Lota Verde: Biomimicry approach to cultural findings

Where there is a challenge, there is always an opportunity.

Since the downturn of Lota’s economy that began in 1997 with the closure of its coal mines, Lota has become one of the poorest cities in Chile. To top off the already shaky situation, Lota has been hit by a massive earthquake – magnitude 8.8 – in February, 2010. Disaster came as a wake-up call to the municipal government that has begun to devise a plan for the refocusing of Lota’s economy from a mining town with an unclear future to a culture and heritage rich community with great vision.

Lota is a city with an abundance of natural resources and closely knit communities. What a great soil for economic growth! It is only a matter of bringing out these treasures of Lota and presenting the local stakeholders with the tools that can help facilitate the economic development in the area.

Lota is a city with abundance of closely knit communities

Team! Team, team, team, team, team! I even love saying the word “team”!

Being one of the six members of Carleton University Ottawa industrial design team, we decided to go even further in geographical and discipline sense by teaming up with insanely bright folks of Institute without Boundaries in Toronto. 9 + 6 = Awesome adventure into sustainable design strategies! Luigi Ferrara, Monica Contreras, Michelle Hotchin, and Lois Frankel not only made this collaboration possible, but also provided the entire team with professional navigation and insightful feedback throughout this one-year project. La crème de la crème were the students from DuocUC in Concepción, who joined us in Chile and became my great friends for life. Thank you, Angelo Garay y Fran Peña Ojeda for this.

Back to the meat of this post! To investigate Lota’s current situation, we have divided into four teams (research tool developed by IwB). Each team had a representative of Carleton University, Institute without Boundaries, and DuocUC. The teams were joined by the students of CFT Lota-Arauco during the synthesis of gathered information. Each team had an underlying question to envelop the research.

  • Community: What role has Lota’s community strength played in development of social cohesion?
  • Economy: How has Lota’s existing economic structure factored in its economic development?
  • Place: How has Lota’s Architecture & Infrastructure evolved into Lota’s current state?
  • Communication: How are communication strategies integrated within Lota, both internally and externally?
My choice naturally fell into community investigation. Being highly interested in the link between the organisms that make up the biological ecosystem, my curiosity was not only that of a designer, but of a biomimic as well. What is it that makes up the human culture, and how does it transcend into the world of biomimicry? More importantly, how can I use this tool to locate a solution to a challenge currently present in Lota? Life’s Principles came to mind.

How may I use these principles during research phase of the project? – Diagram: Biomimicry Institute

Be locally attuned and responsive

Our team took on a task of recognizing various layers of community at work. The goal was to create an understanding of what community means to the residents of Lota and how they cultivate cooperative relationships.

By being locally attuned, we were honoured with numerous opportunities to speak with various representatives of Lota’s diverse communities. By being responsive, we have gained great insight into the inner workings of communal earthquake management plans, cultural festivities, patrimonial sites, and educational institutions.

Interview with Rosa and Emanuel, neighbourhood representatives of earthquake management programs.

This is me with a broken ankle, hopped up on Advil, dancing a Miner's Dance in the City Hall of Lota – Photo by: Michelle Hotchin

Evolve to survive

This one is my favourite story of how we dealt with a problem that arose with a qualitative research methodology that we laid out for Lota. The key question addressed at the beginning was:

How could we establish an informative dialogue with citizens of Lota with whom we did not share a common first language or a common culture?

With contextual mapping, that’s how! It’s basically an arts-based research approach to acquire a graphic understanding of a given research topic. The process entails participants to make a graphic representation, drawing, and/or accompanying phrases about a research topic, prompting them with a carefully selected opening phrase. The collage would act a compilation of issues on the topic – thus, the researcher can understand how the participants perceive their lived worlds. O.K., less words more pictures:

As our knowledge of language is quite limited, it was helpful to build the discussion around a particular picture and a keyword.

My teammates, Jane Marusaik and Samantha Serrer, have kindly put together a toolkit comprised of cut-up words and pictures related to Lota, glue sticks, pens, and markers. Now, here’s where the survival part comes in. The participants were expected to be adults of Lota, who would demonstrate and reflect on the best features of their city using the given toolkit.

Little did we know that our informants would be thirteen year old students of Escuela Adventista, a primary school of Lota. We jumped at the opportunity to work with such creative and imaginative group of children and headed over to the school as soon as we received permission. Isaías Iran Barra, the children’s teacher, organized the class into pairs and handed over the initiative to our group.

The question “What is it that you like about Lota?” was met with enthusiasm and children rushed to arrange pictures and words on paper. The classroom filled with discussion, laughter, and rustling of paper as I visited each desk, prompting a brief conversation about each of the collages in progress. As my knowledge of Spanish language is quite limited, it was helpful to build the discussion around a particular picture and a keyword.

We jumped at the opportunity to work with such creative and imaginative group of children.

After lunch all children brought their collages, glue sticks and markers to the front desk and we divided the class into two groups. Samantha Serrer and Coté Casanueva sat down with their group to conduct an interview. Miki Seltzer and I were joined by Camila Núñez, an older student of Escuela Adventista, who spoke excellent English and was helpful in facilitating the discussion with the children. As everyone settled down, I took a random collage from the pile on the desk and held it up. Those who identified the collage as theirs would talk about their choice of pictures and words and meaning behind the image. There were five children, who were willing to discuss their collages. We then passed around a sheet of paper with the phrase “An ideal city” written in the centre and arrows pointing outward. Each student wrote one important feature they believe such city should have to retain its perfection. Finally, we conducted interviews, asking each student what they aspire to become, when they grow up, and are they planning on staying in Lota. The group divided in their opinions: roughly half of the group longed to leave the city, while the other expected to stay and enjoy all that the city has to offer.

After thirty minutes of interviews and closing remarks, we have split the class into three groups and took Polaroid pictures of the students that we could leave with them. During this session, students talked with us, practiced their English (which was quite excellent!), gave us hand-written letters, and played instruments. Valentina, one of the students, treated us to a violin concerto and one of the students borrowed Samantha’s camera to photograph us and her classmates.

On Friday our group began to synthesize the research we have performed over the week. The interesting finding was uncovered from our interview session with the children. In the course of this research it became very clear that communication was much more important than language. Although my knowledge of Spanish is limited, I could deduce from their body language, facial expressions, vocal tone, and choice of pictures and keywords that they were excited about Lota and everything it had to offer.

Quite clearly, as we reshuffled information and integrated the unexpected, our research findings have resulted in a richer, deeper information.

Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.

Research is just that … research. For it to be worthwhile, it must lead to a conclusion. – Brian Burns

Lota is a great example of self-organized community! What seems to be missing is the resiliency in the identity of the city, which appears to have difficulties transforming itself and adapting to the present situation. Such lingering can be attributed to the historical and former economic importance of the mine in Lota and the subsequent pride of the residents. All the traditions have been formed around the mine – examples include Miner’s Breakfast, Miner’s Dance, traditional clothes, patrimonial sites.

Lota's traditions and customs have been formed around the former coal mine: Miner's Dance, traditional clothes, art and craft, songs and poems, patrimonial sites. – Photo: Michelle Hotchin

Historically, the mine was the dominant employer and implemented services and infrastructure that supported families and communities for decades. Essentially, the mining company helped maintain the well-being of the community. Now, as the dominating employer no longer exists, the town is struggling with designation of a new identity. Residents of the city have many frustrations, but have a vision of what they want their community and identity to be.