I’ve been trying to come to a closing to the project of an urban movement that has started from a design proposal around eating instead of destroying invasive animals and plants with the “Vegetarian Capital of Europe”. As I wait for the aftermath to round off and become a ‘packagable story’, I realised that designing a platform of activism is much more than story arches and happy endings.

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It is a year after my first trial at Possible Futures Festival at Vooruit 100, of serving the extremely invasive plant Japanese knotweed that fortuitously happen to taste of rhubarb, as cakes. Enabled by the management of Timelab and participating in launching the Flemish Food Council, I wanted to reframe invasive species as local delicacies. After much awaiting, the project has finally managed to match a sustainable source of invasive raw knotweed ingredients to supply for the Cake artisan Julie’s House.

Julie had experimented and user-tested knotweed confectionaries to a welcoming audience. Together, we had worked on its naming, tweaked the taste and even advised on its presentation and narrative – but there was no one to source the weeds after our initial prototypes. The project was a success during the festival but was unsustainable in real life.

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Here lies the pickle: the raw material had to be carefully picked, washed and sorted before entering into the food process. Julie was running an already demanding business and a handful of staff waiting for her.

Where were we going to find people with the time to weed-pick?

Along came the solution: it turns out that the environmental agency already organises a group that eradicates weeds. Baring in mind that Japanese knotweeds are practically ‘zombie plants’ – any single stem could grow into a whole new colony – all parties agreed that cooking seemed like a perfect alternative to controlled burning.

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The environmental agencies organised people with disabilities to ‘weed-pick’ the invasive plants.

I suppose I never gave much thought to the subject of job-seeking for disabled people, until it became seen as an aspect of a design that I initiated. I started to question further…. How was this related to creating a platform of productive activism surrounding glitches in our policy systems? Every step was made with good intentions. It seemed to fit into a system where each decision made gradual improvements, yet something didn’t feel so “happily ever after”.

As I was chewing on this quiet discomfort, out of sheer luck, I had a privilege of meeting with artist Mary Lemley – the step-mother of the deceased autistic musician Gabriel Hardisty Miller and a key figure of the Autism Act 2009.

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It was difficult even to put my finger on where the discomfort came from. Did I worry that there was possibly an air of exploitation in leaving disabled communities to do the jobs that other citizens approved of but had “no time to do”? In fact, I was so troubled about even being worried about being worried, that I couldn’t even articulate to Mary the reasons for my discomfort. And this muted unease was exactly the problem.

Suddenly, this ‘neat’ little design solution around eating zombie plants harvested by disabled weed-pickers had myself stuttering out of mis-placed politeness or what Mary called a “benign neglect”.

It dawned on me that our project had unveiled an unsolvable dilemma.

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When surrounding communities are becoming too scared to voice questions, a “benign neglect” to the disabled communities occurs. With my heady challenge of using invasives species as a platform to challenge the status quo of other overlooked relationships, I found myself with a poignant result that I didn’t know how to react to. In fact, the subject became was so sensitive an issue that I was even recommended to step over the detail.

As a carer of an autistic person, Mary immediately voiced the separation that the disabled weed-pickers’ experience away from the rest of social activities with the city and out of the minds of the general public.

“They were working outside, doing things other people didn’t have time to do. It’s a fact that’s happening everywhere.”

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From our conversation, I realised an obvious gap in my research spectrum of ‘fringe communities’ and learnt a heart-felt lesson in the necessity of asking “what’s next?”. I told Mary that the weed-pickers would receive the cakes produced from the confectionary store. In an ideal design narrative it would have rounded off a service, but not for Mary:

“Would the same pickers be allowed to eat those cakes in the (up market) venue with all the other guests? Or would they have to take the cakes back and eat in their separated housing?”

I felt ashamed to say that it was not a question that I had even thought about asking.

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All photographs © Fred Debrock

A lot of people question the relevance of critical design and speculative design, but I would suggest that we start to look beyond the proposal or the gleaming objects/films/photography and into the aftermath and impact of the design. As written for the “Critical Design Meets Openness panel where I’ll be presenting on Monday: Design is an “exploratory method to confront the unknown or difficult issues, not necessarily as a process that ends up in another useful product or service” writes panel host Ramon Sanguesa, who set a challenger for me to answer what participation really means.

Real participation is a story-teller’s nightmare. Real participation challenges even the story-teller’s judgement and behaviour. Real participation does not sell you the happily ever after clichés but celebrates the tangents and dilemmas that linger and reminds each participant to think thoroughly, a long time after. The impact of design happens much further down the line than at the moment of production.

I will be speaking more about this Open Design/Barcelona Design Festival next week.

I thank Julie for participating in this culinary and social exploration and Timelab Ghent and Atelier de Stad the collaboration of  their collaboration.

Written by Lisa Ma

Lisa Ma socializes activism. Combining ethnographic research and speculative design, Lisa creates platforms of engagement from surprising insights and processes that deeply resonate with the global technological community. The emergence of clicktivism – to protest at the click of a mouse – is trivializing activism. Lisa argues that although activism doesn’t necessarily benefit from technology, we need to evolve how activism contributes to technological societies. To illustrate this, she designs dilemmas and creates social events that are perceived as activism but function as services.

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