Principled Design is founded by Despina Papadopoulos, a design strategist, educator and systems thinker. Despina has over 16 years of experience in systems design, knowledge management and experimental uses of technology in social practices. After spending a year in Afghanistan her focus shifted to creating shared frameworks and strategies for collaboration, development and change.
The Long Version
When I was in high school I became very interested in theater. I read plays voraciously and for two years I attended weekly classes on Method Acting with a passionate and committed Russian director determined to spread Stanislavski’s ideas to Greece. Improvising, observing and adapting, adopting other personas; the experience was exhilarating and instructive as well as liberating for a teenager navigating the threshold to adulthood and meaning.
Instead of acting I ended up studying philosophy for five years, earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. For five years I lived and breathed Philosophy; in class and in conversations that often went long into the night. Finitude, transcendence, categorical imperatives started becoming projections that were almost tangible.
I wrote my thesis on “The Sublime and Limit Experiences” – an investigation into sublimity and an attempt to relocate it within experiences that take place in the clash of the self with the self as opposed to the traditional exposition of the sublime as a moment that occurs in the clash between the self and the other. The work treaded between existentialism, aesthetics and psychoanalysis and ultimately sought to understand the lyrical possibilities that lie within the relationship we hold with our own psyche.
Despite being tempted to stay in Belgium and pursue a Doctorate in Philosophy while undergoing psychoanalytic training, I decided against it. I worried that I would eventually become a brain-in-a-vat and those abstract projections would gain more reality than life around me.
Instead I ended up in New York at the Interactive Telecommunications Program with the intent of making “philosophy machines.” What did that mean to me at the time? What does it still mean? Mostly a desire to articulate, embody even, moments of intuition and insight, capture the many layers of experience and the fields of meaning that we inhabit: to create devices that can communicate, if but for a split second, awe, joy, surprise, connectedness.
And so I built complex interactive videos, and complicated installations demanding multiple inputs, and clothes that communicated with each other via infrared, played with materials and subverted their original purpose, twisted concepts into devices and learned how fascinating it is to discover the exhilarating circular nature of invention: making – thinking – making; how materials inform thought, how thought subverts materials and so on.
I went on to work with research labs and find innovative ways to use technology, understand how it can be used in daily life and how it can be incorporated into social experiences. I created problems and then looked for their solution. I studied how gestures evolved, how people relate to each other in space, the relationships different spaces create. I hacked, coded, managed, researched.
Along the way I also worked with large corporations and used my training in Philosophy and Interaction Design to organize goals, technologies and people into systems and facilitate the interaction between them.
I became interested and developed an expertise in understanding knowledge systems and how they can be developed into frameworks where people can participate and share knowledge effectively.
I taught classes in design and innovation, in making and thinking – I loved my graduate students for their energy, their ideas and for letting me practice the gift of teaching.
I was happily teaching, solving problems I created, working with large institutions to facilitate their thinking and unraveling their processes and help them integrate technology into these processes.
And then my life changed.
It never feels exactly like that of course. But given time and distance it is clear to see.
I moved to Afghanistan in January 2009 and stayed there until the end of that year.
I went to Afghanistan to work at Turquoise Mountain, an NGO founded by the charismatic Rory Stewart and with the patronage of Prince Charles, with a mission to revitalize the country’s traditional arts. My official job title was Director of Business Development for the foundation’s young business unit.
After setting up a school with a rigorous two years training in the art of jewelry, woodcarving, ceramics and calligraphy what do you do with these students? What business opportunities exist for them? How do you make this training, and thus the entire initiative, sustainable?
My job was to develop a strategy for the future of these crafts, for the future of these students.
It was the first time in my professional career that all my academic training, all my work and life experiences coalesced, everything I ever learned or did was called into question—and action. Doing “development” work in a post conflict zone gives rise to salient questions about ethics, design, visual language and communication, economic frameworks, cultural exchanges, cultural imperialism, self-serving capitalism, the nature of “doing good” to name but a few.
I was fortunate to work closely with a group of hard working, ambitious, intelligent young Afghan men and women and mentor a team that continues to learn and grow both in skill and ambition.
I formed close relationships and exchanges with craftsmen and after months of translated exchanges about craft, quality and design we were able to converse without translators because we eventually spoke the same language.
Capacity building is ultimately about communication exchange and knowledge transfer—forming robust interfaces and developing systems based on understanding, respect and accountability.
In my year in Kabul we set up rigorous quality control practices and training materials around them, developed dozens of new designs and a framework within which new designs can be developed (product development in another world), organized production flow, upgraded tools and adapted production when necessary. In all we sold $800,000 of Afghan crafts and established lasting methodologies and business relations.
I lived in NY for 16 years and I thought that nothing could beat a NY minute, until I moved to Kabul. Where much needs to be done the speed and pace of work is amplified but so is the satisfaction and visible results.
But so is the frustration—why can’t we do better? Why is trade in Kabul burdened by a complete lack of logistics after 10 years of sustained foreign presence with some of the world’s leaders in logistics and management partaking in this presence?
Why is securing a $5,000 loan to upgrade a woodshop in order to ensure proper delivery of a $100,000 contract harder than securing a $100,000 loan?
I came back to NY in January of 2010 with a great desire to understand why so much of international aid fails and to find ways to use my experience in Afghanistan and the knowledge and expertise I have amassed over the years to now solve existing, pressing problems. Wicked problems demand complex solutions and an openness to their multi-faceted layers, actors and stakeholders.
In September 2000 in his address to the Millennium Summit the then UN Secretary General Kofi Anan said “In an age when human beings have learned the code of human life and can transmit their knowledge in seconds from one continent to another, no mother in the world can understand why her child should be left to die of malnutrition or preventable disease.”
Twelve years and many more technological advances later we still look at the world and its suffering in disbelief and waver between determined optimist and frustration at the pace of social change.
How can we use our knowledge, passion and integrity to get closer to sustainable solutions?