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Embedding Design in the Big Picture
Bregje van Eekelen - Delft University of Technology
About author
Eco-LogicaEditions 2020

Eco-logica thematises an old truth: that designers operate in an entangled world. If we look at the world “as is”, that is, as “complex environments or ecologies consisting of multiple people, products and systems, which are entangled, unpredictable and interdependent,” what does that mean for design? For instance, following eco-logica, if we think of the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that co-constitute us humans, shouldn’t that change the way we do “human-centred” design? Anthropologists have shown that scales such as “global” and “local” are made and remade. Similarly, the “eco-logical” is not a unified process, but a scale that needs to be imagined. And this is where design comes in. When it comes to the Big Picture – eco-logica – we have an imaginative deficit. What is lacking, primarily, are ways to imagine the bobbing and weaving of living beings, events, corporations, and institutions that make up eco-logica. 

What are ways to make the interconnectedness sensible, how can we conjure these dimensions without a disaster that opens our eyes? Can design be a catalyst? We have always operated in a complex environment, most of us just didn’t have the tools to imagine – let alone intervene in – the web of connections. Until disaster strikes. Users of the blood thinner Heparin probably didn’t think of the mucous membrane of pig intestines it is made of, nor of the family workshops in Jiangsu Province, China, where this raw material is collected, cooked, and dried. Until disaster strikes. In 2008 a pandemic of blue ear pig disease decimated the supply of pig intestines, and the subsequent unraveling of the supply chain (and adulteration of the raw material with fish cartilage) not only led to sick and dying patients in America, but also offered an unusual peek into the concrete social conditions and political institutions (including regulatory voids) that enable the flow of medical goods.  

“If we think of the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that co-constitute us humans, shouldn’t that change the way we do “human-centered” design?”
Bregje van Eekelen

It often takes a disaster to imagine things as they are: complicated. Covid-19 shows us that the economy, health and logistics are interconnected realms – as they always have been. They did not become interconnected because of the pandemic. We just couldn’t see the interrelations. Similarly, I had no idea that at least 1.5 million foreign contract workers from places like the Philippines, Thailand, and Bangladesh lived in Libya until I learned about their scramble to leave the north-African nation in 2011. Two years later, another crisis, another connection surfaces. The halting of all orders of cars in the color Tuxedo Black and three types of red in 2013 taught me that the pigment Xirallic is only made in the coastal town of Onahama, near the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station. Who knew? It’s not like supply chains are not partly carved by industrial designers. But they are simultaneously erased from the public imagination, tucked away in a label if documented at all. 

The urgent challenge for designers is to help us imagine these entangled worlds – to turn design inside out. For instance, as true costs are coming back to bite us, can design help us imagine these costs that are energized by the already existing connections? Transmission Ticker’s hyper-mechanical and multi-sensory intervention to conjure data’s environmental impact on a ticker tape as well as Future Fish’s intriguing visualisation of the supply chain of eels suggests design can. Future Fish’s mission to focus attention on the invisible and unsustainable eco-logic of seafood consumption, for instance, is actualised not by smoothing over the problem with a fake eel, but by staying with the trouble through the wonderful map of the complex yet specific ecosystem that make an eel a palatable eel. To co-create “futures that have a future”, to echo the poignant phrase by Arturo Escobar, we have our work cut out for us.

“The urgent challenge for designers is to help us imagine these entangled worlds – to turn design inside out.”
Bregje van Eekelen

“But can that be all, a catalyst for the imagination?” I can hear solution-oriented colleagues think. Take a moment to let it sink in: there is nothing more powerful than design that changes the way we think about ourselves and the worlds around us. Can designers harness the power of disasters without them taking place? I hope we can. Let me provide a concrete challenge. Can we imagine the rising waters in the Netherlands – waters that are interconnected with literally the entire globe – without first experiencing an impending disaster that will pale the North Sea Flood of 1953 into insignificance? Can Dutch identities, so intertwined with the idea and experience of the control of land and water (thanks to that prior flood), be upgraded to take in the facts that climate scientists and civic engineers have in abundance but that don’t seem to “land” – that within our children’s lifetime sizeable areas of the Netherlands will be returned to the sea? Can designers save us from our outdated selves and help us sense and imagine the eco-logic that sustains and floods us? I hope we can.

Speaking of upgrades, eco-logic perspectives challenge the field of design to the core. Let me highlight three elements that require a thorough reworking: solutions, design space, and impact. In an eco-logic approach, we have to wean ourselves off of the comforts of solutionist tendencies – we scale the research process, not the solutions. There is no dyke high enough, for instance, to ward off a rethinking of the Dutch terrain and all that that entails. The next challenge for eco-logic designers is that we can’t control the Big Picture – we can’t “border off” a complex design space – but we can imagine it in myriad ways. The Transmission Ticker leverages for instance what we do know, and conjures a desire to explore what we don’t. Its challenge to help us sense data’s environmental impact is exemplary Big Picture design. Yes, the worlds that sustain our screens are largely invisible, though not because of a lack of transparency “caused by the sheer complexity”, as the team surmises (transparency is a myth that belongs to the world of control). Rather, we need designers – instead of a disaster – to help us imagine this messy eco-logic.

Finally, some eco-logic design projects have reported to struggle with the gap between awareness and behaviour. Good, let that gap be. And let design be redefined. Imagine that the hum of Transmission Ticker’s sonic tape (it was called a ticker because of the sound) really changes the way people conceive of themselves and the worlds they live in – it should then be hard, and perhaps also a category mistake, to think about step two in terms of behaviour change. If our practices are entangled in complex eco-logical systems, if we consider longer futures, and deeper histories, behaviour of humans should exactly not be imagined as a separately measurable category. Let us consider, slowly – and ourselves impacted by the design visions of an entangled world – what “transformations” might resonate with these imaginaries of the world as it already is. Let’s take those into account. Let impact be redefined. If design can create these openings, wormholes, to imagine a world that already exists, it ushers us closer, hopefully, to that future that has a future.

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