Proximal Design: Users as Designers of Mobility in the Russian North

Svetlana Usenyuk, Sampsa Hyysalo, Jack Whalen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


By examining mobility in remote Arctic areas, we analyze how challenging environmental conditions, while affecting technology performance, evoke people’s creativity and efforts as technology users. Based on historical materials and ethnographic observations of user inventiveness in the transport sector in the Russian North, we define and document a phenomenon of “proximal design” in three different modes: the proximal complementation of “distant design” machines (trucks and military equipment) to ascertain their reliability; the emergence of a new type of homemade all-terrain vehicle called a “karakat,” made from salvaged parts to specialize in times and locations where other vehicles turn unreliable; and the traditional craft of sledge-making by nomadic reindeer herders of the Yamal area, where even materials are proximally collected and shaped. Our main argument is that continuous tuning, modification, and redesign of technology carried out by immediate users in situ make it possible for humans and machines to function in extreme settings and that this can lead also to emergence of enduring design principles. We outline key characteristics of proximal design such as constraining environment, inventiveness by necessity, flexible construction, personalization and symbolic meaning, and social embeddedness of making/maintaining practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)866-908
JournalTechnology and Culture
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


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