Project Scope » Concept

A global design project

The Cultural Library is a unique, global design project – continuously developing and open to various participants, cultures and topics.  Founded in 2006 by  Prof. Tadanori Nagasawa and Prof. Hiroshi Imaizumi of the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, the project aims to investigate, analyse and communicate the phenomena, habits and processes of everyday life, as well as the use of products  and spaces that are related to it.

 From participatory design, user research, usability studies, cultural enquiries, interviews and observations of various forms of co-creation, design is involving people more and more (in most cases the end users). For the Cultural Library, we are looking closely at products and processes in the context of their use. So the research takes place in projects directly on the ground (field research), in different cultural areas and includes the respective spatial, structural and social conditions. Research results and also tangible design approaches are integrated into this intercultural  aggregation.

Perhaps the most striking feature of human beings is their diversity. If we are to understand this diversity, we must begin by carefully describing it. Most of the diversity in the human species results from the cultures each human group has created and passed on from one generation to the next . Looking at this diversity in a globalised world  lacking in differentiation means, as a first step, appreciating diversities as diversities. In the Cultural Library project, we are looking from ’the outside‘  at certain phenomena of a different culture. James Spradley (American ethnographer and anthropologist, 1934-1982) describes the challenge of a person participating in a culture that is not their own: "First, and perhaps most difficult, she would have to set aside her belief in naive realism, the almost universal belief that all people define the real world of objects, events and living creatures in pretty much the same way"(emphasis by the author)  . Spradley defines three fundamental aspects of human experience as the core issues of studying a culture: cultural behaviour, cultural knowledge and cultural artefacts . The Cultural Library aims to gain an understanding of all levels, but the primary focus is on artefacts and behaviour.

In the ethnographic discourse, there is the paradox of the “cultureless ethnographer” . Apriorism is impossible to eradicate. So the process of our ethnographic work needs a meta-level of reflection, a discourse accompanying the on-site research: this discourse should be set up by the mixed teams of  ‘librarians’, mostly students from two universities, or students from one  university researching with professors from a university coming from a different cultural context. This discourse is not (yet) implemented in the Cultural Library, but it is our goal to extend the work to the degree where this discourse becomes visible to external people, visitors and guests.

According to Foucault, a ‘discourse’ is a body of thought and writing that is united by having a common object of study, a common methodology, and/or a set of common terms and ideas. This notion helps to understand the approach of the Cultural Library in  investigating and analysing the cultural manifestations of a phenomenon –  such as mobility – across disciplines and cultures. The visibility of a discourse – not only in its very literal sense – was brought up by Karin Knorr-Cetina as the ‘viscourse’  .

Knorr-Cetina defined viscourse as follows: “The concept of ‘viscourse’ is the interplay of visual images and their integration into an ongoing communicative discourse” (247).  So this not only means working with images, it can be understood as a visual access to (specific issues of) a discourse. Bearing this in mind, the Cultural Library aims also at making its processes – including its results – continuously available in a way that is open for further discussion, reflection and editing.

The idea of a library differs in many  aspects from the idea of an archive: a library is published and it contains discrete items (whereas archives often have groups of related items). The items have an independent significance, whereas archives (additionally) build on relationships between items. A library has many different individuals or organisations creating its content: an archive has a parent organisation or institution. The items of a library are created separately by more-or-less independent processes. Libraries are public, archives are often unpublished. A library is continually used, an archive is connoted rather with storage than with use.

What should be created for our Cultural Library? As mentioned, the Cultural Library is a global design research project. Research in design goes along increasingly with observations of use, of habits, of workarounds and of cultural characteristics, on a macro- as well as on a micro-level. In the complexity of our world, it becomes more and more important to understand precisely – beyond cultural preoccupations and stereotypes – why people behave and interact in a certain way. This helps us  “ devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones“  , a definition of design by social scientist Herbert Simon (who won the Nobel Prize in economics 1978).

To make the various observations comparable and the results accessible, it is necessary to define project topics like ‘Street Stalls’ as a quite narrow and precise phenomenon or ‘Mobility’ as a more open topic, a meta-topic with the need for further concretisation, allowing the participants to go in various directions from social to physical mobility.

Discussion of the project results in Taipei © P. Heidkamp 2007

We do not primarily aim to come up with solutions to problems; rather, we aim at understanding cultural phenomena in their variety, we are looking for everyday practices, we aim at a contextual understanding of products, of processes. We want to understand the people and their behaviour, to learn from their everyday practices and workarounds, from routine as well as from more elaborate efforts. Therefore, some of the projects – such as Street Stalls – have been repeated several times. This has led to a unique database of a huge variety of temporary stalls in Tokyo, Taipei, Cologne and London. Furthermore, new ideas for future possibilities for temporary stalls were developed. This is accessible not only to all our partners, but also to interested designers, urban planners and universities all over the world. While we were in Nairobi, we had many discussions about  methods for coping with that city’s traffic problems. A significant number of people came up with the idea of motorcycles as a good solution:  they are fast, consume less fuel, take up less space and are easier and cheaper to maintain.  Obviously, there is a need for further precision.  Mobility is omnipresent and endless research is connected with this topic, especially for fast-growing urban structures in China. But for this project in Nairobi, we were especially aiming at an open topic, as we wanted to narrow it down in a joint process between two viewpoints, two cultures and two disciplines.

At the end of the day, the Cultural Library allows a critical and open observation of strategies and needs related to  the topic of  ‘Mobility’ in a certain culture. The Cultural Library is a growing archive of those observations, a living library of analyses and reflections, results of research projects and questions and suggestions. Those results can be of value for other cultures and nations:  looking at mobility in Taipei might deal with the phenomenon of motorcycles as a solution for traffic problems, personal freedom and self-expression, social and spatial mobility, pollution and fashion. Starting a project like this is much easier with a Cultural Library that has already dealt with this topic. The concept is social and sustainable, as the results will be part of a growing database of knowledge: a living library.

Scooters / motorcyles in Taipei © P. Heidkamp 2007

Our main interest is observing, collecting, describing, analysing, reflecting on – and maybe understanding – specific phenomena in different cultures. The topics are discussed in groups from different cultures and they are made available to other groups from other cultures.  It is our interest to find an appropriate structure and methodology for this process that is evaluated and improved continuously by a discussion between all the partners. How can we make our findings socially and societally negotiable, how can we improve the structure of the discourse and connect to other discourses, how can we interact with other people from different cultures (the informants, or cultural representatives, as we called them during the process)?

So our interest has been twofold: all these questions were on our agenda when we set up the topic for this Cultural Library project: looking at mobility in Nairobi. On the other hand, we used this project, with this topic, and its frameowrk to redefine and improve the Cultural Library, seeking to establish a blueprint for upcoming Cultural Library projects.