John Thackara | Essays

Of Doomers and Bottle Fillers [January 2008]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

In Sao Paulo before Christmas someone referred to me as a "doomer." I had not heard the word before, but was told that it describes sad, train-spotter-like people who can't stop talking about peak oil, climate change, the instability of financial markets, the impending food crisis, and what John Michael Greer calls the "catabolic collapse" of industrial civilisation. Now it's true that plenty of people out there are unhealthily thrilled by the prospect of apocalypse. Their number includes, or so we are told, George W Bush. But you don't have to be an End-Days nut to conclude that we are headed for what one might call, to put it mildly, a discontinuity. If you look under the hood, the life-support systems of industrial civilisation are coughing and spluttering alarmingly. Even mainstream politicians, who hate being associated with bad news, are promising rough times ahead. But I reject the label "doomer". The word implies that, faced with these scary prospects, we have to choose either to join a cult, or head for the hills with a truckload of guns and baked beans. As a bottle-half-full kind of guy, I'm headed for a third space - between despair and flight - where a lot of creative and collaborative work needs to be done, much of it involving design. This newsletter - and Doors of Perception projects - will focus on those kind of activities during 2008.

Imagine that you have the attention and presence of 80,000 designers and architects. Which five tools, business models, platforms, or applications, would you badly want them to learn about - and use? Tools for Survival is such an opportunity. The event and encounter, which Doors is directing for the St Etienne Design Biennial, takes place in November. We have a 5,000 square metre (50,000 square feet) shed to fill with tools and people - and hope you will help us do so. My idea is to arrange the whole space as a kind of caravanserai of informal stalls. Each stall, or carpet, will feature a tool, and people discussing its use. Live projects, in which communities from the region explore ways to use these tools, will run throughout the event. But Tools for Survival is not about green consumerism: Its focus is on platforms, models, base tools and system components - not discrete end-of-pipe products. A tool, in this context, can be a product, system. model, book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is ready to be used now (or will be available for use soon). Each tool will probably entail a degree of social and collaborative use. The main zones will be grouped around the themes of food, water, energy, shelter, mobility, monitoring, and designing. The look-and-feel of the event will be more Bladerunner than Little House on the Prarie. That's because most people will stlll live in cities, not in cutesy little homesteads, as the going gets....different. Right now, please just note the dates: the Biennial opens on 12 November and runs for two weeks. Over the coming period we will organise partnerships with other organizations, including a network of design schools. And we'll soon start a blog/wiki as a public domain place to assemble and select your suggested tools.

Doors is still working with its partners on the legacy of Dott 07. As reported here over recent months, Dott explored what life in a sustainable region (North East England) could be like, and how design can help us get there. 21,000 people participated in Dott's two-week festival in October, and most of them seemed to be inspired by the practical ways to live better lives with less stuff that Dott projects came up with. In terms of legacy, seventy percent of Dott's public commission projects will carry on with new owners and partners into 2008, and elsewhere in the UK, there will be Dott programmes in Cornwall and Scotland between now and 2010. (Doors of Perception was hired to do the programme direction for Dott 07, but we hope to be involved in future Dotts, too). But a scalability challenge remains to be met: there are 250 regions in the European Union (EU), and perhaps1,500 regions in the industrialised countries, where things need to change most radically. What is the best way to multiply Dott-like, pan-regional experiments - and fast?

SCALE DILEMMA (2): Eco Design Challenge FOR SCHOOLS
Dott's Eco Design Challenge is a good example of the scalability dilemma. More than fifteen thousand school students used custom--designed calculators to measure their school's eco-footprint during 2007. They then ran projects to design lighter alternatives to the systems (food, water, transport, energy and waste) operating in their school. Many schools, with some modest help from Dott, invited professional designers in to help with these second phase projects.The winning school presented its project to parliamantarians in London, and everyone agrees that the Eco Design Challenge was fine, excellent, and inspiring. But it's also too small, and too slow. The Dott campaign involved 80 schools; but there are 37,000 schools in the UK, 300,000 in the EU, and 23,000 high schools in the US. What would it take to get all these schools started on similar projects in 2008?

Does the educational system have room for hackers, circuit benders, environmental activists, and VJ artists? What would be a suitable curriculum for nurturing independent grassroot initiatives? The seventh edition of Pixelache Festival in Helsinki will focus on education. Pixelache celebrates this theme by opening its very own educational programme, entitled Pixelache University - and we are going to enrol. 12-16 March 2008, Helsinki.

As Saki Mafundikwa aptly stated, “Africa is not poor, it just doesn’t have a lot of money.” If Africa does not have a lot of money, what then does it have?. This question, posed by Mugendi Mrithaa to conference chair Ezio Manzini, has persuaded us we should participate in the Change the Change conference in Torino, in July. It's about design visions, proposals, and tools. 10 -12 July 2008.

There are two ways to reduce transportation emissions: reduce emission rates per vehicle-kilometer, or reduce total vehicle-travel. The vast majority of policy and design innovation focuses on the first - thereby guaranteeing perpetually rising transport intensity and perpetually postponed sustainability. This excellent paper by Todd Alexander Litman, at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Australia, explains in policy terms how to reduce system-wide transport intensity within a viable economy.

Don Tapscott's new book Wikinomics gallops along at a heady pace. "The knowledge, resources, and computing power of billions of people are self-organising into a massive new collective force", it gushes. This marvelous news is tempered by the suspicion that either I, or the Web 2.0 world, is afflicted by a severe reality deficit. Wikinomics promises us an internet-powered business utopia, but the words climate change, peak oil, and catbolic collapse, are notable for their complete absence. A better text for CEOs is John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. "The pursuit of utopia must be replaced by an attempt to cope with reality" writes Gray. Warning that "an irrational faith in the future is encrypted into contemporary life", the laugh-a-minute philosopher recommends a diet of Spinoza and Tao-ism for those whose new year resolution is: Get Real.

My own new year's resolution is to stop writing sustainability to-do lists. I'm supposed to be an expert, but it still gives me a headache trying to keep track of the Triple Bottom Line; the Three Main Components (and Four System Conditions) of The Natural Step; One Planet Living's Ten Guiding Principles; the World Wildlife Fund's Three Forms of Solidarity; the Copenhagen Agenda's Ten Principles for Sustainable City Governance; the Framework of Eight Doorways of the Sustainable Schools Network; and the ten Hannover Principles promulgated by Bill McDonough. Each list is the result of deep thought by smart and dedicated people - and there are doubtless other important to-do lists out there that I've missed. But can we please agree: enough already?

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