Color through Greys: The Design of Culture in Cuba
At a time where many people are poised for something to happen in Cuba — shifting international relations, political change, connectivity, reliable infrastructure, and the tourism we’ve all heard so much about — I feel privileged to have visited at this moment in history. My visit was part of a joint venture between the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, Aspen Institute, The Flow Collective, and our company, Uncorked Studios. The focus of the trip was something familiar to our team at Uncorked — to lead the second installment of a workshop on entrepreneurship and innovation, an effort we initiated last October called Incúbate.
Looking back, the trip was far more about a dialogue — both for our U.S. delegation and Cubans. Our week was spent meeting and talking with a variety of people, ranging from hotel bathroom attendants to co-op partners to former Ambassadors for the Cuban State.
This ongoing dialogue helped everyone establish a baseline understanding not only of our countries’ relationships, but of the context of Cuba itself. For me personally, I wanted to understand the value of design and the power of ideas, especially in situations where the people involved do not call themselves designers. Both before and during the Incúbate workshop, one thing became clear — the impact of design means something different in Cuba. The stakes are far more fundamental and far reaching, if only because the pace of change is so rapid.
I’ve always been intrigued by non-professional design of all sorts, and certainly found that throughout Cuba. We saw this in both explicit (the famously vintage cars, vibrant art and design) and far more implicit ways. Whether it is using a syringe to reuse empty ink cartridges, the ingeniously-analog internet “El Paquete”, or something as simple as ad-hoc to-go coffee cups — design, and the impact of design, means something different in Cuba. As my friend Nick Parish noted after facilitating the first Incúbate workshop: “All Cubans are Designers.”
The professional design community talks quite a bit about user needs. But the openness we have allows us to obfuscate actual needs. That is, we have options in our needs. Further, we have possibilities of solutions, and laws that allow most anything to happen freely.
Design in Cuba means something far different. Laws are shifting, enabling new business structures and technological possibility. But in many cases, those shifts all begin with fundamental needs — needs that the government was once responsible for.
Our Incúbate workshop only brought this into clearer focus. The workshop became less about familiar product/service design methodologies and much more about seeing the interconnectivity of the context, elevated stakes, and caveat…‘in Cuba’.
I was surprised to hear many of the attendees using familiar product design language — MVP, iteration, design-thinking, UX, and more. Concepts and methodologies that are tried and true techniques and terms have been conceptually adopted by Cuban attendees. But while an entrepreneur could have the most focused product concept that takes into account business and user needs, it is a product that must work in (or around) many other variables in Cuba.
The freedoms that enable entrepreneurship in the U.S. are simply not present in Cuba. What does technology mean in a society that is largely offline? How do you create an online service in an all cash economy? How do you maintain updated online inventory when your company and customers are largely offline? How do you (or should you) scale? What is success?
These are fundamental questions that are caught in several different winds of change. Everybody is aware that change is happening — whether it is a restructuring of the laws around business or the imminent arrival of cruise ships from America. But the desire and drive to create, in Cuba, requires something far more daunting and systemic. The drive to entrepreneurship, or tourism, or political change, or shifting attitudes, or behaviors are all factors in a much larger design challenge — Cubans are designing culture.
The entrepreneurs we met are a core part of this shift. They’re building products and services that not only deliver on a specific need (for example, Conoce Cuba, a Yelp-like app outlining Cuban businesses and services), but also are the front lines of change.
As we worked alongside the Cuban participants, challenges came to the fore — not just of businesses, but of ideas. What do ideas mean in Cuba, and how do they stay standing? This is particularly difficult to answer given the ambiguity throughout the country. There’s rarely a situation that is black or white. Everything operates in some degree of grey. A system, business for example, fits within a larger system of legality. And that legal system fits within an additional system of traditions and beliefs that are rapidly changing.
As the world opens around them, Cubans are faced with a daunting task of designing a culture that is uniquely theirs, but also works with the world outside of Cuba.
It’s rare to see an article that doesn’t mention the sense and scale of time in Cuba. It’s a country ‘stuck in time’. That’s an easy narrative to fall into, especially at the surface.
But I saw a country blazing forward — moving around time, designing new solutions that work within Cuban time, and creating a very specific, purpose-driven, vibrant culture.
And as the world has shifted, with startup methodologies, with lighting fast internet, and with technological shifts that enable new concepts — Cubans have seen those shifts somewhat from a distance. They’re excited about them, want to learn from them, and more than anything want to use them in Cuba.
It’s not that simple.
As one co-op partner we met with noted, broadly about change in Cuba: “If you have a clock that’s run for years as is, you can’t jam another gear inside the clock and expect it to continue working the same.”
Using that same analogy, I believe Cuban entrepreneurs need to be equipped with tools to create an all new clock. They know the goals, but lack the resources and tools that could enable it all. The cross-disciplinary needs — legal, business, and political frameworks — only further complicate entrepreneurship in Cuba.
Many businesses see Cuba exclusively as an untapped market. It may indeed be that, but requires a deeper understanding of why it could be a market. I’d recommend individuals, businesses, and organizations who are interested to first look beneath the surface. Go to learn. Learn about people’s lives. Learn about the systems that are in place and how they compare to assumptions we have about our own culture. Do better than market expansion and tourism. Think less about importing our ideals and ideas onto Cuba, but about how the dialogue could create something newer, better, and more tailored for the needs. For anything to truly succeed, it will require focused, sustained effort. There are design methodologies that could work not just for Cubans, but because of Cubans.
If the small group we met with is any indication, that determination is well established. Change has always been a constant in Cuba. Many changes require an insider’s eye to feel the effects; however, it is happening in forms far bigger and fundamental than cruise ships filled with tourists.
It is clear the people we met — accountants, farmers, sex-educators, entrepreneurs, vintage taxi drivers, designers, and artists — are the designers of culture. Reflecting back on some of those people, I think Dieter Rams unintentionally summarized what design means in Cuba:
“Good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times. They should–and must–question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.”
I saw that in the eyes of everyone we met — every one an avant-gardist ahead of their time. I’d encourage anybody who is thinking about Cuba in any meaningful way to first and foremost meet people. You’ll see, as our group did, that despite the changing winds, the people of Cuba are stable, inspired, and eagerly designing their own future.
David Ewald is Chief Creative Officer at Uncorked Studios. A founding partner, David leads the design team across all Uncorked products. His love of design and focus on people has helped Uncorked create products for Google, Samsung, Intel, and LEGO. David’s previous work for Target, Cartoon Network, Nike, and Matador Records built a foundation for his unique blend of entrepreneurship and social impact. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism.
Uncorked envisions a world where innovation applies to entrepreneurs, non-profits, and the world’s largest brands in equal measure. They help teams build products with purpose through their shared expertise, space, and financial resources. They are not bound by history, politics, platforms, or place.
David earned his Bachelor of Science in Communications from the University of Minnesota. He is an accomplished photographer, and spends his spare time documenting stories in and around the Pacific Northwest. He is originally from Wisconsin and lives in Forest Grove, Oregon, with his wife and son.