Creating counter-narratives: Alastair Fuad-Luke on design activism

I met up with Alastair Fuad-Luke early on a Sunday morning to talk about design activism.

Alastair is currently based in Helsinki as Professor of Practice in Emerging Design Practices at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture (that’s a long title!). Alastair will stay in Finland until December 2014 (at least) and is dividing his time between Aalto University in Helsinki and City of Lahti / Lahti University of Applied Sciences.

Alastair – could you introduce yourself briefly?

I was trained as an inter-disciplinarian and graduated as an environmental scientist in late 70s. I then started my doctoral research in applied biology in Cambridge, but this research was never completed since I set up a consultancy on ecological design – to repair industrial environments. I specialised in ecology and systems thinking and was working with planners, geologists, computer scientists, municipalities, etc. The consultancy soon evolved into an ecological landscape design and build company which is still functioning today, although I have not personally been involved since 1990.

I started to teach design in late 90s, I gave my first lecture on ‘eco-design’ in 1998.

Your most recent book is titled ‘Design activism’. How would you define design activism?

The preliminary definition can be found from the page 27 (this was written in 2009):

Design activism is ‘design thinking, imagination and practice applied knowingly or unknowingly to create a counter-narrative aimed at generating and balancing positive social, institutional, environmental and/or economic change’.
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Helsinki WDC programme announced

Most of the Helsinki World Design Capital 2012 programme was announced today and this will help us to focus the activities of Alternative Design Capital. The details of the programme can be found from this pdf (6MB, available in Finnish only at the moment).

What became clear from the official announcement event was that the cities themselves want to open up and in the context of Helsinki WDC they have initiated many projects that they wouldn’t normally be engaged in. This is very positive. It’s also positive that the project brings together cities of Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Lahti and Kauniainen. The mayors of these cities were the main stars of the event and they gave their own quite distinct views on Helsinki WDC project.

The main problem of Helsinki WDC can be found by studying the programme pdf in more detail. A great majority of all the contact persons mentioned are from big institutions: cities, universities, libraries and big companies. Many of these projects also involve small companies, non-profit organisations and individual people, but it is the big institutions who have the upper hand in the process and it is them who also get the main credit. So, for ADC it’s important to focus on supporting small, independent initiatives and voices.

I also appreciated the comments given by mayors of Espoo (Jukka Mäkelä) and Vantaa (Kari Nenonen). Jukka Mäkelä said that Helsinki WDC should engage the citizens better and also should aim for stronger and bolder visions in terms of city planning, involving the best designers. He was referring to the time when car-free Tapiola garden centre was planned in 50s and 60s – that we should think how this vision should be upgraded to correspond to today’s world.

Concerning the design challenges in Vantaa, Kari Nenonen dared to mention also issues that are not easy and positive, such as high unemployment rate, segregation and ‘syrjäytyminen’, the fact that for various reasons many people have become isolated from the society. These are examples of complex problems that cannot be fixed with a single design solution but require a lot of collaboration between various actors in the society.

Here are the key slides and the mayors:

Alternative Design Capital – the first steps

The first ADC meeting

The first ADC meeting / Photo: Antti Ahonen

Some time ago I wrote a critical blog posting about the upcoming Helsinki World Design Capital year. This posting generated a lot of public discussion and now for some weeks there has been an on-going process to set up an Alternative Design Capital.

What will this Alternative Design Capital aim for and how will it function? We don’t know yet, the discussion about this has only begun. And it’s even unclear how decisions are made. The challenge is to find a healthy ratio between talking and doing, to keep the process open for new ideas but also to fix some key points that can help the project to focus and develop. ADC as an organisation strives to be open and democratic but in contrast to this, in context of design, democracy is most often not the best way to make decisions – this often leads to boring and safe solutions.

There was good energy and great discussions in the first meeting, please join us the second one on Wednesday 19 October 18:00 at HUB Helsinki.

Alternative Design Capital planning wiki can be found here.

Open Helsinki @ DMY MakerLab

I was invited to curate the Open Helsinki & Pixelache Helsinki programme for this year’s DMY MakerLab in Berlin. This was the second edition of DMY MakerLab, dedicated to open design and maker culture.

DMY festival is pretty similar to many other big design fairs, but DMY tries to stand out from the others by emphasising critical and experimental approaches to design, as well as highlighting work done by graduating students and emerging designers. The venue is the amazingly massive Tempelhof airport and this year’s event attracted more than 30 000 visitors. So, it was noisy and busy, but the mood was friendly and relaxed. Most of the MakerLab workshops were well attended and especially the quick drop-in workshop worked very well, people were happy to stop for an hour or so to learn and do something.

Below you can find some glimpses of the Open Helsinki section (YKON Game, Low2No School of Activism, We *Love* Open Data and Massimo Menichinelli / and Pixelache Helsinki section (OHANDA open hardware initiative and Temporary photoElectric Digestopians Worklab by Bartaku).

Temporary photoElectric Digestopians [TpED] are experimental e-tapas designed to provide an electric tickle on a heliotropic tongue. Fusing cooking with solar cell design, light energy is harvested by edible power plants and transformed into electrical energy. After the e-tickle has enriched the taste, the left over energy (kJoules) powers the body and flows further into nature as nutrient for the plants. The TpED worklabs are a node of Bartaku’s ongoing research ‘PhoEf: The Undisclosed Poésis of the Photovoltaic Effect’. Bartaku is a Brussels based artistic researcher and member of transdisciplinary lab FoAM. Here are some TpED photos and Bartaku’s interview at WMMNA.

is an initiative to foster sustainable sharing of open hardware and design. It was first drafted at the GOSH!-Grounding Open Source Hardware summit at the Banff Centre in July 2009 and one of the first goals of the project is to build a service for sharing open hardware designs which includes a certification model and a registration. More information at

The YKON Game was one of the nominees for the DMY 2011 Award. YKON Game is a world simulation game for up to 30 -50 players, inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s World Game. The game is based on a simple thought experiment: Imagine that the world is brought to a complete halt. Everything stops. No more business as usual. With the world being frozen, you and your fellow players can tinker with the world as you please. What will you change? How do you convince others to go along with your changes? And what about the consequences? In short: The YKON Game is a workshop, party and therapy session in one. 

The Low2Now Camp
by Demos Helsinki project brought a busload of urban activists from Helsinki to Berlin. During three days they hosted the Low2No School of Activism and explored the local scene in Berlin. More information and great examples of urban grassroot initiatives can be found at Low2Now Camp blog.

Massimo Menichinelli
from gave two presentations: ‘Open P2P Design’ and ‘Open P2P Design & Markets and business models for Open and DIY projects’. You can find the presentation slides here.

We *Love* Open Data
is a bunch of open data researchers and enthusiasts from Helsinki. This informal collective was formed for the occasion of DMY MakerLab but has continued its activities afterwards as well. During DMY the group managed to collect and visualize information about rental prices in Berlin. In addition, Miska Knapek presented some of his sculptures which visualize/materialize long time spans of weather data. More info at blog.

You can find more information about these and other MakerLab projects from DMY Berlin website. Some additional photos can be found from my DMY Berlin photoset and I also made a short walk-through video of the DMY MakerLab area.

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About DMY MakerLab:
The DMY MakerLab serves as a public experimentation space for accessing new technologies, communicating and exchanging concepts. Inaugurated in the 2010 DMY design festival, the lab is the first large maker platform in Germany and was enthusiastically received by the press, public and professionals alike. The lab unites inventors, designers and visitors in a workshop area fitted with some of the finest techno­lo­gies and materials available, side by side with low-tech instruments and applications. Visitors may learn how to grow medicinal mushrooms, experience seasonal influences while working with fabrics, access and visualise open data and collectively map ideas. Moreover, they can engage in full day workshops on open hardware, benchmarking of environmental case studies or Cradle to Cradle principles.


Digital Craftsmanship

Photo: Pulse by Markus Kison (DE)

According to the participants of Pixelache09 Digital Craftsmanship seminar, Digital Craftsmanship involves:

  • Thinking with your hands
  • Developing digital media cookbooks and recipes
  • Getting different people to share same focus, taking steps in the areas where they are not comfortable
  • Contributing back to the community of teachers
  • Being cross-over artists and designers, enough skills to 99% of things needed
  • Allowing non-specialists to enter, make technology itself culturally diverse
  • Building spaces for learning that reflect the culture that we have online

The discussion involved people from UdK Berlin, Culture Lab Newcastle, Taik Media Lab, Konstfack Stockholm, Kitchen Budapest and other schools/labs. It was evident that digital craftsmanship is difficult to compare with traditional master-apprentice relationship. It seems to be more about a specific approach (or one could even say attitude) to working with digital media. All the basic building blocks (physical parts, hardware, software) are kept open for modifying and one should have enough skills and confidence to work on all different aspects of the project. A key for successful learning and development is to be connected to a network of peers and knowledge / resources that can be shared.

(>> original posting on Pixelache09 site)