The Illicit and the Ad Hoc

(The text Describes the background to my thinking about the Project Nomadic Affordances)

The affordance is the thing that’s makes something possible. So there exist a category of affordances that makes nomadicity possible. Flipped around the affordances that we design for “improving the quality of life” or “peoples experiences” are appropriated for nomadic purposes. If this is correct then design exposes its failure to be critical and emerges as merely a program of iterative development of past materialities.

A failure that Urry sees in the social sciences as he takes the contemporary research ecology to task. He calls to account social science theory for neglecting through all this time the notion of automobilities, and the very notion of mobility. He uses the term ‘sedentarism’ as the current location of theory, the dominant paradigm, characterised by the complete neglect of the nomadic. Now what he says applies to design and to the paradigms of creative practice that create museum objects and museum inspired spaces that wait, immobile and inactive, for the human user and experiencer to arrive to be activated or animated. Or indeed to exist at all.

For a person such as I, a transnational, a migrant, a nomad inhabiting the diaspora, the absence of acknowledgement of one who is visibly here but mentally in multiple worlds is a reality. Whose days are in the here, but who strays into another location as the sun reaches the afternoon mark, for he lives in the now and in an imaginary simultaneously. The inability of taking into the narrative of a creative practice the simultaneities of ‘the other’ is the tragedy of the ‘assimilationist’ paradigm of elite creative practice. Melbourne is somehow the epicentre of the special, as a place and a paradigm of discourse. This pervasive ‘nativity’ excludes one the one hand, the diaspora, and at the same time yearns to be itself a diaspora of a distant ‘centre’.

If indeed the moments of mobility are to be retained at the periphery – so be it. This periphery is an exciting place – and place of great energy and pulsating with the illicit. In Urry words:

All the world seems to be on the move.

Asylum seekers, international students, terrorists, members of diasporas, holidaymakers, business people, sports stars, refugees, backpackers, commuters, the early retired, young mobile professionals, prostitutes, armed forces; these and many others fill the world’s airports, buses, ships, and trains. The scale of this travelling is immense.

Internationally there are over 700 million legal passenger arrivals each year (compared with 25 million in 1950) with a predicted 1 billion by 2010; there are 4 million air passengers each day; 31 million refugees are displaced from their homes; and there is one car for every 8.6 people.

These diverse yet intersecting mobilities have many consequences for different peoples and places that are located in the fast and slow lanes across the globe. There are new places and technologies that enhance the mobility of some peoples and places and heighten the immobility of others, especially as they try to cross borders (Graham and Wood, forthcoming; Verstraete 2004). [2]

Nomadic Affordances is situated here – in this place, the place of mobility. A form of contemporary nomadicity.

This nomadicity is an ecology supported by a system of affordances. Some are practices such as the ‘road trip’. Some are imperatives such as being forced to seek ‘refuge’. Twitter, facebook, mobile phones, tents, trucks, boats and water bottles are all implicated in this narrative as affordances enabling the nomadicity. Such artefacts exist and we have experience of them. What other may be seen to exist that are yet to be conceived?

Designers in this account actively imagine making the experience of nomadicity pleasurable or more conventient. The backpack – makes the office or classroom mobile. Every little thing that is carried is activated to enable tiny, small or even large nomadicity. The material possessions we carry, as we move, are fellow conspirators in the project of making a placeless or multi-place engagement, the main way of life.

Imagine sometime in the future; a gallery, an archive, a collection of nomadic paraphernalia from the present. Or a speculation upon a proscription of mobility; what will need to be proscribed? Or even How will society need to be re-schooled to stay still and in one place?

Nomadic Affordances is thus an ongoing project, an inquiry, a conversation and a conscious engagement with the tools and contexts of mobility.

When I travel I leave my fountain pen behind. Requiring liquid ink refill the fountain pen, though an improvement upon the inkwell pen, is an improvement though not nomadic enough. Stated another way the fountain pen is thus a nomadic affordance, and the biro does nomadicity really well. Redesigning writing instruments for mobility constitutes a design project. Redesigning artefacts for living – cooking, cleaning and sleeping – away from home is a robust domain of design and innovation practice, the results of which can be seen in camping stores. However the main argument in the construction of the category of nomadic affordances is that camping products constitute merely one category of nomadicity. Seen as a continuum camping is the sporadic and smaller, though more visible in some specific countries, aspect of nomadicity.

Places of rest, recreation and living – are inherently in multiple places. Being in a place but travelling in the imaginary constitutes another form of nomadicity.

In 2016 the opportunity arose to interrogate the ‘caravan’ and the practice of ‘camping’ with the Caravan as a studio project. As an initial project the options available were to frame the studio as a ‘mod’ or ‘redesign’ project. Or to imagine a wider and more conceptual project that focussed upon all manner of affordances, not just the camper-van, that are tools and affordances to a culture of mobility. The contemporary notion of the ‘grey nomad’, the recently retired travelling around Australia in a well kitted out Camper-Van, is then also an affordance. An idea that can be inhabited as a cultural practice. Similarly the camp site with power outlets for the Caravans, facilities for cooking and for body care become implicated as the ecology of affordances. Is it then possible to draw frames where things, places, cultural practices and consumption practices constitute an ecology of nomadicity?

In this way the idea of a Studio titled Nomadic-Affordances was constructed as both being about  mobility and about the anxiety surrounding ‘sedentarism’, the not being nomadic being uncool.

The studio was visualized as providing opportunities:

  • for working big ( a studio with a large number of students working in groups),
  • for an intensive ( a period in the studio of single minded focus where students work/collaborate off-campus for a week exclusively upon the studio),
  • for a transdisciplinary studio and
  • for an international academic to participate in the intensive.

The planning began in 2015 with seeking funding for travel for Ido Bruno, from Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem to come to Melbourne to teach a week long intensive. In the initial conversations I was imagining many vehicles, many topics, for this intensive. At about this time I was also in conversations with Jayco about offering a studio to students of Industrial design in the general area of camping and camper vans. My conversations with Ross McLeod and Michael Trudgeon were around tent cities and history of Australia’s romance with the sea and beach. Lingering alongside this was my desire to construct a studio collaboration between Industrial Design and Interior addressing simultaneously the object scale and the interior envelope scale.

I was simultaneously reading Urry and Rheingold, watching the unfolding mass migration across the planet and connecting the affordances that were making the sociality of the ‘smart mobs’.

Combine wearable computing, wireless communications, and peer-to-peer resource sharing, and all the people in a building or a crowd walking down the street can join into ad-hoc networks. [1]

And …

There are the dangers as well as opportunities concerning smart mobs. I used the word “mob” deliberately because of its dark resonances. Humans have used our talents for cooperation to organize atrocities. Technologies that enable cooperation are not inherently pathological: unlike nuclear bombs or land mines, smart mob technologies have the potential for being used for good as well as evil.

On the other hand, when cooperation breaks out, civilizations advance and the lives of citizens improve. This is the big opportunity of smart mobs. Language, the alphabet, cities, the printing press did not eliminate poverty or injustice, but they did make it possible for groups of people to create cooperative enterprises such as science and democracy that increased the health, welfare, and liberty of many. [1]

In these words lay a description of society as lived out and as appropriated by people. The notion of the mob, and of the smart describes one end of a continuum. A polar opposite of the bricks and mortar sedentarist view of continuation of the current way of imagining people being or coming together.

In these readings I saw a place for design to grab something, the notion of displacing the centre, and to run with the notion such as that of nomadicity being the new normal.

The studio was thus ‘put together’ with a wide domain, a place for exploration. It is possible the initial explorations would read the notion of the nomad literally – such as the practices and material culture of the Bedouin – which is a good starting place. The intensive was imagined to make the wider exploration of the ‘displaced’ or the illicit or the ad hoc possible and in this the practice of Ido Bruno was central to how the exploration would proceed.

In the this is how it eventuated – with the explosion of possibilities of how materiality could be imagined, and how nomadic affordances could emerge.

In many ways the studio was merely an initial step. We are already imaging new projects and new collaborations – especially between Australia and Israel – taking forward the idea and potentially constructing the capacity of smart mobs within the global design diaspora.


[1] Rheingold H. (2002) Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution: Perseus Publishing.

[2] Sheller M and Urry J. (2006) The New Mobilities Paradigm. Environment and Planning A 38: 207-226.







By Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg


  1. I understand Migration studies to be alive and well… Despite some aged methodological tools and understanding! Good luck, I hope this may be helpful 😊


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