Design as Symbolic Violence. Design for Social Justice. A Conversation @DRS2016uk

This conversation will take place at Future Focused Thinking, the Design Research Society conference in Brighton in June 2016.

Design embeds ideas in communication and artefacts in subtle and psychologically powerful ways. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term symbolic violence to describe how powerful ideologies, priorities, values and even sensibilities are constructed and reproduced through cultural institutions, processes and practices. Through symbolic violence, individuals learn to consider unjust conditions as natural and even come to value customs and ideas that are oppressive. Symbolic violence normalises structural violence and enables real violence to take place, often preceding it and later justifying it. Feminist, class, race and indigenous scholars and activists describe how oppressions (how patriarchy, racism, colonialism, etc.) exist within institutions and structures, and also within cultural practices that embed ideologies into everyday life.

The theory of symbolic violence sheds light on how design can function to naturalise oppressions, and then obfuscate power relations around this process. Through symbolic violence, design can function as an enabler for the exploitation of certain groups of people and the environment they depend on to live. Design functions as symbolic violence when it is involved with the creation and reproduction of ideas and practices that result in structural and other types of violence. Breaking symbolic violence involves discovering how these processes work and building capacities to challenge and transform dysfunctional ideologies, structures and institutions.

Organizing questions

1. How do designers participate in symbolic violence?
2. How can designers reveal and undo symbolic violence?

Continue reading

Design vs. the Design Industry – Paper for the DRS 2014

Design vs. The Design IndustryPaper to be presented at Design Research Society’s conference DRS 2014.

Design can be understood as a practice that evolves as new cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity, context and system dynamics. These emergent capacities create greater potential for social and technological innovation. This paper will argue that despite emergent skills, designers are not able to effectively address contemporary problems in a sustainable manner due to the systemic priorities of the design industry. This paper theorises ‘design’ as the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services and communication as a broader practice than the work that is produced within the ‘design industry’. The design industry operates according to highly reductive feedback generated by capitalism that systemically ignores signals from the ecological and social systems. The exclusive focus on profit results in distortions of knowledge and reason undermining prospects for the design of long-term prosperity within the context of the current political/economic regime.

Download the paper here.

Ways of Knowing about Climate Change: Reflections on the Climate Wise Women Event

color-climatwisewomenOn Sunday night University of Colorado’s Inside the Greenhouse group hosted an ‘Climate Wise Women’ event. Constance Okollet and Ngozi Onuzo (from Uganda and Nigeria) talked about the impact of climate change in their lives. Constance Okollet described a flood that washed most of her village away, a drought that followed and the ongoing difficulties with Continue reading

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’

The paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ was presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in June. This paper can be downloaded on www.academic.edu and on the EcoLabs website.

IECAbanner1

ABSTRACT: The United Nations’ green economy programme radically re-imagines the commons as a space where ecosystems services will be quantified, marketised and traded. This paper will examine issues with this version of the green economy for environmental communicators. It will review the etymology of the concept, examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail and situate these proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will suggest strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. This paper will argue that in stark opposition to green economics with its focus on participation and democratic processes, the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by privatizing ‘ecosystem services’ – thereby taking environmental decision-making out of a political sphere and into the marketplace.

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ 

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) (2011) flagship document titled “Towards a green economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication” and accompanying UNEP reports at the Rio+20 in June 2012 launched the green economy project. The reports use strong environmental language as a means of presenting their version of green economy as a far-reaching programme of reform to address environmental problems on a global scale. While the rhetoric suggests that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis, green economists and a wide variety of social movements are less convinced by the proposed policy mechanisms. Civil society responded at Rio+20 with a plethora of critical responses: condemning what they claimed amounted to the corporate capture of the United Nations (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012); condemning the UN’s “Natural Capital Declaration” (Banktrack, 2012); condemning 20 years of Greenwash (Bruno, 2012); and indeed, condemning the entire green economy project (Nadal, 2012; Brand, 2012a; Patel & Crook, 2012). The Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth (2012) issued a strongly worded “Kari-Oca 2 Declaration” (2012) describing the UNEP’s green economy as “a continuation of colonialism” (p. 1) firmly rejecting market-based solutions, REDD, and intellectual property rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In the wake of the polarized positions at Rio+20, the conference ended with both civil society and the United Nations unimpressed with the outcomes. The New York Times claimed Rio+20 “ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism” (Romero & Broder, 2012); The Guardian’s headline read: “Rio+20 outcome a focal point for frustration among campaigners” (Ford, 2012); and London’s Financial Times announced “Rio+20 lacks ambition, says UN chief” (Clark, 2012). The conference failed to achieve binding targets, but more significantly the conference launched the UNEP’s green economy programme, which aims to redesign the processes through which the global commons will be managed. Clearly the green economy is a fiercely contested idea and the UNEP’s version is strongly opposed by a wide variety social movements concerned with both ecological conservation and environmental justice.

In naming its programme the green economy, the UNEP implies a reframing of the entire economy along green lines. The language even suggests a connection to a particular school of economic thought concerned with the environment, that of green economics. However, the programme itself is largely concerned with attempting to protect the environment by establishing policies that will quantify and trade “ecosystem services”. This will be done in ways that reflect specific policy prescriptions of different schools of economic thinking on the environment, namely environmental economics and ecological economics. Since green economics is a field with radically different policy prescriptions to what is proposed, the naming of the new project creates severe confusion with contested definitions of the “green economy”. In this paper, the UNEP’s green economy programme will be referred to as “UN’s GEP” to avoid confusion with what green economists have been describing as “green economics” for over a decade.

Continue reading

Review of DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers

Designing Learning for Tomorrow: Design Education from Kindergarten to PhD
DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers

IMG_2315

Oslo Opera House and skyline

I travelled to the DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers with some trepidation. While I have high expectations of the content produced by the Design Research Society (DRS) and was already intrigued by some of the papers and keynotes, my concerns emerged from what I am witnessing in design education in the UK. I was travelling to Oslo supported by a crowd funding campaign rather than the institution where I had been working when I wrote my paper. As an advocate of sustainability literacy and an early career researcher witnessing (and feeling) the impact of the austerity agenda in higher education in the UK, I wondered if the conference would rise to the challenge of confronting the most serious issues in design education.

Continue reading

EcoLabs: Ecoliteracy at the Manchester International Festival

RED-ARROWEcological Literacy at MIF

Dr. Boehnert from EcoLabs will be talking how ecological literacy transforms the ways we understand sustainability at a free public talk for the The Biospheric Project at the Manchester International Festival.

Thurs 11 July
6-8pm
Designing the City

Designing the City considers how innovative design and architecture can tackle the need for more sustainable and ecologically efficient cities.  Our speakers Jody Boehnert from Eco-Labs and Michael Pawlyn from Exploration Architecture, will discuss their different approaches to embedding ecological principals into education and using nature’s models within architecture through bio-mimicry. Chair: Gavin Elliott Chair of BDP Manchester

 

The idea of free markets is an obfuscation

Recently I did an  interview with and talked about how the notion of free markets misrepresent our political and economic system. Here I am republishing part of this interview here (with their questions in blue text):

Yesterday, we published the first part of an interview with EcoLabs founder Joanna Boehnert. In response to a Blue & Green Tomorrow article about free markets (Free markets need to be free), Boehnert said on Twitter that it “[failed] entirely to deal with the problem that free markets systemically devalue the ecological wellbeing“. We asked her if she thinks the free market is therefore unsalvageable, and this was her response.

I am not against all markets absolutely. What I am absolutely against is misinformation, so it is important to note here that there is actually no such thing as a free market. Every market in the world has ways of working that was designed into the market, i.e. parameters that are predetermined. So-called free markets suit the interests of those who have the political power to design the terms of the market. What we have is a political and economic system that is neoliberal and capitalist. The idea of free markets is an obfuscation. Continue reading

There is an ‘Ecology’, the Fascist Turn and on Privilege

When Mckenzie Wark appeared on Novara, Resonance FM on May 28th 2013 he argued that a critical theory that does not confront environmental problems as one of its central problems was not worth discussing (I am paraphrasing – what he actually said was is more complicated and is transcribed below). Oddly, in this interview Wark managed to simultaneously acknowledge the validity of the environmental crisis as a theoretical problem – while also denying its implications in practice. For me this was a significant moment for Novara since it was certainly the best attempt they have yet made (that I am aware of) to engage with the ecological problem. Unfortunately, while Wark has many good ideas, his convoluted take on ecological theory is a classic example of extravagant lengths intellectuals (and especially the environmentally disengaged radical left) devise to continue to dismiss the most fundamental challenges posed by the ecological crisis and this culture’s legacy of ignoring ecological relations and perspectives. I will quote the most problematic parts of what Mckenzie Wark had to say starting with the following:

I would not call it an ecological crisis because that would presume that there ever was an ecology… and there sort of isn’t. It’s… what we know of the natural world includes its instability…and our species being is one that has acquired the capacity to kind of rupture environments on a kind of global scale. So I would be a little hesitant to use the word ‘ecological’….

Yes, it is true that what we know of ecology includes some instability – but far more important is the fact that there is relative stability within planetary boundary conditions. In a similar way to how our bodies can only function within a relatively narrow range of temperatures (maintained by homeostatic mechanisms), the earth will only be habitable for humans within planetary boundaries (including factors beyond climate change such as the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss). Once ecological Continue reading

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ – Posters, images and new resources

I am publishing two new posters associated with the paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy that will be presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in Uppsala, Sweden June 6th-9th 2013. The posters can images can be downloaded here (as low resolution jpegs) or higher resolution posters to print on the EcoLabs website.

GE---2-Final-sm

Above – Overview of problems associated with the UNEP’s ‘green economy’.

 

Continue reading

Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

drscumoslo

The paper ‘Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design’ has been accepted for the Design Research Society  // CUMULUS 2013 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers in May 2013. This paper is available for here for free but it will only be published and presented at the conference proceedings if I am able to find sponsors. THANK YOU to everyone who helped raise the money for this presentation! The crowdfunding campaign worked and I will present this paper in Oslo next month.

Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

Abstract: Responsible design in an era of scarcity and risk associated with environmental problems must be ecologically informed. Ecological literacy is necessary in order to both understand the nature of environmental problems and to respond effectively by designing sustainable ways of living. Embedding ecological literacy into design education is happening at the most progressive institutions – and yet for many others, sustainability education is still virtually absent from the curriculum. Progress is slow despite the fact that natural scientists warn that risks will escalate if we do not take dramatic action. Ecological literacy is a severe challenge as it disrupts educational cultures and challenges basic assumptions about what constitutes good design. While sustainability can seem profoundly difficult, ecological learning is the basis for sustainable design and thus it is a basic imperative in design education. Design education needs to expand its scope of inquiry to include a range of disciplines in order to address complex environmental problems. This paper will present an introduction to ecological literacy for design education, describe six ecological principles including associated concepts in systems design, and explain why critical thinking is necessary to make the work of transforming structurally unsustainable systems possible.

Keywords: sustainability, philosophy, design education, knowledge, ecological literacy, epistemology, philosophy of design education, multidisciplinary design education

The paper can now be downloaded from the EcoLabs website here.

The slideshow of the presentation can be accessed here.Nature-Patterns2012M

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIG THANKS to everyone who made it happen by supporting the crowdfunding compaign. On Twitter you are: @Ian_Willey @blindspotting @hugh_knowles @karinjaschke @sDesignLabs @paul_chandlerUK @sorafferty and @jenboehnert. Some of you are not on Twitter (as far as I can tell) and you are Richard Owen Frost, Prof. Gregory Stock, Jonathan Crinion, Joel Davis, Ali Hodgson, Chris Kitchen and a few Anonymous contributors.

A Critical Look at RSA and TSB’s ‘New Designs for A Circular Economy’

In the UK social institutions maintain their legitimacy with claims that they are responding the environmental crisis with initiatives capable of transforming our economy into something that could exist in perpetuity. The single most important factor in the continued failure of the vast majority of initiatives is the dismal lack of ecological awareness demonstrated by those who put these projects into practice. A technologically advanced civilization that is not ecologically informed simply has no long-term prospects; it will not even understand the ways in which it is destroying itself. Businesses are keen to project the image that they are working towards a circular economy and dramatically lowering both pollution and quantitaties of natural resources needed in the industrial cycle. Are these flashy claims an honest representation of progress, or simply a new front for business as usual?

Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy by made2bemadeagain – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Continue reading

Sustainability Literacy in Higher Education

EL-in-HEI-LOCK-IN-2012

Basic sustainability literacy is an essential element of education. Without sustainability education, students are not supported to develop the knowledge that they will need to understand contemporary problems – or the skills they will need to address these problems. Considering global ecological conditions, it would be wise for higher education to create capacities across disciplines to respond to current problems. Unfortunately this is simply not happening on a significant scale (outside the disciplines that deal directly with the environment, i.e. conservation biology, the earth sciences and geography). Educational establishments create blind spots by failing to embed sustainability literacy in education. By not acknowledging environmental problems as an educational priority, higher education reproduces the problems of the past.  Educators remain oblivious to the ways in which their own practices further perpetuate environmental problems.

In the natural sciences, scientists are deeply concerned (an understatement in many cases) about the dangers of de-stabilised ecological systems. It is the responsibility of universities to develop capacities to respond, but most of those developing curriculum in design education would rather ignore inconvenient environmental imperatives. While I appreciate the difficulty that higher education is under right now, these problems pale in significance in comparison to the dangers presented by environmental problems. In fact, it will be impossible to achieve economic prosperity in the future without greater concern for environmental issues.

Many educators think sustainability is already part of what they do. Yet environmental problems are a result of an entire way of approaching knowledge that is ecologically ill-informed. Ecological and systems literacies are not divinely anointed, they are learned – like any discipline. They require their own curriculum, classes, research and expertise in design education. It cannot be delivered in a ‘Green Week’ fashion. This is simply greenwash. Education that refuses to engage critically with environmental problems is part of the problem.

Sustainability literacy should be a required element of any university degree at this point, but especially design education (for reasons I describe in my PhD). Any university that is not doing this is derelict in their responsibility to equip students with the knowledge they will need to deal with the world they will inherit. I have set up two Linkedin groups to discuss these problems in higher education  and a group for ecological literacy in design education.

Thanks for the inspiration here @blindspotting

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

Econopoly-web

The UN’s Rio+20 declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ warns; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ With this document the UN calls for ‘a great transformation’ emerging from the recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient. Humankind is now in the ‘Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Does this environmental rhetoric demonstrate that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis? Or has the UN simply appropriated green language to sell its new project to the global public?

The so-called ‘Green Economy’ launched at Rio+20 reveals a new approach to sustainable development, based on creating new markets for nature’s processes. The basic provisions of the natural world are now ‘ecosystem services’ (water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility, etc.). Presently free and commonly shared, the emerging programme will soon quantify, financialise and marketise them. The commodification of the natural world supposedly aims to protect nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage by industry. According to this logic, once nature’s processes are given a financial value, prices of goods and services will reflect ecological costs and it will no longer make economic sense to produce ecologically harmful products.

Continue reading