When design research meets Alibaba

Last October the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven launched a new exhibition called ‘GEO-DESIGN: Alibaba. From here to your home’. This exhibition is an investigation that traces the nebulous outlines of one of the largest e-commerce giants in the world, Alibaba Group, founded in 1999 by Jack Ma, currently the richest man in China. The exhibition is developed within the framework of an ongoing collaboration between the museum and Design Academy Eindhoven.

Before entering the exhibition, the topic of Chinese e-commerce felt far away, almost a strange choice for an exhibition during Dutch Design Week. However, after seeing all the exhibits and having been immersed in so many different aspects of this enormous company, a new thought resonated: this is the power of design research. To make what seems complex, abstract and remote more tangible and understandable, while not leaving out the critical view.

In a way we are used to doing that at STBY on a project base, but it is a great joy to see this opportunity given to nine design researchers acting in the context of museums and design events.

Inescapable influence on the design process
Nine rooms creating a circular route, no beginning nor an end, present the work of nine designers who were invited to explore and react to the topic. They were invited to choose one specific aspect of interest from the Alibaba context, which brought them to respond through the multi-faced practices of today’s design discipline. Combining techniques and languages from journalism, filmmaking, scenography, interaction design and other relevant disciplines, they highlighted different aspects of the phenomena called ‘Alibaba’.

Alibaba is possibly best known as the world’s largest virtual shopping mall. In reality Alibaba is more than just a ‘company’: it is at once an online platform, a chat system, a financial institution, a social network, a cloud service, a wallet, an innovation center, an educational provider, and an almost indescribably vast logistics network that links cities, ports and factory villages across the world. Whether we recognise it or not, it is an inescapable influence on every stage of the design process today.

Temporary LIVE STREAMING studio inside the museum
One room presents the work of Jing He – LIVE STREAMING.Jing He invited two Chinese live streaming hosts to set up a temporary studio inside the museum, live-streaming their usual sale of products through platforms associated with Alibaba; Erbi Chen (陈膧僈), is a KOL (KeyOption Leader) and Qiong Ye Chuan Zi (琼页藿磾), works for a fashion company. During their performance, they both demonstrated, tried, tased, smelled dozens of products, influencing shoppers around the globe to buy.

The installation demonstrated the tension between the individual as an influencer, one-man marketing show, and the mass who consume the products they promote. I find it interesting to reflect on the position of these influencers; in a way they become a new type of service providers, a kind of evolution of tel-cel, but then quirky and informal. While looking at the installation some questions popped up: What are the implications of live streaming on the commerce industry? Which new marketing strategies and services are formed by the world of e-commerce? Perhaps designers will adapt the services and products they create according to the demonstration and unboxing rituals.

E-Hustling East-Africa
From one contrast to another, Room C explores the tension between local and global within Alibaba’s context. With the project  E-Hustling East-Africa, designers Leif Czakai & Timm Donke asks themselves how e-commerce applies in East Africa, where mobile money is widely available but e-commerce is not trusted. At the same time, small unofficial shops or street-vendors are a bustling business, but without the right connections hotspot location is scarce. E-Hustling East-Africa asks whether online vending can become an alternative business platform for Ugandan street vendors and grow into a local online business melting pot able to regenerate itself by employing and adapting the Alibaba tool box.

Critically reflecting on contemporary services
I was impressed to see how design research can also play a role in exhibitions by critically reflecting on contemporary services. This is crucial to maintain a sober view on the field and to produce meaningful work. A great opportunity to do so is stepping out of our daily project tasks and entering the yearly celebration of Dutch Design in Eindhoven.

As design researchers we spend our precious time and energy to inform and inspire the processes of designing new services and systems. By doing so we help creating services that improve the everyday life of people around the world. But how often do we get to use our craftsmanship to unfold, reflect and criticise the services we help to develop?