11.30.12 | Transblog
“I’ll know my song well before I start singin’”, Bob Dylan proclaimed in his 1962 song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, warning that something big or heavy was going to happen as a result of ours and other countries priorities. He prophetically debuted the song just before the news broke that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba. The song calls for people to observe and consider various issues, albeit abstractly through images of a baby with wolves all around it, a room full of men with hammers bleeding, 10,000 talkers with broken tongues, versus 10,000 whispering and nobody listening. That if people began to stop listening to what the media told them and instead thought about our issues through ground-level observation and empathy, we could possibly prevent this “hard rain”, or the other shoe from dropping.
While I love Bob Dylan with all of my heart and consider him one of the greatest social philosophers of our time, I have to partly disagree with him.
My personal account of Transdisciplinary Design so far has been a kind of wild mental and informational roller coaster. It is uncharted, tricky territory, and has presented some very abrupt confrontations.
In the beginning, there was everything. I mean everything, from new knowledge on systems, to ways of working as a designer, how to function efficiently in groups, how to leverage open source networks, being nearly suffocated by all of the research you can possibly do on a topic only to realize how much more you need to know. At the end, or when you finally throw in the towel (whichever comes first) of navigating convoluted trails of causes and effects of problems from every angle does it occur to you that you don’t and can’t know anything really, at all. Donella Meadows defines this phenomenon in her book Leverage Points as Not Knowing. This divine, looming fact that as individuals we will never be able to fully grasp every aspect of what we are trying to tackle. Frustrating at times, this is actually a humbling and liberating fact of being human. Some things we know for sure, such as issues like gender inequality and over-consumption of raw materials at home and abroad have been proven to be solvable. The problem is, there will always be an element of uncertainty in each unique initiative we take on. To quote Jamer Hunt, “action must be taken in the face of uncertainty”, considering the other consistent elements of the situation: the gigantic and pressing issues and their exponential growth if unaddressed. The cost-benefit analysis is always that the ability to address social and environmental problems with much but incomplete knowledge is better than not addressing them at all.
Bruce Nussbaum would have something to say about it as well. In his article “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?”, he questions whether the good intentions of western countries working to solve the worlds ailments is helping or hindering them. He points to proof that countries like China, Africa and India have rejected many of our earnest initiatives, calling first for homegrown solutions as opposed to removed US or European designers and firms. And secondly that their countries have much to teach us instead. This is a legitimate question considering that we are each born in a specific place in the world and stay there more or less (including those who have moved many times in their lives) and therefore lack a full, indigenous understanding of the rest of the world that we directly or indirectly affect. This issue has risen in my mind multiple times this semester while working on a project addressing deeply systematic issues affecting low-income farmers in rural India. I’ve thought to myself, who am I to be assuming my ideas about improving agriculture practices are viable in this country? I’ve only seen India in pictures! The answer lies in a few places:
• Action must be taken in collaboration with designers with divergent backgrounds to divide and conquer this massive task.
• Designers must work with indigenous stakeholders in the country they are working in, as well as experts in respective fields towards specific ends.
• Together, as co-designers, they ideally would create a system which is unobtrusive to the culture in place there, as well as be seamless, and welcomed by the community.
Of course these are very simple sounding criteria for this type of project, which is where the simplicity ends. But respect and co-design of the cultures you are dealing with is key to remember at every stage of the project. In my position as a wide-eyed student, absorbing every obstacle and bump in the road as its own learning experience is both my priority and responsibility. Remaining aware of my personal limitations, I must always keep in mind that no two scenarios will ever be replicated, in regard to its unique needs and location. It is high awareness at all times.
If I could chat with Bob Dylan about knowing your song well, I would (sure I would!) say to him that we can only know our song so well, that we can only trust the great depth of inspection and introspection we have taken before delving into these massive issues since we’re only able to know so much about what we act on. This is not to say that humanitarian designers are taking a stab in the dark — quite the contrary. But as the issues at hand are inordinately larger, complex and morally consequential than any commercial project brief, there will always be a large element of Not Knowing involved. When that gap arises, I would bet that it emerges out of a block in understanding the practices of a certain location or region you are working in. When that case confronts you, you must take a step back and let them ask you, “How May I Help You?”