As you can see elsewhere in this blog, I’m used to start my texts from a very personal, individual perspective. There’s always a lot of “me” and “I” and “mine”. And often quite a bit of “you”. I was trying to find a way to describe in English how I feel about that in present times. In my mother tongue I would say my thinking has a “vício”. Even though we usually translate “vício” as “addiction”, that does not make much sense here. My good friend WordReference suggests “vice” might work. It makes sense - vices and virtues, the old polar opposition. It seems too extreme, however. I am arguably influenced by the expression “vício de origem” in Portuguese. I believe I borrow that from having done a bit of policy / lawmaking in years gone. A legislative bill is considered as having a “vício de origem” when it was proposed by the wrong institutional body, or not in the appropriate form. Another variant in Portuguese is the expression “dados viciados”, or “loaded dice” in English (thanks again, WordReference): no matter how you throw they have a high probability of giving similar results.
And there goes my original intent of making this text short. It won’t work. Nevermind. In fact my plan was to write a couple of paragraphs to send to a friend asking for advice. My notes prior to writing those paragraphs kept growing, and this post was born. I wasn’t certain I would even want to make it public, but I felt like asking more people for feedback. I still have one central question, though. To those willing to jump straight to it, here it goes: where should I seek to publish my research outcomes? I’m open to suggestions, please send your comments.
Now back to my usual mix of reflection, exploration and therapy. This text is related to that other one called A spiral of openness. Not as a linear sequence to it, but rather another turn of the spiral through which I build ideas in the open. Which ideas, one may ask? Well, the way I describe them this bright morning in a balcony in Berlin goes like the following.
My research is exploring ways to promote the reuse of second-hand goods and materials in cities and regions. The central motivation for that is the perception that most of the public discussion about waste handling in contemporary cities focuses on improving the efficiency of collection of household waste. The collected material is expected to be sent to recycling, incineration or kept in controlled landfills, hopefully in a clean, neat and invisible way. This is, for lack of a better word in English, wasteful. In Portuguese we would use “desperdício”. When it comes to smart cities, my official research topic per the grant agreement, things are even worse. Most of what is said about waste in a smart city context is about the so-called smart bins and the routing of waste collection. My alternative take on it was to focus on waste prevention rather than waste management, with a particular emphasis on practices of reuse - repair, upcycling and redistribution. The way I see, these practices should aim at providing benefits to local societies - socio-ecological, socio-economic, cultural, educational. As with other valuable resources, it is my belief that discarded materials should belong to society instead of being given to outsiders for free. Rather than expecting ultra-efficient and lean for-profit corporations to perform that job, I hope to help create systems that allow cooperatives, community associations and mission-driven enterprises to thrive based on an abundance of materials and innovative skills. There will surely be room for recycling companies at the end of the process, but they should not be the only ones deserving attention, research, public awareness and investment.
In the first year of the OpenDoTT project, we have focused on design research techniques and methodologies. I have conducted two studies to explore reuse and repair, and created concept ideas based on those studies. During the second year, as well as adapting to a global pandemic Zeitgeist, getting divorced and moving to a different country with two kids, the project drove me to a phase of prototyping. I am exploring ideas of free/open technologies and infrastructure to help on assessing the potential value of discarded materials, and improving the capacity of local societies to realise that value. I think there is an important role to be played by initiatives that build ways to generate and gather information about how to assess the value of materials and how to reuse them, and to share this information in a distributed way. Another side of my current effort at prototyping was an online co-design lab I have conducted for about a month, in which participants from all continents explored reuse from diverse perspectives. The lab itself is possibly turning into an open community to keep discussing these ideas and building cooperation.
When looking for a suitable domain name to host online documentation about the lab, I found a formulation that made sense, and I expect to gain importance in the way I describe my research in the future: “reuse city”. I remember agreeing with Saskia Sassen when I saw her replying to a question, almost a decade ago, in a conference in Medellín (it even inspired me to write this text (portuguese only). She observed that the explosion of adjectives juxtaposed to “city” might rob those terms of any meaning. Green city, sustainable city, education, smart, circular. Shouldn’t the city be all of that in itself? I do see on the other hand that adding these terms may be useful to focus the discussion on specific matters. In the same way that I have written about the “generous city” earlier on my research, I am at the moment happy to frame my work around the idea of a “reuse city”. It is naturally associated (another turn of the spiral?) with my critical take on the maker culture of some years ago. But it can also allow me to frame the next phase of OpenDoTT, which focuses on policy, while connecting to fields such as circular economy, zero waste and socio-ecological innovation.
That were a long three paragraphs, but they could grow tenfold if I needed it. I am usually comfortable talking and writing about the context and activities of my research in such an open way. It is a different sensation when I’m asked to talk about methodology. I’m always short on explaining how I will go about analysing my research data. I may sound apologetic or too descriptive. On other occasions, I sound too activist, in the sense that I come out as trying to persuade instead of trying to acquire knowledge. A common question when talking to my supervisors is “what do you want to learn with that activity”? It is indeed a simple question, but I would like to pause exactly there. I find it hard to honestly see knowledge as something external to myself. Paulo Freire, if I remember correctly after more than a decade of reading it, explained that knowledge can not be transmitted from one person to the other, but is created over and again when people learn. It is not an object.
My writing - perhaps excessively self-referent - does not feel like an attempt to galvanize acquired knowledge, but rather to draw lines from my own embodied experience and learnings. My friend and former supervisor at my master’s in Unicamp Rafael Evangelista is a social scientist with a PhD in social anthropology. I remember problematising ethnography and anthropology at class and while writing my dissertation. That distinction is made very clear by Tim Ingold: “Anthropology is studying with and learning from (...). Ethnography is a study of and learning about”. I tend to align with the former. I do not investigate practices of reuse in cities as an uninterested, objective observer. Being twice during the project - first in Dundee, now in Berlin - a foreign citizen in a new city trying to adapt to different social organisation, culture, weather and language, I feel particularly well positioned to consider my own lived experience as a good source of insight for the research. Not the only one, naturally. But even when interacting with participants, which I do enjoy and take pleasure on, I don’t approach them as if I was merely a design researcher hired by a company or institution to investigate (through “ethnography”?) how they can help such company or institution to create better products or services. I am part of the ecosystem, as an individual as well as citizen, activist, policy-maker and any other hats I might use.
Did I just mention I do not see myself as a design researcher? Well, there’s a lot of other roles I don’t feel like playing. And it may be related to my general suspicion of disciplines. I never felt part of a particular field of expertise. I dropped out of college three times before finishing my undergrad studies, on a field that suffers of personality disorder in Brazil. Before the turn of the century, it was called “social communication”, encompassing journalism, advertising and public relations. Design was not a career option where and when I began my studies.
Over time, parts of the social communication field started to discuss the internet as well, but often from a very institutional perspective that tried to replicate on the internet whatever were the usual common practices of PR and advertising. I remember being impressed then to read the cluetrain manifesto. To be clear here, the manifesto was also mainly addressed at the business world, but proposing that the language on the internet should be totally different, human, community-oriented. Markets are conversations, and so on. I remember reading another text by Chris Locke, one of cluetrain’s authors. He told the story of being once asked by someone in Japan about who allowed him to read a book, him not being part of that particular field of expertise. By the time I read that, I was already academically disconnected from social communication, and excited with whatever the internet had to offer.
In the next years, whilst getting involved with nonprofits and activism, I was a founding member of very diverse online communities both in Brazil and abroad. We had a constitutive effort at keeping conversations accessible while still relevant. We had engineers and educators, philosophers and hackers, permaculture types and designers. Whenever someone wanted to bring references from their field of knowledge, they were asked to summarise and simplify for the others. That made all, myself included, exposed to a wide range of modes of thinking, albeit in a more superficial way than any expert. My way of engaging with that diversity has always concentrated on organising and writing. I remember entertaining with peers in some of those communities the idea of anti-disciplinary research, but I confess I gave up when I saw that very formulation in bold capital letters on the website of MIT’s Media Lab.
When I eventually returned to academia for my Master’s, I had some trouble fitting in. Luckily, it was an interdisciplinary programme that allowed me to stay in the border and never picking a particular side. My dissertation started describing the scenario of digital inclusion and experimental digital culture in Brazil, went through field observation when I helped curate part of a festival and visited spaces abroad, and finally explored the idea of networked experimental labs as spaces intentionally left undetermined. It is not clear to me in what field of knowledge that work would fit, but time and again I have received positive feedback about it.
In following years, by participating on an action-research project about open science and development, I got closer to the field of social studies of science, and was satisfied to get acquainted with researchers working on that. I do however get a bit of impostor’s syndrome there. It feels as though my research does not go deep enough in order to be relevant in that field. As if I would need to work a lot more on understanding and describing the configuration of power, culture and social geography underlying the dynamics I want to investigate. Or would I?
That brings me to the main question of this long post. I am currently a PhD researcher at Northumbria University. The EU-funded research project I am part of is an industry-university partnership with the Mozilla Foundation, in Berlin. From the academic side, it is situated in the School of Design, specifically on HCI - human-computer interaction. From what I learnt, the most important conferences on the field are CHI and DIS. I don’t feel particularly drawn to either. I don’t feel like I have the proper set of prior reading and according vocabulary to engage with that particular setting. OpenDoTT is also strongly connected with design research - another area that I don’t feel part of, but that is apparently quite open to transdisciplinary approaches.
Here too however I have issues, particularly with the sensation mentioned above, of design research being structured originally to acquire knowledge from within communities to serve research goals located elsewhere. Call me picky, but one of the outcomes of our open science project of some years ago that got me most excited was the proposal to reframe it as common science, inspired by Antonio Lafuente. In that sense, I would like my research not only to be a way to extract information from a community, but rather to involve the community members in the making and defining the very purpose of research. I believe I am following that direction in the best possible way, but still do not know what kind of publication would be interested in that kind of work, in a way that also allows me to obtain a PhD in design.
This is not an attempt to override my supervisors, with whom I keep learning a lot, but rather to be true to my own instinct of developing ideas in the open and make way for the unexpected, even harder to accomplish when working from home. Thanks to the few of you who have endured this long account of a mid-term PhD identity crisis. I know I’m not the only one.