Designs for interdependence: inspiration from Arturo Escobar

A section of the cover of Designs for the Pluriverse (2018)

In Transition Design class today, we engaged in a video lecture with Arturo Escobar, activist and author of Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds (2018). In this book, Escobar proposes a way of designing, Autonomous Design, that is similar to Carnegie Mellon’s Transition Design, and Ezio Manzini’s Social Innovation. Yet Escobar draws more from critical social theories like Feminist Theory and is deeply embedded in Epistemologies of the South.

Arturo Escobar at the School of Design via Zoom

In his conversation with us — students associated with the Transition Design program at CMU — he touched on some specific points that helped me better understand his philosophy and what it might look like in practice.

Escobar described the role of designers in this way,

“Designers will see themselves as part of that political project. Autonomous Design breaks down the distinctions. It is up to the communities themselves to undergo the transformation. But they are often against the wall, Design’s expert knowledge can be useful for their struggle.”

We are working toward a holistic Pluriverse. He described what we are working against,

“The experience of colonization has suppressed and subordinated knowledges and cosmologies of many people worldwide. The knowledges have to be re-activated. This knowledge is actively produced as nonexistent by the dominant powers. We have been led to believe there is only one way possible. Reality is multiple. Multiple reals and multiple possibles. Fostering and promoting multiple ways of being today.”

  1. Relocating the history of design within the Latin American contributions, outside of patriarchal capitalism.
  2. Make visible other forms of designing that have been present all along, but invisibilized by institutions.
  3. Imagining new forms of collaboration, between different kinds of designing: Conventional design and new forms that are now visible.

Escobar is happy to see that questions and conversations about spirituality have increased in the last ten years. In the past, you couldn’t mention spirituality and be taken seriously in a college classroom. Yet, Escabor described how, “many visions of transition worldwide contain a spiritual component. It’s a reflection of history: a dominant form of secularism and fundamentalisms. Now there is the emergence of new, interesting spirituality. More attuned to the earth, ‘earth spiritualities.’” This work requires a radical shift in our understanding and connection to the earth, to non-humans, and to each other.

In Leela Fernandes’s 2003 book, Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-violence, social justice and the possibilities of a spiritualized feminism she presents an inspiring but intimidating perspective on what is needed in activist work today. She proposes that it is ONLY when we have transformed ourselves, spiritually, to be whole and healed, that then we can do the work of transforming society. She might propose that without addressing spirituality more directly in Transition Design, we will repeat the same mistakes that Feminist practitioners have made, in failing to incorporate the importance or value of spirituality in the work.

If our politics and movements are to be able to fully challenge existing structures of power and inequality they must also rest on a form of spiritual transformation. Such a transformation requires a complete dissociation from the ego-based investments in control, recognition and superiority which are mistakenly identified as self-interest. It requires a brutally honest, inward process of self-examination to dispel the idealized self-images we carry around with us and provide the kind of radical humility required to really manifest social justice in this world. (Fernandes, Transforming, 44.)

Breaking our attachments to anything that we identify with that separates us from others and connects us to power is a demanding type of spiritual practice. This shedding is necessary because, without a spiritual foundation, movements will succumb to the natural flow of the ego– recreating power injustice and marginalizing groups of people. Fernandes reminds us that our most admired social movements connected to spirituality: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Gloria Anzaldua were deeply spiritual people, yet activists today downplay this connection.

The ideal place for transformation, a social justice utopia where we are free from oppressive systems, can be fostered in our every day, as a spiritual practice. Fernandes writes that “Utopia is the labor itself which enables such transformation, not, as is mistakenly assumed, the outcome that results from this labor.” Fernandes’s approach in this way is similar to adrienne maree brown’s leadership philosophy described in Emergent Strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Brown urges a fractal approach as the healthiest way to ensure that your movement embodies the ideal of social justice at every level of practice. Both Fernandes and brown, as feminist, activists, authors recommend that we find wholeness in the work of social change, not just the outcomes.

Design → AntiRacism → Design | pursuing a PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign

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