Culturally Informed Design: Unearthing ingenuity where it always was

By Adelaide Zollinger

Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, a joint ACT Future Heritage Lab and MIT Media Lab PhD in the Space Enabled Group and a MAD fellow, explores how technology and culture intersect in spaces often overlooked by mainstream society, stretching beyond the usual scope of design research. A former lecturer and researcher at MIT D-Lab with experience in robotics, Pedro comes from rural Colombia, where resourcefulness isn't a skill but a way of life. Pedro reflects: 

"I grew up seeing impressive ingenuity in solving a lot of problems, building contraptions, tools and infrastructure… all sorts of things. Investigating this ingenuity has been the question driving my entire PhD. "

Emphasizing the importance of cultural elements in how people collaborate, his work encourages a more localized, culturally informed perspective on technology design. “I am interested in investigating how technology takes place in geographies and spaces that are outside of mainstream society, mostly rural places,” he says. At the heart of South America, Colombia is home to over 80 distinct groups of Indigenous tribes known to exist, each carrying unique customs, beliefs, and practices. This contributes to Colombia's cultural mosaic and linguistic diversity, with more than 68 spoken languages. This meant plenty of opportunities for Pedro to engage with communities without trying to reshape or “fix” them, but rather to amplify their intrinsic strengths and amplify their voices.

"My colleagues and I developed a digital platform meticulously documenting collaborative processes when designing technology. This platform, called Retos, captures the invaluable social capital that blooms from these interactions," Pedro explains. Born from a need to foster cross-pollination, the platform serves as a bridge between universities, companies, and rural Colombian organizations, enhancing their existing initiatives and facilitating processes such as funding applications. It received an award from MIT Solve and the 2022 MIT Prize for Open Data from MIT Libraries.

Related Content