John Thackara | Interviews

John Thackara Answers Your Questions

John Thackara answers questions from the readers of DESIGN 21.

What's your favorite innovation regarding sustainability in the developed world? I'm also interested to see what new changes you know of that are happening in local communities to reduce waste and encourage recycling and reuse, and also to increase social interaction in neighborhoods.

John Thackara:
I share Sharon Astyk's judgment that the Transition Towns movement is "the only game in town. Or one of them. Transition initiatives are multiplying at extraordinary speed: more than 200 communities have been officially designated Transition Towns (or cities, districts, villages — and even a forest); and a further 600 communities are "mulling it over" as they consider the possibility of kicking off their own Transition Initiative. The transition model (I'm quoting their site) “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye". But they don't just look: Transition groups develop practical to-do lists in response to the question: "for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how are we going to rebuild resilience in reaction to peak oil, and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?” The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a geographical area, and because it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities (the open space method) that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view.

D21: A large population is capable of buying domestic appliances. We are seeing a lot of changes in the present consumer/domestic electronic appliances with the introduction of high bandwidth connectivity, services and global production, what do you think is the future of the design of such appliances and as interaction designers what are the new skills that we need to learn?

JT: Thinking about appliances on their own is, for me, too narrow a way to approach the question. Becoming resilient, at a systems level, is not about smart machines. The larger story is about finding ways to be radically more resource efficient in achieving daily life needs, such as clean clothes or safely stored food. The most sustainable solutions are nearly always people and service-intensive, not machine intensive. In Indian cities, for example, you find a laundry person next to almost every apartment block. There is a design challenge to make it easier to share equipment, but that's a subset of the wider story.

: What insights do you have in your teachings and talks that can help designers maintain an integral perspective?

JT: This is the key question, and the hardest. For every daily life support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter, journeying — any alternative has to be system-wide, and involve a variety of different stakeholders who will not, as a rule, have worked together before. The Transition Town model works because it is based on a geographical area: actors and stakeholders may have different interests and capabilities, but they are united in being dependent on, and committed to the restoration, of the context in which they live. There are also multi-party projects around technical solutions; Project Get Ready, from the Rocky Mountain Institute, is a good example of a project explicitly designed to make different groups participate — city managers, utilities, car makers, citizen groups and so on. I disagree strongly with its premise that electric cars will be a solution to the mobility problem — but the form of this project is extremely innovative. I am most inspired of all by exemplary projects in developing cities that use a "Multi Actor Ecosystem Participation Approach (MEPA)"; in these, urban agriculture UA is thought of as an ecosystem, with different actors and physical milieus involved in complex and multiple interactions. 

D21: What are three countries, communities, or peoples that you might nominate if a Global Hotbed of Creativity contest were held today?

JT: My first reaction would be to be prissy and boring and refuse to nominate a single location. In my experience, creativity is pervasive. Wherever people are compelled to seek solutions in difficult situations, they get creative or they don't survive. My non-prissy answer would be: China and India. 

D21: Young designers hear lots of different pieces of advice as they progress through their education. What's a rule, motto, or tip that you hope is never again given to a developing designer?

JT: If I could wave a magic wand, no young designer would ever begin a presentation with the words, "I'm interested in...." I wrote a text that includes some presentation tips for designers. 

D21: What is ethics in design? Is there anything like ethical design?

JT: This is another important and hard question. It's very hard to propose ethical frameworks to people without sounding and perhaps being, moralizing and sanctimonious. On the other hand, without a clear and unambiguous framework, we all tend to take half-measures. The last year or so I've been learning about the idea of a "land ethic" that would guide all our actions, not just design actions and demand from us all an unconditional respect for life and for the conditions that support life. For anyone interested, I recently gave a lecture in Helsinki about ethics and design.

D21: At the Lift 2009 conference, you said: "What we have to do is go and find people innovating, changing and re-organising aspects of daily life that are already there." I would be really curious to know if you had any recent examples of how you see people re-mapping and changing things locally in the way you describe? What are the difficulties in encouraging people to initiate change in their local communities?

JT: If you feel a need to encourage people to change, you are not looking hard enough for the right people. People and groups are already busy, and need no encouragement. Many are way ahead of most of us designers in understanding where things are headed and what needs to be done to prepare. Don't take my word for it: type the name of your city or region into WiserEarth. As I said above, groups like Transition Towns are sources of immense positive energy. They are embarking on all kinds of practical projects that could, in various ways, be helped by designers. 

This interview was originally published on DESIGN 21, September 23, 2009. 

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