Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

Stern, Monbiot, and the Tasks of Design [November 2006]

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.

The U.S. food system consumes ten times more energy than it produces in food energy. Global food systems are becoming unsustainable in terms of environmental impact, health, and social quality. But what to do? Doors of Perception 9 in New Delhi brings together artists, urbanists, agronomists, growers and squatters to exchange experiences on what works among food information systems, community supported agriculture, urban farming, street food, slow food, new forms of community cooking, and agritourism.The theme is "Juice: Food, Fuel, Design". Saturday 3 March at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Registration opens on 1 December.

Long-haul flights produce 110 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre. According to George Monbiot's new book, Heat, a single passenger flying to New York and back produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Each of us flying to Doors in India will therefore produce the best part of two tonnes of CO2 emissions. Each. Monbiot says that a 90 per cent cut is needed, by 2030, if the biosphere is to remain habitable for you and me, and that a 90 per cent cut in emissions requires most of the planes which are flying today be grounded. He's probably right. Our excuse for Doors 9 is that it is too late to cancel the event - but it's a limp excuse. Doors' core business - bringing people together from different parts of the world - is going to have to change, and radically.

Is this month a turning point? The Stern review of climate change economics - by a former World Bank chief economist - surely marks a step change in government responses to the crisis. It's not just that Stern's conclusions correspond broadly to what environmentalists have been saying for fifteen years. The fact that the report was commissioned by The Treasury, which guards the nation's money, is also key. Money is at stake, so Something Must Be Done - not just talked about. George Monbiot, responding to Stern, has proposed a "ten point plan for drastic but affordable action" . I have added some of the design tasks that would be involved during implementation of such a plan here:

We've had requests for guidance from design schools about the competition to design a stuff-o-meter. (Designs of the time - Dott07 - has teamed up with Design and Art Direction (D&AD) in a challenge to communication design students to come up with a stuff-o-meter that would lift the veil on the hidden history of the everyday products we take for granted). Some pointers are here:

Speaking of stuff-guzzling products: new generation televisions use far more power than the ones they replace. The monster tv sets being marketed by the likes of Sony and Philips consume five times as much power as the models they replace. And that's not counting the energy embodied in their manufacture. If we admit that organising international conferences is not sustainable, and we do, will Philips or Sony do the same for these SUVs of television sets?

A Core77 meeting in Boston could be one place to discuss these issues. "As products and systems become smarter and more technologically imbued, the mandate of the designer is thrown into question. If we can make anything, what should we make? And if all of our activities have consequences - environmental, economic and social - what are the opportunities for moving positively into the future?" A lurid movie-like poster features some terrific speakers: John Maeda, Natalie Jeremijenko, Bill Cockayne, Jason Pearson, Allan Chochinov. November 15, Boston.

An essential new book - Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century - contains 600 pages of tools, models and ideas for building a better future. Bill McGibben says that the book "is The Whole Earth Catalog for the iPod generation". There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plywood made from bamboo. There are also how-to guides teaching us how to etch our own circuit board, or organize a smart mob.

Many people have already moved from talk to action. Paul Hawken reckons that over one million organizations, populated by over 100 million people, are engaged in positive activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues. "Collectively this constitutes the single biggest movement on earth, but but it flies under the radar" he writes. Paul's new project, a book and tv project called Blessed Unrest , will reveal the depth and diversity of this worldwide 'movement of movements'. Its very size and complexity is a challenge. In just one Dott 07 project, for example - Low Carb Lane - we've had to engage with more than fifteen different organizations. And for them, of course, Dott is number sixteen in a crowded field. Read more at:

There's a lot else going on under the radar besides a million organizations busy on climate change. A conference in Beijing heard evidence from three continents that social innovation is also all around us - also invisibly so. There is vast opportunity for us to amplify, improve and accelerate a transition to new ways of living which is already under way. Read more at:

Is effective response to climate change a pre-condition of national competitiveness? I'll ask that question at next month's national (in the UK) debate on "how business can use creativity to drive innovation and secure competitive advantage". Keynote speakers are Trade & Industry Secretary Alistair Darling; Lord Sainsbury, Parliamentary Under Secretary, Science and Innovation, Department of Trade and Industry; Sir George Cox, Chairman, Design Council; David Godber, Director, Nissan Design Europe; Professor David Begg, Principal, Tanaka Business School, Imperial College. And me. London, 7 December.

"Getting sufficient awareness into robots, and building robots that are capable of working and interacting with people in their everyday lives, is an important field for the society and economy". Says who? Says the European Commission, that's who. This year's annual Information Society (IST) shindig is full of un-reconstructed tech-pushers; but it's also a good event to find out where all those billions of euros are being spent. IST Event 2006, Helsinki 21-23 November.

The IST portfolio contains several ethically iffy projects. One, called Humabio, combines novel biometrics with state-of-the-art techniques to develop "less intrusive security systems". Humabio will "aid the monitoring and assessment of the psychological state of ...people under extreme stress or people under other special conditions... by implementing an intelligent, multisensorial wearable system that will be able to ubiquitously monitor and classify the personal psychological condition of users using signals obtained from their faces". Another project, Aubade, seeks to obtain " new algorithms and methods for emotion understanding" based on the measurement of brain electrical activity and "other body parameters".

Our friends who run the project called "La Voute Nubienne" (Nubian Vault) won $5,000 in an Ashoka Changemakers Competition on "How to Provide Affordable Housing.". If you voted, thanks! It really made a difference. If you didn't, they still need $300,000 to scale up their brilliant work.〈=fr

Our friends at Pixelache are looking for projects, concepts and prototypes to be presented in Finland, France and Colombia. Among special programs are a Nordic VJ Meeting (Pikseliahky / Helsinki); Architecture for Participation seminar (Pikseliahky / Helsinki); Democracy: Do It Yourself (Mal au Pixel /Paris); Pixelazo + Selvatorium (Medellin & Leticia, Colombia). Three themes run through all events: VJ culture and audiovisual performances; experimental sound, interaction and electronics; grassroot networks and the politics of media technology. The deadline for proposals is 30 November.

Need to build up your strength for the eco-work to come? Or to walk to Delhi for Doors 9? Check out Amsterdam's micro-green restaurant, 'Grow Yer Own Dang Food'. Created by Debra Solomon, the restaurant is situated in Mediamatic's 'Night Garden', an exhibition linking next nature, new technology, and contemporary art. Visitors can enjoy 31 sorts of sprouted vegetable accompanied by that most quintessential of Dutch foods, potato mash (stamppot). Night Garden will be open for two months in Amsterdam.

Speaking of sprouts: We calculate that 5.3 people read each copy of this newsletter, but that 1,512 do not - mainly because they never heard of it before. So pass it on! Tell your friends to subscribe. It's free.

Jobs | September 30