Empathy: Design in a Social Context

Reaching out to non-human stakeholders
Students' portraits with their adopted creatures in Kristineberg workshop in April, 2019

Whether it is intentional or accidental, our designs affect oceans and ecosystems we do not inhabit. No human can ever know the ocean like the species that live underwater. We must become aware of this limitation to our knowledge and empathically engage with the species we impact. They are the non-human stakeholders in the design process, and they deserve to be taken into account.

Empathy requires knowledge and compassion. To know how our actions affect the species underwater, we collaborate with scientists in a transdisciplinary design process—marine biologists, chemists and ecologists—to ensure we can better understand the complexities of the lives intertwined with our own. To be compassionate, we have to care for the species we affect and see them as fellow beings who own the world as much as we humans do.

When we took a group of Aalto University MA students to the Kristineberg marine research station in Sweden for a project entitled ‘Design in Social Context’, we began by coupling each student with a species from the local ecosystem. We asked students to research the species, to try to understand its perspective on the world, introduce it to us, and, in the design process that followed, to evaluate ideas in relation to how they might affect the species they were assigned.

This exercise in empathy challenged the students to engage not just intellectually but empathically with the local sea, and helped them to design not just in a human-centric frame but rather in an eco-centric one.

Image: Students' portraits with their adopted creatures in Kristineberg workshop in April, 2019. Photos: Xinquan Wen and Shotaro To

The Kristineberg Project was taught by Prof. Julia Lohmann and Dr. Pirjo Haikola of Aalto University as well as Prof. Fredrik Gröndahl of KTH Stockholm, to whom we are very grateful for making this collaboration between the two universities possible.

Students in the course: Jaea Chang, Tzuyu Chen, Elisa Dametto, Talisa Diwiyani, Linnea Kilpi, Niina Hyry, Chiao-Wen Hsu, Mariana Solis-Escalera, Aleksi Peltonen, Senciria Chou, Milla Vainio, Paul Flanders, Aino Tuovinen, Shotaro To, Jing Zhu, Karla Werner Zeuthen, Zijun Lin, Xinquan Wen.


This content belongs to Student Takeover on Unfolded. The Curating and Storytelling course have created visual and textual essays about the first academic year of the MA Contemporary Design.

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About Critical Tide Exhibition

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In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught. –Baba Dioum, 1968.

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