Interdisciplinarity and what it will take to address postindustrial challenges

At the recent Critical Alternatives 2015, the 5th decennial Aarhus conference, I participated in two excellent full-day workshops: “Shifting Borderlands of Technoscience: Tracing Trajectories of Critical Practice” and  “I’ve Had It! Group Therapy for Interdisciplinary Researchers.” Both engaged with the challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinary work, but in somewhat different ways. Prompted by experiences writing for and participating in these workshops and the conference, and also thinking about future foundations of industrial design and how we can address the massive challenges of our postindustrial world, I’ve been reflecting on different levels of inter/transdisciplinarity in relation to the scale and character of issues addressed.
It seems it might be reasonable to identify different ‘levels’ of inter/transdisciplinary orientations and modes of working and the particular logics, challenges, and benefits they entail. At the basic level, people from different disciplines are brought together to work on a common problem space. These are often areas in which there seems to be a need to combine ‘hard’ specialist knowledge in science/technology/engineering with ‘soft’ knowledge about people/society/culture in a given application domain or context. Representatives from the respective disciplines are expected to contribute specialist knowledge about the variables of the situation at hand such that, when put together, they can generate appropriate solutions. The logic is basically one of addition, where different types of knowledge are (ideally) put together like puzzle pieces to reach the sum total needed for a complete picture. But what even counts as a ‘problem’ and valid ways of addressing it looks different from each discipline. This can lead to difficulties communicating across disciplinary frameworks that have their own philosophies of knowledge, terms and concepts, commitments, etc.—things that came up a lot in the ‘group therapy for interdisciplinary researchers’ workshop.
At the intermediate level we might place critical practice. This approach follows Agre’s seminal and highly influential piece on critical technical practice in which he reflected on his experiences of critiquing foundational assumptions in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) while working within it, which he did by utilizing perspectives from philosophy and social theory. He described himself as a resident of the borderlands, a theme that the workshop organisers picked up in order to point to the shifting borderlands in which critical sociotechnical research and design is done today. In this approach, researchers inhabit a borderland in which they are in some ways working within and relating to a discipline, but also critiquing and trying to reform it.  The logic here is often one of reframing problems and ways of approaching solutions, shifting perspectives by looking at matters from alternate theoretical/ontological/epistemological vantage points. Big challenges of working in this way include the fact that one may always be an outsider, not quite fitting neatly in any particular area; and it can be difficult to articulate one’s expertise, which may lie in the innovative tying together, reframing, and pushing of boundaries that working in the critical borderlands entails.
While the intermediate level begins to push past interdisciplinarity to something less straightforward and more transgressive, we might also at least imagine modes of working that are more thoroughly transdisciplinary and fundamentally oriented toward a logic of transformation. In fact, I would suggest that design at its core is—or should be—the ultimate transdiscipline. In effectively building the artificial world it deals with the material, semiotic, social, political, cultural, economic, and more; and it does this in relation to history—past, present, and (possible) future(s) (Fry, Dilnot and Stewart 2015).

That is, to put it mildly, a tall order. At the same time, the objects of design are becoming less traditionally thing-like and rather connected, dynamic, ‘smart’ pieces of entire product and service ecosystems. Companies developing products now need to consider entire systems and work with the contextual dynamics of specific places (Neese 2015). This necessary shift toward more systemic, postindustrial perspectives is a development that Cameron Tonkinwise suggests can be a highly positive thing in that it can make it “possible, perhaps even necessary, to find alignments between a manufacturer’s value propositions, the practices of everyday life and more equitably sustainable ways of resourcing our societies” (Tonkinwise 2015).


The need to urgently grapple with what we have made, in both material and social terms, is for me poignantly evoked by Banksy’s Dismaland project. (Image from The Guardian,

We need, then, to find ways to grapple with (eco)systems, contextual specificities, and societal needs in a rapidly changing world where we have yet to even begin to adequately come to grips with the implications of our dwindling resources and impending climate collapse. So while inter- and trans-disciplinary research has already aimed at bringing diverse perspectives into a productive synthesis in service of real outcomes, it seems that what is now required is something more. I am reminded of Jamer Hunt’s (2014) argument that as scale changes, the problem changes. The complex systems in which we live are in many ways outstripping our usual sense-making capabilities, particularly when it comes to matters of scale. But Hunt also suggests that identifying and working with the potentially catalytic agents capable of having systemic effects might be the avenue by which designers can intervene in these systems.
This points toward both a new postindustrial style of design practice and, I think, toward a more meta-level consideration of the types of (other) practices that will be required in order to address the challenges at hand. There will always be a need for deep specialist knowledge and associated disciplinary introspection (or, less generously, navel gazing) that can lead to necessary advances or even reforms. But it might be said that there is also a need for new types of specialist knowledge and skill that consist precisely of making connections across perspectives, scales, interests, etc. This is needed in order to enable bottom-up social innovation (Manzini 2015) that can effect real change, and to make futures that are at once local (Ehn, Nilsson, and Topgaard 2014) and conducive to the collective thriving of life on our planet. We need to understand both the concrete details of the local as well as the more abstract dynamics of global systems and—perhaps more importantly—the interrelations between them. There is a need for a new kind of aesthetic sensibility for these interwoven part-whole relations and interdependencies, and for working with the dynamics of constantly changing complex systems at varying scales.
Design has to some extent always been concerned with systems and relations of designed things within them. But it seems that in many ways the scale and the problem have changed. Perhaps our ways of working, thinking, teaching, and evaluating—both within design and other disciplines—need to change too.


Ehn, Pelle, Elisabet M Nilsson, and Richard Topgaard, Eds. 2014. Making futures: Marginal notes on innovation, design, and democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press.
Fry, Tony, Clive Dilnot, and Susan C Stewart. 2015. Design and the Question of History. Design, Histories, Futures. London: Bloomsbury.
Hunt, Jamer. 2014. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” Systemic complexity and the irregularities of scale. In Design As Future-Making. Ed. Susan Yelavich and Barbara Adams. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Manzini, Ezio. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. 2015. Translated by Rachel Coad. Design Thinking, Design Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.
Neese, Megan. 2015. What is a product? How a new definition is leading us toward a place-based design process. EPIC: Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry. (accessed September 3, 2015).
Tonkinwise, Cameron. 2015. What things to teach designers in post-industrial times? EPIC: Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry. (accessed September 3, 2015).

DRS 2014

DRS 2014, the conference of the Design Research Society which is this year hosted by my current institutional home of the Umeå Institute of Design, begins in just a few days now on the Arts Campus of Umeå University. Since I have ended up as local organisation chair for the conference I have been heavily involved in planning and preparations for the last several months, so it’s exciting (and a little stressful!) that it is almost here. I think it’s going to be a great conference, both in terms of the content and the overall conference experience.

The new formats of ‘Debates’ and ‘Conversations’ are particularly exciting. The chairs of those tracks, Carl DiSalvo and Jamer Hunt, have curated some provocative and intriguing sessions, which promise a much more interactive experience than traditional paper and (particularly) keynote presentations and center around ‘big debates’ in design.

The full program is posted at There should also be live streaming of the debates, which begin at 9.30 Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (June 16-18) and at 11.30 on Thursday (June 19). The official hashtag is #drs14, and hopefully there will be a lively and interactive conversation going on there as well!

Imagining digital futures, or, What is it about refrigerators ordering groceries?

This post was also cross posted on the Social Informatics Blog.

In the New York Times today there is an article about Google X, the top-secret lab for big ideas at Google. According to the article, the future being imagined here is “a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the Internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you’re eating. Your robot could go to the office while you stay home in your pajamas. And you could, perhaps, take an elevator to outer space.”

This is indeed a compelling vision.. maybe. Am I the only one who finds this future a little underwhelming, maybe even problematic and dysfunctional? For one thing, aren’t there already enough what-I-had-for-lunch tweets without plates getting in on the action? And what if the plate (because of course it has artificial intelligence) decides to chime in with some commentary: ‘pizza leftovers again?! @John’sMom are you seeing this?’.

And while staying at home in pajamas does sound pretty attractive, how does sending your robot into the office help? Does it make typing noises at your computer so people think you’re there? Does it go to meetings for you? Does it make decisions for you? What if it messes up? Could you really relax at home in your pajamas knowing that your robot might create a huge mess (bureaucratic or physical) that you will need to clean up? What if your robot knows how you really feel about your coworker and gets into a fight with your coworker’s robot? Could your robot be fired? Could your robot get you fired? Could it get promoted? Who would be held responsible for its actions: you, the robot, the robot’s designer? Would the robot have a moral compass, and if so, whose? Would everyone send their robots in for them, so the workplace would be entirely robots? Would it be all the same to them if the lights and heat were shut off to save electricity? Would there be robot unions to protest this mistreatment?

And then there’s the grocery-ordering refrigerator. This seems to be one of the most common images of a digital future of pervasive computing, no doubt inspired by a moment of watching the last few drops of milk drip onto still-dry cereal and thinking ‘man, I wish the refrigerator could have just taken care of that.’ But what kind of groceries would it order? It stands to reason that a digital refrigerator might need to deal in SKUs, which would make it easy to order more frozen pizza but maybe more difficult to order ‘the best-looking local in-season fruit’. Also, what infrastructure would this require? In addition to the refrigerator, the ordering system would need to be in place on the grocery store end, as well as maybe a delivery service. It’s hard to imagine smaller markets being able to invest in this, and vendors at the local farmers’ market would be out of the loop entirely. This would undoubtedly be unproblematic for many people, but it is significant that these biases could be encoded in technical systems that could encourage already-existing (unhealthy) habits to become even more entrenched.

As Langdon Winner has argued, technologies shape forms of life: technology design is ultimately about choosing ways of living, of ordering the world around us and our activities in it. While geeky technophiles tend to do a pretty good job of dreaming up some very cool and labor-saving technologies, they are less good at envisioning the forms of life that they might institute.

This is where more nuanced and critical approaches like Social Informatics might be useful. As scholars who study social dimensions of technologies we are used to teasing apart their various social, cultural, philosophical, historical, political, and ethical aspects, and looking at them critically. These aspects are just as much, if not more, important than technical feasibility, yet they are discussed far less frequently (if at all) during technology development and assessment. Maybe one of the reasons for this is that our existing critical approaches focus on technologies that already exist, not ones that have yet to be implemented.

But why should geeks working at big corporations with deep pockets be the ones who get to decide what our (digital) future should look like? What sorts of futures might Social Inforfmatics scholars envision? And as we’re imagining futures, could we also maybe move past our own laziness to consider how we might build a future with less inequality and more justice, less stress and more health, less poverty and excess and more true wealth and happiness?

All of these may sound like unattainable goals. But imagining a future in which they are true would be a first step toward making them a reality. And I would take that over a ‘smart’ refrigerator any day.

lecture on design

Last semester I did an introductory lecture on design for the undergrad social informatics class using a Prezi that I spent an inordinate amount of time putting together. Since I finally got it online (long story), here it is:

(It would be really spiffy if I could just embed the thing here. But since I found out from WordPress that this isn’t possible, the plain old link will have to do.)