With Intent is a podcast from ID where we talk to a range of people—writers, designers, business strategists, policymakers, doctors, community organizers. The common thread? Whether they identify as designers or not, they're using design in their work.
Episode 10: Hope and action with Mushon Zer-Aviv
Mushon Zer-Aviv considers new ways of understanding change and the future—ways that account for the limits of forecasting and consider the "darkness" of the future as a place for hope and possibility. He also discusses systemic bias, the value of small talk, his appreciation for Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein, and Milton Friedman, and how his work brings provocation and action together.
Welcome to the last episode of our first season of With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world—whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. If you haven't yet, now's the time to subscribe. That's how you'll learn more about our second season, which we're hatching now. Let me thank all our listeners this season. I'm so glad you've decided to join us as we've explored what design and designing is this season, often with non-designers.
You can do a couple of things to help us make the next season even better. One is to write to me and give me your feedback. Find my email at id.iit.edu/podcast. Another is to tell someone about this podcast, especially someone you know who could use design. Updates on season two to come soon.
Now, this week, I talk to Mushon Zer-Aviv. Mushon is a designer. He's also an artist and activist working in media and technology. His many projects and provocations converge on imagining the future. Or, more correctly, futures. That is, any number of possible futures. Plural. But, though imagining the future is central to his work, Mushon has readily admitted that he finds it hard to do. We talk a lot about how he's done it through different projects, and we also consider Milton Friedman as an unlikely inspiration. We discuss the line between provocation and action.
But first, let's explore the curious notion of a futurist who finds imagining the future difficult.
So, you've said that, from your vantage point in Israel, it's been hard for you to imagine the future, and I think you're specifically alluding to Israeli, Palestinian conflict. But, of course, imagining the future is very central to your work. And so, I wonder if you could just tell me a little bit about how you have overcome this difficulty in imagining the future, and come to focus on the work that you do now?
That's a great way to start. I don't know about overcoming, but definitely working from Israel... During the '90s, when I was growing up, when I became a teenager, and then grew up and studied, we went through a period of hope that was crushed with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, incidentally exactly 26 years ago today. And, the thing is, when I grew up, I was expecting the occupation to end, and I was expecting to have a future that would be much more aligned with my ethics and with the kind of country I want to live in. This has not happened since, and I think many Israelis have become very, very cynical, and very suspicious about hopes for the future, and about change in general. This is a landscape that not a lot of Israelis are challenging, and I feel an urgent need to do that, as someone who chose to come back to Israel after more than five years in New York, and build my life here again, start a family here, and hope to have a good future in a place that I love. But is very problematic. That's kind of the background.
I don't know if I've solved it. They haven't missed the news, the occupation is still there 54 years later. But, I definitely feel like there's a need, especially for creative practitioners, to develop different ways of thinking about the future, because the cynical framework is not something that is very inspiring, both for creative practice and for views of change. So, that's a bit of the motivation.
So, this is a podcast, obviously, so no one can see us right now, but I'm going to move to one of the projects that you've been working on. I want to ask you, how normal do you look, and why does that matter?
I think, to me, I'm pretty normal. I got pretty used to the way my face look, and I think for a lot of people that's the case. But, the project you're referring to is The Normalizing Machine, or the recent iteration of the project that is called simply Normalizing. That's a project where I'm trying to teach machines to identify, "How do normal people look like?" That's obviously a provocation that refers a bit to the technologies of face recognition, specifically, and more generally, to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Machine learning is trying to automate patterns that are important to us. There's a lot of excitement around this technology because it makes a lot of things very efficient, it can do a lot of routines that are very tedious, it can do really fast and in really large scale. But then, when we rush to extend it to every element of our lives, we forget the biases that are embedded within these technologies.
And, these technologies are built around an idea of normalization. That is statistical normalization. They work statistically, they expect a pattern. And, they're built to do a pretty good job for things that meet that pattern. When things don't meet that pattern, then they'll exclude it. Sometimes, these technologies will try to find things that don't fit that pattern. But, the idea of normalization, that is embedded into technologies of machine learning, are really something we need to reflect on.
Specifically, with The Normalizing Machine, or I would refer specifically to Normalizing, which is available on the web on [inaudible 00:06:24]. You go online, on your mobile browser, so you enter the website and you join the experience by taking a selfie. The selfie would then be added to a database of previously recorded other participants. And then, you would be required to choose between previously recorded participants, comparing their noses, comparing their eyes, their foreheads, their mouths, and so on. You would get two pairs of noses, for example, and then you'll need to swipe towards the one that looks more normal. That's how you're basically classifying and helping to create this arrogated image of normalcy.
At the end of a few rounds like that, you would get the result of how normal do you look, and your face will be added to a map that is trying to both create clusters of similarly looking people, and to identify, "How normal do they look?" That map is algorithmically organized, so there are pretty disturbing patterns that appear there, because it quickly tries to separate male and female, try to separate by race. It's interesting to see what patterns does it find. And, because the map is organized as a two-dimensional grid, we see a blob of men, a blob of women, and then a cluster of [inaudible 00:08:02]. So, all of sudden it becomes really disturbing, in the sense that this is how the machine looks at human faces. It identifies Asian features, and then that's another blob. And, kind of segregating them geographically on that map, based on the analyzed features.
So, I hope this work allows us to reflect on these kind of patterns that we do quite naturally, with or without technology. But maybe, ask ourselves, "Do we want to automate these things? And, what is the price of this automation? What should we automate? What shouldn't we automate?" And so on.
What you're talking about, I think, is the sort of programmed bias of some of the technology that is available to us today, and how we can't necessarily blame the machines themselves for that, because some human has programmed those machines. So, through this project you're trying to reveal those biases that are part of what have been programmed into machines?
Yeah. So, what's special, I think, about the technology of machine learning, is exactly the fact that there's only so much that is programmed into them. Much of the rules that these algorithms apply are statistical, so they're very much based on the data they're fed. What I was trying to do with [inaudible 00:09:36], to emphasize both data collection and data classification, to remind us that we are feeding these machines. We are the ones who are normalizing, not only by swiping right and left on these pairs of face segments that are prepared and with this weird question, "Who looks more normal?" We basically do that all the time. Not only in Tinder, which also has this swipe right, swipe left, but also on the like button, a comment, even swiping through a feed creates patterns of normalization.
So, these patterns of normalizations create data that is analyzed. This is what feeds these machines. They are based not on algorithmic bias, but on automated human bias. And, I think, beyond the dark vision of machines taking over, propagating bias, it's important to remember it's our bias, we just chose to put it inside a black box. So, the first thing I'm trying to do there is to make the black box a bit more transparent, and to really reflect on what's happening inside. But also, remind us that systemic bias was with us before algorithms. And, the work itself reflects on the history of forensic photography from the 19th century, and shows how this idea of face identification has morphed into face classification, and has led us down pretty dark paths in history, much before we started talking about computers. In a way, I would even say that I'm happy that we're talking about systemic bias and that it creates this slightly populistic, but then exciting, articles in Wired magazine. Because, systemic bias has become finally multidisciplinary, it's not just something that bureaucrats do behind their desks. It's something that involves data scientists, and designers, and other practitioners that were not very involved in these questions before. It's, in a way, an interface for us to deal with them again.
So, what you're kind of saying too is that it's not that that there was bias originally input into the machine, or the computer, or the technology, it's that, one, you're asking someone to swipe to make a decision about what's normal, that's where the bias comes through, right?
It's a balance between the two. Because, I'm not claiming that there's a way for us to not be biased, on a personal level. Your question is exactly touching on this point. On one hand, we try to identify patterns, this is how our brains work. We try to understand what is foreign, what is common, what to expect from what we see around us in the world, the kind of experiences that we have. And, this is really how our brains work, for better or worse. The idea of de-biasing is useless. We will always bias based on the experiences that we have. But, the decision to alienate this process into black boxes, into machines, as if there is this truth of what is normal, I think that's where the problem is. So, in a way, there's bias in the way we look at the world, and there's bias in systems of normalization, and this idea of normalization. And, merging the two has consequences that I hope participants in the piece can reflect on.
It's important to remember that artificial intelligence, while being kind of a symbol of cutting edge technology, it has a very, very conservative bias by design. So, what these technologies can do is only look at patterns of the past and expect them to continue. So, basically propagate the past into the future. The working assumption is that the patterns that we've identified in the past will continue into the future. That's true also of every prediction algorithm. They can say, "We can see the patterns repeating themselves," or, "We cannot see the patterns repeating themselves." In a way, metaphorically, we can say it's like one and zero. It's either continuous, or it doesn't continue. It's never two. It's never more than the present. It's never more than the past. And, this connects back to the question of futures, in a way, it doesn't allow... If we're thinking through the framework of prediction algorithms, we will never find a better future. We will never find the leadership that would allow us to deal with the many challenges of the 21st century, and the climate crisis is the first of them.
That's an important element, because when we're thinking through the prediction of temperature rise, which is a very important value that we can get out of these statistical systems, the fact that we can sense and collect data, and identify patterns about temperature rise, is amazing. We wouldn't even have had the climate urgency that we're trying to push towards if we didn't have that. But, if we expect this graph to also show us how to get out of this, or inspire some kind of change, that would never happen. In a way, when we're looking at the different scenarios that are compared in the temperature rise prediction, the subtext of this graph is, "Choose your apocalypse." So, it's either that we're going to face a horrible apocalypse, or a very, very horrible apocalypse. That's also only based on this idea of the status quo is changing, and our way of life would not be able to maintain itself. But, a graph like that, or machine learning like that, or data-driven predictions in general, cannot imagine what is not from the past, technically. Technically, they are conservative in that sense.
So, especially for designers, and I see designers as being always about the future, we need to understand that there's only so much these technologies and these approaches can take us. And, the burden is on us to get back to thinking outside of the prediction mindset. Not against the prediction, but really understanding that this is just a part of the picture. So, there's forecasting, and there's foresight. Designers need to do more foresight to complement the forecasts of data scientists.
So, I want to talk a little bit more about that, what you're talking about forecasting and foresight, and I think we called this, in the Latham panel discussion that we had, anticipatory skills. In that conversation, we talked at length about futuring, and we closed with a quote from Milton Friedman, that you've cited. I'm going to repeat that quote, which is, "Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function, to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." This, interestingly, came from his 1982 preface to his book Capitalism and Freedom. So, I want to hear more about how this quote inspires you in some ways, and connects to your work? So, let's talk about that a little bit.
It's a playful gesture to use that quote, because I sign every word, except the attribution, right? So, I don't share Milton Friedman's politics, neither does Naomi Klein, who wrote The Shock Doctrine, where I came across this quote in that book from 2006, if I'm not mistaken. She refers to how this idea of crisis capitalism took shape. She has a lot of issues with Milton Friedman, but I think she finds that quote inspiring as well. It's inspiring because it understands that the way free market capitalism and neoliberal politics have been looking at the future is much more open-minded and much more anticipatory than other ideas. We've heard a lot about think tanks. These think tanks have been ready to take advantage of opportunities. Opportunities that have been serving very, very narrow private interests, but this is a call to action to understand that if we have different ideas, if we believe that other futures deserve a chance, we need to be prepared. And, to be prepared is not only to think through the framework of the status quo or the prediction, it's understanding that the futures are always much more varied, and we can't really predict them. It's much easier to make that point after 2020.
Our future may look very, very different than our present. And, I think one of the tragedies... And, I'll come back to that point, because I think it's very important. One of the tragedies is that the same predictions that demand the climate urgency, are also the same predictions that limit our imagination. I'm looking at trying to develop different methods to look at the future, ones that are more challenging the status quo and challenging the boundaries of the discourse that we've been having, the data-driven discourse. I'm in the process of writing a book about these things that are using key terminologies from design to develop a design theory of change. I'm using terms like "Flow," and, "Friction," that are used a lot in interaction design. And, other terms like "Affordances" and, "Signifiers," again, coming from understanding agency from the perspective of interaction design. And then, trying to look through them at political agency, and specifically about the flow of the future. So, can we look at these dynamics between flow being the inertia of time, or habit, or power? And then, friction as being the elements that do not conform to that inertia, that may slow it down, or may even diverge it, to some degree.
And then, understand that friction, like Milton Friedman's crisis, can be a problem, but it can also be an opportunity. So, reading and finding friction, identifying friction, can be the framework for which to find agency again, either by understanding that friction stands in our way to protecting our flow, or continuing the flow that is desirable or preferable, and then identifying friction is a good opportunity to get rid of it. Or, that understanding that friction is the opportunity to change the flow. I'm looking at different flows that have been so optimized beyond our ability to change them, and I'm looking at definitely about issues of inequality. Inequality is hard to change because our economic system has optimized itself for inequality. It's not a mistake. And then, it's really hard for us to change it because it's built to have no friction. When we're talking about what's happening online, [inaudible 00:22:49], and the crisis of reality, and post-truth, and so on.
And, beyond that, the climate crisis. The climate crisis is the result of a flow that we've been optimizing for hundreds of years. We've been trying to push the environment away, because the environment, and nature in general, has created a lot of friction in our lives. Anything from [inaudible 00:23:17], through habitat, through trying to live in different climates. We've been amazing at pushing that friction away. It's been an ongoing struggle, that we haven't really taken into account that there might be some consequences. I'm trying to think outside of the framework of guilt around our relations with the environment, and to focus on... I don't think that nature is pure, or that we should go back to nature because it's amazing and everything that we've done is wrong, but I think we need to discover friction again. We need to interrogate our flow, and to really understand how to change that flow. Because, if we're using the metaphor of rivers... I'm referring a lot to rivers as this metaphor. So, the flow of the river has a certain trajectory, but it would not have had this inertia, this stream, without friction, because otherwise we would have had a swamp or just a sea.
We have inertia, we have a direction, because mountains, and rocks, and other elements, are creating friction that creates a direction. So, in a way, we need to understand, "How do we bend rivers? How do we read our agency in the flow? And, how can we direct it again?"
So, just to think about this metaphor of rivers a bit more, and what you're calling frictions and flows, and I know you've also used the term, "Global frictions," can you give me some examples of flows and frictions, or global frictions in the world today?
So, when it comes to global friction, I've been thinking about it that what we're experiencing with COVID-19 is really, really unique, in the sense that we've never had global friction before. I've been trying to find other examples, but I couldn't find another example where it's not only that we were all in the same stream, as in all humanity in the same stream, but all of us are facing the same new problem. So, it's a problem that we haven't faced before. There were other pandemics, but none of them were as global and world-encompassing as this one. And, this is also, of course, a result of globalization. It has become the new statistics that are universal, like the weather. It's the perspective we looked at our lives through. And, I think this is an opportunity because looking at this global friction might give us some clues on, "Why do we not render climate change as global friction yet? Why don't we render the problems of inequality and the airtight capitalism and how it's incompatible with the world that we live in?" We don't render that as global friction, even though it does affect us all, but we don't see the world through that perspective.
And, you're saying global friction is something that we could sense, or feel, or have smalltalk about?
Yeah, I think smalltalk is important, in that sense. Smalltalk, as in, "I don't know what I have in common with this person yet, but I know that I can talk with them about the weather." Or, "I know I can talk with them about COVID-19, because it's obvious that this is an essential part of this person's life and the way they woke up this morning and look at the world." That is not the case with climate change. That is not the case with economic system. Funny enough, just a few weeks ago, I think we had a second global friction for a few hours, and that is the big Facebook blackout. The fact that so many people could not go on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and so on, that, to a large degree, was global friction, but a very different one. But again, we can see the connection between globalization and global friction.
To your question about the rivers... So, this is really a part of the framework that I'm trying to develop as part of my book, I'm trying to think of topologies of rivers as topologies of change, or images of change. So, at this point, I have five topologies. The first one is the status quo, we can imagine it as a river that no matter how it bends or meanders, the main stream is strong, it doesn't change. So, this is the idea that the future would not change much, so that's the idea of the status quo. The second one is collapse. Basically, the river runs dry, so an idea that this stream would not be able to maintain itself and would run dry. The third one, I currently call resilience, the river diverges, but we have a clear idea that it would converge back further down the stream.
So, think about COVID-19 and this idea of, "Flatten the curve." "Flatten the curve," was promising us, basically, not only that we might meet the demands of the health system, but that the curve... I'm arguing that the curve we actually looked at is the part of the curve that actually flattens back to zero. So, there was an implied and mistaken promise in, "Flatten the curve," that, "It's just one curve and we're back to our lives." I think we fooled ourselves into believing that. Which, is great, otherwise maybe we wouldn't have taken this urgency, and we know that many of us have not taken on this urgency. But, globally, I think humanity has definitely stood up to the challenge, to a large degree. So, that's resilience, this idea that, "We will be back to the main stream."
The fourth one is adaptability. If we imagine the river, it's kind of the river delta. A lot of streams that are diverging from the main stream change that is so rapid and so unpredictable, that it's really, really hard to plan ahead, and we need to focus on our conceptual flexibility, our future's literacy, our ability to really look at how the environment changes, and to reconfigure our lives again. That's what actually happened with COVID-19. The fact that there was another curve, and another curve, and another curve, at some point we realized that we are on a completely different flow. We have never come back to the pre-COVID... This whole myth of post-COVID, Post-COVID is not pre-COVID. Post-COVID is a new thing.
The fifth one is transformation. Transformation, if we go back to the metaphor of the river, we always thought that we're in the main stream, but then we connect to another stream and we find out that we were always a brook of a different river. Life can change dramatically in the future, and that could be because of external forces, and it could be because of political forces, economic, cultural, and societal. We can really think of different forces that would dramatically change our lives. So, I think it requires some humility and a lot of imagination to understand that there is no, "The future." Nothing in the current stream promises that [inaudible 00:31:19] stream continue. I'm trying to suggest that these different topologies are a way to look at many aspects of our lives. So, we can use them to really open our imagination to other possibilities beyond the status quo.
In my view, we have the smalltalk that focuses on the weather, because it's sort of, as you said, easy and everybody's sort of experiencing it. But, there's also some hope embedded there always that the weather will get better, or that it'll change, at the very least, it won't always be that way. Maybe I'm just saying that because I'm in Chicago and that's what we say, "It won't stay like this, we know that." And then, maybe we talk about COVID because we have that same hope that it will change, or that we're seeing things change. And, maybe we don't talk about climate change because it's less easy to feel, and it's less easy to maybe have hope there. I just wonder if you have any thoughts about these ideas, and, I guess, both about the importance of hope as we're doing futuring work, but then also making that futuring work accessible to people beyond academia. Because, sometimes I just feel like it can come off as very elitist, like, "Oh, you have time to sit around and think about the future," but it's like, "Oh no, we should all be thinking about the future, this is our future."
So, one thing that I really like about the framing of anticipation in the field of futures studies, is that anticipation is not something that is only human. I'm not even talking about creative professions, and definitely not even about humans, but biological systems and ecological systems have a sense of anticipation, as in the way they prepare for the future, the way they anticipate the future. I definitely share that concern about this elitist futuring. In a lot of cases, this idea of speculative design has been this armchair speculation that allows itself to imagine dystopias, and they feel very, very critical. But, how does it translate to action? How does it translate to finding agency?
And there, in the context of hope, I think hope is a very, very important concept. I'm specifically very... I relate to the way it was framed by Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca Solnit has a book called Hope In The Dark, and in it she quotes Virginia Woolf, who said, "The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be." What she means by that, or the way Rebecca Solnit uses it, is that not that the future is dark as in a bad thing, the future is something that we don't know, unlike prediction algorithms that are kind of trying to project light into the darkness of the future. And, if this projection is... I'll get back to the temperature rise prediction. It's lit, there's light, we can see what's coming up, but it's very dark when it comes to what we can hope for. If the future is dark, it means that there's possibility in the darkness. There's possibility and uncertainty. There's possibility in not knowing, and that's another element that calls us to really take into account that this data-driven world that we find ourselves living in is very, very limited in what it can offer us politically, what it can offer us creatively. And that, I think, really requires us to embrace the darkness as the best thing the future can be.
And, also find our agency, not only in the future, and not only politically, but in technology. Understand that technology can only go so far. It's amazing to be able to use these forecasts, and we should use them wisely and widely, even more than we do today. But, understand that this is just a part of the discussion, the other part really requires us to use our creative reading and our imagination to scope possibilities for the future, to identify opportunities to create the ideas lying around. This is where Milton Friedman's quote, I think, is really, really inspiring for political change, rather than for maintaining his brand of capitalism.
I think you consider yourself both an activist and an artist, among other things, and...
And designer. How do you decide when to make art, or design other things, and when to take action?
I think a lot of my more discursive work is also an attempt to raise a conversation that is important for me to figure out. But, at the same time, I feel like a lot of the work that we should do at this point, politically, has to do with political imagination, has to do with this idea of, "How do we break the patterns of despair in places like Israel and Palestine, in the context of the economic crisis, in the context of the environmental crisis, in questions of race, and gender, and ability, and so on?" I think I'm looking at what happens in the left all over the world, and specifically in the US, and I see, on one hand, so many desire for change, but it's wrapped in so much anger and so much despair, and such a huge level of fragmentation. Even when we're talking about gender fluidity, it's been discussed in such binary terms, like, "We demand to know your pronouns. We demand for you to be an ally." There's something about these dichotomies that we're not able to think beyond.
What I'm trying to develop in my current research is thinking through flows. It's slightly less Western, I think, in its approach. I can't call myself very much an expert in Eastern philosophies, but I think they're much less devoted to this idea of segmentation, binaries, categorization, and so on. And, really trying to see change in volumes, in philosophies, in increments, rather than, "You're not an ally, and therefore you're canceled." So, I'm not sure I answered your question. But, I think in many of my works, not necessarily the ones we discussed today, I'm trying to expose actual agency. One of my works that we have not discussed, and I might mention it briefly, is called AdNauseam. AdNauseam is an ad blocker, that not only blocks ads, but also clicks every ad that it comes across. And by that, pollutes the profile that ad networks are trying to gather on you. It's a collaboration with Daniel Howe and Helen Nissenbaum. And, this idea of [inaudible 00:39:18] is very a different approach to privacy networks., when other solutions, like encryption, are basically trying to limit, to create boundaries, and to limit information flows [inaudible 00:39:32]. And, AdNauseam are trying to just increase the stream so much that it becomes meaningless.
I think we can think about it as dance versus a very strong stream. We can have protection in different models of information flows. I think we're going online, and we're using technology, not to hide, necessarily, but in a lot of cases to connect, to network. I think there's something sometimes very religious about the approaches that are taken under the framework of cybersecurity, or encryption, or crypto culture. It becomes like, "Why don't you encrypt your emails? How do you expect to have privacy if you don't encrypt your emails?" That becomes something that is kind of blaming the victim and coming back to this individuation. What I like about AdNauseam is that AdNauseam really creates power by the numbers. I'm not only polluting my profile, I'm polluting the idea of normalization. I'm really messing with the ability to create a normal consumer of information. And, the more we do that, we don't only protect ourselves, we also fight fire with fire. You want big data? Let's see how big can data really get.
Yeah. I think this is really interesting, because... I think you did answer my question, because what I did was I presented you with a dichotomy that then you [inaudible 00:41:08] to say, "I'm doing both. This is a provocation that is actually also taking action." I think is kind of what you're saying. So, I think you're saying what your work does, whatever shape it takes, is both in some ways.
And so, I wanted to ask you too about another project which came out, I think it's almost 10 years ago now, the collaboratively written book Collaborative Futures. We've been talking about politics and change in the future, and so I wanted to just... I had to ask, after taking a look at that book, whether you would consider... Because, I know the book tries to define collaboration. Whether you would consider Occupy a collaboration?
Yeah, for sure, Occupy is a collaboration. But, since you mentioned Occupy, if you allow me, I have a spiel about Occupy.
So, about two months before Occupy had started in Wall Street, a big social uprising started in Israel. For the exact same reason, because of economic inequality, because of housing crisis, because of divides between rich and poor, and the methodology was very similar as well. It was tent cities all around Israel. At some point, this social uprising had more than 80% approval rates all around Israel. It was really, really a substantial political uprising. And then, Occupy started two months after and propagated all around the US, and then all around the world. When we were faced with this term, "Occupy," and we wanted to say this is a part of a global movement, and we had a lot of ties with Occupy all around the world, we could not call Occupy, Occupy. For the main reason, that we already have an occupation, and it's not symbolic. In a way, the use of the term, "Occupy," really rendered something for us that was kind of disturbing, that the occupation of the public space was symbolic gesture, as much as it was physical, as much as it was in physical space, as much as it was amazing in many, many ways it was stuck in the symbolic realm, and it did not render into clear political affordances.
Unlike the non-affordances of the occupation of the West Bank, in Gaza. Unlike the power of the strike that has clear economic affordances. If we go back further in time, unlike the peasants standing at the gates of the noblemen with torches and pitchforks, and they're marking a very, very clear affordance, "Either we're going to burn you and everyone inside this castle." That's what Occupy and the Tent movement in Israel were echoing symbolically, but without the affordance of actual power. So, this removal from power, and our embeddedness in the symbolic realm, has been one of the challenges of both the Occupy movement and the tent cities in Israel, and many political protests since. I think, to a large degree, we need to get... This kind of connects to your previous question, we need to connect back not only to the symbolic meaning or the symbolic gesture, but also to affect change in the material world.
AdNauseam works as a protest, but it also messes with the data, with profiling, and it actually costs money. It actually messes with trust between these ad networks and advertisers. So, I think we need to find these opportunities beyond this alienation to understand how we not only change the conversation, which is important, but actually change the power balances on the ground. An example that came out of Occupy that does that is Debt Collective. So, Debt Collective an initiative that raises donations to buy people's debts. They buy them on penny on the dollar, and at this point I think they've relieved more than a billion dollars in debt. Not by paying billions of dollars, but actually through buying debts in a very low price. So, the thing that I see there as very relevant to these conversations about affordance, and signifiers, and political agency, is that this is kind of hacking the economic system—this is kind of looking at the economic system and finding the hidden affordances for affecting change, very much like hackers would look at a computer network and find the weaknesses, find the exploits. So, back to understanding not only symbolic impact, but also material one.
I just want to ask about all the different work that you're doing and have done, and that's some of the projects that we've talked about today, as well as you're the co-founder of a design studio called shual.com, co-founder of shiftspace.org, creator of youarenothere.org. So, there's many things that you're working on. You're also, I think, faculty at a few different schools. So, thinking about all these different roles, all these different projects, how do you think about your work? And, what's the thread that ties them together? What drives you after all these things?
I'm so happy that you're asking this question now and not like a year ago, because a year ago I think I would have had to answer that, "I really don't know, and it really disturbs me." But, at some point, I realized there's something that connects all of the threads of my work, and that is these questions about friction. I think this tension between friction and flow, and that's also why I realized that this should be my biggest project now, which is the book. I can talk about my futuring work through that, I can talk about AdNauseam, I can talk about teaching through that. [inaudible 00:47:52] senior faculty at [inaudible 00:47:54] College, which is a substantial part of how I see my practice. And, even more client work that I've done as a designer. I've designed maps for Waze seven years ago. And even then, we can talk about transportation in terms of flow and friction. And, cartography, and information design in general, as topics that I've been working on a lot, kind of include these tensions between our attempt to look at the world and try to say, "Oh, this is a city. This is a village. This is a town."
But, on the other hand, the same point of interest, the same point on the map would also have variable for population, and variable for space. And, this tension between how we look at volume and how we name things, that is very much the day-to-day challenges of information designers. It really inspires me to look at many elements of my work, and try to see what are we kind of pulling into language, and what should stay ambiguous? And, what can even be represented not by words or numbers, and maybe should stay in the dark, as in the place of hope?
How do you define design?
So, the way I define design is both to plan towards the future, and to take action towards the future. I look at design as to design. To design is to plan. To design is to take action.
Yeah, as a verb.
Design as a verb.
Thank you to Mushon Zer-Aviv, a 2021 Latham Fellow at ID, for joining me today. You can learn more about Mushon on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show, and your support really helps. And remember, tell someone about With Intent. Our theme music comes from ID alum, Adithya Ravi. Be sure to get our next season delivered. Subscribe now.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This week, I talk to Marina Gorbis. Marina is the executive director of the Institute for the Future, a place where business executives, policy makers, nonprofits and others use foresight and futuring techniques to make better long-term decisions. For example, it could work with the Institute for the Future to anticipate and be able to plan for a worldwide pandemic. In fact, Marina worked on just such a project years before COVID hit and, now that the pandemic is real, interest in futuring has spiked. But what is futuring and how does it allow someone to predict something like COVID?
Futuring is systematically drawing on data, analyzing trends and using that information to not only imagine different scenarios but, also, make them real so that you can plan for them. As Marina and I discussed, these approaches are interwoven with design and world-making. And ideally, they're used to actually inform decisions about what we do, how we live and what we make.
What should we be making? That's an interesting question. What I'm focused on is building the enterprise's structures for creating and getting things done that are more equitable. That's my focus. I just learned that business is the most popular undergraduate major. And what we're teaching people and, as a result, what they're making, are the businesses that maximize for shareholder profits. We've been doing it for a while and what we're seeing are the results of that which is increased levels of wealth inequality, income inequality, racial disparities, all of that and I feel like there have been a lot of conversations about changes in work and economic inequality and a lot of solutions have been around. "Oh, let's train people for better jobs. Let's train people, let's upskill people, let's give them more education," with the idea that there are these great jobs out there that everybody can get.
So, if we all become computer scientists or programmers, there is this great life ahead of us. And the reality of it is that somebody needs to be doing all kinds of work. I don't think we're lacking for work, there's care work and now, we have a shortage of nurses and health personnel, we have shortages of teachers. But all of this work is not really well-compensated. The largest employer in the country is actually Walmart, 2.2 million people are working at the Walmart with an average salary of something like $20,000 a year. It's hard to imagine that that's a livable salary and it's a livable wage but somebody needs to do this work. And I'm all for education and upskilling and it has huge benefits for society, for all of us, for individuals but it's not a solution or, by itself, not a solution to the huge and vast inequalities that we're seeing.
And basically, we're in a period where work is no longer the means of distributing prosperity in this country and economic security. Most of the work that people are doing is insecure, it's not sustainable for many people, it's stressful, all of those things. So, I'm really focused on how do we create the enterprises, defined broadly, business arrangements or other ways of creating value that are more equitable and more democratic.
So, can you name some examples of the types of things you're looking at?
Yeah, cooperatives of some sort that give people workers ownership over their work is one example. Community trusts where something is owned by communities and not individuals and the purpose is to enlarge community wealth and, in turn, also increase people's economic security is one example. ESOPs, employee stock owned companies. It's anything that gives those who contribute value and work to creation of something where they have a stake in that of some sort, not just being paid the minimal wage or below that, but they have also a larger stake in the product that they've created or service.
Is this in reaction to the gig economy or the shrinking benefits for many workers?
Yeah, it's partially in response to that but this has been happening since the 1970s. We have waves of self-contracting, outsourcing that was enabled by technology. You can't outsource work if you don't have these networks over which you can communicate, it's changes in our legal understanding of worker's rights and it's in response to that. But lately, the uberization or explosion of gig work is the latest iteration. So, it's waves of changes that are legal, regulatory and technology that basically brought us to this place where work has become so inequitable.
And so, at the same time that you say you agree with the importance of education and how necessary that is, I think what you're also saying is that the answer to the ills of inequity, at this time, education isn't an answer to that but the answers lie more in what? In systems or in-
In the structure and regulation-
In the structures.
... of corporate forms, basically, that we have now. You, now, can have a company that hardly has any employees and that's extremely profitable.
And so, it works for investors and probably for executives who own shares in those companies but it's not distributed, it's highly concentrated. Yes.
Right, right. So, looking at the future and how you might expect types of work to change or not, you mentioned some healthcare positions and, maybe, these will not be changing so much. I guess I'm still wondering about the types of skills you might see being needed for future roles.
Yeah, work is already changing because COVID forced us into rethinking a lot of ways that people work. We're talking about the Great Resignation. If you're in that position where you can have that choice and decide that you want to pull out of work, people are changing their working arrangements either hybrid or working from home. You hear people saying, "I'm never going to go back to the same way I worked before." It just gave us this moment to rethink why are we commuting. Some people, two hours a day. Is it really worth it? Personally and from an environmental perspective also, is it really necessary? And in some ways, we also come to appreciate being in the same place together and missing that in many ways. So, there's lots of different ways in which people themselves are rethinking their connection to work and what is the role of work in their lives.
So much of our identity has been tied to our work identity. And, if you don't have that, what other identities rise in importance in redefining that? So, there are lots of different ways in which work is being transformed and I think that COVID has allowed us and, in some ways, exacerbated that. And in terms of skills, a long time ago we did some work on the skills of the future and some of these skills are the same. It's your emotional intelligence and ability to work with different people, ability to work remotely and collaborate, ability to work with media and understanding different forms of media. We talked about computational intelligence, we're working with data more and more and it was information. And it's not so much about programming skills or being a trained programmer, but it's really ability to understand them and operate in the world of abstractions and data and using these intelligently.
So, all have those skills. I'm not saying that education is not important. It's very, very important. And a lot of importance is its actually public value. We know that people who have college education are more tolerant, they're more engaged in social issues, they're able to process information better and we're in this world now, we're just bombarded with information including health information. Reading everything and research about COVID and what to do. It's a lot of data and statistics. So, there are better health outcomes for people who have higher levels of education. So, it's not about that. It's just that, in many ways, education by itself and degrees, in particular, by themselves, maybe 60 years ago or 50 even years ago, you've said, "Okay, I'll get a degree and my future is assured. I can have a middle class existence." Now, it's not so clear that that's the case.
Of course, you're better off going to college and getting a degree for all these reasons and for societal reasons. But the connection to say that education or degree, by itself, will ensure your economic security, that connection is fraying more and more. So, here in California, something like 15% of people with bachelor's degrees earn less than $15 an hour and that number has been increasing. That's the reality of it. That education, by itself, is not producing these expected outcomes in terms of economic security.
Right. Futures work has seen a resurgence or a spike in popularity with the pandemic and you mentioned how, in one of your projects, I think maybe years ago, you had anticipated such a situation. But I'm wondering, in your work at the Institute for the Future, how would you characterize your interest? Are you interested in making a preferred future or in preparing for plausible futures? How do you think about future versus futures and the work that you're doing?
I think it's a bit of both. Obviously, when we work with future scenarios and look at drivers of change and go through the process, there's plausible scenarios or futures that we are interested in. And, for some people, that's where it ends. It's like, "Please help us develop plausible future scenarios," which includes some positive and some negatives. "Help us prepare for that." But we also are interested because the future is not something that's given, it's malleable and it's largely shaped by the actions we take and what we can imagine and what we would like to imagine. A lot of our work is also imagining these possibilities. We have a saying that's actually on our window at the institute when you come into the institute from Jim Dator who is a political scientist and one of the prominent thinkers and futurists. And it says that any plausible statement about the future should, at first, appear to be ridiculous.
And, if you go back and you think about some of the things that are happening today that seemed unthinkable probably before, you realize that you have to consider these unthinkable things. And also, maybe some of the things you imagine that seem unthinkable are, actually, what you want to build and really engage other people in that conversation. The narrative change is a big part of it because the future starts in our imagination. If you can't imagine it, you can't create it and you can't make it. So, even technology things appeared as science fiction. Our cell phone and other kinds of things, somebody imagined that this is possible. So, imagination is a big part of it.
So, then, how do you think about the difference between futuring work or maybe it's very, very similar? But what's the distinction? Because I think you had mentioned that you found a distinction between the type of work you do in futuring and design work.
I think there are a lot of intersections and some similar tools and techniques. To me, one of the big differences and a colleague who came to the institute talked about it. She was working in China and there's a lot of pollution. And so, there was a company she was working with that was trying to create some, basically, technologies to help people protect themselves from pollution so they invented this sensor that you put on windows. And so, if the pollution is greater indoors, you open the window and if the pollution is greater, air pollution outside, you close the window because there is a difference. And I thought, "Wow, that explains the basic difference between traditional design thinking and the future thinking," because we would come in and want to explore why is there a pollution in the first place? What are the causes of that and look systematically and systemically at the larger issue.
And so, a lot of the futures work is trying to unpack systems, complex socio-technological biological systems, not taking the conditions as they are but, really, looking at larger systems and what systemic changes you can make and want to make at that level. But as I said, we teach futures design which has a lot of elements of both and I think, increasingly, I would love to see designers question some of the systems for which they're designing.
How do you think of design? How do you define design?
What I understand design to be is understanding the needs and desires and limitations and designing best possible product services for that, for those conditions. So, to me, my intersection with designers is there's some similarities in terms of doing ethnographic work, deeply understanding user needs, conditions and then designing to fill those needs and those specific conditions.
So, thinking about that in the work that you do and going back to this scenario, I think you had said that there was a project that had imagined some respiratory disease or pandemic. I don't know if you can paint that picture for us a little bit more of how that came about, that you were anticipating that crisis in some way? And if you could characterize at all when you arrived there, that this was a possibility how people responded to it?
That particular project from 2008, we were looking at identifying what is the key critical risks that we're facing as a society and that was one of the risks that was identified. It came out of the work we were doing on zoonotic diseases. So, zoonotic diseases are diseases that are transferred from animals to humans. And, if you unpack that domain, you take several trends together. So, we're encroaching a lot more on wildlife territories, we're building in places where, previously, humans did not interact so much with animal life. So, there is more interaction with that. There is more communications and more air travel. We're basically global so it's easier to transmit things between those. We've seen the beginnings of SARS. These epidemics started to become global, in some ways, and we're focused on that.
So, you take all of those conditions and it's easy, or maybe not so easy, to envision that scenario of something transmitted from animals that, then, easily transmitted globally and you've got an epidemic. That particular project, what was interesting about it? So, we created this scenario and, actually, a kind of assimilation. So, one of the things that's really hard about futures work is it's hard for people to imagine something that they haven't experienced yet. So, these very detailed simulations are the best approximation that we have. So, we had people actually living that experience. We had people sign up as game participants and they participated in that scenario and shared their experiences and it was really interesting. I think Jane McGonigal who actually designed this simulation with the help of others at the Institute, we were reflecting on that, how much we learned from that simulation at that time.
For example, the fact that the hardest thing for people to let go off would be the social occasions, like rites of passage. Weddings, birthdays, celebrations—that was the hardest thing for people to let go of and, as it turns out, that's exactly what happened in this pandemic. These kinds of things that we learned from people actually living the experience. There was a lot of people who are organizing various kinds of mutual aid, food distribution. There are groups created to support each other. Again, we're seeing it in this pandemic how much mutual aid and people, neighbors supporting each other and coming together, how much of that happened. We actually even saw misinformation happening. Things about masks which is interesting. We're looking, actually, at some photos from San Francisco during the flu pandemic and there were similar anti-masking demonstrations as we're having today which is really interesting.
So, yeah, these simulations, they make it much more real and tangible the kind of future that, maybe, we're trying to prepare for or shift in some direction and that's exactly what we saw in that simulation that we did in '08. It's unfortunate, though, that on the larger scale as a society, we don't act on those learnings but they're there.
Yeah. Do you think there's a possibility, given everything that's happened, that more of this work will be taken more seriously or adopted and used?
I hope so. It's something I've been thinking a lot about and it's almost like you have to look at what are the incentives we have as a society to act on things that are not immediate. And, unfortunately, so many incentives that are built in, whether it's in politics or business or other areas, they are just very short term. Politicians, they think about next election. Businesses, it's shareholder profits. It's other institutions and we've been thinking a lot about how do you put in these incentives for longer term? Understanding that people need to deal with crisis and it's absolutely essential but extending what incentives can you build into these systems to think a little bit more long-term? So, for example, there's been a long-term stock exchange that has been created and that's one interesting idea, it's on the margins. But these imagine creating, giving incentives for longer term stock price or other ways that you can extend that.
So, it's really about how do we build those incentives. And in crisis, we always respond and we start. I'm not surprised that the futures is so in right now. And, if you think about when we were started in 1968, it's a very similar environment. A lot of change, war, Vietnam War, a lot of technological changes, civil rights movements, a lot of social upheavals. So, at that time, there was a whole network of futures organizations that have started. So, in a crisis, we tend to respond but then, unfortunately, amnesia sets in and we go back to the usual way of doing things.
Right. And it's also that situation of immediacy. People will be forced to respond to certain things and not forced to respond to others. So, in your research, you focus on the future of work and on value creation. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by value creation and what that work looks like?
Yeah, we expanded the definition. First of all, even in terms of work, there are certain things that we count as work and other things we don't count as work. A lot of “women's work” is not counted as work but we wouldn't survive without it. And so, we're trying to separate wage work and what is being paid for and value creation. And value creation, particularly artists, for example, you can argue they're creating a lot of value and they're making environments better. Going to museums or art exhibits or other things or listening to music improves your health but people are not necessarily paid for it. So, we're trying to look at, broadly, what kind of ... Wikipedia, for example, there are lots of people contributing to it for free, they're not getting paid.
So, you can also say, in some ways, we all work for Facebook because they're taking our data, they're taking value from us. And so, we are looking at what are the ways in which people can create value beyond work but also through work. So, we like that definition of value creation as opposed to paid work. And a lot of public resources, libraries, for example, they create tremendous value for people but they're not necessarily something you pay for.
You mentioned this simulation that you did for COVID. And I wonder if there are other design skills that you use regularly in your work?
Yeah, there's something we call artifacts from the future that we create, oftentimes. So, the artifact could be anything. It could be a journal entry, a day in a life from somebody living in that future. It could be a product or a thing or a service. It could be a physical artifact or digital but it's very concrete. So, it's something that makes you ask a question like archaeologists who dig into the past and they ask questions like, "What kind of people were using this? What were they using it for? What were the contexts in which they were using it? Why?" So, it's the same thing. It's like archaeology of the future. You dig something up and you ask questions like, "Why would somebody want that? Why would somebody need something like that? Why would you build? What kind of people? What kind of problems were they trying to solve with this? What kind of issues was it creating? What's the context in which this was used?"
And are those used to cultivate possibilities or to better understand potential situations?
Yeah, the purpose of these is to make something that's abstract. I can tell you about trends that are happening or drivers of change but they're very abstract. But the artifacts from the future make it very tangible. So, it's like, "Okay, if you lived in this world, this is what it looks like. These are the objects you would be surrounded by." So, it's about that. It's about taking something abstract and making it into something much more tangible.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I asked Kenneth Bailey about this, I had, actually, just interviewed him this morning as well. And I asked him how he thought about the difference between futuring and world building. So, I wonder how you think about that?
I wonder what he said. [inaudible 00:27:29] ask you that. World building is a new word that's like metaverse and it's all of this coming together. I think they're very much connected. In world building, is that more concrete. It's about building something in the world and futures is a piece of it. So, I think they're very connected. To me, world building is much grand, in some ways. It's what futures leads to on a grand scale, maybe. It's more concrete and tangible but they're connected. Futures, to me, it's a process to getting to world building.
... that makes total sense. I think you're thinking similarly. He said that he likes to think of his work as world building. I think you are in sync in so far as they're very much related and the one might lead to the other or, hopefully, does. So, getting back to the future of work and what that looks like in equity and preferred futures. We, here in the US, still focus on measures like GDP, other countries have started adopting other metrics like gross domestic happiness. I wonder what your thinking is on that and what changing to different metrics might do for us in order to move in a different direction or change our value system or—
Yeah, I think that it is a long process. We have this theory of change that there are several catalysts for change. One is narratives, you change your narratives. You bring in new evidence, so another lever is new evidence. We're doing a lot of myth busting, at this point, as a society about a lot of things. About work, around equity, even origin of this country. So, new evidence, new rules which is very much part of the work we're doing. Is to think about, "Well, what are the impediments to creating more equitable enterprises? What are the policies, either regulatory or cultural changes, that need to happen, or other kinds of things?" So, new rules, new evidence, new stories and new capacity.
This conversation, what I said about the business schools, there's no school you can go to to learn about equitable enterprise or everything you teach in business school is about of traditional corporate structures that are optimized for shareholder value. And the interesting thing to me is that it took us, probably, from 1950s where some of the theories, economic theories, neoliberalism and some of the basic ideas were introduced in, mainly, academic settings to the Reagan era where it became dominant underpinnings of our economy and society and we're still living that. So, now, we have lots of different groups that are questioning that and coming up with different ways of looking at things like changing GDP, for example. Well, GDP was invented before 1950s but just changing narratives and changing understanding and doing some myth busting about what this economy does or doesn't do.
So, I think it's good that we're all working on these things, there's coherence to that. For example, the idea of universal basic income, that seemed like a crazy idea just a few years ago. LA just announced it's yet another city that is actually introducing universal basic income for 3,000 families and there's been so many cities that have, basically, stepped up and are doing it. And that's going to change because it's a demonstration and it's visible, it's going to change minds, it's going to become something beyond. And that's what I like about Kenny's work, also, it's demonstration and making something visible where it's no longer that alien. The idea that, maybe, as a citizen, you deserve to have support, independent of who you are, what you do.
So, these kinds of ideas, I see them coming together at some point but it's a process in some ways. What we're going through in Washington now with the new bill and infrastructure, I see it as a battle between new narratives and old narratives about the whole notion of social infrastructure. It's expanding the idea of what infrastructure is and why it's worth investing in social infrastructure and not just physical infrastructure, alien idea to some people. Taxing billionaires or the top, top, top billionaires seems like an interesting idea. I don't know where we're going to come out but you see these battles between old and new narratives. But it's probably going to take a while, hopefully.
And you mentioned this idea, I think you have a name for this project that you're working on with Equitable Futures and I'm forgetting the name of it. What was that called?
Equitable Enterprise Initiative, okay. And as we think about the Great Resignation, how do you think that that is tied to issues of equity?
I think there was multiple thing about the Great Resignation going on. So, part of it is, as I said, it's COVID. People are tired, people are stressed, they just need a break. A lot of people are not seeing meaning in their work and they're changing that. Some people are deciding that they can reduce their consumption and trade time for money and deciding to do that. It's highly unequally distributed, so a lot of different motivations but I do believe it's also a form of resistance. There is this group called the Nap Ministry which is based on ideas that, particularly, Black women deserve sabbaticals and time for rest, that they've been overworked and they see it as an act of resistance, disconnecting from work. One of our fellows has started a fund or is trying to start a fund to, basically, invest in Black women to give them sabbaticals and rest. Very similar to universal basic income idea, but with specific population in mind.
So, there are lots of different things going on and I do believe that it is a rethink and where it's going to go. One thing that's, hopefully, giving some power to workers more to negotiate for rights and organize in different ways. One of the things that historically has happened, a lot of researchers and academics have written about that the plague, basically, ended feudalism simply because so many people died that there were not enough workers to work on feudal estates. That, in itself, gave workers a lot more rights. And it's unfortunate to think, obviously, a lot of people have died, a lot of people have chronic health conditions as a result of COVID and something we're going to be living with for a while and it's not over.
So, I think, really, we're going through this period of rethinking our relationship with work and our identity as workers and, hopefully, it will also give people more choices and more power to engage in the kind of work that they find meaningful, that is bringing value to them and their communities but remains to be seen.
In thinking about the future of work, what's the prevailing thinking? Given what we talked about before about the fact that certain roles will likely be needed far into the future but people clearly have expressed this need or desire for meaning in their work. I just wonder if that has come up? Well, as you mentioned, it is a trend finding meaning in your work and how do we deal with that?
Yeah, and we think about meaning in our work as high, I don't know, knowledge work, contemplating or whatever. Think about our lives, we clean our homes because that's part of our obligation as families, as communities and other things. So, I think most work can have its meaning if it's done in the right context. If you feel like you're doing something that's part of your obligation to communities, whether it's picking up garbage or it's cleaning streets or doing other things, I think there is meaning in all of that work. It's just that people have not felt that or, maybe, some do but, as a society, we haven't valued that work.
And one of the interesting things is, now, we call them essential workers and there is rethinking of what essential work is and, maybe, essential work is not in PR and advertising and financial whatever you do, but the most meaningful work and the most essential work is that kind of work. Is taking care of people, is about cleaning streets and other things. But unfortunately, we haven't connected that essential work to actually paying people for that work, so that they can live those dignified lives. We started thinking about, Kenny's, for example, this idea of public kitchens. What if you rethink infrastructure and start thinking about what infrastructure you need to build for wellbeing? What would it look like? And it would probably involve something like, maybe, public kitchens and public libraries and all kinds of other things that we don't think of as essential and then, that would give meaning to all kinds of work.
In the work that you do, you're obviously thinking about equity, we think about in design. The original way to think about design was to create something that was viable, desirable and feasible. And now, we're adding the question of sustainable, equitable and just. How do you think about, particularly in the future, how organizations can ethically make things that are desirable at the same time as being just?
I think that's a really important part of it. And earlier, when we were doing work on platforms and positive platforms, people who are designing these software and these systems, they're not just designing technical systems, they're, in fact, designing social systems. And so, we created this ethical OS guide which is to help product designers, in particular, to think about what we call risk zones. So, when you're designing something, think about what is the implications of this for health, for equity, for all of these. It's actually quite remarkable how very simple technological things that are being designed into our systems that are, oftentimes are invisible, how much impact they have.
You can design for something that, basically, makes it addictive. You can design and put things, little tweaks that make it more addictive, which we're finding out most of our social media platforms are excelling at, unfortunately. But how do you design to give power to people who are using the platforms? I think designers increasingly and, particularly technology designers, but others, they really need to be thinking about the social systems and understanding the larger social systems into which they're designing.
The unfortunate thing is, most of the software designers, that's not what they're trained in, that's not what their education involves and there are very few schools that do that and, probably, IIT is one of them, where you think about these larger systems. But then, it's a question of who has the power? What's the incentives and who is the power structures that allow you to think about those issues and whether it's compatible with the market forces that are out there? And that has to do, again, with the structure of the enterprise in which these designers live, what they ended up designing.
Yeah. So, I wonder, because I understand you are originally trained as a social scientist. So, when you think about this and the example that you've given of these technology systems or social networks like Facebook and others that have been able to create certain incentives for people to keep pressing the button or whatever it is that they want to incentivize. Do you have an opinion on what the role of behavioral science is in making things that are ethical and desirable?
Yeah, obviously, we know a lot from behavioral science and that's what's being used to develop some of these, both great and both negative, platforms and technologies. I think there is a role of applying these things ethically and thinking about it but I also think that there are limitations in terms of if you're designing something for commercial use, there is, obviously, a drive right to design that something that profits trumps everything in some ways. So, there's also a role for regulation of these kinds of things. So, people design within the parameters of certain systems in which they live which are established from outside.
So, things about, for example, making things less opaque, requiring people to disclose some of the algorithms or making them more visible, creating oversight over them, all these kinds of things are some levers that we have that need to be activated outside so that you design within certain parameters that are, basically, more transparent and more equitable. So, the starting conditions are important and, a lot of times, those conditions are not set by designers, they are operating within a limited sphere. So, I wouldn't put all the burden. You can be designing the greatest things in the world, but you're operating within a system that's shareholder profit driven and speed and competition and other kinds of things. So, I think we need to focus a lot on these external criteria and defining within which parameters you operate.
Thank you to Marina Gorbis, a 2021 Latham fellow at ID, for joining me today. You can learn more about Marina and the Institute for the Future on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and your support really helps. Our theme music comes from ID alum, Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Episode 8: Faith and permanence with Jon Veal
Jon Veal co-founder of alt_, an an arts ministry focused on the power of community, talks about how serving his community and making art come together for him, the importance of faith in his work, and the planning he and his co-founder, Jordan Campbell, have done to help secure their organization's longevity.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design, about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This week, I talk to Jon Veal. Jon Veal, with friend, Jordan Campbell is the co-founder of alt_, an organization that focuses on the power of community. The alt_ market is the organization's flagship program. With passion, faith, and a few friends, Jon and Jordan created their first market in a matter of hours in June 2020 in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, the neighborhood they both call home. alt_ transformed an abandoned space into a communal free market, encouraging community members to give, take, and take care of one another. Now markets like the one first created in Austin exist across communities on Chicago's west and south sides. Jon and I talk about his commitment to Austin in the west side of Chicago, and how serving his community and making art come together. He starts us out by considering the importance of providing alternative spaces and alternative narratives to the ones we've come to know and accept.
Stories are not typically told by Black people for Black people. They're usually narratives that are put on Black people from another source, typically, the white guy. And what comes to mind for me is DuBois, how he talked about the double-consciousness of both just being an American and being Black, and how these kind of dichotomies kind of intersect. And when Donald Trump is talking about the crime happening in Chicago, we know what he's talking about. Nobody's being stupid with it. We know exactly who he's alluding to. We know he's alluding to race. When I went to New York and they were talking about, oh man, you from Chi-Raq, I'm like, yo, that's crazy that that narrative kind of stuck, of Chi-Raq, the war zone, Gotham City.
I was with a young man the other day, just on the corner. And he was just talking about how this is Gotham, and what is Gotham known for? Gotham known is for it's atrocious crime rate in which they needed a vigilante to come and clean up the streets, because the police were actually corrupt. That's the narrative that we're fighting against, right? We're fighting against the fact that people will say, if there's a story about Black spaces, it's typically about violence. They use these different words, like super predators. Any time a Black man is arrested, they immediately go to his jail record. But when someone else is arrested from another different color, predominantly white color, it's not really about their jail record. It's like, oh, this is what a shame. And they've got this family member and they've been doing this and doing that. It's like, well, this person has family too. And so, I think what we are trying to do is humanize. Let's just humanize, at the end of the day, the west side has families. If you pull nothing else from what I've said, west side has families.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you're focused on right now?
Sure. But before I do, you've got to tell me, do you consider yourself a designer?
Why or why not?
I think there's a lot of different ways that people think about what design is, and who is a designer and who can call themselves that. I have never been trained as a designer. It's not the sort of lens through which I look at the world, to be honest, although I'm becoming very familiar with it. I think of myself as a writer and a reader.
I love that. I'm a walking [inaudible 00:03:38] sometimes, because as much as I would say that I wouldn't consider myself a designer, there's this artist who I really look up to and he is a choreographer and a dancer. He's also a paraplegic. And so, the way in which I understand dance is from the canon of ballet, it's from the canon of hip hop and step, and all these different things, breakdancing. And for him, to re-contextualize dance meant for him to move across a floor, the politics of space, all very choreographed in a very specific way. I met him when I was in my young 20s. So, like 22, 23, and it kind of opened me up to the possibilities of contextualization. You understand this one thing to be this thing, but it also is not smoothed into this box over here.
And I think that's how I kind of like to look at projects is like, I like to look at things with two birds and one stone. So, right now, what alt_ has really been known for is the alt_ market. There's four markets in the city of Chicago. Currently we had a outside evaluator come and evaluate the positivity and the negative effects of the markets. And so far, the markets have fed 400 families a month, and they've also reduced crime by 19%. This is kind of acting as environmental justice, right?
And when I mean environmental justice, anytime you talk about environmental justice, that term was kind of created in the late 70s, early 1980s, and it was really just about racism. How urban planners were put to work, redlining communities and kind of separating amenities. Like, if there's going to be a landfill, let's not put it in the downtown metropolitan area, right? Let's put it where the Black and Brown folks are, on the west and south sides of the city. The garbage that is in our communities is all by design. And so, to see that our markets have had a positive effect on the community is incredible.
So, we're talking about the spaces that you work in and how, as you said, everyone deserves to live in a beautiful, safe space. You've also said that abandoned spaces indicate that there's something wrong with the system. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about systems, and how you started to see the underlying system, and how you recognized it. And if you could describe a little bit what might still be invisible to some people, but what you see as the systems underlying these issues.
I can't remember saying the system's broken. I probably said that, but also at the same time, in the same breath, the system's working fine. The system is exactly how it should be, this is by design. One out of three Black men is in jail. That's not an accident, that's by design. What we have been doing is called activism, but it's not activist in nature. It's just being a regular human being, is being able to call out the inadequacy of the system and say that, Hey, this over here, this is a problem, and this can be felt. I just got to give context, I think, of the west side of Chicago. Austin is the largest geographical area of Chicago. It's the second largest in terms of population in the city of Chicago. And yet, you go to the neighboring community of Oak Park and there's not a blade of grass that's out of place.
Oak Park, you have tributes to Frank Lloyd Wright. You have tributes to Ernest Hemingway. And there's a bench and there's a garbage can on every corner. But you go to Austin, literally across the street, maybe two or three houses down, and there's no garbage bin. There's no bench. It's just, there's trash everywhere. And people kind of just have to fend for themselves here. And it's like, well, wait a minute, we're part of the same place. We share the same space, but because the population changes, we have less, that's a discrepancy of the city. That's by design.
At ID, we talk a lot about focusing. Starting with problems rather than starting with solutions so that we... You don't want to shoehorn a solution into a space that doesn't fit. So, you want to really focus on what is the problem you're trying to solve and then, go in that direction and find a solution once you really understand the problem. I wonder how you think about this sort of working with the community in order to make sure that you are creating something that works for and with the community, that you're not just lobbing something into that space that isn't going to be beneficial.
Yeah. There's just really great book, it's called, When Helping Hurts, and I've been reading it a lot. I love that level of care that people take in consideration, that they take in, before you introduce something new to people. For us, we approach things from a needs-based analysis perspective. And so, understanding the needs is crucial. And so, we don't assume the needs. We kind of just... We live in this community, we walk around and we see, we ask questions, we ask neighbors and we see what's up. We also look at city data. We look at police reports, we look at infrastructure reports. We have conversations with community members and organizations, other institutions that have been doing the work for a very long time, 30, 40+ years. But to be real, even realer than that, sometimes there's nothing wrong with this lobby and stuff.
I think that designing for others, you have to be an auteur. And I don't say this in every circle, but I'll say this here, in this circle. This is the way I lead. I have learned early on, when I left high school, I ran a clothing line for about two years. And what I learned about my employees is that, if I gave them too many options, they would have a little bit of fear with choosing anything. And so, I was like, all right, cool. I have to kind of take choice away from the equation a little bit, not too much. And so, this isn't regularly said, but if there's a hundred colors, I'll choose three colors that really, really work. And I'll do the research on those colors. I'll ask a small group of people about those colors.
And then, from those hundred colors, I'll show my team these three colors and say, okay, what do you guys think about these three? Can you choose one from here. And I think that's kind of how we look at community projects. It's like, all right, we have this skillset and we can do this. Because if I bring in a group of people, a group of neighbors and I say, Hey guys, we want to do this, and what do you guys think? There might be a hundred ideas that come out of that meeting. The meeting might be two hours and there might not be a lot of progress in there.
But if I come with a vision and say, Hey guys, here's what's going on. And here's a couple ways to solve it. Here's the three that we can do with our budget and our skillset, this is number one, two and three. Which do you all think? And from there the projects might evolve and might change. Neighbors might say they, they need more of this than that. And they might say, well, maybe this isn't a problem at all. Maybe you should go back to the drawing board. I say, all right, cool, that works as well. But I like to go in with a plan. I like to go in with what I'm called to do, if that makes sense.
Yeah. So, tell me a little bit more about that. You had mentioned that faith comes into your practice, a fair amount. And so, when you say... that's what makes me think of your reference to, 'what I'm called to do' makes me think of that. So, can you tell me a little bit about the role of faith in your practice and in alt_?
Faith pours into everything that we do, everything. We're trying to be intentional, every screw matters. Because when you're building a structure, the last thing you need is for things to be kind of unsettled, or maybe that the math is wrong and it's uneven, and you don't want these things to come down or hurt anybody. So, you have to take your time, right. But at the same time in my faith, Jesus was never too busy to come and stop and talk to people. When I think about his life, he was based in service, he would serve and give, and he would teach people. He wouldn't judge people, he'd stay with them. And a lot of people judged him like, Hey man, you're hanging out with the tax collector, or Hey, you're hanging out with that guy over there, he drinks a lot, "you drink a lot."
And he was being judged because he was hanging out with the people that needed him most. And so, I think the same with alt_ as what we ultimately are, is an arts ministry. We're not preaching, we're not really trying to convert anybody. We just believe this is what we're called to do with the skills that we have. Even with my first show, five, six years ago, Black Rivers, Steal Away. I created the 10 commandments. There are two black slate tablets that come off of the roof of St. Lawrence Church, on the South Side of Chicago. Now, St. Lawrence was a church that couldn't be saved. The company I was working at the time, we tried to save the building, we couldn't save the building, but we bought the roof and I was able to get two pieces of slate from the roof.
So, me and my friends, we laser cut in the new rules, the rules that your grandma, your mom, your auntie would tell you growing up. Like, don't start now, and won't be none. Rules you would need to live in the hood. And so, we built an arc for that recently, two years ago, out of found wood from the west and south sides. And so, just going around to empty lots, going around behind liquor stores and finding wood and then, measuring it out and making it super clean. Yeah. But there's something really sacred to me about that church. The community could no longer support this church. And the hope of this community went with this church. As the church became more and more vacant, the hope in the space became more and more vacant to the point in which it collapsed, and to the point in which it could not be saved. But we were able to save the roof. We were able to save the foundations.
And from that foundation, we were able to create a little bit of law that we carry in. So, when I have a show at a fancy space, they see the remains of something that was sacred.
I think that touch on a certain way. But then, living by that sacredness too, it's not just the object that's important, the work is important. The way that we serve is like, we're not just serving people then walking away. It's like you want to give as much dignity, as much pride. These are my friends, these are my family, let's have a conversation, how you doing? What have you be and up to? What's your plans for this summer? How's COVID been treating you, man. It's been a little rough for me, personally. And that takes a lot of, like, vulnerability. So I think that's the number one lesson that most people have kind of come to know when it comes to kind of community building, is that it takes a lot of humility, and that our practice takes 10 years to build trust, and one day to lose that trust.
Yeah. Well, and then, the other thing that you're remarking upon is, the difference between your art practice and alt_. Obviously, there's plenty of similarities too, but from a design perspective, sounds to me like the difference between creating an object or a product, and creating an experience. The experience that you're describing, the collaboration part of it is very important.
It's central to it. I think that I want to spend time on that. When it comes collaboration, the reason why it's fluid is because it started with my art practice. It started with me not being able to create a boat and make a successful oil painting at the same time. It's like I have to choose one, I have to be committed to one. And so, I have to bring in Jordan Campbell, like, Hey Jordan, I actually need you to build something that you've never built before, or Hey, Starlada, I can dance, but I can't dance and stay as intense as I want to. So, I kind of need you to dance, and be with me in this process. And my relationship with Starlada, my relationship with Jordan Campbell, my relationship with Monica Benson and Chris Calderon, my relationship changed the nature of the show because they would add things.
They would say this doesn't work, but this works. And because they themselves are experts in their own fields. And so, it became more of a conversation that we were having. My practice was really modeled after method acting in a sense of, how can we as a group immerse ourselves into something for as long as possible. And then, it became kind of more structural. Like, all right, let's do an artist retreat. And so, it started in my apartment, we called it Haven, and then, we did it for two or three iterations along with the exhibitions. And then, the exhibitions felt a little bit... One year they felt satisfying, the next year they felt like shackles. They felt like I'm kind of doing more harm than good because I'm looking around and we're all talking about trauma. We're all trying to kind of express this and understand this in similar ways, but I'm not interested in understanding trauma anymore.
It's like, how do we move past that? We need Black industry, we need institutional power. And so, when I think about powers and when I think about capital, the ones that I stay on in my head is, there's economic capital, cultural capital, institutional capital, and then there's human capital, right? And so, most people trade their human capital for economic capital. They trade hours of their life, their labor, they trade that for liquid, for cash, for... And then, they might get land, which is cool, which is economic capital. But I started seeing there's other ways that people were able to build power. This institutional capital was really important. This social capital is really important. Social capital is just everybody you know, how can you leverage that? That's Instagram at the end of the day, that's social media.
Institutional capital was the places that we don't have voice. Or if you have voice, you don't have equity, meaning the MCA might give you a show, but you don't have a say as to what the exhibitions might look like or who these things can serve. And so, for us alt_ ultimately was like, man, people on the west side are brilliant. There's so many talented, amazing artists. There's so many amazing people, and they need a platform. We need to be that platform. We need to see the change that we want to be.
So, we talked about this importance of the belief that everyone deserves to live in beautiful spaces. You've also said as part of that, something should remain here after us. So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, what you're trying to build with alt_ outside of what you're actually building, but what you're trying to build, maybe from more of a legacy point of view.
That's a tricky one. I think when I talk about legacy, there's a temptation to kind of indulge with an ego of personal legacy.
What keeps me grounded when I think about personal legacy is, I think about John Johnson. I spent a lot of time with John Johnson's collection, the Ebony and Jet collection. And it's just funny to me, because it's like, man, John Johnson was killing it G, he was the first Black owner of real estate on the Michigan Mile. The Ebony building, where every room is [inaudible 00:19:17] the carpets, the wallpaper, real artists like the Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, everybody coming and visit him, Muhammad Ali, he's got this amazing archive, and there's not beauty supply or a barber shop that I know of, that wouldn't have an Ebony around in that store somewhere.
It might be in the basement, but they got it somewhere. And that's how much it meant, not just to Chicagoans, but to people of this world, people of this nation, specifically, Americans, and how we as Black and Brown folks thought about ourselves and even how other people thought of us too. And within one generation, we have forgotten John Johnson's name. If I ask a kid on the street today, if I even ask one of my peers, someone who's in their mid-twenties, late-twenties, 'Hey man, you know who John Johnson is?' A lot of people might not know.
No. I think you're totally right. Yeah.
That's the question for Google. I think that's a shame, but I also think that keeps me grounded in a sense of, the things that we're able to push, we might not be able to make permanent change because permanence in our world is not sustainable really. But what we are able to do is push the needle forward just a little bit for someone else to be able to take up the baton. That keeps me grounded, and that keeps me encouraged when it comes to personal legacy, is just doing the best that we know how to do, and the next director of alt_ will be able to do things. And so, to ensure that, I'd like to share that we did a couple things to ensure legacy, just like a university when they're getting started, they do a couple legal things as well.
The first thing we did was, start with a strong board. Our board is amazing, we have Norman Teague, Joi Freeman, Chris Paicely. The reason it's so diverse, Norman Teague is a designer. He's well known in Chicago. He's over here working on the Obama Foundation library. You have Joy Freeman, Joy Freeman is financial guru for us, but she used to head the marketing and coordination of players throughout the nation, and YMCA. And so, she's got amazing connections. And then, you have Chris Paisley who works with the Surge Institute, the Surge Institute is for the teachers. They work within pedagogy and that's important for us, because for us, what we need is, we need help we with the narrative. So, understanding relationships with the press, understanding relationships with community narrative, right?
So, when you think Austin, instead of thinking, Texas, you'll think the west side of Chicago. So, that means we need disruptive art that is able to be sustainable, and at the same time penetrate people's hearts. So, storytelling. We need someone who's helping us with storytelling. We need someone with education. And then, with Norm, he's always super helpful for us in a sense of disciplinary standards, like design implies function. So, it has to function right. If we introduce a garbage bin, people need to know its a garbage bin and not just a piece of wood. And he helps us a lot with those kind of conversations. And then, me and Jordan are the artists, right. We're going to continue to be the artists and to be vanguards, whatever. The second thing that we did was super important, is that we gave ourselves lifelong board member seats.
The reason that's important is because a lot of people can get voted out of their own companies, once they introduce board members that they don't know. We wanted to prevent that from happening. We've seen that even happen. Like how Black artists are just screwed. Prince spent the whole career talking about that. From our understanding of Black music, we understand how we have to protect ourselves, even from friends sometimes. Then the other part of that is succession rights, is that we get to choose our successors. Jordan has a successor. I have a successor, and our successors will be able to have those lifelong seats. So, that's really important in terms of building Black equity, because that means that it's not just the voice that me and Jordan have, but whoever we choose is going to be able to have long term voice within their block, within their space as well.
You mentioned recently activism, and you also said, you don't consider yourself an activist. You again, consider yourself an artist. But you're an artist, from what I can tell, that's practicing design, that's practicing public service. So, maybe you could just talk a little bit about why you lead with that identifier of artist, and then you're using these other disciplines or tools to practice your art, I suppose. I don't know how you think about it.
Yeah. I think that, by trade, the thing I love to do is draw. I'm also a great painter as well, specifically with acrylics, but I can get down with oils or watercolors, it doesn't matter. I'm a very good draftsman, and I'm an even better writer. I write every day. I'm very similar to you in that regard, that, words carry a certain amount of energy. I can dabble between ink drawing and a sculpture the same way that alt_ can dabble within urban planning, architecture, design, and community service projects. It's the same thing. We think that the capacity of artists is big enough. I think that when we think ‘artists,’ we're not thinking big enough, we're thinking small, that an artist puts stuff in galleries and walks away. I'm like, whoa, the people that I look up to didn't do that.
David Hammonds was an incredible artist, but he was out there in the dead of winter, rolling up snowballs and selling them back to people, calling it blizzard ball, calling that a piece. I'm like, that's amazing. When Ai Weiwei takes a vase and drops it, this mid-century vase, and understanding the trash that's happening both literally and figuratively, I think he's working with something else.
And so, what an artist does is, an artist plays with ideas. And I also, so this is very unique to me, when I think about an artist and our role, for me, an artist is a very talented liar. That's what we do. We lie. When you look at Ivan go painting about labor, talking about people and minds, and our hands and the den lines of the fields. He paints a flower. He's not really painting a flower. It's not a real flower. You walk in there and it's just some marks that's on a canvas. It's trying to represent something else. It's trying to talk about beauty. It's trying to talk about people. And I think, for us, when I use activism as a medium, when I use gathering as a medium, we're not talking about the form, but we're trying to use it to talk about something else.
Bringing all these kind of these different definitions and terms back together, at the end of the day, what unites them? What brings it together for you? Do you say to yourself, if you ask yourself, why am I do this? Why am I making this? Is there a common answer for everything that you're working on?
Recently I was discouraged. I was on the phone with another artist/designer who I really look up to and admire. And this person had said, man, you guys were like rock stars back in the day, you're like a year ago. And it kind of hurt my feelings, because even though it wasn't intentional to hurt my feelings, it felt like a very, oh, you guys haven't done anything in a while. I'm like, well, wait a minute, man, we create every day. We're out in the street every day, we're talking to our neighbors every day. It kind of hurt my feelings because not every space is public. A lot of spaces are private, but it also brought me back to my root, that we don't create for public. That was kind of the problem with the exhibitions.
They become very exploitative, self-exploitative in a sense of, you feel like you're selling your story, you feel like a salesman. I don't like feeling like a salesman. There's a reason I don't do sales. Anyway, it brings me back to my root, which is my faith. Both things seen and unseen. All that matters is that it brings honor and glory to him. Ultimately for me. There's a lot of things that we do that were unpopular at the time, but they served the people later. For instance, when we first came out of the market, it was like 3000 people liked the photo, over a hundred comments were like, where's this at? And me and Jordan had to have a moment where we talked about it as partners, and we just decided, no, we're not going to share it publicly where it is.
This is just for the block, and those who live on the block will know about it. That was unpopular man. And I think we were scared. We were going to get canceled. It's like, yo, we can get... We live in a fragile world right now. But we're not going to be people pleasers either. We know who this work is for. And I think the people on the block have really appreciated that, they felt protected, they felt loved. That's why it was such a hard conversation for us, because it comes from a place of love, loving our neighbors, just like we wouldn't want someone to do that on our block. To us personally, that would feel exploitative. And so, for us, the through line with both the company, our faith in the personal realm, arts, all of that kind of stuff, is the same.
Yeah. I mean, it's clear to you and you can go to work and create every day because you have a clear focus, a clear purpose, a clear mission, and it might have very different faces, as you said before, it's polyvalent. But at the end of the day, you're after the same thing.
So, recently we were hired by 360 Nation. Well, not recently, they really hired us a year ago. The weather was starting to get kind of cold. It was getting chilly, September. And so, we decided to wait until the summer to kind of build this pergola. And we designed it together and we talked about it, and the functionality of it. The reason why is this, there's this empty lot in Lawndale, and they've kind of taken over this empty lot, gangster-style. It's like, yo man, we going to put some raised beds up in this joint. We going to get some tires and paint them and make an area for the kids. And so, there's been a lot of activation right here on the block. Kind of just this statement of, man, we're not going to go through the bureaucracy of the city and wait a hundred years, we're not going to pay. So X and X amount of money it's on our block.
Our kids already kind of hang out here. Let's just take care of the things that are on our block. Let's just take care of the things that we believe in, and in an effort to get people to stay, because a lot of people have been moving out the neighborhood. And we need those cultural amenities. Those things that kind of should be there. For us, when we heard about it and we came, visited the space, we were so inspired. It was like, man, this is such a great idea. It's so good to see people plant themselves where they are and put down their personal stamp. Like this is who I am, this block is my family, and I'm going to fight for my family. And so, for us, it was, yeah, what do you guys need?
The need was, if it's raining, if it's bad weather, if it's snowing, people go inside, because they're exposed. And so, for us, the solution was, all right, well, what about, what if we created some overhead, a little shelter for people like a pergola. And then, the idea started flowing, they were like, Ooh, then we could bring in our smoker, we could start having barbecues, blah, blah, blah and all these great ideas. And that's what kind of makes a space special, right? And I think for us, it's like, all right, man, I understand, I spent a lot of time working in different capacities with nonprofits, and I spent a lot of time with urban planners. So, I understand that the reason why the South Side feels really taken care of right now, and where I don't... We didn't plant our flag over there, is because number one, my family is from the west side of Chicago.
My grandma, my aunties, my uncle, they all live on the west side. And so, I want to be where my family is at the end of the day. Number two is, the South Side's really taken care of, there's a million nonprofits [inaudible 00:31:42], there's so many people doing really, really great work. We don't need to kind of reinvent that wheel. We're trying to move that wheel forward. And so, understanding that the South Side has the library that's coming through. It's got this big Ole university that keeps taking over buildings. The number one gentrifier, low-key, it's got this beautiful lake, got the big beach, all these different museums. We're not needed in that capacity over there. On the west side, what have you got? Factories that moved away 10, 15 years ago, church on every block, you've got a lot of liquor stores and you've got family.
And so, for us, all right, cool, we need to be where the family are. We need to be where people are. Just as we're creating the space for these other nonprofits so that they can be able to gather and meet in a safe environment, we're also creating a safe environment where we are. And that's kind of the goal. The goal is to create a repository. The goal is to create a safe space. The goal is to create a healing space, a space in which we can come together as a people, we can share one another's stories through painting, through photography, through poetry, that we can heal one another using... Talking about food and platforms. And this is a food apartheid. And so, what we're doing is we're leveling that playing field, like, all right, there's 5,000 abandoned buildings in Austin, how can these abandoned spaces serve the people of the space? How can we make public space a little bit more public? We think about that a lot.
How do you define design?
Design for me is when intentionality meets form, meets service—that little circle of an intentionality, form, and service. And so, you might intend for something, right. And then, it turned into this certain form, and then it intends to serve people, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes you design a basketball Ram that's square, when it really should have been a circle, and people complain about it. People are going to let know, Hey, this don't work. And so, then you have to go back to your intentionality and then it takes another form. So, it's this growing conversation. It's this growing circle, because time is not linear, time is cyclical. We all are formed by our patterns.
Thank you to Jon Veal, a 2021 Latham fellow at ID, for joining me today. You can learn more about Jon and Alt_ on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate, and review with intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and your support really helps. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Episode 7: Social arrangements with Kenneth Bailey
Kenneth Bailey, co-founder of the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), and co-author of Ideas, Arrangements, Effects, talks about his approach to building a better possible world. Talking about specific projects like Public Kitchen, as well as the thinking and pragmatism shared in his book, Kenneth thinks we need to better understand our current world in order build a better one.
As he sees it, one must go beyond the problems we see and experience every day to understand the systems, infrastructures, or "arrangements" that underpin them.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This week, I talk to Kenneth Bailey about activism, pragmatism, and the role of our imaginations in creating social change. Kenneth co-founded the Design Studio for Social Intervention during a fellowship at MIT's Center for Reflective Community Practice. That's also where he was introduced to design. Here's Kenneth on how he remembers that moment:
And that's when I learned that design wasn't just an identity, but that it was a set of methods. And there was another guy in the fellowship there named Rob Peglar who had a design background. And I proposed, I'm interested when, how one describes the world, and when one is not a world of one's own frames, really. And how one's frames limits, what is imaginable impossible? I'm interested in, what do you do when you find that is a problem in social justice, social change. And my pal Rob was like, "Oh, you're talking like a designer. You should be thinking with designers," they would say, "What you do is you put those people in a room with people with other frames." And so I was like, "What?" And so once I started learning about design methods and learning that you can use methods to jostle habit bodies and start to make people see the edges of their own ways of understanding. I was like, "Oh yeah, let's go."
Sign me up, great. So I noticed, so Arturo Escobar wrote the foreword to the book and he says there that you provide a framework that articulates ”a radical sense of politics.” I agree with him. He applauded the book for in some being both usable and practical. So I wondered what you thought, if you thought of what's contained in this book as being radical?
I think of it more as pragmatic than radical. Here are things we could actually do. We could propose new ways to be together. We could test them. I think of it more, there are things that could be done that would feel radical. I think some of the ways that we would want to think about sort of intervening would be unusual or different. I think to us in this kind of epoch, without the trickster, without the energy of calling rigid structures into task in a way that, that I think that those things have happened in the past with sort of trickster archetypes being willing to turn structures upside down. We don't really have that right now in the modern world, sort of playing off of Lewis Hyde's work in 'Trickster Makes This World'. I think some of the things we'd like to see happen might be considered radical, but the proposition itself that the social world is arranged, and we should understand how it's arranged and understand how problems emerge from the ways in which things are arranged and that we can rearrange the world. I think it's fairly pragmatic.
Yeah, I agree. And so getting to that idea of arrangements, the book is called Ideas, Arrangements, Effects, I guess, to start out and thinking about design, of course, in this. So a lot of designers, maybe more traditional design people, will talk about the design of a chair and many of these designs are well known. These designers have household names now, but in this book you use an example of the design or the arrangement of chairs, plural. And you ask the question is the chair the reason why....? And so maybe you could talk a little bit about how you think of that arrangement and why it's important.
Yeah. I think not only do we design objects; I want to have us think, or the studio or the book is asking us to think, about context. The fact that someone up with the idea that there will be a thing called a school, it will have these people called young people who will be these other things called students. They will come into this building. It will have these things called classrooms. It will have hallways. It will have these things called lockers. They will have these things called books. The books will last for this long. They will sit in these classrooms every day. They will go to them and sit down.
They will look for all of these decision points at some point were imagined, and they enacted upon and then taken for granted. And so I think what the book is really asking us to do is to really slow down and start to make strange these daily occurrences that we live and are sort of habituated in and start to ask ourselves, what are these daily operating systems in a way, what are they doing with us? How are they informing us and how are we informing them? And to what extent might we start to tie the bad things that we like to decouple from these things that we would refer to as arrangements? How might we start to understand that? A lot of the things that we think of as bad things are really emergent properties from these ubiquitous and often unexplored daily operations that we're calling arrangements.
If we take the assemblage of chairs and the bodies that habitually sit in them regularly over and over and over again, and we take that kind of rhythm for granted, and we actually look at what the chairs, the rhythm and lots of other things are doing, you because there's the chairs, the rhythm. And then there's the intention of the classroom, the agreement that I'm here to learn, you're here to teach. And then there's this extended agreement that we all believe that sitting here and learning is going to pay off with these things that are going to come to us as these identities, as adults called a home and this, so there's this projected payoff that it's supposed to be true in the imaginaries of these people call students that there isn't any way to actually stop and, and check. Do you all believe that the payoff is real?
Or do you, are you thinking you're sitting here in a holding pattern? So all of the things that are at play are turning back on all of us and, in ways, creating a lot of the, what we would refer to as effects that we typically then organize as social problems. And so with schools, it's easy to see a discrete set of effects like ADHD and saying, instead of tying ADHD to the body of a person who's evidencing it, what would it mean if we said ADHD is the chair and the situation out of which the chair is asking the body to comport to is as culpable as the body itself, evidencing the ADHD. If we start to do that kind of thinking, how does it make problem solving more effective, I guess, but then you always get into politics and power and the body evidencing ADHD has much less power than the social permanence of the classroom. And all the people invested in that arrangement, staying intact and staying seen as the authority as the thing that should always be for this set of people that are young called students.
At ID, what you're calling arrangements, I think is the same thing as what is often called infrastructures. Do you see a difference there? Do you think they're the same?
I think infrastructure well, yes. I agree. And I think often how we talk about arrangements as they’re hard and soft. So there's the chair of the floor, the desk in the classroom, but there's also time, the conventions of youth, the identity of student, the agreement that I'm here to learn, the agreement that I'm here to learn from these people called teachers, the agreement that those teachers are older than me, the agreement that I'm here with my peers and that they all are the same age. So all of that stuff we would refer to as soft arrangements. And so the infrastructure and the agreements and the rules are all overlapping. So we try to get us to think about the relationship between the material and the conceptual as hard and soft arrangements that are producing effects. They're not operating separately, they're always already operating together.
So you step into this, you don't step into it in a linear fashion and become a student. Then the person becomes teachers like soon as you enter the scene. Everything's true all at once. And that everythingness is part of what we're interested in having people who are interested, not just in social change, but in how social life is composed. Because I think one of the arguments we're trying to make in the book is that if you're interested in changing the social, you have to understand what is the social. You have to understand how the social is composed and you have to actually be interested in that such that you can actually see it in operation, actually come to experience it in operation and start to make connections between the way in which social situations are in operation and how those things can create the conditions out of which social problems can emerge. It's almost like being a sleuth and slowing down and starting to see how these situations can lead to things that we typically blame on people as social problems.
So how do you, and thinking about it as a sleuth, how do you sniff out an arrangement? How do you detect that? How do you discover that?
A big part of discovering it is observation and conversation and interest. You have to at some point find the interest to stop believing that people and individual persons are always already culpable and start wanting to see the coordinations of things and, and the coordination of sort of times and all this other, all these other things are actually of interest and that we can start to find how those things are contributing to producing social problems.
Cause it's not always obvious, right?
It's definitely not always obvious, but if you don't have the interest in even looking away from people back to the relationship issue between people and materials, you don't even start the inquiry.
If we take this example of the chairs. And if we say, and, and correct me if I'm wrong here, but if I'm just kind of thinking about this, this train of like ideas, arrangements effects, if the chairs are in arrangement that produce an effect, like what you, and like sort of this trend of ADHD diagnoses or something like that.
Again, those chairs are part of a larger set of arrangements that have to-
Exactly, it's more than the chairs.
It's always more than the chairs. It's always more than a thing. I think the move we're trying to make there is that to move from the body, evidencing the problem, the person who can't pay attention to the situation that is untenable for that person. And the lots of factors that are probably at play with the situation being untenable, the setting, the repetition, the temporality. So it's like pulling all of that back into account and making us account for what it's doing, not just to the body evidence in it, but probably to all the bodies that are experiencing it as well. And trying to get us to, to think better about these sort of permanent social structures and what they're doing with and for, and to us.
It's not a linear path. It doesn't always start here or there, but do you find that as you're trying to detect arrangements that you are typically starting with effects, like with the seen things, the concrete things? You make a really good point in the book about how concentrating on like the big ideas, like racism, can be really a difficult way to go because it presents these sort of binaries or really a difficult place to start conversation and to get people to agree. Whereas if you look at maybe more concrete things, like the effects of racism that we see in our everyday life or something like that, and by looking at those, you can start to see what the arrangement is that then might open up some different ways of dealing with the big idea.
Yeah. And I think there were a couple points we were trying to make there. I think one is that racism isn't operating in arrangement by saying we're racist. Racism is operating in arrangements by saying, be still, be on time, do this, do that. So it's the ways in which ideas actually operate concretely through bureaucracies or through these quiet, hard and soft arrangements are more discreet that racism breaks down into lot of small and probably even dissimilar ideas in order to operate and have some agency in the world. So if we stay at the level of talking about racism or colony or gender, you don't see Harlem pass, you don't see Stand Up. So we, we're trying to get people to, to see where the action is and to figure out how do we change where the action is versus being at the level of concepts and missing how ideas are actually showing up in the real world.
This book Ideas, Arrangements, Effects, I think is really helpful because it uses a collection of examples that you have, places that you've worked, case studies to say, "This is one way of thinking about this, or this is an illustration of how this," so for instance, you've talked about the public kitchen or another really vivid example, I thought was the lighting up the bridge at night? I can't remember what neighborhood that was in. I think that was in Boston. So, Ideas, Arrangements, Effects—how do you think of that book in terms of like the work that the Design Studio for Social Intervention does? Is this one way that you sort of practice the work that you do at the design studio?
It really came out of 10 years of practice and us, synthesizing our theory of design. So in a way, Ideas, Arrangements, Effects was a way for us to say to ourselves, "This is what we've been. This is our theory of the social," and then to invite other people into that way of thinking that we are positing for their own sort of change practices to say, “This is how we're thinking about systems. This is how we're thinking about practice. This is how we're thinking about social change."
And I think the book was really an attempt to share that thinking and to help people understand the larger story. I think we've been telling ourselves over the last 10 years and even tell ourselves that story, so it emerged after sort of practicing and practicing. I remember, I think I was doing some work in New Zealand or Australia came back to Laurie and was like, "I think I have a framework that sums up my work." I think I have something that actually can sort of cohere our practice. And so I think that was really the initial point of the book.
It's interesting. I imagine it was all kind of there in your head, in your heads, right. And then actually setting pen down a paper to say "this is how it all hangs together." Must have been quite an exercise.
Exactly, and it was funny because it emerged. It just said, "Here we are. Here it is. " It just came to us. But it really, I think it always comes back to some sort of relationship between hard and soft conceptual and practical arrangements that we're trying to get at. And we always are trying to get people not to just focus on where they see problems evidencing, because we always are. We see the emphasis on blaming victims or over emphasizing heroes at the behest of less apparent social systems that we're referring to as arrangements.
I wanted to talk to you a bit about Public Kitchen, because I'm interested in it specifically because we have a version of a public kitchen at ID. We have a community kitchen, which is specifically for folks in the ID community. But since we have that, I do understand some of, probably the difficulties that were presented by the Public Kitchen, just in very, maybe basic things of like, clean up after yourself, or having to do that sort of social learning, I guess, or set those expectations for how to use the space. And then of course there are real benefits that having a place like that present, which is the community itself and the conversations that happen there. So I wonder how you think about the benefits of a situation like that and the drawbacks or the disadvantages and how you weigh those out when you're figuring out how successful an intervention is or how you think about the success of any given intervention.
So Public Kitchen, it's a design research project we've been doing probably half the life of the studio. And the premise is that we propose is if we had, if kitchens were part of our public infrastructure, the way in which public transportation is in schools are, and libraries are, if they were ubiquitous and tax funded and we had access to them, how would they make social life different and possibly better? We proposed them as an imagining a new arrangement to counteract the problem of, at that point of time, was child obesity. When we started doing this work and it was really about not blaming children for that public health sort of crisis that people were talking about, where we had lots of babies and young people were overweight, but to say the problem isn't children or the families, the problem’s higher up. It's a problem with the way in which neighborhoods are arranged, the way in which food procurement is imagined.
I mean, you go to the grocery store and most of the things you encounter are in fact, different forms of glucose. So there's so many different ways into perceiving the problem that instead of circling where the problem is evidencing, and then pointing backwards at the problem and making the problem an interior one, having to do it, the behavior and the will of the person presenting the problem or the will of that family out of which that fat baby is emerging. And so all this blaming when you sort of look backwards at the problem down at the person versus turning around and looking out at environment then when you look at environment, you start to break it down into concrete things.
What we call arrangements, what that tells you it's one thing to look at the child, and it's another thing to go and say, "Oh, look at all of these rows and aisles in this store, where are the stores? What do things cost? Why do we have so much access? Like why are there so many different kinds of sugar? There's sugar you can drink, there's sugar you can eat, savory, there's sugar. You can eat in a candy bar. There's sugar you can eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Why is everything packaged? Why is everything processed?"
So that's a different inquiry. And so I think this thing, what we were trying to do with public kitchen was this say, we can rearrange our environment to make food procurement more interesting, more social, I think more interesting, more social, more nutritious. All of these things can be possible and doing things in that direction, starting to create solutions at the level of arrangements. These kinds of things also give opportunity for people to figure those things out. How would we share all of these kitchens? What rules would we set? And to really be part of co-imagining and co-producing within an actual kitchen and beyond is so much a part of how we like to practice.
So I wanted to ask you about how you feel about world building versus futuring, and if they're the same. And if they're different, how are they different?
I definitely to consider myself more in the world building business than the futuring business, because from what I understand about futuring, it's much more about being able to read what might seem like a dissimilar set of signs or signals, learning from Institute for the Future that are presenting themselves in a social world, and then developing a narrative about the world yet to come, like how a set of signals are pointing to a world. You have to come and starting to predict that world yet to come. I feel like world building is about trying to…It's like you're also paying attention to signals, but you are trying to produce a world quicker.
You're trying to produce a world to come moreso than, and I don't want to say that one begets the other. I think that they're like brother and sister technologies, but I think the world builders are trying to either propose or be part of building the world yet to come. And I feel like in a lot of ways you can have a futuring practice that is about tea leaf reading and understanding. Whereas I think the worldbuilding sort of world is about, we want to make cocoa and we want the world to have cocoa. So I don't know if that makes sense, but I think of the work of the studio as much more in the field of trying to produce and participate in building worlds.
And on that note for your studio, and you talked about the need for activists to stop reacting to things and start acting or imagining, or building new things. And so I wonder how you might imagine or how you might see an activist to deciding to take something and make it into a real intervention. How do they go from what's real, what's now, to acting instead of reacting?
Yeah. I think the way we've been thinking about that is how do we get more in the position of proposition? And I think it gets back to of this. One of the things we like to say in the social justice sector is: another world is possible. And I think what we are trying to say at the studio is then let's make it, let's make that possible world and have people embody it, have ways that they can change it or give it feedback and try to really figure out what makes this distinct from the world that already is. Or how is it? How are these proposals we're making different? It's been, it's hard to sort of carve out the space to create space for more proposition politics in the social justice sector, because we're so organized to, and I, but I do think that again, reading tea leaves, there are signals.
And I think most of the signals have to do with, where there's lots of energy around proposition is new economy. You see, a lot of propositional work happening around the future of money, the future of enterprise, like the work that Institute for the Future is doing cooperative work. And I think what we have to do is just create more opportunities to continue to amplify and experiment and not always propose something that we think already works, but to have more time to experiment as well. I think that's where we really need to start building a bigger investment is with communities and artists and activists to start to really get out and test how they would like to be living and what that would look like and feel like.
So do you think of your interventions as experiments then?
Yes. But experiments that sometimes you learn enough about that, then they're worth trying to take to the next level of experimentation. And that would be a little bit more social permanence. We've done enough with Public Kitchen and know that it's time to see four, five of them built out. We’ve done lots of design research in the United States, and we've been able, we've been fortunate enough to do some design research around the ideas where people are rehearsing the concepts and walking through mock versions of what they could be enough to say, it's worth saying "Let's build some places and have them exist for 10 years or longer." We're doing experiments. But we also are interested in experiments going from a first phase where it's design research and you're learning. And some of them might actually get from design research to another iteration where they hit a level of social permanence or a level of lived reality that you learn even more from.
And in the case of Public Kitchen, it's almost scaling or something, right? So if you're going to bring it to different places, and that probably brings up a whole nother host of questions about like localizing the particular kitchen. Cause it can't be identical, I would imagine?
No, no, no. And that's the thing, one of the reasons why I think we're so interested in moving out is like, you start to take what you've learned as a set of pattern language in a sense or relation language, but then how it translates from context to, context to, context be different. So a Public Kitchen that you might have say in an indigenous community in Indian country would look and feel different than one you might have in proximity to a set of communities of color inside of Mid-City community might be different than one that's closer to a suburb bar, one next to a place with more in proximity to different forms of agriculture.
But I think what we're interested in is building a series of them at one time, such that all of those different kitchens would be in relation to each other so that there isn't like just one Public Kitchen, but there are kitchens that are public like schools, the libraries. So I think that's what we're trying to figure out how to, how to make happen next in the, in the next iteration where we're sort of helping people understand the kind of pattern language that we've learned from developing public kitchens down into how they then actually would translate into specific site, specific architecture site, specific understandings about food and foodways and site specific desires.
So, how do you for the Public Kitchen situation, you've decided this is what you're getting out of it, where the community is getting out of it, people involved or getting out of it is good enough to bring to other communities, too, to continue to test and refine, I guess. So how do you make that decision? How did you, I mean, is this like a cost benefit analysis? How do you decide, "yeah, there's something here. We want to take this further."
As we get bigger. I think we'll be more, we'll become more codified with how we make the decision, but this one was just like eyes lighting up whenever we would just say the first sentence people would be like, "We want in. What's that? We want it". We did something right with this one. And so how do we?
There's demand for It.
Exactly And delight. It was demand and delight. Right now, we're in sort of strategy session in the studio and it's like, "How do we build out the practice so that we can hit more of those people really want this one. They really want that one." And we can actually start to move out more things from design research and to social reality.
Do you have a new project that you're working on now, or even something that's just like the very beginnings of like, you've noticed you've detected a new arrangement or something is boiling up with different effects that you're seeing. Is there anything that you can, or even, even just things that you're noticing in everyday life that you're like, oh, that's arrangement right.
Right, no, we're talking a lot about, we're really interested in what people are referring to this 'Great Resignation' phenomenon. And so we're really interested in trying to have people understand that, to have us all understand, like what's going on here. Like people are pulling out, there's some interest in, in the studio, with us, like maybe this is the beginning of a more extensive pullout. What would it look like if right now we're resigning from work. But what if that's just the beginning? What would it look like to resign from these arrangements that are producing all of these adverse effects on us? I just saw an email from one of my colleagues on Micah Sirfre asking us to get off of Facebook. I'm like, well, there's this energy, and it gets back to signals and the work that Institute for the Future, there's this energy around pulling out from work.
There's some ask for energy to pull out of Facebook. What would it look like to amplify that all the way to, let's pull out of social life? What would it look like if we had six months where we stopped all of it and just said, what is going on right now? You know what I mean? Did the COVID sort of pulled back, but with more intention and more civic organization to say, let's really think about the direction the world is going in right now. And how might we sort of rearrange our lives to go in different directions? I feel like that's the kind of thinking that where we have time to think at all, what we're really kicking the can around inside the studio is sort of looking at this, this energy to pull away, to pull back right now.
Yeah. I think that's a really interesting question for a number of reasons, but one of which is thinking about this 'Great Resignation'. And so this is number of people are making the decision to say like, "Nope, I'm out and I'm not going to put any energy into changing this situation. I'm just going to say I'm done with it." And so I wonder too about what that means, because I think part of what you're asking activists to do is, is to imagine how it could be otherwise, to how it could be different rather than just reacting against something. How could the great resignation be otherwise in some ways, right? Like how could we ask people instead of just like, it's sort of just quitting. Could you take some actions to maybe just change the situation?
Right. But I'm, I'm totally down with quitting for a chunk. I want to say I'm into the act of quitting as a gesture of resistance. And I'm in interested in those of us who are interested in new world making to capture those bodies and to invite them into new forms of sociality and to invite them into other ways of more interesting ways of coming to new futures.
Yeah. It's that idea of deciding whether to work within the system or just buck the system altogether and start something new. Right.
And I feel like we have this opportunity to try to get more people in this zeitgeist of proposition and into this "we can pull out of toxic arrangement and we can imagine otherwise" that's what my head is. I think that's what we've been talking a lot about is a sort of excitement with this energy. But wanting to amplify it, like how to turn it up, it would be great if in 2022 instead of just resigning from work, we could all like say, "Well, let's just take six months and resign from all of it." You know what I mean? The climate would probably thank us. There's so much going wrong, everywhere, like what'd look like to just pull out from all of it and say "How did we get here? What is this? And how do we re-reroute ourselves?"
How do you define design?
For me, it's about intentionally looking at the way in which we are sort of enmeshed in situations, trying to find lots of different ways to make sense of lots of different sense making devices, to make sense of a situation and then starting to, to test lots of different solutions towards a problem. That's the best I can do right now.
I'm sure I would have a better one. I don't know why it feels really dull to me, that definition, but I know one thing that really matters to me for design is intention and making sense of how you make sense. You know what I mean? Like looking at the limits of your own sense making capacity and being open to multiple reads of a world. I feel like that's one of the primary distinctions between an advocate and a designer. An advocate is always thinking from how they make sense. And I feel like designers are always interested in multiple ways of making sense, and you have to be interested in jumping from one sense making regime to other ones and, and find that kind of moving across disciplines and discourse and boundaries has to be part of what delights you in order to get to the next phase.
Thank you to Kenneth Bailey, a 2021 Latham fellow at ID for joining me today. You can learn more about Kenneth and the Design Studio for Social Intervention on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate, and review with intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and your support really helps. Our theme music comes from ID alum, Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Episode 6: Innovation communities with Michela Magas
Michela Magas has had a nonlinear career path driven by a focus on bringing people together to make deliberate decisions that enable long-term creativity and innovation. Those decisions may reside in the realm of intellectual property, as in the Industry Commons, or music technology, as in the case of MTF (Music Tech Fest).
Michela talks about how to foster innovation by bringing people from disparate fields together, why nonlinear career paths are the way forward, and the kind of skills people need for navigating our changing world.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This week, I talk to Michela Magas. Michela's titles go on and on, innovation advisor to the European Commission and G7 Leaders, EU Woman Innovator of the Year, creator of the Industry Commons, founder and CEO of MTF, which stands for Music Tech Fest.
Our conversation here was recorded at this year's MTF, which took place a few weeks ago in Portugal and in satellites around the world, including at ID. But what's important across all Michela's work is not her career path; it's her continued focus on bringing people together to make deliberate decisions about the future. Those decisions may reside in the realm of intellectual property as in the Industry Commons or music technology, as in the case of MTF. MTF, for example, was born out of a specific attempt to open up the interdisciplinary science of music information retrieval, to cultural, social, and creative studies.
People in the field of music information retrieval explore things like algorithmic composition. But today, MTF is an organization of more than 8,000 innovators from across disciplines. It reaches far beyond the small, yet growing field it originated in. After a week of hands on collaborative prototyping, these innovators walk away from MTF with new partners and substantial development of innovative ideas and research, new offerings and platforms prepared to drive music, technology and adjacent fields ever forward, even revealing new and extraordinary human capabilities. This was the case of a classically trained singer. The singer, who was visually impaired, was hooked up to a neural feedback device with which she was able to create music through her brainwaves alone. Other operators of this technology usually require hours and hours of training. Michela has explained the significance of this event, likening it to the relationship between a race car and driver—the world's greatest race car driver wouldn't exist without the technology that made the race car itself possible.
As such, Michela believes that technology should be a form of human empowerment. "Music," as Michela says, "is the glue that brings MTF participants together. But so, as we'll see, is design. Collaboratively written yet brief and simple, a manifesto serves as the foundation for the MTF community. That manifesto reads:
"We are music technologists. We work in science, art, engineering, humanities, activism, social science, policy, and industry. We believe in music technology, and we want to build better worlds. We invite you to join us."
It could have, and might partially have been, written by designers, but when Michela founded MTF almost 10 years ago, before the manifesto was penned, she received little encouragement. No one thought people with these disparate specializations from the rigor of science to the chaos of art, could successfully work together. Nevertheless, as we say here in the States, she persisted…
I was told point blank that this was impossible, that people spoke completely different languages. That the music industry was getting tremendously bored by scientists trying to explain to them what music data can do, that scientists had real trouble with artists, because the artists were very sort of chaotic in their approach. There were all those wonderful prejudices and preconceptions. And I said, "No, no." I said, "Let me try," because I had done that with students before in design, because design is such a wonderful, welcoming discipline. We work across different fields, I could see how this worked and how this was possible. So I literally used the classic principles from design education to bring these disparate groups of people together. And whenever you speak to any designer, I mean, music is always a major inspiration, but when you speak to scientists, it is too.
And so I observed that that element is also a wonderful glue. The moment that we started to feed policy at high level, from the learnings that we were seeing on the ground from grassroots experimentation, from these kind of optimized environments, we decided to apply for funding to run a few enabling mechanisms and a few pilots. It was clear that we could evolve and scale this to the industry level. So when we did, when we went into that direction, of course it required the same approach. It required a manifesto, it required the inclusion of these grassroots community principles. And we have literally managed to not only get their attention, but actually get industry on board in this way.
So what are some of those techniques or what is the kind of the magic that you're bringing to the table here that allows people to collaborate so well?
One thing is there's an element of curation. First of all, we're building ecosystems, they're never in complete balance, otherwise they wouldn't be dynamic. And therefore, you will always be slightly adjusting and pouring another bit into the mix. And you have, for that purpose, bridges, orchestrators, facilitators, you have people who are experienced in connecting people. I mean, I usually tend to kind of scan the landscape and see what kind of chemistry can we create in the room. I never push people in particular directions. It's very similar to curation that you look for the kind of quality of a person that not only brings their knowledge on board, but that also has an open mind in the sense that they recognize the excellence in someone else.
So this is as far as sort of the human factor, I mean, it starts from the people. Then in terms of how you give them the tools to evolve, if you put excellent tools in excellent people's hands, magic things happen, right? So they have other people to collaborate with. They're inspired by each other. Then you put this extra element, which is a fantastic new invention or a piece of technology or a tool that allows them completely new affordances. So the first thing we did was for instance, back in 2015 was something called Music Bricks. It was a music tech toolkit, and we assembled it from a series of really, truly excellent institutions that developed these things in academic and research environments. But they had never left those environments, they were there, they were written up in papers.
And so we created this Music Bricks toolkit, and it just went crazy. I mean, the pilot was supposed to create one or two kind of product side of that and it came up with 11. I ended up with an opposite problem, when you create a tool or a concept that is a huge enabler, you end up with the opposite problem of trying to get funding. For instance, we hit 5 million on social and we had absolutely zero budget for marketing and we had no one to take care of social. So we ended up with this opposite problem. So I ended up on a campaign to raise further cash. I had to actually go around and I raised two thirds more funding, private funding on top of the public funding that we had, in order to just to be able to sustain the environment that was growing so much.
I can tell you that for fact, in Europe, that's really hard to do because European companies are used to public funding, funding these things, and they're not used to themselves kind of offering their funding. But what was a winner for us was that all of those big companies that supported us, for instance, one of them was Philips, they actually saw the potential of integrating their tools into their toolkit. So all of a sudden I'm faced with a complete opposite, a problem of having to actually reject industry's IP, whereas, people are kind of... Usually they really struggle to get industry IP because they will just simply not part with it, or they will not give it for free experimentation. I had the opposite.
I had to reject some because I said, "Well, unless you give it to me under MIT licenses or something that where it allows these people who are going to run off with your... Your tools are the foundation of the innovation, but then their IP builds on it. I don't want your lawyers chasing them once they invent this IP, they need to have a slice of the pie. Their enthusiasm has to be fired. They need to be able to then run with it. Besides, they're far more competent to run into new markets with it than you are, so I don't want you to frame them." So those who had their licenses too stiff, and they didn't want to relax them, I said, "Sorry guys, no, you can't be part of this space."
But I was lucky that some of these companies were... Even the big research organization, like Fraunhofer, the biggest one in Europe by far, German, the national research organization, relaxed their licenses during this pilot, because they saw the benefit of the knowledge that this exchange was created. So all of the innovations that were being created with their tools were a phenomenal test bed for them. And they were actually able to write papers off the back of it. This is when you create this wonderful ecosystem where each stakeholder has the ability to create value within their own context. They can go away with taking something that's meaningful to them. And this is super important about our space.
And it speaks too to the importance of making collaboration happen via dispelling the notion that there's a one sole author or owner of a given idea, that you need to open it up, otherwise it's not going to happen.
Absolutely. Absolutely. So it's interesting you should mention that because actually this has become a paradigm that's now grown and it's actually now really very much at high level. So right from the early stages, and I must say that it started for me in design education. So what happened was in around 2010, I was helping Goldsmiths establish design entrepreneurship as a course. And I was speaking with all of these mature designers, experienced designers who were doing this design entrepreneurship course because they wanted to take a leap into entrepreneurship, which wasn't really drilled into them with their design education. And people tended to come out of design education slightly kind of fumbling in terms of business and how they conduct their business because they never had any experience on that front. So, people tend to meander a little bit and some are more talented than others.
And so this course existed because there was this element that was really needed and mature people really needed it. They really wanted to boost their design business. And so we started talking about how the tools of production of change and how in a three dimensional space now, you can, of course, create completely unique one-offs that are very cheap to produce. And of course, this is 2010, 3D printing and all the rest of it, it's kind of really coming to the fore. And I said, "Well, hang on a minute. I mean, this should definitely work the same way as open-source or Creative Commons or designed by attribution." We started talking designed by attribution and I went, "Okay, wait, we need to do Open Product Licenses." So I went through a process. I got put in touch with the guy who was basically declared by the Financial Times, the most innovative lawyer in London.
And I went to him and said, "Do you want to be the next Lawrence Lessig? Because I mean, I'm developing this thing called Open Product Licenses." Then I got in touch with the guys from CERN, who had Open Hardware Licenses and we said, "How about we build on top of your licenses?" And they went, "You have our complete endorsement, go ahead, go for it." So this stuff exists, right? It's actually, probably now the time when the landscape is mature enough for us to be able to use Open Product Licenses in a 3D space. [inaudible 00:12:54], for instance, what we've had to do is have discussions such as... Well, basically, we were inviting other lawyers for a beer, with my newfound best friend, the most innovative lawyer in London. And so he said, "You know what? I'm going to invite my friend that was on Nokia versus Interdigital. And we are going to quiz him on how do we transpose this space of copyright, which is effectively linked to documented files, so digital files, to a 3D space?"
Because let's face it. You can just take a Charles and Ray Eames chair, you can hack the legs off, you can hack into it and put other legs on and nobody is going to blink an eyelid because that's not what's protected. What's protected is the tools of production that produce the chair in the first place. This is what's patented, and the chair itself is not patented. The blueprint is patented, right? So it's a completely different legal space from a Photoshop file where if you were to hack into it, of course, you are disrupting someone else's copyright and it's very clear. So what do you do? Well, first of all, why should you create rules in a space that doesn't have them? Because it allows creativity and you should just allow people to hack, right?
Well, yes, you should, except that as the space evolves with data tracking and IoT, well, it will be clamped down by proprietors. It's happened before, it's happened with typefaces. We've experienced it already, I saw that happen. I saw it happen in front of my eyes sort of overnight, we let slip of that sort of field. We couldn't make it a communal field and it kind of went into proprietary and copywritten sort of work. So in the 3D space, what we should do is set the parameters for ways in which we wish to create, which is let's enable it so that we can hack into it, but we do it in the same way as you develop open-source code. So you can actually create attributions, you can create licenses, you can create a product that's never your [Plutonian 00:14:59] archetype, because it's never finished.
Let's turn it on its head. A product starts its life when it's released into the public domain. And when it's releasing into the public domain, it starts a narrative. And this narrative can involve in all kinds of directions and everybody who adds to the narrative can add their own stamp on it. This is early days, and we were very, very lucky... I mean, I was lucky because I kind of sat down at one point because we were doing so much work. I sort of said, "I'm going to apply to Innovate UK for some help and support," because we are doing all this work voluntarily and I was very lucky that the evaluators saw... In fact, what they wrote was, "You are preempting a time to come and we are really willing to support that. You are setting the rules for things that..." Usually people are reactive in these environments.
And so they gave us support and we ended up with Open Product Licenses. I talk a lot about this because it came out of the design space. It came out of designers demanding this and that's because, of course, designers work very close to emerging markets. Now, to just to show you the scale of importance of what happened with these designers having this planting the seeds and me reacting to it with enabling mechanism. Over the years, we ended up taking it through our labs and through our pilots, not only through this kind of idea of we will track MIT licenses and then we will build the innovation IP on top. So we said, "Okay, what are doing is we're taking background intellectual property and research intellectual property and then we will put something new called the innovation intellectual property on top of that."
So we're starting to build a stack. So we went, "Okay, here's an IP stack." And then we said, "Okay, let's test it in the centralized systems." So then, we did this thing where we tested registration of intellectual property as it was created in real time. And people said, "You won't be able to see where one stops and the other one starts." And actually we proved them wrong because it was very, very clear. So you bring stuff on board, from technology providers or people who have brought tools and then you have our community. And suddenly, when someone comes up with a brilliant idea that sits on top of this, that can build on top of this, it's very clear to everyone in a room and they can register their layer.
But what was really interesting about this, as people said, "Well, as soon as this person comes up with this brilliant thing, the big guys are going to get their lawyers in and they're going to basically grab it." And what actually happened was... Again, a complete surprise. What happened was that when the idea is incredibly useful and really very good, all of a sudden, it has a market and that market can be a big guy. And this big guy suddenly says, "Well, you know what? We will buy X amount of this from you. You can now go back and negotiate the components." So suddenly you have power as an inventor, as a designer to go back to the big guys who provided the original tech and say, "Okay guys, if you now don't give me a good price on this, I'm going to go to someone else." And suddenly you've changed the game.
So this is what happened. And so this system now is being scaled at European level through the European Commission, because they've asked me to basically propose the system, particularly for the Innovation Council and it's already got approval that we will test it. And we will actually try and build it on the grand scale, so that includes all of the research results that have been created and all of the innovation results. And we're going to start to see how we can build these combinations of IP and make it available and create the standards for the data that would describe it because we need to kind of treat it a bit like with a music file, you need to be able to make it findable.
So then that allows for sort of a tracking situation in which once someone finds it to be winning thing that they want to bring to market, then you can track back to all the individual contributors and they can kind of reap their benefits.
That's correct. Yes. Not only that, in data driven systems, when you start to register everything in data, what you're able to do is model scenarios. Once you start to agree on ways to codify data... Let's just say an example, you have someone with material libraries and you have data about each individual materials. And then you have someone with potential use case scenarios. And let's say you combine two data set, one from each site. So let's say they're coming from two completely different domains.
One is coming from materials modeling, one is coming from, let's say some kind of industrial application. You will end up in modeling with a third data set. And that data set could give you an insight into the potential. And that data set is also significant to the original providers because all of a sudden they can make an informed decision of whether they want to invest further into this area. So you could have an inventor, or an innovator, or designer who has opened up potentially, a new market, but without the traditional marketing budget and sort of stabbing in the dark, the way that large organizations often have to do. So it's actually quite a game changer.
Michela Magas has had an incredibly nonlinear career path. Increasingly this is the case, especially for younger generations. Michela sees nonlinearity as not a passing trend, but an essential way forward. As she has written, "There are things I want to create or make possible in the world that simply cannot be achieved in the context of conventional employment." As Michela says, "Linearity had its place in time."
We were part of a 20th century system of industrialization and through the set of affordances that were in front of us, some of these linear parts were incredibly useful at the time. So people's linear careers where you train from one particular type of specialization and then you sit in one job for most of your life, that was useful at that time. It made the system work. It isn't anymore. The system is changing. We are redesigning systems for a reason. We are not redesigning systems because we want to be revolutionary, it's because our affordances have changed. And it is very, very clear that the set of skills that are required, they're sort of the kind of cognitive skills that are not repetitive. They are cognitive skills that have to be able to cope with unknown unknowns and surprising scenarios.
And that are inventive or they have methodologies and approaches which can question subject matter from different perspectives. So that means that people need to accumulate ranges of experiences which allow them to think in that way and that don't develop the brain... I always say, sort of, if you're working so many hours per day, you are evolving your brain, depending on what work you're doing, your brain is creating sort of connections and synapses. You're training yourself all day long. So if you're in a repetitive occupation, you're going to be brilliant at that one thing. And your brain has evolved in that way, but it's incredibly difficult for people to then snap out of that because they simply have to retrain themselves to get out of it. And this has literally been the case, when people change jobs in the 20th century, they would have to retrain.
Now what we do is we encourage education that opens up as many perspectives as possible and design education in particular has phenomenal tools for that. I'm sure the way you train your students is to actually ask them to look at the broader context and actually look at the subject matter from different perspectives and try and address it from as many perspectives as possible. And whilst that may have looked terribly chaotic back in the day... So this is why kind of [inaudible 00:23:18] scientists would say, "Well, the artists just appear so chaotic in their approach." If you do it rigorously, it's a real skill. And it's a very, very useful skill. And so with frontier technologies, we have people here in the lab working with neural nets, they're currently feeding European Space Agency data to the neural nets.
The sort of amount of data that's coming out, there's probably so much of it, you are always maxing it out on processing. You can't parse it in time to actually identify salient moments. So what you have to do is be very creative in the way that you identify the important bits and there are different kinds of visualization or different kind creative methods that are used in that. These are the kinds of things you can't design unless you're trained to really address the problem head on with as many creative ways as possible, really.
I mean, it's a great skill to have. It's a skill that all the scientists are really grateful for right now. For instance, designers and visual people and artists can bring to the table. So I am not surprised that creatives are experimenting, they're taking different paths, they're allowing themselves to have multiple experiences and build that sort of knowledge of tackling completely new territories because it equips them with the tools that these new scenarios and new landscapes as they are evolving require.
So in your concept paper for the New European Bauhaus, you kind of give a bit of an origin story, talking about your dad and his career a bit in architecture. And you talk about growing up in Communist Yugoslavia among these great Bauhaus works. So I have a couple of questions that connect to this, and one is around how your father or that generation used design in connection with technology and engineering and how we use it today. And the other is around how the Bauhaus was seen and used at that time and how maybe this dream of democratizing design has potentially become more real today. So those are just a couple different ways in and feel free to start wherever you'd like.
Sure. So yes, I was brought up by architect parents. My mother is 78 and she's still practicing architect and she's working on projects right now and she's kind of Oscar Niemeyer style. She'll be there right to the last moment designing. My father unfortunately passed away in 2013, as the Secretary of the Academy of the Arts at the time. And before that, he was for very many years, a professor of theory architecture. So he held the seat in the University of [Zagreb 00:26:18], but he's also the author of several buildings that are at MoMA in New York. There were five of his projects that ended up at the Concrete Utopia exhibition, still now in their catalog. And that was unfortunately posthumously, I wish my father could have been there to see it. And of course, he was battling the system throughout his life because he didn't want to be political, it's kind of weird that I ended up in politics because my father never wanted to be political.
And that was actually very difficult in those days, because as you mentioned, we were in Communist Yugoslavia where you were required to be political. Every single individual was required to be political. So my father managed to have his buildings miraculously built through anonymous competitions, and I was very much part of it. We were a cottage industry in our apartment. We were in a beautiful apartment that my father had designed. So he was asked by a local group of politicians who had privilege to ask for the architect to design their block of apartments. He was asked to design the block and he said, "Well, I'm on the queuing list for an apartment. Can I also have one, please?" And so basically we ended up living in my father's design. And so it was a lovely apartment, not too big.
We were not allowed to have them too big, but it was completely plastered with drawings, architectural drawings. You had to hop between them. I remember growing up not knowing what food times were, meal times, because that didn't exist. If you were hungry, you just grabbed something to eat, but actually the whole time what you were doing was working. And so as a kid, I was written into their projects and this has been confirmed as documentation, at the age of 10, so I was brought up on this stuff.
So the influence on me has been tremendous. I was included in the projects on technical descriptions of architectural projects. And my parents would... And I suppose that wasn't exactly above board, they would take me out of school for a week when there were competitions so that I could help and so that we could make the deadline. And we were very lucky that we won, well, my parents won, my father won, but we won also the competitions that I've participated in, and those buildings have been built. And currently two of them are listed as national heritage. Museum of Revolution in Sarajevo, which is supported by the [Guggenheim 00:28:52] Foundation. And also the stadium in Split in Croatia, the [Hajduk 00:28:59] Stadium that was built for the Mediterranean Games and that was pretty revolutionary. So when you ask about how my father used the technology, one thing that is probably important to mention is that he comes from the area of Europe that educates architects as also engineers.
So you have to be good at physics and maths, and you have to literally, as an architect, you have to straddle several disciplines. And so that's already a transdisciplinary job really, as an annual qualification. And the reason why he was able to innovate with technology is because he was able to calculate it. He was able to actually say, "This is possible." And I sort of continued on that tradition to be honest, because I mean, when I graduated as designer, designers were not programmers, they weren't trained in programming, and yet, I decided to learn to code myself. Now, there are many people who do that anyway, but at the time, that wasn't the norm. So when my father looked at innovating with technologies, it was both conceptually because he wanted to execute on a concept, for instance, with the stadium, that was hugely innovative.
I think it held for 10 years, the record for the largest unsupported arc. It was by trying to solve a problem of how to make the whole of the audience inside a stadium, have the experience of a Greek amphitheater where you don't have any pillars in front of you that obscure your view, where you can have this unified acoustic experience. Every single spectator can have a fantastic experience out of it. And also at the same time, can see the natural elements around them. See the sky, see the sort of landmark, the main landmark in that city is a famous mountain that has songs written about it called [Marjan 00:30:53]. And on the other side, of course, the other landmark is the sea. So he had the vision of what this should be and he wanted to execute it.
And then he addressed it from the technological point of view. At that time, technology was evolving with the first so-called super computers that some very progressive companies were employing. And this was the German company called Mero that invented this sort of atomic structure components that you could construct roofs with. They were using it on hangers and they had only done a straight section of the roof of the stadium in Berlin at that point. And my father said, "Well, actually, I know how to calculate an arc from this. And I can actually do a self supporting, very, very large span roof out of this." So my father didn't have a computer, he was doing it manually when he said that. And in fact, when he spoke to the engineer on the job, the engineer said, "No, no, no, you can't do that."
And he said, "Yes, you can." And so they ended up with this kind of discussion. "Yes, you can." So this, I think to me, spoke of someone who was... Well, my father was hugely into philosophy, so I was brought up on Bergson and stuff like that. And every time I would come back from school, I was massively curious. I would say, "Dad, there was this thing mentioned at school, can you kind of elaborate a little bit?" And he would go up and grab LaRousse, the French encyclopedia and start reading to me from it. So I was very, very lucky to be growing up... Because of my fondness of architecture and design and creativity and engineering and all these things, I was very lucky to be growing up in that environment, really, and have practice as part of my schooling, effectively.
So yes, the technology was embedded and this cross-disciplinary approach was embedded right from my childhood. But at the same time, when you start to talk about the Bauhaus, of course, my father was already reacting to the Bauhaus aesthetic and bringing into it some vernacular elements from our region. So some of his style is now recognized as being unique because it brought kind of unique postmodernist style for that region. So he reacted against the, sort of the language of the Bauhaus, which was very, very, very set in its ways, the language of the Bauhaus, right? We'd recognize, this is why it's so recognizable, but you couldn't go outside of it. And this was kind of the problem with modernism. And I think we have moved into a completely different direction as far as that's concerned, because we, in the New European Bauhaus, advocate for multiple types of aesthetic and they can come from various types of global communities, not just European aesthetic, not just different European regions, but different global regions.
Our sense of aesthetic can come from a sense of community. It can come from very different starting points rather than sort of the methods of production or industrial production or particular types of materials. So there are huge differences on that front. There's also then the discourse about inclusion. So if you're talking about inclusion, of course, you have to broaden your sense of aesthetic. You can compare the ambition, this idea of leapfrogging ahead with new means and new ways of doing things. And also the quest for invention, creating innovative solutions and [inaudible 00:34:32] kind of design solutions. All of that still stands but I think there are certain other things that have moved and opened up a great deal more to the original Bauhaus.
So to think about that a little bit, which you've written about too, and thinking about your father's contributions, which are maybe more able to be seen or concrete than maybe the contributions of much of the design that we talk about today, or even that people are working on at MTF today. You have said, "It's not our objects or lifestyle that are in urgent need of design or redesign anymore, it's the institutions and the processes." So I think telling a story like you did about your father and his contributions, and someone can see a stadium and they can see, and there's awe surrounding that. And there's a real sense of accomplishment surrounding that, right? When we get to designing or redesigning our institutions and our processes, those are much harder to wrap your head around because they're not so visible, but they are touching us at every single moment of every single day.
And I think this is a little bit of what the New European Bauhaus is trying to do is to say we can use these design notions or this Bauhaus thinking to really take a fresh look at how we live at these institutions, at these processes. So I wonder what you think about that, how you make people sort of understand the value of rethinking those institutions and processes and being ready for the shifts in structures that underpin their everyday lives. How do you tell stories about that and how do you make it real for people?
What's interesting is when you started on this train of thought, first thing that came to mind because we still, of course, mentioning my dad, the first thing came to mind was a conversation I had with him. I was, I think, very, very young and Richard Rogers had just done the Lloyd's building in London. And I was enthusiastically telling Dad about this kind of idea that turned architecture on his head and basically exposed the guts of a building, the services on the outside of the building and how cool that was. And my father said, "Yes, it is. And so it's a new language has been created through that. However, what you have to think about is what happens to those pipes when, for instance, we don't use gas for heating anymore. And then it's like, what does it become then? Does it become a monument? Does it become a language or a sign of its times? Does it become an aesthetic? What is it?"
So even these solid structures evolve, and perhaps there are some elements that were totally rational at the time. And there was a reason why the aesthetic was the way it was, becomes more of a sign of its times and the use and appropriation. And then we reframe them and rethink them and we reuse them in new ways. I mean, we still have the pyramids and they were used for a particular purpose. All of these things are wonderful, but in truth, there are [inaudible 00:37:44] more similarities between architecture and systems design as we use it today. The systems design that's now addressing all of the different ways of interaction, the way that we interact in bureaucracies, in governments, and in industry, across industry, in sort of across services and consumers, et cetera, the similarity between information architecture and traditional architecture, I think it's very clear to a lot of designers and it has been clear for awhile.
And systems design has a great deal to do with architecture. And so for instance, me having spent most of my childhood sort of staring at plans and looking at the flow in public buildings of how services are delivered or how people move through them, is not that far from the way that we need to think about how would we interact today, both in terms of services and people. So there are great deal more similarities and what we are developing now is also something that is going to need adjustment and further sort of evolution. What has, of course, changed or what has evolved are the sets of affordances that we have today and sort of the tools that we have at our disposal.
It's surprising how much we are still set in this sort of static space. I will give you an example. When sort of 10, 15 years ago, we started approaching sort of the idea of the web as something that delivers information. And we wanted to make sure people had good download speeds, and then it was already sort of 10 years ago or so that we were saying, "Well, hang on a minute. I think what's more important is the upload speeds," because what the space is really about is about creation. It's about co-creation or creation, or it's a place for creativity and for creating content and it's not about delivery of information as it was originally intended. Now that's very, very obvious now, and it's kind of an old story, but if you actually think about what's happening in our cities currently, we are still delivering services as the primary thing. And nobody has actually taken the leap to consider that now the connectivity exists in all of the spaces in between the nodes and synapses and in between the sort of the delivery of the individual kind of data points.
It exists in all of the spaces where culture thrives and we haven't flipped it yet to the point where the grassroots communities on the ground, the people who interact in these environments are the main drivers of this space. So I'm kind of, for instance, really advocating for the era of... And not just kind of an odd project, but sort of really the era of citizens as the creators of their environments. And to flip the city from service oriented to upload, to kind of really capitalize on the grassroots communities innovation that happens on the ground. And we have all of the tools and all of the systems in place to be able to do that, but we just haven't shifted our mentality towards that. So when we were doing the Innovation Seven, which is we got invited to contribute to the G7 Leaders.
We were asked questions such as how do we, as a sort of a leader of a government, establish a sort of a relationship with our citizens through digital technologies? My thing was, well, actually, all of your cultural heritage buildings, all of your public builders, all your bicycle sharing schemes are your interface with your citizens in real tangible space, [inaudible 00:41:31] your frontier. This is where you should be. And this is how those stories come across to the politicians, by opening the possibilities for them to visualize how this could look, and then they take it forward into missions and into mechanisms. This is about changing the sort of mental models.
How do you define design?
Right. I'll just end on a really easy one.
How do I define design? There's going to have to be a narrative to this and a bit of philosophy, sorry. So design has gone through different stages of sort of approaches and already sort of in the '90s, we were going past the sort of Plutonian archetype. So, there's this kind of whole [foreign language 00:42:26] thing of, how do you do form and how do you identify the function and how do you identify the [inaudible 00:42:34], the location with the context? And then of course, in the last century, we were kind of going on about the context, context was king, which it is, and it's great. And this was kind of part of my Royal College of Art education. And then of course, already in the '90s, there was a really strong movement towards sustainability.
So it was what you would now call in industry, the product life cycle. So it's like, okay, it's not just, you're aiming towards your Plutonian urn or Heideggerian urn or whatever it is, that is never going to be perfect, but this is the ultimate form, et cetera. You're actually looking at what's going to happen to this product further down the line. This is, of course, the use case of a product and design is about a greater [inaudible 00:43:19] than just products. But let's just talk about that for a minute, because it does actually continue this line of thought. When you look at the product past its release point, so it wasn't just the point of creation that mattered. Now, the consideration was what happens to this product and how is it used, re-appropriated and particularly disposed of, in terms of sustainability? Thoughts about that evolved already in the '90s, in the design communities. What then happened was I think when we looked at the life cycle of something, it turned out that the product had multiple narratives because this life cycle could manifest itself in various different ways.
And I just remember distinctly the point at which kind of I declared... I think it was 2008 or something I sort of said, "Okay, product is a platform. We're going to think of it in this way. We're going to say, 'Okay, the moment it releases itself into the public imagination or into the public realm, it's going to start to have very different shapes.'" And of course, this is going in line with the affordances. This paradigm of multiple potential destinies of a piece of design has then totally chimed with our collaborative environments and us building on each other's knowledge or on each other's creativity. It has also turned on its head, the idea of this kind of star designer, the sole author. And so the design as an approach has shifted both in terms of the agency of the designer and how the designer fits within this whole sort of chain or rather a network of different contributions, but also the possibility of design to straddle fields.
So it used to be a service more than anything, and it used to be that you serviced other domains. But what it now seems to be able to do is it's reframed within this new connected landscape, particularly now that we are doing the Industry Commons where we are connecting all the different domains of industry, I find this role very much central. So whilst it's sort of relies on multiple authors and agencies, at the same time, it also has a very, very sort of a simultaneous reach across different disciplines. And it's very central with its methodologies and its approaches in terms of being a connector. And so the way that I then redefine design is within this context of the way that we see this lab here, which is that there are people coming into this lab from all these different disciplines and the methodologies that we put at the center, the design methodologies, design and creative and art methodologies.
It's not unique to design, but it's certainly very strong with design, they are acting as the focal point. The thing that is an enabler, the thing that brings people together, and this is where also then the design from the central position can also have a good overview of the whole system around it, and can start to infer both connections and further sort of enabling mechanisms, which is all very much part of how we consider system design. As well as to consider the ethical, the moral, the sustainability questions, the sort of responsible, like responsible AI questions and all of the layers that we build this upon.
So it was always the duty of design to consider these aspects. And it is framed at different times and different ways, like you mentioned with the Bauhaus, but now that we're building these connected systems, what happens is what these systems are based upon and what are the parameters that they sit upon and this is something that design needs to kind of establish as an anchor so that whatever we build is built on ethics, responsible AI, sustainability parameters, all of the sort of social agreements and social values. So I'm reframing it as being very central, as you can kind of gather.
Thank you to Michela Magas for joining me today. You can learn more about Michela and her many projects at MichelaMagas.com. Links to her website and related articles are available on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we'd love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Episode 5: Understanding 'beautiful' with Ruth Reichstein
Ruth Reichstein is part of the European Commission’s Presidential Advisory Board on the New European Bauhaus, or NEB, an initiative developed to help the EU achieve the goals set forth in its Europe Green Deal.
The NEB aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. In this episode, Ruth talks about the initiative's goals, how design will help them realize those goals, and what the NEB means by "beautiful." Ruth is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This week I talk to Ruth Reichstein.
Ruth is part of the European commission's presidential advisory board on the New European Bauhaus. The New European Bauhaus, or NEB, was developed to help the EU achieve the goals set forth in its Europe Green Deal. The NEB aims to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. We at IIT Institute of Design announced our partnership with the New European Bauhaus earlier this year. This partnership brings ID's relationship with the Bauhaus full circle. ID was founded as the New Bauhaus in 1937 by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy on the recommendation of Walter Gropius, a founder of the original Bauhaus. Ruth opens our conversation up by illuminating the relationship between the historic Bauhaus and the New European Bauhaus of today.
When we look at the historical Bauhaus, there are quite some elements that are also important for our New European Bauhaus. We don't want to copy the historical Bauhaus, but they are important elements.
One of these elements is that the historical Bauhaus emerged also at a moment of deep transformation. And it was the beginning of the industrial era and there were a lot of challenges that society and economy and the industry faced back then and now it's a bit the same with climate change and that we really have to transform our economy.
We also are in a moment of deep transformation.
And the historical Bauhaus answered in a way that is today very interesting. One of the things is that they had a very interdisciplinary approach that they brought together craft art, design, architecture, science, and they created this really very inclusive approach, which is also something that we would like to do with the New European Bauhaus.
And they explored a lot of new technologies and materials that were not used before. Like back then, it was basically cement and steel, which are now obviously materials that we are having a problem with because they produce so much CO2 in the production. Now again it's the question of building material and what kind of materials can we either use that exist already, like for example wood, but also what kind of other materials might we need to develop or change that we can come to a more sustainably built environment.
And I could continue with other elements, don't want to copy the historical Bauhaus at all. Gender is, for example, one of those. I mean, the historical Bauhaus was not great in how they treated women. And when you think about the president of the commission as the first female president, this is for sure not something that she would like to copy.
Yeah, certainly there are elements that are there to celebrate and then others that we can improve upon. The New European Bauhaus—I've seen it called both an initiative and a movement. And I wonder if you can reflect on that and tell me how you think of it.
Well, I think it's an initiative and we would wish that it will transform into a movement as a political institution. It's a bit complicated to say that we found a movement. Is it something that is normally more done by, well, the society is such with certain actors within a society. But it's really very interesting and nice to see is that only now, I mean, we really started in January, so it's really not all time ago, and we see already that there is a movement that is built and that is growing and really all over the European Union, but also in other parts of the world. So it seems to work and I can give you more examples if you will wish for, but, well, in the beginning, it's an initiative and it's hope that it can really develop into a movement.
So two things, we'd love to hear some examples of how you're seeing this manifest already, just especially in everyday things that you come across, and then the other thing that I wanted to point out is what you had just mentioned earlier.
One of the things that's been recently in the news in the US is investments in infrastructures across the US with the Biden administration. And we talk a lot about infrastructures in design, and we're not always talking about ones that you can see, like rail and highways and things like that. And often we're talking about invisible infrastructures. And I just wondered if you had any comment there about the types of infrastructures that you're looking at it in the EU, if you're thinking about these as both the visible types of infrastructures that we often talk about colloquially, and/or if you're also considering those invisible ones that I mentioned. And then what are the visible things that you see today coming out of the New European Bauhaus? So I guess this sort of question of like what's visible, what's underneath that maybe we're not seeing too?
Yeah, maybe I start with saying that the New European Bauhaus has for sure, two dimensions in a way. So one dimension is really the very clear transformation of the built environment and then we come to building materials and other stuff. The other dimension is more the reflection and maybe also the cultural dimension of the European Bauhaus and both are of course interlinked. So maybe I first go a bit into this question of the movement and I would just give you two examples. So one example is that we have invited all kinds of organizations to become official partners of the New European Bauhaus. So these are actually non-profit organizations, can be universities, can be NGOs, can be foundations and many others that actually would like to contribute to the New European Bauhaus.
And there you'll see that there are already a lot of links that emerge between these organizations that did not really talk to each other before and suddenly you get new initiatives. For example, we have now an initiative that is called New European Bauhaus goes South, where you have a cooperation of several universities, so including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, but now decided to have a kind of new program around the built environment and the question of innovation and to reflect together on it. And another example is the wood industry that is very [inaudible 00:06:31] genius. And now they came together with an alliance. They called that Wood4Bauhaus and they are now together looking at the challenges and what they can also do to make the transformation happening in the construction sector. And so these are just two examples. I could give many more, but that shows a bit that things are happening even without that we do any special political action or that we give funds whatsoever. It's just happening because this idea of the New European Bauhaus is there.
And that then also relates to your question on the infrastructure, because for sure we are talking about buildings and also about the space that is around the building. So it's not only about the walls and so on, but it's also about squares and gardens or parks or whatsoever can be around the buildings. We are very clearly also saying that it's not only a project of the cities, but it should also look at rural areas that have pretty much different challenges.
But then of course we are also looking at what is happening in the building. So the New European Bauhaus should not only be a building that is, let's say, climate and energy neutral and has the highest standards when it comes to energy efficiency and stuff like this, but we would also see then that inside the building, there's a space for conversations and reflections. And that can be workshops around sustainability, but that can also be a residence for artists, for example, that work on operas around sustainability or whatsoever else. You can really imagine a lot of different things, but there is for sure this idea to have both, to have very tangible projects of infrastructure, but also this much broader conversation and reflection of how we want to live tomorrow. And with this very clear art/culture contribution.
So the New European Bauhaus was developed to help the EU achieve the goals of the Green Deal, as you mentioned, and you seek to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. Do you think that's a realistic goal? Do you think that will happen?
Well, I mean, otherwise I think we would not have set this target or this goal. Of course, a lot of things still need to happen until then, and not only in the New European Bauhaus, but just in general. We will present in July a huge package of regulation and enabling framework things and stuff that will pave the way because there's just then to get to our new climate target for 2030, which is minus 55% when it comes to CO2 emissions, but that will only be the beginning. And of course, it's also not enough to just put regulations on the table, but you also need to take the whole society along and that there is really change in all the sectors and all areas of the economy and the society. So, yes, I think it's a realistic goal, but a lot of work still has to get there.
I want to just move back and just think about, we at ID sort of reached out when Ursula von der Leyen made her State of the Union address and she said that she sees design playing a critical role in building the world we want to live in. And that's a project that will require designers, architects, engineers, and others across borders to all work together like never before. So I just wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the role for design in the initiative.
For me, it was personally also an interesting learning experience because I must admit as I'm really not coming from this architecture and design background, I will be very honest and say that for me, design was really about the design of nice and beautiful objects. And I really discovered how much design can contribute to a co-creation process, that was actually something that I learned and where I think that design in general can play a much bigger role that would be in this narrow things of creating beautiful objects have in mind of design. There are so many examples. Some of our designers, for example, go to a hospital and everybody thinks that they will just change the color of the walls and then suddenly they look into the medical side and come up with great solutions.
There is this one example of a service in a hospital that deals with sick children and to really know how to treat them they needed a lot of data from the children and the children always had to do all kinds of things during the day to get all this data to the doctors. And then designers just invented a video game where the children actually automatically provided all the data that was needed and then it was much more efficient and actually they could really decrease the mortality of these children that were treated in that hospital.
And I think these are the examples where you see that the role of design is so much bigger than what you might think. That is the potential in a way that we would also like to use for the New European Bauhaus. I mean, we have so many examples where design can actually really bring solutions for a more sustainable way of living. Also, circular design, for example, where you reuse materials to create new objects and products. It's very impressive what exists already. The use of design is really very broad and that there's a huge potential that we don't use often enough in a way.
Your tagline for the New European Bauhaus initiative is: beautiful, sustainable together. As you know, Institute of Design is your partner on this, one of your many partners on this. We think of ourselves as really contributing to the second two legs of that tagline, the sustainable and the together. This aligns with our focus areas at ID. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more actually by what you mean about beautiful in the context of the New European Bauhaus, because from what I can tell you are not defining it narrowly on aesthetics. As you mentioned, design is not just about another pretty vase, so to speak, it can offer much more. And so I just wonder what you mean by beautiful in this context.
I think it's a bit the other way around because I think for designers it might be obvious that something needs to be beautiful to be accepted, but what we see very often also in architecture in our cities is actually pretty much the opposite, especially when you go into areas that are not the fancy city centers, for example. But when you go into the areas where a lot of social housing is happening, very often, these are not beautiful buildings. Very often, the only thing that people have in mind is that it has to be functional and cheap. And you forget that the people who will live in these houses actually would feel much better if the whole surrounding would be a nicer and more friendly atmosphere. And that has actually in the end an impact on a lot of things.
And this is a bit what we have in mind when we talk about beautiful. You saw it with the Pritzker Prize this year, this architecture prize, where for the first time it was awarded to French architects who did actually refurbishment of social housing in Bourdeaux in the south of France, which was actually beautiful refurbishment and not only sustainable. It was not only about energy efficiency, it was always also to do it in a way that the living quality of these people was improved.
And I think this is very much what we are looking for to say okay, it's also about quality of design and architecture. We cannot always only argue that we have to find the most cost efficient way of doing things. The word beautiful is also a word that is pretty much not existent in policymaking, let's say. And so I think that is also quite an innovation for the European Commission to say, okay we want to achieve something that is not only having as a goal, for example, to reach our climate targets, but we also want to do something which is actually improving the quality of life and which makes the experience of the people better. So that is more or less what we think of when it's about beautiful.
Thinking about the quality of life of the people—why do you think that systems design and participatory processes are important to this initiative?
Normally, when the European Commission makes proposals, it's actually the other way around. Of course we have consultation processes with stakeholders as we call them. So with people who are really like directly impacted by a proposal, and then we come with our proposal and then people can react to it and whatsoever. So it's pretty much a top down approach, but this time we said, okay, with the New European Bauhaus we want to do it the other way around. And we first listened really to the people, what they think this New European Bauhaus should be about.
And why is that so important? It's because it is a fact that the Green Deal for now, or the European Green Deal for now, is pretty much technical and economic driven project, which is normal because we have to transform our economy to reach our climate targets. But it's not a project that is very emotional, or, and I always like to use the word, which is probably not a word, but a touchable experience. It's very far away from people and the only thing that very often they think of is that they should drive less, they should eat less meat, they should find other ways not to overheat their houses. I mean, it's very much about all these kind of forbidding things. And the New European Bauhaus really tries to have a different approach and bring about a more positive and hopeful narrative to the Green Deal that shows actually the opportunities of the transformation. And if you want to do that, you cannot just put that on the people. You have to do it together, and you have really to bring the people along. And that brings us back to this question of movement.
I mean, if we would have just said, okay [inaudible 00:16:45] here's the New European Bauhaus, I don't think that then so many initiatives would have emerged. Actually, we leave at the moment a huge freedom and that really every organization or every person who would like to contribute to this can do it in the way that it fits best. And I think that is really something that is very valuable to this project, to for now have this very broad approach and this participatory process, which in a way should also happen whenever there is a transformation happening in a city or in a village or wheresoever.
It's not that the politicians or the promoters will decide how they will rebuild or build a new building or renovate or I don't know what, but that there is really a consultation with the people who live there and who can actually also tell what their needs are and their wishes are and what they would like to see. So this is really the idea that it's really at the heart of the European Bauhaus to try as much as possible. I mean, we are aware we are political institution in Brussels, which can sometimes be perceived to be very far away from the citizens in the different countries. We will not change from today to tomorrow with the New European Bauhaus, but at least we try to get as close as possible and to really listen to the needs and the challenges of the citizens.
Many people, when they think of the Bauhaus design and the Bauhaus legacy, they think of Mies van der Rohe, they think of Walter Gropius, they think of ID’s founder, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and they consider Bauhaus in the realm of art and making. We've talked a little bit about this already, but just wonder if we could explore a little bit more why it makes sense to invoke the Bauhaus in order to work toward this climate neutrality goal and other New European Bauhaus goals.
Well, I really think that one key element is this interdisciplinarity because it is very clear that the Green Deal can only be a success if everybody contributes to it and also if we overcome some barriers and bring the potential of all the people together. I just had a call with a gallerist in London, and he suggested, for example, that in every urban planning team there should be one artist who could actually bring this perspective to the planning process and that is something that we really can learn from the historical Bauhaus.
Also, to not have this deep kind of separation between the craft people and the more university people, but also they have to come together and to work together. So I think that is really one of the most important elements. Of course, it's also a fact that the historical Bauhaus very, very quickly became a global movement. Of course, we will be very happy that our New European Bauhaus would achieve to do the same. That would probably be, for me, the two main elements to mention there.
So thinking about the exciting potentiality of this becoming a global movement. Can you tell me why it might be important for you or why it makes sense to have a North American partner?
I think in general, we look with a lot of expectation, of course, now to the US and to the new administration. Very glad that the US rejoined the Paris Agreement and I think this kind of translates then in all kinds of different sub-projects in a way, and the New European Bauhaus can be one of those. That is on the general level, but then of course, it's also that you have a huge expertise in the area of the New European Bauhaus. I remember when we had one of our first meetings, you were showing so many different projects that you were having where we can actually get great inspiration from what you're already doing and what might also be helpful in the New European Bauhaus. That is one thing that we just have to tap into the potentials wherever they are. It doesn't matter so much if they are now in the south of Europe or in the north of America whatsoever.
And we see that already inside of Europe and then it's of course even broader when you go global. The local situations are so different. So I give you an example from over here in Europe. We have in Portugal, for example, we have a huge interest for the New European Bauhaus and they developed a concept of the Bauhaus of the Seas, because obviously for them, the ocean is very, very important because they have this tiny stripe of land and the whole country is actually more or less living on the coast. When we have started to work on the Bauhaus, we have even not thought about oceans because here in Brussels, there is no ocean in any reachable distance.
So that shows that the local setting is so important when people think about how they want to live and how they want to create and shape the future. And this is also why it's so important to have global partners from different parts in the world. And like you, we also have, for example, members in the high-level round table from Japan and from India, that of course bring also completely different perspectives to the project. And that is really very valuable because it avoids that we might have a very European centered approach that would not take into account that there are other realities in the world. So that's why we are very happy to have you on board, but also others that will just remind us all the time that perspectives can be very different and that. We should take the different perspectives into account for the project.
So the design profession developed, as I think we talked about earlier, the design profession developed as a result of the industrial revolution. When the machine replaced the craftsman and mass produced goods replaced individually made artifacts. People worry then and now a lot about machines replacing humans and putting us out of jobs, but nevertheless, we're all drawn to technology, the latest iPhone, what's next, what's happening. Could you talk a little bit about what you think technology's role in the New European Bauhaus initiative is?
Yeah. I think that we are still in thinking, but I would mention maybe two elements. The one element is, and they're actually complimentary, one element is for sure that we have to look into future technologies and innovation and be it hydrogen, be it how we get our steel production less CO2 intensive, be it how we can use digital tools, like for example, the digital twin for buildings to already know beforehand how we can maximize energy efficiency, for example. So this is for sure part of the Bauhaus, the idea is really that we can help to bring innovative products to the market and how to support innovation.
At the same time, and this is also something that comes very much through the contributions that we get through of the design phase, a lot of people also say, let's also not forget that there is so much knowledge already and especially also knowledge from the past, let's say. That sometimes you had techniques or technologies that were used in the past, especially also in the building sector that have been forgotten or that have not been used anymore, because everybody is just going for the easy solution of cement, for example, or whatsoever.
And that these two should be combined so that you combined really innovative future technologies with the knowledge that you have and that can sometimes be very local. Because it might be that you have a great technology, but that it doesn't work at all because in the local setting, it might be that because of strong winds or whatsoever else the technology will just not work out. There you really need to combine the knowledge from the people very locally, sometimes with these kinds of future technologies. And this is also something that we would like to explore in the framework of the New European Bauhaus.
Design often talks about the original triad of designing something. You want it to be desirable, viable, and feasible. And more recently we've extended that triad out to also include that you want whatever you're designing to be just, equitable, and sustainable. I wonder if you could talk about any efforts or evidence or thinking surrounding the New European Bauhaus in making its efforts just or equitable. Obviously, sustainability is a big part of this, but maybe we could think or talk about a little bit about justice and equity's role in these efforts.
Well, I think part of it is really, we just don't want to limit ourselves to fancy projects in places that are already fancy and cities that are already in the middle of the transformation and having all kinds of nice projects for a better city, but that we really want to look also where the ugly parts are of the cities and where actually people live who cannot afford renovation that makes the houses nicer looking, but also more energy efficient and will bring down the energy bill. And social housing and affordable housing will for sure be part of the New European Bauhaus so this is one way to address the justice or equity part.
Another thing is that we are also looking into the question of generations. Of course, the young generation, now where you can say, okay, we really have to change things now because we cannot leave all the burden on the future generations, but also the older generation. So we would really love to get also more conversations going between the 90 year old artist and the 20 year old tech freak that they can sit together and explore where there might be a common things and how they could imagine the future together.
What we get very much from the conversations that we are having and from the input is that there is already quite some work ongoing, for example, in architecture and design around sustainability. But that people feel that this whole social aspect, but also the social aspect in the sense of community building and how you can design also places and space in a way that it's inclusive and that everybody can find room to develop and to grow. This is something that people are very much longing for and education in general as well, which very often is the kind of precondition to a more inclusive society where everybody has the same possibilities.
One question, which is simple, but if someone comes to you and they ask: what is design? Given all this that we've talked about, how do you define design?
Oh my God. That's a very philosophical question in a way, no? How do you define design? If I now take the really big picture, I would really say that it's really the reflection, how to make the world better in a way. And yeah, I think that's pretty much it and it can then be, of course, in different areas. You can make things more sustainable or more inclusive or more whatsoever. But I think it's really, well, also more beautiful, but for me, it's really very much at the core of design to try to bring things forward and to make things better and to improve certain situations. And this can be done via a process, this can be done via an object, it can be done via conversation, but in all these different kinds of types of tools, you can use design to make it happen.
Thank you to Ruth Reichstein for joining me today and to the New European Bauhaus for their partnership. Ruth is an advisor appointed to the European Commission's Presidential Advisory Board on the New European Bauhaus. You can find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum, Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Episode 4: An equitable economy with Richard Wallace
An organizer in Chicago for more than a decade, Richard Wallace, founder and executive director of EAT (Equity and Transformation), is focused on supporting Black informal workers—people like George Floyd, who are boxed out of the formal economy.
Richard talks about his confidence in democracy, the reasons we have an informal economy in the first place, and why the informal economy is tied to issues of equity and race. Richard is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This episode, I talked to Richard Wallace, an organizer in Chicago for more than a decade. Richard is focused on supporting black informal workers. People like George Floyd, who for whatever reason are boxed out of the formal economy, actually, there is a reason, Richard explains the reasons we have an informal economy in the first place, the historic rivalry between Hispanic and black informal workers, his confidence in democracy and why the informal economy is tied to issues of equity and race.
The informal economy essentially is about 40% of the US workforce, almost 70% of the global workforce. When you talk about workers across the world, the majority of those are informal workers. It is a diversified set of economic activities and enterprises that many folks engage in, in order to make a means to subsistence. It looks like the bucket boys, looks like street performances. It looks like hiphop. The origins of hiphop is informality. The origins of jazz is informality, the origins of the lottery is informality. What we used to call number running back in the day is what they call the lottery today. If you look at ride sharing, it was an informal practice, an informal occupation.
If you look at childcare specifically in our communities today, there's still tons of childcare that goes unrecognized, if you have children, you have to work. Someone take care of your children. And not everybody has the capacity to spend $1,400 a month for childcare. It's ultimately like our folks are answering questions that are pressed upon them or there's a demand upon them. And they create solutions to it. And many of those are just informal occupations looks like selling socks. It looks like bootlegging alcohol. If you looked at bootlegging alcohol during prohibition, there was a multitude of Black and Brown and white bootleggers that were all working together. And the second that it becomes legalized formalized by the state, there's a lack of inclusion of Black workers in that industry. And Black owners in the manufacturing. Like you could find a lot of Black brands or labels, which is just a label. I think a lot of people get that confused.
They're like, oh, well this is rock. It's like, yeah, that's rock, that's a label, but they don't manufacture the actual liquor. Those recipes aren't forgotten. They don't have access in this moment. And it goes to like street performances and there's a ton of occupations that exist out there. It also looks like a lot of people work and they do demo. So they'll go and they'll demolition a house and they'll get paid in cash. There's just a host of black of informal occupations. There's the candy lady. I grew up in a community where there was a candy lady that lived on the block and you would go there and you would buy your frozen like Kool-Aid cups. I don't know if you know what that is in. It's like styrofoam, you rip it off and you eat it all the way down the bottom and get your candy and whatnot, just straight from our house.
That is informality. Recently, we released a report and it showed pretty uniquely that among the informal workers that were surveyed, most of them had multiple occupations, multiple informal occupations. So the person who was selling socks, sold CDs on the side, also did childcare on the side, also hair braided and so it was like, I think in our original strategic plan, we were thinking about building out these informal worker associations by trade. And then when we got into it, we learned that like, no, it's almost impossible because they would all be the same people because these jobs are kind of like, it's a system of occupations and they wear different hats in different moments.
They'd have like 10 different union meetings to go to and...
Yeah, unique. It's unique in that way. Like they would all be in different. So what we have to just house everybody is in.
Okay. And so another thing that black informal workers or any informal workers seem to share as a sense of entrepreneurialism. Like meeting the moment and finding what they can do to meet that moment. And I think you framed this in the past as a deep creativity of being able to kind of make ends meet or whatever the end goal is. So one of the things that you've said is the depth of creativity required to thrive within an alternative labor system. So can you just talk about that depth of creativity that you mentioned, and is there a way that, what you mentioned just now with like the potential unions might be able to...
To organize yeah.
What would they be able to do, in order to, yeah.
Yeah. I mean, I think it's a con I mean, creativity generally is at its best when conditions are dire. Like you ever looked inside of your refrigerator. And it was, right before, like a week, a couple days before payday, you hadn't gone grocery shopping or whatever, and you just make a meal up. And it's like, oh, this is one of the best meals I ever had. For a lot of folks this is the constant condition. Where you open the refrigerator up and there isn't much in it and you have to figure out something and it's sometimes pairing with things which you would never have paired before. So there's innovation. And there's a lot of things that go into to it. But creativity, like I said, it comes from pression and it also comes from scarcity.
If there's one car and there's 20 people living in a few buildings and chances are they're going to share that car. And then you get ride sharing. If someone has a particular skill, whether it be hair braiding or there's some folks that just go and help people set up their computers and whatnot. And help them navigate, setting up a Gmail account. That's another creative, but it's also answering a need. When you think about Eric Garner, he was selling loose cigarettes two for a dollar. Let's take a look at the average per capita income and the areas. So if you look at West Garfield park, average per capita income is $12,000 a year. Common sense says they don't have $15 to pay, to buy a pack of cigarettes I'm not endorsing cigarettes smoking. But it does make sense that you would buy two for a dollar there.
Same thing as it relates to like towels and socks. And there's a demand for lower price commodities. And there aren't avenues for them. A lot of the brick and mortars that existed in our communities are shut down. People have to travel hours in order to get fresh produce. And getting on the train, train to the bus, bust to the train, et cetera, to get fresh produce, and then to tow it back, bus, train bus, when you see people that are selling fresh fruit or food in the community, it's really it's addressing that need. So that's when I say the creativity, it's kind of rooted in the needs and then know how could unions in the long run.
I organized in labor for a number of years. One of the challenges for me was just the history of labor. If you think about the Wagner act, you think about the national labor relationships act and the exclusion of agricultural workers during the time, like those blow close to Black workers, historically created conditions where informality became the need or became the answer. When folks were boxed out of, you think about early unionism, it created the middle class in America. You had living wage employment, you had benefits, you had the ability to purchase housing. And then there was red lining. And so there's this kind of like almost every fold or every turn Black folks were left behind. And so we created something.
And that's informally, I don't necessarily know if that's a space where unionization can actually come in and win or benefit. I don't know if the income is at a steady enough rate to ensure that dues and union dues are paid on time. But I do think there's a lot to learn there. A lot of our folks are making under minimum wage. We just released a report called the survival economies report and 40% of the respondents had never, ever had a full-time job. And they'd never seen a full-time job and did not know where to find one. And that even when they do find formal occupations, they're still working in the informal economy to make ends meet. Because you know, like I know that $12,000 a year is not enough to survive in the city of Chicago. So it's just kind of like they'll get a part-time job or work at a staffing agency and then they still have to sell loose cigarettes. They still have to sell socks or they still have to perform and rap or whatever it is that they may do in order to make ends meat.
Do you believe that informal workers have to leave the informal economy to achieve equity?
It's ableism, the transphobia, the anti-Black racism in the formal economy that has created the informal economy. If everybody could get a job right now and got living with job, making $20 an hour, whatever it is that to live in the city of Chicago, I wouldn't think that there would be much informality. In fact, some of the theories around informality is that as economies grow then formality slowly but surely kind of just goes away. But in the United States, 500 years, we're still here. You know what I mean? So I think if formality was anti-racist, was accepting of all genders and gender expressions, et cetera, et cetera, was absent of sexual assault, sexual violence, et cetera, then there wouldn't be a need for informality.
You talked about how you've worked in this area for years in terms of the area of labor organizing and that. Can you just tell me a little bit more about your own history with other organizations and how you came to create EAT?
I think at the time also I stepped into the work as the bringing down barriers organizer for our Chicago workers collaborative and there we were bringing out barriers between Black and Latino temp workers. And there's a tension that lied there and there's still tension within our communities, right between Black and Latino workers. But in the staffing agencies, it was literally created. You would go into the waiting room and wait to be picked for a job, which is a very exploitative relationship anyway, the temp labor sector is this triangular relationship where they buy one person's labor for $15 an hour or for $9 an hour, then they sell it for 15. But even in that, a number of the Black workers were not being chosen. A number of the Latino workers were being chosen. It was a very hostile staffing space where Black workers were like, coming, they were extremely, like, why are you all getting chosen first?
It's because your cousin works here. You hear all of the stories. In reality, what it was is that what we're able to do is through our bringing down barriers conversations would bring Black and Latino temp workers together into the same room, bring in translators, which you know, language was one of the first barriers that existed between them. And they were able to translate the stories from the Latino temp workers. And they would tell the Black workers the stories about yeah, we were chosen first, but did you know I only got $6 an hour because I'm undocumented. Did you know that my sister, this person was sexually assaulted and there was no recourse. There was no one for us to go to. Did you know that the transportation, the drivers would take us to the currency exchanges the cash to checks and take 20% of everyone's profit across the bus.
And the Black workers were like, I wish they would. I wish they would do that. Da, da, da. And then we would lean into the conversation about citizenship. And so through those conversations, Black workers were able to realize, oh, oh, they don't select me because of my citizenship. My citizenship demands through the national labor that they give me minimum wage at the least. My citizenship ensures that if something happens to me or I'm attacked, I can call the police or I can call whoever, I can call security. I can call whatever in order to get some kind of reprimand. But for the Latino workers, the undocumented workers in specific, there was nothing in nowhere that they could turn. And so, yes, it was an okay to get on the bus, but it was also an agreement to a deepen level of exploitation.
And so we're able to have these conversations, one about discrimination, because they would see the background check signs in the window or whatever, whatever. And the other one was about exploitation and it kind of landed, I think my mentor at the time, my boss, he was my boss then, Leon would say he was Latino brother and he would say, they don't love us. They just hit us both differently. And that would just would open up the door for new conversations. And then what created, what happened was a very integrated workforce. And they were willing to fight for each other to get on the bus. Like I'm not going to get on this bus to go to this factory unless some Black folks get on with me because I know that they're going to stick up for me if X happens.
And they're going to ensure that if this bus pulls over at the current exchange, ain't nobody cash a checks. It was like it created some balance. And so that was like my entry into the labor work. And then from there I was the deputy direct of the worker center for racial justice. And that was kind of like, Scott worker's collaborative was extremely focused, fine tuned. It was a niche. The worker center for racial justice was just the whole world of what is Black. It also is right around the moment where Mike Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri and Laquan McDonald is murdered here in Chicago and Raquel Boyd is also killed. And so it was just kind of like this direct connection between the forced discrimination of Black workers within the temp labor sector, which is honestly like the last house on the block.
If you really, really, really need to get a job, this is where you go. But it's often the only opportunity that you have, but seeing that and seeing all of those folks that were lined up to get work every day, they're up there at six o'clock in the morning, it literally beat any myth or notion that people have about Black people not being interested in labor should go visit a staffing agency at five or six in the morning, you have Black folks lined up at six and these staffing agencies are nowhere near their communities. They literally have lifted up staffing agencies out of Black communities and moved them to like Berwyn, Cicero, et cetera, et cetera, like corridors of them. And so Black folks are getting up early in the morning, getting on buses to get to these staffing agencies, sitting there for three or four hours just to be told no, that experience then paired to this reality of police, state violence when it came to Laquan McDonald and the 16 shots and the lack of mental health and services, et cetera, cetera, for Black communities, except it just kind of broadened my vision to be like, okay, this system of discrimination is a microcosm of a larger system of discrimination.
And anti-Black racism. And so through that work, I kind of got a broader sense of understanding of exactly how systems are working. It trickled down, they create the possibilities for staffing agencies to do what they do. I ended up becoming the Illinois campaign director for a place called Jobs among America. And we did inclusive procurement work, which is, sounds very wonky, like very like, ah, inclusive procurement. But essentially we need to know that it is how our government, local government spends money. And so through procurement, this procurement in specific was coming out of the CTA and it was about rail car development. So it was a billion dollar plus procurement. And what inclusive procurement is essentially, how do you create an MOU. What is another way to put it a community benefit agreement in the negotiation process. It is so that when you bid on this contract in order... It's a lot easier to get them to fill out a community benefits agreement in order to get to the money.
It's really hard to get them to commit to community benefits agreement. After they get the money through that CTA contract, it was a CRC side thing is the company that wanted out of China. There was an agreement to develop a rail car facility in Chicago. This is where the rail car movement within a black community was born. And so I was really proud of that moment. It ended up producing about 300 or so jobs. I'm excited. We're talking with IBW and SMART two powerful unions in Chicago, developing pre-app apprenticeship programs to ensure that young Black folks can get access to these living wage, life changing jobs. And I came back to my desk and I quickly Googled the unemployment statistics in Chicago and realized, I did all the numbers, broke it down.
I was like, so there's nearly 80,000 unemployed, Black people in the city of Chicago. This is 300 jobs total. Now of those 300 jobs there, certain percentage are going to be Black minority folks, but it was going to be a lot, a lot of folks, right. But 300 is the max. And so at the end of the day, I was like, no, this is something to celebrate, but there's so much more work to do. There's so much more work to do because I correlate through my own experience, the unemployment statistics are directly correlated to the Intercommunity violence statistics. If you look at young African American men ages 17 to 24, they have the highest rate of joblessness. They have the highest rate, but being perpetrated as a homicides and highest rate of being victims of homicides.
You plug that, take that statistic, sit it right there. And then go look at the unemployment statistic for that same exact demographic. And it will match. So for me, access to employment was more than just creating a living wage and being able to acquire subsistence, it's life saving. And so I was just like, for the other 80,000 or 79,000, 970, whatever the number was going to play, or 900. Yeah. Whatever for those folks, what do we do? And so that's really where I got to equity and transformation. It was that, okay, we got 300 in the door. They're still the rest of them. Who's organizing the rest of them. Labor's got labor. And those are the people who currently have occupations or car carry members who are on the roles to get the next job.
But who's got the folks that are not employed, have historically been unemployed and who are the greatest victims at the greatest risk to gun violence in the city of Chicago, who's organizing those folks? Because the solutions to their problems are not going to come from some ivory tower, they're going to come from them. And so really the goal of organizing is to really mature the voice of the most marginalized in a way that like influences democracy. And so that's how we got to equity and transformation, like all of these folks, and it was also like, yo, if we got 80,000 unemployed black folks, then it would look like people literally starving out on the streets, which is, we do have that. But when you add informality to the picture, what you're able to see is that, oh, we've created a process of survival, absent of formal labor economy.
Because historically it hasn't come to save us. A lot of our folks realize it's not going to come to save us. So it's really like I'm on my own in order to make ends meet. So you get a lot of this entrepreneurial spirit, you get a lot of business development, you get a lot of I can buy this for $20 and sell it for 40. You get a lot of that business minded folks or whatever, you get a lot of that in the community. But I think it even goes a little bit deeper when you start to look at what existed in those communities before credentialism literally shut black businesses down.
So there's a lot of themes here that you're tying together that make a lot of sense in terms of how you've kind of demonstrated the correlations between unemployment and safety. Equity and Transformation is the name of your organization. Why isn't it something like Safety and Employment, or something like that? Other than obviously that wouldn't give you the desired acronym, but is there a reason that, I mean, one way to look at it is that Equity and Transformation is positive sounding. I just wonder what kind of thought went into positioning it in that direction and why you sort of trump it those particular words.
Yeah. So equity is the inverse of inequity, right? And inequity is unfairness. Equity is a fairness, essentially everybody's starting to race with equal footing. And so equity is the goal, but in order to get to equity, certain things have to happen. My position currently right now in 2021, my mind is like reparations has to happen. You can't get to equity without addressing slavery, without addressing redlining, without addressing the war on drugs and the impact that's had on Black communities. It's like, we'll do everything except do what we know needs to be done. Let's get creative, we'll create a workforce development, we'll put billions of dollars in the workforce development program. Everyone gets paid except the people that are actually the participants. Like they're not the trainers and not the facilitators, whatever. And so it's like equity essentially means fairness, fairness in my mind as it relates to how we get the Black community to where it needs to be or to equity is actually, it's about acknowledging past harms.
It's about committing to repair that, it's about a guarantee of non repetition, guaranteeing that this will not happen again. The war on drugs was bad. We literally have billionaires walking around who are the biggest dope dealers in the world right now, selling cannabis every day, it's completely legal. But then even with the new kind of legalization, there's still increased arrests of Black people. There has to be repair. So if you hurt me and you commit to repair, you're going to be there, you want to return me to my original state. And then the last piece is compensation, which I think is only thing that's usually lifted up in the eyes of folks, Black people reparations, that means we got to cut the check or people talk about the 40 acres in the mule, but the UN made a whole nother argument as it relates to reparations.
And it's not just compensation. The other pieces are to ensure that this will never happen again. That's how we landed on equity. That's what equity means to me. And transformation is essentially once we get to equity, we will transform. One of my comrades, Mary Hooks works at song in Atlanta. And Mary Hooks told me, we are transform through the work. When you ask people, what does safety mean to you? And the majority of the folks that were in our community were like, the ability to walk to the store without being in fear of either the police or inter community violence occurring. But in order for that to be transformed, there needs to be some form of equity.
So at EAT you work on a number of initiatives. Can you tell me what you're focused on right now? And maybe a summary of the types of projects or initiatives that you're... But maybe start with what you're focused on right now.
Yeah. We passed two policies. We're a part of coalitions that passed two policies. One was HP 1438, which was cannabis legalization. The other one was recently HP 3653, which is the breathe act / the safety act / pretrial fairness / prison gerrymandering. It was a lot. And so right now we're focused on doing political education around what was actually included in HP 3653, because although I think the policy makers academics the lawmakers, whatever they know what was included, the community doesn't as well as it relates to end money bond or as it relates to early release mechanisms for their family members who are currently incarcerated, et cetera. So it's really about doing political education within community around that. The other piece is we also do research. And so the continuation of that survival economies report is we're exploring guaranteed income targeted guaranteed income.
And there's a very big difference between universal basic income and then targeted guaranteed income. And so we're exploring a targeted guaranteed income pilot project that we're launching. It's called Chicago Futures Fund on the west side of Chicago in west Garfield Park, where we did our study. And it's a continuation of that research. The participants are young African Americans from west Garfield Park who were previously convicted of a crime. So the study's going to be looking at recidivism rates, income volatility, psychological wellness, they'll receive $500 a month on for 18 months. And we're really going to be telling a really robust story about how this increased income impacts their life. And I think that in some ways it's like not a big deal. It's like, oh, that's only $6,000 a year. Doesn't make a big dent if you live in Lincoln Park.
But when you live in west Garfield Park where the average capital income, like I said, is around $12,000, it's almost half. We believe it'll have an impact on recidivism. And so that's that piece. And then in addition, we are in the early stages of kicking off a campaign for reparations for the war on drugs.
The reality is there's an economic hole. There's a hole in our communities, a financial hole in our communities that has to be filled before we can even start the race. And we keep just thinking, oh, we can just create a policy. It was a good policy, but you didn't repair the community first. You didn't repair the applicants first. So those are our campaign. And so we're focusing on reparations for the war on drugs and what that would look like ultimately for me is like a direct cash payment to victims of the war on drugs in Illinois, we saw recently that young Black folks are on the increase as it relates to tickets and fines as it relates to cannabis, simply because they don't have the canister that you hold the cannabis in inside of your vehicle.
And so I know a lot of white folks that smoke weed in Chicago and none of them have that canister either. So why are we getting increased arrests? Because there's increased surveillance in our communities. A lot of folks also don't know the law. And that's in the white community as well, but they don't have to worry because they don't have to use it necessarily. But we have to know what our rights are. So we're also going to be doing kind like a know your rights component.
Tell me about how you see design coming into your work or not, and your relationship to design.
Design is everything, the computer that we're on right now is designed. Like you knew that if I came on here, you said, use your headphones. Make sure that you press record and when you hit record, you expect it to work. Because it was designed that way. The absence of equity essentially for me is because of a design. And so we really have to begin to reimagine what this design looks like. And we're trying to reshape this economy into one that actually answers to the demands of the people in need, opposed to the demands of the people that are in power. What does it mean to not have wages or not have access to wages in a wage based economy, an economy that was designed for you to have wages, You go to the grocery store, you can't be like, yo here's some hope take this and let me get these eggs. And no, it doesn't work like that. You legit have to have cash. So what does that mean? Within the design for people to not have cash.
You also talk about the importance of democracy and people having agency in their democracy. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about any work that EAT might do in that area or how that might relate to design or how design might be able to aid that situation?
I think democracy is one of the most unique components of our design and one of the most empowering components of our design specifically in the state of Illinois. In the state of Illinois, no matter if you're formerly incarcerated or not, you can vote. And the way that we kind of articulate democracy at EAT is that if a decision is made that impacts your life. This is when we're talking to somebody, you have a right to play a role in how that decision is made. So that could look like voting, that could be joining the student or the teacher. What do you call it? The parent conference.
Yeah. PTO. There we go. Yeah. Yeah. But you can engage to democratically in your area. And you can speak to your elected officials and you can create change. And that's a very powerful tool.
Which is why in places like Florida, where they're restricting voters’ rights and they're scaling back accessibility to voting, et cetera, et cetera. There's a reason why they're doing it, because they know this is a powerful tool, because a host of things have happened in the city of Chicago that were not great during the pandemic. And so we want to make sure that folks are held accountable and we can hold people accountable through our vote. And so that's really like how we assess democracy at Equity and Transformation and we believe deeply in the power of democracy, but that really just come through the building of local power, doing a lot of political education like yo, do you know who your alder person is? Do you know who your state representative is? Have you ever spoken to him?
Have you ever been to Springfield? And I'll say one little short story, we brought brother named Solomon. You don't mind if I mention his name, his first time to Springfield, this was before pandemic, the glory days. And he had never been to Springfield before and he's up and down the hallways he's talking to all the different state reps. And he had no idea that they were that accessible. Because he had never been there during the lobby days, et cetera, et cetera, when the halls are just packed. And so it just sparked him, like he came back to his community and was just like, I got a selfie where I got a picture with this legislator and I met this one and he was just telling stories about it. And then other people were interested in going. And so that's really about like creating momentum so that people can kind of join in this process towards creating or re imagining the society that they want to live in. And then getting into the rooms with the decision makers and informing them that this is the world that they want to live in. And these are the policies, this is the way that they want the policies to be shaped, to create that.
So I have a question that I've been asking each time I do one of these. And how would you define design? I know we talked about design a couple questions ago a little bit, but do you have, what would be your definition for that word?
I think it's like in my most non studied way, it's a utility to make things easier for people. We design a wheelchair, we design the wheel, we design whatever, but ultimately it's in order to make a life easier for people, for animals, I guess as well, for the environment, et cetera. But it's a utility at best to just make things easier.
And so with that definition, how do you see EAT using design?
Well, I think that we've designed a program to make it easier for Black and informal workers to have their voices heard in our democracy. Really it's all we do. There's a lot of brilliant language on our website, but that's essentially what we do.
Thanks to Richard for sharing how he uses design as a tool for transforming our current situation into a more desirable and equitable one. Richard is founder of EAT Equity and Transformation and a 2021 Latham fellow at the Institute of Design for more about our Latham fellows visit our website and YouTube channel. You can find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu. Please subscribe, rate and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we'd love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Episode 3: Prescribing food with Rita Nguyen
Rita Nguyen, Assistant Health Officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health and founder of the Food as Medicine Collaborative, explains why doctors should be able to prescribe food—and why the healthcare system should pay for it.
Rita considers the individual patient experience as well as the healthcare system's role in food security. She is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan.
Today you can fill a prescription for food. Walk into a pharmacy in San Francisco to pick it up. This episode I talk to Dr. Rita Nguyen, the person who's made this possible. Rita believes that doctors should be able to prescribe food and that the healthcare system should pay for it. Trained as a physician and currently assistant health officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, she's also founder of the Food as Medicine Collaborative. Rita talks about how she's scaling the collaborative, and how she got interested in design as a way of achieving her goals.
Coming from a healthcare background, coming from the field of medicine, how did you get interested in design?
That's a fascinating question. I had no idea what design was until a friend of mine put the Stanford d.school fellowship in front of me and said, "You should apply." And because I didn't know what design was, I didn't even understand how it fit within what I was doing, but she did because she understood design could do for I was trying to accomplish. And I ended up applying and getting the Civic Innovation fellowship out of the Stanford d.school. And that's where I really picked up my design chops and even understood what it was, how to apply it. And honestly, coming from a medical background and training, it was just incredibly eye opening because it's a totally different way of thinking.
So then maybe we should back up a little bit further too and find out how you got into healthcare. What fed your interest there?
I think I've always been committed to social justice and recognizing the inequities around me. I don't know. I just remember growing up that, I think I was always acutely aware of my privilege. So even though I'm, I don't know how folks call it, first or second generation immigrant, but my parents came over. So I was born here. And they literally came over with nothing because they were escaping a war in Vietnam. But I do acknowledge that the privilege they had was that they were educated. So even though they didn't have any money or belongings when they came as refugees, the fact that they were educated was already a place of privilege that others didn't have. And so I was lucky enough that because of their education they were able to get jobs. They had to get retrained in the US and all that, but then I grew up in a household where I had two college graduate working parents.
And I recognized that my life was comfortable. I didn't have trauma. I didn't lack resources. But growing up on the east side of San Jose, a lot of my friends did. And I think I always just immediately recognized the inequities that were surrounding me. And I don't know. It just always got to me. It was like, well, I just happened to be born in this family. I just happened to get these resources. And so I think a lot of what drive my work is social justice.
And then there was something about health that seemed very concrete to me, that was like, obviously I want people to be healthy. So medicine wasn't always the path I knew I wanted to go on. I think I was always interested in the concept of public health and community health, and how do we uplift the health of entire societies? I could see a path with clinical medicine. It didn't take me long after getting all my training done to then find my way back to public health. So right now I only see patients maybe 10% of the time, and the rest of my time is committed to public health, community health, how do we fix societies to be better and healthier?
So if we think about what you mentioned earlier, this friend kind of came to you and knew that this design tool set would be of service to you in some way. And you are already coming with this social justice mindset. How did you start to see that there were underlying systemic issues that needed to be addressed? Do you have a moment or a story in which you sort of realized, oh, I need a different way to confront this.
I think I recognized relatively early on that's systems issues was what I needed to address, that it wasn't enough to treat patients one on one. I mean, a lot of what brought me to clinical medicine was the experience I had in college around a free clinic. And so it was very satisfying, gratifying to have someone in front of you and give them something, and be able to hear their ailments and literally just give them medicine because we were a free clinic.
But then very quickly I was like, who's keeping an eye on you after you leave here? The 20 minute encounter I had with you, and now you have to navigate a system because you have Parkinson's and you don't speak English and you need to go see a neurologist. I was working on the back end of the clinic, trying to connect people to all those other things they needed beyond the 20 minute encounter with me.
I think I just became very frustrated with the system that we work in and the constraints and how difficult it made for people to access healthcare, or honestly when it comes to social determinants of health, just the basics of living with dignity. I think I've always had the framing of, it's gratifying to see the impact one on one, but I need to do something about the system that underlies it because these feel like band aids.
Part of my frustration was that I felt like we were working within a disease care system rather than a healthcare system. That we've set up systems to just tackle specific diseases, but not looking at a whole person or thinking about, how do I actually get to the outcome I want? Which is healthy, thriving communities. And so with that lens, and thinking about food security is a major social determinant of health, that's where the concept of the Food as Medicine Collaborative came out of. It's like, how do we really start to reimagine what the healthcare system could be doing differently to actually get to this goal of healthy thriving communities, rather than just, let's deliver disease care. And the concept there was really to get healthcare systems to own food security as a health issue, not just this moral issue that nonprofits and public health departments had to worry about. But if you actually want to make your patients healthy, you have to address the fact that they don't have access to healthy food, nor do they sometimes know what to do with it.
And so what the Food as Medicine Collaborative does is, we are a multi-sector collaboration comprised of nonprofits, government, food businesses, researchers, academia, who are trying to bring together the food system and health systems to promote greater health equity by addressing food insecurity. And so we wanted to tangibly provide an intervention for healthcare to recognize how they could actually do this work. And so programmatically, it manifested as what we called food pharmacies, where just an onsite entity that allowed doctors to prescribe healthy foods to their patients and the patients could actually fill it onsite like you would at a pharmacy.
And we didn't want food pharmacies to merely be a food dispensary, because I think the goal here isn't to turn clinics and healthcare into grocery stores and food pantries. I think that doesn't quite leverage the full potential of healthcare and what we could be doing for patients. But it was really about, how do you really marry this idea that food and nutrition is critical to your health? We're not just paying lip service to it. We're making it possible. We're enabling it. But pairing it with other skills and tool sets so that you can actually use the food.
So it's not just a handout, but it's paired with nutrition education. We have cooking demonstrations with our nutritionist there. We also give out tools to patients, because a lot of our patients don't have kitchens even, and so they need things like crock pot or cutting boards or knives, even to just get started. And then the final key piece to it is connecting them to the food safety net. Because I'm not saying that healthcare needs to own food security. I'm saying healthcare needs to have a role in it. We can't pretend that this doesn't affect our patients. And we occupy about a fifth of the GDP for the country. If you could get healthcare to care about these things and invest in it, then you could really have an impact on healthy communities.
And so it started with the programmatic element, but we always had systems and policy change in mind. So we first started off with the pilot that the d.school helped us get off the ground. And then within a year we had three food pharmacies at clinics. In the next five years we now have 16 food pharmacies across five health systems in San Francisco.
So we were really scaling a programmatic intervention, but seeing the systems change. All these clinics and health systems were starting to really buy in, that this is work we should be doing. We should be investing in this. And we leveraged that to get them to organize around a statewide policy ask so that Medicaid, which is the health insurance for low income and pregnant women and kids and so forth, to actually pay for food as a covered medical benefit, so that in the same way that insurance pays for your diabetes or your hypertension pills, they should be paying for your food because that will also make you well.
And so after about a year and a half of work, Medicaid in California actually included it in our next waiver. And so that was a huge win for this body of work, is that we started from these programs that were helping one-on-one people, changing a system in healthcare, but then having statewide policy change to actually funnel healthcare dollars to support food security and what was underlying health disparities.
So, can you walk me through how this actually works for an individual? How do they get connected to it and what happens when they do?
A key piece to how we approach this work was through a health equity lens, and so we were very purposeful about who would get access to food pharmacies. It's referral based. It's just kind of like a prescription. You can't just show up at a pharmacy and say, I want morphine. It has to be prescribed to you. So we would message to providers that they could prescribe food pharmacy as an intervention to certain patients.
And also much of this work was designed with a race equity lens. And so we looked in San Francisco and who was having the most disproportionate health disparities in the city, and it was Black African Americans in San Francisco. And so we really wanted to prioritize those patients, because as you can imagine, demand was much greater than supply, so we had to really focus, what's the population?
And so, providers could write prescriptions to a food pharmacy. So you would show up and you would say, hi, I'm Kristin. And it's very much so a farmer's market style in a lot of our clinics. And that was intentional. We didn't want this sterile, uninspiring environment that healthcare sometimes has. And sometimes people associate healthcare and food with a message of restriction and no, like, don't eat this, don't eat that. You can't do this. You can't do that. And it's not really a message of inspiration or hope or enabling patients to feel self-empowered. So these are some of the concepts that I got out of my experience with design. How do we create experiences that empower patients to be active advocates of their own health rather than these passive recipients of healthcare? And so the experience is informed by design and being intentional about how you want people to feel when they're there.
But anyway, you show up and all the foods have been selected by our registered dieticians. And there are stations throughout where folks are giving people as much produce as they can pretty much carry home. And then registered dieticians are there, volunteers are there providing nutrition, education, and recipe cards. And then there's various stations to also ... For example, there's like a cooking demonstration station with a registered dietician. And then we also have a referrals table that helps connect people to local resources.
So when you walk into it, it's a lively environment. There's food, but there's also healthcare professionals there. There's also referrals. Most of our sites we actually have either a physician or a pharmacist who's actually talking to patients about their health issue, whether it be hypertension or diabetes, and also making adjustments to their medications. And so there's really this marrying of the concept that, food actually is really core to my health and healthcare is delivering this to me. We've heard patients say through our focus groups that they really see that concept when it gets tied to healthcare, and they pay more attention to their numbers. They're excited to get their blood pressure checked on site because they're thinking about, what did I eat this last week? It's going to show in my numbers. Which I think is great. It's like, yes, you are empowered to make an impact on your health. You don't just have to receive our pills and take it.
You mentioned that you identified this particular population that was prioritized, and that you had to talk a lot about race as you were, I think, maybe putting the collaborative together and figuring out how you were going to deliver these services. So could you just give me a little bit of a flavor for what those conversations looked like? I'm sure there were uncomfortable moments and then there were some rays of light. And how this came together for you.
I would say that race equity, in many ways, laid the foundations for this work to scale. And what I mean by that is that the San Francisco Department of Public Health had already committed in 2014 to really focusing on health disparities in Black African American communities in San Francisco. So the whole department was really trying to walk the walk of saying, we do tackle health disparities and what are we doing for this community in San Francisco that has the worst health outcomes. That and Pacific Islanders. And the system had bought into the idea that we need to start being intentional about our interventions and who gets access to our interventions.
I think what's important to recognize is when you're trying to design an intervention that is very intentionally tackling race equity issues, that you have to recognize that you can't just off the bat do that. It requires a lot of culture change underneath it for a system to buy into why we need to be an anti-racist organization that is specifically calling out race and anti-Black racism. I can't take credit for all that background work, but we were certainly part of it.
To be concrete, if you were to first start asking clinics, we want you to prioritize Black African American patients for this intervention. So we want you to call them up and invite them personally. And for the other patients, they don't get such high touch support. You can imagine there's resistance at first where it's like, well, what about my ethnic group? Why are they getting special treatment? Why are they getting more? So a lot of the work actually has to start with confronting racism and anti-Black racism and how it manifests and the repercussions it has for that community.
And so it took literally took years, and we're still on the journey of having even just our staff recognize that anti-Black racism is so prevalent. And in order to do something about it, you actually have to really embrace and pursue equity and thinking about disproportionately investing resources and efforts into communities that have been historically disinvested in and structurally oppressed. A lot of that work was culture change. A lot of that was messaging around why we were even doing this and getting folks to buy in. That then allowed us to actually prioritize patients for the program itself.
What I've heard from other colleagues and efforts to address racism is that if you don't approach it with nuance and purposefulness and just a lot of thought, you could actually do more harm than good. So if you bring your staff in at too late of a stage to address anti-Black racism, it could actually worsen race relations. So I think figuring out where to start from and engaging that conversation is important. And we benefited from the expertise of many leaders and experts who talk about race relations. So I think you got to do it right.
So we talked a little bit earlier about the difference between treating a patient individually, being able to have that satisfaction of seeing that impact being made there, and then moving to the systems level. There, you run the risk of being a bit more removed, not maybe being able to see sort of that human aspect of it quite as much. And also not being able to sort of bear witness to what's working, what's not working. Have you experienced that or noticed that? Or are there ways that you've tried to make sure that you're able to iterate and improve?
I think that is one of the greatest challenges of applying human centered design to systems change. Because I by no means think of myself as an actual designer or an expert in design. I was lucky enough to be exposed to it and trained in some of the skills. I felt like design was particularly good for creating user-centered products and experiences. So, very much so focused on the individual. I think it was harder for me to recognize how to apply some of those frameworks and tools to large scale systems change. And I think the way I'm reconciling it is that design is one of many tools that a change agent can employ to impact large scale change. So depending on what your goal is, you would use design, or sometimes you would use research, or sometimes you would use Lean process improvement methodology.
So I've seen design as one of my tools in my toolkit of how I want to affect change in my community. And I do think it's particularly good for the programmatic elements of what I'm to get done. There are mindsets within design that I think are applicable across the board, like showing more than telling, for example, or radical collaboration. Those design mindsets I think apply more across the spectrum in terms of what you're trying to get done.
In our work at the Food as Medicine Collaborative, we are so intentional that our goal is systems change, but at the same time we can't lose sight of the whole point of all this was to actually impact people's lives. And I think it's reflected in our work. We started out with a program that patients love, that they kept coming back to. If we hadn't designed a good program, then it wouldn't have scaled. If it didn't scale, health systems wouldn't have bought into it. And then I couldn't have done all the policy work we did on the other end.
Rita Nguyen (19:17):
So I think there's a balance to be struck and different skill sets to be used depending on what you're trying to get done. I think it also falls down on values, if you stick close to your values. I don't think we would ever tolerate a program that was disrespectful or uninviting. We, I think, naturally have designed something that will meet people's needs, but also be a positive experience, while also balancing the other goals that we're trying to accomplish beyond a killer program.
So, what is your dream for it? Ultimately, it has scaled. It is scaling. What's sort of the big goal that you're alluding to? What are you after?
So one of our biggest goals is having healthcare pay for food, and we're getting there. There's a mechanism for Medicaid in California to pay for food now, but our next goal is Medicare. So between Medicare and Medicaid, they are the largest payers of healthcare, especially for vulnerable people in the country. So Medicare is more for disabled and older adults, and those on dialysis and so forth. We want private health insurers to also pay for food. So we want it to become the norm. Food is just part of medical care and that you should be able to have access to it, to manage your chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes.
And the Food as Medicine Collaborative, even though in San Francisco we're most tangibly known for our food pharmacy intervention, whenever we interface with another healthcare system, we say that we are agnostic to the intervention. You don't have to have a food pharmacy. Maybe you want grocery bags to be delivered, or maybe you want food vouchers so that your patients can go buy these foods at the grocery store. The reason why we coined it the Food as Medicine Collaborative and not the Food Pharmacy Collaborative is that we are not wedded to this one intervention. We just want food and healthcare to work together, whatever form that takes and makes sense for patients in the healthcare system they're in. It's more buying into this concept that healthcare needs to pay attention to food security and do something about it and not wait for nonprofit and healthcare to just tackle this problem on their own.
You mentioned hypertension, diabetes. People with these particular conditions are able to access the Food as Medicine Collaborative. Is there a longer list of conditions?
I mean, as you can imagine, the list is essentially limitless. The true prevention would be like how do you intervene with somebody before they got diabetes or before they became obese or had kidney disease. A huge number of health conditions are diet sensitive or diet related. And so our group has thought about that comprehensive list. And just trying to think realistically, we can't ask healthcare for all of that all at once. So we have to prioritize certain diagnoses that seem more obviously tied to diet than others. But honestly, depression and anxiety, the outcomes there related to how people eat as well. Right now we phrase it as medically supportive food and nutrition to really hone in on the fact that this is to support medically your health. And again, this is being strategic with healthcare. They want us to speak their lingo. I get it. They don't want to become food pantries, nor should they. And so they need to think strategically about, how do we invest in medically supportive food to advance medical outcomes.
And by starting with these, sort of the short list, then you're able to provide the evidence that it works and then move on to other conditions.
We talked about how you were introduced to design. How would you define design?
I would say human-centered design is an approach to tackling a problem that is rooted in empathy for the user. I think it is an approach to innovation and thinking differently and creating differently, that really is based in empathy for who you're designing for. And under that premise, if you base what you're trying to do in an understanding and empathy for your user, it leads to better products that are more informed by what people actually want and can use and love.
And so along the same lines, the title of our panel a couple weeks ago was, For Whom Am I Making This? And that is part of this Latham series where we're thinking about these fundamental questions. Why am I making this? For whom am I making this? Do you ask yourself those types of questions from time to time as you're thinking about the important work that you're doing, and just kind of grounding it and kind of coming back to purpose?
I would say I don't in terms of the people I'm trying to serve, but I do when I'm trying to ask my myself, am I designing this for people or am I designing this for systems? That's the contradiction I feel internally. It's quite obvious to me, my commitment to mission and my commitment to equity. That's not hard for me to remind myself that this is for the communities that are most depressed and disenfranchised, and in our society it's often Black African Americans. Pacific Islanders is quite comparable in terms of their health outcomes.
I think what I struggle with more, and I think it's just a process for me of just acknowledging that I'm also really targeting healthcare as a target. I want healthcare to change. I want them to evolve. And so a lot of what I do focuses on, how do I get them to change? I'm designing for them in many respects. I think part of where my struggle with this comes from is that framing that I introduced around the health impact partners. They have a framework where they think about ... Most people think about the health inequities. People of color are dying from heart attacks more than others. You go deeper then you're looking at social determinants of health around food, housing, education, so forth. And then you go deeper than that and then you're looking at power imbalances and structural oppression and racism.
And so where I struggle is that the intervention at that deepest level is to put power in the hands of those that have been disenfranchised. And sometimes I struggle with whether or not that's what I'm doing if I'm rectifying the healthcare system. Again, I recognize that our interventions are giving more resources to those that are disenfranchised, which in some levels may be power, but somehow it feels like a more removed version of power than just giving power to the people directly.
Honestly, if you just gave people money. Poverty is a lot of this, right? If people just had more money, a lot of these issues wouldn't exist. And I think where I've landed is, I think it's a yes, and. I think you can't have either. I think you can't just have either in isolation. I think it's yes, and. We need to think about how do we give more actual power and resources to people. People need to be able to make their own decisions, not just these healthcare executives that decide how to spend taxpayer dollars. I agree with that. They do need power. But at the same time, we also need the system to become more equitable. We need the system to transform. So I think that's where I've landed, is that I do believe in restructuring our societies so that power is more equitably spread, and I think we need to change our systems to reflect that as well.
How do you give yourself room to resurface these questions over time? And the answer today may be different than the answer tomorrow. And not just you individually, but as a collaborative, as an organization, do you have space, time, room set aside to entertain these questions?
I don't have dedicated time, but I acknowledge that it is a process and it's a journey. I think it would be a real disservice to assume that the solutions we thought of today should always be the solutions. And I think that's where the iterative mindset comes in. And I personally think that I'm still in a growth journey around race equity and how to make that manifest, and how do you balance people power and system power. And so I'm very open to those conversations and that dialogue to continue. I actively feel like I'm in evolution and in growth, which I think honestly, everybody should be, because otherwise we'd be a very stagnant society. And so the short answer is I don't have dedicated time to think about it. I think it just sort of surfaces as we evolve the work, and as I hear from others and they plant seeds in my mind of how I approach my own work.
This is sort of an outlier question. There's not a great segue here, but I need to ask about it. If there was anything as the Food as Medicine Collaborative continued work through the pandemic, what special challenges that might have presented to you, and if any of those became opportunities or presented new ideas.
I mean, the pandemic, just unprecedented on so many levels. So we did pivot quite quickly to different interventions like home delivered groceries or giving people more vouchers so they could go purchase groceries. And we also just had more mobile food that was being passed out and less of a whole experience.
What I was so grateful for, and what I think was a manifestation of that systems change, is I thought healthcare was going to pull the plug. I thought they were going to say our hair's on fire. We got to deal with COVID. We can't do anything else. But we grew in 2020. More clinics got on board.
And I think that speaks to the inequities that COVID laid bare. It was no surprise that the communities hardest hit by COVID were those who were low income or communities of color who lived in disenfranchised communities that were disinvested in. There was just more of a recognition of how on the edge people live. And so healthcare saw that too. Healthcare providers felt like it was really in their face. They really couldn't ignore the fact that so many of their patients didn't have enough money to buy food anymore. So nationwide, I think food security became more visible as a result of COVID. And it was wonderful to see our healthcare partners continue to invest in it and grow the work because they really saw how stark the need was for their patients.
And so we had more clinics jump on in 2020. We also had our partners raise something like 1.7 million dollars in 2020, just for food. There was just more visibility around how important food security was as an issue.
A big thanks to Rita for giving us a window into a compelling new way of confronting and preventing disease. Rita is one of ID's 2021 Latham Fellows at the Institute of Design. For more about our Latham Fellows, visit our website and YouTube channel.
You can find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we'd love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Episode 2: Technology as medicine with Tope Sadiku
As Global Head of Employee Digital Experience at the Kraft Heinz Company, Tope Sadiku describes herself as a corporate doctor. To extend the metaphor: her patients are Kraft employees, and her medicine is technology.
Tope considers the evolving employee experience—really, how an employee spends their everyday—and how technology can enhance it.
Tope is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Kristin Gecan (00:01):
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This month, I talk to Tope Sadiku. Tope is the global head of employee digital experience at the Kraft Heinz company. So what does that mean? She describes herself as a corporate doctor. Her patients are Kraft employees and her medicine is technology.
In this conversation, we consider the employee experience today and how technology can enhance it. Here's Tope starting us off with how she became a corporate doctor.
Tope Sadiku (00:48):
I hope that I don't romanticize this story because I think when you look at anything in retrospect you're able to make sense of it, whereas maybe in the moment, it doesn't make sense. But if I was to look in retrospect and try and make sense of my life today, I started my career in finance. I was probably in finance for almost like 10 years. I became a chartered management accountant, so I understood how organizations made money. Actually, I recommend that as a good way for most people to start their careers, or even if not start, delve into finance because whether you're self-employed, you work for big organization, or you maybe want to start your own company, you need to know how money works and that was really what I learned.
And then I began to realize, "Well, hang on, if it makes so much sense, if it's something that you can just learn, why isn't everybody like rich? Why isn't everybody rich? And why do organizations fail?" It doesn't make sense because this is something you can be taught. And if it's something that obvious, I just did on some way, saying companies failed. I'm being silly and provocative, but you know, on [inaudible 00:01:43] you can say, "Well, why then isn't everybody rich?" And then I began to look at it more and I realized, "Okay, well, there's a lot of people in this and you can't really control people." And a lot of economic models say like, "Humans are rational." But the reality is just, it wasn't really what I saw. And if you think about supply and demand, well, "Hang on, how come it doesn't always work like that? And why don't people just do what makes like financial sense?" Like, "This product makes sense? Why aren't people just buying it if there's a gap for it." Right?
Something curious about people and like why, and like, to what degree are humans rational? When are we irrational? And then I read this book called Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, it's a really old book, but I absolutely loved it. And I remember I was on the tube in London, reading this book on the way to... It took me about maybe a week or so to read it. And I was jumping up and down on the tube in London, so excited because I thought, "Oh, hang on. This all makes sense because humans are irrational and we act emotionally and we're kind of predictably irrational." Right?
And I got more interested in like people and how you could encourage people to do the right thing without necessarily giving a lot of... How do you architect choice? You know, this concept of libertarian paternalism. That was the first time I was introduced to that concept and they were talking about it in the sense of healthcare and how you encourage patients to take care of their health, or from the government and how you encourage people to invest in their pension and how you can make things automatic, easy.
So then I started to combine finance and psychology and I started to look at the psychology of investments and why we invest in things that we invest in and why we sell when things crash and why we invest when things are high and why we don't necessarily feel brave enough to do it in the reverse. And then I moved to Croatian and then I started to get more interested in, "Okay, well, how does technology play into all of this?" Because you've got this way of making money, but you understand how people work and sure your technology can be used as the mechanism to kind of eliminate human error and gain global scale. You don't really need to know how tech works, you need to be like a critical thinker. And actually, if we invest so much in technology, does it actually add value to the end user's life? Surely that is the purpose of what we're trying to do.
I'll never forget, I was in business school. I went to Rotterdam and I took a Uber from the train station to my school, it was like an hour. And my Uber driver was telling me about how the internet was created and it was created by looking at ants and how ants transfer information with their antenna. And that was how the, well, not the internet, but wifi, was conceptualized. And I remember thinking, "Okay, well, the answer to the questions in the world must exist in the world already. And all we have to do is look at how nature works and that would give us inspiration about how people and technology can work as well."
Kristin Gecan (04:32):
It really strikes me. I have a six year old and he, alternately on any given day, will tell me he wants to be a scientist and then he wants to be an artist and then he wants to be a scientist. And so we'll go back and forth, which is fantastic, I think. And it's also, I think probably why you and other curious people often do end up working at least tangentially with design in some ways, because it brings all these ways of knowing together. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about when you say that you're interested in democratizing technology to enable people to achieve the promise of work and life. So there's two chunks of that that I really want to tease out with you. And one is the democratizing technology piece and the other is the promise work and life.
And I'm going to start with the end of it because it's a values question, it's a balance question, it's a question of... Employees don't all necessarily want the same things so not only does that probably make your job a challenge, right? But it's also a question for me of like, "Why, you know, now in the 21st century, when we've seen the importance of work life balance, is it still something we struggle to preserve? And why do we still have the 40 hour work week?" And how do you think about these things in your current role and how do you decide whether you're doing a good job?
Tope Sadiku (06:09):
It's a good point. So let's talk about this idea of achieving the promise of work slash life. And I say work, because I work in an organization where I care about employees, but then I actually think life, because I don't really see a differentiation between this concept of work life balance doesn't mean anything to me. And I look it as a life balance and I want to be fulfilled in everything I do. And I want everything to work towards the bigger goal of why Tope exists and why am I here? And what's like my purpose on this planet, in this human experience?. And I look at people and I think, "Well, everybody wants to achieve their purpose." And I agree that it's not the same for everybody, I get that. In fact, I say my purpose on this planet now is to enable people to be happier and healthier. And I really believe that I do that in everything I do.
In the work I do in Kraft Heinz, I look at an employee's day and I say, "Okay, how do I like eliminate just waste or, like, ‘yuck work’?" Because I want to give people time back to just feel creative and inspired. I actually want to give people time back so they can go outside, get the fresh air on their skin and breathe and just get excited. And who knows what you create? Maybe you create the next ketchup, who knows? Maybe you create the next product, who knows? Maybe you fix a problem that you just haven't had the mental capacity to give enough time to, who knows? But I feel like everyone deserves that on basic human level, everybody deserves that time just to think, to breathe, to sit and to wonder.
So that's my aspiration and I am a believer that if I'm able to eliminate this like yuck work this time when we're not... If we can do the things that we used to do in maybe cool new novel ways maybe, and also save a bit of time on it. I'm just curious to see what people create at the end. So how do I measure success? I can do that on a very tangible level and I can say, "Okay, this activity took this amount of time. Now it takes this amount of time." I can say, "Okay, I've been able to eliminate waste in this activity." Or, "I've been able to give this team..." I don't know, maybe they were spending this amount of money to deliver this activity and actually we've reduced the cost because we've rationalized what they use.
The hard part is where does that thing get reinvested into, right? Because I'm not saying give it to me, I'm actually not even saying about like the displacement of jobs in any kind of way. I want people to be able to reinvest that time elsewhere. So I say that my mantra, my objective is to give our employees time back to be more productive so that they can be creative and inspired. But then I say within that creative and inspired, it's like bounded creativity.
I like this idea of frugal innovation in the sense that I say, "I want you to be creative, but I'm giving you like an easel, I'm giving you like a canvas and I'm giving you some paint and paint something. I have an art gallery, I only have walls. So whatever you make has to be able to be hung on my wall, but I don't care if you want to make a painting of your dog, if something really abstract, whatever you want to paint is your own prerogative. And however long you want it to take however, whatever size you want it to be, it's really up to you, but I want to see a painting."
And at least that for me, it creates those boundaries for creativity. And I guess I can measure success in the productivity side and then I can measure success in the creativity side, because is my gallery full of paintings on the wall? And are they paintings? And it's not really up to me if I like them or not, but does it inspire something else within others? Even if it's not always just me. That's a bit harder to measure, but at least I can theoretically conceptualize what that could look like.
Kristin Gecan (09:50):
I like what you're saying about boundaries to creativity. I mean, I think creative people talk a lot about the importance of constraints, right? In order to be creative, sometimes being given a blank canvas is the most challenging thing, right? I also think what I'm hearing you say is that you're a creativity enabler, right? You're setting up the conditions for creativity.
I wonder how you think about this question that we were addressing in the Latham talk, which is why are we making this and how sort of social responsibility is embedded in that question? And I think that the answer probably is somewhat attached to what you were just describing of, "Why are we making this at this moment in time?" But I also wonder how you think of your sense of responsibility. You're employed by Kraft Heinz, but it sounds a lot like you're also thinking about your responsibility to the employees of Kraft Heinz. So maybe you could speak to that a bit.
Tope Sadiku (10:52):
Sure. A lot of things have happened in the last few days that have just made me maybe reflect. Yesterday was earth day and for whatever reason, this earth day I was like, "Is this every year, because why does it feel different this year?" It felt so different. And on top of that, I listened to this Guy Raz, How I Built This Podcast. And he interviewed a guy who was the founder and CEO of a company called American Giant. Now, I'm not familiar with American Giant, I'm kind of like quite new to America. But it's an organization where they make these sweatshirts. What he was talking about was that, and maybe at least what I took, was that for a product to be quality, you can actually create a good quality product that is really bad for the world and like bad for people, but it tastes great and it will last forever. And that's what we used to deem good quality, but now good quality is like, "What is its wider impact on the environment?"
It's not always like the cheapest, most robust product that tastes delicious. It's bigger than just cost and taste. It's like, "What is the lasting impact on the world? Like beyond just the initial consumption of whatever you're trying to create." And I think, "Okay, I work for a food manufacturing organization. We can think of like products that we make." But then I can even think about like, "How do my employees consume new technology?" Like, "What is the impact on their lives there?" Because we're looking at like ESG and while that's its own bigger agenda within Kraft Heinz, I remember yesterday for Earth Day, our CEO said, "But this is all of your responsibility." And I thought, "Oh yeah, it is."
When I think about encouraging people to meet smarter, actually it is my responsibility to think about the wide impact of that. Okay, I can encourage people how to have smart remote meetings, but really, what is the bigger impact of that? Because look, we may actually end up producing travel costs if we ever go back to whatever the world was, but once travel opens up again, do we actually need to travel? Can we actually deliver what we were trying to deliver through this democratization of technology? To put tech into the hands of everybody and showing people ways to achieve objectives in smart, new, novel ways. And those types of things excite me because it's like, "Okay, I can teach you how to have a smart remote meeting, but what is the longer world impact of that?"
I was having a conversation friend of mine, he's the director of AI at Google. And he's talking to me about some of the work that Google are doing. And I said to him, "But you know, when you know all of this information, do you not feel you have this like moral obligation to make people happier and healthier on this planet?" And we laughed and we joked and I thought, "Well, that's the same with me when the more I study and the more I know, and the more I experiment and test around how people interact with tech. It's like my moral obligation to kind of encourage people to be happier and healthier in their day through what I know."
So I try and bring everything I know into a development. So for example, when everybody moved to be remote, we rolled out Microsoft teams. We did a huge rollout to all of our, we have 40,000 employees. And we split 50, 50 between knowledge workers and frontline workers. And we rolled out teams to all of our knowledge workers. And actually we're now exploring what it looks like to roll out to our frontline workers in their every day. But then for me, it was more than just a technical deployment. It was an opportunity to kind of try and connect people. And how do we give people time to relax, even, to stop stressing, to feel like they have to be too formal. How do we connect people and bring them closer together? I'm trying to layer in everything that I know into everything that I do without it being too bombarding. I can't deny certain things that I know, once I've been taught, anyway.
Tope Sadiku (14:41):
Kristin Gecan (14:46):
Can you speak to that idea of the values that you're finding among employees and how you're greeting those, how you're trying to satisfy those?
Tope Sadiku (14:57):
I wouldn't say I'm just learning this, but I'm realizing that it's very, very important that people want to be able to have a life balance. Previously you would go to the office, like you want to work, I don't know, 8:00 till 6:00, those are the hours that you're in the office. And then maybe you want to do some admin, you got to take a morning or afternoon off work or try and do over the weekend. People want to have a life balance and actually everyone feels better when they do. And that might mean like I'm not in back to back meetings. It might also mean that I'm able to just have lunch with my children or I can go and take the dog for a walk or I can just sit and have peace, or maybe I feel like I'm the most effective at this time of the day and therefore I want to have the means to be able to, I don't know, have my focus time at, I don't know, the hours between midnight and 3:00 AM, silly example.
And these values are this like... I guess the overarching principle for me is this idea of life balance and how do we enable technology to give you that life balance? I was talking about wellbeing and employee experience, maybe nine months ago. And someone said, "Who's responsibility is it?" And I thought, "It's very difficult to say like it's the employer's responsibility, but it's also very difficult it's the employee's responsibility." It's like, it's a dual responsibility that both have to be mindful of how the other one feels and what's available to achieve certain objectives.
Tope Sadiku (16:19):
I guess that it's easier in that knowledge worker space because it's not outcome driven in the same way. It is like for someone on a factory line, right? You got to make, I don't know, X amount of B product in C time. It's not necessarily like that in the knowledge worker space. But I think in both kind of archetypes that we have this idea of life balance is bigger now than ever.
Kristin Gecan (16:45):
Yeah. And what you were saying before, I think was that you try to think about it in terms of life balance, not life work balance. Work is part of life, right? So one thing that we talked about in the panel discussion was getting feedback and metrics and quantifying things and how difficult that can be in design or in the work that you do, which sounds much like design. And one of the things that I really [inaudible 00:17:14] on that you said is that we don't quantify love or happiness, but we know that they're critical to our wellbeing, to our life, to our performance. So given that, are there ways that you decide whether an effort that you have is successful or whether it's time to try something new?
Tope Sadiku (17:36):
I guess one of the things I can think of is around when we were at Microsoft teams, we did a lot of ethnography so we kind of just watched how groups work and we kind of said, "How do you work today? And how do you think you want to work in the future? And then how do we think we can... Like where are the things that you may not have realized? But we might also know just based on like knowledge of like the wider organization and the technology tools we have access to." And I guess when it comes to like being successful, we ran these ethnographies, we did some webinars and then we realized that, "Oh, hang on, it's great to have that one way, this is what we've learned in general. And here, here are some tips and tricks in essence, like here's the art collaboration, here's how you can meet smarter, here's how you can be agile, here's how you can think like from a design thinking principle."
But then we realized, "Okay, people need a bit more of an interaction. They need a bit more like interaction so then we started to run these workshops. And I guess when it comes to being successful, I don't know, there's some general feeling that something has like run its course, and maybe we need to evolve or tweak or ramp up. But we really reach out to so many different groups. We have like a group of employees and something called our Collaborations Champions Network. Then we speak with our exec and then we speak with like leadership and then we just solicit feedback from all different channels. And we really say, "Look, guys, tell us, tell us, tell us, tell us." And then we do these quantifiable surveys where we just like ask generic persons and we can see the benchmark of how people feel.
And then we come together as a group and we say, "Okay, what do we think this tells us now?" If I wasn't in the group and I was looking at it, I could say, "How much of that is really what you believe and if you're in a group, do you look for the answers that you want?" It's very difficult to take all of that out, right? But I think when you take feedback from a number of different angles, you can't help, but just see the truth there and that you have to pivot and change. Because at the end of the day, my obligation is to the employees, not to myself. I'm almost like a vessel, right? The pipeline by which they get what they need. And like, it's not for me, a successful employee experience.
Maybe it makes my life happier in the short term, like my Tope life, but really it's to serve others. So I have to kind of solicit the feedback of others and understand how people feel. And even if one person says, "Oh, hang on, I didn't really like this." I tend to just listen to that voice as well. I might not significantly throw away and scrap an entire strategy, but I try and tweak what we do to like the pulse I have of employees.
Kristin Gecan (20:03):
Another thing I wanted to ask you about is, you describe yourself as a corporate doctor who uses technology to enhance the lives of your patients. So I wonder, is there any sort of creed that you live by much like doctors do, like first do no harm? Is there anything that you have come to sort of check yourself with to make sure that you're proceeding in the right direction?
Tope Sadiku (20:29):
I guess maybe I could go back to like my life principle, there are a few things that were running in my mind. I thought, "As long as I'm enabling people to be happier, to feel happier and healthier." And I say, "Feel." As opposed to kind of like, "Be." Because sometimes it's like perception is reality and I even struggle myself, like when it comes to medication, to what degree is it the medication or is it like the placebo effect you just feel? But either way it works and as long as it works, it works. So for me, I'm like, "Does the person feel happier? Do they feel better? Do they feel healthier?" That's probably my overarching principle, like my guiding star, my north star.
My CIO, he says he wants people to have a delightful experience. And I guess like, delightful is another way of saying, "Do you feel happier? Healthier? I don't know, excited to be in work?" So, yeah, I guess it's a lot around feelings, which again is probably quite interesting for somebody who has a background in finance. How do you quantify feelings? [inaudible 00:21:26] like that love. It's very difficult to quantify. It's easy for someone to say, "I feel a certain way." And then they take that feeling with them, whether or not it is the reality, again, going back to like placebos, if they work, they work. Right?
Kristin Gecan (21:38):
It's interesting that what you said about your CEO wanting folks to have a delightful experience. And then as you just underscored your own background in finance. But then also this challenge of being able to quantify what impact you're having. And so I wonder how you've been able to see that, like, I'm actually not aware, is yours a new role at Kraft Heinz? Have you been able to see how making people feel happy actually? I mean, at the end of the day, people are still curious about like, "Well, what does that do for the bottom line?" Right? And so I wonder if you could speak to that at all. Like what impact or outcomes you've seen from just actually being concerned about people's wellbeing?
Tope Sadiku (22:20):
Yeah. And I should be very clear, like my role sits within technology and actually it is a new role. It was a role that we created in Kraft Heinz in 2019. And I think, okay, I talk a lot about feelings, but my reality is I'm going to talk about business case. I do talk about the financial implication. So for example, a move towards Microsoft teams does reduce travel, it does help the synchronize and harmonize and also like create a universal platform for people to work in. So then we can remove a number of different alternative solutions we have, which have a very material, financial benefit, right? When it comes to the feelings, you can even say that was a side effect. Although it was kind of the driving reason why we took a certain decision or why we took the decision to move to a certain way.
But yeah, we still have to be able to quantify things. I treat the company's money as though it's my own. And I think, "Well, hang on, is this like the correct holistic business case of... You know, if I bought a new house, yes, I want my children and my family to feel great in my new home, but doesn't make economical sense for my family. Is it close to somewhere that, you know... Does it help where we need to travel for work and other recreational activities?" You have to think about the total package and I won't pretend that we just say, "Okay, people feel great, let's just spend." No, we think about the entire package around that. So in that way, it's quite easy to quantify. Are you delivering on what you said you would deliver?
Kristin Gecan (23:44):
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What energizes you most about the work that you're doing?
Tope Sadiku (23:50):
That's a very fun question. What energizes me the most? I guess I get excited by thinking of, and I hate this phrase, but it kind of works, yeah like the art of the possible, like what could be. Imagine if there was a workspace where you just didn't know if you were physically or virtually next to someone, it kind of like felt the same, somehow. And I felt like I could touch someone, even if I didn't know if they were physically or virtually there. And then somehow I was able to like achieve business objectives, irrespective of where I was based. And then I get excited when I think about like VR, AR, a mixed reality. And then I think, "Okay, to be able to even have those conversations, you need to have like a certain type of behavior or mentality embedded in your organization, within your employees. And then you need your it team or your technology team to think in a certain way."
And imagine if you could use tech to like heal people. I mean, that exists today. There's so many projects and experiments and organizations that I'm able to kind of work with in that space. So for me, the idea of being able to use technology to really heal people and to connect people, that excites me. I can tell you, I work, I don't even know, I don't watch TV for a start and I save so much time by not wasting time on TV and social media. I really don't do any of them. I'm able to then invest time to things that I get super excited by and run experiments and have some really, really cool conversations with some really innovative people and organizations.
So yeah, that really excites me about what I do. And then I see the work I do in Kraft Heinz, like contributing towards that. I see the work that I do with these different boards, contributing towards that. I see the startups that I get to work with contributing towards that. And I find it really fun.
Kristin Gecan (25:28):
Maybe just one last question about the, we talked about, being responsible. I wonder just about being cooperative, right? And this must be very important to your role because you're thinking about everyone that works at Kraft Heinz and I'm sure you're working with any number of people on making technology work in service of those people and in service of the organization. So just any sort of top level thoughts about how you've been able to do that cooperatively and bring the people that you are sort of working for into the equation, if that makes sense.
Tope Sadiku (26:06):
Well, I guess for me, there's this concept of goal congruence. And when I recognize is that everybody's goal, like the aspiration is the same. People want to feel great at work. If you didn't care about feeling great, you just wouldn't come to work, so people want to feel great. If you have an aspiration, a mission, a goal, as broad as like feel great when I come to work, it fits into what everybody wants to do. And it's actually not that difficult to get that goal congruence.
I've learned a lot about listening to people. I listen so much more than I probably have in my entire life. And I appreciate the ability to listen and talk a lot about like the death of this self, like dying to my own ego and being more humble. And I recognize that when it comes like enabling people to be their best selves at work, there is a lot of death of ego. I'm like a servant, right? I'm like of service to employees. So that's really helped. I don't know if that answers your question, but I would say that that definitely has really, really helped me.
Kristin Gecan (27:03):
Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you have a good rest of your day and weekend.
Tope Sadiku (27:10):
Oh, thank you so much and you too take care. Enjoy the sunshine.
Tope Sadiku (27:12):
Kristin Gecan (27:18):
Tope is a 2021 Latham Fellow, for more about our Latham Fellows and their discussions, visit the IIT Institute of Design website and YouTube channel. You can also find show notes and a full transcript on our site. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we'd love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Kristin Gecan (27:47):
Episode 1: Utopianism and technology with Morgan Ames
In the first episode of With Intent, Kristin Gecan talks to Morgan Ames, author of The Charisma Machine, about One Laptop Per Child—a hugely ambitious, or as Morgan defines it, charismatic project with good intentions: to bring a laptop to every child in the developing world.
We talk about why that project failed, how it connects to utopianism, and what design might learn from it all.
Morgan is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Kristin Gecan (00:01):
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design, about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I'm Kristin Gecan. This month I talk to Morgan Ames. Morgan is the author of The Charisma Machine, which dives into One Laptop Per Child, a hugely ambitious, or as she defines it, charismatic project, with good intentions; to bring a laptop to every child in the developing world.
The project was widely celebrated when it was announced in 2006, but in the end, although 3 million laptops were reportedly shipped, the project failed. I talk with Morgan about that failure. We also talk about how important the central tenets of design are when building internationally-driven, and, in some ways, utopic projects. Utopianism is a contentious concept at the heart of Morgan's research. To start things off, here's Morgan, on the tech centered ethos surrounding One Laptop per Child, and how she became interested in this project in the first place.
Morgan Ames (01:13):
People would tell these origin stories about themselves. They would say, "Oh, well, I got into coding when I was nine or I got into coding when I was six. And here's the platform I used, or the game I used or whatever." That origin story ends up being told surprisingly often in the tech world. I've heard stories from tech workers that it comes up in interviews.
My theory is that this story and particular forms of it, specifically, do a kind of cultural work in kind of signaling who belongs and maybe who doesn't belong so much. So people who have stories like my own story into computer science, where I took my first computer science class in college and had very little programming experience before that. I was a bit of a math geek, but I was a bit of a geek around a number of things. So I couldn't even claim that, particularly.
I found that people who have that kind of story, end up having to account for themselves in a way that people who started coding younger, don't always. Even if the coding that they did from whatever age they started, eight or nine or 12, up until college, was probably not very sophisticated in most cases at least. Sometimes they had to unlearn bad habits in fact in college, when they started really getting into efficient data structures and such. So I found the fact that so much weight was placed on this origin story really interesting.
And that's something I'm trying to follow up on and just see if that holds consistent, for example, across different generations of tech workers. So that's one piece of it. And then the other piece is looking at what kids today, especially kids who are maybe out of the spotlight of what the "typical kid," which of course is a very raced and classed and gendered assumption, around childhood, what these kids are doing with tech, and what it means for the tech industry, where those mismatches appear.
Kristin Gecan (03:12):
That's super interesting, and of course, very logical too, considering what you talk about in The Charisma Machine. And it also brings me to my next question, which actually is connected to childhood.
So there's a book that maybe you know, it's called Locomotive and it's by Brian Floca. It's the story of basically the transcontinental railroad. It really does drive home, I think, this idea of not just, "This thing happened at this time in history," but what maybe it felt like at that time in history, for this to actually be accomplished. That people could travel from one side of the country to the other, and what that meant for people at that moment of time.
And so one of the big things that you hit on in The Charisma Machine is how society interacts with and understands new and emerging technologies. And so you actually talk about the railroad in the book,
and you say that there are these feelings of sublime awe and transcendence that the locomotive evoked across the nation; that led the United States to pay an enormous price in resources and lives, in an attempt to realize the utopian promises of rail.
Do you see anything along these lines that is happening today, that we are sort of as a society, willing to kind of put our all behind, in terms of resources? Something that might make for a really good story, like the locomotive?
Morgan Ames (04:39):
Yeah, absolutely. And I think there are a number of them. I might augment this a little bit to say what I see now, as things that attract people's attention and their passions, these charismatic projects, and then what maybe should be a little more charismatic, but maybe isn't.
A lot of the discussion I see around self-driving cars, around the so-called privatized space race to Mars. These, I think are not nationalistic projects in so far, that they are funded wholly by the national government, by the US or another national government. Of course, they do get a lot of government contracts, but I think that they are enough part of the popular imagination in the US, and also beyond.
And I think they resonate in particular in the US, because we've had these narratives part of our national identity in the past. We've had the '60s space race, we've had Manifest Destiny. And so this race to Mars, and I would say also the promise of self-driving cars, really do attract so much attention, so much journalistic commentary. There's of course, both good and bad. A lot of people will say, "Oh, this isn't possible. What are the ethics of this?" But I think the amount of attention, whether it's good or bad, is already an indicator that this is really capturing the imaginations of a lot of people.
And I remember growing up in the 1980s, up until the Challenger disaster, I feel like NASA had a similar kind of cache of like, "Oh my Gosh. It captures the imaginations of adults, but also children by extension." I mean, I think there's a lot of children's culture that gets tied up in these kinds of large scale projects.
I think there are others too, and they're a little less tangible. So I think that there's a lot of discussion around artificial intelligence. I think that in reality, machine learning takes on so many different forms and does so many different things. It's a little hard to pin that on a particular technological system. It's a lot of technological systems, all across the world, and different mechanisms.
So that one, I would say is similar in a lot of ways, although much more, a little hard to grasp, I guess. I would say there are things that maybe should get a little bit more attention along these lines, but are not quite as flashy or charismatic. The infrastructure bills that are being touted in Congress right now, focus a lot more on maintenance and repair, and this is something that is generally just not as charismatic. We like new and exciting, brand new ways of moving or thinking or looking at the world, and maintaining what we have is not something that seems as attractive.
Similarly, I would say that funding public education adequately is something that I feel like should be way more charismatic than it is. And that's not to say that there aren't charismatic projects within tech, within education. I think that there's a lot that have to do with throwing technology at education. And it'll be interesting to see after, as the kind of remote distance learning from the pandemic starts to wind down, how the various ed tech companies that really were heavy use this last year, how they kind of pivot, if they pivot, what stories they tell about themselves going forward.
But I think this last year wasn't necessarily really charismatic in terms of the ed tech we all had to use every day, because we were living it. We knew all the ins and outs and the ups and downs. It was not something that was a kind of five or 10 year out horizon. It was something like, "Oh, nope, we have to just grapple with it." And I think a lot of people saw that it wasn't so much the technology, but the
people involved; the teacher on the other end, the parents in the room, trying to keep the kids' attention on the class, and not wandering off, all of that, that really sustained all of that effort.
Kristin Gecan (08:54):
It's hard to tell good stories about infrastructures. They're not the sexiest things in the world. And many times, especially in design, they're totally invisible. So it's really hard to get someone to understand what it is that you're driving at or talking about. And so, of course, many of the infrastructures that we're talking about today, are concrete and visible; rail, and roads, and that sort of thing.
But I just wonder, as you've worked on writing about these stories, how have you found good ways to translate their importance for people?
Morgan Ames (09:31):
Oh, gosh. I wish I had a really solid answer and I could say, "Here it is. Here's the way to make everybody believe in it." It's something I certainly work at. And a lot of it is, my own approach tends to lean on kind of inverting people's expectations about things. Where people expect maybe a technology, some, a laptop for children, for example, to transform the world. And I say, "Well, here's all of the ways that it made assumptions about the kids, that weren't true, and here's all the ways it fell down. And here's all the ways that it leaned on maybe infrastructure that wasn't there."
So it's kind of turning expectations on their head just a little bit. And I mean, I don't do that for no reason. I really follow the evidence as best I can. Another thing I've really tried to do for the One Laptop per Child project write up in particular, was write it as sympathetically as I could.
I mean, here was a project that by all accounts, really failed. But the people who believed in it, really wanted to make the world a better place. And I acknowledged that. I acknowledge that these aren't evil people out to make a buck off of the lives of children across the global south. They really wanted to transform the world.
It's very easy to say, "Oh, the whole tech world is out to ruin the rest of the world. Just out to make money." And I say, "Well, there are certainly people in the tech world like that, but there are a lot of people who really want to do good in the world, more broadly." So we need to sit with that complexity, I think.
Kristin Gecan (11:08):
Right. I wanted to ask you about that idea of charisma and what you mean by it, because we're kind of dancing around a lot of the ideas here that you set out in The Charisma Machine. But I think maybe one way, if folks haven't read the book, to kind of get at what we're talking about a little deeper, and to understand it better—if you could talk a little bit about what you mean by charisma.
Morgan Ames (11:31):
Yeah. I lean a lot on past sociological and STS work in this area. So of course Max Weber first theorized charisma as a sociological construct. He of course, connected it to people, to especially religious leaders and cult leaders, who didn't necessarily have institutional authority or kind of authority via tradition.
Like a patriarch say, or a head of state, but still had an authority.
And he said, "How do we explain this authority? It's almost kind of magical." And so he dissected and says, "Charisma is what is bringing these people together around a particular leader. Here are some dimensions of charisma, and here's how charisma eventually subsumes into one of these other kinds of authority," because it's an unstable kind of authority.
In a kind of STS turn, as I was analyzing all of my interviews and field notes and everything, from my time in Paraguay, studying One Laptop per Child, I just kept having this kind of nagging feeling in the back of my mind like, "This laptop is kind of charismatic. What would it mean for a laptop to be charismatic?"
We understand charismatic people, but STS often says, obviously there are differences between people and machines, but there is something to be gained by analytically thinking about them in similar ways. And so I use that kind of STS move with charisma to say, "This laptop itself has a kind of authority."
I mean, of course the people who lead the project, also have, in a lot of cases, charisma, as well as various kinds of institutional authority, coming out of MIT. But the laptop itself also had charisma, based on the kinds of stories that got told about it, based on what this project promised to do in the world.
And one thing about charisma that is interesting, it certainly connects to the sublime, to some other ideas that STS and cultural scholars have teased apart within the history of technology. David Nye talks about the railroad, for example, as a sublime technology. And it goes beyond just charisma. It really evokes this feeling of awe, sometimes terror. Like that sublime feeling you get at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or maybe in a really grand cathedral, if you feel religiously connected, is the same kind of feeling people got with the locomotive.
And I thought, "Well, that's not quite the same as what they're getting with this laptop." I mean, it was specifically designed to be friendly and cute. It's not designed to evoke awe and terror, but there was something really attractive about it. So I thought, "Okay, charisma is related to the sublime, it's related to some of these other ideas, but it is somewhat distinct."
One other aspect of charisma that I focus in on in the book, and I think is kind of important for technological charisma, and possibly for people's charisma too, is that there is something a little bit ideologically conservative about it. It appeals to people's established sense of self, their established worldviews in some way. And that's how it resonates.
If it's really saying, "Oh, we're going to turn everything on its head. We're going to completely invert power structures." I think it would not appeal nearly so much as if it said, no, the power structures that people, at least within the project acknowledged of people in the technology industry, having special kinds of insights into people, and into learning that other people may not have.
The project really just reinforced those if anything, even though I had this veneer of, "This is totally new. This is a completely new approach to things," but it kind of preserves that idea of these technical people knowing best. To them, they can be at the top of this hierarchy that this project kind of establishes.
Kristin Gecan (15:33):
Great. So I think, as you're saying, charisma is sort of connected to this idea of something also being magical or transformative. And so transformative design is kind of a buzzword too, and you consider how we dispel the magic of that technological transformation, and what we need to do with technology, or alongside technology in order to actually accomplish real transformation. And that maybe it often has to happen at a slower pace than we want it to.
So are there other things that you see might allow an emerging technology to be successful or transformative, while maybe it can't be as charismatic, but it could actually be effective?
Morgan Ames (16:18):
Oh yeah. That's a great question. Certainly all of the discourse in Silicon Valley around disruption. It's very much akin, it's very much in the same vein as this sort of transformative. I can't say that there is a formula that guarantees that a technology will be transformative. I think that there are plenty of
projects that have great potential, that are doing all the right things, that just aren't maybe in the right place at the right time.
There's an element of luck. But the projects that I look to as doing a really good job with this, are ones that are deeply engaged with communities that they are hoping to transform.
Hopefully, even centering them in some way. Giving them leadership roles in the project, making sure that there are really strong deliberative processes that don't just bring in community members as kind of tokens, but really involves them in a very deep way, from the beginning. These are the ones that really have the potential or have in the past, actually, changed things in a really fundamental way.
When I think about certainly a lot of the infrastructural expansions across the US, in the 1950s and 60s, not to say that they were benefiting everybody equally, there were clearly problems with them, with institutionalizing, redlining within infrastructures, for example. But there was a process by which there was discussion with communities, some communities at least, and a lot of those have been baked into city planning practices now. So there's public commentary periods, et cetera.
And some people are frustrated by how slow these go, but that is a way to really make sure everybody's voice can be heard. And I think technology companies, and design firms can also have this kind of thing.
When I look back at the history of Scandinavian design, for example, or participatory design, its roots are really quite radical. They're really tied within workers' rights, they're tied in unions in some cases. It's something that really centers the worker and the workers' voice, and the solidarity that they might feel with people that they're trying to design for.
When I see participatory design kind of enacted within firms, it's often a lot more closer to kind of typical user experience, where it's like, "Well, we're going to design something, we'll get a little bit of feedback, but we're going to ultimately make the final decisions. And we may well just throw out some of the feedback that we get from the stakeholders, the user stakeholders."
So, yeah, I think that there's certainly a lot of different approaches to this, but I would say that kind of distinguishes the transformative potential of some projects, with projects that either don't take off or end up maybe steamrolling over people that they are meant to benefit.
Kristin Gecan (19:17):
It's interesting you bring up this idea of participatory design. We talk about this a lot at ID about this, designing with people, not just for them, and you're right. Certainly that happens more in certain realms than others.
I wonder about in terms of participatory design, like let's say, a project like One Laptop Per Child, that was able to inspire so many people, both in their hearts and in their pocketbooks, and part of the reason that they were able to do that, and part of what is really important when you're trying to put a project like this together, or even when you're trying to do a startup, or something like that, is being able to ignite that passion in people, so that they do reach for their pocketbooks and that sort of thing.
One Laptop Per Child was able to do that because it had this approach that looked like it could really scale, and really could make this huge impact. So I think kind of going back to a little bit about what we were talking about earlier, of whether or not that's realistic to say that things could happen at such a pace. And also, whether or not some of these concepts, can realistically scale. So if you look at something like this, where I think originally, One Laptop Per Child was supposed to focus in on areas in Africa, and it ended up being more in Latin America and that sort of thing.
But then is it realistic to think that one solution could work in this continent just as well as it would work in that continent? And especially if you're designing with, and for people, how much do you need to
localize your efforts? And then if you're having to localize that those efforts, how much are you really able to scale?
I mean, we want to be conscious designers that are designing appropriately with people, and for people, in a way that works for them. But how do you play that against the idea that, you have to sell an idea, right?
Morgan Ames (21:18):
Absolutely. It's a great question. I mean, I think one irony within One Laptop Per Child, is that they sold the idea to other tech workers. And I think in the American imagination more broadly, it certainly caught on. There was ton of press. But they did not sell it, so to speak, to the actual beneficiaries of the project; the children who would be using this across the global south, or their teachers, or their parents.
There were a lot of people I encountered in Paraguay, also in shorter visits in Peru and Uruguay, that really saw this as a little toy, and not something that was interesting, not something that was educational. Even though they have been told by the local NGO that this was educational.
So that charisma didn't translate to the people who were most important in the project in a way; the children across the global south. So, I mean, it's one thing to say, "Okay, how would they have made that charisma translate?" One would be, to acknowledge that computers today are media machines, that the internet is a media rich place. This was not a computer that was designed to support a media rich environment, but another would probably be to say, "Well, even in the 1980s or the 1990s, when some of the people who are really passionate about One Laptop Per Child came of age, not all kids who had computers grew up to be programmers."
There were a lot of kids who said, “I'm just not really all that interested in the computer,” or, “I'm interested, but I want to play some games and maybe chat with my friends online and then go off and do some other stuff.” So I think that recognizing no matter where you are in the world, not all kids are really going to be all that into computers, would have been a really big first step.
And certainly something that I saw in the field, something that I've seen across a lot of fieldwork with kids in a lot of different environments at this point, and something that throws a lot of the assumptions behind the project, really into question. So I think that that's, maybe one, if they had worked more closely with the actual beneficiaries of the project, they'd really have to reimagine the whole project.
In terms of localization, this is something I struggle with a lot myself and I lean on some of the excellent work by Anita Say Chan and others. She wrote a book that also did some work analyzing One Laptop Per Child, but the laptop project in Peru in particular, and she talks about how there is this myth of digital universalism.
The same system can be just scaled up, it can be rolled out everywhere and it's going to not just be adopted everywhere, it's actually going to create a transcendent culture. A hacker culture maybe, if you want to call it that. A cosmopolitan culture that children around the world in the case of One Laptop Per Child will join and want to be part of.
So she grapples with this in a really lovely way in her own work. It's something I really grapple with too, because I take people's cultural contexts of course, very seriously and the differences between different cultural contexts, but I also take their yearnings really seriously.
And I don't want to certainly be the person going in and saying, “Oh, well we need this something. Something that's really specific to your local context. You don't want that same thing that people in the
U.S. have. You don't want that same thing that people elsewhere have.” And the local folks might go, “Well, yeah, we do. Why wouldn't we? Why should we have something different?”
And this comes up in all sorts of interesting ways. So one thing that I found that had a lot of tension within my own field work for One Laptop Per Child was around language. Something like two thirds of the internet is in English. Kids were constantly encountering stuff in English.
For some of them, it was part of what turned them off from the machine. Some of them figured out where Google Translate was with the help of teachers and others, and would just put things in and get, not perfect, but okay translations to try to understand what was online, but a lot of them said, “I just wish there was more things that I could understand online.”
So Spanish internet culture is fairly big. Guarani internet culture though, which the other official language of Paraguay, is non-existent practically. There's little Guarani content. So this is something that I found, it was a very clear line of exclusion for a lot of these kids and something that for some of them created disinterest, but for others really created a desire to be able to understand that content, to learn that.
So I would say it's uneven the kinds of reactions people have and the understandings they have on the ground. I do really love the idea, in anthropology, of bricolage. So this is not dominant culture steamrolling over everybody else and creating this universalism. It's everybody actively deciding what to appropriate and what to take up, what to transform, what to reject, and that really influenced the way that I looked at this project on the ground.
It's not just a case of everybody adopts it in the same way. Everyone makes up their own minds about how to adopt it. Of course, influenced by their social lives and social worlds in various ways but that individual choice is really important.
Kristin Gecan (27:07):
As I was reading the book, I noticed that it says One Laptop Per Child serves as a case study in the complicated consequences of technological utopianism. And the reason I really remarked upon that is that of course, many years ago now, ID founder, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said we need “inspired utopians.”
The Charisma Machine cautions against utopianism, or what can happen as a result of utopianism. Could you talk a little bit more about the role of utopianism, whether good or bad, the danger of it for design? As we work as designers to build responsible and intelligent futures, it seems as though there may be a role for utopianism, but it's something that we need to be conscious of and cautious of.
Morgan Ames (27:55):
Absolutely. Well, I would say there are some different kinds of utopianism. The kind that we are most familiar with by far is the, “Let's imagine a completely new world,” utopianism. We don't imagine necessarily how it's connected to our current world, we might have a fairly simplistic story about how we might get from there to our, our utopian world but we don't have a really comprehensive understanding of, of what that process looks like. What are the pitfalls?
It's much more building that new magical world over there. And that disconnected kind of utopianism is incredibly powerful, certainly. It's alluring, it keeps me reading science fiction among other things. And there is a role for that, but I think that not enough attention is paid to the ways that it almost removes us from the here and now of our daily lived experience in the actual world.
It's not something that connects us to that. I would say that the fact that I'm even doing the research, I am, it might seem like I'm doing very critical research, but the reason I feel like it is hopefully valuable in the world in some way, is I hope it makes a difference.
I would say that I am, in some ways, an optimist about the potential for us to steer the world in a good direction. I don't know if I would call myself quite utopian, but I think that there is room for utopian visions that have a really strong grounding in present realities.
Gosh, there's even some science fiction that I feel like does this in a really wonderful way that tells you something about our present condition. Maybe the inequalities in it and how we might be able to overcome them. So I would say, clearly utopianism is something that is powerful and I would love to see more instances of utopian stories that are really grounded in the lived experiences of people today, with a clear, as clear as we can obviously, path from where we are today to that idealized future. And that's something that often is missing from utopian stories today.
Kristin Gecan (30:18):
Yeah. And that also kind of connects to the danger of nostalgia, which you also talk about, which is looking backwards at your own experience and, “Okay. This is what worked for me when I was playing around with computers when I was young and learning to hack and this and that,” and it kind of gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling of like, “Oh, I know it worked for me, so maybe this will work for this whole next generation of children in the world.”
And I think what you're saying about utopianism is also probably applicable to nostalgia in that if you're focusing on what worked for you or what worked for a certain generation and extrapolating it to today, that's also dangerous because the role of the computer is different today, et cetera.
So how do we make sure that we're really thinking about today and today's conditions and not transporting ourselves back and forth into our own experiences? I mean, I know it's very, sort of a central tenet of design to think about the people, as we talked about earlier, whom you're designing with or for, but people continue to drift into this, “This is what worked for me and so…” I don't know. Do you have any notes there for how to stay away from them?
Morgan Ames (31:38):
Well, and I'm so glad you bring up nostalgia in this moment too, because just as utopianism is often disconnected from the present in any way, I would say a lot of those nostalgic stories are also disconnected from the reality of even of the past.
So when I hear that story of, “Oh, I got my first computer when I was eight and it was love at first sight and I just taught myself everything,” very rarely is part of that story who got them, the computer. Where they went for help. What kind of home environment enabled them to do that kind of exploration?
And of course, there's often a kind of privilege that gets unexamined in those nostalgic stories. So there's a disconnect between the way they tell those stories and the way they believe those stories and then what actually happened. It's a very hero narrative lens on it. It's all about them and the computer.
I mean, it's very powerful. People build their identities around it. Their sense of self is kind of built, especially their professional selves, for a lot of people in the tech world, gets built around these stories of, “Oh, well, I taught myself when I was eight and here's what I loved. And I think today's kids will also love it.”
And this is a bit of a blind spot we have culturally generally. We love hero narratives. We love stories that are focused on the individual on the psychological level. We don't love sociological stories. We don't love infrastructural stories, as you said earlier. Those are hard stories to tell.
So I think part of what I do, even in interviews, when I interview tech workers and if they tell us some version of this story, not everybody does obviously, but if they do, I let them tell it and I talk a bit about, “Where does this come up? Can you remember the last time you told it to someone else?”
And I start unpacking it like, “Well, who got you that computer? Why did your family get that computer? Why did you have the access that you did to it? Why were you able to use it as much as you did, perhaps? Where did you go with questions?” I start unpacking and sometimes even in the interview they have this realization of like, “Well, yeah, I guess it was a lot more complicated. It wasn't just me and the computer.”
So that reconnect those stories to what actually happened. I feel that there have been a lot of similar paths in this, maybe this last year especially, but going back longer for some, in examining one's own privilege. I mean, this is something that I have definitely grappled with.
I don't want to claim any kind of superiority. I'm done, but as a white cisgendered woman, there's a lot of privilege I have in the world that has smoothed the way for me. And I think that similarly, these kinds of stories often embody a lot of privilege that gets unexamined.
So I feel like that's a great first step. It's a hard step for a lot of people to start thinking about the ways that their environment helped them along, but I think it's a great first step to really reconnecting to, “Okay. What are the lived experiences of people all around the world? Not necessarily who are all like me, and how can we better design things that really augment that multiplicity of lived experiences all around the world?”
Kristin Gecan (35:12):
Everyone's memory is always faulty to some extent. So the way I remember something and the way my brother remembers it, is probably pretty different. And so that's one thing in play. The other thing that I think that you're noting here is that there's something that we know, but again, I think it's part of this, what are the stories that we like to tell or that we key in on, or that we connect with and having an easy answer to something like parachuting a laptop into a region in need maybe is really exciting that, “Oh, that could make a difference.”
Whereas if we look at what we know in terms of education, as you mentioned in your book, that we know that that's a very social experience and that there's lots of people involved in that. And so designing, not just for one end outcome, but for this entire system that is at play in order to get to that outcome, I think is really important and it's something that we focus on at ID.
Just to bring the focus back to design for moment, we focused on human centered design, we focused on systems design, we focused on co-design. I wonder just how your work intersects with those different types of looking at design, different ways of designing in your work in science and technology studies if anything reveals itself to you as maybe coming next or being the next shift in design.
Morgan Ames (36:42):
Oh God, gosh. Yeah. This could easily be maybe a whole class. Multiple classes. And this is something I talk about in my own teaching, certainly, because I think that all of these methods can be done really well and really sensitively, and they can also be done very perfunctory without really good outcomes.
And so one thing I always caution students about when I talk about these, as well as, there's been this move towards audits of artificial intelligence systems, right? How do you do an audit? All of these tools are only as good as the thoughtfulness that you put into them.
Many of the methods across human-centered computing, I would say broadly, whether it's co-design, participatory design, have a lot of potential to really center the perspectives of those who, those who are meant to be the beneficiaries of the design.
There's been so much great work in theorizing design recently. I think about some of the design histories that Daniella Rosner has been working on a lot, some of the new possibilities around intersectional design that maybe Sasha Costanza-Chok and others have been really working on, and I think that these all have a wonderful potential to help people be less perfunctory about these methods.
If they really immerse themselves in them, if they really question a lot of the assumptions they maybe come in the door with about either the design process itself or particular beneficiaries they have targeted in for a particular project maybe, or what their role in the whole process is going to be.
And I think that that is the kind of depth that for any of these methods can lead to much more fair outcomes. Outcomes that are much more oriented towards social justice in the end.
Kristin Gecan (38:51):
How do you define design? It's a question we're always grappling with because it's something hard to pin down and so I wonder how you might, say you have a student in your class, how do you define design?
Morgan Ames (39:05):
Like many academics, I would probably say, “Well, here's how you look at it from this way and then there's this other way,” and then it's going to be a very long answer. I think though, if I were to be pinned down to have a more concise answer, not just citing a whole bunch of different people's perspectives, I would say that any time we are shaping our environment to suit human needs, we are designing.
So there's little designs I do all the time around my house to just help things along. The house itself is obviously a lot of design hooked up to a whole city infrastructure that was also designed. We lived in such a designed environment, but I like this kind of definition and how it just decouples itself a little bit from technologies and the more formalized design process, because I think it helps students recognize that design isn't necessarily always a institutionalized or rarefied thing.
I think a lot about Lillia Ronnie's work and how design became an, entrepreneurial design in particular, became this particular state-making enterprise for the Indian State and I think for states all around the world. They're trying to look for a particular kind of entrepreneur to design your particular kind of thing, and they have a particular vision of what design is.
But I like thinking about design a bit more expansively about all the kinds of things we do in our everyday lives to make things a little easier for ourselves or for our loved ones, or maybe even for our pets. Maybe I'd expand that beyond humans. There's certainly things that are designed for animals and trees and other things in our lives.
One thing I also emphasize a lot in teaching is the ways that more institutionalized design intersects power, and the ways that we do draw boxes around design, often implicate institutional or national or other forms of power that some people exert over other people.
I always like foregrounding that in my, certainly my own research and also my teaching, just to sensitize students a little bit towards the institutions that they will probably be entering into; tech workers and tech companies that do have a lot of power within the broader ecosystem for political, economic, historical reasons, and to try to wield that power wisely, maybe try to distribute that power more
equitably. I do think that power is not often enough discussed in the realm of design. Sorry. I meant that to be a very short answer about design and it ended up being a long one.
Kristin Gecan (41:59):
That's the way it goes. No, that was an excellent answer. One final question, maybe no less difficult to answer, but when have you asked yourself, “Why am I making this?” and what was your answer?
Morgan Ames (42:13):
Yeah, gosh. So often these days, what I make is words, so it's a little bit different. When I do think about though my role within this broader ecosystem and what effects I hope to have, I mean, as I said earlier, one reason I'm making, even the words I am is because I hope to have a good impact on the world.
I hope to be able to leave the world a little bit of a better place than I entered it. And I feel like the same goes for, certainly some people's motivation with within technological design too. They really want to make a difference in the world. And this of course, implicates power again.
This is something that, here I am in an academic institution writing with legitimacy behind the presses and the journals and elsewhere that I publish and here are others working within big tech companies with a lot of power over people. And so when I think about, “Why am I making this?” the answer of, “To make the world a better place,” of course needs a lot more pinning down to make sure that what I am doing ultimately is good.
Because that's the same story that One Laptop per Child people really fervently believed. They've all wanted to make the world a better place. And so their answer to that question may not be any different than my own answer. So how do I make sure that I don't get so caught up in a vision I become disconnected from reality?
And that's something that I constantly work on. I really try to meet a huge variety of people, look at things from a huge variety of perspectives, but even then it's partial and I have to accept that at the end of the day, I have my own perspective and it's partial and it will never be everybody's perspective everywhere. And so I hope that in aggregate, we can all work together and achieve this goal of design of making the world a better place.
Kristin Gecan (44:26):
A big thanks to Morgan for joining me today. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, where she's focused on science and technology studies. She is also one of our 2021 Latham fellows at the Institute of Design. For more about our Latham fellows, visit our website and YouTube channel.
You can also find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu. Please subscribe, rate, and review with intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we'd love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Get updates about With Intent and other ID news.
Host & Producer
Contact Kristin with media inquiries, guest ideas, and other feedback.