask ourselves, whose voice is missing? How large can we make this circle of concern or influence? Have we expanded the boundaries of this problem space far enough? And have we listened radically to all stakeholders?
- A major theme here is plurality. There are plural futures, plural lives, plural perspectives in the world. “Feedback is key to recognize and repair our inevitable and often unaware collusion” (DiAngelo, White Fragility). We will likely need to have difficult conversations about inclusion in design practice, and be open about our mistakes. Being able to recover from our mistakes is more important than never making any.
- Food connects everything, regardless of knowledge silos. Silvana asked us to read from outside the design field to try to connect with the complexity of the issues she is working on. She chose to work on food because it links to every aspect of our lives, and connects every one of us. It not only represents life, but is a fundamental need; it is a determinant of our health and well-being as humans, and helps us to understand complexity.
- Planetary health is a concept that helps us understand how the food of people and the planet are interconnected. The planet has limited resources and a safe operating space for humanity, beyond which lies a lot of uncertainty for humanity. The extent of the interdependence of planetary systems is not fully known or understood by humans.
- Another key concept is the commons. Food as a commons means revalorizing different dimensions relevant to human beings (value-in) use and reducing the commodity dimension (value-in-exchange). This shift in how we manage and value our food resources is important, because today we think of food as a commodity, which causes price variation and therefore conflicts.
- Food connects us temporally and spatially. What we have on our plates is connected to global geopolitical forces including transportation, politics, agriculture, and more. Who decides what we can eat or drink? What will food look like in the future? Which traditions would you like to preserve?
- Food re-connects us as social and cultural beings. Any food practice is place-based. It does not just add up to its ingredients, but also incorporates cultural and social beliefs. It’s important to preserve the skills and knowledge attached to these foods, which begs the question: which ingredients will we preserve? This implicates both biological diversity and cultural diversity.
- Food can be a recipe and tool for transformation, and presents an opportunity for design. We need creativity, experimentation, imagination, capacity building, and change. What is a positively resilient food culture like? How can we cook towards that?
SLOC Speed Sessions
Next, we did an exercise where the session leaders distributed themselves to each of the four tables. Participants rotated around the room, having conversations about their thesis and research topics through the lens of small, local, open, and connected.
Next, we took a few minutes to reflect on our morning. Silvana asked us to write a sentence on an index card that expresses an insight, idea, or question about our work through the lens of SLOC. The objective for the session today was for each person to take something out of the morning that is useful to them and their projects, and this reflection was key.
We shared our ideas to the group as we tacked them to the wall. Each sentence became an ingredient in the final recipe. Silvana left us with a final question to consider: what does this have to do with sustainability?
Thank you to Silvana, Erica, Donna, and Hilary for facilitating a provocative, relevant, and engaging morning.