John Thackara | Essays

Work Faster, India!


“Work faster, get time for life.” I just got back from a short trip to India where this insane slogan adorned a poster at a bus stop.

It pretty much sums up a febrile mood in Delhi where it was announced during my stay that India's economy will grow by nine percent next year. (I say “announced” because the government spokesman said they were powerless to reduce the economy's rate of growth.) 

Among the consequences of this great success: a sulphur dioxide-spewing coal-fired power station (one of twenty being built in Gujarat alone) is being built ten kilometers upwind from the idyllic farm of my host in Vidodara. He's a senior industrialist — and even he can't stop it.

In 2007, India's coal-fired power plants consumed 6.6 quadrillion Btu of coal — and the country plans to double its energy generation capacity by 2035. That is a lot of SO2.

On the positive side, although India is herself a major coal producer, the country also needs to purchase tens of millions of tons of coal from Australia, Indonesia, South Africa and the US to meet its near-future needs. So perhaps peak coal will ensure that the Gujarat plant never gets lit.

Why is all this energy needed? A lot of blame is heaped on India's emerging middle class consumers; for many of these 270+ million people, an air conditioner in every room is becoming the norm. But a fair bit of power was also needed by the DJs and VJs at Salon der Alchemisten — the final event of the UnBox festival I was attending.

In a beautiful piece of symmetry, the evening featured Talvin Singh (Jaan). In 2000, Kristi van Riet used Talvin's music throughout Doors 6 on Lightness in Amsterdam. Talvin's music transformed our event then — and probably helped persuade us to move Doors events to India. 

Listen to the song with Spotify


“Life’s Work: Opportunities in the Restorative Economy”

I often think of the post-it notes generated at a brainstorm as being like butterflies: beautiful, in their own way — but doomed to a short life.

Ideas are not hard. It's selecting the best ones, and implementing them, that's hard.

What kind of filter might we use to make sense of the swarm of ways being proposed to fix the environmental and social challenges we face?

First I propose an ethical framework for design in which life is the ultimate source of value. This ethical framework leads us unavoidably to re-conceive mainstream notions of “development” and — within that framework — the kinds of value that design can create;

Second, I propose that we evaluate proposed design interventions through a process which measures the true costs of the thermo-industrial, doomsday machine economy we have now.

I conclude, thirdly, with the proposition that India has the opportunity to take the lead here — precisely because its design infrastructure is less ‘developed’ than the mature but wrongly developed one we have in the North.

In 1949, the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold proposed what he called a “land ethic” that would guide “man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.”

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote Leopold. “It is wrong, when it tends otherwise.”

(“Biotic community” here is another name for what we now call the biosphere.)

A growing worldwide movement is looking at the world through this fresh lens. Sensible to the value of natural and social ecologies, they are searching for ways to preserve, steward and restore assets that already exist — so-called net present assets — rather than thinking, first, about extracting raw materials to make new consumables from scratch.

It would be no small thing for designers to decide to take a stand — explicitly — for an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life.

Such a commitment would be stronger than the hippocratic oath sworn by doctors. Young doctors promise to “prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment — and never do harm to anyone.”

Unambiguous respect for human life here — but no mention of the rest of life!

An unconditional respect for life would also be clearer than the proposed scientific oath that's been circulating since the late-1990s.

In this text, scientists would commit to “minimise and justify any adverse effect our work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.”  

The natural environment is mentioned, which is a step forward. But the proposed commitment here is to *minimise* adverse effects — not stop them altogether.

In terms of values, of a changed belief system, these, I believe passionately, are steps along the way.

But only steps.

You may argue that this is to state the obvious: That of course you respect life, and the conditions that support life.

But I stress the word unconditional. If a commitment is unconditional, it does not mean “take account of,” or “pay due respect to,” or “move steadily toward.”

It does not mean “minimize adverse effects on nature.” It means a target of no adverse effects.

“A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less — even though they are still polluting?”

The biomimicry entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, who I’m quoting here, is scornful of the “do less bad” school of environmentalism — and, by implication, “do-less-bad” design.

Rather than “do less bad” — or greenwashing design — Pauli demands that we commit to Net Positive Impact — that’s to say, “economic activity where the demands placed upon the environment are met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations.”

Otherwise stated: Leave the world better than we found it.

It is no small thing to acknowledge the biosphere as a systemic whole — and to act on the basis that human beings are a co-dependent part of this whole.

A celebrated book by Oliver Saks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, is about a man who looks at something familiar — but perceives that something completely differently.

We all need to look at industrial society in such new ways.

I should warn you that this is not a relaxing frame of mind, once you get into it.

I first experienced this unsettling perceptual shift at Madrid’s new airport. It was hard not to admire the gorgeous roof, the soaring curves, and the vast swathes of new concrete apron. But I then I started to wonder about the amount of energy embodied in the artefacts. structures and processes that surrounded me.

Madrid's elegant concrete pillars looks benignly tree-like — until I remembered the amount of carbon dioxide emissions generated during its fabrication; a ton of CO2 is emitted for every ton of cement used.
An airport is made up of an awful lot of tonnes when you add up the concrete floors and those endless acres of concrete taxiways and runways.

At that moment the smooth vast lines of a big airbus caught my attention as it taxied in to park: how many millions of pounds of matter and energy must have been used to build it?

<< iPhone example 200g = 75kg >>

Often, when I quote these highly uncomfortable facts, designers get cross and irritable.

When I spoke at one big conference in the US, they projected tweets live onto a giant screen beside me! "What's all this got to do with interaction design?" said one, as the words came out of my mouth.


In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond explains that one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the true energy costs of their society.

Diamond focuses in his book on Easter Island, where the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants' survival prospects.

The lesson applies equally to us, today.

We are bewitched, as a culture, by a high entropy concept of quality and performance.

Our lust for speed, perfection and control blinds us to the fact that we live in a catabolically-challenged world.

Catabolic, here, is a great word use by one of my favourite writers, John Michael Greer. It describes the energy usage — the "metabolism" — of our thermo-industrial economy.

It has become so complex, and so inter-connected, that it has to burn through astronomical amounts of energy just to remain operational.

Greer explains that our economy is in danger of ‘catabolic collapse’ because it depends on perpetually growing throughputs of energy and resources — and infinitely growing throughputs are simply not going to be available.

This is why Adbusters’ True Cost campaign calls our economy a “doomsday machine”

We strive after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite.

The better the economy performs — faster growth, higher GDP — the faster we degrade the biosphere that is the basis of life and our only home.

It’s madness. And the world is waking up to the fact that it’s madness.

The reason I remain hopeful, despite the doomsday machine being out of control, is that its replacement is now emerging.

A new kind of economy — a restorative economy — is emerging in a million grassroots projects and experiments all over the world.

The better-known examples have names like Post-Carbon Cities, or Transition Towns.

But examples also include dam removers, and seed bankers, iPhone doctors and rainwater rescuers.

It is happening wherever people are growing food in cities, opening seed banks, or turning school backyards into edible gardens.

The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds. Their number includes dam removers, wetland restorers and rainwater rescuers.

Many people in this movement are recycling buildings in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums. So called “slack space” activists work alongside computer recyclers, hardware bricoleurs, office-block refurbishers and trailer-park renewers.

You’ll find the movement wherever people are launching local currencies. Non-money-trading models are cropping up like crazy: nine thousand examples at last count. In their version of a green economy, 70 million Africans exchange airtime, not cash, using the M-pesa system.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing — alternatives are being innovated.

What they have in common is that they are creating value without destroying natural and human assets.

The keyword here is social innovation — and the creation of social goods — because this movement is about groups of people innovating together, not lone inventors.

A subset of this movement, Transition Towns, is especially significant.

Transition initiatives, which only started four years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. More than 600 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Towns, or cities, districts, villages — even a forest.

The transition model — I’m quoting their website — “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye.”

The key point is that they don’t just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks.

They create a community-level to-do list, with an order of priorities.

This plan describes not only the skills and resources that a community will need to cope with the challenges coming down the track, but also how those skills and resources are to be put in place and who will do what.

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people, yes, of course, have different interests, agendas and capabilities. But they are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.

A second reason the Transition model is so powerful is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities — the “open space” method — that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view.


Designers have an important contribution to make in this fast-emerging movement.

Not much, any more, as the creators of completely new products, buildings and communications.

"New" is an old paradigm.

But designers can very usefully cast fresh and respectful eyes on a situation.

Designers — and artists, are brilliant at spotting material and cultural qualities that might not be obvious to those who live in them.
Nabeel Hamdi, the author of Small Change and a world expert on city design, celebrates the fact that this kind of design gives priority to the existing life and intelligence of place.

But it's not just about finding a warehouse to do art projects in.

A second task of restorative design is to make it easier to share all kinds of resources — not just spaces. Resources such as energy, matter, time, skill, software or food.

Resource-sharing is a service. And many of you are service designers.

You have the necessary skills to help groups of people determine:
— What kind of resource sharing service they need (you can even call it a "service architecture" if you must!)
— What kind of technology platform might be needed.
— How to make the “touch points” in your resource-sharing service enjoyable and engaging .

At the scale of the city, or the city-region, regenerative or restorative design re-imagines the man-made world as being one element among a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food, production and information.

Restorative design — at a city or regional scale — takes natural biodiversity and its starting point – with special emphasis on bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds.

In ths kind of work, new forms of representation are needed to communicate energy and nutrient cycles, or biodiversity — and to show the different ways that healthy social systems depend upon, and are intertwined with, healthy economies and ecosystems.

It's not about back-to-nature. It's about enabling these different ecologies and flows and networks help each other.

India, in this context, has a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to innovate a new kind of design at the exact moment when the old world's model is on its last legs.

What the world needs — and not just India — is a new kind of design
— Is based on the new core value of a restorative economy. 
— Engages with the next economy, not the dying one we have now.
— Focuses on service and social innovation, not on the outputs of extractive industries.
— Is unique to its place — and therefore infinitely diverse — but is also globally networked.

In some ways I am describing India now. Today. So, what's the best way for India to grasp this opportunity?

What I think's needed is a new kind of school. Not so much a finishing school — more a starting over again school.

The best way to create this kind of school would be to start planting real seeds, right now, into India's fertile ground.

Different kinds of courses and learning models could be piloted and adapted to India's multitude of different contexts.

These pilots would not require new campuses. They could use existing facilities. The main investment would be in people to co-ordinate them.

But what kinds of seeds?

India is not alone in needing to innovate new educational models. On every continent, outside its Big Tent — over there on the edge of the clearing — exotic new species of design and business education are emerging.

These new schools and courses have names like Yestermorow School, Deep Springs College, Kaos Pilots, School of Everything, Social Edge, Deep Democracy, Centre for Alternative Technology, Schumacher College, Living Routes, Gaia U, Crystal Waters, Horses Mouth, WOOF, The Art of Hosting.

Few designers, few policy makers, and few entrepreneurs, have even heard of these places.

But these ‘outliers' are where the real innovation is happening — in terms of content, form and business model.

But they are significant, for me, because they meet the requirements of these new times.

Download a PDF of the lecture.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, India, Social Good

Comments [2]

Just as Jared Diamond states, destruction of forest ecosystems has been the peril of many insular societies. This is still happening today in developing countries, still, just look at Indonesia or Madagascar. Starting with small examples of involving the local community in sustainable land use management practises would be in line with your thinking. Sensible use of renewable resources will be part of the solution to save the 'biotic community'.
The indiscriminate use of non-renewable resources is much more of a threat, though. perhaps because it is less visible from land-use point of view, the extraction of oil, coal and metals have much longer lasting effects on our planet. Even badly degraded land after slash and burn cultivation can most often be reforested. But the non-renewable raw materials, plastic, metals, stay with us for times to come. And their lives after the first round of use are sometimes appalling ending up in foodchains and even in the best cases as land, soil or airfill.
Ohto Nuottamo

We can worry about making the world a better place after basic needs of populations across the world has been met. It is fashionable for people from developed countries to talk about saving the planet from "doomsday machine economy".

But ask yourself if you are ready to live a third world life of poverty in exchange for 'saving the planet". Are you ready to drink water that may not be potable, Are you willing to forgo the use of electricity? Are you willing to forgo access to usable transport network? Are you willing to reduce your communication by stopping use of internet, phone and postal service?

Countries like India are in desperate need of power to help millions rise up from sub-standard quality of life. Coal fired plants are still the cheapest means of producing electricity reliably despite what heavily subsidized "green power" lobby would like to say.

Nobody has the right to experiment with the lives of half a billion people in the name of trying to create a "restorative economy".

Old World's model may seem to be on its last legs to people out of touch with reality. If anything, a new set of legs has been added in recent times to the old model in a huge country called China.

Atleast two generations of Indians suffered without living their lives to its full potential thanks to stupid socialistic ideologies.

Global warming and Sustainable movements are new form of half baked socialistic ideas by jobless minds. Another generation of Indians should not be made to suffer to test these hypothetical possibilities from yet to be invented "innovative" technologies that "may" at some point in the future be affordable to masses who are still struggling to put food on the table everyday

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