In search of more sustainable innovation and design

Industrial designer, Academy Fellow Researcher Andrea Botero Cabrera is interested in unconventional spaces where innovation and collaboration happen, that are not recognized as such.
Andrea Botero Cabrera, kuva: Mikko Raskinen / Aalto-yliopisto
Andrea Botero Cabrera, photo: Mikko Raskinen / Aalto University

This summer Andrea Botero Cabrera won in the lottery: she got a rare and competed funding from the Academy of Finland for five years for her research ‘From the lab and the studio, to the garden, the forests and back’. As an Academy Research Fellow, starting from September, she will focus on how innovation and design happen in unexpected spaces and locations, trying to find globally common features and differences in them.

Botero Cabrera, an industrial designer from Colombia, says, as a designer she was educated in a very European way. What intreagues her is how design happens in ‘other places’, in other ways, outside of laboratories and studios. She will dig into a combination of cases in Finland, Kenya and Colombia.

‘I’m is focusing on more unconventional spaces where innovation and collaboration happen, that are not recognized as such. I want to look into more mundane places for doing experimentation, and to bring new spaces to it. My method is to look at how it happens, but also intervene and facilitate.’

The Academy of Finland reasons that the research proposal is ‘highly original’ and has ‘significant potential for impact on academia and society at large. It gives voice to currently unrecognised social-cultural practices, norms and beliefs.’

Context in climate crisis

An underlying reasoning for Botero Cabrera’s research work is an attempt to change the world, even on a small scale.

‘My idea is that if we should make something possible that is not and has not been there yet, we need to get better with this in the following two decades. We cannot continue doing what we’ve done, and we need to undo many things in the future, together. There are many ways of doing things, but we need to find the ways of collaboration.’

What she is now working on is a combination of many things she has done in the past. ‘I tried to put all the crazy ideas together’, says Botero Cabrera.

In her doctoral thesis she focused on design space, that she calls a ‘space of possibilities’.

‘I work a lot with on how to help collectives and communities to see the space – it’s not evident to people. They think they have to do this or that, and use and buy certain products from certain companies and so on. When we work together they realize it’s only in their minds.’

She wants to help stakeholders to understand what the design space is and how to take a grasp of it and find the possibilities it includes.

There are many ways of doing things, but we need to find the ways of collaboration."

Andrea Botero Cabrera

Searching for just innovation processes

One of the cases in her research is cloth-diapering, where she is looking at its material designs and practices. It is about the role women’s knowledge, sewing machines and other stuff have had in revitalizing the use of cloth-diapers and thus contributes to change how families manage their poo.

The other cases are different in that they are not western modern concepts, but present design in not the most obvious environments. One case is in Kenya, another in Colombia, and the third in a research forest in Finland. Botero Cabrera wants to dig deep in different places to find out what is innovation and creation in these locations and the locals’ ways of doing.

Her final aim is to find more just innovation processes. The work combines design research, science and technology studies and innovation studies. Botero Cabrera works in the blurred area between these, trying to find the red thread between the cases.

‘I believe all innovation processes are collective’, she says.  

The cases and areas look at first sight very far apart. But Botero Cabrera’s idea is that putting them together might bring not so recognized voices into what we think and hear of innovation and design. She thinks we need to understand innovation and design in more plural terms. Her research also combines issues facing the global North and South, creating dialogue between them.

About Finland

Botero Cabrera came to Finland to study master’s degree in TAIK. After graduation in 1999 she went back to Colombia but returned for doctoral studies.

Then ‘life happened’: she got children and a Finnish husband and finished her studies in 2013. So she stayed. After working on as post doc an Academy funded project on digital research infrastructures in University of Oulu she came back to Aalto last year.

When choosing her study destination as a young student she thought Finland is part of Scandinavia, and Scandinavian design is of interest to her.

‘I appreciate very much the system here and everything, and the way of working. I admire Finnish and Finnishness, their persistence and stubbornness, and calmness and kindness – it’s stable basis, which is good in this shaking and changing world. But it sometimes does frustrate me, too.’

Academy funding starts in September and she’s planning to do her mobility during the first two years. She has already identified some projects in Colombia, as well as some collaboration in Australia, where she has colleagues working on similar topics.

In the end there will be a book, and several articles. She’s also planning to do some installations to discuss her observations with different kinds of people.

During the summer Botero Cabrera got also an H2020 grant for her research – which makes her laugh she’s victim to her own success. But a lucky one.

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Industrial designer Andrea Botero Cabrera

  • BA in Industrial Design (Universidad Nacional de Colombia)
  • MA Product and Strategic Design (Aalto ARTS - formerly TAIK)
  • Doctor of Arts in 2013 (Aalto ARTS/media dept)
  • Academy Research Fellow (Aalto ARTS/dept of design)

Hobbies: 'I love reading, drawing and painting. I also like gardening, but I’m very bad at it. I want to improve.’

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