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With Intent Podcast


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.

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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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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?"

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

And, you're saying global friction is something that we could sense, or feel, or have smalltalk about?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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."

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

I think you consider yourself both an activist and an artist, among other things, and...

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

Designer.

Kristin Gecan:

And designer. How do you decide when to make art, or design other things, and when to take action?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

Hopefully.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

Yeah, for sure, Occupy is a collaboration. But, since you mentioned Occupy, if you allow me, I have a spiel about Occupy.

Kristin Gecan:

Okay.

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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?

Kristin Gecan:

How do you define design?

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Yeah, as a verb.

Mushon Zer-Aviv:

Design as a verb.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

 

Episode 9: Meaningful work with Marina Gorbis

Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future, talks about what futuring is, predicting COVID, and the trends she's seeing now—in particular, how our relationship with work is changing.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

So, can you name some examples of the types of things you're looking at?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Is this in reaction to the gig economy or the shrinking benefits for many workers?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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-

Marina Gorbis:

In the structure and regulation-

Kristin Gecan:

In the structures.

Marina Gorbis:

... of corporate forms, basically, that we have now. You, now, can have a company that hardly has any employees and that's extremely profitable.

Kristin Gecan:

Right.

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

How do you think of design? How do you define design?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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?"

Kristin Gecan:

And are those used to cultivate possibilities or to better understand potential situations?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Yeah-

Marina Gorbis:

[crosstalk 00:28:19]

Kristin Gecan:

... 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—

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

Equitable Enterprise.

Kristin Gecan:

Equitable Enterprise Initiative, okay. And as we think about the Great Resignation, how do you think that that is tied to issues of equity?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Marina Gorbis:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Can you tell me a little bit about what you're focused on right now?

Jon Veal:

Sure. But before I do, you've got to tell me, do you consider yourself a designer?

Kristin Gecan:

No.

Jon Veal:

Why or why not?

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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_?

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Yeah.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Right.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

No. I think you're totally right. Yeah.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

How do you define design?

Jon Veal:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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:

Kenneth Bailey:

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."

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Cause it's not always obvious, right?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kenneth Bailey:

Again, those chairs are part of a larger set of arrangements that have to-

Kristin Gecan:

Exactly, it's more than the chairs.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

So do you think of your interventions as experiments then?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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."

Kenneth Bailey:

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?

Kristin Gecan:

There's demand for It.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

Yeah. It's that idea of deciding whether to work within the system or just buck the system altogether and start something new. Right.

Kenneth Bailey:

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?"

Kristin Gecan:

How do you define design?

Kenneth Bailey:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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…

Michela Magas:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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?

Michela Magas:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Michela Magas:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Michela Magas:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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."

Michela Magas:

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.

Kristin Gecan:

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.

Michela Magas:

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