Fieldnotes: Designing on an island in Sweden
It has become clear we aren’t faced simply with discrete planetary problems, but rather face systemic issues that require understanding across boundaries and through complex interactions. The situation is complex, messy and very difficult to address.
Part of what I’m interested in within my research is how we engage human sensibilities to stretch thinking and perception about the world. Often artistic practice is looked to, but I’m interested in how designers can take up this challenge. Design is admittedly more instrumental in both intention and process. I’m interested in activities where imagination is stretched and ideas are able to be pulled into practical use. This was a key motivating factor for visiting an island in the Swedish archipelago and participating in a week-long design workshop.
Dubbed ‘Xskool’, event was a collaboration between design writer John Thackara and the Konstfack design school in Sweden. John has organised and run numerous experimental design workshops around the world as a way of bringing people into conversation with design process and broader socio-political issues.
Xskool Grinda – named after the island which hosted us for the week – attracted students largely from Northern Europe: Swedes, Latvians, Poles, Dutch, French. A token Aussie and myself were the exotic outliers. All were young, either in the process of postgraduate study or having just finished. Our task was to consider how the food system on Grinda might be re-thought. We’d been prepped with readings and lectures before arrival, and charged with undertaking research on our own local food systems.
On the first day we were divided into groups and the exploratory activities began. The collective design process was, as it can be with newly formed groups, somewhat uneven: with different skill sets and understandings the group’s ideas emerged chaotically. More interestingly was how place became an integral part of the undertaking; both the qualities of being in the particular location brought to experience, as well as those that were absent.
Grinda is a small island in the Swedish archipelago a short ferry ride from Stockholm. It has been inhabited and farmed for at least 500 years, but mid last century was purchased by the city of Stockholm, along with other islands, as recreational reserves. The island is now a popular summer destination for locals who can come to island, explore its rocky coast and enjoy secluded swimming spots, camp, as well as stay in hostels. The island also has a hotel and restaurant – the converted villa of the island’s previous owner, director of the Noble Foundation – to cater for more discerning visitors. While the island is covered largely in forest small areas are still farmed with herds of heritage sheep and cattle. The farming is not actively productive but rather for land management as well as education.
Our first task was to develop a better understanding of the island. Given the location’s remoteness and subsequent lack of internet connectivity the obvious method for this was simply getting outside and wandering around. As simple as this sounds, it made a significant difference to the way we eventually experienced and understood the island. In a normal classroom setting we would have defaulted to ‘Googled’ information. But we were impelled to explore visceral dimensions, using our eyes, ears and other senses to develop an understanding place and its connections. We talked with some of those working on the island to gain a sense of how current activity was managed. We explored different areas around the island to observe the different landscape forms and organisation.
Each group found their own way to explore a connection with food, place, and soil and formulate a creative response. Some of these were practically focused socio-economic interventions, such as developing a barter system of exchange. Others looked to utilising the wild fruits of the island – berries, seeds, mushrooms and the like – that could be used to produce tasteful interventions with one’s experience of Grinda.
The lack of internet connectivity multiplied by the inability to employ technological devices (due to limited power access) for designing and presenting ideas proved a boon. We were challenged to be more innovative within investigation and development of ideas – a nice change from other design workshops I’ve experienced which often defer to digital media and slickly rendered outputs. Groups were tasked with providing a ‘taster’ of their project at the end of day three. The idea of taste was taken up literally and very inventively, resulting in some very engaging experiments and, for me, were the best outcomes of the workshop.
For example, one group was interested in taste-experiences freely available through foraging, and how these could be combined with providing visitors with small surprises as they walked the island’s pathways. They designed an ‘experiential pathway’ where we encountered different tastes developed from foraged materials. Another group also interested in the experience of walking and different island sensations designed their own sensorial pathway to give our feet a ‘taste’ of the different flavours of ground. A bit like an anti-firewalk experience, the idea was to take your time and slowly appreciate the different sensations of ground beneath your feet. Yet another took the notion of taste and ground literally, investigating the use of soils from different parts of the island to flavour waters, developing unique Grinda taste-blends.
My own group followed an interest in sustainable island management, and focused on issues of human waste and their impact in a slightly subversive manner. Concerned with the issue of groundwater and contamination by human activity, we presented a taste of ‘pure’ Grinda island water. While most drinking water nowadays is provided desalination processes, there is a single remaining groundwater pump at the northern end of the island. We offered samples of this Grinda water, poured from a clear glass bottle into small porcelain cups. We invited people to sample this taste of island water before discussing systems interconnectedness and the ultimate threat of water contamination by our own activities.
After five days we presented our final outcomes. These were not highly polished but more exploratory and speculative in nature. What struck me though was the contradiction of the position we found ourselves in. On the one hand we felt somewhat isolated on the island, with limited access to the internet and to the usual tools of technology you would normally use to work through a contemporary design problem. Helpfully, this forced us to look to other places for ways to understand the kinds of activities that go on on the island. We walked around the island (a lot!) and noticed things that we perhaps otherwise wouldn’t – the people who visited, the things they did, what they left behind, and the things that went unnoticed: the fungi, berries, and plants ripe for early autumn picking. A wider range of senses and a much more intimate sense of place was pulled into the design process.
On the other hand what became evident was that Grinda was not actually an island. Certainly it was physically separated from the mainland, but it was clearly entangled in a series of flows that continuously crossed borders. History, politics, economics, ecologies, were intrinsically interlinked. A complex web of relationships needed to be understood if one was to think about designing for this ‘island’. And, ultimately, it seems that any island is never actually just an island.
I have to say, I initially came away feeling a little disappointed. I’d gone in with the idea of applying a particular kind of design research approach, using social and cultural methods. Given the constraints we’d faced this was not able to give me the outcome I’d imagined. What I learned is that such preconceived ideas can be problematic, and it is best to approach any investigation in a more open manner, simply beginning by listening and better attending to the senses.