Rights through Making – Skills for pervasive ethics

The thesis is available in the apple store and as pdf in the internet site of the TU/e

Rights through Making –  Skills for pervasive ethics


This thesis starts with a Manifesto, bold, passionate and ambitious. Goals are set high, as to commit to a major endeavour: how can design contribute to a new civilisation. The first version was written in 2006 in Bertinoro, Italy, where Caroline Hummels, Kees Overbeeke and I were giving a workshop on Aesthetics of Interaction for the University of Bologna. In this Manifesto, we declared our belief and proposed a vision, concerning how design can change Western thinking towards pervasive ethics. By pervasive ethics I mean a social praxis aimed at justice and freedom, which pervades society in a capillary way, becoming a Universal attitude that makes people aware of their own rights, able and willing to contribute to seeing their own rights and those of all people fulfilled. I called this approach Rights though Making. The manifesto stated a mission1, which was later applied and validated. The main lines of thoughts of the manifesto have been respected and enforced through several actions. This thesis will describe these actions, the underlying theory and the related reflection both on the approach and on the outcomes. The Manifesto integrated the points of view of the writers, united by a common drive, in a world riddled with all sorts of social uncertainties. In the Manifesto we declared our intention of preparing and doing workshops with students of different nationalities, stimulating the integration of skilful points of view among future designers. When the Manifesto was written, there was not yet a concrete strategy on how to empower people towards pervasive ethics. The only anchor point was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We wanted the values contained in this document materialised, embodied in (intelligent) products or systems. Both the outcome of what we were envisioning (intelligent products or systems empowering towards the realisation of human rights) and the process of realising it (workshop) had to work towards ethics. This was all I knew at that point. Later I designed the way to do it, based on this solid and enthusiastic shared vision.

Throughout the years, the underlying theoretical framework started to acquire its own body. Only after the realisation of the first 5 workshops (out of 7 in total), was I able to explicitly structure and describe the platform of theory that was supporting my endeavour. These actions (the workshops), contributed to the formation of a body of knowledge, of which the potential strength and soundness until then had exclusively been perceived through intuition. This tacit knowledge was dredged out, reflected upon and refined, through iterations of reflection-on-action, in which the “active” parts were the individual workshops.

Thus the forming of this theoretical platform, the refinement of the research quest or design challenge and giving the workshops were overlapping in time and closely intertwined. For clarity, in this thesis I chose to position them in the following order:

  • Part 1: defining the design challenge / research quest and the Rights through Making Approach;
  • Part 2: illustrating the theoretical framework underlying the whole work. This theoretical framework is formed by three elements: (1) Ethics (2) Making and (3) their integration, i.e. how Making empowers towards Ethics: the core of the RtM approach.
  • Part 3: describing how this theory is applied in design workshops and how the Rights through Making (RtM) approach evolved;
  • Part 4: reflecting on the overall research experience and the underlying personal motivations.

Before this central body I placed and introductory part, containing acknowledgments, rights of the readers, synopsis (this chapter) and tables of contents. After the fourth part, I positioned a part called “Annexes”, which is composed of two main sections:

  • In the first section I present the RtM workshops in detail, in regard to both the process of each RtM workshop and their evolution;
  • In the second section, I illustrate the direction in which I envision the diffusion of RtM in the future, through the realisation of an Internet platform.

I now summarize the content of the central body of this thesis, parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Part 1 – Design challenge / Research quest

The first part of this thesis focuses on defining the challenge that I proposed and the general actions, taken to face this challenge. In the chapter “Skills for an ethical society: a new civilisation”, I start by defining “pervasive ethics” through design, of which the achievement is the goal of the present work. I envision a social transformation, towards a new civilisation, in which the praxis2 of ethics is embedded in society. The creation of a new civilisation, starts, as stated in the Manifesto, from an attempt of embodying values expressed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the lowest common denominator on ethics. My ambition is to approach this matter from a designerly perspective; I therefore motivate how I believe the discipline of design is able to contribute in this social transformation. I start to do so, by defining my perspective on transformation. To introduce the three actions that I consider necessary for my aim to be reached, I describe the case of an excellent craftsman: Chiara Vigo. Although she embodies all the characteristics that are necessary to transform society towards an ethical direction, I point out why I believe that craftsmanship alone, cannot be the key for pervasive ethics. It is necessary, but it has to be associated with other elements. The three actions that I state as indispensible for my toil are the following: (1) levelling the social importance of Making, with respect to Thinking; (2) educating people’s skills, not only manual skills, but also towards autonomy; (3) creating opportunities for skilful points of view to be integrated, so that the skill of empathy is trained as well. People making together, combining their own sensitivities, experiences and values form the third action to contribute to the revolution towards universal ethics.

I later introduce my approach, Rights through Making (RtM), describing point by point how it intervenes on these three elements. The approach will be later documented by means of examples in part 3. Yet before this, I expand on the theoretical background.

Part 2 – Theoretical background

This part presents the theoretical background on which this thesis is based. The first chapter of the second part (1 Towards Universal Human Rights) summarizes the historical and social foundations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, going through the three steps of consolidation of Human Rights in history: naturalisation, generalisation and internationalisation. This chapter explains why it was chosen to adopt the UN charter as the authority on ethics and as a tool to empower people towards the respect of Human Rights.

The second chapter (2 Making), together with the third chapter (3 Ethics through Making), constitutes the theoretical core of this thesis. In the second chapter (2 Making) I face (2.3) “The phenomenology of Making”. I take a phenomenological perspective, where experience, the naive contact with the world, is inherently meaningful: acting in the world and perceiving/conceiving transformations is what we (humans) do. Starting from the preferred interface with which people operate transformations, i.e., the hand, I describe how the evolution of (fine) manipulation permitted our species to evolve the ability to abstract thinking. The designerly way towards

transformation is sketching (two- and three-dimensional), as a way to embody knowledge. It is a way to make sense of the world and to make new sense of the world, directing our human intentionality towards what we (humans) can transform. Another fundamental aspect in Making is culture. The unbreakable link between Making and places is therefore illustrated. Every artefact is permeated with cultural elements and values: the way artefacts appear, behave and function, reflects the presence of their designers and of the environment in which they are brought into functioning. These values give body to an artefact, tell its story and attribute a personality to it. The third chapter (3 Ethics through Making) presents the main proposition I aim to demonstrate with this research: there are three reasons why I believe that Making and especially Making together are praxis that lead to the realisation of pervasive ethics. The three reasons are: (1) a phenomenological argument, which implies that a shared Making process empowers towards a constructive integration of points of view; (2) limitation of expressivity imposed by language; (3) historical grounding, i.e. showing that in history, the periods in which Thinking and Making were considered of the same importance, were actually enlightened periods for humanity. On this grounding, the RtM approach is rooted and proposes a way for design to actively and consciously contribute to pervasive ethics, both in the action of design and in its outcomes. In the next part, the theory is applied through workshops.

Part 3 – Theory’s application through workshops and RtM approach development

In this part, I describe 3 of the 8 workshops I organized and taught, applying the RtM approach: WS 8 – Designing for Points of View, WS 5 – Urban Lights and WS 7 – Online Collaborative Design Space. These workshops materialised the theory illustrated in the first part and formed the enabling tool of such theory.

In Chapter 1, I describe the workshop “1 Designing for Points of View, a meta- workshop”. Although this was the last workshop that was done, I start this part by illustrating it, because its findings were the key to enrich and soundly consolidate the initial propositions of the Manifesto, and therefore ground the RtM approach.

I designed the workshop WS 8 – Designing for Points of View, to tackle the difficulty of conceptualising through making. Students had found it very hard to actually make together. Defeating the habit of relying upon linear Cartesian processes, where Thinking is prior to Making, is a main challenge within my endeavour, which was only partly achieved by means of the workshops described in the second part of this thesis. I therefore designed a

refinement of the RtM approach in which students were induced to translate their skills into a design, integrating different points of view and trusting intuition. This did lead to the expected enrichment of the designing phase: because students had to actually transfer their skilful points of view into a design, they were forced to act within a concrete, first person perspective. This steered them clear from the cloud of abstraction they were used to move about in, where a concept was defined through the discussion of a given assignment.

In the chapter “2 RtM workshops’ overview”, I give a general overview of all 8 workshops, with factsheets, and I present the workshops’ outcomes. The detailed description of all these workshops, how they were prepared and how they evolved in time, can be found in “Part 5 – Annexes”.

In chapter “3 WS 5 – Urban Lights” I explain, step by step, how this particular workshop was first prepared and then taught/realised. Concerning its preparation, I report on how the location was chosen; how contributors were involved and for what purpose; how the assignment of the workshop was designed, in concord with the location, the institutions and the contributors participating; I explain what creative techniques, together with the other lecturers, I provided the students with; I report on how the schedule was defined and what was the logic of this preparation. Concerning conducting the workshop, I report on how students were chosen and teams were made. How the inspirational material was proposed to the students and how they worked with the creative techniques that they were supplied with. Then I describe the focal phase of conceptualising by making, when students built low-fidelity experienceable prototypes and designed concepts.

I conclude this chapter with the description of the model of the first 6 workshops, grounded on the experience matured during these years of research. I highlight two critical aspects that remained un-tackled. The first relates to the core activity of these workshops: conceptualising through making. This step has never worked as I had thought. Strategies to make it possible had to be designed and this is why WS 8 – Designing for Points of View was later made.

The second critical aspect has to do with the “universality” in space and time of this approach. Workshops are spot activities, reserved for few students, few contributors, few people and have a limited visibility. If the aim is a massive change in societal praxis and thinking, the impact of workshops is not sufficient. This is why the Internet Platform was conceived. In chapter “5 Internet Platform: collaborative design space” I face this aspect. Contributing with design to pervasive ethics is my aim. I work towards the formation and spreading of new skills, which can create a new praxis, based on respect of Human Rights. On the basis of this new praxis, a new way of Thinking can then rise. Short multicultural workshops are a good attempt to test the approach, its effectiveness and its results. But in order to really have an impact on society, the approach needs to be communicated, disseminated, and used by as many people as possible. This part faces the issue of disseminating the RtM approach. At the moment of writing this thesis, the project is spread through an Internet showcase. It contains a description of the workshops’ outcomes and of the people and partners participating. Its design process is illustrated in part 5, “Annexes”. Within this Internet Showcase, I additionally envisioned a section as a collaborative design space that will be a sort of permanent online RtM workshop. This section is not yet realised. In this section, designers will be able to contribute, respecting the underlying theory of RtM. They will contribute in a constructive, additive way – through Making – to realise a shared design assignment. In this chapter I describe an online trial workshop that gave me elements of motivation to plan such further developments.

Part 4 – Make Tomorrow

In this part, I reflect on what I learned in facing the design challenge / research quest. The evaluation of the outcomes of the different experiences I did, shapes new directions, and shows the dynamic character of the RtM approach. The main two actions arising from this reflection are the following: (1) the necessity of implementing in the “traditional” RtM workshops, the technique developed during the workshop “designing for points of view” to foster the integration of skilful points of view in a design process; (2) and the realisation of the “Collaborative Design Space”, finding ways to create a permanent online space, embodying the RtM approach, where designers can actually integrate their skilful points of view. Afterward, I define several points of improvement of the RtM approach, such as adding sources for competencies on human rights and societal issues, introducing working sessions together with craftsmen/local saper fareand refining the approach allowing more iterations of reflection-on-action on interim mock-ups, to strengthen the integration between conceptualising and Making. This work aims at creating an approach that empowers pervasive ethics through design. This thesis ends with an example of a design, realised by a student within one of my workshops, which reconnects to my personal motivation and is a shining example of the effectiveness of the RtM approach. It provides points of reflections for the discipline of design. Yet, it is a temporary research conclusion, which still has many open ends and fascinating opportunities for further explorations.


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