The fist Aalto LAB took place in Shanghai in 2010, and it was an innovative publicity campaign for the recently founded Aalto University. It sought to put into practice its mission by building an interdisciplinary and intercultural team of students who collaborated with the aim of making the world a better place. Aalto LAB Mexico (ALM) was set up in 2012 to become the case study of Claudia Garduño’s doctoral dissertation titled Design as Freedom. Ever since, the ALM has been evolving as a pedagogical experiment where a truly diverse team of students and an equally diverse network of mentors make use of collaborative design methods within the community called 20 de Noviembre, located in Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico.
The Mexican Government has measured that in the Municipality of Calakmul, nearly 90% of the population lives in poverty, and close to 50%, in extreme poverty (CONEVAL, 2010). Additionally, it is referred to as an area of high marginalisation, which is alarming because this implies that the inhabitants of Calakmul are not enjoying their constitutional rights. The inhabitants of El 20 confirmed that they feel like the government has forgotten about them and that although they wish to preserve their Mayan culture alive, they would also like to gain better access to services such as health care, education, and communication.
Since its beginning, ALM was supported by teachers and professors from Aalto University, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and Tecnológico de Monterrey Campus Ciudad de México, nevertheless, it remained a grassroots initiative without a proper home in any of the three universities. In the end of 2014, Matleena Muhonen, coordinator of the Sustainable Global Technologies Programme agreed to include the project into their studio course. Additionally, Muhonen and Garduño wrote a grant application for the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs which turned out to be positive, and ALM was awarded EUR 28000.
In the past seven years, we have been able to “break” the design process into stages (1. Diagnosis, 2. Conceptualization, 3. Implementation, 4. Evaluation). Nonetheless, our pedagogical experiments have focused mainly on the initial phases. Our possibilities to implement the project ideas have been limited mainly due to the time constraints posed by the university calendar, and the lack of funding.
In March 2017, Garduño defended her doctoral dissertation and her stable affiliation with Aalto University came to an end. Nonetheless, she became a partner in the recently formed Mexican NGO, Design Your Action A.C. (DYA), and together with Muhonen, they envisioned the possibility to continue the connection and share responsibilities. While Muhonen and SGT can continue to refine the research and ideation of project ideas, DYA can be in charge of fundraising for their implementation.
Throughout the years, ALM has focused on developing proposals around four different axes that have consistently been brought up as a main concern by the people of El 20. These axes are: sustaining their cultural heritage, sustaining the environment, achieving economic sustainability and achieving health security. Each year, the team of labbers defines their focus areas, based on their expertise and interests. This working model, supported by SGT has enabled ALM to conduct several rounds of research regarding water quality in El 20, the possibilities of strengthening their community tourism services, the culturally and environmentally adequate sustainable infrastructures, and also identifying possibilities within the tangled Mexican health care system.
The results of the project have been presented in different academic conferences in Mexico, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, India, and South Africa. It has also been described in some publications including MA Theses, doctoral dissertations, books, book chapters, and journal articles.