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Decolonial options and possibilities in Design and Engineering: A message from the guest editors

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Decolonial options and possibilities in Design and Engineering: A message from the guest editors
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Creating a space in the 4TU.Ethics community for reflecting on the colonial and decolonial responsibility of engineering and design grounds in a basic predicament: engineering professionals have been a central agent in creating the structural unsustainability of the contemporary world (Escobar, 2018). The basis of this predicament not only relies on the fact that through engineering projects, the “West won” (Eichhorn, 2020). This predicament is also grounded upon the internal normativity of engineering (Zwart, 2020), which, for decolonial thinkers, is foundational to coloniality design (Escobar, 2018). Like an alchemist, the engineer observes fragments, isolates, appropriates, and destroys ways of life regarded as inferior into elements for producing what is most valuable under the imperative of development (von Werlhof, 2013). “Coloniality” is the design that rules out, makes invisible, or just sacrifices “ways of being” outside the ontological coordinates defined by the epistemological powerful as necessary, imperative, and universal (Quijano, 1992). Not only do the epistemological powerful, often bolstered by Western academic titles,  reduce the non-western knowledge system as inferior and take over the prerogative to design the majority world (Browne and Geisse, 1971), but they also, in the name of “sacrifices” for all humanity, expel or deny indigenous populations and locals of their rights to self-determination (Smith, 2021).

Therefore, it is not by chance that the emerging imperative of energy and material transitions brings back concerns about reproducing the burdens of colonial historical legacy. More than half of the transition minerals and metals are located near the lands of indigenous and peasant peoples (Owen et al., 2023), and there is evidence that ongoing critical raw materials are extracted under regimes of dispossession (Machielsen, 2022).  What is the role of the academic, many of us non-indigenous and even free from a colonial wound, who opts for decolonial options or engages in decolonial criticism of engineering and technology? A question that is urgent in light of the track of Western academic practices operating as part of the dispossession regimes: The world itself, “research”, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary (Smith, 2021).  

Advocating for the inclusion of so-called marginalized views” in designing engineering projects is not only insufficient but also counterproductive. Reducing “difference” to “diverse views” builds upon the ontological commitment that there is only one way in which a world exists so that difference remains at the level of subjective perspectives that deviate from the “true one” of the epistemologically powerful (Blaser, 2013). Certainly, the way out is not looking for redemption through an essentialization of indigenous innocence as a source of wisdom (Smith, 2021). Such sort of knowledge extraction prevents indigenous epistemologies and ontologies from being taken seriously as subject to engagement and, therefore, potential criticism (Mendoza, 2018), let alone that presupposes that indigenous cultures cannot re-create themselves (Smith, 2021). It is also far from being the case that we are “all becoming indigenous” under the universal dispossession imposed by the Anthropocene (Chandler and Reid, 2020). Removing the distinction between colonizer and colonized makes the core question of decolonial responsibility irrelevant: reparative justice and self-determination (Mendoza, 2018). We see this responsibility as necessary to keep in mind, not erase. 

Instead, we endorse in this blog series that decolonizing is praxis enacted when academic work directly leads to reasserting practical vindication of indigenous people and communities historically denied their self-determination, particularly around their rights over territories (Tuck and Yang, 2021). Such practical-oriented concerns do not disregard the need to question if design and engineering can be something other than a colonial force (Cruz, 2021). De-essentializing design and engineering is an agenda that we share with the Critical Theory of Technology (Feenberg, 2016), which nevertheless remains limited to account for decolonial responsibility.  This blog series is, therefore, a space for discussing decolonial options in design and engineering. That means opening the possibility to transform engineering practice to support concrete struggles for self-determination and enabling plural ways of being beyond what the epistemologically powerful have defined as necessary, imperative, and universal (Walsh and Mignolo, 2018). And, in a more concrete way, opening possibilities to confront the epistemic powerful within our own engineering education institutions with global ambitions where, at the same time, non-western systems of knowledge are disregarded as impractical, irrational, or, at the best, exotic. 

Some of the questions we are interested in are: 

  • In what ways does our position regarding the decolonial options prompt readers to reconsider their roles and perspectives in the discourse on decolonizing engineering? 

  • How can diverse voices and viewpoints enrich or downplay the ongoing dialogue surrounding decolonial options in design and engineering? 

  • What role do you think your own experiences and insights could play in advancing the discussion on decolonial options in design and engineering? 

  • What specific challenges or opportunities do you see in integrating decolonial perspectives into engineering practice? 

  • How can we collectively explore and expand efforts to decolonise design and engineering themes in theory and practice? 

Questions on concrete practices within our technical universities with global ambitions include: 

  • Why is it important to talk about coloniality in our universities? 

  • What is the evidence of current practices of colonial mentality in teaching engineering and design? 

  • Is a prevalent dynamic or mute in manifestations not defined as such? When is the right momentum to start talking about decoloniality?

This editorial message invites our readers to reflect on their positions and standpoints and share their perspectives on decolonizing options and opportunities for design and engineering with a wider audience.

 

References

BLASER, M. 2013. Ontological conflicts and the stories of peoples in spite of Europe: Toward a conversation on political ontology. Current anthropology, 54, 547-568.

Browne, E., & Geisse, G. (1971). ¿ Planificación para los planificadores o para el cambio social?. Revista EURE-Revista de Estudios Urbano Regionales, 1(3).

CHANDLER, D. & REID, J. 2020. Becoming Indigenous: the ‘speculative turn’ in anthropology and the (re) colonisation of indigeneity. Postcolonial Studies, 23, 485-504.

CRUZ, C. C. 2021. Decolonizing philosophy of technology: Learning from bottom-up and top-down approaches to decolonial technical design. Philosophy & Technology, 34, 1847-1881.

EICHHORN, S. J. 2020. How the West was Won: A deconstruction of politicised colonial engineering. The Political Quarterly, 91, 204-209.

ESCOBAR, A. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse. Designs for the Pluriverse. Duke University Press.

FEENBERG, A. 2016. The concept of function in critical theory of technology. Philosophy of technology after the empirical turn, 283-303.

About the author

Camilo Andrés Benitez Avila is a Lecturer in the section of Ethics and Philosophy of Technology at TU Delft

Fatima Delgado is a Lecturer in Delft Center of Entrepreneurship at TU Delft

Andrea Gammon ia an Assistant Professor in the section of Ethics and Philosophy of Technology at TU Delft

Anna Melnyk is a Postdoc and Lecturer in the section of Ethics and Philosophy of Technology at TU Delft

Aashis Joshi is a PhD Candidate in the section of Ethics and Philosophy of Technology at TU Delft

Klaas van der Tempel is a Program Maker at Studium Generale at TU Delft

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