On “The Mushroom at the End of the World”

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

“Tricholoma matsutake” by casper s

After reading Reassembling the Social, I decided that I should read a contemporary example of an actor-network theory study. I chose Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. 

The protagonists of Tsing’s study are matsutake mushrooms and the human and non-human assemblages that arise with them in forests and rural hinterlands across the Northern hemisphere.

“The thrill of private ownership is the fruit of an underground common.” (p.274)

What I appreciated most about Tsing’s book was its exploration of the cultural practices that arise with matsutake. These communities include the complex camps of pickers who descend upon the Eastern Cascades in Oregon each fall, Satoyama restoration groups in Japan, and emerging Matsutake entrepreneurs in Yunnan, China.

The thread of the book I found most challenging was Tsing’s tracing of matsutake from relational, biological object, to representation of individual freedom, to object of economic exchange, to alienated commodity, to highly-valued gift. Much of story Tsing tells explores how humans, fungi, pine trees thrive and live in times of ruin or precarity. But her narrative about supply chains, salvage accumulation and economic livelihoods — without resorting to stories of progress or development — offers an interesting perspective on capitalism. It helped  me to appreciate why the Academy of Management and scholars I know are interested in management “after capitalism”, the circle economy, and systemic approaches to corporate social responsibility.

Transition and service design scholars, particularly those interested in participatory design and design for social innovation can seek inspiration in Tsing’s examples of assemblages of scientists, communities, and scholars working together to learn and relearn ways of intervening and tending forests for the benefit on human and non-human inhabitants. Tsing’s vocabulary of “patches”, spores might offer those  interested in the challenges of scalability and diffusion new analogies and tools for thinking through next steps.

“Precarity means not being able to plan. But it also stimulates noticing as one works with what is available. To live well with others, we need to use all our senses, even if it means feeling around in the duff.” (p.278)

This book will appeal to adult educators and social innovation change agents because it offers many examples of coalitions of workers, retirees, scientists and  students working together to relearn how to tend to forests and unlearn the alienated anomie of urbanized life.

“Rather than redemption matsutake-forest revitalization picks through the heap of alienation. In the process, volunteers acquire the patience to mix with multi species others without knowing where the world-in-process is going. (p.264)

Speaking of transition design, Cameron Tonkinwise’s tweet and link to a New York Times article on a new segment of organizations that redirect returned gifts from landfills strikes me as a retail sector example of salvage capitalism that profits from the byproducts of consumerism.

Tsing challenges readers to question taken for granted concepts like species, immigrant, and forest. She demonstrates the heterogeneity of scientific communities and the patchy sometime incommensurable nature of the knowledge they create. Her focus is on the variation in forest science and the question of whether human intervention adds or diminishes the forest. The answer it seems depends on the pine.

The text is interdisciplinary and multimedia in the best sense. Each chapter begins with an evocative photograph, and I was delighted by the traditional Japanese poems about Matsutake. Tsing blended ethnographic accounts, first person narratives, academic analyses and Michael Pollan-style histories of forests told from the perspective of the forests themselves. She even gives science fiction writer Ursula Leguin the last word.

All in all, The Mushroom at the End of the World was a great book to follow reading Bruno Latour and it reminded me of the value of scavaging for ideas outside of the fields of design, learning and service.

What have you been reading over the holidays that has you inspired?

The Design Journal Special Issue on Service Design

Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes

Daniela Sangorgi and Sabine Junginger have edited a special issue of The Design Journal on Emerging Issues in Service Design.

Taken as a whole, this special issue contributes valuable and critical perspectives to the service design community.

Through conceptual and empirical studies of particular service design initiatives, the authors explore a range of important questions that service designers worldwide are facing:

  • How can an anthropological view of service practices usefully inform conceptions of co-design and co-production? (Blomberg and Darrah, 2015)
  • How do “organizational design legacies” frame and impact the kinds of change outcomes that service design can and cannot produce? (Junginger, 2015)
  • How might service design unpack place-making to understand community? (Predville, 2015)
  • What conditions and relations impact the success of experience-based co-design in the public sector? (Donetto et. al, 2015)
  • How do “fragile relations” amongst partners in cross-organization and cross-sectoral service network impact service design initiatives? (Hyvärinen, Lee, and Mattelmäki, 2015)
  • How can local service design initiatives scale across large geographical areas (Morelli 2015)

What stood out for me as I was reading these papers was the need for service designers to address power relation amongst partners and stakeholders at the outset of any service design initiatives. I was reminded of Wenger-Trayner et. al‘s call for system convenors to carefully design early interactions amongst  networks of collaborators and to openly address power differentials. The papers that stood out most to me were Blomberg and Darrah’s exploration of what anthropology can offer service design, Junginger’s analysis of how existing organizational design practices (however tacit) shape and in some cases thwart service design initiatives, and Moretti’s case studies on how service design initiatives can scale.

Hyvärinen, Lee, and Mattelmäki’s exploration of “fragile relations” offers useful ideas for public sector partnerships with private sector organizations. What sticks with me is the idea that the bureaucracy of the public sector inhibits progress in complex service design initiatives and colours other participants perceptions of whether an initiative might succeed.

Morelli (2015) makes the point that the measure of a service design network at scale is not the number of users who engage with a platform but rather  the number of “circles” or communities it spawns. This insight is relevant in social learning circles as a way to figure out how best to measure an initiative’s impact at scale.

What this special issue reveals for me is the complexity of service design. Lauren Currie, Wim Rampen, Fabien Segelstrom and others on Twitter are absolute correct when they playfully commented recently that there is more to Service Design than workshops, touchpoints,  or digital or even design. Indeed, I am left pondering how service design is also a field at the front end of systems and organizational change that extends learning and development beyond the scope of the individual or an organization, to systems concepts like communities and regions.

If buildings can learn (cf. Stuart Brand) and organizations can learn, then how can service networks and other assemblages learn as well?

Enough philosophizing. Get you hands on the special issue and share your observations and insights.

Service Innovation Handbook (Kimbell, 2015)

Reading time: 2 – 2 minutes

Lucy Kimbell’s Service Innovation Handbook offers different value than most popular texts on service design. Like classics in the field like This is Service Design Thinking or Experience Design,  Kimbell grounds the book in rich case studies and particular how-to methods, including templates and worked examples. But what differentiates Kimbell’s text is that she prefaces the case studies and methods sections with solid, rich evidence-based introductions to the theory and research underlying service innovation. In particular, Kimbell doesn’t shy away from addressing service-dominant logic, boundary objects, or progressive approaches to outcomes and assessment. 

 Another useful feature of the book is that it focuses on the very front end of service innovation. It shares some similarity to Terry Pinheiro’s The Service Startup:Design Gets Lean, but Kimbell’s methods are more thoughtfully interconnected and less complex. Like the dSchool’s Make Space, Kimbell’s methods include how-to equipment, but she also included a work example for a sample case that threads throughout the text.  

Kimbell’s blend of theory, cases, and methods is a key strength and reminds me of Sam Ladner’s Practical Ethnography or Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context.

But a copy for your methods shelf and one to share with design clients who want to go all in.

What is your favourite handbook on service innovation or design? What is your prefered blend between theory, cases, and methods?