Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 116, June 2013

Conflict Management and Can Openers

In design today there is a lot of talk about “sustainability”. Not only is our consumer society unsustainable, but also much of our basic living conditions, from the access to fresh water and food, to waste management and use of chemicals. There is a lot to change, and design will need to play a central role in this endeavour.

But we will have to see that there is a conflict of interests. A lot of power and money have been invested into the current unsustainable system, and those interests want to maintain power and influence. If they want us to shop sustainably it is so in order to keep their current model of consumer consensus in place. The general narrative may be that sustainability is just a little peaceful add-on to the current consumer system but we will need to acknowledge that there is a conflict between corporate interests and citizen control. We must be better at distinguishing the actors in this clash of interests, with its conflicting motives, ideologies and cultures.

When negotiating between two quarrelling parts, a first lesson is to differentiate between the person and the action. You may severely dislike the action someone does, but you may have to come to terms with the person performing the action. You must learn to turn the uncompromising “I don’t like you!” into a more negotiable “I don’t like what you do!” – and then come to discuss those actions in order to negotiate and manage a possible process of reconciliation.

So how do we take apart what a designed product does? And how does it do what it does? Design makes us do things in certain ways, it “designates” our behaviour.
Take for example a typical can opener. It is made to open a certain type of widely distributed tin can. It lives in symbiosis with the can and its order of food production and consumption, and the can will hardly be opened without the can opener. The opener is made for a certain type of hand, with certain strength and a special technique used to operate it, and it has no manual. It is made for right-handed persons, excluding all left-handed.

can opener

The can opener is also coming from a specific process of production, a globalized economic order, with materials from all over the world, metal from mines and plastic from oil, labour from China, electric energy from coal plants, global distribution and shipping.  It also moves through various abstract immaterial systems such as tolls and economic agreements, labour rights and energy bills. The can opener activates all these industries and abstract systems. It does something, however small, in every part, and all stakeholders have some invested interests in the workings of this can opener.

When I am done with the can opener it may still act in the world. It can perhaps be reused or recycled, or it may release toxic chemicals as it disintegrates. It thus keeps doing things even after it has lost its functional purpose. Likewise, the systems it has activated along its lifespan may do harm beyond far the object itself. The can opener supports the canned food system of food power with its certain models of production, distribution, cooking and waste. If we somehow disagree with some parts of these actions, we should not blame the can opener as an object, but rather some of its distributed actions. But we must know which.

If we don’t like the right-handed tyranny of the can opener we make it also for left-handed and more easy to use for other types of hands, old, young or weak. If we don’t like the materials we minimize the environmental impact or even make it according to “cradle-to-cradle” methods.

But in order to confront the global systems activated by the opener we must redesign it into a “strategic” object, which mobilizes capabilities and values we support, beyond the mere sustainable perspective. We should not only minimize the harm it does, but make the can opener mobilize a systemic positive impact in the world.

We can make our opener also open other types of containers, and these may fit a format that employs the disadventaged, supports local economies and systems of production, facilitating food justice and social equity. It must be symbiotic with local sustainable ecologies of practice rather than globalized corporate power. Could and can opener delegate power, support citizen control and mobilize self-governance.

The challenge starts here.

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