In Place of Others

Guests in others’ realities

My work as a design researcher entails that I venture beyond the walls of our studio regularly to search for inspiration. Whether in the living rooms of Singaporeans, in the boardrooms of corporations, out on the streets talking to pedestrians or in stores interacting with shoppers, my colleagues and I head out, expecting that our own assumptions will be stretched. All the while thinking of ourselves more as ‘guests in the others’ realities’, than guardians of our own ideas.

This can be challenging and uncomfortable. On one hand, you need to gain your client’s trust to embark on a journey that feels decidedly ambiguous. On the other, you have to turn off your own received notions, remembering that the thoughts of others can be more insightful than your own. Being a ‘guest’ along the journey, however, can also be incredibly freeing. Temporarily forgetting your own position, and trying to inhabit someone else’s, you lose a little clarity to begin with, but you gain something way more valuable in the end: empathy for  others. Why they do what they do, what drives them to dream their dreams, fight their fights, and do things in a certain way, for better or worse.

Adopting this posture of openness also allows the most fun and fruitful parts of the process to happen. Often the greatest insights manifest from the same place where you and your team actually had the least control, where no individual person could have intended or predicted where the answers would emerge from at the start. Those are moments of breakthrough, which by definition, can’t be wholly engineered in advance.

Uber-inspired

Sometimes the mode of transportation can be just as interesting as the person or place that you’re going to see, say if you’re  hurtling through Bangkok in a neon-decorated tuktuk, as I was in February, or zipping around back alleys on the back of a bike in Vietnam, as in the case of my adrenaline-loving colleagues on a student-led tour of street food. As every curious design researcher knows, the back of a taxi can be an inspiring place.

Recently, I spent around three months on a project that required shuttling from meeting to meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I depended on UberX, the less expensive option to Uber’s black car service. Just as Airbnb users rent out their homes to strangers, UberX allows private car owners to turn their cars into taxis, much to the chagrin of licensed taxi drivers from London to Boston.

During these few weeks, I became passenger and back-of-cab anthropologist to a much wider demographic of drivers than one would usually encounter in Singapore. I met Nergui, the immigrant from Mongolia, who drove at night so he could take care of his daughters in the day; Joe the jazz guitarist from Berkeley who was also teaching himself to code; Nancy the party girl who was recently laid off and didn’t understand all the fuss against Uber, as “isn’t everyone just trying to make a living?” When using the service in Shanghai, I chatted with Gao the ex-cook, whose friend felt he had the personality of a good host, and so cajoled him to hop onto the Uber bandwagon as the market for more discerning commuters grew.

Being amongst peers

While car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft allow people to monetize their own excess capacity and turn it into income-generating vehicles, they can expose both providers and customers alike to an amount of risk. One might say for Airbnb hosts and couch surfers, who occupy the same living space, the risks are even more pronounced.

For me, using services like Uber and Airbnb provided an unexpected positive externality during my stay: borrowing the back of someone’s car or their apartment, alongside their tastes and preferences, meant that I could learn about the cities I was unfamiliar with in more informal, personal way, and come into contact with their human stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have. You can even argue that the nuances of these encounters create a real even if tenuous semblance of security, based on micro-social contracts between individuals.

It’s led me to wonder, where else in contemporary life could we rethink notions of ownership? Could a sharing economy also become a caring economy, where we can not only rent out our cars and homes, but also rent out our hearts?

In an era where, between right-wing versus left-wing, conservative versus radical, governing versus governed, so on and so forth, we see increasingly polarized camps getting eager to cry foul and draw battle lines, where can we each find the room in our hearts, to occupy a different position, and tarry in the place of the other?

From The U Press N˚8 (Singapore edition).