Culturally-Inspired Design: Revealing Ingenuity in Its Natural Home

Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, a PhD student at MIT in media arts and sciences and art, culture, and technology (ACT), explores the intersection of technology and culture in overlooked spaces, going beyond typical design research.

Reynolds-Cuéllar, a former lecturer and researcher at MIT D-Lab, has experience in robotics and is affiliated with the ACT Future Heritage Lab, the Space Enabled Group at the MIT Media Lab, and is a MAD Fellow. He comes from rural Colombia, where resourcefulness is not just a skill but a way of life. He states, “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.”

Reynolds-Cuéllar emphasizes the importance of cultural elements in collaboration and advocates for a localized and culturally informed approach to technology design. He says, “I am interested in investigating how technology takes place in geographies and spaces that are outside of mainstream society, mostly rural places.”

Colombia, located in the heart of South America, is home to more than 80 distinct groups of Indigenous tribes, each with their own customs, beliefs, and practices. The country’s cultural diversity is further reflected in its linguistic diversity, with over 68 spoken languages. This provided numerous opportunities for Reynolds-Cuéllar to engage with communities without attempting to reshape or “fix” them, but rather to amplify their inherent strengths and give voice to their perspectives.

“My colleagues and I have developed a digital platform that meticulously documents collaborative processes in technology design. This platform, called Retos, captures the invaluable social capital that emerges from these interactions,” explains Reynolds-Cuéllar. The platform serves as a connection between universities, companies, and rural Colombian organizations, enhancing existing initiatives and facilitating processes like funding applications. It has received recognition from MIT Solve and the 2022 MIT Prize for Open Data from MIT Libraries.

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