Written by Virginia Tassinari, PoliMi DESIS Lab, Politecnico di Milano

Clearly the exceptionality of the environmental emergency we are witnessing today requires specific efforts in terms of thinking/acting in designing. The consequences of anthropocentric ways of producing, consuming and living – which do not consider the intrinsic radical interrelationship between human and non human natural agents and therefore account only humans interests as if they could ultimately be separated from the ones of other natural agents – are under everybody’s eyes. In other words: every time humans are solely pursuing what they consider their own interests (which are often at the end of the day just the interests of a small privileged group of people), they actually make a perspective error, as they do not acknowledge the fact that human interests cannot be seen loss from the interests of the whole planet. This perspective error is suicidal. Humans are now obliged to realise they didn’t actually succeed to pursue their own interests. Instead, they made of our planet a place where life is becoming more and more difficult, both for non human as well as for human agents. The environmental crisis we are in, is, at the end, also an anthropological crisis.

Design played (and often still plays) a role in this, and therefore has in many ways contributed to feed this anthropocentric mindset, considering human interests separated from the ones of the planet. We designed many products, services and systems aimed to fulfil only human interests (often only of a small portion of humanity). The blindness of this anthropocentric mindset in design also contributed to the environmental crisis we are in.

If design has a responsibility in this de-futuring process, designers are obliged to recognize the risks connected to this anthropocentric mindset and of its consequences. If in the past designers have often been working anthropocentrically – considering the planet’s interests as subsumed to the ones of human beings – they are now becoming aware that designing needs an ontological shift. In other words: we need to step out from an anthropocentric mindset and to recognise the radical interrelationship between humans and the planet, between human and non human natural interests. We need to re-frame human interests in their radical interrelationship with non-human ones, and to consider when designing this broader idea of “interests” to which to actively contribute (that we can also call “matters of concern” (Bruno Latour) stressing the pro-active character of something we are concerned about, or “matters of care” (Puig de la Bellacasa) to indicate also the personal involvement of “caring” for something).

If we look at the field of design for social innovation, in the past years a great deal of effort has been shed to support local communities and citizens to experience the connection between private and public interests. Hannah Arendt says that contemporaneity has lost the meaning of interests, being “inter-esse” (literally “being amongst”): my own interests cannot really exist if not considered in relationship with the interests of the community I belong to. Arendt reminds us that every human is first and foremost a political animal (a zoon politikon”). This political dimension that makes us deeply humans, is often mystified in our contemporary individualistic societies. Designers working with local communities may help them to recognise the mutilation of the private sphere when it has not a public, political dimension. Around the world designers are currently working “politically” (design as politics) by prototyping in situated contexts what it may mean for local stakeholders to take their own responsibilities in the public realm, having access again to the experience of collaboratively discussing/acting with others about common interests, recognised as the common ground from where private interests may flourish. Yet, what might it mean to enlarge the image, and broaden this concept of interests beyond the human sphere? What if common human interests could first find their ground in the planet’s interests? For years we have been talking about design as democracy and design as politics. But what if design as politics would include those other forms of agencies? What about expanding our understanding of words such as politics to include a “politics of nature” (by borrowing Bruno Latour’s words)?

With DESIS Network, we will raise these questions in a new series of DESIS Philosophy Talks   #7 Designing as politics of nature, where we will question what this ontological shift – from an anthropocentric to a non anthropocentric mindset – may possibly mean for design for social innovation, and how this ontological awareness may further shape our thinking/acting in design for social innovation, making it more truly eco-systemic by making tangible the interrelationship between the interests of the planet and those of humans (private-public ones), thus ultimately also between social and ecological sustainability. What could design as politics (of nature) concretely mean? We need both to imagine a theoretical frame of reference, by looking for instance into philosophies tackling today this ontological shift (such as Latour, Morton, Haraway, Puig de la Bellacasa, Coccia…), as well as to imagine how this thinking can help to re-think the instruments we use in designing, questioning how and how far we are really thinking in an eco-systemic way when dealing with social innovation, considering the planet’s interests in their radical interrelationships with human ones. How to include in the political arenas of conversations for actions on common interests also natural non-human agents essential in order to look in a more organic, truly eco-systemic way to the lives of our cities? Which instruments are needed to give voice to those silent and yet relevant voices and to their agencies? In which ways can designers better include also science in the conversation, as science traditionally gives voice to those voices?

Bruno Latour theorises a gap between science and institutionalised forms of politics. Politicians do not listen to scientists giving voice to voiceless non human agents. Yet, bottom up forms of citizens’ politics can perhaps help to bridge this gap. This is what movements as Fridays for Future are currently doing in a bold way. Yet, many grassroots initiatives are also currently trying to bring these voiceless voices to the table. Designers can work to empower those grassroots initiatives and bridge them towards institutional forms of politics. Yet, much research still needs to be done in order to understand which are the potentials of considering those voices – and their agencies – within the design process. What does it mean to design for those ecosystems? How can design help to come to a politics of nature, where this radical interdependency is at the core of the political concern?

(This article is part of a DESIS Conversations 2020, an initiative launched by DESIS Network to raise discussion about the climate and environmental sustainability related to academic and research practices.)

More on DESIS Conversations 2020:

Are we thinking radically enough? (Nicola Morelli)

A Response of “Social Innovation for the Planet” (Miaosen Gong)

Social Innovation for the Planet: Small groups, great ideas (Davide Fassi)

Social Innovation and the Environmental emergency: How Design can contribute in this scenario? (Teresa Franqueira)

Social Innovation and Biodiversity, or the Merit of Salamanders (Louise St. Pierre)