Design as freedom

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (monograph) | Defence date: 2017-03-10
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Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 17/2017
Creating a perfect world is most likely impossible; however, it can be generally agreed that the world we live in can be better. Designers can potentially make an important contribution to this quest, given that design is about imagining and achieving better futures. This thesis is primarily concerned with advancing the moral groundings of design and with assessing good design by prioritising what is right, regarding whether it contributes to making the world better. This book introduces Design as Freedom, an alternative driving principle for design, which is based on philosophical elaboration, and it also proposes the Aalto LAB meta-framework as a method of putting it into practice. This research has constantly looped from theory to practice, so that the alternative driving principle and the method have been fundamental in building each other. As a case of constructive design research, where knowledge is generated through design, four different things have been constructed, providing four different lenses to Design as Freedom: an alternative driving principle for design, a design process, a pedagogic programme, and the researcher’s personal journey (setting up and implementing Aalto LAB Mexico). In my view, design is constrained by the idea of progress as coined during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, where betterment is expressed through a positive exponential curve. In the course of time, economic growth became the unquestioned primary goal of nations, organisations, and individuals; however, this goal has yet to be reasonably justified. Design as Freedom challenges the traditional assumption that design is an economically and technologically driven activity. In contrast, it embraces the diverse ways of life that different people might have reason to value. Design as Freedom is a reasoned alternative, a highly complex practice in which socially committed designers co-design with people who are acknowledged to be living in clear situations of injustice. Within Design as Freedom, co-design becomes a longitudinal process and a mutually enabling activity for designers and for participant end-users. Additionally, with the aim of keeping environmental sustainability at the forefront, I propose making use of assemblage thinking as a framework that explicitly expresses the intricate relationship between humans and non-humans, and simultaneously enables the imagining of new human–non-human relationships. Therefore, this is a Kantian conception of freedom, which is tightly related to the concepts of reason and morality. In this case, Sustainability sets the moral limits that constrain human freedoms. The assemblage also enables the understanding of freedom as a triad (following Gerald MacCallum, 1967), where an agent has an intention and there are no constraints preventing its achievement. In other words, freedom is envisioning a new assemblage, it means being able to identify which new relationships must be created as a means to overcome the barriers that made them unfree. I argue that this type of design practice can be equated with exercising freedom. Mainly due to the conjunction of circumstances, Design as Freedom was put into practice through a project called Aalto LAB Mexico (ALM). ALM is based on a project that took place in 2010, called Aalto LAB Shanghai. ALM takes place in a Mayan community called 20 de Noviembre (El 20), located in Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico, a highly marginalised area, which is also highly biologically diverse. An interdisciplinary team of students (labbers) from Aalto University, Tecnológico de Monterrey Campus Ciudad de México, and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México are mentored by an equally interdisciplinary team of experts who belong to either the public, private, or third sector, or to academia; and all their processes are facilitated by expert designers. The labbers have collaborated with people from El 20, and have generated several Sustainable Product Service System (S.PSS) types of projects, which have reached different phases within the design process (diagnosis, conceptualisation, implementation, evaluation). Each of the projects has the potential to expand people’s freedoms and thus reduce injustice. ALM added a pedagogic dimension to the exploration of Design as Freedom; however, rather than seeing this as a constraint, it is seen as an opportunity. Nearly three decades have passed since the term ‘Sustainability’ was coined, and whilst the world has not changed dramatically, it can be observed that a growing number of young design students, herein called the Children of Brundtland, demand more meaningful professions. When study programmes prepare students to exclusively satisfy the needs of industry and pursue the goal of economic growth, the Children of Brundtland, who do not share the idea that economic growth is the highest end, experience a clear case of injustice. The pedagogic dimension required an extensive focus on the designers’ freedoms, which for its part enabled the observation of what we have called the double-sided mirror perspective. The design team and the people of El 20 learned about a design process that could deliver freedom (the S.PSS). Moreover, they also experienced the design process as a mutually enabling experience. The people of El 20 gain awareness and experience in tackling their own problems. The design team gains the effective opportunity to exercise a type of professional practice that they have reason to value. My own journey constructing ALM is a case of Design as Freedom, which enabled me to experience life in accordance with my own rational plan. The Design as Freedom principle presented in the first part of the book was constructed in response to what was observed in practice throughout the longitudinal journeys of the design team, the people of El 20, and myself. In the second part of the book, throughout these experiences, the Design as Freedom principle is put into practice. If profit-making was left aside, design could possibly do much more; Design as Freedom is just one reasoned alternative. Conceiving an initial situation as an assemblage enables designers to keep environmental considerations at the forefront of the process, and it also inspires desirable and feasible visions of the future. Moreover, by conceiving communities as assemblages, it could be possible to envision a wide array of alternative ways of living, which is probably what is needed before achieving a sustainable world. Many cases developed by designers and design researchers worldwide prove that designers have the skills required to make the world better; which is also the source of a great moral responsibility. Thus, I maintain that designers should not discriminate against any type of potential end-user, and that design should incorporate the most urgent matters of the world into its research agenda, and contribute to global justice.
Supervising professor
Mattelmäki, Tuuli, Associate Prof., Aalto University, Department of Design, Finland
co-design, injustice, sustainability
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