THE WORLD NEEDS ANTHROPOLOGISTS. Humanise IT!
EASA Applied Anthropology Network's fourth edition of the symposium in Tartu, Estonia, 4-5 November 2016
Information and communication technologies are integral to our world. Digital engineers, designers, and computer programmers are the inventors and innovators of our time who greatly affect people’s everyday lives – and they need the assistance of anthropology in making human-friendly solutions. The symposium explores how IT experts and anthropologists benefit from each other’s knowledge and approaches. What is the role of culture in technology? How can technology-based thinking be humanised? And how can we get the most out of new technologies for those that use them?
THE WORLD NEEDS ANTHROPOLOGISTS. Burning issues of our hot planet
On Friday, 27 November 2015, Ljubljana (Slovenia) hosted the third international symposium ‘Why the world needs anthropologists’, with the theme ‘Burning issues of our hot planet’. The main purpose of the symposium, attended by 400 participants from around the globe, was the integration of anthropological knowledge and skills with other scientific areas as well as business, governmental, and non-governmental sectors. Exciting presentations in TED style were given by well-known speakers presenting their views on resolving the vital issues our society is facing.
The symposium was organised by the EASA Applied Anthropology Network, Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of
Sciences and Arts, VU University Amsterdam, University Campus CIELS Padova, Slovene ethnological and
anthropological association KULA, and University of Delaware. Sponsors of the event were Comtrade and EASA. Media
partners were the publishing house Delo, magazine Razpotja, and web portals Metina lista and Tromba.
EXPULSION OF THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL DEMONS FROM THE IVORY TOWER
In the beginning of December 2014 the Italian city of Padua hosted the second international symposium Why the world needs anthropologists, which was attended by more than 200 visitors from Europe and beyond. At the event, annually organised by the Applied Anthropology Network of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) in collaboration with various institutions, the speakers and the audience tried to find out how to establish cooperation between academic and applied anthropology.
From risky business in Afghanistan to open ecosystems
The event was opened by Vanda Pellizzari Bellorini, Padua mayor’s advisor, and Simone Borile, president and director of University Campus CIELS, who expressed a welcome to the crowded auditorium at the Cultural Centre Altinate / San Gaetano in Padua city centre. The participants then embarked on a journey which took them from risky undertakings of Antonio Luigi Palmisano, Italian professor of social and economic anthropology at University of Salento, through daring business challenges of Rikke Ulk, anthropologist and CEO of Danish consultancy firm Antropologerne, to getting acquainted with open ecosystems which help improve user experience, which were introduced by Michele Visciòla, co-founder of Turin-based company Experientia.
Diverse insights into the practical work of anthropologists continued during the heated panel discussion which was moderated by Dan Podjed, coordinator of the EASA Applied Anthropology Network. Apart from the three keynote speakers, the discussion featured Desirée Pangerc, applied anthropology lecturer at University Campus CIELS and Italian army lieutenant, and Peter Simonič, observer and initiator of political change and assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts of University of Ljubljana.
The international symposium is a result of collaboration between Slovenian, Italian, Dutch and international institutions. Besides the main organiser, the EASA Applied Anthropology Network, this year’s event was organised by University Campus CIELS, University of Ljubljana, Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, VU University Amsterdam, and Slovene Ethnological and Anthropological Association KULA. The symposium was sponsored by the Slovenian Research Agency.
Advocating for the rule of law
Professor Antonio Luigi Palmisano (Photo: Rikke Ulk)
In addition to his successful academic career, the first speaker, Antonio Luigi Palmisano, has acted as advisor at numerous international and civil missions in Africa, Latin America and Asia. He explained that anthropologists in conflict zones can play a crucial role in mediating between government authorities and ethnic groups with their own legal systems. From 2002 to 2004, Palmisano worked in Afghanistan where he operated as an intermediary between the government and minorities, and aimed at reconciling peoples who have for decades lived in midst of armed conflicts. He considered himself as successful at his tasks, also because establishing dialogue and mutual understanding is simpler than we usually imagine it to be – however, his undertakings were frequently hindered by the “higher” aims of the capitalist system which is supported by lawyers’ lobbies. He emphasised that anthropologists should fight against the existing system and encourage democratic and legal state in the regions where such arrangements seem to be utopic at the moment.
Anthropologists can make sense of the business world
The next speaker took the symposium in Padua to a rather different sphere. Rikke Ulk is CEO of Danish company Antropologerne which has carried out consultancy for numerous Danish and international organisations, among others in the field of healthcare, education, technology, employability, energy, and food. While transferring her anthropological knowledge and skills into business practice she learnt that “the world needs anthropologists because we make sense, we care, we have a vision, and we engage people.” To successfully engage people into the analyses, good communication is crucial; however, asking the right questions is of similarly vital importance. Rikke Ulk believes that companies can also contribute to improving our living conditions, but only if their questions reach beyond their desire for profit – and anthropologists are the ones who can help them with asking the right questions.
Open systems enable experimentation
The third speaker was Michele Visciòla from consultancy Experientia which strives for improving user experience in the fields of technology and innovation. Although not formally trained as an anthropologist, Visciòla fully understands the importance of anthropological approaches and ethnography in enhancing user experience. He stressed that “technological innovation is ‘simple.’ It is difficult, though, to create connections that really work in a given technological ecosystem. Our role is to create conditions which allow ecosystems to collaborate.” In his view it is only open systems that enable experimentation and they are therefore crucial for future technological development.
Where are the boundaries of autonomy?
(Photo: Rikke Ulk)
The concluding discussion, moderated by Dan Podjed, coordinator of the EASA Applied Anthropology Network, opened a number of burning topics. The guests stressed, for example, that anthropologists are always employed by somebody, be it the state, an international mission or a multinational corporation, which in either case influences their work and the level of their autonomy. They also emphasised some of anthropologists’ weaknesses which become particularly visible outside the academic sphere: their reactions are often slow and their answers complicated, while customers expect quick, direct and precise answers. It is therefore very important to collaborate with experts from other fields who can offer fresh insights and help in adjusting anthropologists’ approaches. As Rikke Ulk summarised: “Anthropology is and should be an open ecosystem ready for inclusion and experiment.” Desirée Pangerc drew attention to the fact that anthropologists often give an impression of inaccessible intellectuals while their crucial tasks actually consist of establishing contacts between people which can enable collaboration and mutual understanding. Peter Simonič drew attention to anthropologists’ key role in local contexts. They can provide valuable insights and, in doing so, help people understand their environments and encourage new initiatives for positive change.
Next steps in Ljubljana, Slovenia
The second international symposium Why the world needs anthropologists showed that numerous European anthropologists have already left the academic ivory tower and that their numbers keep growing. As implied by the event’s graphic design, an interpretation of Giotto’s fresco The expulsion of the demons from Arezzo, European anthropology has slowly but persistently been expelling its demons from the past, which are preventing the discipline’s development. It seems that anthropologists’ interest for applying anthropological knowledge outside the academia is growing. The next step, however, will require that anthropology convinces others about its usefulness – and this is precisely one of the important goals of the next symposium which will take place in 2015 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
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Applied Anthropology Network Panel at EASA2014
In August it presented its activities at the EASA biennial conference, which was held in Tallinn, Estonia. The network held a panel entitled ‘Applied anthropology as a source of innovation,’ which featured eight papers and was attended by approximately 30 participants. The panellists discussed how current applied anthropology in Europe compares with applied anthropology elsewhere, and tried to establish the most relevant and promising opportunities for development of the discipline.
Applied Anthropology Network Meeting at EASA2014
At the EASA conference the network also held a meeting and decided on its future strategy. Approximately 20 participants of the meeting decided to continue organising the annual network event ‘Why the world needs anthropologists,’ to carry our regionalisation of network activities (e.g. through local events), to take care of promotion of applied anthropology in Europe through events and publications, and to investigate possibilities of preparing a European study programme in applied anthropology. Network members also discussed the necessity for rotation of network's management, i.e. biennial election of network convenor and administrator.
The first EASA Applied Anthropology Network symposium, entitled Why the world needs anthropologists, which took place on 29 November 2013 at Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, offered several answers to the burning question posed in the event’s title. The event attracted nearly 200 guests from all over Europe and featured three world-famous applied anthropologists: Anna Kirah (Making Waves, Norway), Jitske Kramer (HumanDimensions, the Netherlands), and Simon Roberts (Stripe Partners, United Kingdom).
Their inspiring speeches were followed by an intriguing panel discussion moderated by Dan Podjed, the coordinator of EASA Applied Anthropology Network. The guests of the panel discussion were a motley crew of (more or less) applied anthropologists and experts who closely collaborate with them: professor Rajko Muršič from the University of Ljubljana, professor Marina de Regt from VU University Amsterdam, head of Tropenmuseum’s curatorial department Wayne Modest, Dutch anthropologist and journalist Nadia Moussaid, and Gregor Cerinšek, researcher and project manager at Institute for Innovation and Development at University of Ljubljana.
The event in Amsterdam was a result of collaboration between several Slovenian, Dutch, and international institutions. In addition to EASA Applied Anthropology Network, the event was organised by VU University Amsterdam, University of Ljubljana, Dutch Anthropological Association, Tropenmuseum, and Institute for Innovation and Development of the University of Ljubljana. Sponsor resources were provided by Dutch foundation Vamos Bien!, Slovenian Research Agency, and Slovenian company Metronik. The realisation of the symposium was taken care of by students of VU University Amsterdam Department of Anthropology, Dan Podjed from University of Ljubljana, Ellen Bal and Rhoda Woets from VU University Amsterdam, and Meta Gorup from Ghent University.
The event was opened by Dutch anthropologist Ellen Bal, professor at VU University Amsterdam who greeted the full Tropenmuseum hall. There were anthropology students and graduates among the audience, as well as many established (applied) anthropologists, joined by representatives of other disciplines interested in collaboration with anthropologists. Ellen Bal rightly recognised that such a numerous and diverse response signifies that anthropologists’ mission is a key question demanding an immediate answer.
Anna Kirah, Making Waves (photo: Sarah Janssen)
The first speaker, world-famous design anthropologist Anna Kirah who started her career in leading companies such as Microsoft and Boeing and is nowadays chief experience officer (CXO) in Norwegian company Making Waves, already offered several supportive answers to the question why the world needs anthropologists. She encouraged anthropologists not to be afraid to fly over the edge and reach out of the academia. In her opinion, anthropologists’ task is to facilitate change while remaining humble and aware that we are not experts. Despite this – or exactly because of it – we can involve experts themselves in the change process. By doing so, they become crucial in service and product improvement. Convinced of its benefits, Anna Kirah always employs human-centred approach and advocates for creating technologies, applications and objects not only for the people but with the people. In her opinion, this is why the world needs anthropologists: because they are trained in comprehending diverse points of view and know how to intertwine seemingly unrelated aspects.
Jitske Kramer, Human Dimensions
(photo: Sarah Janssen
The first speech was followed by the lecture of Dutch anthropologist Jitske Kramer from the institution HumanDimensions which operates in the spheres of diversity, intercultural relations, and organisational change in companies. As the previous speaker, Jitske Kramer also emphasised that as an anthropologist she cannot be the organisational change but she can facilitate change by enabling organisational members to understand everyday events and activities. She believes it is possible to change the system but this can only be achieved by understanding the system and not by destroying it. To be able to do so, studying a company’s organisational chart and conducting a thorough business analysis does not suffice. It is necessary to find out how relations between organisational members are formed and what their influence on the business is. The next step represents the major challenge – how to introduce organisational change in an inclusive manner, that is, in a way that is agreeable to organisational members. In her opinion, the only way to carry this out is by understanding why people act and do things the way they do, and why we would like to change this in the first place. After all, the aim of change is to connect people in their diversity, and this is a task that fits anthropologists’ skills perfectly.
Simon Roberts, Stripe Partners (photo: Sarah Janssen)
The last speaker was Simon Roberts, British business anthropologist with more than ten years of experiences in technological research and strategic development – including international technology corporation Intel – who recently established a consultancy company Stripe Partners. Roberts presented a very optimistic perspective on the anthropologists’ role in a constantly changing world. In his view, anthropology’s mission is to time and again offer solutions for seemingly self-evident challenges which we face on a daily basis, such as obesity and ageing of society. This process is impeded by differentiation between academic and applied anthropology which is why anthropologists should strive to forget about this ‘unnatural’ division. Only if done so, anthropologists are able to offer the best solutions to the world.
Panel discussion – anthropology’s extinction or renaissance?
(photo: Sarah Janssen)
The symposium concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Dan Podjed. He started the debate with the question whether anthropology will be faced with the same future as the bird dodo which was extinct in the 17th century. The panellists’ answers revealed that they foresee a brighter future.
Wayne Modest, the head of curatorial department at Tropenmuseum, an institution that traditionally employs anthropologists in an applied sphere, emphasised that the museum’s task is to introduce problematic issues to broader public and not only to generate knowledge.
Marina de Regt, an anthropologist from VU University Amsterdam, cooperated with non-governmental organisations in Yemen. Although this is an applied field which often employs anthropologists, she developed a critical perspective on the so called “developing aid”.
Dutch anthropologist Nadia Moussaid works at the TV station AT5. Knowledge gained during her anthropology studies affects the choice of topics she chooses to report on and often helps her with putting herself into other people’s shoes.
Rajko Muršič, professor at University of Ljubljana, emphasised the importance of transfer of anthropological knowledge into practice. In his view, applied anthropology should simultaneously also be engaged and vice versa because this is the only way that enables anthropology to address and solve critical issues.
Gregor Cerinšek from Institute for Innovation and Development of the University of Ljubljana is not an anthropologist but he often collaborates with them in multidisciplinary teams. He contended that anthropological contributions are always welcome when working in such teams.
The panel discussion concluded with a topic very common at anthropological meetings – ethics. This issue noticeably upset the audience and provided a guarantee that the debate about why the world needs anthropologists and in what ways anthropologists should be engaging into solving problematic questions would continue during the reception taking place after the symposium.
The symposium in Amsterdam did not provide a final answer to the question of anthropology’s future but it undoubtedly showed that a lot can be achieved with anthropological knowledge and skills, and that the common accusations of anthropology’s larpurlartism do not hold true. Anthropology is a discipline crucially needed for understanding the contemporary society and enabling positive change, therefore it is not even close to facing dodo’s destiny. Quite the contrary: anthropology’s applied branches are increasingly growing also in Europe. Therefore, anthropology’s future should be compared to a renaissance characteristic of the mystic bird phoenix.
The network held a meeting at EASA2012: www.easaonline.org/conferences/easa2012/events.shtml#networks1