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‘For many people, it’s always been a crisis’ – a new Aalto collective engages intersecting dimensions of crises

The transdisciplinary Crisis Interrogatives collective critically discusses topics at the intersection of design, technology and socially engaged practices
Screenshot from a Zoom call with nine participants
Photo: Crisis Interrogatives

In September 2020, when people all over the globe had been struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic for months, a group of Aalto University researchers and students from different schools decided to start gathering for virtual coffee chats and organizing participatory online workshops together, unpacking interrelated aspects of crises.

Now the new collective called Crisis Interrogatives comes together regularly to discuss important, crisis-related topics from a critical perspective, and re-imagine them in new ways, as core members Natalia Villaman, Floris van der Marel, Henriette Friis, and Sid Rao explain in this interview.

While the collective was established during the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis was not the only reason for the initiative. Even though the crisis caused by pandemic touches people all over the world, ‘for many people, there’s always been a crisis,’ as Floris van der Marel, doctoral candidate at Aalto and Swinburne University of Technology in Australia who studies imbalances in participatory design reminds. ‘This is just the crisis that we all are seeing and acknowledging,’ he adds. Examples of workshops conducted by the collective include Empathy in Crisis, Resilience in Crisis, Disarming Data for Activism, and Deviating Perspectives in Participatory Design.

In every culture and educational context, things go unquestioned. A designer, for example, learns a certain way to deal with an issue, which at some point, becomes a subconscious way of doing, easily overlooking its potential harmful implications and connotations. In this regard, Natalia Villaman, who is a design researcher and cultural mediator at Aalto, says that she finds the initiative crucial because the collective touches upon narratives that are not usually discussed as critically as they should.

Portrait of Aalto student Henriette Friis who smiles in the picture and is wearing a black shirt and blue dress, sitting on a chair against a purple background.

By joining forces, we can turn all our knowledge into action.

Henriette Friis

‘We have different backgrounds academically, coming from all over the world and having different experiences. By joining forces, we can turn all our knowledge into action,’ adds Henriette Friis, student in Aalto University’s Master’s Programme in Creative Sustainability.

Floris van der Marel adds that everybody is in some ways shaping society: ‘We feel it’s important to become aware of what subconsciously guides us, what those norms are and how we can detect and challenge them. That’s always important - but it’s more important in times of crisis, because crises make power imbalances more real and explicit.’

Critical views on technology and policies around it

Many of the active members of Crisis Interrogatives met for the first time in 2020 at the  Department of Computer Science summer course Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis. The course was organized by Professor of Practice Nitin Sawhney whose life and career have been intertwined with crises.

Despite having started up just a few months ago with informal coffee chats and workshops online, the collective has already created several larger-scale initiatives.

Nitin Sawhney is leading an Academy of Finland-funded research project, Reconstructing Crisis Narratives for Trustworthy Communication and Cooperative Agency, which is conducted in collaboration with the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL). The researchers hope that the project will offer insights into how crisis narratives emerge in society to influence public anxieties and behaviours during the pandemic, but also how to improve risk communication strategies and cooperative models for crisis preparedness and response.

The collective was also a source of inspiration for the Department of Computer Science’s new course, Critical AI and Data Justice in Society, which too is instructed by Professor Sawhney. Henriette Friis and doctoral candidate Sid Rao from the Department of Computer Science are teaching assistants on the course. ‘It too has managed to bring together people from the different schools of Aalto and even some people from other universities around the world. We are critically examining ethical policies and design practices around technology and everything surrounding that,’ explains Henriette Friis.

Floris van der Marel, PhD student at Aalto, in a portrait smiling and looking away from the camera. He wears a red and white shirt and is in front of a purple background.

We feel it’s important to become aware of what subconsciously guides us, what those norms are and how we can detect and challenge them.

Floris van der Marel

Sid Rao notes that the fairness research in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) remains largely rooted in Western concerns, and the injustices, datasets, measurement scales, or legal tenets used to refer mainly to mainstream Western societies and ideologies. ‘These discussions seem to have neglected the perspectives and experiences of the minorities and underrepresented.’

He adds that non-Western countries are in a rush to implement large-scale AI and ML systems, such as facial recognition and border control, by replicating and reusing the tools and methods from their Western counterparts. ‘We felt the need to ignite discussions among the CS students on how any automated system cannot be naively generalized without taking into consideration its impact on society.’

Moreover, he notes that AI and ML courses often lack critical evaluation from non-technical aspects. ‘Unfortunately, any technology that exists today has a societal, political, ethical, and humanitarian angle to it which diminishes in the arms race of finding the best solution to a problem. Many problems cannot be solved with tech-only solutions, rather they need critical interrogation of both problem and solution space from non-CS fields such as social science, anthropology, design thinking, and ethnography.’

Many researchers involved in the collective have contributed, for example, to setting up a new Aalto University series called Color of Science, an initiative where scientists of colour and from indigenous communities talk about their experiences and struggles. The Crisis Interrogatives collective also plans to arrange live and hybrid public events in the future once the pandemic restrictions ease up.

Speaking about crises from a single perspective is impossible

Crisis Interrogatives welcomes new members from various backgrounds if they can identify with the community’s interests and manifesto and want to view the society critically.

Natalia Villaman points out that, in fact, it would be impossible to speak about crises from a single perspective. Each of us is more than the sum of their profession and education, and even those who work in the same field come from diverse merging backgrounds and cultures.

Natalia Villaman in a portrait. She is smiling and looking away from the camera, wearing a dark jacket and green blouse. The background is purple.

It would be impossible to speak about crises from a single perspective.

Natalia Villaman

Henriette Friis sees that it is important to support diversity and inclusion in our work, as everyone sees the world through their own lenses. Those lenses always highlight and neglect certain relevant aspects because of our own experiences, privileges, and biases. ‘We can’t see everything, and we shouldn’t be expected to see everything, but when we come together, we see more of the reality of the world and more of the needs and possibilities.’

Whenever this new community gathers to chat online, their aim is not to reach a consensus or find ways to forcefully agree with each other. Instead, they actively work towards finding new ways to challenge things together and chasing critical change.

Portraits: George Atanassov / Aalto Design Factory

Read more about Crisis Interrogatives on the collective’s website

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