Contamination Labs, Design and Philosophy

It’s been around 30 months since I formulated the desire to enrol in a philosophy program. I still remember that odd moment, when I voraciously held Nassib Taleb’s Antifragile, praising his wit and his somewhat annoying personality; I don’t remember exactly how it came about, and I don’t think that this is what Taleb’s book wants to put forward, but a constant refrain began to hit me hard: philosophical arguments seemed the only way to get a multifaceted perspective on the economic, the social, and the political world. It seemed the only critical way one can have to tackle so many subjects with a single toolkit, or at least it seemed it could be that way. I remember my excitement while running through the bibliography, to find out that even the ancient skeptics were there.

No turning point could ever be more strange for a prospective philosophy student, I get that. I’ve been disputing such a simple intuition myself over and over, facing the crude reality of an academy that demands to dig deeper and deeper in each subset of every subject, where ambitious students get to choose their “T” as soon as they can, while a desire for comprehensive knowledge often translates in dispersed amateurism. Yes, that ambition is somehow simplistic; yet, it set things going, and it still is somehow at work from my perspective.

Once one steps into the magical world of the humanities, he wants to keep an eye on what’s outside the bubble. You know, at some point it’ll eventually burst. Better get ready. No matter how many HR reports one can read about how much appreciated humanistic studies are on the workplace, no matter how many uplifting paperbacks one can amass about the importance of the humanities for a properly-working democracy1)Cf., for example, M. Nussbaum, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. A brief comment on the Italian translation can be found on this blog., I guess almost none of us, students of the humanities, would quibble over the question: where would this path actually lead us?

A brief overview of the professionalisation of philosophy would show how such question has gained its relevance only recently, as the subject has gained more and more analytic traction2)For an historical comment on the subject’s development since the publication of what should have been, in Richard Rorty’s mind, a manifesto for the dissolution of philosophy as a profession, cf. B. Kuklick, “After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Analyse & Kritik, 2019. and university degrees have become increasingly popular. If the philosophy departments of the past could almost always find a congruous place for every of its graduate students, the multiplication of departments has now exponentially enlarged the gap between student seats and teaching positions. Fortunately, my existential inquiry was not spurred primarily by employment reasons, but rather by the desire of finding a worldly meaning to a course study that is renown for its armchair approach.

A Call for Contamination

The chance to address the question presented itself almost a year ago, under a rather mysterious acronym: CLAB – a MIUR-approved3)Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR stands for “Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca”). university laboratory (duh!) which aims at facilitating contamination between different course studies through a unified business project 4)Source: https://www.unive.it/pag/30571.. As I ventured to meet the creative requirements of selection (including an embarrassing YouTube bio clip which has been the first, last and worst video recording experience of my life), the aim began to be clear: I wanted to see what a philosophical training could provide within a business-oriented environment, to prove myself that reading about mankind’s nature, foundations of knowledge, and undecipherable German words (Seinsvergessenheit?) could be of any practical – however indirect – use. 

CLAB’s roadmap sprung from an increasingly popular intersection, that between business and design: teams of 6/7 students, led by a facilitator, had to develop first-hand solutions for the Brenta footwear District by following the design thinking methodology, a strategy to lead business development in a user-centred and creative way. Part of its title – “contamination” – has been usefully put in context by a brilliant speech during the opening event, in which prof. Panozzo, Associate Professor at the Department of Management (UniVe), argued that such word threatens to encourage the worst spirits of economic change, which have increasingly been embodied (especially among the startup world) in the terminology of “disruption” and “endless acceleration”. Change as such can be seen as dangerous and fearsome, for it endangers to bring about situations we might not be ready to meet; this is the underlying mood upon which the “disruption” rhetoric has been built upon, and which feeds the negativity that could be felt around “contamination” too. Panozzo contended that this obscure aspect of change has often been overlooked, and that business fast dynamics sometimes forget how much time developing new skills requires. His closing remarks, though, assumed an optimistic bent when he reminded the audience that innovative enterprises are tolerant enterprises, even with respect to risk and contamination themselves. With a curiously Buddhist twist, Panozzo advocated for looking change-generated fear in the eyes, and to sit with it in viewing it almost as a partner; it would be from this mindset, that true innovation is generated.5)The Buddhist resemblance is owed to Allione’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company, 2008.

The first step of our design challenge: finding core values and stakeholders

In the following paragraphs, my aim will be to illustrate how the Lab has made me think about philosophical training under the light of a business-driven approach. I will draw from personal reflections and from academic contributions to design-driven innovation to ask myself where, eventually, philosophers can emerge as valuable partners in a business environment, and close on a bitter note on why there seems to be an irreconcilable tension between business demands and a critical attitude.

In the design-thinking methodology, several points emerged as having a philosophical affinity, or interest:

  • the ability to question current circumstances, often by analysing deepening layers of explanation;
  • the recognition of distinct schemes in order to apply them across different instances (a skill that design thinking labels as “modeling”);
  • the conveyance of old solutions to new frameworks;
  • the anthropological challenges of putting the user, a human being, at the center of the design process.6)Cf. Verganti, in broadening his critique to user-centred methods: “the company looks at people, not users” (p.54); such approach echoes the motto of philosophical consultancy as promoted by Gerd Achenbach, who sees it as an urge to see people as a whole, that is to broaden the narrow image with which one substitutes oneself and others. 

The first three points highlight the mastery of conceptual skills that cut across several other disciplines, but philosophy arguably offers among the best tools for enhancing critical thinking. The last one opens a conversation in which practically all philosophers have weighed in – the nature of human beings, among which the motivation behind their actions –, even tough nowadays we’re more used to turn to behavioural scientists. Philosophy offers a rich bucket to those who look for inspiration: a brief module on soft-skills, for example, presented in the contemporary language of ‘career development’ an array of dispositions that virtue ethics would recognise as moral virtues, such as flexibility, self-control, etc. 

Design as Meaningful Research

When academics talk about man, virtue, collaboration (in the examination of political institutions, for example), their descriptions are often too abstract to have any immediate practical use, but they are nevertheless essential, for they suggest new models through which one can re-think or re-imagine one’s daily habits.
On the other side, philosophy fruitfully engages with common-sense constructs, and contributes to advance a richer socio-cultural interpretation of them. As we will soon see, if designers are seen as interpreters, they cannot be culturally neutral, as they need to superimpose their own worldview on what is given, whilst enriching that representation through a mutual exchange with other interpreters. Being culturally partisan means starting from ones’ own knowledge, experiences, relationships, aspirations; a similar position has been advocated, in a more radical form, by F. Nietzsche, who claimed that “there are no facts – only interpretations”.7)I found particularly difficult to retrieve the exact source of such quote, which I have transcribed during a course on the history of Contemporary Philosophy. The most satisfying answer thus far comes from Wikiquote, who refers to Nietzsche’s Notebooks (Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche).

Intellectual partiality can at times be crudely displayed. For those who, like me, have read some Adorno, and who (unlike me) accept his strong claim on philosophy as antithetic to Weltanschauung,8)Cf. Adorno’s 1962 and 1963 lectures, collected in T. Adorno, Terminologia Filosofica, Einaudi, 2017, par.8 and 10. listening to business execs define their vision as “our philosophy” can undoubtedly be a troubling experience. The qualm with intellectual purity, though, is unlikely to be met by the pragmatic attitude that so strongly characterises the glamorous world of communications: professionals can have obtained the most prestigious literature degrees and know the specific weight of each word, but the growing competition over increasingly narrow market sectors demands that each firm earn its specificity through a sparkling – and often hazy – conceptualisation of its own products. In this way, a set of personal tastes and insights becomes a “philosophy”, with a tantalising conceptual aura.

Shoe boxes of the Italian fashion firm N.21

I may have received such impression only for contingent reasons: the realm of fashion, as Verganti claims in his Design-Driven Innovation, might not be the perfect environment for deep conceptualisation. Yes, innovation in fashion requires careful research and an ability to intelligently mix both a reading of current trends and the setting of new ones for the future; but design thinking as exposed by Verganti goes beyond the user-centred approach that we’ve analysed thus far.
Verganti sees designers as researchers, rather than creatives: the latter are often thought as professionals who come up with countless proposals in endless brainstorming sessions, while the former investigate the grounds of a paradigm, often to glimpse at its future developments.9)Eugenie Vergleris, a philosophical consultant who worked with major French firms, writes in her short book Manager con la filosofia (Managing with philosophy) that “to be a philosopher does not mean to be an intellectual, but rather a professional who turns an ordinary matter into an opportunity to deal with a base line issue” (freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.27). His approach expresses an etymological understanding of design and draws from the latin ‘de-signare‘ (‘to draw signs’) a picture of innovation as “innovation of meanings” – where meanings are intrinsic in every product or service and result from their interaction with the user (p.36). In a postmodernist program which echoes Quine’s “museum theory” of meanings10)Cf. W. O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 7, 1968, pp. 185–212., Verganti challenges user-centred design approaches for their view of meanings as fixed entities to be chased after, and reclaims an innovation process that cannot be codified or deterministically designed. This theme has been dear to philosophical minds who have tried to dodge physicalist underpinnings, and is relevant for every debate around the origins of creativity.11)A related critique towards the user-centred school of design thinking contends that tested methods cannot question existing meanings, but only reinforce them (Verganti, p.10).

A very pragmatist conception of inquiry is also set out in the book, and directly follows from the previous point: researching should be thought as something other than describing what already exists, but rather as a transformation of meanings by engaging in mutual semantic exchanges. In a paragraph inspired by Kuhn’s terminology, meanings are paradigms capable of undergoing not only gradual mutations, but also radical ones. The origins of ‘disruption’ shift from the user-centred practices of globally engaging with the end consumer to an elitist picture, in which firms, executives and expert interpreters conduct long and close-knit processes of research to understand what the meaning at hand is rooted in, and where it might go. Innovation starts from a small, intimate community with a common vision and different market demands, where design-driven research is assimilated to the prototyping of a cultural model, which is silently diffused to society through a variety of means in order to prepare the end user to greet that radicalness as highly seductive, not repulsive.
A clearer resemblance of design research with philosophical engagement though is expressed by the idea that practical innovation happens at the edges of stepping back and looking at the big picture. We find the same remark in Vergleris’ short book on management and philosophy, where philosophising is characterised as “distancing oneself” from the context.12)E. Vergleris, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008.

I’ve been undoubtedly charmed by Verganti’s account, probably for the promises carried by research: the profundity and uniqueness that only single-mindedness could bring about, linked with the fertile contribution of collaborative thinking, among a group of equally well-suited peers. The problem might be that one has to be an expert in the field to really be able to contribute, and Verganti does not shy away from describing the process as quite elitist; whether this is the ‘true’ description of how innovative transformations really come about, though, beginners as we, CLAB participants, needed a guiding structure to work together, and the user-centred action plan worked perfectly for that purpose.

CLAB: Joys and Hardships of a Philosophical Trainee

The rudiments of labour division. Early stage completion.
Hello teammates!

One of the hardest challenges I’ve been experiencing at the CLAB has been collaboration, the necessity of trying to find a common ground with my other fellow group members. Personal character, self-reliant philosophical training, and (maybe?) the habituation to increasingly homogeneous human relationships have at times turned confrontation in a frustrating experience. I feared that the stress on contamination was suffocating spaces for simplicity and solitude. Contamination was the passepartout in order to conceive interdisciplinary solutions, but original ones need to go through a process of self-formation, in which their identity is built by way of a strong selection of what does not belong to them. If a collective proposal has to gain its unparalleled flavour, individuals need to see themselves outside of a groupthink dynamic, and strive for an independently coordinated action.
The Lab was too short to develop such a close-knit mutual understanding, but my role model is the type of research community analysed by Verganti, where the depth of group convergence parallels its radicality.13)Convergence and divergence are terms that have found a place in the CLAB too, albeit with a different function: the design-thinking process, which evolved in five different stages, consisted in alternate divergence (research stage) and convergence (solution-oriented stages) phases.

One of the most curious considerations about the appeals of a philosophical training evolves from how I came to be judged from my peers: one of my early tasks has been that of condensing in a few paragraphs our long discussions, because ‘philosophers ought to be good with words’. Now, I don’t know if I am good at it, and I do know if philosophy in particular has anything to do with that – maybe it is just my inclination to prefer writing to speaking. What is interesting, though, is that Vergleris sees the philosopher exactly as a figure who helps to clarify meanings, in order to build something together. Philosophers have developed two opposite views about the nature of meanings: some claim that they are fixed entities and can be discovered through accurate discussion and research; others, and this is Verganti’s approach, think that meanings are constructions, and that they are put at work through discursive practices. Even though the two theories come from very different grounds, both Vergleris and Verganti see a coherence of meanings as an essential feature of collective action, which can come about only through concerted discussion, to let that coherence slowly emerge (or be built, following the other interpretation).

Vergleris highlights another stage through which all CLAB teams had to go through: since the proposals had to be displayed in an official presentation, groups had to own what they had built – and “in order to seize a project, it is necessary to contribute to its understanding”14)Freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.79.. The idea is that effective delivery depends upon a firm understanding of the project’s underlying ideas and values. Values were the first target of each research, in an attempt to find that core proposition around which the proposal could be built: they served as guiding principles for collective action, such that the final outcome could consist in a combined convergence of multiple perspectives.

The Ultimate Tension

I have anticipated at the very beginning that my conclusion would have been bitter. The fact is that cultivating a critical attitude often nurtures a social thoughtfulness that extends beyond shallow shareholders’ interests. But business goals inevitably tame any true critical engagement with our outputs – whether it be reflecting on the environmental costs of a particular product, or on the psychological consequences for users of a certain service –, at least in a contemporary landscape where quantitative metrics such as earnings per share dictate every business strategy.15)Cf. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations.
There undoubtedly is a singular phenomenon, which Krista Tippett hints at in her conversation with Brene Brown, by which in a landscape where politics has gradually lost its moral leadership, enterprises and private citizens are picking up social challenges that have been neglected by public officials. It appears though that if they are in a position to ignore the unspoken law of creating value for shareholders at the expense of every other concern, that strength had somehow to be gained beforehand, often through the same shareholders logic.
Elitist philosophy students, those who praise the Platonic philosopher-king figure, would certainly love to have a spot in a design-driven innovation process which dictates cultural standards, as it has been sketched by Verganti. Those standards though, until they are aligned with market interests, hardly have a possibility to distance themselves from the “shareholder perspective”. The latter has been defended as the natural attitude in a world characterised by scarcity,16)Curiously enough, A Short History of Economic Thought (Bo Sandelin, Hans-Michael Trautwein, Richard Wundrak, Routledge 2015) reports that the problem of scarcity becomes the central economic problem only in Biblical texts; Ancient Greeks did not have such concerns. but as labor-replacing technology floods the market and abundant energy resources become a feasible goal, the question becomes political, as Peter Frase has highlighted in his four-scenario post-capitalist future.

I began this journey in search of little clues that could shed light on my professional future. Young adults such as me face the challenge of pursuing interests that they are encouraged to cherish, such as historical knowledge, aesthetic taste or social sensibility, and yet perceive themselves as disadvantaged in a professional world that capitalises on rhetoric, minimised costs and shareholder interests. In a world that pushes to label every experience in order to project oneself into a safer, more defined future, I am almost afraid to say that no clear-cut role has emerged yet from the CLAB. The upshot has been an increased awareness of what a philosophical training can provide outside the classroom, while I try to cultivate the hope that my alertness towards what is human will find its way and subtly spread around, although the private sector might not be the best environment to nurture that attitude.
What’s ahead is a quest to assert a critical stance that does not have to result in public intellectualism. A search to push back the individualistic forces driven by surging competitiveness, which might have a chance once those very forces recover the social character of their genesis.

References   [ + ]

1. Cf., for example, M. Nussbaum, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. A brief comment on the Italian translation can be found on this blog.
2. For an historical comment on the subject’s development since the publication of what should have been, in Richard Rorty’s mind, a manifesto for the dissolution of philosophy as a profession, cf. B. Kuklick, “After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Analyse & Kritik, 2019.
3. Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR stands for “Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca”).
4. Source: https://www.unive.it/pag/30571.
5. The Buddhist resemblance is owed to Allione’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company, 2008.
6. Cf. Verganti, in broadening his critique to user-centred methods: “the company looks at people, not users” (p.54); such approach echoes the motto of philosophical consultancy as promoted by Gerd Achenbach, who sees it as an urge to see people as a whole, that is to broaden the narrow image with which one substitutes oneself and others.
7. I found particularly difficult to retrieve the exact source of such quote, which I have transcribed during a course on the history of Contemporary Philosophy. The most satisfying answer thus far comes from Wikiquote, who refers to Nietzsche’s Notebooks (Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche).
8. Cf. Adorno’s 1962 and 1963 lectures, collected in T. Adorno, Terminologia Filosofica, Einaudi, 2017, par.8 and 10.
9. Eugenie Vergleris, a philosophical consultant who worked with major French firms, writes in her short book Manager con la filosofia (Managing with philosophy) that “to be a philosopher does not mean to be an intellectual, but rather a professional who turns an ordinary matter into an opportunity to deal with a base line issue” (freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.27).
10. Cf. W. O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 7, 1968, pp. 185–212.
11. A related critique towards the user-centred school of design thinking contends that tested methods cannot question existing meanings, but only reinforce them (Verganti, p.10).
12. E. Vergleris, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008.
13. Convergence and divergence are terms that have found a place in the CLAB too, albeit with a different function: the design-thinking process, which evolved in five different stages, consisted in alternate divergence (research stage) and convergence (solution-oriented stages) phases.
14. Freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.79.
15. Cf. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations.
16. Curiously enough, A Short History of Economic Thought (Bo Sandelin, Hans-Michael Trautwein, Richard Wundrak, Routledge 2015) reports that the problem of scarcity becomes the central economic problem only in Biblical texts; Ancient Greeks did not have such concerns.