Arturo Escobar is a Colombian American anthropologist and a prominent critic of global capitalist development. His “ontological” view of design characterizes it as a primary function of the relation between human beings and their life worlds. Escobar draws connections between “visions of transitions” and design, particularly situated in a Latin American context of peoples working in defense against global capitalist exploitation of territory, resources, labor, as well as ancestral ways of knowing, doing, and being. His analysis brings together projects of the Global North, such as those aimed at degrowth* and commoning,* with movements and discourses of the Global South, including Buen Vivir, postdevelopment, postextractivism, and local resistance to international development projects. These projects are wildly diverse, and that is, in fact, the point. Escobar sees in them a common project of substantially challenging the “current dominant form of capitalist modernity,” including all the manners in which it limits ways of knowing, doing, and being in the world. The practices promoted by these projects are place based and communal “in ways that enable humans to relearn to dwell on the planet with nonhumans in mutually enhancing manners.”[i] Escobar names and defines commonalities across these practices as autonomous design.
Escobar defines autonomous design as “a design praxis with communities that has the goal of contributing to their realization as the kinds of entities they are.”[ii] This kind of designing follows some basic presuppositions: every community practices the design of itself; every design activity begins with recognition that people are practitioners of their own knowledge; what the community designs is an inquiry or learning system about itself; every design process involves a statement of problems and possibilities, and the exercise may take the form of building a model of the system that generates the problem of communal concern.
Symbol of "Sumak Kawsay" (designer unknown)
Escobar cites the concept of Buen Vivir, particularly as it contrasts to the market-lead growth agenda of development in Latin America. The expression buen vivir loosely translates as “good living,” the Spanish form of sumak kawsay, as this concept is called by the Quechua peoples of the Andes. It is a social philosophy that sees humans only as stewards of earthly resources, a project that is to be undertaken communally. “Buen Vivir subordinates economic objectives to the criteria of human dignity, social justice, and ecology. The most substantive versions of Buen Vivir in the Andes reject the linear idea of progress, displace the centrality of Western knowledge by privileging the diversity of knowledges, recognize the intrinsic value of nonhumans (biocentrism), and adopt a relational conception of all life.”[iii] This concept has even inspired wording in the preamble of Ecuador’s recent constitution (2008): “We … hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living.”[iv]
[i] Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse, 188–189.
[ii] Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse, 184.
[iii] Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse, 148.
[iv] Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador (in English), 2008, updated 2011, preamble, Political Database of the Americas, https://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Ecuador/english08.html.
see also: *Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds* by Arturo Escobar (Duke UP, 2018)