Lucy Kimbell: Expanding the visible and sayable

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Lucy Kimbell works as a designer, educator and researcher. She is head of social design at the Young Foundation in London and associate fellow at Said Business School, University of Oxford. As an undergraduate she studied engineering design and appropriate technology and made feminist performance/theatre. What she does these days does not look that different. Find her on twitter: @lixindex

Tell us about your work!

Lucy Kimbell: Over the past decade I have worked in a range of contexts, from academia to art to design. I have been able to move fairly fluidly between what might seem quite distinct fields, at a time when innovation and creativity are supposedly what’s needed to address global, community and organisational challenges but when artists, designers and others are not necessarily good at explaining how or why what they do might be relevant or productive, and the effects of their work are as varied as anything else.

In January I started a role as head of social design at the Young Foundation, a 60-person organisation working in the UK and internationally to trigger and support social innovation and venturing. Basically my role – which is new for the organisation – is to explore how practices within design and the arts can help support creating social (in the sense of civil society) ventures and projects. My brief is to build up the Young Foundation’s capability, rather than building a design team. There are lots of other examples of this shift both at government level (like Mindlab in Denmark or TACSI in Australia), and other activities initiated by consultancies and by universities and corporates. I’m hoping to be able to combine some of the ideas I’ve been exploring teaching design to MBAs at Oxford University for the past six years, research I’ve done in design thinking and designing for service in particular, and my own art/design making practice. The latter has dwindled although my Physical Bar Charts have been shown a few times in the past year including at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh and a show at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Right now I’m setting up a critical reflective conversation about all this stuff, with a series of talks and seminars co-organised with Guy Julier (University of Brighton/Victoria and Albert Museum) and the people at Policy Connect.

tOp: How do you define “technology?”

LK: I don’t think of technology as something that exists outside of people and what we do, who we are, and how we live and work. It’s not a thing, it’s not other, but rather is part of being human. We’re not human without the things we currently call technologies, whether these are Google, or management fads, or pencils. I think of the things often called technologies as stable arrangements or configurations that are a result of the ways humans and material/digital artefacts come together, at specific times and places. But they are not just results; they also shape how things are and how they could be. So our relationship with technologies are changing – who we are as human beings and the cultural practices within which we come to be those people change with this.

tOp: What do stories about technology reveal about our culture and our relationship with technology?

LK: This question makes me wonder who is telling these stories, who is engaging with them, and where they are circulating. The stories I see on TV in the form of adverts are more or less the same as they have been for several decades: This new device/network/thing will help you become a different, better person! more lovely! more effective! will make you become a more connected family! help drive sales! And so on. More or less the same but perhaps with higher levels of anxiety? Then there are the narratives that are often outside of corporate culture, of resistance, and alternatives, and questioning of assumptions. One of the interesting things about the Occupy movements in Western/Northern cities last year was resistance to advancing a totalising alternative – a narrative of what the right answer is. I suppose what I see is narratives about technology being mobilised for quite distinct purposes and there are probably examples of everything.

tOp: What are the factors that influence how (or what) technology is being developed?

LK: Every now and then I hear about a bubble-world I am not familiar with which is focussed on technology for example in healthcare innovation. And as an outsider I am struck by how existing practices in a particular sector constitute differently what the technology question is – what they hope a thing they call technology might be able to do for that sector. These vested interests and ways of thinking about what “technology” can do, whether they are professional or corporate or in the realm of public policy, have a big role in shaping what technology research programmes take shape.

tOp: How do you think technology is changing everyday lives for mainstream consumers?

LK: I wouldn’t say that technology is changing their lives, but rather that new configurations or arrangements of people and things come into being and stabilise and so what is possible, or expected, or what is at any point in time the regular way of doing things, changes. And material and digital techniques, tools and artefacts are part of this but so are the way people use them, adapt to them, break them or improvise in relation to them. So I would say that what it is to consume or rather be constituted as a consumer in relation to possible practices of consuming changes. My consuming as an affluent London resident living within a straight family involved in a global elite of educators and design innovators is different to other consuming I was involved in when I was younger, single, not a parent, less affluent and so on. Technological artefacts are part of that but are not the (only/main) drivers.

tOp: Your working definitions for “technology” and “consumption” seem close to each other. How do they relate?

LK: To be a consumer in an affluent society now involves lots of what in ordinary language we call technology. To be a teacher or student, to be a parent, to be someone who works in a supermarket, to be a bus driver, to be to be a person who goes out in the evening, to be a person who has a garden in a city, to be a person operating in the art world, all of these involve technologically-mediated practices.

tOp: What kind of impacts is technology having on your own life?

LK: My partner and I are finishing a major house refurbishment where we live in London. We sourced many of the buliding materials as well as furniture and fittings via eBay and Freecyle. Not just shelving and beds but also windows, doors, flooring, insulation, radiators, toilets, showers, ovens, tiles and so on. Rather than saying technology had an impact on how we did the refurb, I would say we developed some new ways of living and building, as we increased our skills and knowledge about how to source, price, bid for, exchange, pick up, transport, store, make use of and dispose of all the stuff that is involved in constructing a house. Digital networked technologies have made this possible through giving us access to platforms where people want to give away or sell their unwanted items, and allowing us to search for and research what we need, and get things transported if they are far away, and get input from the architect when we needed it. The carbon and materials costs are not very visible in these transactions but they should be.

Compared to other projects of this size, we may not have saved money (we saved on buying materials but then the contractors had to do lots of non-standard activities to fit or use them) or time (it’s taken two years). But there’s a satisfaction in knowing that the ash floor was picked up from the street where someone had thrown it out, and the gas hob, insulation, sliding windows, toilets and many other things would most likely be in landfill. We’ve paid for them not to be there, through our labour and through paying for adapting our building process to what’s available and when it’s available – a middle-class luxury, in one sense, but also a kind of living out of our values. So the technologies we used made all this possible in ways that we (and probably their designers and manufacturers) would not have foreseen.

tOp: As a society, do you think we are losing or gaining anything with these changes?

LK: I have the hope that the practices and devices that come into view through these changes support wider access to resources, enable participation in decision-making of people who have been excluded or marginalised, increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the effects of climate change. But I don’t think the technologies/practices that we now have that we are learning to live and work with do not necessarily do any of these things per se, even if their designers or funders or champions want it to be so. You can see the influence of the ethnomethodologists and ANT researchers on me here – it all depends on the local, the specific, the what is – I’m avoiding making generalisations, sorry. What remains an always open and public question is the what could be. Art and design practices have very powerful ways to constitute and involve people in collective imaginaries and in particular disrupt the current ones by doing what the French philosopher Jacques Ranci?®re calls expanding what is visible and sayable in the distribution of the sensible (le partage du sensible).

tOp: Is your own work meant to provoke those imaginings? Who do you regard as influential in expanding the visible and sayable?

LK: I asked someone else a version of this question recently and after a long pause, the answer was…hmmm… Bourdieu, Wittgenstein… To be a bit more 2012 I have a whole long list of makers and writers and researchers and educators who provoke me to imagine (although I also like Bourdieu). Within design, this includes the people in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons in NY, Ezio Manzini in Milano, Thomas Binder in Copenhagen, Pelle Ehn in Malmo, Jon Kolko at Austin Center for Design, Nathan Shedroff at CCA, small consultancies like the fashionable young men at Berg London, or the people constituting new digital publics at Futuregov. Within the arts, practitioners like Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie of Somewhere, Heath Bunting or Natalie Jeremijenko. Within the social sciences people like Noortje Marres and Nina Wakeford at Goldsmiths and Cat Macaulay at Dundee. The people behind the Kenyan comic cultural enterprise Shujaaz. Some people I met yesterday who run a hostel for homeless people in Soho. The three Roca brothers who run El Cellar de Can Roca in Gerona, Cataluyna. The producers and writers and actors of TV shows like True Blood and The Wire. The people of the city of Homs in Syria. I seem in recent years to be located (to locate myself) in a way which asks me to be quite careful about how I do any disrupting which is the price of my institutional reconfiguring. It’s too early to say what that’s doing to my imaginaries.


About Steve