The world's biggest e-commerce company, Alibaba, is changing the infrastructure of design, manufacturing and retail around the globe, says Martina Muzi, co-curator of the Design Academy Eindhoven exhibition Geo-Design.
According to Muzi, the Chinese multinational conglomerate is building new digital, social and logistical networks that are transforming the world's geography.
"Alibaba is more than just a company, or even one of the world's largest companies," she told Dezeen.
"Whether we recognise it or not, it is a powerful agent in every stage of the design process today. More than simply shaping the rules of design, production and circulation as an e-commerce giant, Alibaba is both a massive influence and an engine for change in contemporary geopolitics and global infrastructure."
"Geography is formed by capital and territory"
Geo-Design: Alibaba From Here to Your Home, which was presented during Milan design week, saw Muzi and Design Academy Eindhoven creative director Joseph Grima showcase a range of research projects that aim to "trace the nebulous outline" of Alibaba.
Their aim was to show that Alibaba is powerful enough to change how geographical economies and territories are defined.
"Geography is formed by capital and territory," Muzi explained. "Depending which capital you select - objects, human resources, technology, digital, physical - and depending how you apply it, new geographies are formed."
"This is super important," she continued, "because geography does not necessarily have to be a strict decided form. It can be redesigned."
Alibaba one of the world's most valuable companies
Alibaba Group was founded in 1999 by Jack Ma and Peng Lei. Today it is one of the world's largest and most valuable companies, with profits in 2015 greater than Walmart, Amazon and eBay put together.
Its primary business is centred around bringing together retail and technology, but this encompasses a vast spectrum of products and services, including search engines, a social network, electronic payment, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
It also has established a logistics network that links up cities, factories and ports around the globe.
Design Academy Eindhoven set up the Geo-Design research platform in the summer of 2018, working with the Van Abbemuseum. They asked nine designers and teams to explore a different aspect of Alibaba. The results were debuted at Dutch Design Week, before travelling to Milan in April.
"You can't explain Alibaba if you are one designer, it's impossible," said Muzi.
"That's why nine designers were invited to each choose one specific topic and develop it really deeply. All of these topics together make an open portrait of what Alibaba is."
Designers "trace the nebulous outline" of Alibaba
The Milan exhibition started with Live Streaming, a project by Chinese designer Jing He, which shows how brands like Alibaba are using social-media influencers to change the way objects are marketed.
Exhibition visitors were able to see WeChat influencer Erbi Chen in action, as well as on screen.
Next, Irish-American designer Allison Crank used a virtual-reality experience to show how consumption is becoming increasingly digital.
"What is really interesting about this project is that it really highlights the moment - a new nature of products that, before being real, are extremely digital. So what you buy are facts or desires, not objects," said Muzi.
In one room, a video collage compiled by designers Alice Wong and Aryan Javaherian showed how Alibaba co-founder Ma has become a propagator for global change, through his interactions with mass media.
A project by design duo Arvid&Marie looks at how the Alibaba and AliExpress search bars generate influence, while Muzi's own project, Diamond Model, explores how the company breeds a global culture of copying, through the example of a DIY craft kit.
Maxime Benvenuto's project investigates how the movement of goods and materials can change global economies, referencing a quote from Ma: "We should not talk about 'Made in China', 'Made in America'. It's going to be 'Made in the internet'."
For their project, designers Leif Czakai and Timm Donke worked with Barbara Ahimbise, a Chinese language student living in Uganda. Together they looked how Alibaba's e-commerce technology could be applied to an online shoe store in Kampala, where street vendors don't trust online trade.
In the final room, Isabel Mager showed the relationship between Alibaba and the Huaqiangbei Electronics Market in Shenzhen, the biggest of its kind in the world. By collecting all the components used in the production of an iPhone 7 Plus, she maps out the complex network that connects tech companies, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
There was also one project in the courtyard outside - a four-metre-high inflatable globe, installed by Irene Stracuzzi to offer a vision of how the world looks through the eyes of Alibaba.
Understand "contemporary infrastructural model"
"As the projects exhibited tell, the learning goes at many levels, from the political meaning of a giant worldwide company and its role in the shaping of new geographies, to the the importance of visible and invisible infrastructures ruling our everyday lives," said Muzi.
"We learn how all these aspects work within the same multilayered body, which in this case is called Alibaba."
Muzi said she hopes the project encourages designers to look more closely at the systems that shape the way they do business.
"The message to designers is to get out of your studio and look, from the little scale to the large scale," she added.
"This complexity is the landscape right outside the doors of design ateliers. It is urgent to understand the contemporary infrastructural model and the possibilities it may open, moving between east and west, and vice versa."
As one's of the world's leading design schools, Design Academy Eindhoven stages one major exhibition in Milan every year. Last year saw students take over the shops, cafes and other properties of a Milanese street, to explore how design impacts everyday life.
Geo-Design: Alibaba From Here to Your Home was on show at Via Marco Aurelio 21 from 9 to 14 April as part of Milan design week.