How Design Can Benefit from Indigenous Ways of Being and Doing

When designers think about Environmental, Social, Governance in Design, or ESG in Design, we often consider the relationship of social constructs, identity and well-being. It is our responsibility to understand how to work with people in communities, empower them and help create places that support and reflect their lived experiences.

HKS recently invited architect and educator Wanda Dalla Costa to speak at our annual ESG in Design Celebration about her perspective on these ideas. Dalla Costa is the first, First Nation woman to become licensed to practice architecture in Canada and she founded Tawaw Architecture Collective, where she is a Principal. Dalla Costa holds a joint position at Arizona State University between The Design School as Institute Professor and the School of Construction as Associate Professor.

In a keynote address to HKS’ global studios, Dalla Costa shared how she works to uplift indigenous communities through participatory design. In a follow up conversation, Wanda talked more about her work and discussed the values and shared goals we have for the design industries.

HKS: Your design firm, Tawaw Architecture Collective, includes a staff of native designers and focuses on providing services with “Indigenous Ways of Being/Doing.” Can you talk about the impact this approach can have?

Wanda Dalla Costa: The fundamental shift we’re trying to accomplish is to increase spatial agency of our user groups. We’re also aiming to increase the accuracy and relevancy of design for people who are diverse. To bring indigenous ways of being and doing into a firm, it means you have to change the process. If you don’t change the process, you don’t change the product. Our process includes place-based research, community-led teaching, co-design and storytelling. We also focus on listening more than talking. When you do that, you get information on a wide variety of topics and perspectives that haven’t typically come into architecture lately. It’s about resurfacing the place for ancestral worldviews in contemporary society; and that’s an underexamined and understudied subject.

HKS: You’ve also shared the philosophy and practice of “decentering self” in the design process. Can you elaborate on how that differs from traditional ways of working in architecture and how this can be a meaningful path forward for the design industries?

WDC: I think the metrics of success in architecture have typically been how many awards an architect receives, which are often judged by a homogenous and non-diverse group. That really negates the fact that all the voices count in this world. When you look at indigenous practices happening around the world, the decentering of self is about prioritizing the voice of the collective. Indigenous people have long practiced consensus-based decision making. The difference is that it’s not about what is best for us, but what’s best for the whole group. We don’t just think about the human group, we think about all living things. If we don’t all live together in harmony, then we all won’t survive. There’s a focus on the whole kingdom of nature that necessitates a shift away from the self toward a bigger collective.

“When you look at indigenous practices happening around the world, the decentering of self is about prioritizing the voice of the collective.”

Wanda Dalla Costa

HKS: Your practice and process emphasize participatory design and research. At HKS, we believe that both are key parts of creating beneficial experiences for people in the places we design. How does leveraging both participatory design and research lead to stronger, more equitable outcomes?

WDC: The research and participatory side of this work is critical to jolt us out of limited outcomes. Our research covers many realms, and part of it focuses on making visible what is invisible. Many things are invisible in different cultures and we want to lift those up. I think invisible aspects of cultures worldwide are important because they have a broader system of measurement than what has been used in architecture. Research broadens how we measure design, and it brings science to it. Right now, I’m working with a researcher at ASU and we’re looking look at holistic measures of success. There are a host of factors that, together, make good space for human beings — social, psychological, spatial, cultural and spiritual factors.

Regarding participatory design — unless we begin to bring narratives that have not typically been captured in architecture, we will never see progress in the field. When we explore multiple diverse perspectives, it brings up whole new dialogues. I see this happening in indigenous design specifically. When we do place-based research and engagement, we come up with inspirations that are completely the opposite of what you would learn to be inspired by in design school. I think that will change outcomes in the whole field of architecture.

“Unless we begin to bring narratives that have not typically been captured in architecture, we will never see progress in the field.”

Wanda Dalla Costa

HKS: Some of your participatory work is with the Indigenous Design Collaborative, which you founded at ASU in 2016 and where multidisciplinary group of students and professionals work with tribal communities in Arizona to enhance the built environment. Can you talk about some of the discoveries you’ve made through this initiative?

WDC: What I was shocked at when I started the Indigenous Design Collaborative was the level of interest and how easily and quickly that idea became scalable. We now have calls from people who associate with the word ‘indigenous’ from Hawaii, South America, the Middle East, India and more. There are indigenous communities around the world identifying with what we’re teaching about, what we’re researching, and the mission of this work. I suspect that’s the biggest discovery — finding people with similar challenges to us. We’ve become a coalition of sorts where we’re all paying attention to what other groups are doing and seeing if our ideas have staying power.

HKS: You’ve talked about how Native cultures place value on giving to future generations. How do you see design playing a role in impacting future generations? How do you see these ideas and your leadership as an architect and educator supporting young people in the design industries?

WDC: Something that drives the design we do at the firm is reciprocity. With every project, we ask: how does this give back to the local community? If we can’t name how it gives back, then there is not enough reason for us to get involved. In my lectures, I often talk about Wakanda from the movie Black Panther. It is a place designed to honor worldviews, lifeways and identities of different cultures, which gives power to people who live there. It communicates the notion that you don’t have to live in a place that doesn’t represent you or where people don’t design like you or look like you — you can live in a place where your identity is reflected.

Another important aspect about giving back is being a role model for the up-and-coming generations. Not only do I want to create the worlds that they can see themselves in, but I want them to take the pen out of my hand. I want them take on this job and mission of uplifting all indigenous and diverse cultures. We start with indigenous cultures because there is a certain right we have with the land that we recognize, but I think that inclusivity permeates to all different nations and cultures across the globe.