I met Akna at Ness Labs during a virtual event to promote interaction among community members. In our call, I felt we had a lot in common in our approach to life and work. And I also sensed there was a lot more to uncover. This interview confirmed that my intuition was sharp at the time.
Akna’s life story is a fascinating mashup of cultures by itself, but also a signpost for the future ahead. If globalization has paved the way for many people to become global citizens, the climate crisis will bring mass migrations from the most affected regions. Our life, identity, and sense of belonging will be turned on its head. In that context, Akna’s concept of a global sense of identity is precious and something we all should reflect on.
When I asked Akna about her thoughts on sustainability literacy, I was surprised. I was expecting some solid ideas, which I got. I wasn’t expecting a website curated by Akna with pointers for great resources to nurture positive change — ideas for a bright, kind, and sustainable world.
You should also visit Akna’s main website to get to know the unbelievable diversity of projects she works on — and how she balances specialization and generalization in such an elegant way.
As I was writing these lines, I realized that I didn’t even ask anything about Multisensory Design, which is always at the top of my mind…. That’s how rich Akna’s world is; there are so many possible paths to follow…
I deeply believe Akna’s answers will open your brain to uncharted territory.
Bird’s Eye View
Can you give us a glimpse of your life story?
I was born in Venezuela, in 1993, into a big family (to give you an idea, both of my grandmothers had about ten children each). I’m very close to them, especially on my mother’s side, since my “abuelita” lived with us since she knew my mom was pregnant with me.
When I was six, I moved with my parents, my sister, and my grandmother to New Delhi, India, where we lived for five years, because of my dad’s job. It was a huge change in every aspect: culture, religion, gastronomy, and language.
During this Venezuela-India-Venezuela again period, I studied in six different schools, so I had to get used to being the “new kid” in class (even though I was very shy).
I’ve always been curious about many topics, which was an issue when I had to choose a formal career path when I graduated high school at 16. Now I see that I was too young to know anything, but I ultimately chose architecture school, for its combination of arts and science.
While studying, the political and economic situation in Venezuela got worse, and I decided to leave the country, already knowing that I would probably never live there again.
In this determination to look for better opportunities and continue learning, I lived three and a half years in Panama City, Panamá, then moved to Barcelona, Spain, to pursue a graduate program in Product Development and a master’s degree in Design through New Materials. During these years, I worked as an architect, interior designer, and materials & sustainability consultant while exploring personal side-projects.
What drives you?
Learning. Discovering the world. Feeling useful. Even though I’m not a religious person, I feel life on this planet is so amazing that it almost feels like a miracle. In the vast universe, we are fortunate to be surrounded by so much: sunlight, oceans, plants, and a mind-blowing diversity of creatures, including human beings.
We are emotional, creative, smart, funny, and full of contradictions, but we also have a wild capacity for growth and kindness.
Ultimately, I just want to love deeply, make a positive impact through my work and daily actions, and try to make the most out of it. Life, as they say, is short.
How did you develop what you call a global sense of identity?
While living in India, my childhood was shaped by a contrast of cultures and traditions, cherishing my family’s customs (reading the Bible daily to my Adventist grandmother and singing hymns), while embracing the new ones: Agnihotra rituals, the festivals of Diwali, and Holi (my favorite!). We celebrated and tried all we could.
As an adult, now living in Spain, I try to replicate this. I love learning new local jargon, incorporating new festivities, and enjoying the sacred ritual of Sunday vermouth. But I also love being an ambassador of Venezuelan food for all of my friends.
Being an immigrant and having this foreign experience as a child, I don’t feel an intense national belonging but neither will I fully “belong” to a new city or country, in the same sense as people who have been born there.
Nationalism and appreciation of one’s roots are huge components of our identity, and although that can have many positive aspects, this can also create some divisions and barriers. Maybe if we thought of ourselves in a more global sense, we could see that we are all connected and work better as a society to solve what really matters.
Product, Materials, and Sustainability
What’s your creative philosophy?
Every endeavor is a creative endeavor, and all your experiences will add up to what you can create in the future.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “that which you are, is the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation.”
Being a woman of many passions, how do you pick your next project?
I tend to rationalize most things, but I’m also learning to get more attuned to my intuition. When choosing among different projects, I try to listen to my gut feeling and actively seek what excites me. That always leads to good places.
How can we improve the overall sustainability literacy?
First of all, start seeing ourselves as part of nature again. Humans have existed for just a tiny fraction of Earth’s life and yet we have managed to disturb its cycles profoundly. We must relearn how to connect with other ecosystems and design our processes and technologies to integrate with them. We are all part of the same.
A good starting point is learning more about the impact of our consumption habits and daily actions. However, significant change will only come from a redesign of industrial systems. We have to demand that, and that requires knowledge and activism in different spheres.
We would have to incorporate sustainability as a keyframe to view everything, from educational programs to business operations. Since many of us have grown without that perspective, there’s a lot we have to learn on our own.
The book “The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World” by Arran Stibbe can serve as a primer for key concepts on sustainability. As a side-project, I recently created this Notion database with different resources and ideas, which may lead you onto some discovery rabbit holes.
Mostly, it’s a never-ending learning process to try to live and create more responsibly through a conscious use of resources. Where do yours come from?
Learning and Reinvention
What does learning mean for you? And how do you learn?
Learning is my fuel. It is something that fills me with wonder and joy.
I’ve always loved books, so that is a big source of learning for me. However, I try to combine different learning methods, from passive learning (researching, observing, or the consultation of different resources), to a more active approach: reformulating ideas and synthesizing learned concepts in a personal blog, doing things with my hands and using my other senses, prototyping ideas, and experimenting.
Resources are varied: films, music, museums, conversations… There’s so much knowledge that has been built through time in different cultures. It’s really exciting!
How do you see yourself in the spectrum of generalization/specialization?
I’ve specialized in the areas of materials and sustainability, but I would say I’m somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. To me, it is also key to be able to switch between scales: from the urban, the architectural, the product, to the molecular composition. This ability to zoom in and out, while trying to see things from different perspectives is what I seek through a generalist approach.
How do you cross-pollinate knowledge from one field to the other?
I believe connecting different disciplines is where innovation and learning emerge. I intentionally try to observe and learn from other fields, but sometimes the connections happen naturally. The human brain is very good at recognizing patterns.
In the end, everything is a remix. In our creative work, we are inseparable from our inspirations. Sometimes we don’t even know where they come from but they materialize through you if you keep your channels open.
Past and Future
Can you share some of the major lessons you’ve learned so far?
Rest is essential to creativity. I am the most creative when I am taking care of myself: eating well, taking regular breaks, and getting a good night’s sleep.
Another fundamental is developing critical thinking. This is not something our society teaches us to do. Actually, it can seem that questioning the way things work is inappropriate.
Learn to ask a lot of questions and understand that many things (people or institutions) have an agenda. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. But it is advisable to have some context of your learning resources, their possible biases (and yours), and forming your own opinion.
Which big questions do you have on your mind currently?
Will we survive the Sixth Extinction? What actions could have the most impactful positive change? Who has the power? How can we work better together? Where do our motivations come from?
How do you face the future? Do you make plans for it?
I used to plan a lot, but lately, I’m less rigid with that. The future is uncertain so there will always be an adaptation of plans. I do, however, need some sort of structure to move forward. What I try to do is be open to opportunities and mostly plan things in the near future, so I always have something to look forward to.