Alisson Avila

Design Anthropology: an essential tool for innovation. Interview with Alisson Avila

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With almost 20 years of multidisciplinary work between Lisbon, São Paulo and Porto Alegre, and a huge sense of adventure towards work, Alisson Avila is a key actor when it comes to innovation in Portugal. In 2009 he co-founded Couture, a people-centered innovation consultancy, which this year has merged with Beta-i , the biggest hub of innovation and incubator in Portugal. While he is not an anthropologist, Alisson is a big advocate of ethnographic tools and approaches to the development of all sorts of projects.

Hi Alisson! What does Design Anthropology mean to you?

The use of Anthropology, namely ethnography, as an essential tool for innovation processes and products and services design oriented to respond to people’s unarticulated needs – in a useful and relevant way.

What is respectful, ethical and conscious design and how can we nudge it?

Assuming the idea that ethics is only experienced when parameterized by “the other” (even if this “other” is a projection of ourselves to others), I would say that a design that is assumed to be respectful, ethical and conscious only exists when it is intended to deliver utility and relevance to those who use it – the “other”.

Everything is parameterized by the ratio of positive impact between both sides. We can and should nudge it by valuing design and innovation processes that take place from the bottom-up: from the one to the whole, from the individual to the collective, from the random fact to the emerging pattern.

Tell us about one of your favourite projects involving design and anthropology.

I think there are countless excellent cases linking design and anthropology. Whether through the presence of anthropologists, whether through self-taught empowerment of people within the discipline, or whether as an external inspiration, the sheer volume of projects under this approach inevitably leads us to more and better case projects.

Of course, I feel more comfortable to name projects where I have been directly involved with the team, so I have more to comment on – and fortunately, there have been dozens over the years!

I would venture to say that the various projects that we have developed for IKEA Portugal over the last few years have been able to build a very interesting critical mass, that goes beyond the “projects objects” and helped the company respond to diverse opportunities and needs of local evolution in terms of service design, portfolio, and perceived value proposition. We also had the privilege of returning to the fieldwork for the last five consecutive years in one of the main music festivals in Portugal, MEO Sudoeste (MSW), to map the experience through attendee’s perspective and recommend its evolution. In scientific/ethnographic terms as well as business development terms, it is undoubtedly a privilege to follow a project of this nature throughout the years – and only the anthropology + design approach would be able to deliver what we did.

What are the tools and methods combined from anthropology and design that you mostly apply to your projects?

We run a lot of different execution formats or approaches around the essentials: behavioral analysis (first face-to-face and then online interactions, developing multiple layers of interpretation); ethnographic workshops, where specific stimuli make us explore values and behavioral practices; and undoubtedly the iteration around conceptual, low-fi or functional prototypes – usually one of the last steps prior to the final business case set up – a moment where the relationship between anthropology and design is inevitable and essential.

Imagine the world in 2050 – what are some of the challenges that design anthropologists will be facing and dealing with?

Life and human behavior in 2050 can be almost unimaginable if we do not accept that science fiction will pass from “fiction” to reality – to “documentary”. For those who accept and deal with change, the future will present a scenario as fascinating as it is challenging in terms of anthropological analysis. We can well think of a convergent scenario between anthropology and scientific data analysis, not to mention “big data” (and this will be a convergence that will increasingly involve other disciplines as time goes by).

I would take for granted that in 2050, artificial intelligence will be far more “evolved” than human organic intelligence. Or, that our current intelligence and organic brain capacity will be much more enhanced and expanded when compared to the current 10% recognized by science. Or, that human-machine integration will lead us to a potential “post-anthropology,” or “techno-anthropology” related to behavioral issues and attitudinal hypotheses that would sound unthinkable today. The idea of a split society, divided between “evolved” and “non-evolved” (thanks to the way people will recognize, understand and (above all) have access to technology) will be a sore reality to be decoded.

I believe that in the world of 2050, anthropologists will have an absolutely inescapable role to understand the context in which we live – and, above all, to evaluate and help the maintenance of human sovereignty or authority over technology.

Life and human behavior in 2050 can be almost unimaginable if we do not accept that science fiction will pass from “fiction” to reality – to “documentary”.

The next question was left by Rachel Charlotte Smith in her interview:

How can the industry support the ongoing development of academic agendas in design anthropology?

Being naturally optimistic, and assuming that organizations tends to interpret the idea of “development of academic agendas” from another perspective (i.e., “procedural rigor and responsibility in design management and innovation”), I would say that this is an expected and welcome scenario. Contemporary companies, the ones aware of their role beyond profit per se, will be increasingly concerned about being relevant and useful. And betting on anthropology + design is the only way for brands to represent something functionally meaningful to people – something beyond the emotional aspects of any brand storytelling. Acting constructively on human behavior for the sake of business, in a win-win relationship, is a winning path for all brands embodying this vision in their culture.

And, lastly, would you be so kind as to leave a question for our next interviewee:

Who took longer to realize the decisive role of this collaboration between anthropology, innovation, and business: the companies or the academic community?

Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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