Designs for the Pluriverse is, succinctly stated, about the potential for redesigning design and, in so doing, contribute to redesigning the world. Why? To me, the answer is simple: because we are literally destroying the world at an alarming rate, and I am not just talking about the disappearance of species and the manifold and increasingly destructive effects of climate change. I am also talking about the disruption of basic human sociality, the breakdown of social relations, the proliferation of wars and violence, massive displacement of peoples and nonhumans, abhorrent inequality, and the difficulty many young people face today in crafting lives of meaning for themselves. So much suffering and devastation is becoming unbearable for those who are genuinely attentive to the Earth and to the fate of their fellow humans. The book argues that design is central to the current crisis and that it may be a crucial factor in confronting such a crisis imaginatively and effectively. The book is a plea for us all to look deeply into the world around us so that we perceive anew the devastation that surrounds us, near and far, reaching out to our innermost selves for the strength to face it with utmost care, courage, and hope. This is why the book is dedicated to exemplary figures of struggle for a better, and different, world.
Let me now present a more analytical description of the book. Designs for the Pluriverse offers a novel design vision, based on a reorientation of design from its largely functionalist and commercially-driven applications within globalized capitalist societies towards a view of design in tune with the radical interdependence of all life. The book’s approach is ontological, which simply means that, in designing tools, objects, and institutions, we are designing ways of being. The argument stems from two sources: trends in critical design studies emphasizing participatory, collaborative, situated, and socially and ecologically responsible design; and cultural-political mobilizations by social movements, particularly but not only in the Global South, which are responding to the crisis on the basis of deeply relational conceptions of life, such as those found among Latin American Afrodescendant, peasant, and indigenous groups engaged in the defense of their territories against extractive operations conducted in the name of so-called development. Designs for the Pluriverse brings to the fore the ecological, social, and cultural – in the last instance, civilizational – transitions called forth in order to address the interrelated crises of climate, energy, poverty, inequality, and meaning. It adumbrates a post-patriarchal and post-capitalist pluriverse (defined as a world where many worlds fit, contrary to the current model of a single, market-driven globalized civilization), beyond the supremacy of the modern patriarchal capitalist ontologies of separation, domination, and control. The book provides an in-depth analysis of the most farsighted proposals within the design profession, such as design for social innovation and transition design, and develops a framework for a design praxis intended to strengthen the communal basis of life from the perspective of territorial struggles for autonomy.
I am not a professional designer nor a social theorist in a design school. At the same time, my intellectual and professional life has gravitated around design issues, first as a student of chemical engineering (in Cali, Colombia, where I grew up), continuing with my master’s in food science and nutrition planning, and ending with my PhD program in Development Philosophy, Policy, and Planning at Berkeley. Chemical engineering is a design profession, though largely devoted to unsustainable designs; as I finished my engineering degree, I became concerned with issues of food and hunger and, through them, development. As I eventually discovered, development strategies are veritable designs which, more than solving the problems of “underdevelopment,” perpetuate them to infinity. Seventy years after the invention of “underdevelopment,” we are still in the business of “developing” the poorer countries; today under the guise of sustainable development. As a design technology, sustainable development is more intended to sustain development – with its accompanying cadre of well-paid experts, institutions, programs, and strategies – than in genuinely addressing the suffering of so many communities in the Global South. It is, in short, about sustaining the unsustainable.
The book builds upon a relatively small but growing subset of critical design studies, whose practitioners emphasize the need to place design always in context, making it socially relevant, ecologically sound, and culturally appropriate. This trend, however, goes beyond reformist approaches. The designers pursuing this novel orientation advocate for a significant overhaul of design approaches and methodologies, away from expert-driven, object-oriented, and market-determined design practices toward collaborative, situated, place-based, and openly transformative approaches. The most farsighted proposals posit a notion of design as a space for contributing to bringing about civilizational transitions, even a “new civilization” (Ezio Manzini) or an age of “Sustainment” (Tony Fry), in contradistinction to the modern civilization, ushered in by The Enlightenment, which is, in actuality, a social order based on a narrow rationality that has systematically produced unsustainable societies. This newer civilizational model or era is described as one in which humans can finally co-exist with the Earth in mutually enhancing manners. In the last instance, what moves these critical designers is a profound caring for the notion that other worlds are, indeed, possible.
I would recommend that readers potentially interested in the book start by looking at the Preface. Why? Because besides giving a straightforward idea about the book’s main argument, it also does so intuitively by situating the book within my own intellectual genealogy and social context; very importantly, the Preface also gives a good idea about the book’s stakes. There, I introduce the idea of “civilizational transitions” as the most capacious concept to convey the multi-headed crisis facing the world at present. As one of my close colleagues in Chapel Hill (Dorothy Holland) likes to say (just upon hearing me speak about the book – she hasn’t read it yet), the book sounds as if it is about redesigning the entire world. And in a way it is! Needless to say, these are not just my inflated claims, but also those of some of the design theorists on whom I lean; some of them talk even about “redesigning the human,” or, as I mentioned above, see their task as contributing to bringing about a new civilization altogether. Bold claims indeed. More importantly, as I make it abundantly clear in the book, similar arguments are being made by many social movement activists in the Global South (particularly, but not only, indigenous peoples and peasants), and increasingly in the North as well.
The more analytical readers might jump to pp. 19-20, where I summarize the book’s argument and contents in four short propositions. Those most interested in the emerging field of transition studies may do well to skim Chapter 5, which presents a range of transition frameworks that have been emerging with clarity and force in recent years, in both the Global North (e.g., degrowth, commoning, the Great Transition Initiative, transition to the Ecozoic Era, and Transition Towns) and the Global South (Buen Vivir, postdevelopment, and transitions to post-extractivism). It also provides a detailed analysis of two transition design frameworks: the Transition Design doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University, and Ezio Manzini’s elaborate conceptualization of “design for social innovation.” This chapter argues for the significance of transition thinking for design studies. Finally, those interested in Latin America and in territorial struggles may glance at Chapter 6, which lays down the rudiments of an autonomous design framework, largely based on intellectual-activist debates taking place in Latin America at present. Autonomy is conceptualized by relying on Maturana and Varela’s notion of autopoiesis and on current Latin American debates on autonomy and the communal. The proposal is illustrated with two experiences involving autonomous and transition design exercises in Colombia’s southwest. I highlight these two chapters because they are possibly the two most original contributions of the book to design debates.
My wishes with the regards to the book’s potential impact are both very modest and ambitious. They are ambitious in terms of the argument; as I stated above, the book’s goal – in tandem with related arguments by other design theorists – is to contribute to redesigning design. This task has two sides to it: the first is addressed to designers, in the hope that some of them will reexamine and reorient their practice, placing it at the service of transitions to the pluriverse. The second concerns scholars, activists and policy-makers in non-design fields; at this level, my hope is that this diverse group will take design seriously as a fundamental space of intervention that indelibly shapes – moreover, makes – the contemporary world, including creating us as particular kinds of human. Design is ubiquitous; anywhere we look, we see design busy at work, from our hand-held devices to cities, and from education and health to food and agriculture. Social theorists have not taken design seriously at this level; conversely, designers have gone about their task without sufficient critical awareness of the fundamental fact that what they do indelibly shapes the kinds of subjects we become, the ecologies we inhabit, what we enable or destroy – in other words, as design critic Anne-Marie Willies puts it, that design designs: we design the world and the world designs us back.
I am perfectly aware that the design profession, and the academy for that matter, will largely continue to be what they have been for the past century if not more: central political technologies of patriarchal capitalist modernity. It is in this sense that my goal is quite humble. To put it in the starkest possible terms, I believe that design and the academy are part of the forces of ontological occupation of people’s lives, experiences, and territories. I say this because of their cultural proximity and commitment to capitalist modernity. None of this will change radically overnight. That said, my hope is that with the emergence of critical design studies we might be able to convey persuasively the notion that design is a critical domain for thinking about life itself, and for constructing the world otherwise than it is, in an Earth-wise manner. In design we find a great potential for re-localizing the economy and many other daily activities; for re-communalizing social life, as a counter to the profoundly isolating individualism that is wreaking havoc on the planet and impoverishing ever more our cultural and social lives; and for engaging with others on the Liberation of Mother Earth, a concept proposed by the Nasa indigenous people from the Northern Cauca region in Colombia’s southwest as a principle for all progressive political strategies on Earth’s behalf. As I say somewhere towards the end of the book, what emerges out of these reflections is a notion of design as an open invitation for us all to become mindful and effective weavers of the mesh of life.
Arturo Escobar is professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has been visiting professor at universities in Argentina, Ecuador, Catalunya, Finland, the Netherlands, and England. His main interests are political ecology, design, anthropology of development, social movements, and technoscience. His most well-known book is Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (1995; 2nd edition, 2011). Besides Designs for the Pluriverse (2018), which is featured in his Rorotoko interview, he is also the author of Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes (2008); Sentipensar con la Tierra (2014); and Autonomía y diseño: la realización de lo comunal (2016), among other works.