John Thackara | Essays

Utopias by Design? [March 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.

This international seminar on design, welfare and local development takes place in Milan on 23 March. The event concludes the two year Emude project (in which Doors is a partner) that explored social innovation in 10 European countries. The research suggests possible links between the creative communities phenomenon and new ideas on welfare - active welfare. The seminar will present the main findings of the research plus a discussion of enabling platforms for active welfare, and their implications for European R&D policies. An online book about the 56 cases at the centre of Emude will be published in April. Milan, 23 March, 09.30-13.00h. Politecnico di Milano, Campus Bovisa, Via Durando 10, Aula CT46. Carla Cipolla

The paperback edition of "In The Bubble: Designing In A Complex World" is published next week. As an artefact, it uses fewer resources than the hardback - so this is the environmentally correct version to buy. Some fine people found the hardback "enriching" (Paola Antonelli) "excellent" (Nancy Levinson) "brilliant" (Paul Hawken) "a revelation" (J C Herz) "important" (Don Norman) "captivating" (Bruce Sterling) "insightful" (Nathan Shedroff) "surprising" (San Francisco Chronicle) "visionary" (Paul Makovsky) "alive" (Jamer Hunt) and "one of my best of the year" (Howard Rheingold). Read extracts and other reviews at:
Buy copies for yourself, friends, family, clients and total strangers at:

If Emude is too bottom-up for your taste, check out this event. CustomerMade explores the "phenomenon of user-driven innovation that goes beyond do-it-your-selfing, customization, and personalization. It's no longer a matter of choosing between models - consumers are designing the very models they choose". The speakers include Teo Härén who is "Sweden's most popular lecturer on creativity". You have been warned. The conference combines a topical subject with the opportunity to visit the new, beautifully designed IT-University by the famous Danish architect Henning Larsen. Copenhagen, 20 April.

The growth in carsharing is accelerating: Up to 600 cities now have carsharing schemes. But because most of these schemes have emerged bottom-up, few cities have thought strategically about their city's relationship with this new resource-efficient mode of transportation. They help in a piecemeal way with parking, or sometimes subsidy; sometimes they help link carsharing to other transport systems. But it's not systematic, and it's not integrated. This is where the forthcoming Monaco Cities Carsharing Implementation Workshops come in. Organised by New Mobility, they will connect officials from cities and public agencies with the best car sharing schemes in Europe. Your help is requested in identifying the people in your country who might wish to attend. In France, for example, a group called GART brings together all the city officials responsible for transport matters across the country. There is also a national mayors association. Are there similar networks where you live? Please find out, and let them know about the event. 31 March to 2 April, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco.

We tend to blame venal housebuilders, but suburbia has deep cultural roots. These are brilliantly explained by the author of Bolo Bolo, P.M., in a recent posting. First of all, writes P.M., the suburban plot offers a piece of individually owned land, a garden, or old Persian "pariwaiza" (hence: Greek "paradisos"). "The suburban lot is the shrunken version of what free farmland in the west used to be and it takes all its architectural and ideological connotations from that period of colonial expansion: the white man's home at the frontier. I's not communal land, with all its hassles of sharing, dividing and the necessary communication. It's land with no strings attached, free land for free owners. Wherever the idea of the "free man" versus clans, communities, nations or society as a whole takes root, the immediate desire for individual enclosures, be they as small and dysfunctional as suburban lawns, arises". Read the whole piece at:

Whatever its origins, sprawl is a Bad Thing. Isn't it? After all, eminent urbanists such as Jane Jacobs predict an imminent "Dark Age Ahead", in which urban sprawl "murders communities and wastes land, time, and energy". Sprawl is frequently blamed for environmentally-damaging transport intensity, the collapse of communities, even obesity. But Wayne A. Lemmon, a planner and real estate economist, argues that sprawl, or more precisely, low density suburban development, might not be such a bad thing after all. "A dispersed development pattern can spread out trip origins and destinations reducing the frequency of traffic jams. Dispersion can avoid hot spots and spikes which can violate federal air quality standards. Concentration of development may be causing more environmental problems than a marginal increase in transit usage can solve".

Car-free mobility sounds necessary but tiring. But news reaches me of a sublime event called The Walking Project. It's an exploration, on foot, of "desire lines" - the paths made by people who walk across fields in South Africa, and across vacant lots in Detroit. Collaboratively developed with US and South Africa-based artists in Detroit and KwaZulu-Natal, participants created poems, stories and renditions of walking songs. The project "examines how changing patterns of movement can alter attitudes and perceptions; how people make their own paths; and the influences of culture, geography, language, economics and love".

To a car company, replacing the chrome wing mirror on an SUV with a carbon fibre one is a step towards sustainable transportation. To a radical ecologist, all motorised movement is unsustainable. So when is transportation sustainable, and when is it not? Chris Bradshaw emphasizes that "light" transport systems are not, per se, sustainable - only less unsustainable than commuting by car. "Light rail supports far-flung suburbs; street cars support, well, street-car suburbs" says Bradshaw. He goes on, " a smaller, more efficient, or alternative-fuel vehicle is only less unsustainable than another private vehicle. It will still take up space on the road and in parking lots, it will still threaten the life and limb of others, it will still create noise, and it still will require lots of energy and resources to manufacture, transport to a dealer, and dispose of when its life ends". Bradshaw wants planners and designers to respect what he calls the scalar hierarchy. This is when trips taken most frequently are short enough to be made by walking (even if pulling a small cart), while the next more frequent trips require a bike or street car, and so on. "If one adheres to this then there are so few trips to be made by car that owning one is foolish". Eric Britton, another expert on the subject, had the good idea of posting a text on wikipedia which will evolve as a shared description, if not definition, of what sustainable transport means.

Andrew Curry led a team that has explored scenarios concerning intelligent infrastructure systems. Andrew describes as a "Doors palimpsest" the Tribal Trading scenario. "This is effectively a version of 'overshoot and collapse'; we had much discussion of how the technology deitritus of the present day would be re-used".

Pixelache is emerging as the one of the best new media art events, certainly in Europe. This year's programme in Helsinki includes MiniMovies, 'a collection of mini-lives in an urban and political context', and a Dot Org Tournament in which local teams compete to design an innovative community concept within a 24-hour timeframe. Also featured is the open product code initiative ThingLinks (Jyri Engeström & Ulla-Maaria Mutanen) and a presentation of Orgsmobile - a project to build an 'open source vehicle'. 30 March - 2 April, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki.

A new book explores mapping that connects people and places, data and organizations, physical and virtual spaces. Edited by Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, and designed by Deborah Littlejohn, its 320 pages feature 40 essays, nearly 300 images, and several specially commissioned projects at the forefront of locative media art and technology. It's published by the Design Institute, and distributed by the University of Minnesota Press.

In June, design-minded innovators from around the world will gather in Aspen, Colorado to "make positive, measurable impacts on the social and cultural concerns of today". (I'm moderating the event). The Aspen Design Summit, a partnership of IDCA and AIGA, is a multi-disciplinary retreat where design thinking and the design process will be used to "craft solutions and commit participants to actions that improve the quality of life".

Jobs | July 19