STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE DURING CORONACENE

The world is attacked by an alien species; this is arguably the closest real-life experience to a Martian invasion our generation has and will ever have. However, in this particular case, the alien species has not come from outer space; it happens to have emerged and evolved on the Earth due to some complex socio-ecological entanglements scientists are yet to fully understand (interesting threads there for those who haven’t been on top “this side” of the corona news, including bats, pangolins, wet markets and factory farming). Its alienness is due to the fact that we have not been properly introduced to one another; no appointments were made, no protocols or etiquette were followed. This Earth-dwelling alien force-introduced itself into our lives and took away the banal variety of our daily agenda and declared its monopoly over all of the conversations we have with colleagues, neighbours, friends and ourselves. In addition, almost overnight, it forced us to change our consumption preferences radically (see meal recipes from famous chefs with three ingredients: toilet paper, hand sanitizer and pasta), to abandon the privilege of choosing to be “offline”, and willingly cancel our travel plans to exotic places in the coming months. For a change, we are not at the top of the food chain or the dominant species these days. Currently, we are scared animals sent to solitary confinement in our very homes (if we are lucky to have one), if not to hospital or grave (yet), collectively experiencing physical and emotional traumas by some microscopic and relatively simple life forms. Welcome to the coronacene.

Each one of us who are currently living under lockdown circumstances will have a vivid memory of how fast our reality have changed from that moment of ‘click’. My click occurred on March 10th. I was visiting Aalborg University in Copenhagen for two days as a guest professor. My host told me that the staff was expecting the university to close from the following week onwards. Before that moment lockdowns were a possibility that I hadn’t entertained; yes, they were happening but surely, ‘elsewhere’. The day after I flew back to Helsinki, where I work at a university as an international staff member, on a plane that was only a quarter full, Denmark closed its borders. I had already learned everything about the new coronavirus at the airport while waiting for departure and a lot about general epidemiology. The next day my university announced we were moving teaching online. That weekend I worked around the clock to be able to deliver my class on Monday morning, March 16th, remotely. In the afternoon of the same day, Finland declared a state of emergency; I followed the Prime Minister’s press briefing, which was broadcasted live on the national television, in a Facebook messenger group of three other international academics where a volunteer did a simultaneous translation. When it was finished, I immediately left home to buy cat litter for my two cats (I knew essential supplies would be available under lockdown conditions, however, I wasn’t sure if pet supplies were considered as such. It turns out they do; no current shortage of cat litter to my relief). It has been one week and five days since then (I’m writing this on March 29th); however, I feel like it has been eons. Two days ago, a new level of lockdown has been declared: those who live in the Helsinki region shall not leave the borders of the region. Some Finnish friends and colleagues have left to their family mökkis (summer houses) in the country. I am staying in my fifty square meter apartment in central Helsinki with my two cats and leave home daily for a short walk (if it is sunny) by the water and grocery shopping. I am increasingly anxious with the thought of my 80-year-old mum becoming sick, or worse dying, and me not being able to leave this country where borders are closed, to go to my birth country to care for my mum if need be, or worse, to attend her funeral. My boss told me though the other day that “Oh, but, you know, we’re all worried about our loved ones.”, so I guess, I should chill with this new and ‘life changing’ information I gained in that instant of exchanging ‘empathy’.

The first week of the lockdown was very surreal however ‘easy’ as there were immediate problems to be solved: Classes needed to be appropriated and delivered, all meetings that colonized my calendar weeks in advance needed to be held, invited guest lectures scheduled months ago needed to be video-recorded and sent to hosts, my small entrepreneur friends who lost all of their expected income in the coming months needed to be supported in their search to find solutions, a surge of fast emerging social innovations required to be followed closely (as professional curiosity) and care systems for the elderly in my apartment block needed to be established (as my community responsibility). I was worried but energized and very focused in the present immediacy of a rapidly unfolding crisis situation. Amidst this ‘flow experience’ I even managed to park the hurt and heartbreak induced by having been abruptly separated with my partner-of-two-years in mid-February, for reasons beyond our relationships. Once the immediacy of an emergent situation has past, around the beginning of this week ending (in the time of writing), my focus has started to shift to the ember that we all are currently sitting on in different capacities and at different resilience levels; me, on my own, in a country where I cannot even speak the language of and in a state of fresh heartbreak.

In some recent op-eds this sudden yet perpetual discomfort and pain that we have found ourselves in has been described as grief; grief of real and anticipated, big and small, clear and ambiguous losses we collectively and individually are experiencing right now. Grief needs to be taken seriously as it is a delicate process; according to well-known theorists it is a process of transformation, indeed, however, such transformation is not per se for the better. Grief, only if handled with a regenerative and generative attitude, can lead to a stronger individual and collective self. In other cases, grief might as well result in the demise of existing resilience manifesting itself as depression and anxiety in individuals and as total or partial collapse and unrest in societies. Also, let me add here, collective grief is not a new experience as some have argued; many communities and for long have been experiencing collective grief due to losses induced by decades long ecosystemic and climatic collapse and centuries long colonization. Through coronacene, now the general population, regardless of the levels of privilege or wealth enjoyed and taken for granted in ‘normal’ times, are experiencing how it feels like to lose a basic sense of security and certainty in one’s immediate environment. For once, the ember sets all buttocks on fire then travel to hearts, but I’m afraid, looking at the shortcomings of broader scale reflections on learnings that are transferable to other immediate crises hanging over our heads as Damocles’ sword (climate change arguably being the most urgent and globally relevant), save the voices of already well-known thinkers, this collective grief may become a wasted opportunity. It surely will leave scars but perhaps not a memory of how quickly we hit the bottom, discovered myriads of capacities and knowledges that help us to cope and stay resilient and numerous ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ we left aside for the common good that we thought to be indispensable only a few weeks ago (academic travel from my own professional context being one). Once some normality is re-established, our pseudo-sense of security and certainty comes back, we may continue living amnesiac lives (because we have forgotten many pasts full of such learnings) and go back to relentless consumerism and community uncare; that’s what we are made to believe is needed to boost the economy after difficult times and forget about the solidarity economies we managed to build overnight in this case and in several instances before during local and global hardships.

What would it take to stay with the trouble during the coronacene instead? In her book[1] that inspired the title of this piece (but the content only loosely), Donna Haraway explains staying with the trouble as becoming response-able by stirring up the waters of our disturbing, devastating, turbulent times rather than hiding passively in the safety of imagined futures; this is required to “rebuild quiet places”. I’d like to put emphasis that hiding into the safety of imagined futures is altogether different than actively imagining futures that are alternative to what we are likely to get should things continue in the same way. In my opinion, rebuilding quiet places is a metaphor, referring to creating these alternative futures as stay with the trouble; as we stir up the now to reveal the rotten, murky foundations of the now. I’m not going to repeat borderline ecofascist memes here on how the virus “has given the Earth time to breathe” based on the factual and fake news on less pollution, reduced emissions and wildlife coming back to cities. This kind of separation between humans and nature is a remnant of the world we have built post Enlightenment, and as many of the dualisms our society has constructed since then, it is reductionist and dangerous. Staying with the trouble should instead require us to think along lines more sophisticated than those that only enable us to act upon used futures[2], the futures that don’t serve us anymore, such as those based on the assumption of humanity’s ability to dominate nature or that we can techno-fix every problem we encounter. I am also not going to give recipes for what kind of desirable futures might arise from this global crisis; first and foremost, we didn’t and don’t need a catastrophe to make us rethink our economic-growth-at-whichever-cost society the use-by-date of which has passed at least almost fifty years ago when The Limits to Growth[3] was published, if not earlier. Instead what I’d like to write about is how we can each start a process of staying with the trouble to rebuild those quiet places.

For this purpose, I’d like to refer to a typology developed by Karen O’Brien[4] in an article in which she discussed how society can transform to meet climate change targets. According to this typology there are three spheres of transformation: the practical, the political and the personal spheres. The practical sphere is about the specific actions, innovations and behaviours that directly contribute to a ‘desired’ outcome. The political sphere is about the systems and structures that are in place which create our everyday reality, that facilitate or constrain practical responses. This sphere is about shared interests and understandings as well as where disagreement and dissent are expressed, norms are challenged, and social movements are formed to address structural issues. The personal sphere, on the other hand, is about the subjective; the worldviews, beliefs, values and paradigms we hold individually and collectively. These subjectivities influence how we perceive and construct the structures and systems in place, what is individually and collectively imaginable, desirable, viable and achievable and how and where the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘others’ are drawn. This sphere essentially governs the other two implying that transformation in this sphere is a prerequisite for transformation to take place in the other two.

When it comes to transformation, regardless of whether at personal or societal level, the general tendency is to intervene (only) in the practical sphere; thinking in terms of techno-fixes and incremental behavioural change. This is one of the reasons we are failing to address systemic, large-scale interrelated challenges, such as but not limited to climate change or a global pandemic. Instead we should start with transforming the personal and the political, keeping in mind that currently our key technology and behaviour to fight against the pandemic are ancient: soap and washing hands, and not Tesla Cybertruck or an equivalently frivolous ‘novelty’. We have the technology and, as evidenced during this pandemic, the ability to adjust our behaviour to create a world that is serving the needs of all (human and non-human) without compromising from our well-being, again as evidenced in the past weeks doesn’t require much more than meaningful connections, interpersonal practices of care in community and institutional settings, a basic level of income and functional systems of provision (in this particular instance we have realized the importance of healthcare and education systems that serve all and not a select few who can afford and have access to these). Oh, let’s not forget about singing in balconies, or Teddy bears in windows and yards, and the green spaces lucky urbanites threw themselves into when it got too much to #stayathome.

Staying with the trouble while staying afloat, both individually and collectively, is in fact the only way to take some agency in creating the futures we desire as the world our generation has got to know is crumbling in certain ways. This is not to say that “we” is unified or “the desired” is collectively held. Each one of us will need to formulate their own questions across these three spheres and start to reflect on. As I warp this piece up, I’m starting to formulate my questions to ponder upon as I spend my days staying at home being inspired by my current closest kins – my cats. My first questions are: 1. How can I build care-based relationships underlined by the values that are most important for me; freedom, justice and integrity; 2. How can I care for my immediate and broader, more-than-human communities now and as this century further unfolds?; 3. How can I, as an academic and a citizen, assist in co-creating alternative futures that will replace hard and soft institutions of our society that are not serving for the values I choose to stick with?, 4. In what ways my own worldviews, values and beliefs are holding onto used futures and how can I change these?

[1] Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. North Carolina, United States: Duke University Press.

[2] I borrow this term from a futures scholar and practitioner, Sohail Inayatullah, who is known for his work that invites us to closely examine and deconstruct our deep and long-held assumptions about how futures might unfold before starting to imagine alternative futures.

[3] Meadows, D., Meadows, D., Randers, J., & Behrens III, W. (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books. Available from https://clubofrome.org/publication/the-limits-to-growth/

[4] O’Brien, K. (2018). Is the 1.5°C target possible? Exploring the three spheres of transformation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 31, 153–160. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2018.04.010

 

Post-cards to “the edge”: Towards Futures of Designing for Sustainability Transitions

Note: This post is a section from a recent article in the Transition Design special issue of Cuadernos journal. The whole article and other articles in this special issue is open access and can be found here.

Here I share my thoughts on how the transition design field could further develop as short notes, with a “postcard” synopsis to place on the table some comments and questions that need to be considered in the near future by theorists and practitioners of transition design.

Postcard I – Work in consortiums

A potential support for diffusion of transition design in practice could come from completion of some post-graduate projects undertaken in non-commercial, protected and educational set-up of universities. In this regard, current masters and PhD students whose projects are building on the early work cited in previous sections could act as positive versions of “trojan horses” in the organisations they encounter throughout their studies as well as those they may work for/with after completion of their studies. In fact, as transition design projects require generation of new knowledge through integration of a wide-array of both academic and non-academic expertise and, making of new policies through involvement of large networks of stakeholders, consortiums for applied research including academic, governmental, non-governmental and private organisations could be the only feasible operational model for initiating and running transition design projects. This brings to the front the question of what effective mechanisms there are and should further be developed for funding and governing the work of such consortiums.

Postcard II – Advocate and model open innovation through open networks of learning

There is a danger for transition design becoming the new “design thinking”; being reduced to a process model and commercially exploited by “post-it design consultancies” as yet another tool of incremental change rather than pushing the boundaries of mainstream socio-ecological-technical and socio-political practices and imaginaries. Such co-option would undermine the very essence and spirit of transition design. This is not because transition design is a homogeneous, static body of theory and practice. On the contrary, evolution is an inherent characteristic of any body of knowledge area, let it be theoretical or practical. But, because transition design promotes change that has directionality towards sustainable (and just) futures achieved through the reconception of entire lifestyles (Irwin, 2015a) as well as restructuring of entire systems of production and consumption (Ryan, 2008), any project labelled as a transition design project but which does not include a radical rethinking of institutional and organisational models, redesigning of socio-technical systems and reimagining of socio-ecological relations would result in transformative opportunities being lost. For this reason, transition design theory should be developed within open learning networks and any practice-relevant insight should be made publicly available immediately in usable format. Similarly, in commercial arrangements, practitioners should readily share transition design knowledge openly with their clients or in consortiums they work in. Their practice-relevant learnings generated within these arrangements about transition design processes should also be fed back into the body of open knowledge. The practitioners should only charge for their expertise and experience of initiating and co-ordinating transition design projects and not for the knowledge of theory and methods of transition design. This brings to the front the question of how such an open network of learning and the open knowledge pool could be organised, facilitated and governed.

Postcard III – Do not lose the sight of “the small” in a meta-theory

Loorbach (2007) argued that transitions theory is an inclusive, flexible meta-theory that could integrate existing models and theories. This could be considered true also for transition design theory and the practice of transition design. Ceschin and Gaziulusoy (2016), in their analysis of the historical evolution of DfS field, presented several approaches that fall under this umbrella field as a nested hierarchy, positioning design for system innovations and transitions at the uppermost layer. Although in their observation, the focus of DfS field has evolved from being technology-centred and insular to being human-centred and systemic, they urged the readers to avoid a conclusion that the higher levels in this hierarchy has replaced or should replace the approaches in the lower levels. They emphasised that the approaches are complementary rather than contrasting:

 “Therefore, each DfS approach should be acknowledged for its associated strengths and shortcomings, and should be utilised in conjunction with complementary approaches for any given project following a systemic analysis, because addressing sustainability challenges requires an integrated set of DfS approaches spanning various innovation levels. Approaches that fall under the Socio-technical Innovation Level demonstrate this requirement well. Design for System Innovations and Transitions focuses on transforming systems by actively encouraging development of long-term visions for completely new systems and linking these visions to activities and strategic decisions of design and innovation teams. Achieving these visions will require design and innovation teams to use a combination of the approaches in lower levels and use in development of new technologies, products and services (Level 1), new business models (Level 2), new social practices (Level 3) that can be part of the envisioned future systems.” (pp. 147-148)

It would also be interesting to investigate how some emerging DfS approaches – for example, design for conviviality (Lizarralle & Tyl, 2018), design for resilience (Baek, Meroni & Manzini, 2015), and design for co-habitation (Smith, Bardzell & Bardzell, 2017) could be supported by and contribute into the theory and practice of transition design. Both the established DfS approaches mentioned in Ceschin and Gaziulusoy (2016) and the emerging approaches mentioned in this paragraph are “small” approaches in the sense that their focus is either systemically narrow or thematically limited. Nevertheless, the former set can assist with achieving of visions at different systemic scales and the latter set can inform visions of new systems as new ways of designing.

Postcard IV – Expand theoretical foundations and discuss implications on practice of such expansion

The foundational theories that underlie early contributions in transition design cover complex adaptive systems theories, sustainability science, system innovations and transitions theories, social practice theory and environmental ethics. These are essential theories for informing futures of design practice that can play a role in sustainability transitions. Nevertheless, this emerging field can and should also learn from other theories that are currently informing design and penetrating its zone of comfort. For example, design in general should shake the dominance of human-centredness in theory and practice as it is a necessary foundation but too anthropocentric to lead design practice into the future on its own. Transition design should develop ways to give voice to voiceless both in its epistemology and methodology as the essential aim should cover creating just futures as well as sustainable ones. For this purpose, design in general and transition design specifically can learn from feminist theory, animal studies, post-humanist ethnography, political ecology and literature on decolonising methodology. Some of these literatures have been integrated into design though contributions of pioneering work in the recent years (for example, Avila, 2017; Jönsson & Lenskjold, 2014; Schalk, Kristiansson & Mazé, 2017; Tlastanova, 2017). There is urgency to further explore implications of these literatures in design and derive insights and lessons for development of transition design theory and practice.

Postcard V – Post-transition design: Prepare for “What if not?” and “What is after?” 

Transition design implicitly is a project of hope; a hope that is based on the assumption that society can achieve a major transformation towards sustainability in a timely manner and over a smooth path. Nevertheless, in the broader context of academic and public sustainability discourse, hope and despair go hand in hand. This is particularly amplified in regards to climate change. For example, on one hand, record renewable energy deployment was observed globally in 2016 (International Energy Agency, 2017). On the other hand, emission reduction targets that are required to reduce the risk of severe climate change are still not being met and the window to limit average global temperature rise between 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade compared to preindustrial levels is closing (Raftery et al., 2017, UNEP, 2017). The observable impacts of an already changed climate include migration of animal species to higher altitudes, shrinking glaciers, loss of sea ice, more intense heat waves and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. This calls for daring to ask the question: What if transitions do not happen timely or smoothly? Some transitions may happen faster than some others depending on contextual dynamics. In some cases, they may be induced by crises and in some other cases there may be systemic collapses. So, there is not a single type of transition and transition design expand its theoretical base as well as tools meant for practice by learning from several transitions typologies proposed (Berkhout, Smith & Stirling, 2004; de Haan & Rotmans, 2007; Smith, Stirling & Berkhout, 2005; Geels & Schot, 2007). Another question that comes to mind is what is after transitions, when new dynamic equilibriums start to emerge? What forms transition design can take in and how it can contribute into post-transition contexts?

References

Avila, M. (2017). Ecologizing, Decolonizing: An Artefactual Perspective. Paper presented at the NORDES 2017: Design + Power, Oslo.

Baek, J. S., Meroni, A., & Manzini, E. (2015). A socio-technical approach to design for community resilience: A framework for analysis and design goal forming. Design Studies, 40(Supplement C), 60-84. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.destud.2015.06.004

Berkhout, F., Smith, A., & Stirling, A. (2004). Socio-technical regimes and transition contexts. In B. Elzen, F. W. Geels, & K. Green (Eds.), System innovation and the transition to sustainability: theory, evidence and policy, (pp. 48-75). Cheltenham, UK ; Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Ceschin, F., & Gaziulusoy, I. (2016). Evolution of design for sustainability: From product design to design for system innovations and transitions. Design Studies, 47, 118-163. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.destud.2016.09.002

de Haan, H., & Rotmans, J. (2007). Pillars of change: a theoretical framework for transition models. Paper presented at the 7th International Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE), 5-8 June 2007, Leipzig, Germany.

Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36(3), 399-417.

International Energy Agency. (2017). Renewables 2017: Analysis and Forecasts to 2022. International Energy Agency.

Irwin, T. (2015a). Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of Design Practice, Study, and Research. Design and Culture, 7(2), 229-246. doi:10.1080/17547075.2015.1051829

Jönsson, L., & Lenskjold, T. U. (2014). A Foray Into Not-Quite Companion Species: Design Experiments With Urban-Animals as Significant Others. Artifact, 3(2), 1-7.

Lizarralde, I., & Tyl, B. (2018). A framework for the integration of the conviviality concept in the design process. Journal of Cleaner Production.

Loorbach, D. (2007). Transition Management: New Mode of Governance for Sustainable Development. Utrecht, Netherlands: International Books.

Raftery, A. E., Zimmer, A., Frierson, D. M. W., Startz, R., & Liu, P. (2017). Less than 2°C warming by 2100 unlikely. Nature Climate Change, 7(9), 637-641. doi:10.1038/nclimate3352

Ryan, C. (2008). The Melbourne 2032 Project: Design visions as a mechanism for (sustainable) paradigm change. Paper presented at the Changing the Change: Design Visions and Proposals Conference, 10-12 July 2008, Turin, Italy.

Schalk, M., Kristiansson, T., & Mazé, R. (2017). Feminist futures of spatial practice: materialism, activism, dialogues, pedagogies, projections. Braunach: Spurbuchverlag.

Smith, N., Bardzell, S., & Bardzell, J. (2017). Designing for Cohabitation: Naturecultures, Hybrids, and Decentering the Human in Design. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Denver, Colorado, USA.

Smith, A., Stirling, A., & Berkhout, F. (2005). The governance of sustainable socio-technical transitions. Research Policy, 34(10), 1491-1510.

Tlostanova, M. (2017). On decolonizing design. Design Philosophy Papers, 15(1), 51-61. doi:10.1080/14487136.2017.1301017

UNEP. (2017). Emissions Gap Report 2017: A UN Environment Synthesis Report. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

 

 

Concepts and Contexts of Design for Sustainability: (Coincidentally) Piloting a New Course at Aalto PhD Summer School

It’s been ten months since I started working for Aalto University, Department of Design. As a new professor in exploration of my new environment, with the aim of finding the best opportunities to contribute into Aalto while progressing my career, I raised my hand up to run this year’s departmental PhD Summer School few months ago. I was told that summer schools are more experimental than winter schools and good opportunities for testing new curricular and pedagogic ideas or piloting potential new courses. The course I wanted to run was of course going to be about design for sustainability. Nevertheless, I spent around a month thinking in the background processor of my mind what specific content I should bring together and how that content should be structured and delivered. My ultimate goal was to introduce design approaches for systemic sustainability transitions to students but given in our department there has not been systematic teaching on sustainability there was a need to build such knowledge base first before introducing this emerging, complex topic.

With this in mind, I designed the program to start by introducing theories relevant to sustainability, then move into issues and intervention contexts and finally present design approaches. The school would last for five days, so this plan meant that the students would be exposed to a substantial amount of new knowledge with a series of intense lectures. To balance such intensity I decided to allocate afternoons for reflections and activities relevant to the topic of each day. Then I contacted several lecturers and researchers to deliver the lectures. This was an enjoyable exercise as this way I got to engage with my colleagues in Aalto, in Helsinki University and found out about several experts in Finnish Environment Institute. I also invited two international researchers but only one of them was able to accept the invitation. The original program design had only minimally changed.

SSProgram.001

Designing the program and engaging lecturers was one thing, organising the school itself was another; it required a lot of coordination and planning. Luckily I had an amazing teaching assistant, Maria, who pretty much took charge of all tasks including finding and booking a venue, organising catering (yes, we fed the students for free to keep them focused), booking flights and accomodation for Joanna Boehnert, the international guest lecturer, photo-documenting as well as note-keeping during the running of the school.

The school started with high energy both from students and from lecturers. The days went fast and were full-on in terms of ranges of topics covered. Afternoons had been good to synthesise learning but also to do some experiential learning with less need for cognitive stretch.

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Stefan Fronzek from Finnish Environment Institute SYKE lecturing on climate science and impacts of climate change
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Cindy Kohtala delivering her lecture on emerging practices of making and production
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Mikko Jalas delivering a lecture on materiality of care
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Eeva Berglund talking about political economies of design during her lecture on “uncommon ground”
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Me talking about roles of design in transition processes during my lecture on design for system innovations and transitions

Half of the students who participated in the summer school were in their first year of PhD studies. Feedback indicated that the three lectures that majority of the students found to benefit them most were practice theory lens for transition experiments, emerging practices of making/production and design for system innovations and transitions: positioning a new field. Almost all students found group discussions of lectures to be the activity that helped their learning most. All of the students thought that the program as well as the days were structured well and that they would recommend this course (or a variation of it) to MA and PhD students.

As the coordinator of the course I also found the experience very rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to get to know the new PhD students in our department. In addition, I had a chance to understand my colleagues’ research in more detail and learned many new things myself. This was the first course I ran since I started working in Aalto and I am happy that I did a good job as indicated in student feedback. I also appreciated once more the diversity and depth of expertise held within the department.

Now we’re only days away from Juhannus, which marks the beginning of month-long summer holiday for many in Finland, especially those in academia. I am not planning to take a whole month off as I’d like to take the opportunity of this quiet time to write a grant application. At the dawn of my first anniversary of starting my role as Professor of Sustainable Design in Aalto I am full of ideas including developing a new course on Design for Sustainability Transitions. This summer school has also acted as a great “pilot” for this purpose. I will certainly reflect a lot more on this experience as I design this course.

CP TY

To Shanghai and Back: Running a Pilot Course on Design for Sustainability Transitions

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Shanghai, view from The Bund 

Aalto University and TongJi University in Shanghai are in the process of materialising their collaborative partnership in education discussions for which started few years ago. I’ve been one of the lucky professors who were given the duty to run a pilot course in TongJi. The main aim of these pilot courses are to familiarise ourselves with the working culture, facilities and students of TongJi and to identify logistical as well as pedagogical requirements together with TongJi staff we need to take into consideration when further developing the curriculum. In line with this aim, I went to Shanghai on March 4th and came back yesterday, on March 18th. I delivered a masters course entitled Creative Sustainability: Socio-technical Transitions to Sustainability. Before my departure, I was on one hand very excited with the prospect but on the other hand very nervous as I felt like I was facing several unknowns that I needed to manage: First, I had no idea about the school’s facilities, in what kind of a room I’d be teaching and weather it’d be suitable for the purposes of the course. Second, although I always had a couple of Chinese students in all my classes in New Zealand, having a class full of Chinese students was new for me and I was worried whether I’d be able to understand and work in accordance with the cultural differences between me and the students to give them a good learning experience. Third, due to logistical difficulties I wouldn’t be able to invite any of my Aalto colleagues as guest lecturers and decided to try to invite colleagues from TongJi but I practically knew no one except from an Italian colleague who had been working there for several years. I invited her for a guest lecture but she couldn’t commit until very close to my departure date as she her teaching schedule was not ready. Fourth, I was going to teach theories which were essentially about radical, structural changes that had predominantly been developed in Europe and therefore are based on certain cultural assumptions that are not yet tested in Chinese context. So, I wasn’t sure how the students would react to what I was about to teach them. Fifth, as I have little understanding of Chinese culture I was worried to somehow make a big mistake that would strain Aalto-TongJi relationships. Upon reflection, now I know that all I needed was actually to prepare my lectures (which I did) and not worry about the rest (which I didn’t).

Muumi and Sauna and the Funkiest Elevator in the World

My class was to be held at the Sino-Finnish Centre, which was outside of the main university campus, ten to fifteen minutes from my hotel. At the airport in Helsinki I bought a box of Muumi biscuits to give to my students in the first class as an icebreaker and to introduce something “Finnish” to them. But first 4 levels needed to be climbed for which I took the world’s slowest yet funkiest elevator. To compensate for the pace of the journey, there’re couches to rest on and many photos with familiar faces from Aalto to look at. I learned that every now and then the elevator stops and traps people in but it was a relief that there were people I could call in case I were in such trouble.

When I finally arrived at the fourth floor, I realised that there is already a lot of Finnish presence in the centre -Muumi and sauna meeting rooms, Finnish-Chinese hugging point, Marimekko design couches, etc- and so my Muumi biscuits would break the ice but wouldn’t be a cultural exposure hit after all. I had 17 students in my class, all female, and five of them were exchange students from Italy, Sweden and Germany. The background of students covered industrial design, environmental design and architecture.

I designed my teaching to consist of two parallel running tracks: one on theories of sustainability transitions and the other a group project through which the students would get a chance to implement the theories as they learned about them on a step-by-step basis by doing the front-end work for a mini-scale transition experiment. We had classes everyday except for Mondays for two weeks and the final presentations of the group project was on March 17th.

 

TongJi LecturePlan.001
Lecture Plan

The students engaged enthusiastically with the lecture content and the project from the beginning and worked incredibly hard within the short time period allocated for the course. The first day was probably the most challenging for the students as they were introduced to several new concepts and models including systems thinking, multi-level model of system innovations and multi-phase model of transitions. The second day compensated for this by being a day allocated to initial project framing, site selection and data collection. Together we discussed what is feasible within the limited time and went over the data collected to develop actionable insights. Then the rest of the first week went by alternating days of lectures and project activities. The second week started with a lecture on strategic niche management and a guest lecture on open design which the students enjoyed immensely. In the rest of the week I introduced students to backcasting from a desired vision. The students developed timelines to show how their vision can be achieved in fifteen years time and who should be involved based on the stakeholder analysis they undertook in the first week. Then they ideated for an initial ‘acupuncture’, a small, scalable project that can start today to trigger the transition. On the last day before the presentations the students spent all day in the studio and I made myself available to them for feedback and final critiques.

On Friday morning I was rather excited. One, because the day before the Dean Lou Yongqi had invited me for a short mIMG_7147eeting in the morning. Two, because my students were going to present in the afternoon and the course would come to an end. My meeting with the Dean was short and sweet; he had a mini tea ceremony set in his office from which he poured tea in tiny cups. Not knowing how to appropriately receive the serving I felt a bit clumsy, but Dean Lou made feel comfortable by creating a light conversational atmosphere. We talked about the Väre building in Aalto campus which is going to be the home of School of Art, Design and Architecture once it is completed in 2018.We exchanged few jokes as well as good wishes. Following my meeting with the Dean, I went to the studio to find all of the groups working hard to finish their presentations.

The presentations started at 2 pm. Apart from me as the main assessor, there were three colleagues from Tongji to provide comments and give marks for moderation purposes. Following the presentations we left the class to discuss and reflect while students completed feedback forms. We all shared the opinion that the students did a good job within the given the timeframe although their work could be pushed further with certain arrangements we may try in the next round. Following this discussion and after students finished filling in the feedback forms I went back to the class to celebrate completion of the course and to farewell. Then I rushed back to my hotel room to read the feedback forms as I was very curious what the students thought of the course.  IMG_7161

In general the overall feedback was very positive. The students thought the course added to their knowledge and skill set and listed several specific things they learned and thought to be valuable learnings. Two main improvement suggestions stood out as being mentioned by the majority of students: 1. The short duration of the course made it difficult for them to reflect on and digest all of the learnings and the pace was trying, 2. Some of them struggled with English and stated that it’d be good to have a Chinese course assistant. I have a list of things I thought could improve in how I designed the course and I will incorporate these in the second running of the course. I have also noted down several improvements needed about the practical arrangements and logistics which I’ll share with Aalto and TongJi colleagues to together work on.

I arrived back to Helsinki yesterday, on 18th, in a state of happy exhaustion. The past two weeks have been intense and tiring but yielded to many learnings and rewards. Collaborating across oceans and cultures is not the easiest of undertakings, nevertheless, it opens new doors, creates new perspectives and inspires new projects. I feel very lucky having had a chance to run a course in China on a topic that has been my primary research focus since I started my PhD in 2006. What a privilege to look at my work from others’ cultural paradigm as it’s reflected in their practice. Also, what a great chance and learning opportunity to put to test my teaching style and pedagogical assumptions. And on top of this, having the opportunity to shortly glimpse at a dazzling city I never had been before.

 

 

 

An Overdue Update

It’s been a long while since I last updated this blog and major changes have occurred in the meantime. Once again, I sailed across the oceans and made a cross-country (cross-hemisphere in fact) move in July 2016 to undertake a new and exciting role as Professor of Sustainable Design at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. This opportunity came up at the right time as the project I was working on in Melbourne was approaching an end so while I was evaluating my options for my next career move. I started my job at Aalto on August 1st and in the past eight months I’ve been busy moving, settling, networking and learning. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the faculty in Aalto Department of Design which is ranked as 13th best design school in the world this year.

In the meantime an article I started to work on when I was in Melbourne, together with lead author Fabrizio Ceschin (UK Brunel University), got published in Design Studies. In this article we discuss how the field of design for sustainability evolved over the years from a focus on individual artefacts to systems. This article received very positive attention, yielded a book chapter in an upcoming book from Routledge and Fabrizio and I have been quite humbled as it became the third most downloaded article of the journal in a very short period of time following being published.

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Currently I am running a two-week intensive course on design for system innovations and transitions at TongJi University in Shanghai as part of Aalto-TongJi collaboration in education. Reflections on this experience will follow shortly.

More Value to P2P than Uber and AirBnB: The Neglected Commons

Recently, Grattan Institute here in Melbourne published a report on peer-to-peer (P2P) economy arguing it could save Australians $500 million on taxi bills, help them use underutilized assets and generate income and increase employment and income for people on the fringe of the job market. The report argued that governments should adopt policies to facilitate growth of these businesses while also regulating for downsides. It is a worthwhile report to read.

What I’d like to raise as an issue is not the content of this report but the scope. First, the report has left out discussing benefits of a large portion of P2P economy that is commons-based and framed “the” P2P economy as businesses who own proprietary online platforms that allow people to “sell” their services (let it be provision of a ride or a clean bed or use of a product for a few hours) to others. The businesses thus enable “micro-businesses” –which is great- but without necessarily empowering those micro-businesses by enabling them to contribute into the development of the platforms, co-designing of the business model the “mother” corporation operates under or by providing a fair share of the value generated although the overall value in these systems are generated by those micro-businesses.

Grattan Institute’s report is unfortunately not the only publication that overlooks the commons-based P2P economy; this is a common attitude in media and research institutes alike. This could potentially be attributed to the high lobbying power that is held in the hands of “sharing economy corporates”. For example, I remember attending a “policy pitch” event at the Grattan Institute in February 2015 on “regulating the peer-to-peer economy”. This event featured David Plouffe, Uber’s Senior VC of Policy and Strategy at the time, who is in fact a political strategist and was the campaign manager of Barack Obama in 2008. He flew all the way to Australia to legitimize Uber which was facing a for amount of rage from the taxi sector as happens in every city Uber “disrupts”. Since then, us Uber users in Melbourne receive offers from Uber to cuddle kittens in our offices for 15 minutes delivered by Uber drivers etc; we’re used to Uber “making our day” through advertising campaigns all targeting the correct demographics and therefore cannot say no when we receive messages that go like “Sign a petition so that Uber is not banned in your city”.

The neglected part of the P2P economy needs more attention though; first technically it has been around much longer than the uberised versions and can easily be traced back to early days of open software movement. Second, there is a lot of under-appreciated value in commons-based P2P economy. To understand this a bit more, particularly in the context of sustainability transitions and resilience in cities, we in VP2040 project undertook some exploratory research that also involved an expert consultation and prepared a summary report of our findings.

I strongly recommend a full read; it’s an interesting report with references to lead thinkers in this area and features the best examples of peer-to-peer commons economy. But for those who prefer protein drinks over real meals because they’re too busy to indulge in life, here’re the key messages:

There are three value models competing for dominance in the digital economy: traditional proprietary capitalism, peer-to-peer exchange and peer-to-peer commons models. The latter two were relevant to our investigation.

In a peer-to-peer commons economy there is an effective creation AND sharing of a resource by peers. A peer-to-peer exchange model is about creating and financially benefiting from platforms that connect peers to trade, sell, or rent excess idle resources. The difference between the two value models is a lack of consideration and contribution into the commons in the implementations based on the latter model.

The direct socio-environmental impacts of the two peer-to-peer value models are similar. The main differences are indirect and structural and stem from the different implications of the two value models in business model development, product and service design and structure of wage-labour relationships. See table below.

Summary of indirect and structural socio-environmental impacts of the two value models

 

Peer-to-peer exchange model

 

does not address overconsumption or deal with consumerism at a cultural level

 

the dematerialisation effect observed by some is not because there is less material throughput in the economic system, it is because there is an additional, very resource efficient economic sector based on cognitive labour

does not raise environmental awareness as argued by some but only reinforces the existing awareness (at best)

 

planned obsolescence is an inevitable part of business models which are for-profit

 

the users are not contributors to the platforms which creates a wage-labour dependency

Peer-to-peer commons model

 

assists with re-establishing the relationships between workers, products, users and means of production through localisation and direct participation (except in cases in which low-cost raw materials come from somewhere else)

 

encourages diffusion of local knowledge, therefore incentivises designs that suit best to the context

 

encourages higher resource efficiency (planned obsolescence and other means of creating artificial scarcity is contradictory to the logic of a commons based economy)

 

circulation of commons does not necessitate an increase in scale as the value is created by a reciprocal relation between benefit and nurture. Nevertheless, the peer-to-peer commons value model is agnostic about growth which might be a barrier for sustainability because any digital commons necessitate natural commons

A digital economy in which a set of companies own or control important city data poses a danger for cities as it creates the risk of ‘data feudalism’ as well as incentives for business models that undermine sustainability and resilience. There are also unresolved ethical questions about ownership and use rights of data generated by citizens through the use of proprietary or non-proprietary peer-to-peer platforms.

There are different options for how digital technologies can be deployed in cities depending on which technologies and business models are implemented. However, it is uncertain which options will yield to highest sustainability and resilience outcomes.

Based on the expert consultation and our research findings and reflections, we proposed the following policy recommendations under four main categories:

  1. Developing and Implementing Citizen-centric and Democratic Governance Models
  • Understanding and leveraging institutional, organisational and cultural enablers for creating sharing cities
  • Developing and implementing models of governance for the physical and digital urban commons
  • Facilitating and widening the scope of public debate on urban data and peer-to-peer alternatives
  • Facilitating participatory decision-making and budgeting
  1. Managing and Leveraging Urban Data
  • Supporting the development of a digital open design commons and open information platforms
  • Establishing and supporting experimentation with data and technologies in cities
  1. Developing and Supporting New Models of Business and Securing Finance
  • Educating, empowering and collaborating with digital entrepreneurs to direct innovation efforts and resources towards decarbonisation projects
  • Identifying and developing financial enablers of the digital economy that will assist in radical decarbonisation
  1. Maintaining Socio-economic Resilience
  • Leveraging the expected changes in distribution and number of jobs across sectors by creating employment opportunities that will help shift to a decarbonised economy

 

 

Some Reflections and Questions on Participation, Representation and Politics in Societal Visioning

Humans have been interested in the future since pre-historic times and tried to know, understand and control what is going to happen with the aims of surviving, acquiring and/or sustaining power, making strategic decisions and so on. There are three main phases in human inquiry into the future: the pre-scientific phase, the (quantitative) forecasting phase and the alternative futures thinking phase (List, 2005). There are three types of reactions to future: passivity, adaptation and voluntarism (Godet, 1983). Current thinking is representative of voluntarism which is about creating one’s future. This type of reaction marks the start of the alternative futures movement in the field of futures studies in the mid-twentieth century. Alternative futures thinking is based on the idea that there is no single possible future but multiple possibilities and creation of a desired future is embedded in present choices and decisions (Slaughter, 2005). Therefore, alternative futures thinking is about understanding the possible, probable and plausible futures and selecting preferable one(s) to act upon and to create (Bell, 2005).

Inayatullah (2008) talks about three fundamental forces helping us to understand and work with the future: Pull of the future, push of the present and weight of history. To “work with” and understand these forces, there’re numerous methods of futures inquiry one of which being visioning. Visions or visioning is used to understand and “create” the pull of the future. Among the futures inquiry methods, the least analytical and most intuitive and creative one is perhaps visioning. Bezold (2005) defines visions as “futures for the heart”. I understand visions to be anchors marking future possibility areas which are desirable and plausible. Desirability and plausibility are two qualities commonly accepted to be fundamental for visions. Fine. But three immediate contextual questions arise from this position: Desirable by who? Plausible in what time frame? Plausible according to which technological, scientific, socio-cultural and political assumptions?

These immediate questions bring to surface the question of representativeness of the visions. Donella Meadows, to make an important point, puts forward the idea of Hitler being a visionary in her address at 1994 meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in San José, Costa Rica. She adds though “but his vision was not the vision of the Jews or gypsies”. A vision might be inspiring for the “masses” at its time but history judges visions with a different set of values, again, depending on the context through which that historical outlook is formed. Compare Hitler’s Propaganda with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream”; both imagining being exposed to them at their respective days of conception and then in present time. Which one still resonates? Why? I am not making any assumptions here; I understand that either may resonate with individuals of human society but both cannot at the same time. Politics and values are among the primary “informants” of visions and they should not be swept under the carpet. How can we make them explicit, thus allow reflection?

The question of representativeness is the other side of the coin of “participation”. Thanks to the remarkably individualist yet highly community-conscious, egalitarian and collaboratory culture they have, Swedes gifted the world with the idea and practice of “participatory design”, initially as a way to overcome problems associated with interface design of early software. The early successes of these participatory designers found resonance in several disciplines of design, industrial design being a very early adopter. Scale and ability of prototyping played a role in this early adoption as well as the immediately verifiable “business case” of developing products with prospective users. It’s not easy to design larger scale artefacts such as buildings as a whole due to costs associated with prototyping nevertheless it is possible to emulate experiences associated with particular spaces. Similarly participatory design techniques are being used by urban design studios and some enlightened local councils. But how can one design the future of a large complex system through participatory approaches? Participatory visioning seems like a potential answer as hundreds of projects across the world, especially in Europe popped up in the past couple of years using participatory visioning for city futures. Not all of these projects are transparent about the processes used or the extent of representation of stakeholders. Then one question branches out to be on the qualities of participation. How can we possibly represent every stakeholder in a visioning exercise? Is this necessary at all? Politics all over again…

My general and anecdotal observation is that majority of people are not able to or do not want to think in terms of the future beyond time and spatial frames that they think to be binding their own experience. There might be several reasons for this including lack of systemic understanding, particularities of the values/ethical framework one is subscribed to, educational level and intellectual depth etc. Some personal stories are relevant here as examples. In 2014, right before the visioning workshop we held in Melbourne, I went to a hairdresser close to my office to get a quick trim. The hairdresser was a chatty woman in early 20s. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea: I was either going to have small talk with this woman or read the women’s magazines that were thrown in front of me. It was obvious that unless I demonstrated active disengagement by having my attention on something else, she wouldn’t left me alone in quiet observation. I chose the small talk option; she was full of questions, initially tailored for twenty year olds, but nevertheless one finally came which made me feel I was in control of the conversation: “What do you do?”. So I told her that I’m a researcher at Melbourne University and she asked what my research was about. To cut it short and sweet I told her that it was about the future of Melbourne and asked her what she thinks how Melbourne should be like in 2040. She found the question amusing, incomprehensible at first I think, then started “mmmm”ing as an indication of thinking. Finally she said: “Well, I don’t know, I like nightclubbing but all clubs in the city close by midnight. I think I’d like the nightclubs to be open longer”. I was caught defenseless, couldn’t say a word and she changed the subject to the boyfriend she recently broke up with. She was not even able to reflect on the fact that maybe she wouldn’t be into nightclubbing anymore in 2040 and would need and/or prefer other experiences and services. She also wasn’t able to imagine she might not have been living in the CBD in 2040. What does this example tell about the appropriate politics of representation and participation in visioning futures of large complex systems?

A friend of mine, previously climate change researcher currently process engineer for a large consultancy for mining sector, is struggling with his career direction as it doesn’t reflect his values about responsibility to society, nurturing nature, etc. He is one of the more technically and scientifically knowledgeable people about climate change and its implications among all my friends. Nevertheless, he cannot take the easy step of quitting his job and doing something that doesn’t undermine his integrity. Several strategic questioning sessions revealed parts of a complicated picture: in my understanding, he is fearful of not being able to provide for/protect his family (which he actually doesn’t have but obviously hoping to have) during potential times of crisis unless he earns good chunks of money now to invest in property with land to grow food etc. So, although he is able to envision a desirable life for himself and beyond his immediate self and hypothetical future family with an understanding of future risks, his visions about the society and about his nuclear family do not overlap: he struggles thinking systemically. I am still assisting him exploring his assumptions about future possibilities and if his current strategy is the one which will really “pay” during times of crisis. Walking him through different “vantage points” across the large complex system that is “society”, I have been able to help him “picture” desirable visions at different system levels; i.e. society, community, immediate family. It is clear for him that these are interconnected, nevertheless, alignment of his visions at different levels is yet to emerge. He first needs to overcome “fear” and learn to “trust” the wider system because if we cannot envision from a place of mutual trust, regardless of how representative and participatory our current processes of visioning are, at the time of futures unfolding, we will focus on individual security and safety at the expense of safety and security of other members of our immediate community and of wider society. So, unless we facilitate a “group dynamic” that is collaboratory, that enables emergence and endurance of mutual trust among members of society, representativeness and participatory nature of visioning processes at the time of visioning will not necessarily bring out an outcome that is representative and inclusive in the future.

For a (societal) vision to be an effective anchor it needs to meet at least two of the following three conditions, first being a prerequisite:

  1. A vision needs to be plausible-I don’t think this needs explaining although “plausibility” may find different and still valid interpretations in people with different expertise background. Nevertheless, I cannot help but issue a warning which stems from my annoyance with mainstream, loud, advertorial business literature, both academic and practitioner, arguing “visions should be achievable”. In my opinion, if, at the time of visioning you believe you can achieve the vision, you’re not visioning hard enough. If you think you could achieve the vision, then you’ve met the plausibility criterion;
  2. Appealing for the masses (means the vision is timely, widely accepted, so a movement starts, grows and takes over the mainstream), or;
  3. Somehow holds strong political and/or economic “voice” resonating with the “elite” or “yet to be elite” (so, if the masses are “blind” to your vision, you can pretty much “hack” the mainstream through the two most socially relevant mechanisms).

In this conditions list, the second can be generally attributed to evolutionary changes in socio-political systems whereas the third implies revolutionary patterns. Preempting either confusion or objection about my use of terms here, I’ll define them. By evolutionary I mean slower processes of change where those who did not either want or foresee the particular change happening can accept it and adapt to it. By revolutionary I mean faster processes of change where a new model either replaces an old model and become autonomous (which might or might not be followed by evolutionary change for a complete transformation) or a new model takes over an old model by force. Of course these are “ideal” types and especially in transformation of large systems like cities a proportional combination is likely to be observed. In either case though, the context within which change happens is also a determinant of if the vision will be achieved (as the “original” visionary/ies envisioned it) or not.

As usual, these are current meanderings of my mind and my mind would appreciate to be challenged.

References cited in this post:

Bell, W. (2005). An Overview of Futures Studies. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge base of futures studies (Professional ed.). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International. In CD.

Bezold, C. (2005). The Visioning Method. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge Base of Futures Studies CD-ROM Professional Edition (Vol. 2 Part 2). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International.

Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: Futures thinking for transforming. Foresight, 10(1), 4-21.

Godet, Michel. 1983. Reducing the blunders in forecasting. Futures 15 (3) 181-192.

List, D. (2005). Scenario Network Mapping. Unpublished Ph.D., University of South Australia, Adelaide.

Slaughter, R. (2005). Futures Concepts. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge base of futures studies (Professional ed.). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International. In CD.