After more than four years of work amid challenging conditions, I have recently achieved the most important milestone of my PhD research. I have successfully defended my thesis before an examination board composed of an internal examiner (Professor Joyce Yee, Northumbria School of Design) and an external examiner (Professor Gordon Hush, Glasgow School of Art). The session was chaired by Dr Mark Bailey, also from Northumbria. My main supervisor Dr Nick Spencer was also present in the room.
The final title of my thesis submitted on 30/06/2023 is "Generous cities – weaving commons-oriented systems for the reuse of excess materials in urban contexts". The process of defending the thesis is also called "viva" in the UK. In my case, it took the following shape: the examiners and the chair met at closed doors for about 30 minutes before my supervisor and I were invited in. I then talked briefly about my research. It was not a summary of my thesis, since the examiners had the chance to read it in full, but a short presentation highlighting its most important aspects from an academic standpoint. Then the examiners asked questions about my work and I was able to respond. After about two hours of discussions, I left the room with my supervisor again while the examiners wrote a report about the viva.
The examiners recommended the University award my degree, subject to modifications that emerged during the discussion. I have now some months to perform such modifications and submit an updated version before I earn my title.
Differently from what I know of Universities in other locations, the viva is not a public event. From what I heard, it is rare for a thesis to be approved immediately during the viva. This characteristic may lead to some confusion for my friends and acquaintances used to seeing the defence as an open and final moment of the doctoral studies.
For what it's worth, the discussion I had with the examiners was extremely fruitful. Instead of, as I expected, having my literature or methodology severely criticised, what I had was a positive conversation on how to make the thesis more consistent. Instead of being considered too bold or insubstantial, they recommended being bolder on my concept of generous cities as a way to frame regenerative ways to handle excess materials locally. My spiral-shaped methodology for developing research was also suggested to be a valid contribution to scholarship, so I will explore it a bit more in the final version.
This is probably the second-to-last post to this blog. Further documentation of my research and potential future projects stemming from it will be published on the reuse.city wiki.
As a curiosity, due to the COVID era and the characteristics of OpenDoTT, the programme my PhD was part of, this was only the second time I've been to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The first one happened even before I was enrolled at Northumbria and still a PhD candidate at the University of Dundee. I am finalising my doctoral studies at Northumbria without having ever been to the library, for example. No to mention the pubs and coffe shops I've never been to. Nonetheless, on the few days there I was happy to meet some friends for dinner and lunch.
Before the viva, I prepared slides and a guiding text. I never read during my presentations, so the text is not a script but rather a device I used to organise thoughts. As happens often, my presentation diverged substantially in shape from the text. But I share the text below to document the moment.
Saravá Exu, que abre caminhos
Saravá meu pai Ogum, guerreiro da luz
Agradeço a abertura e generosidade da instituição que me acolheu com paciência
Agradeço o apoio delicado e contínuo de meu orientador Nick Spencer
First of all, let me thank you Dr. Mark Bailey for chairing this session. Thanks, Professor Joyce Yee and Professor Gordon Hush for composing the board.
I appreciate the time you put into reading my thesis. After submitting it in June, I left it to sleep for a couple of months and recently re-read it. It was not an easy task. I am fully aware that there are corrections to be made, and I expect our conversation today to bring more elements and improvements to it. Still, I feel like I am reaching the end of an important moment in my life, and am grateful to be here.
As you have read my thesis, I won't be presenting all of its chapters. I want to concentrate on three points. What my contribution was, how I went about to produce it, and what happens next.
As I believe was made clear throughout the text, my main objective was to contribute to reimagining and reshaping how excess materials are handled in current times, particularly in cities and communities.
Another element I hope can be perceived throughout my thesis is a critique of top-down attempts to solve contemporary problems. From the smart city narrative to the circular economy and Green New Deal type of policies, real and deep participation seems to be always lacking.
It's important to be attentive to superficial depictions that treat cities as composed merely of households and businesses, among which flows of information, matter and resources should be optimised. Stirling calls attention to the need for culturing change, by combining neat policy with messy everyday politics.
Rooted partly on my past experience, I have explored that from a perspective of conviviality, to use the words of Illich. I expect my work can help create commons-based alternatives for greater reuse of materials instead of merely improving the efficiency of industrially-minded waste management. Of course, I don't expect my work to reduce substantially the gross volume of waste produced in the world. My focus is on preventing the premature discard of materials still potentially usable that are out there already.
In my search for alternatives, I pay particular attention to - and hope to promote more of - commons-based systems. I put an emphasis on the idea of generosity, translated here as those intentional acts of care towards fellow city-dwellers in the form of making goods and materials available to others, as well as in community-organised repairs.
Generosity as a political choice seems to be even more important when the world is looking for novel ways to address what I called the trouble, to echo Donna Haraway. That is the multiple crises of current times. Climate change, economic inequality, dissolution of social ties. All suggest that convivial responses are needed to move forward.
The theme of participation was present throughout my investigation. Not only for extracting data and validating my ideas but also in an ongoing effort to deconstruct the different roles I played. That allowed me to produce an open-ended discussion, generating outputs such as datasets, design concepts and prototypes. Part of that is raw material that I still intend to develop further, as I'll discuss later today. In parallel, my research journey also led me to reflect on methods for building - and in some cases weaving - community-grounded knowledge. In other words, "how?"
My research tries to promote an unusual point. I acknowledge that this is not at all uncommon, of course. In fact, it should be expected of a PhD investigation. I need to mention it nonetheless.
A usual reaction I get when I tell people about my work is "That's great, you're also working with recycling!". In other words, the social imaginary around the topic of waste leads people to believe recycling is the appropriate solution for all and any unused material. Even though I found interesting movements happening in terms of policy and activism to prioritise waste prevention over waste management, that is still very distant from public opinion.
There is however a growing number of people in the whole world who have been actively countering that way of thinking. Of course, my past engagement with reuse initiatives gave me clues about it. The question was then how to acquire evidence that would allow the validity of a reuse-based approach to be tested and expanded on.
My PhD was first of all a dive into the conditions of doing research at the intersection of academia, industry and society, guided by design and by reflections on participatory policy. My own positionality emerged meanwhile as a sort of foreigner to all of those areas. I never saw myself as an academic, a technologist, a designer or a policy-maker. Yet, my research led me to reflect on all of those perspectives.
As I mentioned earlier, I knew I wanted to focus on conviviality and on participatory ways of generating knowledge - with people instead of about people as put by Tim Ingold. As I saw limits on literature about the reuse of materials through practices of repair, upcycling and re-circulation, it made sense to focus on people with lived experience in the field. I was interested in the knowledge embodied in their real-world experience. Echoing Paulo Freire, my perspective was not one of extracting knowledge from people but rather facilitating its creation through generative themes.
There is a curious title translation I was reminded of recently. The Craftsman, written by Richard Sennett, was published in France as "Ce qui sait la main". That which the hand knows, in a free translation. That was part of what I wanted to achieve by engaging in conversation with experienced practitioners.
As you have read in my thesis, I took inspiration from some elements of Brazilian and Latin American cultures and scholarship to help structure my thinking. One such element was the image of a spiral, denoting a sort of circularity that is not closed on itself. The research studies and explorations I performed for my research were not linear in a straight way (as by the way seems to have been planned by the OpenDoTT project). It had recurrency in part but had no clear beginning or ending. Besides, it was not only the field that changed during my research. Rather, I was acting, reflecting and being transformed throughout.
My approach to design drew on Arturo Escobar's view that communities design themselves in an autopoietic form. Through the three cycles of my research spiral, I was able to engage with the field and explore with it a series of elements: convivial, generative, community-based, decolonial, inclusive, and participatory. Those are reflected in my thesis, and also part of what I intend to do next.
My dive into design research was fruitful and fundamentally changed the way I approach my work. I recall a conversation I had in the first months with my then-supervisors in Dundee. I told them that I had experience with participatory initiatives, but felt that I relied too much on intuition and hunches. I expected that research through design would offer ways to make my decisions more solid. I like to think that this is present in my thesis. Further, moving away from my doctoral investigation but still on the topic, the idea of borrowing designerly methods to promote change in the world is now part of my vocabulary. I would like to give some examples of that. I am creating, in collaboration with a designer based in Amsterdam, a participatory method to develop community-centred initiatives. Its name is semente, Portuguese for seed. It is spiral-shaped and engages with communities as central elements (not based on individual project leaders, as digital open-source projects often propose).
There are discussions about using semente as a tool for a series of upcoming projects.
In seeking an academic home for my research interests, I found myself engaging with the STS world. I believe social studies of science and technology would be my academic habitat after the academic journey I went through in recent years. Reuse Commons, the paper I published in the Fab17 summit (part of the Fablabs network) was a first attempt at that. I believe parts of my thesis - the fieldwork chapters, or the spiral of openness - can be shaped as papers and other contributions in that context.
The kind of composition between academic research, participatory design and social innovation is arguably exactly what a program such as OpenDoTT was supposed to stimulate. Knowledge generation at the intersections of fields, as I mentioned a couple of times.
My observation of cities and policy also allowed me to join an artistic cooperation programme about policy and digital rights called CODE, through which I collaborated with a German artist to create a piece about geospatial data that was just exhibited in Ars Electronica, in Austria.
Finally, I am raising funds to make my research notes and outputs public on an open repository under the reuse.city domain name, through which new projects can emerge.