The Ecologies of Social Engagement



Cumulus conference Aveiro 2014 fim

At the Cumulus Conference in Aveiro, 8-10 May 2014, called ‘What’s On: Cultural diversity, Social Engagement, Shifting education’, I participated in the Social Engagement theme as a co-chair. In this post I pick out some highlights from the papers presented and my reflections [these are given in square parentheses]. I explore the diverse approaches of the authors from the perspective of Felix Guattari’s ecosophy which includes his The Three Ecologies – social, mental and environmental (1) – and suggest that we consider adding other ‘ecologies’ in order to truly ‘socially engage’.

On the morning of the first day, we kicked off with a paper by Minqing NI (2) focusing on projects by students at Tongji University exploring ‘social interventions on Urban Borders’. One team’s design response focused in the areas of housing demolition in the Putuo district in Shanghai. Government-led initiatives clear extensive areas of old housing then leave these desolate landscape of demolition waste for between 1 to 5 years before new housing construction takes place. [It is clear that complete locales and their communities disappear.] In this context the students decided to create a garden using the old rubble. While children joined the activities, other members of the community were absent. Another student team placed a red swivel chair in the middle of a busy pedestrian bridge bounding two districts. Yet another team looked at the citizens’ own initiatives to intervene in public space, from the prosaic (hanging one’s washing) to the paraphernalia of lovers in Love Street.

[The, largely, Western audience at Cumulus was palpably shocked by the scale of the government (design) intervention which made all the other interventions pale into insignificance. Unwittingly, this paper highlighted a range of agents with substantially different mandates to intervene in the collective urban fabric from radical intra-structure shifts to student initiatives, ephemeral pop-ups, and mundane daily use of public space by the citizens. The government interventions are a human ecology of politics, whereas the others fit more comfortably with what I might call the political ecology of our civic condition, that is how we form new ecosophic relationships, in this case at a micro-level of intervention. Less clear, from this paper, is how interventions from designers are similar to or different from interventions by others.]

Anastassakis and Kuschni (3) brought together design thinking and anthropological thinking by illuminating what they called ‘socially informed design’…’which revolves around the social dimension and “takes seriously” the ways in which the inhabitants of the world, not all of them being design professionals, understand and lead their lives.’ The “ taking seriously”, refers to the work of Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro – “Taking seriously, is to begin with not neutralizing”. [I think this implies underlying participatory democratic conditions, which, at best, seem elusive these days even in democratically elected governments.] The authors see improvisation for continuous improvement as an on-going process of life, a unified concept of ‘social design’ that comes from society.

[Joining this observation with the discourse from the previous paper we might ask, “What is the way of being, thinking and doing for a professionally trained or practicing designer that ‘comes from society’?” Surely, a base starting point is an acute awareness of our societal condition(s) as a citizen and as a designer. This again leads to an awareness of our (dynamic) political ecology, but also an acknowledgement that people’s environments and how they live within them give them a mental ecology of place, locale and circumstance.]

Taking a different angle on the topic of social engagement, Sanna Marttila and Kati Hyyppä (4) presented a research project called Licence to Remix! by looking at emerging media practice around the collaborative remixing of video from the perspective of two ‘camps’ – the (stay) legal camp and the ‘anything goes’ camp where all materials are regarded as copy-able. They created a framework for understanding creative re-use online which looked at the level of participation and the level of openness and how people interpret, appropriate and reinvent these video materials.

[This framework is timely and takes us a little way beyond the debate about licences, such as Creative Commons, into ideas of participatory practices of design beyond professional borders into a wider societal context. Perhaps the next step is to align with the buoyant debates about open data, governance and design and ask how we build Our Commons? This requires a huge leap in our mental ecology to escape the subjectification of what Guattari calls Integrated World Capitalism (IWC), which has a tendency towards ‘the capitalisation of subjective power’. This subjectification through modes of production and consumption, and their mediation, has individualised our mental ecology in specific semiotic regimes. In more participatory social design practices we have to re-learn how to reinvigorate our collective mental ecology and re-write the semiotics? ]

On the second day there was an excellent presentation and paper from Sara Radice (5) investigating the role of cultural institutions (a museum, a community organisation), how they encourage participation and the differences/synergies between the approaches of design for participation and Participatory Design (PD). She highlighted the tension between institutional authority and public voices, creating a useful matrix comprising levels of social engagement (direct, mediated, indirect) against three types of stakeholders (collectors, critics, creators) and showed the practices and tools applied in each cell. She highlighted a shift towards a negotiation between individualized and collective perspectives and identities where the professionals act more as enablers and facilitators rather than figures of authority. She also touched on need for participation to valorize heritage design experiences.

[The matrix provides a means for different professionals and cultural institutions to explore how they can engage people in participatory experiences. More importantly, perhaps, is the focus on how these experiences are valorized and given legitimacy by a wider community of stakeholders. For social, participative practices of designing to gain socio-cultural traction it is essential that these stakeholders view their ‘voice of value(s)’ as being heard, acted upon and integral to the collective outcome. The challenge, as the author acknowledged, is that the number of active citizens in these processes is a minority – a sign, perhaps, that many citizens feel their voice is not requested, heard or acted upon. We might also have to be aware of ‘participation fatigue’ where the highly committed cannot maintain the levels of activity required to sustain positive change.]

In a salient reminder that design(ers) bring form to life’s materials, Peter Buwert (6) considered Wolfgang Welsch’s suggestion that the root of ethics emerges from within the aesthetic itself. He asked ‘can design return feeling to a society which finds itself constantly numbed to true ethical being?’ Buwert invoked Welsch’s call for a “genuinely aestheticized culture” ‘built not on empty structural morality but on radically ethical being’ and to a “blind-spot culture” which challenges aesthetic production by drawing attention to ‘that which we do not notice’.

[This suggests that designers can only make an ethical step change if they adopt more agonistic and antagonistic modes of aestheticisation that create a political ecology of dissensus.]

My final highlighted, collaborative, paper was presented by Sine Celik (7). This involved a research study into 500+ cases of various social innovation networks to produce a typology and categorisation according to organisational, methodological and functional properties of the network. The analysis of the database created seven functional categories: Create, facilitate, stimulate, efficiate, educate, associate and corporate with sub-categories relating to the type of space/place, organisation and processes. The idea is to create a better understanding of how the city of Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, might be supported in its plans to become the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2018. In particular, designers and social innovators today need to know more about how collaborative innovation networks function, so they might strategically and practically lever these to deliver more impacts through design-driven social innovation. To develop their own functional categories the authors explored the literature and found five earlier methods of comprehensive categorisation of networks, selected Dutch, European and international case studies and initiated interviews with international experts. They also considered ‘design involvement’, using the British Design Council’s four stages (discover, define, develop, deliver). The story hasn’t finished yet at the researchers are undertaking a second phase where ask the original case studies to reflect on this new functional categorisation of their specific network(s), at which point they will make the database open.

[While we all have some experience these days of social networks, especially through collaborative digital media and platforms, it is interesting to see how these networks shape social ecology and therefore the resources and possibilities for changing what happens next. For designers wishing to understand how to build new social ecologies this could become a valuable tool.]

Cumulus Aveiro 2014 Rita Almeida

An illustration by Rita Almeida accompanying the conference schedule said it all – ‘protect seeds, design the future’. The reader should look to the Cumulus conference proceedings, published later this year, for the papers I have referenced and others too in the theme of Social Engagement. I believe there is a growing weight of activity around how designers/researchers engage with and impact upon societal issues (8) and sow some important seeds for the future. What is less clear is whether designers/researchers feel comfortable taking the road of dissensus armed with a Guattarian ecosophic will. I believe we have to embrace Guattari’s Three Ecologies within a (re)new(ed) political ecology where we are citizens first and designers second.

AFL, 17.06.2014

Credits: Black & white illustration by Rita Almeida (Protect seeds, design the future) 2014.


(1)    Guattari, Felix. (1989). The Three Ecologies. Translated by Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton, London: Bloomsbury, 2000. Guattari defines ecosophy as a means to reconstruct social and individual practices via an ethico-aesthetic aegis of social ecology (the register of social relations), mental ecology (the register of human subjectivity) and environmental ecology (the register of the environment) aimed at changing the socius, the psyche and ‘nature’ (p27). He sees ecosophy as a means towards cultivating a dissensus and challenging of the singular production of existence through capitalist power, producing a capitalistic subjectivity (p33) and as a means to organise ‘new micropoltical and microsocial practices, new solidarities, a new gentleness, together with new aesthetic and new analytic practices regarding the formation of the unconscious’ (p34). In particular, Guattari describes Integrated World Captialism (IWC), what we might recognise today as the dominant model of global neo-liberal capitalism, as having a semiotics of subjectification based upon economic, juridical , techno-scientific and other (often form-based architecture, town planning, etc) regimes (pp31-32). In short, these ecologies can encourage other ways to form the unconscious and set transformative forces in motion.

(2)    NI, Minqing. ‘Social Inteventions on Urban Border.’

(3)    Anastassakis, Zoy and Elisa Kuschni. ’Bringing design to life: Anthropological considerations on the social implications of design.’

(4)    Marttila, Sanna and Kati Kyyppä. ’Practices and challenges in creative re-use of audio-visual media.’

(5)    Radice, Sara. ‘Community engagement within museums: Designing participatory experience of heritage.’

(6)    Bewert, Peter. ‘The designer as responsible citizen: An/aesth/ethics.’

(7)    Celik, Sine; Peter Joore and Han Brezet. ‘Towards a functional categoriszation of collaborative social innovation networks.’

(8)    See, for example, the AHRC funded project at the University of Brighton, UK, Mapping Social Design Research and Practice  and the international DESIS network co-ordinated by Milan Polytechnic, Italy.



One comment

  1. Pingback: Post summer harvest time: design commons, urban planning, media design

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: