PHilosophy, ethos and the 'big picture'

Jo Bailey
January 2014

section summary

  • The ethos for LAWA was inspired by the original brief, and driven by Open Lab.
  • We used open source fonts and content management system to align with open source values of collaboration, transparency and openness.
  • We did not consider bilingual elements for LAWA, and getting a Māori perspective has been a piecemeal process.
  • Freshwater is a highly politicised issue, and regional councils and MfE have to operate in difficult circumstances.
  • Dwarfing all the small ethical decisions is the possibility that LAWA will not be objective.
  • Ultimately, I believe LAWA facilitating conversations will be a valuable contribution.

The original brief (LAWNZ, 2011) set the project’s tone, with a vision of a “credible and informative website providing robust environmental information”. This became a cue to inform the whole design process, perhaps extrapolating beyond our partners’ initial expectations.

Open Lab were initially viewed as the people who would deliver the project; design in its narrowest form as crafters of output. Increasingly, as it became clear that we envisaged a user-centred and collaborative project, the partners engaged in the process of design, and our role evolved.

Open Lab became facilitators and partners and, as such, pushed the agenda of credibility as a central tenet of LAWA. The user workshops gave us research to point to and say, “your users want open and transparent.” Being able to act in the role of provocateurs ­– essentially pushing our clients and the brief – placed design at the centre of LAWA.

This focus on credibility and transparency fed into aspects of the project, some more successfully than others.

Open source

Open source was never specifically discussed with the Steering Group. But, by choosing fonts and a content management system (CMS) that are open source, I felt we were aligning LAWA with values of collaboration, transparency and openness, which are core to both the open source movement and LAWA.

Culture and language

LAWA borrows from Te Reo Māori through using ‘Aotearoa’ in the name, and the word ‘awa’ within the acronym. This lends a sense of cultural inclusivity and ‘New Zealandness’ that contributes to perceived credibility. Yet bilingual elements have not been incorporated into the site. Iwi views were sought an early stage, but the approach has been piecemeal rather than fully inclusive. Open Lab approached Professor Ross Hemera at the outset as we wanted a Māori perspective, and possibly a Te Reo name, but he indicated it would take at least six months – time we just did not have.

Politics and freshwater

In the first section I raised the possibility that LAWA could be a box-ticking exercise for the councils to point to and say ‘something is being done’. How do I feel about that now? The commitment and credibility of the staff involved is clear, but councils are local government, government means politics, and politics entails a certain degree of spin and PR. The same goes for the Ministry for the Environment (MfE). All the staff are highly professional, but I am left with a sense that our civil service is not as independent from government as it should be (or that scientists would like it to be), and is therefore directed by the ideology of the party in power.

Both MfE and regional council staff are in a difficult position, balancing economics and the environment, trying to deal with ‘evidence’ and myriad perspectives in a highly political arena. I had little comprehension of quite how political until a chance encounter in November.

The elephant in the river

I feel quite sick that we might be making this worse. I actually feel quite angry. I feel half depressed and half furious. Actually make that a third sad, a third mad and a third in despair.

Note to self when listening to Dr Mike Joy speak at Strange Baroque Ecologies Symposium, 23 November 2013.

Sitting in a dark auditorium, I am hearing that the state of New Zealand’s water is worse than I possibly imagined. I knew that the dairy industry’s economic role necessitated some sleight of hand with respect to environmental impacts, but now I feel rather sick that I have been naïve (wilfully naïve?) about quite how bad things are.

Dr Mike Joy criticised MfE for their sampling procedures, going so far as to say some of the science is so poor he would fail a first year student if they produced it. He suggested that as citizens we are failed by regional councils, who ignorediffuse nutrient pathways. He picked apart the MfE line that New Zealand compares well internationally in terms of freshwater quality. It was sobering, and, worst case scenario, made LAWA a greenwash tool. This ethical dilemma dwarfed all the little incremental considerations I had been making.

I sought a second opinion from another scientist. Their perspective was that Dr Joy is right in terms of his science, but that there is recognition within MfE and councils that there is a problem, and that steps are being made in the right direction. LAWA simply seeks to tell a story that highlights positive action as well as negative science; not taking “one side over the other”, but giving the public tools to make informed decisions. This again raises the issue, is telling ‘both sides of the story’ really a balance?

Wet behind the ears?

I did not really expect to find a moral dilemma of any magnitude in this project, which first piqued my interest specifically because the clients put transparency at the fore.

In About Me I said “I worry that there is a tendency in design thinking to neglect the micro in favour of the macro”, yet I feel that on one level, the whole LAWA project fails to see the bigger picture, because it is difficult, and uncomfortable to do so.

Can LAWA really be objective, and can it facilitate change? Time will tell. At least it is placing the issues in the public sphere to provoke conversation. I wrote the note to myself in the auditorium because I wanted to remember the depth of my feeling. I knew that as ‘normal life’ crept back it would dilute. For a couple of hours my head swam with ideas. A leaking mechanism for government scientists? Direct action campaign against dairy brands? Do a Banksy and go out tagging cows?

Banksy cow

Potential direct action against dairy farms? Banksy tagged cows in the South West of England (Banksy, 2006, p.153)

I am still undecided. And yes, ‘normal life’ did creep back and get in the way. If I could just get enough headspace to reclaim that feeling…


Next: Closing thoughts

Ethical Considerations

Forcing my agenda

Open source was my decision, my agenda. It did not impact negatively on the project, but perhaps I should have been more overt about why I made the choices I did.

Insider trading

IT Effect were asked to quote for LAWA because I knew them and knew they would be good to work with. How much is recommending someone in your own network a kind of favouritism and how much is it pragmatic? Ultimately it was not Open Lab’s decision to make, so this did not trouble me overly. 

Deckchairs on the riverboat

Dr Mike Joy’s presentation made me question everything I thought I understood about freshwater and LAWA. How much should a designer research before taking a job? Would I seriously have considered removing myself if I had seen Dr Joy’s talk before we got the brief? No, though I may have asked more questions earlier. It just reinforces that there is no black and white, only grey.