OD&M: Designing for sustainable economic transformations (Part 3)

 In Reports

Part 3: Needs-based design as an alternative paradigm 

By Chris Giotitsas and Alex Pazaitis.

Despite the serious conceptual and systemic problems described in the previous parts of this short series, it does not necessarily mean that there are no examples of true implementation for collaborative and circular practices right now. In fact, there are several technological development communities that make it happen to some significant degree. More specifically,  needs-based design and grassroots innovation as community-driven endeavours offer a serious alternative paradigm. 

In other words, communities can harness these ICT-enabled capabilities to collaboratively create technology for themselves, and promote sustainable practices based on shared values, knowledge and infrastructure. For instance, small-scale farmers in the agricultural communities of L’atelier paysan and Farm Hack, collaborate to produce tools and machines, often from recycled scrap material, suitable for their type of agriculture, which conventional market channels often fail to adequately cover. 

Yet, this type of self-construction activity is limited in simpler, frugal solutions, whereas  to address today’s challenges we need a broader engagement of design and engineering. But for a community to create complex technologies and systems, advanced skills still need to be employed, including designers, engineers and software developers. The main difference is the type of relationship they have with the community of users. This means the experts would act according to their own motives for engagement but with an explicit purpose to provide a solution which best serves the users of the technology. 

As far as the users are concerned, designers take up a specific purpose. They serve the role of guides or “Sherpas” (with reference to the ethnic group of the Himalayas that are expert mountaineers helping other groups). In that sense, the design process begins after a need within a community is made explicit. Then the designer meets with the community several times to discuss the parameters of the problem that needs solving and uses her expertise to design the solution, which is then reviewed by the community. This is an iterative process until a final artefact is produced, often through a collective process.

Nevertheless, engaging in such a creative activity  and simultaneously making a living out of its is no easy task, yet it is better than the alternative. Having a community as a base of support beats deciding to engage in “social innovation” on your own. At least if we are defining social innovation as something that you make for the common good rather than a thing to make money out of. For instance, designers in the agricultural communities mentioned above, could receive funds to help farmers refurbish or redesign an existing tool, or they could crowdfund within the community for the creation of a new tool. 

Such hybrid and radical models may lead to some sustainability for the designer willing to engage in social production. In our view however, for these terms to be genuinely meaningful in terms of sustainability, openness and equity, structural changes need to take place starting from a policy level. These communities provide a certain blueprint to inform the direction which needs to be taken. 

For instance, instead of incentives for manufacturers, perhaps more focus could be placed in empowering communities to tackle parts of the extremely complex problems of circular production. Likewise, user-communities can harness favourable licences and legal tools to build on shared capacities for collaborative forms of production and distribution. Individuals like designers could also be given incentives and support to engage with these communities in a relationship that is not profit-driven but informed by mutually shared values. 

What this would look like may take many forms, especially depending on local cultures and social contexts. For instance, such a community in the US, which generally lacks serious welfare structures, means that farmers need to rely largely on themselves and each other. Designers that work with them, manage to secure limited funding through the national agriculture organisations and donors while doing also something else to secure their personal sustainability. A similar community in Europe, on the other hand, which still manages to maintain basic social welfare amidst austerity obsessions, means that designers and engineers working with the farmers can secure state funding. So the volume of the work, as well as the quality of tools and documentation can be significantly increased. 

In conclusion, collaborative and circular economies are possible. But we need, as a society, to engage with these ideas in more radical ways than it is happening at the moment.


<<Part 1: On the circular economy

<<Part 2: On the sharing economy 

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