Rachel Charlotte Smith is assistant professor of design anthropology at Aarhus University.
Her research focuses on relations between design, culture and technology, specifically on social change and transformation through emerging technologies. Exploring and developing theoretical and methodological approaches between social anthropology, interaction design and participatory design her research contributes to the development of design anthropology as a transdisciplinary field of academic research. Her PhD thesis, Design Digital Cultural Futures: Design Anthropological Sites of Transformation (2013), focused on the development of an interventionist design anthropology to explore and address future aspects of digital cultural heritage through collaborative processes of investigation.
Smith’s research engages with the shaping of emergent cultural practices and technologies, including the transformation of digital cultural heritage in cultural institutions, development of digital technology and design thinking in future educational practices, and exploration and design of automated urban futures. She is co-founder of the international Research Network for Design Anthropology and co-editor of two books at the forefront of design anthropology: Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice (2013) and Design Anthropological Futures (2016).
Hi Rachel. It is a pleasure to talk with you!
How did you first get into Design Anthropology?
I was invited to do a PhD at Aarhus University at the intersection of social anthropology and interaction design, using participatory design approaches to explore new opportunities for creating museums experiences in a digital age. This was in 2009, where there was a good environment in Denmark for funding for collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects across industry and academia. There had been a series of projects, such as Joachim Halse (2008), Brendon Clark (2010), and Mette Kjærsgaard (2011), exploring design anthropology as a new field of research and practice. I was working with anthropology in design, innovation, development and filmmaking, and saw the project as an opportunity to coin some of my experiences into this emerging field. My research added to these projects while contributing to developing what I called an interventionist design anthropology, where the anthropologists are the driver of exploring new opportunities with diverse stakeholders towards social change (Smith 2013).
What is Design Anthropology for you?
Design anthropology is an opportunity for anthropology to explore and intervene in processes of design and innovation using collaborative, future-oriented, reflexive and experimental approaches. Design anthropology’s distinctive focus on future challenges forces anthropologist to move beyond conventional descriptive roles towards new forms of actively ‘designing cultures’. Ton Otto and I (2013) have argued for design anthropology as a distinct way of knowing, one which incorporates both analysis and intervention in the process of constructing knowledge. This approach involves defining and inventing the ethnographic field, and even to an extent the ethnographic subject(s), as well as acting situationally to produce various cultural agendas through the research and design process.
Design anthropology is an opportunity for anthropology to explore and intervene in processes of design and innovation using collaborative, future-oriented, reflexive and experimental approaches.
Tell us about one of your favourite projects involving design & anthropology.
I like projects that attempt to create positive change and transformation, and luckily there are more and more of those. For the past 4-5 years, I have been working on a research and development project exploring possibilities for integrating maker technologies and design thinking in primary and secondary education – the Danish FabLab@School project. We have worked in a small interdisciplinary research team using qualitative research, design interventions, explorative and participatory design approaches with both students, teachers and local politicians in four Danish municipalities. Our objective has been to develop new digital design literacies among students and new digital practices and cultures in and between the schools. One reason for the projects’ success has been the focus and backgrounds between design and anthropology that we brought to the project, and our ‘insistence’ on a bottom-up and contextual approach to technology development and empowerment in education. The project has been highlighted as an ideal model of interdisciplinary research, one that creates impact within academia, local communities and the wider society. Our approach is being tested in Spain, Italy and Holland and we are giving input to national level curricula development of a new technology subject.
Imagine the world in 2050 – What are some of the challenges that design anthropologists will be facing and dealing with?
New technological innovations and digitalization of society will no doubt be on the future agendas of design anthropologists. We must develop new ways of dealing with complex development processes that involve digital technology and the increasing backgrounding of knowledge and data. The rising agendas of automation, artificial intelligence, algorithms, and computational structures are necessary for design anthropologists to address. This involves finding new ways of researching and engaging in complex computational design processes, asking new types of questions and producing other forms of knowledge than we have previously been used to. Many researchers in human computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, digital sociology, participatory design, etc, highlight this increasing gap between the idealized world of computation and the messy real-world processes and consequences of digitalization that is currently happening. And this is one of the central areas that design anthropologists should be focusing.
Cross questioning- this one comes from Hugo Rocha (June´s post), who wanted to know: Why should businesses care about Design Anthropology?
Design anthropology builds on long-standing notions of ‘ethnography in, of, and for design’, which in many ways have been successful as ways of researching e.g. user and consumer behavior and needs and feeding them into the design or innovation process. But ethnography is often reduced to a set of methods and tools that become detached from social theory and anthropological approaches to human practices and everyday cultures. Design anthropology’s future-oriented focus on exploring the space between what is and what might be, connects theory and practice across design and anthropology and can integrate social theory and real-world challenges into developing more sustainable ways of innovation. Interestingly, the question is often what academic research can do for the industry and not the reverse.
What questions would you like our next interviewee and readers to reflect on?
How can industry support the ongoing development of academic agendas in design anthropology?