Overview March – December 2011

I summarised my research process from March till now in a poster. The starting point is; How to design for sustainability? and ends with my new research question: How to create a collective scenario of a sustainable future? Based on the poster I also created a new abstract.

Systematic issues such as climate change or resource depletion form massive challenges for our and future generations. Centralised design practises based on linear material flows are part of these problems. A transition towards a design model where resources and knowledge are shared between designers, users and producers, shows a lot more sustainable potential. The role of the (meta)designer in this model lies in engaging and enabling people to be part of this participatory design practise. Therefore I will investigate how designing collective scenarios, executed as a series of (critical)artefacts, of such a networked model could make this possible future more tangible and create a platform for interaction between the different participants. The central question of this research is: How to create a collective scenario of a sustainable future?


Strange Carrots

In a conversation with some of the students I’m working with for the Cultivating Communities project I discovered that their quite interested in how food can be altered. One student told me about the exhibition he visited in Z33 Hasselt. The exhibition is called Alter Nature: We can. It explores how recent discoveries in biosciences and technology effect our daily lives, by showing artistic works that lie on the crossroads between art and science. I also visited the exhibition and one artist duo Driessens & Verstappen struck my attention. In their project Morfotheque #9 they show a collection of 32 artificial carrots, the shapes of which are based on carrots that were rejected in distribution centres. Their work refers to the selective cultivation methods required to give and preserve carrots present day typical orange colour. The evolution of the wild carrot to the cultivated carrot is linked to a very interesting History. Carrots used to be available in a variety of shapes and colours. But In the 17th century the carrot underwent a radical transformation. Dutch botanist grew a specific orange carrot as a tribute to the Dutch king Willem of Orange. In one generation time all different varieties turned orange and evolved into the strait orange carrot we know today.

This story tells us something about the way we shape nature to fit our needs. Undoubtedly the orange collar must have made quite an impression on the king. And a straight carrot is easier to peal than a crooked one, but are these standardised crops still completely natural? After all they weren’t subjected to the principles of natural selection. They were more subjected to aesthetic selection. Their is a downside to this designed vegetables, the lack of diversity makes the crops more vulnerable for diseases. Recently scientist are trying to overcome this issues by inserting genes in the crops to make them resistant to diseases. Artist Adam Zaretsky reacts to the act of inserting genes into living organisms. He went a step further then the orange carrot and tried to create orange pheasants that could be used as targets for the royal hunt. He proposed this in a letter to Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. With this projects he tries to raise questions about how far one can go in creating a royal aesthetic? I’m thinking about how the carrots would have evolved  if the Dutch botanists didn’t intervene into the evolution process of the carrot? This is why I did some experiments with shaping carrots into altered species. I’d like to present these artefacts to the children and ask them about diversity of plants, the risks and benefits of altering the genes of food, …

Hybrid Thinking

A couple of weeks ago I organised a brainstorm session with the students of a local elementary school in Alken Limburg. To start the session I showed them some of the vegetable characters that I designed as part of the Cultivating Communities project. I used the characters to explain some problems that are associated with food production. For example showing that food has to travel from the other part of the world, if we want to eat the whole year long, isn’t that good for our global climate.

I was surprised to hear that the students already new a lot about this topic and are starting a project of their own. Apparently one of students parents is setting up a permaculture garden in front of the school. Still, I asked the students if they wanted come up with ideas, besides the garden in front of their school, in dealing with these food problems. All of the proposals were really imaginative. For instance one student wanted everyone to peal union’s that so it would cause everyone to cry. In this way we don’t have to use precious water from the tap. Some students wanted to grow vegetables and trees inside their classroom and on the roof of the school. Others wanted to produce their own energy by making windmills or a bio-gas installation. One students thought his school already did enough to take care of nature. Which is actuality quite true, besides the garden in front of the school, there is also a chicken garden and a compost pile.  And a couple of students wanted to learn how to create and discover new kinds of vegetables and fruits in their biology lessons.

The last proposal really got me thinking about how we could try to do this. I’ve started reading in biology books on the topic of cross breading vegetables and plants and soon stumbled on Gregor Mendel. A Monk born in 1822 in Austria with a love for biology. Mendel experimented with cross breading pea plants in the central courtyard of his monastery, by pollinating the flowers from different kinds of plants. By doing this he discovered the principals of how the different characteristics or gene’s of plants are mixed into new hybrids. His genetic principals, together with the evolution theory of Charles Darwin form the basis of modern biological knowledge. Darwin formed the basis for his theory by setting out on a five year long expedition to discover new kinds of animals, plants and rock formations. It are these kinds of aesthetic experiences of discovering new species and creating new hybrids that really sparkle my imagination. And I’m wondering how this aesthetic process could somehow sparkle the imagination of the students to make their own discovery’s. For now I have tried to capture the biologic adventurous atmosphere into a collage. I added two chickens to the collage that refer to conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen. In his cosmopolitan chicken project he tries to create the ultimate hybrid or bastard chicken by cross breading different chicken species from all over the world. The chickens tell a story about biological diversity and identity of our human society. By creating a story trough a somewhat provoking art project, thinking about these human problems become a lot more tangible. This something that I also like to pursue with my project.

The collage symbolises fragments of my own ideas and ideas from the students I’m working with. Visualising them into a hybrid image helps me to capture my state of mind. I feel this is an interesting way to organise my thoughts, so I will try explore this documentation method in my future research.

Making Things Visual

Last week I followed a thought provoking lecture by Bas Raijmakers at the FAK in Brussels. He is the co-founder of design research agency STBY in Amsterdam & London. He explained his view on what it means to be doing design research. A very interesting topic considering I started my own PhD in design research this year. I have tried to capture his presentation in some sketch-notes.

Bas started by explaining his background. He did a master in Communication Sciences at the University of Amsterdam where he developed his fascination for how people use media & technology. During his Masters he learned about usability research but wanted to go step further. He wanted to experiment with involving the user in the design and research process. This was the starting point for his PhD at the Royal College of Art in London, where he developed his ‘Design Documentaries’ method. This method took the form of a visual storytelling format that brings the everyday life of people into the design process, allowing it to act as a source of inspiration for designers. This method is often used by his design research firm STBY. For example, in a project commissioned by Panasonic called Living Sustainably, STBY researched how people in the US can live a sustainable lifestyle. This isn’t a question they could answer right away. They first had to understand peoples lifestyles and needs. By creating a series of design documentaries, they were able to create videos that communicated a range of intimate insights into their lives and opinions, telling their stories in a way that could both inform and inspire. STBY helped Panasonic to incorporate these insights into their future concept developments and business model development.

Design documentaries start from the idea that understanding is the first step in creating meaningful solutions that could enrich peoples lifestyles. Also, they make things visual, which helps people to understand. Empathy is an important skill in this context, the ability to put yourself in someone else his or her shoes, which really helps to open up to personal experiences that help you understand that persons needs.

Bas focused on the importance of making things visual for designers and artists in a research context. It is a way to express and share their knowledge. It allows not only peers but also people in other disciplines to interpret this knowledge and create new insights. Making an original contribution to knowledge then creates an ongoing debate that pushes interdisciplinary development forward.  Bas pointed out that working in between fields will become increasingly important. Several problems that our society is faced with today, are too complex to be solved within one disciplinary field.

Research through design  is a way of creating new meaning by visual storytelling. This vision raises interesting questions about the role of the designer in society. Should designers limit themselves as the makers of objects, or can they also adopt a new role as the makers of meaning? I think, as Liesbeth Huybrechts pointed out in her Thesis, designers can become makers of hybrid things, creating both objects and meaning.

Cultural Probes

I have created a cultural probe research kit for the Cultivating Communities project. The kit is build around an assignment booklet.  The assignments challenge the students of ‘Juf Miranda’ to create their own sustainable scenario. The students will conduct interviews, gather inspirational materials, create persona’s and make their own storyline. They have about 3 weeks to finish the assignments, afterwards I will try to make a collective scenario out of their story’s. The idea is to gain extra insights into the students living world through this research kit.


Collective drawing

After the first observation session in “het schommelbootje” I’ve tried to summarize my thoughts of that day in a drawing.

When I returned to the school I used this drawing to start a conversation with the students of ‘Juf Miranda’, the group I will be working with this year. I invited them to draw their own thoughts on the drawing I made. This turned out to be a very fun and creative exercise. Some students just used the template and added colour. Others made up their own ideas. Check out the results here

Taking care of nature (Observation of a local school in Alken)

For the cultivating communities project I will develop a sustainable scenario together with local schools in Limburg. The first school I will work with is ‘het schommelbootje ‘in Alken (Belgium). From September 2011 tot July 2012 we will try to co-create an inspiring context and educational toolkit focused on sustainable development. We start out we a research phase and move on to a design phase. In the research phase we will explore the daily environment of the students through several creative observation methods. In the design phase we will develop and test prototypes for the educational toolkit.

The research started with an observation of the school environment. It is located in the village of Alken not far from the city of Hasselt (Belgium). The school building itself is a beautiful renovated farmhouse, which provides an inspiring environment for the project. The observation day started out with a workshop organised by the school. Taking care of nature was the central theme of the workshop. When I arrived at the school the teachers explained the importance of the theme to the students in a playful way. Afterwards they divided the students into smaller groups.

Each group had a different mission, ranging from planting a garden in front of the school to making a small play around the central theme. Each group occupied one of the several interesting spaces of the school. One that struck me the most was the wishing tree in the central playground. Apparently it has a very important emotional function; students can gather around the tree and talk about their wishes and dreams to each other.

At the end of the day each group presented their results. I was very impressed by their creative ability’s. They presented real practical solutions for talking care nature like using less water or putting the lights down to consume less energy. The students and teachers at ‘het schommelbootje’ are true experts of their own experience and I look forward to working with them over the next year.