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‘Little actions on the edge’: John Thackara on Designing Solutions in the Bubble Economy

   /   Feb 23rd, 2012Interviews

John Thackara’s 2005 book, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, argues for a world where the value of people and relationships is emphasized over the value of things. For designers, who have, by definition, traditionally made things for people to consume, the implications are radical: the task now is to design relationships so that things—and resources such as space, energy, and time—can be used more efficiently.

Thackara’s writing and speaking portrays a global society on the verge of catabolic collapse, past the point where it has the ability to repair itself–yet, politicians continue spouting rhetoric about economic growth. Arguing against growth as the solution, Thackara points to various industrial complexes (health, education, energy, real estate) that have turned individuals into users who benefit least in the services provided to them.

Instead, he poses the “gift economy,” where people rely on available social capital, instead of trying to create financial capital, as a mitigation tactic for the global recession and environmental crisis. “We are all in the gift economy, we have no choice,” Thackara told Dowser.

Thackara spoke to Dowser from Zurich, where he was organizing a five-day workshop called the “Zurich Eco-Lab,” a public showcase where dozens of sustainability-focused projects gather to share their work and generate new partnerships.

Dowser: What is the theory of change behind the writing, speaking, and organizing that you do?
Thackara: Over the past few years, I’ve finally realized that people don’t change because of events or articles that may be very brilliant—people change when they have to change. It’s not activists or writers persuading people to change–it’s external reality, forcing them. So our task as writers is not to have brilliantly rational arguments, it’s to say, yeah, the shit has hit the fan, but now what are we going to do?

When you say ‘external reality’ do you mean the market, or something else?
For example, I met some people in the US, campaigners and activists, dealing with mining in Central and East Africa, where people mine minerals for high-tech products that we all take for granted. I heard about the nightmarish lives of people who dig up stuff that goes into an iPhone—absolutely horrendous things happening to these people and the environment. Most people don’t care—but when people feel a sense of insecurity and anxiety about their own situations, they are more able to empathize about people someplace like Africa. It’s not about communication—if you feel insecure and anxious, you’re predisposed to say, well I’m not alone in this mess, and you see that other people are paying the price for this kind of development that we’ve all been involved with.

What were your educational and professional foundations?
I was born and raised in Newcastle, and I studied philosophy at university in England. I decided that design had a great deal of meaning for my philosophical thought. I did a post-grad journalism degree, and I found myself involved with architecture books and magazines. My first serious job was as the editor of a design magazine in London, and then I began doing journalism from Australia. I have no proper, structural connection to design—but the more I learned about architecture, technology, and design, the more I developed the opinion that there was a narrow range of interests involved. Looking for stories, I found that they were all very inward-looking. So, I evolved over the years from being a reporter toward being a producer of events, conferences and such, where my collaborators and I tried to push the envelope, and be a bit more critical. I think it’s very positive that writing programs for designers have emerged so that practicing architects and designers can gain those skills.

What were key experiences and turning points in your life that led you to where you are now?
I’ve always been a traveler—why, I don’t know. But I always find myself looking off the main road, in a physical and metaphorical sense. I don’t feel comfortable in the center; I like to see what it’s like on the edge. When I was working as a journalist, they’d say, we don’t want the same story as everyone else–you’ve gotta find stories on the edge, because that’s more interesting. So, I’ve always been more focused on what’s happening on the edge, where everyone isn’t looking. Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to have friends in places like India or Australia or Japan, who’ve been interested in the edge, like me

What is someplace you’ve traveled that has impacted you greatly?
In Japan, they had a bubble economy in the 1980s–there was a boom and a bubble which preceded the U.S. dot-com boom, and I had friends in Japan who were riding this wave of money to do exotic projects but, at the same time, there was a sense of impending doom. So, I had this early experience of boom and bust, personally and culturally, in a world which wasn’t mind, Japan. It was interesting how people could say, let’s reinvent the city, and reinvent technology—and at the time, you don’t realize that it’s a boom, and then it explodes. I saw how a country was able to deal with the aftereffects. In India, I’ve experienced, and people have shown me, the absolutely devastating consequences of out-of-control development: destruction of eco-systems and communities. For the most part we in the North, in the West, don’t know about these things. So, all my working life, I’d say to people: by the way, did you know your home used to be the home of a fisherman who had empathy with nature? But no, you didn’t know—and you are just concerned with developing your marina business.

What was the idea behind your project Doors of Perception?
Doors of Perception [DOP]
is like a producing agency, in the same way that a film company makes a film. When a project comes to life, we get various people involved to do the work on a project basis—designing the venue, doing the website. In early stages of a project, it’s often volunteer work—we have a tiny budget. We really rely on the ‘doors community,’ a loose ecology of people all over the world. We have a mailing list of about 12,000 names. We tend to be people who are flexible and open-minded. We’re associated with a set of values and expectations, which are somewhat a minority in the world of design—such as the belief that all forms of life have rights on this planet—not just humans; this idea can radically constrain your actions as a designer. We’ve always looked militantly for small, emerging grassroots partners, rather than big organizations. We try to be kind of joyous about stuff—the design world is capable of taking itself very seriously. We try to have fun.

Tell me more about your X-school project, and how you see the future of design education in general.
It’s a very unclear project but I don’t worry that things aren’t clear. X-school is like plant growing beneath a rock and soon a flower will burst forth. X-school has been in the works for about 15 months. It started when some friends in India and I wondered what we can do about design and architecture education, as it becomes part of the highway of destructive development. I’ve been working with design schools in India since 1995 and there’s a huge boom there closely modeled on schools in the U.S. and Europe. There’s no point in me lecturing Indian policy-makers; therefore, I follow the idea that systems can change radically as a result of small things on the edge of their environment—so don’t bash the big picture but start little things on the edge. All my work is really little actions on the edge.

So rather than tell them to do design education different in India we’ve decided to do small experiments on the edge that have the approach, the value, and the culture that we think is appropriate to the future.

What are those values?
Values that don’t arrive at a question or situation with a preconceived idea about what the design solution or the design question should be. Development is predicated on the notion of economic growth, adding value to situations—and that value is manufactured by an artifice or a service that wasn’t there before—and the result is to devalue, destroy, or ignore the value that exists already, social or ecological value, in that situation. The purpose of going to a place is not to impose a solution but to understand and explore and learn what is valuable already about that place.

Which blogs, websites, and authors do you read to keep up-to-date on innovations in design and solution-making?
Paul Shepherd’s Coming Home to the Pleistocene is a fabulous book–it’s a refreshing look at life before modern agriculture, filled with insightful thoughts about how humans have distanced ourselves from lived-reality through things like language, society of the spectacle, government, institutions—all the things that distract us from experiencing the world as it is, and cause us to damage it as a result. I also keep up with the energy/peak oil stuff; there’s a crowd of people, physics professors in tweed coats smoking pipes, who write about alternative energy. In fact, I recently blogged about my favorite energy writers. There’s a blog called Do the Math, by Tom Murphy, where he actually adds up the numbers about energy availability. I’ve learned an incredible amount from those writers–mainly that we need to look elsewhere than the modern world in order to make a good life for the future–hence the interest in the Pleistocenes.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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