Culturally informed design: Unearthing ingenuity where it always was

Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, a doctoral candidate in media arts and sciences and a MAD Design Fellow, researches how technology and tradition intersect in rural spaces, particularly in Colombia.

By Adélaïde Zollinger

Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, an MIT PhD student in both media arts and sciences and art, culture, and technology (ACT), explores how technology and culture intersect in spaces often overlooked by mainstream society, stretching beyond the usual scope of design research.

A former lecturer and researcher at MIT D-Lab with experience in robotics, Reynolds-Cuéllar is an ACT Future Heritage Lab affiliate, a member of the Space Enabled Groupwithin the MIT Media Lab, and a MAD Fellow who hails from rural Colombia, where resourcefulness isn't a skill but a way of life. “I grew up seeing impressive ingenuity in solving a lot of problems, building contraptions, tools, and infrastructure … all sorts of things. Investigating this ingenuity has been the question driving my entire PhD,” he reflects.

Emphasizing the importance of cultural elements in how people collaborate, his work encourages a more localized, culturally informed perspective on technology design. “I am interested in investigating how technology takes place in geographies and spaces that are outside of mainstream society, mostly rural places,” he says.

At the heart of South America, Colombia is home to over 80 distinct groups of Indigenous tribes known to exist, each carrying unique customs, beliefs, and practices. This contributes to Colombia's cultural mosaic and linguistic diversity, with more than 68 spoken languages. This meant plenty of opportunities for Reynolds-Cuéllar to engage with communities without trying to reshape or “fix” them, but rather to amplify their intrinsic strengths and amplify their voices.

“My colleagues and I developed a digital platform meticulously documenting collaborative processes when designing technology. This platform, called Retos, captures the invaluable social capital that blooms from these interactions,” Reynolds-Cuéllar explains. Born from a need to foster cross-pollination, the platform serves as a bridge between universities, companies, and rural Colombian organizations, enhancing their existing initiatives and facilitating processes such as funding applications. It received an award from MIT Solve and the 2022 MIT Prize for Open Data from MIT Libraries. 

MIT MAD 2023 Design Fellow Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar
Video: MIT Morningside Academy of Design

Designing with culture in mind

Reynolds-Cuéllar's approach isn’t formulaic. “Culture is pivotal in shaping collaboration dynamics,” he emphasizes. “Reading about collaboration can make it seem like something universal, but I don’t think it works that way. This means common research methods are not always effective. You must ‘tune in,’ and build upon existing methods in the local fabric.” This understanding fuels Reynolds-Cuéllar’s work, allowing him to sculpt each project to resonate with a community's distinct cultural context. At the heart of his doctoral research, he integrates Indigenous knowledge and what he calls “ancestral technology into design practices — a form of world-making (design) that primarily supports cultural cohesion, rooted in bounded geography and with a history that lives through collective memory. “I'm prompting designers, who may lack direct access to Indigenous scholarship, to recalibrate their design approaches,” Reynolds-Cuéllar articulates.

This appeal to look into multiple perspectives and methodologies broadens the horizons of conventional design thinking. Beyond designing things for a specific function or solution, Reynolds-Cuéllar looks at practices that also help maintain the cultural fabric of a place. He gives the example of weaving looms, which are not only the result of ingenious design, but also allow Indigenous communities to build artifacts with great cultural meaning and economic benefit: “When I work on the loom … I feel differently. I have access to a different state of mind and can easily get into a flow. I am building things where I can tell the story of my life within my culture. I'm making something that is meaningful for people around me, and I'm not doing it alone, we're doing it all together,” adds Reynolds-Cuéllar.

Among his ventures, Reynolds-Cuéllar's work with coffee farmers stands out. His projects in collaboration with these communities are all about empowering coffee farmers to refine their processes and gain agency over their livelihood and economic undertakings.

“The coffee industry in Colombia is intricate, with various layers influencing farmers’ lives, from bioengineered seeds to chemical fertilizers, and centralized roasting operations. It’s political and even philosophical,” Reynolds-Cuéllar states. Coffee farmers could sell the raw beans for a low price to the powerful Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia), but there are other alternatives to foster agency and self-determination. “We collaborate with coffee growing collectives, helping them to achieve consistency in roasting procedures, improve equipment designs, and set up packaging infrastructure,” which means farmers can produce higher-value specialty coffee which they can choose to sell directly to consumers. Reynolds-Cuéllar's work creates ripple effects, bolstering autonomy and local economies.

Too many questions

Throughout his research, Reynolds-Cuéllar describes a turning point in meeting an Indigenous cultural and social leader: “We were collaborating with a group of fishermen on Colombia's Atlantic coast, within an Indigenous community. Our initial curriculum mirrored conventional design methods. Yet, the leader's insight shifted my perspective profoundly. It was the first time my methods were being challenged.” The encounter prompted Reynolds-Cuéllar to scrutinize his methodology: “This leader told me: ‘You guys ask a lot of questions.’ I started explaining the benefit of questions, and methods in the usual design jargon. He replied: ‘I still think you ask too many questions. We ask the most important questions, and then we spend a lot of time reflecting on them,” remembers Reynolds-Cuéllar. This shift underscored the realization that there is no such thing as universal design, and that standardized methodologies don’t universally translate. They sometimes inadvertently strip away cultural nuances, where they could instead cultivate their dynamic expression.

For Reynolds-Cuéllar, his participation in MAD’s design fellowship has been instrumental. The fellowship not only provided essential funding but also offered a sense of community. “The fellowship facilitated meaningful conversations, especially talks like Dori Tunstall's on ‘Decolonizing Design,’” Reynolds-Cuéllar reflects. The financial support also translated into practical aid, allowing him to advance his projects, including compensating field researchers in Colombia.

Beyond academic pursuits, Reynolds-Cuéllar envisions writing a book titled “The Atlas of Ancestral Technology of Colombia.” More than mere documentation, this large atlas format would be a compendium of the myriad stories Reynolds-Cuéllar has unearthed, with illustrating images crafted in Colombia — visual representations from each culture, descriptions, and local stories about these artifacts. “I want a book that could counter some of the predominant narratives on design,” asserts Reynolds-Cuéllar. Through his work, Reynolds-Cuéllar already started to craft a blueprint for approaching design with cultural significance and intention, laying the foundation for a more inclusive and purposeful approach to technology and innovation.