same as it ever was

(De)signs as response

Martín Ávila, designer, researcher and professor of design at Konstfack in Stockholm, questions the dominant design paradigm that centres humanity in its practice and writes about an ecocentric way of designing.[1]

You and I have wondered many times what something is. In forests, cities, and other places, we have encountered things that we just did not know what they were, what they did, nor why those things were there. In cities, where most things are controlled and made by people, we still encounter things that are not directly accessible to interpretation based on the way they look. Even at home or at our workplace, have we wondered how simple things such as doors or windows could be opened, or lights turned on. Not to mention the many artefacts that require instruction manuals to be operated at all, from mobile phones to air conditioning systems, to alarm clocks and countless others.
We are constantly interpreting the places where we are to make sense of environments and access all kinds of things: food, recreation, help, and everything else. All living beings do this. In urban spaces, we share an understanding of the functioning of places based on the guidance of physical constraints, and agreements of all kinds of codes and symbols. Through these conventions, we have managed to include many humans (not all), but very few (if any) other-than-human creatures, disrupting the patterns that they seek in the places where we live by reshaping them for human purposes.

Many other-than-humans live in cities as in any other place, and whether humans want to communicate with other beings or not, there are always interpretations of the things that we create by all kinds of beings. They navigate these places based on their own perceptual and behavioural capacities, but in their dependency of things that are becoming rare or no longer present (specific plants to pollinate, insects to feed on, cavities to find shelter, distances to travel, etc.), human constructions displace them, not taking their needs into account and make them more vulnerable.
It is this interruption of interdependencies that undoes the living. Their disappearance is a threat to life, human and other. Their disappearance and our lack of acknowledgement of their lives is a retreat of life. Like everything else, the commons of air, water, or food, to mention three essential ones, are enacted by interdependencies, mutually constitutive processes that form one another. Things exist at all only due to the dependence on other things. At the moment of writing these words, ‘I’ depend upon many things that make my body not totally distinguishable from its surrounding environment. We depend upon things that we normally take for granted. For example, I depend upon the air that I am constantly breathing, and the water and food that I previously ingested, which form part of my metabolism. In a real sense, these not only ‘maintain’ but constantly ‘create’ me. If the air that I breathe did not have oxygen, a series of processes would lead to my collapse within minutes and ‘my’ relations to the ‘environment’ would change radically. Needless to say, that the amount of oxygen in the air depends upon plants of all kinds producing it through photosynthesis, which in turn are dependent upon myriad processes that we cannot take for granted. The dependencies of soil, plants and sun enact the first steps in so-called food chains, since plants are eaten by herbivores who in turn are eaten by carnivores, who in turn, once they die, become food to decomposers and microbes, making available nutrients to soils and plants, continuing the cycles of regeneration. Dependencies across a continuum of living with non-living entities. Through these processes, we bring forth worlds by living, and understanding the worlds brought forth by humans is crucial to become articulate about the enaction of what is natural for humans to produce: the artificial. Yet the dominant culture of the artificial does not participate in the lifecycles of most beings, enacting destructive patterns which are not conductive to the affirmation of life.

Can we take other modes of being and perceiving into account to create a design culture that is life-affirming by participating in the lives of humans and others in ecoliterate ways? The answer is yes, and it demands a paradigm shift, for a design practice that moves away from exclusively anthropocentric interests to a practice that is ecocentric and responds to the many tensions of multispecies cohabitation. A design practice attentive of relations and their becoming, rather than of things and their being. A culture that cultivates the relationality of the natural-artificial continuum that may be called naturecultures, urban ecologies, agroecosystems, and other names, provided that these names indicate and help us to slow down, and to pay attention to the biotic-abiotic continuum.
I believe that one of the keys to make this happen is to pay attention to signs and how form informs. What encounters are significant to us? What encounters are significant to others? What others? What for? Do lives depend on these? For food, for shelter? This would be a practice of design as (de)sign, in its insistence to care for the signs that are created across this continuum, that cares for the sensory materials that living beings encounter and the possibilities of these to inform behaviour.

Complementing the work of conservationists, what I am advocating for is an alternative design culture that tunes into localities of human dominated spaces such as urban ecologies and agroecosystems, a practice that scaffolds the ecological realities of a place.
If we understand scaffolding as a temporary structure for holding or supporting something, such as workers and materials while repairing or constructing a building, we can think of all kinds of structures that support all kinds of things; as such, words become devices that support cultural development , tables become devices that support eating together in particular postures, and so on. In this sense, specific designs may materially scaffold a situation, as in the structure that holds the workers of a building, but there is another layer of scaffolding that is enacted by these things: semiotic scaffolding, which is relational and enacted by complex webs of signification. Semiotic scaffolding is something that “canalises further behaviour. It is the frame for habits… scaffolding is what results from learning” as described by biosemiotician Kalevi Kull , therefore scaffoldings such as words or tables can, in their turn, scaffold further behaviour and afford refining conceptual models, or eating habits.

To scaffold the ecological realities of a place, implies tuning into the needs and capacities of other creatures through material scaffoldings that can support their habits. This is crucial since the patterns that they are habituated to are disappearing due to human intervention. A type of designing that establishes dialogic relations with other creatures, by attending to their signifying habits as they relate to the things we design. A type of designing that is response-able by being adaptive and able to revise the signs that scaffoldings inscribe for the species involved.

What if we were to use a hyphen in the word alternative and write alter-native to help us think of the relations enacted by the artefacts we devise? I suggest that by using the word alter-native to describe artefacts’ relations to environments and beings, one indicates the alterity of a thing, its own foreignness to environments by being artificial, fabricated by humans. Naming something alter-native also demands thinking how some-thing alters the relations to those that live in an environment, and how it makes them different in some way. An alterity which additionally demands thinking how these things may be designed for co-adaptation by acknowledging multiple species’ capabilities. Through these ongoing considerations, the notion of alter-natives can help us to conceive artefacts that are alternatives to the current paradigm of artefacts designed without attention to the ecological realities of the places where they will be constructed, used, or discarded. As such, what may be understood as alter-natives are artefacts that, to the highest possible degree, participate in the affirmation of life processes, as opposed to most artefacts which create abstraction and remoteness to the living and by means of their very global character claim to ‘function’ in any environment.
Yet, it is not strictly the global character of these artefacts that is threatening life systems, rather it is the erasure of the localities and the biotic links by means of the lack of recognition of the biophysical realities of the different places where these artefacts are produced, used, and discarded. Artefacts may still be coupled to global material streams, if the global network of actors that provide the product-service-system manages to affirm the biophysical constraints through the relations of the product and by-products that affect the local ecosystems at the different stages of its life cycle, from production to discard.
The category alter-natives refers only to the status of artefacts produced by humans, addressing how varying responses at different scales relate to locations as they participate, or not, in the enlivening of those places.

By striving to produce alter-natives that participate in the semiosphere, that is, in the enactment, production and circulation of signs and thus, in ecological processes, material cultures may emerge where artefacts diversify by attending to the multiplicity of the signs of life, rather than to the unidirectionality of financial interests or the unilateral inertia of human performativity. Since what is at stake is the reworkings of a dominant material culture that has become synonymous with consumption (product design), it is of particular importance to frame the effort to conceive artefacts as alter-natives, as a critical approach that “must aim to replace the consumer-driven narratives of place that mark our lives by different ones that make our ecological relationships visible and accountable.”
Choosing to ask whether devices can be alter-natives, demands unfolding whether that happens, how that happens, when, where, and for whom that may be. The notion of alter-natives does not explain, nor explicate; it demands answers, specific, situated answers, the implications need to be unfolded, traced, maintained, and actualized.
By highlighting the word ‘native’ with the hyphen, I am not suggesting a binary and simplified opposition native-alien. To strive to become alter-native does not mean to claim ‘nativity’, ‘indigeneity’, or ‘endemicity’, rather, it is a process of ‘nativisation’, ‘indigenisation,’ or ‘endemisation’ through a search that attempts to affirm the possibilities of behaviour of those that live in a given place, some of which may be unique to the environment (endemic or indigenous), while others may be natives or foreigners to the places they inhabit.

What is at stake is the enactment of enlivenment through the artificial. While human and many other species are generalists (to varying degrees), numerous species are specialists and have co-evolved through specific relations with other species of the places they inhabit, developing co-dependencies and unique forms and processes in response. These niched capacities make them vulnerable when local differences are not recognised. It is in relation to these vulnerabilities when the work of affirmation may lead to enlivening compositions.
Amid so many absences of living creatures displaced by our designs, there is an urgent need to enact a culture that re-links to the living. This would be a practice of design as (de)sign, in its insistence to care for whom form informs and how signs matter as they scaffold a multitude of ways of being and the processes of life.

Martín Ávila is a designer, researcher, and Professor of Design at Konstfack, the University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden, where he is artistic leader for Design and responsible for the MA Design Ecologies. His PhD work (Devices. On Hospitality, Hostility and Design), was awarded the 2012 prize for design research by The Swedish Faculty for Design Research and Research Education. His postdoctoral project Symbiotic tactics (2013-2016) has been the first of its kind to be financed by the Swedish Research Council. 

Martin’s research is design-driven and addresses tensions in interspecies cohabitation. He is currently working on a collaborative project entitled “Material Cultures for Interspecies Cohabitation,” also financed by the Swedish Research Council (2023-2026). His latest book Designing for Interdependence: A Poetics of Relating was published by Bloomsbury in October 2022.

[1] This article is based on and a synthesis of some of the arguments in my latest book Designing for Interdependence: A Poetics of Relating. Bloomsbury, New York (2022).

[2] This view of interdependence is what biologist Kriti Sharma understands as “contingentism.” Something is contingent when it depends upon its existence on something else, and we can practice this thinking and understanding by constantly asking the question “What does this depend on?”. See Sharma, K. Interdependence. Biology and Beyond. Fordham University Press. New York (2015).

[3] See Maturana, H. and Varela, F. The Tree of Knowledge. Shambhala. Boston and London (1998).

[4] See Hoffmeyer, J. Biosemiotics. An Examination into the Life of Signs and the Signs of Life. University of Scranton Press. Scranton and London (2008: 138).

[5] Kull, K. Scaffolding. In: Favareau, D.; Cobley, P.; Kull, K. (eds.), A More Developed Sign: Interpreting the Work of Jesper Hoffmeyer. (Tartu Semiotics Library 10). Tartu University Press. Tartu (2012: 227–230). 

[6] Donna Haraway develops the notion of response-ability as cultivating knowing and doing, referring to the work of Isabelle Stengers, as “an ecology of practices” (2016: 34). See Haraway, D. J. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. Durham and London (2016).

[7] Jesper Hoffmeyer writes: “The concept of semiosphere adds a semiotic dimension to the more well-known concept of the biosphere, emphasizing the need to see life as belonging to a shared universe of sign activity through which cells, organisms and species all over the planet interact in ways that we still hardly understand. Importantly, every single species (including humans) has only limited access to this semiosphere, because each species’ capacity for sensing and interpreting potential cues in its surroundings, i.e., its interpretance, has evolved to fit a particular ecological niche.” See Hoffmeyer, J. “Semiotic Scaffolding of Living Systems” (p. 153) in Barbieri, M. (Ed.) Introduction to Biosemiotics, Springer Science+Business Media (2008: 149-166).

[8] Plumwood, V. Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling. Australian Ecological review. Issue 44. (2008: 140).

[9] The complexity of the political work relating to ecological activity demands situated responses to assess the threats to local fauna and flora by introduced species that may become invasive. Often at stake are different knowledges validated by differing practices and worldviews. For colonial patterns in ecological work see Anker, P. (2001) Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England. In urban contexts, see Ernstson, H., and Sörlin, S. Grounding Urban Natures. Also, Ernstson, H., and Swyngedouw, E. (Eds.) (2019) Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene. Interruptions and Possibilities. Routledge. London. See also Freja Mathews’ account of conflicting ethics in wildlife conservation, Mathews, F. “The Anguish of Wildlife Ethics.” New Formations 75 (2012: 114-131).

[10] See Hoppe, K. (2019) Responding as composing: Toward a post-anthropocentric, feminist ethics in the Anthropocene. In Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, published online 20.05.2019, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1600910X.2019.1618360