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Meet the Faculty

Interview with Martín Ávila

“SSES could help shift society into a more sustainable way of living, introducing ecological thinking and social justice as natural and necessary ingredients in every aspect of entrepreneurship education.”

Martín Ávila is our Centre Director at Konstfack and a recently appointed Professor. His research is based on a critical design practice that questions ways of knowing, sensing and being. Before obtaining his PhD in design from HDK (School of Design and Crafts) in Gothenburg, he earned a Degree in Industrial Design from the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. He has been working as a professional designer since 2000 and served as a guest lecturer at numerous universities and institutions in America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

Name: Martín Ávila
Title: Professor and Centre Director, Konstfack

How did you enter the SSES universe?
I came into contact with SSES in 2006 through Ronald Jones, who served as the Centre Director at the time and was leading a Masters in Experience Design at Konstfack. I started as a guest lecturer in some of the courses and SSES soon became a central part of our curriculum. Funny story, Rasmus Rahm, the current Executive Director at SSES, served as my course assistant, helping me run errands and print documents (and now he’s my boss), ha-ha.

What was the vision behind the Experience Design group?
Before the MA in Experience Design, there was a department called “Colour and form” (färg och form in Swedish), then a new professor came into the picture, Ronald Jones, with a vision of doing something completely different, and taking a radical approach to interdisciplinarity, this is when the department of Interdisciplinary Studies started at Konstfack, and where the Experience Design group came to be. The vision was to create courses that ran across departments, where industrial designers would meet and work together with crafts people, graphic designers, artists…

What Ron realized early on, was that the diversity hidden in one single art school was so huge and complex, with totally different languages, scales, materials, methods, expectations and assumptions, that the interactions between them could generate a whole new set of ideas. He was convinced that the most innovative ideas came from a generous exchange beyond boundaries and wanted us to get rid of disciplines and work in a more antidisciplinary fashion. This approach can be frustrating and painful, but it truly opens up for a great learning experience, letting ideas and people run across, rather than in line, with established silos.

Is this sort of antidisciplinary approach always beneficial?
Not always, it may become too disruptive and vague if the frames are not clear. There has to be a continuous flow of dialogue and learning from others but also a relying on your own competence. I spend a lot of time talking to ecologists and economists which gives me a lot of new ideas and ways of looking at the world, but in addition, I have to return to my own realm of design in order to make sense, know enough of what they understand, and create propositions that can be developed together with them. An evolving interdisciplinary group needs to combine a niched expertise with a general openness to new ideas in order to sustain itself.

So, what’s your niche?
I’m not an expert in anything, I’m a generalist. Although, perhaps, as a designer one becomes “expert” at synthetizing different aspects that become materialized in proposals, and this practice has its consequent sensorial, material and processual expertise. I study systems thinking and pedagogy but I’m not at all claiming to be an expert. The important thing in teams is to gather skills that are complementary, to identify and engage with perspectives that we’re lacking, in order to gain a more complete view of reality. Disciplines don’t have to be a strait jacket, they also stand for ways of knowing. A group without any sort of academic training would be limiting in itself, it’s not so much about expertise as it is about having an awareness of your own limitations and being curious to learn from others.

How would you define entrepreneurship?
I would define it as the capacity to put in motion things that can be socially maintained over time. With that I mean being able to initiate a project and maintain it. The element of maintenance is central to sustainable entrepreneurship.

What do you mean by sustainable entrepreneurship?
Sustainability, which is always connected to other life forms, is about acknowledging ecological systems and taking other species into account rather than merely focusing on the human side of things. Right now, much of the logic driving capitalism is exploitative and extractive, with devastating consequences from an ecological perspective. In this sense, sustainable entrepreneurship would mean human socio-ecological systems that are attuned to the specific ecological realities that make them possible.

Do you think everyone can become an entrepreneur?
Yes, in different ways and at different scales of activity. I believe that what we must find in ourselves is a driving force that can lead to creating the changes that one wishes to experience, and most people are capable of this. But I think that we often have the wrong associations connected to entrepreneurship. For me, it’s about being generous, socially engaged, driven and conscious of context.

What do you think is our role as a school of entrepreneurship?
As a society, we need to change the paradigm of limitless growth. SSES is a great platform with a huge potential because of the influx of ideas coming from different institutions. SSES should be a catalyst for a new type of entrepreneurship, one that questions traditional notions of success and takes a more ecological and system-oriented approach.

For example, when students from Handels and KTH meet to launch the next high-tech startup, it looks pretty straight forward from the outset. But if we take a step back and look at how this new product may contribute to the wellbeing not only of people but also to other beings that come in contact with it, the parameters become more complex and the paradigm shifts to potentially becoming life-affirming. For example, a metal for a product is extracted somewhere and shipped across the world, to be manufactured and to be finally sold in Stockholm and after use, being discarded elsewhere. Who and what is being affected in this chain of events? Think of the thermodynamic and metabolic flows of this single “simple” product. Sure, new jobs might be generated, but if the product also leads to the contamination, suffering and death of other species, what “value” is actually being created?

We need new and better parameters for distinguishing a successful company. Currently, the only factors we measure are economic growth and human convenience. This is not successful entrepreneurship. SSES could help shift society into a more sustainable way of living, introducing ecological thinking and social justice as natural and necessary ingredients in every aspect of entrepreneurship education.