Design With People: The case of Ninha

The following is a contribution from Andrés Felipe Valderrama Pineda. If you are interested in contributing, please contact us at engineeringshadowcodes @ gmail [dot] com.


In this blog I will present, and illustrate with the example of project NINHA, the initiative of Design With People that we run as part of the program Sustainable Design Engineering at Aalborg University in Denmark. I will also highlight the insights from Engineering Social Justice and Peace that we have incorporated in the initiative.


Design With People (DwP)manos

DwP is an educational and research initiative, which we run at the Copenhagen Campus of  Aalborg University in Denmark. It is offered as an elective track to the students of the masters in Sustainable Design Engineering. The core of the initiative is that a process of technical design in collaboration with a community will be better if the community is actively involved throughout the whole process from problem formulation to detailed design, operation and maintenance. This approach is different –and even opposed- to the widely accepted practices I regards as design for people, in which any technical solution offered to a community is entirely the product of the work of some external privileged group of experts (for example students from a rich university or consultants from an aid agency) who not only decide on the solution, but also on the problem addressed and even on the community’s knowledge, capacities and social structures.

The students at the Sustainable Design Engineering Program dedicate their third semester (out of four) to an internship which they can develop at any public or private organization in Denmark or elsewhere around the world. It is the typical internship semester, which is common to many masters program at Aalborg University and other universities around the globe. However, the students not only go out to work. They also have to develop and deliver a design project and for this they receive supervision during the semester. To make a project within the DwP initiative the students need to begin taking decisions with one year in advance. At that point the teaching team presents the initiative to the students. Most importantly the students are presented with the ongoing project collaborations already existing and that could become the context of their internship.

Currently we have had students working in two countries. In Nepal on issues of indoor pollution and cooking practices. And in Colombia on issues of urbanism, house building and crafts production with indigenous and afrocolombian communities. Collaboration in these two countries has been built up for many years, which guarantees that the students enter in an institutional relationship which is mature and where the parties involved understand what they can expect of each other. All parties know how to treat, how to support and what to expect from students doing a semester project.

The students are required to be present with the communities for at least three months. This is important in order to guarantee that they have as much time as needed to develop a working relationship with the community, in order to have them as full fledge co-designers in the project. This requires time, patience, a lot of talking and deploying various means of research and experimentation like interviews, workshops, design games and informal activities.

Before travelling the students take one introductory course in which they read and discuss issues of development and colonization; aid industry’s problems; and methods and tools on co-design and on working with NGOs and communities of different cultures. This training is key and builds up on insights of the International Network of Engineering Social Justice and Peace. They also get credits for learning as much as they can about the country and the communities they are going to work with before travelling. It is desirable that they learn the language of the community they are going to work with, but it is not always possible. They therefore often rely on having translation services from the local partners or members of the community.


The first two students to travel to Colombia were Christine Svensson and Michala Mathiesen. Took interest in DwP already at the end of their first semester in the Sustainable Design Engineering program finishing 2014. During their second semester (spring 2015) we conducted several meetings to map their expectations as students, and the role the project could play in their educational development and their future careers. Their background also played a role. For example, Michala expressed that she had been trained as a graphic designer in her undergraduate studies, but that she was not interested in doing graphic design as part of her third semester project. They manifested their interest in learning more about the possibilities of working with FEM in Colombia.

Once the DwP team had a clear picture of the expectations of this students and their interests, they took contact to FEM in Colombia to request information on their current projects and as much information as possible on their current projects. At that point FEMs director, Ana María González, was happy with the prospect of having students from our education. She proposed that they could either work with two possible communities: one was in urban development projects with afroamerican communities that had been granted land for them to build their neighbourhoods, and needed support; the other was supporting the urban Zenú community in Cartagena to develop productivity projects to improve their income sources. Michala and Christine took learned about the possibilities in communication with Ana María, read some materials sent, and discussed among themselves and with me, who would eventually become their supervisor. They finally decided to work with the Zenú community as the projects matched their interests in sustainable social businesses.

During the month of September 2015, they took the courses Introduction to Design in Multicultural Environments and their country study course on Colombia. And they travelled to Colombia beginning October. At their arrival in Cartagena, Colombia, they had to use a couple of weeks to settle down, meet Ana María and get in touch with the community through their main contact person, who happened to be running for a local political positions in the upcoming elections. This meant that their design work as such could only start in earnest in November. During that month the students developed several workshops, conducted interviews and observations and spend time with the community to understand their struggles, their structure, their interests, their motivations, their knowledge. All these activities took time and effort and already beginning December some ideas started to crystalize: FEM, the community and the students design a production project.

The main idea was to produce new crafts using local materials and building upon the Zenú traditional knowledge on how to weave the materials into different products. The famous traditional product has been a hat. But through this project the community opened up to the possibility of making new products. They started with a lamp, which was designed to be sold in Denmark. During the remaining of their time in Cartagena, before travelling home at the beginning of January 2016, the students were able to contribute to setting up the first production line which included structuring the production steps, defining responsibilities, acquiring the materials and purchasing robust sewing machines. Some of the investment was covered by the community and a bit portion of it was covered by a crowd sourcing set in motion by the students. When the students returned to Denmark they had around 25 products with them to deliver to the first customers. The lamp was dubbed Ninha. “Ninha is the name of the son of Zenú gods, who was sent to the sky to illuminate the earth and become the sun and thereby give life to people, animals and plants. NINHA provides a source of light in its literal sense but also sheds light on the amazing artwork by the Zenús and their struggles of maintaining their heritage in Colombia. NINHA illuminates the road for us to support sustainable initiatives and leave positive footprints while beautifully lighting up our homes.”

Back in Denmark in January 2016 Christine and Michala delivered their project which was awarded a top grade as they met all the academic requirements and were able to present a complete, inspiring and well reflected Design With People project. A full record of the activities of the students project can be found at Ninha’s official website is now Michala and Christina continue to be in contact with FEM and the Zenú community and they further collaborate with the Ninha project, although they know that their formal engagement is finished.

ESJP in action in DwPnotes

The most interesting aspect of Dwp and the example of Ninha is that it is a conscious attempt to subvert the standard conception of knowledge and expertise in collaboration with vulnerable communities. Although criticisms have been elaborated for decades the main misunderstanding of aid work and aid industry it is still alive: it is the belief that western well educated professionals and students have the capacity to solve the problems of vulnerable communities by applying science and technology learned at university.

This is particularly dramatic in well intentioned initiatives like “engineers without borders” and other similar initiatives. Teachers and students still praise the failed mantra: if we could apply the powerful tools we learn at our engineering school to solve communities’ problems. The truth however, as ESJP scholars have elaborated for years, is that western science and technology cannot serve the purpose of helping vulnerable communities because it is a knowledge which is highly ignorant of what a vulnerable community is, how they struggle and what kind of solutions can be developed with the community. Worse even, a lot of the knowledge imparted in engineering schools comes from historical developments aimed outright at colonization by force of vulnerable communities or the disciplinarization of workforce like operations research, logistics, cybernetics, Taylorism and Fordism, just to mention a few. Therefore, any time any teacher or student naively believes in the application of existing science and technology and specially text book engineering to solve problems faced by vulnerable communities, they are participating unconsciously in the same colonial adventure that brought communities into a vulnerable position.

The Zenú community in Cartagena that developed Ninha with FEM and Michala and Christine, have been facing displacement and violence for centuries due mainly to agricultural developments promoted by the central government of Colombia in collaboration with international companies to produce high intensity crops to sell in the international market. The latest wave of displacement was caused by the incentives to grow oil palm in Colombia, which in turn potentiated land grabbing dynamics at the cost of the rights of indigenous communities. This is one of the reasons part of the Zenú people have moved into the urban margins of Cartagena. So it is western science and technology that have put the Zenú in a vulnerable position. So how can anybody believe that the same science and technology alone will help them out? What FEM and Michala and Christine have done is to abandon the idea that western science and technology will help in any fundamental way. They have worked with the community to rescue and potentiate their own knowledge of materials, design and production and learn together how that can become a productive project.


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