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Erika Renedo Illarregi: I love being a design researcher and navigating a variety of emotional landscapes

In the ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Erika Renedo Illarregi, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Design, describes how coming to Finland was both a cultural shock and an experience worth living. She feels so lucky to be a design researcher, getting a taste of being someone else.
Erika Renedo Illaregi, photo by Linda Lehtovirta
Photos: Linda Lehtovirta

You are a newcomer at Aalto. What are your experiences and thoughts about onboarding?

I’m from the Basque Country in the north of Spain. I finished my PhD in the UK, where I was for over a decade, and I wanted to continue my research. I also wanted to try other places and then I saw an opportunity at Aalto, which is very well known. I came to Aalto last September.

My research is about design for health, and I’ve been working in mental health for a long time. At Aalto, I had the opportunity to expand my area of research and implement new methodologies.

Smooth is the right word to describe onboarding, even though it was a cultural shock. If you come from any place south, Mediterranean especially, the culture there is more hectic and noisier. It’s very different compared to Finland, and that can be either difficult or easy depending on your personality.

I had an onboarding buddy, Annukka Svanda, who helped me to understand everything at Aalto. It was useful and I liked it. I came with a lot of energy and a lot of willingness to do different things and integrate, but also, the winter was coming. Even though I like new experiences, it was not always easy to arrive in the moment when every day was a little bit darker. But at the same time, it had a calming effect as well. I must be honest that now when I’ve seen the spring, the change of seasons is something quite interesting and worth living.  And workwise it was exciting to come to a place that has an interdisciplinary culture.

With Annukka Svanda, we had lunch together occasionally. We also organized a Christmas party together for our research group ENCORE, Engaging Co-design Research Group. We brought someone to do meditation, sound healing for us, since we wanted to do something different. People really liked it. We also cooked different things; it was a multicultural evening.

Erika Renedo Illarregi, photo by Linda Lehtovirta

Even though I like new experiences, it was not always easy to arrive in the moment when every day is a little bit darker.

Erika Renedo Illarregi

Can you share a story about your work?

I had the opportunity to work with paramedics in an emergency work. I didn’t have any experience in that before. It was really eye opening to be able to co-design processes together with paramedic students and professionals.

We created a co-design process combining methodologies that they use for training, like simulations, with more creative methods like forum theater, a methodology created by Augusto Boal. This, someone who was watching a simulation, could take the patient’s or the paramedic’s place in the scene, and they could change the way the scene was being acted, leading to interdisciplinary discussions.

This way of working was completely new for them, and they loved it. The teachers were quite surprised by the level of how reflective, engaging, creative and excited the students were, and how much they knew. They were also very inspired and encouraged by it even as a method for teaching.

It was really fascinating to work with them. And afterwards we were invited to be in an ambulance crew. I did a 12-hour shift with paramedics, and I’m still trying to process all the information. It was such an honor to be welcomed as a learner.

I love being a design researcher. I can have experiences of very different roles and navigate a variety of emotional landscapes. I was in an ambulance only for one day, but I can still get a taste of what is being this other person. That’s quite exceptional to be able to work in a very different area. I was working in mental health sector and prisons before, and now I feel almost like stepping into a new world.

Erika Renedo Illarregi, photo by Linda Lehtovirta

I was working in mental health sector and prisons before, and now I feel almost like stepping into a new world.

Erika Renedo Illarregi

Is there something we can learn from mental health and co-design as a community?

Codesign and participatory design are basically bottom-up ways to create anything: products and services, even welcoming new students here at Aalto. For instance, a lot of people do struggle in the winter, if they are new and the cultural shock is deep. They can feel isolated. I would be for example using those methodologies to include people that have that experience in designing better services, or ways in which that could be an easier experience.

The process itself has a mental health impact and some form of healing and empowering effect. In the context of Aalto, I would perhaps try to explore a new form of therapy or healing. Can we help people stay mentally healthy through creativity or co-design?

And if you ask the people who are suffering, what is the cause of the problem, you will have a unique understanding of not only the problems but also the wider set of characteristics. You can create a systemic change if you involve people as experts by experience. 

When do you feel ease at work?

I feel flow when I do field work, like go and observe someone. That’s the most engaging part.

In general, if someone is sharing an experience, often people are trying to make it better and make the bad thing go away. That creates a bit of a disconnection. Walking in that person’s shoes means acknowledging that person, being present and trying to understand their experience. You don’t have to do anything. Many people want to solve problems, and this problem-solving mindset is preventing us from walking in other people’s shoes. That only makes the person feel alone.

I do enjoy having the space and the time to understand one another. Presence creates connection. You just stay connected to someone else and try to understand what they are going through.

And when do you feel uncomfortable in your life?

I feel uncomfortable when other people are silenced. Imagine there are three people and I’m one of them. One person starts saying something and the other one interrupts. A lot of the art of doing co-design or facilitation is navigating or disrupting those power dynamics basically. In my research, we are facilitating processes where everyone has their voice and power, and no one is taking over. This is important, especially if you have groups of people where there is already hierarchy. We are trying to disrupt and change that and make the situation more equal.

Erika Renedo Illarregi, photo by Linda Lehtovirta

What do you do in your free time and why is it important to you?

I like travelling to the weirdest places, where the culture is very different. I have a lot of interest in rituals and healing rituals of different practices. I enjoy having a chance to try to engage in a community which is foreign to me. A lot of my work has this kind of a pluralist approach – the idea is that there are many different worlds, and they coexist.

In 2012 I went to India, and I had the opportunity to witness rituals that are about mental distress and madness. I learnt how experiences or belief systems can be very different and can complement. That can really open your mind.

New things I’ve discovered here are sauna and ice of course. I was able to jump in the ice in the winter, and I was surprised to like it. I’ve also been ice skating on a lake, it was amazing.

How is it to walk in your shoes?

It’s bumpy. I like dancing more. Maybe the word to describe it is interesting, which is often both good and bad.

Interview and text: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

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Walk in my shoes

If you would like to share your story for the Walk in My Shoes series, please contact Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne. Walk in my shoes is part of the Aalto Cultural Development project led by Carita Pihlman.

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