Harnessing participatory design, Dr Yoko Akama is bringing her research expertise to the challenge of Indigenous nation building.
As a node-leader of Design + Ethnography + Futures in the Digital Ethnography Research Centre, a member of the Design Futures Lab in the School of Media and Communication, and Research Leader in the Design Research Institute, Akama uses a design research approach to explores how to work with communities to address the world’s social “wicked problems”.
The focus of your research is on Indigenous nation building. How big a challenge is this for Australia and the world?
This is a big, massive challenge - I still can’t get my head around how enormous, for Australia and the international community. Indigenous nation building seems to be a global movement - a shared concern for many Indigenous peoples - to enact self-determination and governance. We’re working with three nations in three states: the Gunditjmara, Ngarrindjeri and Wiradjuri.
What’s your goal in your research - what do you seek to learn?
I’m a total beginner in Indigenous governance and politics, especially bringing design research to this challenge (with Peter West). Our team is big and varied - lawyers, anthropologists, political philosophers, indigenous scholars - and I really value how our various perspectives provoke new thinking and practice.
Explain the impact of your research - who will it affect and how?
I think my role and work is catalytic in the contexts I locate myself in, so I don’t see my research alone making an impact. Rather, it is a component of investigating a very large and complex question, and my contribution is through my work in teams and partnerships, and to create impact collaboratively.
How has your work developed over the years?
My research over the last five years has been on disaster preparedness (funded by the Bushfire CRC), where I worked with emergency management agencies and regional communities on strengthening resilience. I’ve learnt loads during that time, which I’m extending into Indigenous nation building, specifically to design with people to build adaptive capacity and systemic change-making practices.
Have there been any unexpected outcomes from your research? How did this come about?
It’s been surprising and rewarding when people contact me, out of the blue, that have led to fruitful research opportunities, like the Indigenous nation building project or the partnership with the Australian Emergency Management Institute to incorporate design-led methods for community engagement. When working with people in the flux of change, uncertainty is a virtue.
What excites you most about your work?
Teaching grounds me. My recent Learning and Teaching for Sustainability (LTfS) Fellowship on the project, Designing Re-Connectedness in partnership with Oxfam and City Lab (Melbourne City Council) is a great opportunity to support how students learn about designing within “wicked” problems like sustainability. My research and teaching mutually complement one another.
Over the next few years, what are the biggest challenges and what holds the most promise in your field?
I think design research can promote alternative pathways in exploring sustainability, social inclusion and capacity building issues, and this is where I see the challenge. It is great to see RMIT's strengths in design research and teaching being recognised globally, and I hope my own research and teaching within the Master of Design Futures will contribute even further towards building student capacity in design research.
Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues wouldn’t know.
One reason I came coming to Australia from Japan in 2000 was to join a sea turtle research volunteer program in Queensland. I worked with marine biologists and turtles (mainly the endangered species, the Loggerheads) that came up to nest every night and learnt a great deal about the turtle’s life cycle. I’ve done this for three summers since and it stands out as being one of the best experiences I’ve ever had!
Story: Wendy Little