Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 75! Breaking with the Colonial Practice of User Centered Design...
Good Morning fellow beings of “a much hotter winter than usual”...
It's been a pretty intense week for us – we’ve been in the thick of leading a weeklong intensive on ecological innovation and change making as worldmaking. We worked with a group from early in the morning to late in the evening spending time engaging many sites from urban gardens, to parks, to system changing farms, to museums and research centers. We dedicated an equal amount of time workshopping modes of engaging with dynamic systems changes along with “down time” opportunities for meandering discussions, karaoke, and experimental music.
This morning we awaken tired but with a renewed sense of what is possible – and really still dwelling on this question of “innovation as worldmaking.”
Critical to any form of creativity and innovation is difference – and the belief in the possibility of something genuinely new and genuinely different emerging.
But this concept of difference is not about some variation or singular radically new and different thing emerges. That would not be much of a transformative change. What is changing and differing is a whole way of being alive.
And this inherently assumes that there are always other worlds and ways of being alive – that we live in a world of difference – that we live in a world of many worlds.
We believe that meaningful change and innovation begins in acknowledging the multiplicity of worlds and fundamental ways of being alive and puts this into practice in collective ways of worldmaking. For us, this is what is most critical to innovation – that other worlds exist and that other worlds are possible.
But, what is it to have a world?
Last week we talked about the limits of user centered design – that there is no such person as a “user”.
Approaching us and how we live meaningful deeply embedded lives as “users” or even as generic “humans” – as human-centered design is prone to do – is to radically disembed us from the world we are of. We don’t use things, we are the outcome of our intra-actions with things. We are enactive co-worldmakers.
Becoming a “user” or a “human” separates us into being a unique, complete-and-whole-in-itself entity facing a neutral world of “choices” of what to use to fulfill our supposedly objective “needs” and our less objective “wants”.
By starting from the particular implicit set of assumptions built into the term “user/human” we have narrowly circumscribed the types of questions we can explore and the ways of acting we can engage in – we become blind to the fact that we are both in and of a specific world.
It is perhaps more useful to start by asking questions about value in the broadest and anthropological sense: how do we as a community and a culture enact a unique world and come to sense beauty, importance, desire and a lived sense of being.
It is very hard to be involved in meaningful change making (innovation) if one already assumes a very narrow set of confines of what change and agency can look like. If we imagine that everyone everywhere is essentially the same with a generic fixed universal set of wants, needs, and problems that can be solved with a generic set of universal solutions we have closed innovation down to the ever narrower confines of making everyone and everything everywhere fit our fixed and ultimately imposed definitions of possibility.
Environmental challenges in their inherently global scope make this reality even more acute.
A critical theme and question running through this week's workshop was “what is it to have and be of a world? – What is it to understand innovation as worldmaking?”
This is a topic that is perhaps best introduced with an example (that draws upon a previous article we wrote):
This is not a hypothetical question.
In Aotearoa (what for some is New Zealand) the Māori have worked to have the Whanganui River given the same legal status as a person. This is not limited to a single river, Mount Taranaki has a similar designation, and the status is being extended to other humans across Aotearoa (rivers, forests, and mountains).
These actions are not limited to Aotearoa, we find similar actions in South America and elsewhere. They are happening all around us — and many of us are involved in these worldmaking efforts.
Other ways of being alive exist where trees and mountains are humans. Other “worlds” exist where chairs and tables are animate. Other worlds abound. And with each what it means for us to be a human radically changes.
Given these developments, we can no longer ignore the fact that what might have once been taken as universal and ahistorical is actually not. Our recent western concept of “human” — is quite provincial— it is ultimately historical, quite recent and not at all universal.
We have to ask ourselves, are our creative world-blind practices dangerously myopic? What is at stake when we silence difference in the name of a universal and generic logic of innovation?
Why isn’t the recognition of ontological difference part of creativity and design?
In the modern west a consensus has developed across the sciences that humans are deep down the same the world over — we all have the same essence and needs— we all have the same “nature”. And that this shared nature finds different collective expression in the differing “cultures” scattered across the globe.
Most of our contemporary design, innovation and management practices have evolved out of this consensus.
Can this model of one nature and many cultures (mono-naturalism + multi-culturalism) come to terms with a river being a human?
The problem with a universal model of human centered design — and any other model that assumes we are all deep down the same — is that it cannot come to terms with actual difference and new emergent difference.
The modernist universalizing western perspective explains “rivers as people” as simply “superstitions” to be overcome, or as elaborate “metaphors” that are not meant in any literal sense — “of course, no one is claiming rocks are people, that would be silly, they are simply getting at the fact that everything is energy and “alive”— but they don’t have our modern words for it!”
Multiculturalism explains away and denies real difference.
Let’s focus on the style of judgment being used in this universalizing perspective:
Can this model of one Nature + many Cultures that underpins Human Centered Design ethically come to terms with difference?
This is both a general ethical question and a question about how we should conceptualize creativity. Ethically universalizing styles of judgment erases the other. They involve a colonial perspective — they subsume or colonize (erase) all difference to be simply inside of one perspective.
And from the perspective of creativity, it reduces creativity ultimately to only involving change-in-degree.
But what of change-in-kind? What of qualitative difference?
It is impossible to engage with qualitative change (fully half of creativity) if we do not have a model of difference that is willing to recognize difference in kind and not just in degree. Any and all forms of universalizing creativity or design practices are ones that ultimately do not adequately come to terms with difference in kind.
The underlying model of Nature + Culture needs to change. We need an alternative model of how we become who we are as collective beings that does not begin by assuming that we must all be the same.
We need to recognize that the Maori are not simply another culture expressing a universal truth of humanness — they are part of a different way of being alive.
In putting aside the concepts of Nature and Culture how do we speak about our collective practices? What does it mean to have a different way of being alive?
What we do as a collective is not the reflection or expression of a set of underlying essences (what the Nature+Culture model assumes). Rather what we do, with others (both “human” and “non-human”) makes us who we are. Nothing exists alone, everything exists in relation and through relations (assemblages). These specific practices and the roles of everything involved allow a logic to emerge and this logic in turn shapes all of the parts.
We call this assemblage a world.
A world is:
Whatever judgment we make about another world — say an animist world such as the Māori world— our judgment cannot ultimately replace, subsume or explain away another world’s actuality or difference.
Take as an example the Animist worlds understanding that rocks, tools and rivers are also humans. Does Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs now apply to a chair? Maslow’s model cannot expand that far, we are dealing with an un-subsumable difference. When a chair is a human —then what a human is — is something very different.
All of our world's most general concepts — nature, self, matter — are “worldly” concepts. They emerge historically from a set of practices, have specific effects and co-make a “world” — but not “The World” – The World of a fixed universal reality. And other worlds are irreducible to The World. All worlds are irreducible.
Critical to this (and critical to any form of disruptive creativity) is to diagnose/disclose our world (and to no longer confuse it with “reality”). While this is something far larger than the scope of this article, we can articulate some very broad aspects:
If we can model a “world” and our world — then we can also model how many worlds meet and engage with “reality” without needing to resort to an essentialist model:
The total space of assemblages forms the total space of worlds.
Here it is useful to contrast the modernist model of a single ontology with a model that allows for multiple fundamental ontologies to co-exist:
World is always plural: worlds.
Much of what we are discussing in this article draws heavily upon the work of the anthropologist Philippe Descola. Here is a lecture by Philippe Descola on worlds and animals. He wrote an important book on the topic of worlds: Beyond Nature and Culture. It is worth a close read, in it he makes an argument that there are in general four basic schema/worlds (we are summarizing quite radically):
He posits that you can understand these four schema based upon how these worlds conceptualize what is inside (inferiority) and what is outside (physicality).
While such a summary is far far too brief — what we hope you can sense is that our world (what he calls Naturalism or the Modern Perspective) is not The World — and that other worlds exist:
If other worlds exist then innovation and creativity practices have much to reconsider… (some preliminary thoughts):
Well, that is where we are this Friday morning reflecting on our intense week. We are looking forward to a quiet weekend, and we hope that you have the weekend that you were hoping for!
Till Volume 76,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
🧨 P.S.: We facilitate workshops and the accolades are overwhelming.
❤️ P.P.S.: Love this newsletter? We'd be grateful if you heap a bit of praise in the comments
🏆: P.P.P.S: Find the newsletter valuable? Please share it with your network
🙈 P.P.P.P.S: Hit reply - feedback of any kind is welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution
📚 P.P.P.P.P.P.S.: Go deeper - Check out our book which is getting great feedback like this: