Cities as Lifeworlds

Ahead of a talk in Milan at the Politecnico di Milano, I was interviewed about relational ecology and design

Q: Sometimes “sustainable” ways of living are often more expensive. They are more elite, how can we make them more accessible?

A: Good question. Food is an obvious example, but many ‘green’ products and services seem to be more expensive than other products with similar performance. The near future means:
a) focus on local and direct relationships between producers and users; and
b) eliminate most marketing, branding and packaging. They add cost to the transaction but don’t add value to the product itself!

Q: How can we make local initiatives global?

A: Why would we want (or need) to do that? The solutions that work best are local, context- specific, and ‘owned’ by the people involved. Of course, yes, we should share knowledge about novel approaches – but scale is not a requirement of sustainability.

Q: Covid is changing our relationship to cities and urban life, and at least in some regions pushing toward more localism and a distributed usage of space. How can design contribute to this change, and is there any opportunity for a more balanced relationship with the nature and the ecosystem?

A: I have no answer. It is too soon. Many many millions of people this year have experienced life without the costs and discomfort of commuting. At the same time, they have had the opportunity to connect with nature nearby – even if it is a ‘weed’ on their balcony.

Q: Has this “relational” approach has been included in National or local policies? If not, why?

A: In High Nature Value Farming, the importance of ecological connections and corridors is well established in policy. And in place-based and territorial innovation (for example ‘smart villages’) more and more attention is being paid to ‘cross visits’ and learning journeys in which people learn from the place and learn from each other (rather than learn online, or in a university!). Of course, Covid will disrupt these tendencies.

Q: How a local dimension is impacting sustainability and thus how Design can help it?

A: The arguments and reasons for localisation have been well-discussed for many years. Covid has been a catalyst to make many of these abstract discussions real. The “15 Minute City” concept being implemented in Paris is a good example.

Q: How can we extend the relational culture so to promote the relationship with the place and materials worldwide ?

A: We need to make two questions universal:
– where did the materials in this product come from?
– did the production of these materials leave their place healthier, or not? Thus approach is beginning to spread in fashion and textiles, for example.

Q: To what extent can we, must we, insert ourselves, put our hand into nature, given the fact that we are the living beings with the most power to create, modify and destroy? (are humans nature too?)

A: Yes we are part of nature – which is one reason I don’t agree with the strategy to ‘protect’ nature in sealed-off areas. Nature needs people. People need livelihoods. Our job as (….) is to create “good work” for people.

Q: How COVID will change the way we will take care about people?
A: Platforms to make person-to- person care easier should be a priority.
Q: What is the most valuable contribution Design can provide in facing the COVID challenge?

A: Design needs to ask these questions first: “has anyone found a different way to meet this daily life need (for food, shelter, care, mobility etc)? In the past? In another culture?” Let’s find out what alternatives already exist, first, and then explore how to adapt and improve on those.

Q: Are education and culture sufficient enough to shift people behaviour?

A: Some people think education and culture are the main obstacles to people changing their behaviour!

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john chris jones and ‘designing designing’

Its publisher, Bloomsbury, describes designing designing as “one of the most extraordinary books on design ever written”. It’s therefore welcome news that – after a period out of print – this classic book has now been reissued. (That’s my copy in the photograph above; it just arrived). The following text is included as an afterword. It was written by me to celebrate jones’s The Internet and Everyone in 2000, and was then republished on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

I’ve been rereading The Internet and Everyone by john chris jones.

I’ve been astonished once again by the sensibility of an artist-writer- designer whose philosophy – indeed his whole life – first inspired me when I was a young magazine editor more than thirty years ago.

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The relationship of my texts to a dead fish

The following is a conversation with John Wood, professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, and joint editor (with Julia Lockheart) of the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice. Please cite: Thackara, John (2021), ‘The relationship of texts to dead fish’, Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, 14:1, pp. 5–11, doi: doi.org

Keywords: relational ecology; theory of change; stories; embodied experience; biodiversity; ecosystem; civic ecology; bioregion; design; social fermentation


Abstract John Thackara’s theory of change is borrowed from Ilya Prigogene: ‘when a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system’. As a writer, he explains, his work therefore involves a search for small islands of coherence – that he can later describe – in which social and ecological relationships thrive together. His aim as a curator is similar: he strives to enable embodied encounters with situations (or ‘islands’) in which we feel ourselves to be part of nature, rather than separate from it. This work is therefore not symbolic, like ‘systems thinking’. It is more field work than head work. ‘I want people to experience relational ecologies, not just think about them’, Thackara states. He cites the artist Eva Bakkeslett as describing this process – the cultivation of ecological and social connectivity – as social fermentation.

John Wood (JW): It’s kind of you to spare us some time.You are probably best known in creative circles as a notable editor of Design Magazine and for your informative and highly readable design publications, books like In the Bubble (2006), How to Thrive in the Next Economy (2015) and, of course, your trailblazing ‘Doors of Perception’ conferences. I note that, before dedicating yourself to supporting the design cause, you studied philosophy and journalism. I should explain why I mention this. Although the Journal’s name includes the word ‘writing’, some of us still feel strangely nervous about having to ‘do’ reading or writing. Arguably, quite a lot of artists, designers or craftspeople feel more comfortable hanging around the studio or workshop than they do in the library. So, although the Journal sometimes touches on the use of writing for creative discovery, or as a way to develop theory, I guess it is best at promoting writing that helps artists, craftspeople or designers to clarify their purpose, or to become better practitioners.

John Thackara (JT): Good! I’m not good at talking about abstruse design theory – even though I did study philosophy before starting my first job. In that first job, which was with an architecture publisher, my task was to seek out developments at the edge of the design world and get people to write books about them. Later, when I evolved from being a commissioning editor to being a design critic, and when I was editor of Design, I still didn’t see it as my job to tell designers what to do. Rather, I tried to introduce new conversations that might enrich the practices with which they were engaged. But others saw my work differently. In the early 1980s, one of the founders of Pentagram (the celebrated graphic design company) accused me of stealing the word designer. In retrospect, I’m not unsympathetic to his complaint. These days, the word design has expanded almost to infinity.

JW: That’s a clear explanation of how you navigated what we tend to see as the gaps between practices of writing and design. Did any philosophies, or philosophers, have a strong influence on what you did?

JT: Well, a training in philosophy encourages you to ask why things are as they are, and that habit has persisted. But I don’t want to exaggerate the amount of philosophy I use in my work. The other day I found one of my old university textbooks in a box. Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind. Every second or third line has a heavy notation, made by me as a student. Today, I can barely understand any of it. In my case, philosophy is more of an attitude than a method. I probably owe an apology to professional philosophers, as well as to professional designers – but I just can’t stop asking ‘why?’

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Sensory Orders

Image: Ania Zoltkowski

For an exhibition called Sensory Orders at Laznia Centre for Contemporary Arts, in Gdansk, 32 artists, designers and writers were asked: “What sensory conditions are you are working with under present conditions? What sensory orders do you see emerging in the social-political environment around us?”

My theory of change is borrowed from Ilya Prigogene: “When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system”. As a writer, my work therefore involves a search for small islands of coherence – that I can later describe – in which social and ecological relationships thrive together. My aim as a curator is similar: I strive to enable embodied encounters with situations (or ‘islands’) in which we feel ourselves to be part of nature, rather than separate from it. This work is therefore not symbolic, like ‘systems thinking’. It’s more field work, than head work. I want people to experience relational ecologies, not just think about them. The artist Eva Bakkeslett describes this process – the cultivation of ecological and social connectivity – as social fermentation.

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Bottom-up Biodiversity

Whether connecting schools to farms in France, daylighting rivers in Mexico, or rewilding grasslands in Patagonia, we’re learning how to ‘do’ biodiversity well. Fifteen minute read.

Illustration © BAFU | Pierre Dubois, collectif Marie-Louise
This text was commissioned by the Swiss Ministry of the Environment, FOEN. It is also available online in these other languages:
German Biodiversität nach dem Bottom-up-Prinzip
Italian Biodiversità dal basso verso l’alt
French Biodiversité : une politique de terrain https://umwelt-schweiz.ch/fr/innovations/john-thackara
Chinese wuidub

“The world has failed to arrest the steep decline of nature. The world must act fast to avert catastrophe”.

These recent headlines have been dispiriting – but they are also misleading.

High Level Meetings and international summits may indeed be an imperfect model of change – but at ground level, a million positive projects tell a different story.

Whether connecting schools to farms in France, daylighting rivers in Mexico, or rewilding grasslands in Patagonia, we’re learning how to ‘do’ biodiversity well.

Ecological Restoration Camps are a notable example. More than 26,000

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Interview with BBC Mundo

Coronavirus | “Una de las locuras que se ha apoderado de Norteamérica y Europa es el pánico que les entra cuando las cosas van mal”: entrevista con el filósofo John Thackara William Marquez BBC News Mundo 16 junio 2020

John Thackara es un filósofo y autor británico que se ha embarcado en varias profesiones y actividades, desde periodista, editor, diseñador, conferencista, asesor, profesor y hasta productor de eventos. Pero se distingue más como agente provocador de ideas alternativas para un nuevo modo de vida.

Durante más de 30 años ha viajado por el mundo recopilando ejemplos de las medidas prácticas que diferentes sociedades a nivel local y comunitario han tomado para realizar un futuro sostenible.

Muchas de estas ideas son el tema central de sus libros -ha escrito más de 10- de sus conferencias y seminarios, en los que insta a gobiernos a incorporar como parte de los cambios sociales que se avecinan, particularmente en el marco de la crisis del coronavirus.

Thackara habló con BBC Mundo de una “nueva economía” para el mundo, que proviene de propuestas puestas en práctica en el regiones menos desarrolladas -contraria a la economía global de eterno crecimiento- y de sus teorías que se enfocan en los aspectos sociales, ecológicos y relacionales de la comunidad humana.

Esta entrevista ha sido editada por razones de claridad y concisión.

Usted habla de un cambio de estructuras, actitudes y comportamiento de la sociedad humana. ¿Qué tan urgente es ese cambio?

No estoy implicando que haya una necesidad de cambio ahora fundamentalmente diferente a otros períodos de la historia. Creo que

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A “Marshall Plan for tourism” – but with what aim? (20 minute talk)

EU Commissioner @ThierryBreton promises a “Marshall Plan for tourism” – but with what aim? In this talk, I propose a new storyin which the design of new urban-rural relationships creates value by leaving places healthier. Video: https://youtube.com/watch?v=bwKtab

The concept of sustainable tourism was invented 45 years ago – but it was added to global mass tourism, it did not replace it. Since then, although sustainable tourism brands have proliferated, mass tourism has continued to devastate its ‘destinations’ with growing intensity.

Until Covid.

It’s tempting, post-Covid, to welcome the grounding of the world’s climate-destroying aircraft. But in Europe alone, the fate of 27 million jobs, & three million small firms, are also on the line. Our story, going forward, must include them.

EU Commissioner @ThierryBreton promises a “Marshall Plan for tourism” – but with what aim? 

The old tourism story was about perpetual growth combined with feeble attempts at damage limitation. In this talk, I propose a new story in which the design of new urban-rural relationships creates value by leaving places healthier. 

Good work, in this new economy, ranges from ecological restoration, farmer-city connections, and open food networks  – to learning journeys, biohacking, and village revitalisation. 

The talk concludes with a policy proposal: the focus of any Europe-wide ‘Marshall Plan’ needs to be on social infrastructure – the coordination and connecting work needed to create these new urban-rural livelihoods.

(My talk was part of the symposium Re-Thinking Tourism for a Planet in Crisis organised by Jakob Travnik @tuvienna and @AASchool
http://www.gbl.tuwien.ac.at/rethinkingtourismforaplanetincrisis/

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Urban-Rural: The New Geographies of Innovation

This is the text of my plenary talk at the Innovation and Emerging Industry Development (IEID) conference in Shanghai on 18 September 2019. I describe three enabling conditions for system change: a capacity for ecological thinking; a focus on social infrastructure (rather than the concrete kind); and a shift of focus from place making, to place connecting.

A cultural disconnection between the man-made world and the biosphere lies behind the grave challenges we face today. We either don’t think about rivers, soils, and biodiversity at all – or we treat them as resources whose only purpose is to feed the economy.

This ‘metabolic rift’ – between the living world, and the economic one – leaves us starved of meaning and purpose. We have to heal this damaging gap.

My talk today is therefore about the design of connections between places, communities, and nature. Drawing on a lifetime of travel in search of real-world alternatives that work, I describe the practical ways in which living economies thrive in myriad local contexts.

When connected together, I argue, these projects tell a new ‘leave things better’ story of value, and therefore of growth.

Growth, in this new story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient.

The signals of transformation I talk about are not concepts, and they are not the fruits of a vivid imagination. They are happening now.

But in conversations about innovation, I am often asked the same question: Are small local initiatives an adequate response to the global challenges we all face?

The sheer number and variety of initiatives now emerging is my first answer to that question.

No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty new oak tree. But healthy forests are extremely diverse, and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world.

My second answer

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Articles in Resilience

Here is a collection of texts by John Thackara selected by Resilience magazine.

How To Thrive In the Next Economy: Preface to the Chinese edition
This book is not about pre-cooked solutions. It’s about building on what has already been done, in our various social and cultural histories, and on what’s being done, right now, in diverse contexts around the world. (May 2019)

Re-wilding the Bauhaus: What its Foundation Course Should be like Today
No textbook for the new foundation course exists – which is probably just as well. The course is better thought of as a journey, than as a body of knowledge. (April 2019)

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