A reflection on design (and) anthropology

For two days in August I participated in the Designing Anthropological Futures Conference, an exploratory conference that brought anthropologists and designers together to reflect on ‘future-making’ from a design anthropological perspective. The discussions, workshops, and animated debates made me reflect on the evolving nature of ‘design anthropology’.

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The Designing Anthropological Futures Conference defined ’future-making’ as both the crafting of future visions but also the use of design and anthropology processes to make transformative experiences that explore these visions. Hosted by the Research Network for Design Anthropology and facilitated by CODE, the two disciplines came together to stretch their understanding of one another when collaborating. In true collaboration format, practically every participant had to contribute to the conversation. On behalf of CIID, I was accepted to attend the conference with two submissions.

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One of my submissions was a position statement on temporality: “The future is present: the challenges we face when designing new technological futures for the elderly, who won’t be here when our design is done”. With this statement,  submitted in collaboration with CIID Research and Dionisio Soares Paiva, we wanted to address the real-life context where anthropology and design meet, and the paradox of co-designing with today’s elderly around technologies that change faster than they blink. The other submission was a workshop, set up in an exhibition format. Participants were invited to interact with my previous design research to experience how visualisation and prototyping can be used in design anthropology to engender understanding and conversation around social stigmas, particularly Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder(OCD).

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What Future?

During the philosophical opening discussion, I wished to prompt the discussion around  where the border is between the present and this “future” we are designing for. How will we know when the ‘now’ stops and the ‘future’ begins? A fellow participant grabbed the microphone to agree and added that it’s the ‘now’ we are designing for — based on what we know about what ‘now’ is. We are designing for the present, but our designs will change the way we are living and become a changing and hopefully improving step along the path towards the future.

I believe that in design, experience prototyping is one of the most important tools to ensure that we are moving in a direction that makes sense to the people of today. It gives us the chance to test designs and visions and learn with our respondents. Luckily, in some working-spaces collaboration is the new ‘it’ of the process, and has been so for quite some time for others . Participatory design invites people into a context where they are asked to inspire and co-design for solutions they themselves will benefit from in the end.

Nevertheless, designing for the future means holding a power position that requires us to take great responsibility. By using people-centred design methods, designers give a voice to those who’s voices might not find an ear, but who’s futures will also change with the designs we’re implementing. Design is a political action, and as designers it’s important to think about what the implications and consequences are when we choose one technology over the other for the people of the future.

For me this is a fitting angle from which to think about design anthropology. It combines the tools of design prototyping with deep observational and analytical tools of anthropology to reflect on the impact of our designs.

Converging Worlds

At ten minutes to five on the Friday afternoon I was starting to feel the overload of input as I drifted off in the last minutes of the last discussion. Then a provocative question was posed – does design anthropology absolve or relieve the anthropologist from long fieldwork? Hasn’t anthropology done that to itself? Keynote and moderator for the session George Marcus answered spontaneously that anthropology is an academic degree and that design traditionally isn’t. The energy completely changed in the room—hands shot up in the air—and people started animately arguing. One designer opposed the statement, so did an anthropologist, and the more-or-less diplomatic two day discussion took a 180 turn and pointed inwards. Between the two disciplines, who needs whom the most? When is the “right” time to give room to the collaboration of the two, and when are they in fact hindering one another?

In the end, that is where the conference left off, in this realisation of simmering conversations yet to be had, inviting the two sides not only to collaborate in the field, but also behind the scenes, defining and redefining the fusion between design and anthropology.

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