Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 120, November 2013

Strategic Objects and Civic Crafts

Using a strategic perspective on design has become common in education and marketing. With extensive plans of coherent actions and practices, design strategy aligns creative efforts, brand identity, products and services, in order to reach articulated and predefined goals. It is a form of high-level design, or perhaps we can call it Grand Design.

But a risk with all strategists is that they lose touch with the ground, that they are stuck in managing boxes and flow charts that align well on paper, but that may not fully represent reality. The general may not see what happens down on the battlefield or the situation of the soldiers.

Even more worrying, badly designed strategic projects not only fail, they backfire. They reduce the chance for any further initiatives, as agency has been deprived because of failed investments and broken promises. Furthermore, failed strategic projects actually build “uncapabilities”, disappointments that continue to drain energy and produce a downward spiral where no invested energy seems to make any difference.

The risks of bad strategic planning become even more apparent when working with social dynamics that do not fit into the institutions and incentives we are used to work with. Examples could be non-institutionalized environments or non-formal economies, which are not fully managed by contracts and defined roles, but where instead family-ties and other loyalties cuts across the demarcated boxes in the flow charts. But if one cannot build strategy from contracts, formal roles and boxes in flow charts, how could it be done?

Development practitioner Nabeel Hamdi proposes a way to ground strategies into practice by developing and implementing the use of “strategic objects”. These are objects that actualize the strategy from bottom-up. They are the probes that mobilize the strategy as they move through society. If a design project has a strategy of creating a local economy, built on small scale craft production, the efforts should be made to make sure the strategic developments are actually embodied into the design of the craft objects themselves.

Take for example a mug.  In a traditional design brief, the mug should be practical and beautiful, ergonomic and easy to produce. A strategic mug could on top of this also mobilize a developing economy around the mug, from the sourcing (the materials are sourced in a way that employs people in the region), to the skills cultivated in the production of the mug (the design of the mug implements a plan for potter education), to the marketing (it is sold at locations that raise the value of the mug as well as the marketplace), purchase experience (the mug produces more interest in local production) and after life (there is a repair, recycling or cradle-to-cradle service set up for the mugs). All these steps have a social imperative, a goal of social mobilization, of bringing a community together in order to build more coherent collaborations and an emergent market. Strategies are built into the mug itself.

Strategic objects are also networked into “ecologies of practice”. These are collections of practices that support and activate values that the object is part of. For example, if the strategic object is a garment that should last long and be inherited, the practices that needs to connect to that object is various repair services, from tailors to educators that teach people to repair. It also includes professional services, such as invisible mending, environmentally sustainable laundry, and even lifestyle events and fan communities where the wearer is among a supportive group of fellow practitioners. These practices are not only paper products, but the garment will be the thing that travels through all these practices, assembles and activates them.

The strategic object travels through the social to mobilize what social philosophers Jonathan Wolff and Avrer De-Shalit has called “fertile functionings”. These are capabilities that amplify each other socially to strengthen the positive experience of progress,  that is, they make long-term investments in skills, tools and materials worthwhile. In that way the strategic objects builds affiliation between people, connections that can be activated in order to bring more ideas, imaginations and thoughts into realization. The object also brings about a control over the environment, realizing soft skills between people and also providing a sense of autonomy that the community can decide over its own fate.

A strategic object produces the local environment where each component amplifies the other to build a social coherent whole aimed at a larger social goal. It builds commitment, mobilizing affiliation and trust, which are core components in any long-lasting social efforts. A strategic object is a local generator, building energy towards communal strategic action. The production of strategic objects changes some of our basic ideas about crafts. Whereas many think crafts mainly as a hobby, something you do for yourself, a strategic perspective on craft, or craft that produces “fertile functionings”, can have drastic social implications. Craft may no longer only connote to the production of yet another object of consumption, however “handmade” or “authentic” it is, but manifest what craft can do for the well-being of the social whole.

With the focus on strategic objects, the practice of craft can become a service for the social whole, a skilled labour that feeds back into society. A form of civic crafts. It may be a form of craft that addresses public concerns within the framework of society—and mobilizes forces of change in its path. But to reach there we will need to connect craft back into public life, the rights and duties between citizens, the daily operations of public institutions, and the civil matters of everyday life. I would suggest some characteristics of civic crafts could be:

- Civic crafts put emphasis on social skills and capabilities, rather than historical objects.
- Civic crafts serve society and communities, for example offering repair and maintenance services, rather than being purely a means for individual self-expression.
- Civic crafts offer an arena for mobilization for the people outside consumer society, rather than produce more stuff to buy.
- Civic crafts forms a practical platform for cultivating and training new social modes of togetherness, based on making, beyond wage labour production and lifestyle consumption.
- Civic crafts support other forms of social qualities and values than those offered by the market, such as shared time, social commitment, manifestations of memory, and public creative protest.
- Civic crafts uses strategic objects to mobilize social assets and form ecologies of practice that address public concerns and enhance political agency amongst participants.

As designers we need to see that society is not a social arena of obedient consumption ruled by the market. We must learn to do much more for the social well-being than design beautiful homes, sleek appliances and award-winning stuff for rich individuals. Beautiful stuff has a place in the world, and that is all fine. We are trained to design things. But we need to find arenas to make design and craft address the urgent issues in society at large.  As designers and artisans we can still make stuff, but it should be strategic stuff. Stuff that, by its existence in the world, helps us engage with the strategic formation of our civic virtues.

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