John Thackara’s recent blog post in which he criticized the word “sustainism” slights a concept that we believe has great relevance to the design community. The idea of sustainism deserves more than a discussion about what we (dis)like about nomenclature. Whatever we choose to call it, one thing is sure: we have moved well past modernist and postmodernist ideas of organizing the world. With the term "sustainism," we give a name to a new era that is emerging in our culture.
We didn't invent sustainism; we found it, as it were, on the street. Our manifesto Sustainism Is the New Modernism charts a new way of doing and seeing that is evident across society, in everything from urban planning to business practices to food production. We are signalling a transition to a new lifestyle, and offering a picture of a world that is more connected, more localized and more sustainable.
In the 20th century, our world was designed around modernist ideas and values. This could be seen in our architecture, product design, business models, urban planning, and much more. With modernism came a fascination with technology, modes of industrial production, a focus on material goods, underpinned by a particular idea of progress. But this century heralds a cultural shift. Sustainism, in our view, represents a new mind-set that, like modernism before it, will turn out to define how we see our world, what we value, and how we shape our living environment. It will become the new operating context for all of us.
Despite the root word "sustain" in our term for the new culture, sustainism encompasses much more than just green practices. It's as much concerned with the internet, social media and open-source information. Amidst these global trends, we see a growing interest in what’s local, for example in our food (think of the 6,000-plus farmers’ markets in the U.S. alone). To put it simply, sustainism is where connectivity, new forms of localism and sustainable life styles meet.
Sustainism (or whatever you wish to call the new culture) is bringing its distinctive style and perspective: diverse rather than uniform; effective instead of efficient; networked instead of hierarchical. It stands for the perspective of long-term investment and appropriate speed, rather than "quick return“ and "faster is better." From functionality to meaning, from space to place.
The transition from modernism to sustainism also involves a shift in how we frame problems and look for solutions. Where modernism failed to account for complexity and diversity, sustainism takes them as its very premise. In the sustainist era everything is interconnected and interdependent. Our visual symbol for sustainism, the trefoil knot, expresses this idea.The trefoil symbolizes the endless cycle of life and an interrelated world.
The metaphor for the new culture is the web; whether we speak about cities, food, production, media, knowledge or sustainable development, in sustainism, everyone and everything is linked. This is the culture of networks, sharing, borrowing and open exchange.
Designers and architects have been among the first to see the fundamental shifts we associate with sustainism — for example, how perceptions of place have changed. The internet in particular has given a new meaning to the local: almost every place in the world is globally connected, 24/7. We live in local worlds, but we are also global citizens.
We see the emergence of a new type of "localism" as one of the hallmarks of sustainism. In the experience of many of us, global and local are no longer in opposition (hence that dreaded word "glocal"). The sustainist world is the world of the local farmer's market and Twitter, corner cafe and Facebook, the neighborhood and CNN. And "local" is no longer just a geographic marker; it has become a quality, a value in itself.
We are opening the debate about how sustainism gives rise to new design criteria. With a wink to the past, we say that "do more with less" is the sustainist reply to the modernist "less is more." We mark the shift from "design" to "design with" — co-design, design with nature, participatory design thinking. The growing interest in biomimicry reflects the same mentality, while sustainism equally invites new combinations between "eco" and "hi-tech."
None of these ideas may be new to designers or architects. Many of you reading this post are probably sustainist at heart, if not in practice.
What’s interesting is that we're witnessing similar shifts across many domains of society — in the way we address innovation and knowledge, our business models, urban planning, production methods (think of cradle-to-cradle), community building, food and much more. All of these shifts seem to point in the same direction. In this manner, sustainism can provide a unifying framework to find answers to the pressing issues of our time.
Sustainable life styles, the growing interest in the local, global communication, social media: all are concerned with culture. But this is not a countercultural movement, as in the 1960s and ’70s. The imperative toward sustainism reflects a widespread global and local effort that we foresee will become mainstream. Even today, the "sustainability movement," which we view as part of the culture of sustainism, already involves more than 100 million people worldwide (or so estimates Paul Hawken, who has called it "the largest movement in the world").
The new culture we describe under the banner of sustainism poses a great challenge for designers, architects and planners as well as engineers, teachers and artists to shape our lives and living environments in this new era. What is called for is a new wave of innovation that takes sustainist criteria as its starting point — inclusive, socially available, ecologically responsible and locally oriented (but not provincial).
Designers, and all of us, are beginning to think more and more in terms of connections and inventive solutions that acknowledge the interdependent nature of our world. With our "manifesto" we have given a name to that way of thinking. Now we have to discuss how to make it happen. As Alice Rawsthorn, design critic of the International Herald Tribune, has said, "The critical issue for any designer committed to the principles identified in ‘Sustainism’ is how to put them into practice." That's a call to action to all of us.
Michiel Schwarz is a cultural thinker, innovator and consultant, based in Berkeley, California and Amsterdam, Netherlands. His publications include The Technological Culture and Speed: Visions of an Accelerated Age.
Joost Elffers is a New York–based designer, "symbol maker" and creative producer of award-winning and innovative books such as 48 Laws of Power, Play With Your Food and Tangram: The Ancient Chinese Shapes Game.
The authors of can be contacted at [email protected].