Rebecca Reubens founded Rhizome, a multidisciplinary sustainability design studio, as a holistic practice to explore how sustainability could be realised in the global south. Rebecca had just returned to Ahmedabad after working in the international development sector for seven years. Her work across Asia, Africa and Europe had convinced her that the efforts to address the sustainability crises in the global north did not fit the ground realities of the global south. The ecological focus of sustainability efforts in the global north were not realistically transferable to the global south, since the latter had a socio-economic priority as it was still struggling to provide basic human needs. Rebecca therefore decided to establish Rhizome. Below, the design expert tells us more about the practice.
The name Rhizome comes both from my extensive work in bamboo, and also from one of my favourite books, A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari. Bamboo’s underground stems are called ‘rhizomes’ in botanical terms. Each bamboo rhizome sends down roots or sends up shoots, and links itself to other rhizomes. This metaphor resonates with what we believe design needs to be — a decentralised network, without a definitive beginning or end, with tremendous flexibility to inform and be informed by inputs from every adjacency.
Taking on holistic sustainability was often daunting and we often wondered if we were biting off more than we could chew. Sustainability was not the buzz-word in 2009 that it is today, but I believed that climate change and unsustainable practices were here to stay, and that Rhizome was relevant. I also believed that design was ideally positioned to be a powerful game-changer in the world’s sustainability story. To deepen my knowledge on the nuts and bolts of sustainable design, I decided to supplement my NID education in design with a PhD in sustainability from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. One of the outputs of my PhD was the ‘Rhizome Approach’, which is the holistic sustainability design framework we follow at the studio.
We continue to look beyond single silo factors — such as the user, the market and production lines — towards an integrated design brief. Sustainability is not just an add-on to our design brief, it is central. Our designs are developed collaboratively with a cross section of actors, including communities. This helps us look at all the pieces of the sustainability jig-saw — including the economic, social, cultural, and ecological — to design sustainable products.
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Text Unnati Saini