Jeremy Barribeau

By Heidi Biggs

Jeremy Barribeau circled the globe on his way to join the 2020 MDes cohort. He was born in South Africa, earned an undergraduate degree in industrial design from Victoria University in New Zealand, and landed an internship directly out of school at Hewlett Packard’s global design center in Singapore. Jeremy was transferred to Portland, Oregon, to continue working on additive manufacturing and 3D printing then saw an opportunity to fulfill a long-standing goal of earning a master’s in design through the MDes program at the University of Washington.

Jeremy’s thesis is one that relates to his unique background as someone from South Africa. Over the past year, he has researched illegal poaching in southern Africa (not strictly South Africa, he explained, as this is an inherently multi-national issue), where poaching is so extreme it risks making animals like elephants and rhinoceroses extinct within the next 5–10 years. This project, he reflects, was a way to bridge his career as a designer in a high-tech field with his love of the African bush — but he discovered those two orientations do not fit together seamlessly — in fact, in trying to mesh them together he encountered quite a bit of friction.

Initially, Jeremy thought drones might help observe and police illegal poaching. However, as he began to dig into the root causes of poaching in southern Africa, he quickly unearthed a tangled web of crippling poverty, corrupt governments, deeply engrained cultural beliefs, and the influence of transnational criminal syndicates who also deal in drugs and weapons. To truly engage with the issue, Jeremy realized he had to essentially throw out his original research hypothesis and begin to engage with this issue in an open-ended and exploratory way.

To start to understand the mechanics of illegal poaching and what caused an economic climate where illegal poaching is a viable way to make a living in southern Africa, one needs to examine Africa’s colonial history. Jeremy explained that during the Dutch and later British colonialization of Africa, the European hunting of big game and de-forestation reached such extreme levels of devastation that big game was becoming near extinct. To protect wildlife from themselves, Europeans created huge wildlife conservation parks in order to protect big game from extinction. In a review of the book The Kruger National Park, A Social and Political History, Jane Carruthers also points out that these big parks were used strategically by colonists to conduct land grabs and increasingly police behaviors of African people while pushing them off of land they formerly inhabited.

Jeremy mentions that this colonial legacy of relocation is at the roots of the disparity of wealth in southern Africa, which is part of the motivation for illegal poaching. Rural communities don’t benefit from wealthy urban centers, and some rely on illegal poaching either for subsistence or employment. In the case of employment, they are often paid by criminal syndicates who trade things like rhinoceros horns and pangolin scales for medicinal purposes or elephant ivory that can symbolize status. The trade of these animal products is also deeply tied to global cultures (in one example, pangolin scales and rhino horn are used in traditional Chinese medicine). In addition to traditional cultural uses, Jeremy explained that criminal syndicates also manufacture demand for the products of poaching by claiming false or fabricated medicinal or other properties of poached animal products. One begins to see that “solving” illegal poaching would require changing centuries-old cultural traditions or solving systemic poverty — something Jeremy noticed and which gave him pause.

To conduct first-person research and really get to the heart of this issue, Jeremy visited Namibia and South Africa, utilizing connections from his past to begin to meet and engage a network of people tangentially involved in poaching. He decided early on that meeting with any poachers themselves would carry far too much risk. He met with a wide array of people from NGOs, government officials, park rangers, and intelligence operatives. He spent time staked out with an anti-poaching unit (APU). He also traveled to a region in southern Africa notorious for poaching where he spent several days in a village discussing how poaching affected those who lived there. Meeting with interlocutors required that he be flexible and spontaneous: people wouldn’t meet with him until he was in the country — thereby showing some level of personal investment — and then they would email him to meet within a few hours, so he would rush to get there in time. Ultimately, the whole process has an air of adventure and vulnerability. He comments on how the cultural and contextual sensitivity he gained in the short time he was there is already fading. Like many others who seek to do research in complex and precarious situations, there must be a sense of letting go of research expectations in order to foreground the needs and voices of those who are experiencing the situation firsthand.

As Jeremy pulled at the root causes of illegal poaching, he realized that finding a solution would not only be impossible, but inappropriate. He comments on how ineffective and naïve westernized design methods seem when it comes to problems of this magnitude. Jeremy laughs, remembering how he had planned a card sort (a way of having participants organize information into groups and then discuss with the researcher), but found himself in the chambers of such a diversity of people — including villagers, NGOs, soldiers, and highly ranked generals — that he quickly realized a card sort would be completely preposterous and uncontextualized. There is no way to productize a sleek solution to illegal poaching without wiping away the necessary complexity of representing the issue in its fullness. This sentiment is echoed by other designers who, in recent years, have resisted solutionism, foregrounded vulnerable voices through participatory and action-based design research, and used critical and political theory to ground potential avenues for design, while other designers argue that the best design can do is faithfully document a complex problem space. Jeremy, in this thesis, decides to expose what he calls “leverage points,” or places within culture or the systems he engaged with where he believes there is an opportunity to intervene, but he resists describing what those solutions would entail at this time.

Ultimately, Jeremy frames his contribution as two-fold: one being points of leverage for potential intervention, the other being the troubling design methodologies that seek to productize solutions to systemic, historic, and culturally constructed problems. Design scholars such as Elizabeth Chin critiqued the latent coloniality of designs like The Life Straw (1), where a western designer will visit a country where people don’t have access to clean water and design them a straw to extract clean water from dirty sources, pat themselves on the back and walk away pleased, not examining the history of colonialism and western interventions that crippled that country in the first place. In his process, Jeremy bumped against the ironies of conservation, where illegal poaching, while destructive, is also part of a legacy of “intervention” and disruption. Instead of driving toward a solution, Jeremy took pause and took stock, offering avenues for intervention without jumping into something that looked like “progress” or “innovation.” This project left him wondering whom design serves and whether it is equipped to deal with complex, “wicked” problems — or if design must also expand its methods and sensitivities to deal with intricate and systemic problems.

(1) Bauhaus Futures, ed. by Laura Forlano, Molly Wright Steenson, and Ananny Mike (MIT Press, 2019).

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