- Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds by Arturo Escobar
Designs for the Pluriverse restates themes familiar to anyone who has followed Arturo Escobar's work. Social movements have decentered development, provincializing capitalism as a specter of modernity/coloniality through the practice of different forms of life and ways of knowing. Taken together, their efforts generate a multiplicity of worlds: a pluriverse. And the time of the pluriverse is now, as a proposition and guide to transitioning from the civilizational failure at hand. As Escobar sings along Bob Dylan in the book's opening line, "the times, they are a-changin'." Designs devotes itself to fleshing out the potential for communities to appropriate "design's modernist tradition" to support their "life projects," fostering a series of ontological "reorientations" that can be used to transform "entrenched ways of being and doing toward philosophies of well-being that finally equip humans to live in mutually enhancing ways of with each other and with the Earth" (p. xi).
The propositional nature of the book means that it never lands an argument so much as invites readers to entertain the possibilities. In the book's terms, its goal is to facilitate a process of disoñar – a Spanish neologism Escobar introduces that translates as "dreaming-designing" (p. 213). A decolonial drift on design, disoñar invites all who participate to become "mindful and effective weavers of the mesh of life" (p. 215). Readers familiar with Escobar's previous work will recognize this project, and Designs might just be the most perplexing and clearest example of his approach yet. In its pages, readers will find a collage of ideas and places that includes the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) to Foucault, Silicon Valley gurus, Heidegger, Pink Floyd, the Zapatistas, and Bob Marley, taking us from Afro-Colombian communities to the author's teenage bedroom (and music collection), and sites in between. The approach matches Escobar's characterization of design as an open-ended process of invention and creation, directed to solve at-hand problems such as capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. It also makes the book difficult to summarize. Part of us wishes more texts read like this, alive to the unruly open-endedness and surprise that such engagement requires. Like so much of the writing on the pluriverse and the related ontological turn, the text focuses on potential. And yet consideration of it requires glossing over erasures of where and why the pluriverse is and what design can do for it.
The latter question is addressed in the discussion of design thinking that dominates the first third of the book. Now a minor industry in the United States, this starting point is a long way from the skein of rivers, forests, and people that readers have come to know through Escobar's previous works. Instead, the book's engagement with design thinking takes readers on a detour through Silicon Valley (and its satellites), as one of [End Page 353] the key sites where design thinking has come to be. There are many sources engaged here, including Tim Brown, the now-former CEO of global design powerhouse IDEO. A luminary in the field of design thinking, Brown outlined his approach in a 2009 TED Talk, calling on designers to turn their skillset from creating smartphones and autonomous cars to addressing "big problems" like global climate change, security, and water. This approach helped establish design thinking as an ethos and a practice, a way of being in the world attuned to solving problems by balancing desirability, (economic) viability, and (technological) feasibility (Brown, 2009).
Brown calls this "building to think," developing a "prototyping mentality" that starts with human need, actively engaging people to create new outcomes. Designs makes use of both phrases approvingly. At the same time, it insists on wresting design thinking from its roots in modernity and coloniality, to...