“I think that everybody should be thrown into anthropology”: Interview with Anna Kirah, design anthropologist


For the first issue of PEOPLE Newsletter we talked with Anna Kirah, an internationally acclaimed design anthropologists and a passionate proponent of people-centred design and development approaches. Scroll down to read what she told us about her recent projects and find some useful tips she shared with us for early-career anthropologists looking for opportunities in industry or design. For other inspiring articles about PEOPLE’s approach to people-centred design and development, and innovation in energy efficiency and education, access the full issue here.

Where did you use a people-centred design approach lately?

While working for the Oslo Airport in Norway. It just re-opened recently and working for them has provided me with the opportunity to take creating products and services with people to a new level – which is, facilitating an organisation to actually think from a people-centred perspective.

How do you do that, help organisations think from a people-centred perspective?

Well, you show them. You take them along on an observation journey. At Oslo Airport, I had to convince the airport staff they were doing something wrong. To achieve this, I took them to their own workplace and showed them how to watch people. By teaching them how to watch people, you are teaching them one of the core skills of anthropology. That is the most exciting part. Through co-creation we come up with a new product or service, but when you actually get a mind-set change in people – to me, that is far more valuable and relevant. Because the world is changing so rapidly, we need people to think differently, and I think that everybody should be thrown into anthropology.

How do you explain the value of anthropology and people-centred approaches to engineers or airport staff?

You have to engage with people and meet them where they are: instead of telling them, you show them. This is probably the most important thing I learned from working for Microsoft: our expert hat is our biggest enemy. The more expert we get through our education system, the less able we are to see the world through different perspectives and to engage with people who don’t think just like ourselves. That is why I would end PhD programmes as they exist today: they are focused on a narrow aspect, while we should be working across boundaries. So the problem is not in working with engineers: the problem is that the politicians are saying we need more technologists and less anthropologists or sociologists.

How can we change the politicians’, the decisionmakers’ mind-sets?

The best way is to show them the failed projects that are wasting tax-payers’ money. As an example, I use a train station near my home, which is a disaster. The old wooden train station had a heated room, it was warm and passengers talked with each other while waiting for their train. Now we have a beautiful architecture on top of a hill: two glass boxes in which nobody is willing to stand because it is colder in there than it is outside. When it is -25 degrees Celsius, people stand outside. When it is pouring rain, they stand outside. So, how is that helping the world? They wasted tax-payer’s money because they didn’t ask the people what they wanted and needed: they built it for us, not with us.

Anna Kirah is a design anthropologist with degrees both in anthropology and psychology. She has worked for international corporations, such as Microsoft and Boeing. Besides being a member of the PEOPLE project’s Advisory Board, Anna is the Managing Director of Design without Borders, an independent non-profit foundation in Norway. Furthermore, Anna has worked with local entrepreneurs and businesses in Uganda to identify and implement appropriate solutions that benefit crisis-affected populations. She is currently living in Norway.