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Design in times of crisis: Open School for Village Hosts in the Social Design Network conference

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Article by Helena Elizondo Nieva

As part of the training program developed in the Open School for Village Hosts project, the team at Elisava developed the OSVH Co-Design Toolbox for Village Hosts introduced by Massimo Menichinelli in this blog post. This toolbox is a support for any Village Host initiative to organize a community-centered co-design process together with its local community, and it systemically but creatively involves users co-designing solutions for new forms of local entrepreneurship through a meta-design approach with the aim of helping them to analyze the data, the figures involved, and the whole process.

Last November, we had the opportunity of presenting the toolbox to a larger audience, in the 2nd Bi-annual Conference of the Social Design Network titled On the Verge: Design in Times of Crisis. The conference was organized by the Social Design Network, which is an international group of designers and researchers that aim to create a positive change by developing new ways to teach, research, and practice social design (Social Design Network, n.d.). The aim of the conference was to “bring together scholars from various disciplines to explore how design responds to and shapes our understanding of crises by encompassing a range of activities and interventions”. Some of the topics of exploration were the potential for design to shape our understanding and response to crises or the capacities and literacies that designers bring to the table in crisis situations, among others.

The conference started with an opening keynote by 00 and Dark Matter Labs co-founder Indy Johar, who, with the title Re-Making our Tomorrow, introduced the climate crisis (or climate breakdown, as he referred to it) as the base to all the rest of the crises that humanity is facing right now, and explained how the entire worldview needs to shift in order to overcome the current situation. This introduction, which perfectly encapsulated the theme of the conference and provided it with context, then gave way to two tracks: Understanding Design and Crisis and Crisis and Communities.

In Understanding Design and Crisis, we attended the presentation given by urban designer Thomas Watkin, who explained how facilitating relations between generations prevents urban isolation. He presented a project of intergenerational co-housing, where both the generation of migrant youth and the elderly French generation improved their quality of life by sharing a space and a life in the urban context. Although the OSVH project is preoccupied with the rural context, it also deals with the issue of urban isolation, as many Village Host projects start with the Village Host moving from the urban to the rural context with the aim of feeling less isolated, so it was interesting to see another approach to solve this issue.

In Crisis and Communities, the PhD candidate at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design Agnes Jekli spoke about her research on visual methods supporting the social inclusion of young refugees. She explained how her collaboration with Open Doors Hungary, which is an association that works for social inclusion for the migrant and the refugee community, made her realize that visual communication could be a powerful tool for bridging intercultural barriers. Although our toolbox is not purely a visual communication tool, it also uses visual language to bring together different groups of people, and it was really compelling to see how other researchers use it for the same purpose in different contexts.

After the first two tracks were finished, it was time for the second keynote of the day, titled The Design Uncommons: Undisciplining Design in Social Systems and given by designer and researcher Josina Vink. Josina shared seven different attempts at mindfully navigating logics when designing social systems. These attempts were experiments they and their team had conducted over the years, with the aim of amplifying common logics that society assumes, and using design to examine and dismantle them. It was a truly inspiring talk which perfectly captured the essence of the conference, and which gave us the motivation we needed to present the toolbox on the next track, titled Crisis, Literacies, and Practices.

For that, we started by briefly introducing the concept of Village Host and explaining the context of rural migration and design in rural areas. We also discussed the pilot training and how we introduced the toolbox in it, in order to test it and to apply the feedback gathered to develop the second version. We then showed the toolbox and introduced each canvas, explaining how they related to each other and how to use them collaboratively. Our presentation was very well received, and several attendees commented on the potential of the toolbox to effectively develop Village Host initiatives.

We then attended the last track, titled Crisis and Education, where researcher Cecilia De Marinis, who is the Master in Design Research Coordinator at BAU School of Arts and Design, shared her approach to design pedagogy. She explained how the master’s curriculum is based on transdisciplinarity, post-human approaches and productive disorientation, with the aim of exploring every possibility with a fresh perspective and matching the research to the uncertain world we live in. It was the perfect presentation to end the day, because it gave us inspiration, energy and hope for future endeavors.

Overall, Attending the conference was an enriching experience: it not only gave us the opportunity to reflect on the OSVH project and how interconnected it is to many other design research projects, but it also reassured the notion of how collaborative processes and knowledge-sharing are the best way to keep moving forward.

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