[Interview] Nicolas Roesch: Inquiring with non-human entities to "build a common world"

(At home, Nicolas moves the local spiders around without destroying their webs.)

In the MSC, the students learn to inquire into issues from an Anthropocene perspective: infrastructures, business models, processes, etc. These inquiries are supervised by several lecturers from different disciplines. We wanted to continue the discussion with them on their inquiry practices through a series of interviews. Here is the first one.
Nicolas Roesch is an independent designer and researcher. After five years at the Cité du design, he is now working on a living-centered, more-than-human design. He gives conferences, courses and is currently writing a book.

Why is inquiring at the heart of your professional practice? Why do you think inquiring is (now more than ever) necessary?

Design is a process which, as a discipline, uses inquiry at different levels: observation of the work context, study of uses, prototyping and experimentation. By focusing on describing the context, practices, processes or attachments, inquiry profoundly challenges our initial ideas and paradigms. By revealing blind spots in our fields of investigation, it sometimes opens up unsuspected opportunities that designers can seize.

More than necessary, the survey has become a daily routine. It is no longer possible to walk through a train station without questioning the traffic flows, to use a service without revealing its malfunctions, to offer a gift without questioning the efficiency of its use. However, in the Anthropocene epoch, this inquirer's viewpoint is changing. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the forests and insects that surround us are no longer things that can be taken for granted and treated with indifference. Inquiry is becoming a major tool to include in our practices the relationships that humans have with mountains, oceans, climate, animals, etc.

Following the work of the US anthropologist Anna Tsing, theories and practices are being based on the "arts of attention", arguing that in order to navigate the Anthropocene, we need to relearn to see things with new eyes. What do you pay particular attention to when you inquire?

At the end of my studies, I started thinking about moving the spiders in my flat (Phlocus) without destroying their webs. After three months of producing unsuccessful models, these little roommates forced me to abandon all my knowledge and start from scratch. So I launched into an inquiry centred on a non-human being. The question was: How can I ask them questions? For six months, I imagined ways of questioning these little living beings accompanied by numerous observations. This long process made me fall into another world, I had to empathise with the sensory world of another species: the Umwelt. Far from anthropomorphism, since this adventure, I have fallen into an off-centered world. By projecting oneself from the point of view of the surveyed subjects, "we are off-centre", "we are aware of...", a world of shared experiences emerges and so we are already beginning to build a common world. This little spider, "banal" in our environments, has taught me to forget my experiential point of view of the world to integrate its point of view, radically different. It is this particular attention to the perceived world of the other - human or non-human - that most informs my investigations today. Aldo Leopold's invitation to "think like a mountain" is as elegant as it is effective for acting and thinking in our investigations.

In your opinion, in what way does inquiring make it possible to better take into account the knowledge of the people experiencing the situations compared to that of the "experts"?

Everybody is an expert of their daily life. No one, better than you, can describe the actions, choices, emotions, experiences, etc. that organise and influence your daily experience of the world. Therefore, the difference between experts and "lay" users depends on what is being questioned through the inquiry. What defines expertise seems to me to be more a question relating to the subject of the inquiry than an experience gained in an academic setting. In some of the research programmes I have conducted, we have included users at a very early stage in the design process and throughout. Initially laymen and laywomen, the users acquired different skills in order to be able to exchange with us designers on the technical specificities of the innovation under scrutiny, but they also enriched their vocabulary, which made it possible to improve our exchanges. This process, which aims to make users experts, shows that the margin between laymen and experts can be significantly reduced in a very short time.

How do you include non-humans in your inquiries?

The process of integrating non-humans cannot be summed up in a few words. It is a complex mechanism that requires a transdisciplinary approach of expertise related to the subject under investigation. I would distinguish 3 types of non-humans. There are the living non-humans as organisms, ecosystems, ensembles composed of animals, plants and microorganisms, which I would call holobionts: forests, mountains, rivers, animals, insects, etc. The non-living non-humans, what Bruno Latour calls "Agencies" which are abiotic forces that influence our organisations, our functioning or our culture. The "Agencies'' can be physical or chemical flows - the biotope, pollution, greenhouse gases, a virus, etc. - or they can be the result of a physical or chemical process. - but they can also be infrastructures such as a speed bump or an energy device - nuclear power plant, smart-grids network and consumption device. The third category of non-humans is as abstract as it is poetic. It includes spirits, ghosts, Djinns, Pachamama (Mother Earth) and other spirits of nature. For it all depends on which ontological structure the inquiry is situated. According to certain ontologies defined by Philippe Descola, for animism, analogism or totemism, it is also possible to identify non-human acting forces - neither biotic or abiotic - which have effects on the world or with which one can negotiate and trade.

In order to integrate these 3 typologies of non-humans into the surveys, I will propose 3 avenues of exploration:

  1. The Umwelt: According to Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok, the Umwelt refers to the sensory expression of a species or individual in its environment. In English, it can be translated by the expression " "self-centered world". The first question to be asked is what is the self-centered world of the non-human? What are its senses, its sensors, these interfaces in contact with its environment and which give it access to its environment? What is his representation of the world from the point of view of his Umwelt?
  2. Ethos: Greek word which can be translated as "custom". The habits and behaviours of a non-human must be identified and mapped. Close to ethology, the study of the behaviour of species, including humans, in their natural or artificial environment or in an experimental environment, is carried out using methods of quantification, observation of lifestyles, identification of interspecific relationships, on a territory.
  3. Times and cycles: according to the typology of non-humans, we can identify temporalities and cycles that punctuate and organise their life and relationship to their environment. From an infinitely small scale to temporalities that exceed our projections, everything is subject to cycles of destruction and engendering, entropy and neglect. These temporal loops can go from microseconds to millennia depending on the physical scales: the second for bacteria, the millennium for a biome. For non-human living beings, it is also possible to identify three rhythms: the infradian rhythm, which is greater than 28 hours, the circadian rhythm of about 24 hours, and the ultradian rhythm of less than 24 hours.

From the sensory world to temporalities and behaviours, these three types of explorations can be integrated into the methods of investigation in the living and non-living worlds.

In your opinion, can the inquiry be an end in itself? If so, do you have examples of situations transformed by the survey?

In the discipline of designers, inquiry is not "an end in itself". The usage study phase consists of setting up an experimental observation protocol. It will involve observing human/object interaction practices (objects, devices or systems) existing in previously defined situations. The typologies of existing interaction situations and the experiments devised specifically for the study can be sources of debate to identify what should or should not be pursued in the research process. This phase establishes the premises for a transfer of the cultural fields identified in the field of investigation to new applications and therefore new issues. However, in the framework of the Anthropocene, it would be essential to develop tools capable of stopping a project if the survey reveals the need to leave the object of the study "free to evolve": acknowledge the will not to intervene, to return "to the wild" spaces shaped by Man. One could also speak of "rewilded" or "feral" nature. Initially defined by zoologists for domestic animals returned to the wild state, then by botanists for plants escaped from cultures and naturalized, ferality designates a space evolving spontaneously while preserving the prints of their cultural past.

The economic dynamic inviting designers to produce more and more innovation must be questioned. It seems essential to me to rethink the practices of investigation to question the limits of the observed context. I wonder today about the possibilities of opening a new relation to the studied situation, reversing the opportunities of production/consumption and opening the "free evolution" alternatives of the latter.

In your opinion, why and what should an organisation investigate to adapt to the Anthropocene?

While there is no consensus on the Anthropocene, a growing scientific community agrees to accept it as a decisive landmark. The Anthropocene has entered contemporary thinking. For the first time in the history of the planet, a geological epoch would be defined by the action of a species. But from my point of view, this thesis, which tends to associate the responsibility for the whole of humanity and its history with this new geological epoch, is erroneous. The responsibility of political, social, legal, economic organizations, etc. must be particularly questioned in the perspective of the impact of the human species on the planet. The progressive and alarming denunciations of scientists and NGOs on climate, decrease in the number of species, disturbances of the dynamics of ecosystems and planetary equilibrium, have highlighted the responsibility of certain organizations. Biodiversity and climate are above all a physical, chemical and living fabric of which we are part. When the functioning of planetary equilibrium is modified to such an extent, our societies and the organizations that make them up are in danger. It is therefore time to rethink the links that unite organizations with the planet's equilibrium and with living beings at all scales.

Here are four proposals to formulate a new contract based on the use of inquiry to participate in the reconciliation between organizations and biodiversity:

  1. Inquire into what the organisation cares about: in the image of Bruno Latour's “notebooks of grievances”, what are the systems, relationships, resources, and commonalities on which the organisation depends and which it cannot do without? But also, what are the values that animate the organisation?
  2. Inquire into renunciation: in contrast to the first point, here we need to investigate and analyse what in these organisational processes goes beyond the global limits. The organisation will also have to compare these objectives with the perspectives of the ecosystems on which it depends and which it disrupts.
  3. Inquire into regenerative processes: organisations must identify the levers that regenerate living things in order to include them in their present and future functioning. The cycles and temporalities of living things, in which the organisation is involved, must be analysed with a view to adapting and protecting them. Based on previous surveys, phases of ecological redirection are necessary here and new organisational forms must emerge, be prototyped and tested.
  4. Inquire into experimentation and development: once redirection is being experimented and developed, it is essential to continue investigations to identify strengths and weaknesses, additional levers and dissemination potential. This mechanism, otherwise known as "retro analysis", is essential for improving projects under development, replicating them, disseminating them or redirecting them again if necessary .

What piece of advice would you give to inquirers working on the ecological redirection of organisations?

What makes the world habitable are the living organisms that make it up. Humans are nowadays a dynamic actor, but also a victim of the transformations of the biosphere. Without the natural sciences, mankind will not build a sustainable and balanced future on a planet with limited resources, fragile ecosystems subject to climatic hazards. Understanding the world and its history in order to better anticipate its future, knowing the limits of the domain that humans can legitimately reserve for themselves without seriously hindering their recourse to various resources from the non-human world will be the essential role of investigators who wish to work on redirecting organisations. Understanding the living beings, their links and their dynamics through de-centering oneself is one of the major means of rationally considering the consequences of our actions in the short and medium term. Life functions on the principle of symbiosis and - unlike certain rudimentary organisms - Homo-Sapiens is placed within an extremely narrow physiological window. We are finely tuned to this environment in which we evolve today, intertwined with ecosystems in close interspecific relationships. Earth sciences, the acquisition of naturalist knowledge or evolutionary biology - to mention only the main ones - will be essential assets for investigators to understand the entanglements between humans and non-humans. Exploring the complexity of living things will enable those working on redirecting organisations, rather than describing "who is responsible? "but to open up another, perhaps even more difficult question: "how can we respond to the urgency of ecological redirection? ».