Indigenous Design for the New World

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Angie Abdilla in conversation with Ann Deslandes
Photos by David Stefanoff
This interview has been edited. The full interview can be seen in issue 1.

As technology continues to push us ever forward, it’s easy to forget that past journeys of discovery were once slower and without answers – asking questions was all part of the process. Angie Abdilla is a Trawlwoolway woman and founder and CEO of Old Ways, New, a research and technology design consultancy, who thinks this old way of doing things can be used to develop new technology.

Angie Abdilla first saw potential in the collision of ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ and the development of new technology when she ran an Indigenous robotics prototype workshop back in 2014. Abdilla ran the workshop with a group of Sydney’s young Indigenous people at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) and, along with Associate Professor Rob Fitch, went on to publish an academic research paper on the workshop and its implications for robotics and bringing Indigenous Knowledge systems to Western approaches to technology.

Abdilla’s findings compelled her need to explore the potential of a deeper symbiotic relationship between Indigenous Knowledge systems and modern technological development. Here she shares her experiences and thoughts on mixing the old with the new.


Ann Deslandes: You’re currently testing some of your conclusions about the contribution of Indigenous Knowledge systems to robotics. How did you get to this point?
Angie Abdilla: When I was first developing the robotics prototype workshops my question was: “What’s a culturally relevant way of connecting to technology, for Indigenous kids?” Then by the end of the prototype course I was thinking: Culturally relevant technology is all well and good but, what knowledges can we [Indigenous people] bring, from our way of being and knowing, to shape and form technology? What is Indigenous Knowledge or ‘Traditional Knowledge’? I had to explore that in some depth, talking with Elders, and really it was only through those relationships, primarily working with my Uncle Wayne [Mukgrrngal] Armytage that I realised the depth of Indigenous Knowledges. Indigenous Knowledge systems don’t operate on a single level, entity or space, it is a holistic way of seeing, being and knowing. ‘Pattern Thinking’ is a way of understanding our relationship to Country and our way of seeing; it all comes from our relationship to each other and to Country as an entity; understanding, for example, that between the rock over there, that tree, the mountain and I, there’s a relationship and meaning. So, I was thinking: The symbiotic relationship we have with Country, there’s such power in this, so how do we bring that knowledge to inform new, deep technologies?

Your work, and your paper with Rob Fitch, has generated a lot of interest. What do you think is so compelling for people about Indigenous robotics?
Typically people think of Indigenous issues or Indigeneity within a deficit discourse. We are always prefaced with ‘Indigenous issues’ such as ‘Closing the Gap’ in education, health, housing, employment. These are very real concerns, but the deficit discourse is created by non-Indigenous peoples deciding what the metrics are to define our health and wellbeing. These conversations are so disempowering for Indigenous peoples and don’t allow space for creativity, aspirations or innovation. Everything we do at Old Ways, New, including the intent of the Indigenous robotics research paper, is focused on Indigenous autonomy. I think that’s one reason why people find our methodology compelling.

I think there are people who understand our work, that Indigenous Knowledge systems can inform the different ways to engage with technology, and that within this there’s so much to learn and so much value. For example, the act of slowing down and being present. It is commonly assumed technology should be operating on the basis of speed. That assumption comes from its European origins, this notion that technology is based on not just time efficiency, but economics. Whereas Indigenous people have been developing tech from the very beginning of time. Such as the boomerang, the fish traps in Brewarrina, the use of spinifex for thermoplastic resin. There are so many amazing examples of how spinifex has been used as a glue for making spears and all sorts of applications. Then there’s sky mapping, the reading of not just of the stars but space itself, and with the naked eye! Now that’s an incredibly deep system of knowledge.

Technology is a tool. That’s it. How we use the tool and the intentions behind the development of the tool, we decide that.


'Indigenous people have been developing tech from the very beginning of time.'


‘So, I was thinking: The symbiotic relationship we have with Country, there’s such power in this, so how do we bring that knowledge to inform new, deep technologies?’


The way Indigenous Knowledge can be used to fight climate change is something I know is very important to you and that you’ve been working with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on their Local Voices for Climate Action campaign, can you tell me about that?
Through the UNDP I participated in a program designed to show Indigenous leaders how to navigate the UN system. I was then contracted to the UNDP in Paris for COP21 as part of the Equator Initiative [a UN program that supports Indigenous and local communities to address environmental problems]. My team and I interviewed winners of the Equator Prize [given for successful local environmental initiatives] on practical examples of how they’re using their Traditional Knowledges to combat climate change. Within the initiative there has been quite narrow focus on campaigning for forestation, and I wanted to explore what is local and relevant to each of the communities who were making an impact on climate change.

Our campaign was released for the World Climate Change Week in New York last year, shared across multiple social media platforms, and was also a part of the Indigenous Pavilion at COP22 [the UN Climate Change conference] in Marrakech.

As the next generation begin to gather skills to ‘survive’ in the world, do you think they need to be looking more towards the new world or back to the old?
That is the critical question for future generations – how do we survive in this world? I believe we need to look back to people who have done so really well. In Australia, our people are known by other Indigenous peoples as ‘the Ancients’ for we have been here since time immemorial – the oldest living culture and peoples on Earth. For our people, caring for Country and the care for our community – Country and kin – that’s where all things start and finish. Technology is important, yes, but it’s a process and it’s contextual. It’s really simple for me: our culture informs our knowledges, our strategies and then the technologies for not just surviving, but thriving in the future.


Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher. She lives to tell stories about solidarity, gender, sexuality, language, family, faith, urbanism, visual culture, decolonisation, and more.


Design, TechnologyNikki Stefanoff