XXX.4 July - August 2023
Page: 44
Digital Citation

Design and Living Well

Gopinaath Kannabiran, Heather McKinnon

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This dialogue aims at exchanging ideas and exploring intersections between ecological and feminist issues in our work. As early-career design researchers, we are comparing notes on areas of common interest. Gopi's research work in HCI is informed and inspired by ecological feminism (ecofeminism), while Heather contributes to sustainable HCI through research on designing for cultures of sufficiency. Our dialogue delves into ecological thinking, embodied well-being, sufficiency practices, and the design of interactive technologies as we discuss living well, on less, and with others.

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Cultivation of everyday habits, practices, traditions, and values toward respect for ecological conservation is very much embedded within the sharing of knowledge.
We must critically interrogate the source of the assumption that the world awaits its savior—the designer.

Gopinaath Kannabiran: Your design research work brings up the theme of living well on less. My work engages with embodied well-being as living well with others. Our work shares this notion of living well that is tied to design engagements with ecological thinking. I would like for us to compare notes here. In your work, how does living well relate to resource sufficiency?

Heather McKinnon: Through my work, I explore how values and practices of ecological consciousness and resource sufficiency—living well on less—are learned, experienced, and passed on to others. In my research, I aim to establish connections between resource use and disposal, including water, energy, and waste, and the need for design interventions to foster values of respect and waste consciousness. In this context, living well relates to resource sufficiency through the adaptation and fostering of underlying community values.


This work is grounded in what is known as the four Rs of sustainability, introduced by the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt movement and the Mottainai campaign [1]. A leading voice in environmental justice and democratic rights across Africa and internationally, Maathai embedded the term respect into international sustainability efforts: reduce, reuse, recycle, respect. This addition reads differently from the other widely used four Rs of sustainability: reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle; or there's even refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. Respect as a value embedded in ecological thinking adds new challenges for designers within this space, and requires a fundamental shift in the way we approach designing for the reduction of resources. Some questions that this provokes for me include: Where does respect fit within sustainable HCI? How can we design to nurture values of respect among different communities?

Within your work in embodied well-being, how does living well with others connect to ecological thinking?

GK: My conceptualization of embodied well-being engages with the fundamental human right and desire to: 1) relate well to others, 2) be comfortable in one's own skin, 3) live in a harmonious relation with one's physical environments, and 4) have agency and a voice in one's social environments. This conceptualization is informed by: a) my positionality as a queer person of color who was raised in a Tamil household in South India, b) my training as a humanistic HCI scholar and feminist sociotechnical researcher, and c) my work as a transnational design researcher inspired by ecofeminist philosophy. First, from a Tamil matrifocal epistemic perspective, emergence of self is always understood through relationality—connected to our mother through umbilical cord before birth and connected to (human and nonhuman) others through ecological relations after birth [2]. Second, from a feminist ethics of care perspective, well-being must be understood as an ongoing contestation of power and therefore is not conflict-free. For instance, Jules Holroyd explores well-being through feminist concerns and notes: "On a view which sees well-being as constituted by the flourishing of human nature, there is a tighter connection between well-being and justice" [3]. Holroyd explains how oppressive structures and unjust systems can hamper well-being "by producing fragmented psychological structures; by producing deformed desires or adaptive preferences, by making unavailable certain goods that any good human life should contain" [3]. Therefore, a feminist approach toward well-being must begin with an acknowledgement of existing power inequities and work toward designing interactive systems that can afford fair negotiations among various stakeholders. These two central epistemic tenets—self as always-already-relational and well-being as an ongoing contestation of power—guide my conceptualization of embodied well-being.

Through this feminist conceptualization of embodied well-being, living well with others becomes an ecological issue in my work. Specifically, I am interested in studying issues of interpersonal alienation and designing to support different types of intimacy and kinship structures in communities. Bringing this back in conversation with what you mentioned earlier, living well with others requires respect for human and nonhuman others around us. I would like to know more about how the notion of respect orients your work for living well with less.

HM: In my work, I consider respect as a critical component of ecological thinking, viewing it as a value that is embedded in resource sufficiency. While exploring the notion of living well with less through the nurturing of community values to aid in the reduction of resources, my work views the household as a micro-social community where everyday habits, values, and consumption practices are largely shaped and established. Within this context, consuming minimal resources relies on the occupants of a household structure to collectively cultivate practices of sufficiency and respect for what they have. We can use technology in ways that encourage the redirection of habits and reduction of resources through efficiency practices; however, we need design to support the cultivation of different value systems among different communities.

I'm interested in how design and technology can facilitate the sharing of values related to conservation within everyday life.

In my work, I explore the intersection of design, intergenerational practices, and ecological conservation. Specifically, I'm interested in how design and technology can facilitate the sharing of values related to conservation within everyday life. I see this line of inquiry connecting to your conceptualization of self through relationality and connection to the human and nonhuman. Cultivation of everyday habits, practices, traditions, and values toward respect for ecological conservation is very much embedded within the sharing of knowledge. This is what has largely drawn me to ecofeminism within the context of HCI. There has been a lot of work within HCI to embed ecological philosophies, cultivation of care practice, feminist theory, and models of sustainability, and I consider ecofeminism as another lens that is imperative in ecological thinking.

Coming back to your wonderfully articulated conceptualization of embodied well-being, and your drive toward building different structures of intimacy and kinship within communities, I would love to hear your views on where you see the role of design here.

GK: Your response about cultivating practices of sufficiency and respect for what we have made me think of an old Tamil proverb: "intr3004_a.gif." Roughly translated, it means "The heart that knows to say 'enough' knows the alchemy of gold." In ancient alchemical proto-sciences, the philosopher's stone was believed to convert lead or less valuable metals into gold and was attributed as an elixir of life. The alchemical wisdom in the above Tamil proverb tells us that the way to "make gold" is discerning when to say "enough." Learning to say "enough" can be broadly applicable to various facets of life, such as the eating practices of a household or resource sharing in a community or living well on less as a cultural value. When we practice saying "enough," frugality as a value does not necessarily mean impoverishment but rather can become a site of innovation for sufficiency and cultivation of respect for what we have.

That being said, practicing saying "enough" could be at odds with the consumerist culture of creating needs to sell products and services. As a design educator, sometimes I experience this fundamental dilemma. On the one hand, I help train students to become professional designers who can have gainful employment after graduation. On the other hand, I feel compelled to teach my students that it is vital to know when not to design. Or rather, to accept that design is a human endeavor with potentials and pitfalls. I am also deeply skeptical of "save the world" design narratives that often tend to: a) peddle doomsday scenarios and effectively tap into existential guilt about current ecological crises; b) promote covert moral puritanism by avowing discontinuity with existing discourses as a radical move that will be inherently benevolent, and therefore must be embraced by all human and nonhuman others; and c) conveniently ignore, willingly downplay, and/or assimilate without due credit to existing efforts in other cultures that have been engaging with ecological issues through different value systems. In his book Poetics of Relation, Caribbean postcolonial philosopher Édouard Glissant reminds us that "[w]hen you awaken an observation, a certainty, a hope, they are already struggling somewhere, elsewhere, in another form" [Glissant 1997 in 4]. Are the current knowledge practices of HCI researchers ethically motivated and structurally equipped to acknowledge the struggles and hopes of elsewhere? [4]. In lieu of the recent fervent embrace of "more-than-human" approaches in HCI, what are the ethical responsibilities of designers and researchers toward: a) epistemically diverse cultures that already have their own conceptions of ecological responsibility and practice alternative forms of human-nonhuman relationality, and b) those humans who are still treated as "less than human" in the context of climate change—related crises and assimilating decolonization as an afterthought?

I suspect that such "save the world" design narratives arise, at least partly, from the inability to accept one's own mortality and insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Ann Davis's sobering reflection on academic life throws light on the tension between healthy and unhealthy notions of helping others: "My saving zeal was only matched by the unclarified, unspecified, and unknown need to be acceptable, to be loved…to achieve, to leave a mark somehow, to be seen and remembered…. How many battle so intently as a way of avoiding having to face their own vulnerabilities?" [5]. My intention here is not to denounce or denigrate "doing good through design" efforts. Rather, I want to emphasize that we must critically interrogate the source of the assumption that the world awaits its savior—the designer. Can design discourses acknowledge the significance of designers while also accounting for our human ambitions, hopes, longings, limitations, and vulnerabilities? Without slipping into cynicism, we must find ways to critically scrutinize "design can change the world for better" narratives in an ecologically responsible manner. Practicing saying "enough" is likely to feel counterintuitive to design narratives that push more as necessarily better and that living well means having more. We can see this manifested as designing for better lives by providing more connectivity, more speed, more storage, more computational power, more features, more control, more options, more security, more flexibility, more scalability, more participation, more interactivity, more immersion, more compatibility, and so on. To be clear, I am not against any of these design concerns and fully agree on their importance for technology innovation. However, I do believe that we must not be so quick to embrace the standard of "more means better" as a universal ideal applicable across contexts while designing technologies. Cultivating the practice of saying "enough" and living well on less can help provide a much-needed counterbalancing force to such existing impulses.

Design innovation for living well, with less and with others, requires us to redefine the value systems enacted through interactive technologies. Spanning our personal and professional lives, these interactive technologies afford and mediate specific configurations for intimacy and kinship within communities. Researchers have pointed out the paradox of people feeling more disconnected and lonely in an increasingly technologically networked society. Designing technological interventions for addressing alienation and aiding intimacy remains a complex sociotechnical challenge. Being alienated can make us feel like a stranger to ourselves and among others. When alienated, we can feel lonely while being surrounded by people and disconnected from our authentic self. This experience runs counter to the narrative of proposing more technologically networked connectivity as the obvious solution to the problem of loneliness. It is not always possible to avoid feeling lonely, and loneliness can catalyze transformative efforts for interpersonal growth. It is important to not reduce alienation to a connectivity problem or pathologize loneliness as an inherently negative experience. My work takes a communal orientation to navigating loneliness over time as a relational process of learning to cultivate a balance of being with oneself and being with others. To this extent, I pursue two broad interrelated foci for inquiry concerning embodied well-being that explore aspects of intimacy and communal belongingness across multiple projects:

  • Ecologies of desire: As a human sexuality researcher in HCI, I am interested in studying existing ecologies of desire toward the goal of designing for supporting sexual well-being. In a previous study, my coauthors and I have argued that "technosexuality is not just about using technology to fulfill an existing desire, but rather that novel forms of sexual desire come into practice because of particular constellations of design choices and social behaviors" [6]. Following this line of reasoning, how are certain desires made possible and experienced through our designs in their embedded ecologies?
  • Desirable ecologies: Adopting a communal orientation, I seek to understand how specific configurative relations between technologies, bodies, and their lived ecologies can be developed as desirable dispositions for members of a community. For instance, Susanne Bodker and I have explored the role of prototypes with respect to research on how people work in common around interactive objects and future use. We posit that "conceptualizing prototypes as objects of desire can allow researchers to better articulate and understand the role of prototypes for exploring what is possible as shared futures mediated through technological interactions" [7]. Following this line of reasoning, how might we design with communities to make certain possibilities and experiences as contributive toward desirable ecologies?

In my work, living well does not exclude conflicts and power contestations. How do you navigate conflicts and power in your work?

HM: I can wholeheartedly relate to the conflict of designing for more with the need for less. Navigating the balance between adding in more technologies, designs, and opportunities but needing less can be viewed through many different contexts. I have always appreciated the continued discourse within sustainable HCI around the concept of undesigning, and consider this lens important to the work that can be done to ensure living well with less, with self, and with others can offer more time, space, and ecological benefits. Of course, nothing is that simple, and I think this is where the navigation of conflicts and power comes in within my work and framing. Critically, in my work on living well with less, power and conflicts are not negated. Inherently, living with less is often accompanied by poverty, disadvantage, or tragic life events—a significant stripping away of power and control. Consuming less is often not a choice for many; and working toward being able to have more is a step toward contesting power and gaining control and agency. Designing interactive technologies for a redirection of established values, systems, and everyday practices could also be seen as asserting power through design. Design or technology in itself should not hold or assert power; however, in many cases it can and does. This is a critical consideration that is inherent in my work, and one that you have highlighted through your own work. I see ecofeminism as a frame in which to support and navigate designing with power contestations and conflicts, and one in which I am dedicated to exploring further and through different contexts of sufficiency.

To provide a bit of an insight into my thoughts from this discussion, designing interactive technologies requires the introduction of dynamic and adaptable affordances, which could be created for different configurations, contexts, and intimacies to foster agency, well-being, and self, and to navigate power and conflict. There is still much to explore; however, I see design innovation for living well, with less, and with others requires a few key elements: respect for both established and newly developed value systems, nurturing community structures, supporting the sharing of intergenerational practices, and also supporting the idea that less can be more. With that said, I look forward to seeing the next steps of how your two interrelated foci of inquiry, ecologies of desire and desirable ecologies, move toward designing for embodied well-being.

ins02.gif An excerpt from the poem "No Public Safety" by Chrystos.

GK: I agree with you about the necessity for considering power dynamics, poverty, and tragic life events in the sustainable HCI research domain. One liter of water conserved in an arid desert region is not the same as one liter of water conserved in a rainforest. Designing for resource conservation and management must acknowledge that resources are always already political. Even though ecological issues such as climate change, pollution, and declining biodiversity affect us all, not everyone is affected equally. People with intersecting, historically disenfranchised, and sociopolitically marginalized identities often face unfair exposure to life-threatening risks, bear the harsher brunt of ecological crises, suffer economic disparities, experience disproportionate harms, and have fewer rights and resources to defend themselves. It is imperative to talk about the geopolitics of climate change while designing for ecologically responsible shared futures. I would like to end this conversation with an excerpt from a poem titled "No Public Safety" (from the book Not Vanishing published in 1988) by Menominee-American activist and two-spirit poet Chrystos as a prompt for reflection about the role of design for living well with others.

back to top  References

1. Maathai, W. The Green Belt Movement; http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai

2. Kannabiran, G. and Reddy. A.V. Exploring Kolam as an ecofeminist computational art practice. Proc. of Creativity and Cognition 2022. ACM Press, 2022, 336–349; https://doi.org/10.1145/3527927.3531452

3. Holroyd, J. Feminism and well-being. In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being. G. Fletcher, ed. Routledge Press, 2016, 463–476.

4. Kannabiran, G. Deliverance through design. Interactions 29, 5 (2022), 13–15; https://doi.org/10.1145/3554758

5. Davis, A. The underside of the savior complex—Humanism begins at home. Humanity & Society 22, 1 (1988), 95–101; https://doi.org/10.1177/016059768801200106

6. Kannabiran, G., Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. Designing (for) desire: A critical study of technosexuality in HCI. Proc. of the 7th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. ACM, New York, 2012, 655–664; https://doi.org/10.1145/2399016.2399116

7. Kannabiran, G. and Bødker, S. Prototypes as objects of desire. Proc. of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2020, 1619–1631; https://doi.org/10.1145/3357236.3395487

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Gopinaath Kannabiran is an HCI researcher, design educator, sexual rights activist, and yoga instructor. He is an assistant professor in the School of Information at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. [email protected]

Heather McKinnon is a design researcher with QUT Design Lab and a lecturer in interaction design at Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests lie in sustainable interaction design, adaptation for climate resilience, and RtD methodologies. [email protected]

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