Deepa Butoliya: There is no prescriptive way to do Speculative and Critical Design

July 2, 2020

James Auger interview with Deepa Butoliya, researcher and assistant professor at Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.

Deepa Butoliya is an assistant professor at Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Dr. Butoliya’s research is located at the intersection of models of knowledge and critical thinking emerging from multiple and global perspectives. Her doctoral research explored critical design practices from the global south and the criticality embedded in the ubiquitous and very human practice of Jugaad which is a Hindi term for make-do situated under severe constraints. As a part of her research, she has co-curated an international exhibition and organized a symposium to explore the current practices in Speculative and Critical Design by bringing in global perspectives in the knowledge, research and practice of this genre of design. She wants to help create a sustainable, equitable, and inclusive environment for societies with local awareness and a global perspective and conducts her teaching and research with a mission to bring ingenuity to the ever-evolving landscape of design, technology, and culture. Deepa has presented her research and conducted workshops at several conferences like IDSA, Making Futures, EPIC, CHI, IASDR and Speculative Futures. Deepa holds an MDes from IIT Kanpur in India, an MFA from the University of Illinois, Chicago and she has earned her doctoral degree from Carnegie Mellon University. She is a proud mother of two boys.

I had the pleasure of reviewing your CHI workshop paper on Critical Jugaad. Could you say a few words about this term and why it is relevant to the design community?

Critical Jugaad is jugaad done as an act of everyday resistance and survival. Critical Jugaad is a term I have coined that is based on an inquiry that explains how people use ingenious making practices like jugaad as a tool for resistance, subversion and criticality against colonial powers of oppression. Jugaad is a Hindi term which means making do with what you have at hand. Jugaad-like practices form cultural binders and empower people to find a collective force to fight oppression while practicing creative self-expression.

The culturally specific way of solving problems in India and the South Asian continent at large, has a significant role to play as well. Indians, in general, tend to derive value by solving problems in resource constraints by hacking the available resources and turning them into meaningful opportunities and livelihoods. Jugaad informs that essence as it defines a deeply rooted design disposition that is inherent in the Indian culture and embedded within the fabric of design in India. Although Jugaad is an Indian concept, such tendencies are found in other non-European contexts as well, such as Jua Kali in Kenya, Rasquachismo in Mexico and Gambiarra in Brazil. It could also be understood in terms of practices such as DIY, hacking, kludging, etc. in Western contexts where making processes might differ in intent.

I propose Critical Jugaad through several modes of expression of critical acts of everyday resistance by non-experts, and their uptake in art and scholarly work by artists and designers who are using this practice as a post-colonial response to the current state of mainstream design futures education and practice.

Critical Jugaad as a practice is a nonviolent critique that provokes and questions the techno-utopian imaginaries in futures discourse. Criticality is manifested through critique and criticism of the social, cultural, economic and political issues engulfing a nation, through ingenious sociomaterial practices. My research inquiry is about tapping into the potential of such sociomaterial practices and the epistemology of the critical practices that happen outside the preconceived assumptions of criticality. The design community has been obsessed with critical practices manifested through design, especially over the last decade, as expert driven and intellectual designerly practices. However, being critical about the functioning of state and industry is not bound by a niche design practice but a democratic right of every individual. The design community needs to come to terms with critical making and design as practiced by marginalised communities, which is far more effective in its critique and intended social change than most critical practices claim to be.

Critical Jugaad framework

Whilst completely agreeing with your critique of Western maker communities, the problematic system they emerged out of (dominant consumer culture, global corporations, built-in-obsolescence, etc.) is so entrenched and pervasive that any positive alternatives seem doomed to fail (or exist as a hobby for the relatively well-off). What could we learn from the jugaad approach, and more importantly – at a time when many hand-tools are being removed from school workshops (replaced by laser cutters and 3D printers) – how can we challenge the dominance of Silicon Valley and its approach to designed objects?

You are absolutely right about the fact that these Western maker communities emerged out of the problematic dominant power structures as a counter-culture. The only problem is that these practices are hardly counter cultural as they do exist within the confines of the same power structures. You need to order a spool of polymer for your makerspace 3D printer from the same supplier that supplies to the other manufacturers, for example.

Jugaad is similar to the lean approach taught in manufacturing and even software design and development – do more with less, zero waste, etc. Oftentimes the knowledge required for jugaad is locally and contextually situated. If we imagine a dystopian scenario (which is such a favourite of the Speculative Design community) in which mainstream manufacturing has collapsed, what do we often see? A reliance on hacked older technologies. So even for Speculative Design future envisionings, jugaad is a valuable context to look into, not in a dystopian futures sense, but also in terms of thinking about long term sustainability. The dominance of Silicon Valley’s thinking is prevalent because of their appeal to the younger generations; however, there is even a growing number of people in that demographic that do care about sustainability and harm caused by industrialised economies to our planet and are open to alternatives. In my opinion, jugaad has roots for that alternative which already seems to be springing up in bits and pieces around the globe. So while the use of 3D printers and laser cutters seems to be “in” merely due to speed and convenience, its limitations are also very visible to both students and practitioners. Jugaad approaches are all about using what’s available in terms of resources, so leveraging these existing technologies in frameworks of jugaad is also a good alternative. For example, the concept of frugal science by Prof. Manu Prakash, who devised a fifty-cent microscope that folds like origami. Hence, the best way to challenge Silicon Valley approaches is to subvert them or leverage them to our advantage for a sustainable and equitable future.

SCD community is capable of shaking up its image as an intellectual, privileged practice to be more inclusive and social justice oriented.

We are living in complicated times, politically, environmentally, culturally. After several years of Speculative and Critical Design evolution, do you think that it can have a more influential role in shaping futures / alternatives beyond the discussions that typically take place in the design community?

I do believe that SCD can have a more influential role in shaping futures and alternatives because of its premise and capacity to decouple itself from its primary role of service to the industry and actually put people and environment as its central concerns. This evolution in Speculative and Critical Design practices and approaches, albeit slow, has shown that the SCD community is capable of shaking up its image as an intellectual, privileged practice to be more inclusive and social justice oriented. The evolution of this practice into being more collaborative and participatory does make it more influential in shaping the way we think about futures.

As I am reflecting on these questions in the current time of the COVID-19 crisis, it has become even more relevant in terms of influencing the real world. While we were all busy thinking about artificial intelligence and robots, a simple virus changed the world and brought us all to a momentary pause. Now there is an actual need to take this practice on a more practical and global level to envision how we would live in the future of such a biologically altered world.

Could it adopt a more political / activist role? If so, how could this aspect be incorporated into education?

It could and it should. That is exactly what I want to inform people about through my research. A lot of examples I have shown in my research do have a political / activist role using Critical Jugaad approaches as a tool for survival and resilience that often comes from marginalised communities. Incorporating this aspect into education is unavoidable, not just important, as we are exploring the knowledge preexisting in our psyches. I don’t have a prescription for how this should be incorporated; however, I do have a few thoughts which I am personally exploring as well. We need to partner with existing groups, NGOs and non-NGO institutes which are already fighting for social justice and have a political / activist agenda and are aware of procedures and policies. These groups should be formal partners in the course and students should pair up with these groups where there is an exchange of knowledge and a co-speculative-design session where futures and alternatives are imagined using design training and practical and informed knowledge of these groups. These groups / institutions could be chosen by the students based on their personal experiences and values that are beneficial to the communities where they belong. We are currently living in unprecedented circumstances where fascist policies are being pushed in the disguise of development where “futures” are focused. Encouraging students and educators to focus on an activist lens for such practice is a critical need of our times.

You ran a Speculative and Critical Design course at Carnegie Mellon with the following statement in the description: “SCD, if done as conventionally prescribed, is rarely liberating and often so interwoven with science and technology that it is not an appropriate tool for disrupting the social injustice and dominant narratives about the futures.” What was the “unconventional prescription” you brought to the brief to address the limitations of SCD?

As previously stated, I am against any prescriptive positions – I am all about inclusivity and making sure that everything we do as designers is to actually make the world a better place. If the futures I am exploring as a designer completely disregard the pain and suffering in the world caused by practices supported and perpetuated by design and its conventional wisdom, then it is not worth my effort.

(for) Post Normal Design Exhibition (2016)

Can you point us to one or two projects, initiatives or groups that we can be inspired by? Describe why they stand out for you.

It would be antithetical to the spirit and essence of jugaad if I pointed to design or art groups that represent Critical Jugaad. It is found in acts of everyday resistance and not in studios or galleries. The work that inspires me comes from normal people doing normal things in an extraordinary way. However, there are a few practices and artists / activists that do stand out to me and are inspiring. Afrofuturist eyewear by Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru is extraordinary in terms of its use of found objects art to create a futurist materiality and visions which are otherwise missing in our Western mainstream futures discourse.

The other practice that has been very inspirational to me has been the concept of Speculative Ethnology of Elizabeth Chin. She blends technological artefacts like GoPro with traditional costumes to create new imaginaries and ask questions. What I find interesting is her approach to questioning and exploring the use of Speculative Design for ethnography and a feminist non-Western aesthetic sensibility in her designed objects.

As design educators we cannot afford to exclude Speculative Design from a holistic education of our students, especially after the current crisis that the whole world is experiencing.

How do you see the future of Speculative Design and related practices (focused on the educational context)?

I see the future of speculative and related practices as being as important as the foundation courses are to design education and as an intense established doctoral program with a collaborative international community in the near future. We have already seen what Primer conferences have achieved quickly in the past few years. I have seen an increase in interest in Speculative Design and related design practices as I continue to guide several international students who reach out for their research queries in Speculative and Critical Design. With my recent experience in the BioDesign 2019 Summit, Speculative Design and related practices are increasingly being adapted in the educational context and will keep being so. I also see in the future Speculative Design and related practices being taken up by other fields of study, like climate studies, biological and life sciences, management, public policies, etc., if this has not already been done, as current times indicate that every aspect of our world is intertwined and affects each other even more as we step into the unknown future. As design educators we cannot afford to exclude this practice from a holistic education of our students, especially after the current crisis that the whole world is experiencing.


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