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Emīlija Veselova: ‘We should consider nature as stakeholder in design process’

In our I Claim series Emīlija Veselova talks about how climate change challenges design approach and its human-centered approaches. She says we need to be more critical in what we design and research and how we talk about it.
Nainen tummassa puvussa väitöstilaisuudessa luentosalin edessä
Emīlija Veselova at the dissertation event. Photo: Veselova's home album

What is your research about? 

‘I have been researching a relatively new approach, the more-than-human design approach, where humans are not the only stakeholders in design. It has been a hot topic for the past few years, but the approach started about 15 years ago. It’s about considering and including nature – such as animals, species, and ecosystems– in design. It can be called more-than-human, multispecies, or sometimes even ecocentric design. 

My work is motivated by environmental crises and climate change, which are becoming increasingly visible in daily life: biodiversity loss, pollution, and social problems like migration rising from that. In the past five years, these topics have become the top news. 

Coming from a small town in Latvia, nature has been a big part of my life. I’ve done a lot of gardening and been in the forest and meadows. Due to my background, I know much, or at least something, about this topic – and sustainability issues inspire me highly. In gardening, you see the whole system: it’s not just about the plants but also the soil, water, insects, and human activity. It all comes together, and all parts are essential. 

On a trip to Portugal years back, I got to chat with Dr. Leyla Acarogly, the founder of the UnSchool of Disruptive Design and United Nations Champion of the Earth, and uncovered a potent question: why don’t we include nature and nonhuman stakeholders in design, instead of thinking only people’s need? Considering nature and its needs made a lot of sense to me, but I was also highly aware of the lack of this thinking within design. 

Since then, I’ve been deeply motivated to explore what would happen if we, designers, shifted how we appreciate and see nature – that it is not only something out there for us to fulfill our desires and needs. In my childhood home, I learned that we need to respect nature, and I want to take this attitude to my professional practice.’  

One of the primary goals in my research is to understand and clearly communicate how including nature can contribute to sustainability."

Emīlija Veselova

What is important in it? 

‘There are no easy solutions to making this shift happen in the design field. In fact, I find many attempts to include nature in design quite naïve. The thinking seems to prevail that if we include nature or nonhuman stakeholders in our research or design, it automatically makes it not non-anthropocentric, automatically contributes to sustainability, and makes it good. But I don’t think this is true.

I’m always trying to balance optimism and skepticism about this approach, looking at the mechanisms for contributing to sustainability, questioning who the natural stakeholders should be, and how to pragmatically include them. I think that, unfortunately, such a balance between optimism and skepticism is often missing.

And I understand why designers struggle to consider and include nature while retaining a pragmatic outlook. Historically, designers did not need to have knowledge of nature or life sciences, so it can be very challenging for a designer to include nature and nonhumans in research. Knowledge, skills, tools, precedents, and examples are needed. Therefore, in my work, I’m trying to build bridges between sciences about sustainability and the natural world and design thinking, tools, and methodologies.

Overall, I strive to expand the understanding within design research and education on who or what can be stakeholders, highlighting that it is not just humans or organizations. I was missing this perspective when I was learning design – both in the practical courses and the readings we had – so I want to lift this perspective. 

What can it lead to?

‘One of my primary goals when researching and writing my Ph.D. thesis was to understand and clearly communicate how including nature can contribute to sustainability. I see there are three ways to do that.

First, the presence of natural stakeholders in design can challenge the prevalent worldviews that humans are superior to nature and separate from it and that nature is only valuable to humans in how we can use it and benefit from it. These worldviews are seen as the root causes of the sustainability crises. Secondly, including natural stakeholders can lead to practical solutions aligned with sustainability.

Currently, in co-design and participatory processes, only humans get to share their perspectives and argue for their needs to be met; natural stakeholders–who will also be impacted by the project outcomes–are not included or even represented. Natural stakeholders cannot share what they need or how the solutions will affect them. I want us designers to include the natural stakeholders and their perspectives throughout our processes. And third and final, by incorporating natural stakeholders in design processes, we can challenge our systems and structures, such as our economic system, laws, and policies. Including natural stakeholders can highlight what needs to be changed in our systems and structures.

My work is highly informed by sustainability sciences and systems thinking. Humans and nature form joint systems; we all impact each other. According to sustainability science, only systems can be sustainable. It’s not enough that we say a coffee mug is sustainable, but we need to recognize that everything, the whole interplay along its lifecycle – from material extraction to production to use and disposal – needs to support sustainability. We, designers, need to see that our designs are parts of the human-nature systems, and sustainability science can help us understand that.

Väitöskirja näkyy yleisössä istujan kädessä väitöstilaisuudessa
Emīlija Veselova's Ph.D. thesis. Photo: Veselova's home album

I want designers to be critical. We cannot always say that including one animal in a design process is automatically ecocentric and will definitely support sustainability. Instead, we need to understand and work with the complexity around sustainability and human-nature systems. We need to be more critical in what we design, how we design, how we talk about it, and what claims we make about the impact of our work. 

At the moment, a lot of writing and talking about natural stakeholders in design is vague, focusing maybe on just one aspect and organism, or over-simplifying the sustainability and systemic complexity. I want to promote a higher-level, comprehensive understanding of the change needed. We just have to do it.’  

Emīlija Veselova defended her thesis Designing with Nature for Sustainability: Towards a critical approach for including natural nonhuman stakeholders in collaborative and participatory design when designing for sustainability at Aalto University on 21 June 2023. 

Contact: 

[email protected] 

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