Giulia Sinatti

Bringing together Social Sciences and industries: An interview with Giulia Sinatti

in Design/Interviews by

Giulia Sinatti is an ethnographic researcher driven by a passion for research that is not only scientifically relevant, but can also make a difference in the world we live in. Her core field of expertise is human migration and she has extensive experience working at the crossroads between academia and practice, undertaking research-informed assignments for grassroots organisations, NGOs, think-tanks, local authorities, national governments and supra-national institutions. She has a multidisciplinary background in anthropology, sociology and human geography and has held positions at universities in Italy, Senegal, the UK and the Netherlands. Currently, she is Assistant Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where she manages the Dutch case-study within the EC Erasmus plus funded PEOPLE, a project bridging the gap between academia and industry in the field of sustainable energy and living.

How did you first get into Design Anthropology?

My formal engagement with Design Anthropology is relatively recent and started when joining PEOPLE, a project funded by the European Commission Erasmus plus programme that brings together higher education from the social sciences with industries from the sustainable living and energy sector. Together we jointly develop and implement practical-based education in universities, in which students are exposed to real life industry challenges of designing new products, services, or business strategies. Doing research linked to an industry setting was new to me when I joined PEOPLE, as my main research expertise is in the field of migration. However, looking back at my migration-related work, I have always been somewhat of a design anthropologist. I have worked both inside and outside university and see myself at the crossroads between academia and practice. From both worlds, I have always tried to reach out to the other: as a practitioner, thinking critically about why things are done in certain ways; as a researcher, striving to generate knowledge that can make a difference. In the migration field, I have undertaken many research-based assignments for NGOs, local and national institutions and intergovernmental organisations, making them aware of the complexities of the problems they addressed and encouraging them to think critically about their own actions. So despite not having labelled myself so far as a ‘design anthropologist’, this is in fact what I have always done and I now feel very comfortable in this position!

What is Design Anthropology? 

To me, design anthropology is undertaking research that is both scientifically informed and contributes to answer concrete, practical questions. As an anthropologist, this means doing more than just generating knowledge, which is what we traditionally do. It requires becoming involved also in the process of translating that knowledge into practical solutions in collaboration with practitioners. On both sides, this calls for new ways of working in inter-disciplinary teams.

How are design & anthropology complementary, and where do they overlap?

Imagine a spectrum with knowledge at one end and a plan for a product or a business model at the other end. This spectrum makes it easy to see how anthropology and design are complementary and where they overlap. Anthropology is closer to the knowledge end of the spectrum. Through observation and interpretation, it generates insight and understanding about the world we live in. Design is about developing the plan to produce something concrete. When you use anthropologically- generated knowledge to inform the development of that plan is where you have overlap between the two. Anthropologists and designers, therefore, have different roles, yet in the practice of design anthropology they meet half-way: the anthropologists contribute new ways of understanding business-related problems and designers work with them to develop new concrete solutions.

To me, design anthropology is undertaking research that is both scientifically informed and contributes to answer concrete, practical questions.

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

When anthropology breaks out of the ivory tower to mingle with practice it raises ethical concerns. This is the case with design anthropology. How do we ensure that research is not influenced by business agendas and interests? Anthropologists are in a strong position to critically address ethical questions like this throughout the research process. Anthropological research typically generates a holistic understanding of complex, wicked problems. It takes into account the perspectives of multiple actors in their context, including the businesses we collaborate with. Taking the step to not only generate knowledge but also engage with action requires positioning oneself: when a benefit for one party involves a loss for another, where do we choose to stand? Anthropological research is sensitive to these kinds of power dynamics and respectful, ethical and conscious design takes into account these kinds of challenges.

People-centred has become a current demand in design. Are practitioners leaning more into a user/consumer-centered design and an anthropocentric way of thinking?

People- and human-centred approaches have indeed become common in design. Whether and how practitioners are adopting these approaches is evident from our experience with the PEOPLE project. Industry practitioners in the field of energy and sustainability are relying on people-centred techniques to deal with innovation that are ‘borrowed’ from anthropology. The way these people-centred techniques are used, however, is often more as an end than as a means. This is because the initial business problem is rarely questioned and is informed by assumptions and hypotheses about how reality works. Anthropology enhances a people- and human-centred approach by taking a more open approach towards its research objects. It sets out without predefined hypotheses; it asks broader, open questions; it becomes immersed in the everyday lives of people; it gathers large amounts of information that may challenge those initial assumptions. Ultimately, adopting a truly anthropological people- and human-centred approach allows practitioners to address business problems that they do not (yet) conceive.

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

In the PEOPLE project, we have so far engaged in research using participatory observation and in-depth interviews in local neighbourhoods that are dealing with the transition to sustainable forms of energy. We are yet to engage in the design phase of the project. This will happen in two international co-creation camps in 2018 and 2019, in which industry and higher education participants in the project from the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the United Kingdom will come together to jointly develop business solutions.

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

There are many well-known examples of design anthropology. One of my favourite ones is from the toy giant Lego. A few years ago Lego faced a severe crisis, struggling to keep up its sales. Based on the assumption that children preferred more modern and electronic games to old-fashioned plastic bricks, the company invested in a range of new products that however struggled to take off. After hiring a group of anthropologists to research the meaning of play, Lego discovered that it is experienced as a break in otherwise overscheduled children’s agendas and that children enjoy having to use creative skills. This insight provided the company with a new way of looking at the problem that they were until then unaware of and set a new agenda for designers to produce Lego for Lego lovers.

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

Climate change and sustainable living are a significant challenge I currently see ahead. There is a big transition that needs to take place in ways of generating and consuming energy, which companies in this sector must address. This is a typical wicked problem: it is difficult to solve because there are contrasting interests at stake and constantly changing requirements. In this situation, companies have incomplete insight into the complexities of the problem. Because of its character, design anthropology is therefore in a strong position to contribute to unpacking the problem first, before new solutions can be found.

If you are currently working on a project using Design Anthropology- What are you currently working at?

I am currently involved in the Dutch case-study for the PEOPLE project. We are researching how different neighbourhoods react to the need to increase reliance on sustainable energy sources. We are comparing bottom-up, resident-driven initiatives with others in which changes in patterns of energy use have been imposed from above. The research aim is to generate insightful knowledge for our Dutch industry partner in the project, Alliander, which faces the challenge of achieving a gas-free energy scenario by 2050.

Starting with this interview, I wanted to add a last question in which I ask the participant to leave one question for the next interviewee. So, what would you ask to the next person we will interview on this topic?

I would really like to hear about the positioning of anthropologists vis-a-vis service designers and other professionals who adopt anthropological methods in their work. Are they collaborators? Competitors? (Where) does our work overlap?


We are looking forward to learning about what our next interviewee will answer to that! On the meanwhile, take care and see you in Lisbon!

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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