Ideas for the City That Cares: Ezio Manzini’s new book, Livable Proximity

Below is my review of LIVABLE PROXIMITY: Ideas for the City that Cares, by Ezio Manzini (with a contribution by Ivana Pais). This review appears in the June 2022 edition of She Ji

A city that cares brings new meaning and vitality to a world exhausted by a focus on concrete, and consumption. In these inspirational pages, the word local is brought back to life by the pre-eminent social designer of our time. Ezio Manzini reveals a design practice which enhances the social, spatial, and relational qualities of the places where we live.

The publication of Livable Proximity could not be more timely. Its arrival comes at a moment when globalisation may have peaked. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, said in March 2022 that “globalization is over”.

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Tonantsintlalli – a multidimensional Mother Earth


Can indigenous knowledges help us inhabit our own places in a more adaptive and responsive ways? Can connection with these kinds of lived experience help us redefine development, and progress in our own situations? The text below is my introduction to Tonantsintlalli – a multidimensional Mother Earth presented by Desiree Hernandez Ibinarriaga & David Marcelino Cayetano @blakdotgallery Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia

“The destruction will stop when we see nature differently, relate differently, understand our purpose here differently”.

Those words – from the Spanish priest and philosopher Raimon Pannikar – surely ring true. But how would such a transformation happen? Most of us feel trapped in world that is mesmerised by all things digital, and framed by a form of scientific knowledge based solely on rationality.

Tonantsintlalli is about a different everyday vitality – Mother Earth – experienced in different ways. These ways ways of knowing, and being, are infused with the values of care, cooperation, and connectedness. Indigenous peoples, in this world, live in harmony with their territory. Empathy with each other, and with all the species that live there, is taken for granted.

These ways of inhabiting the world are literally vital. Although indigenous lands account for less than 22 percent of the world’s land area, their traditional territories are home to approximately 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity – its life.

Also remarkable: whilst ‘systems thinking’ is a novelty for most of us in the industrialised world, sensitivity to ecological systems seems quite natural for those attuned Tonantsintlalli.

Can indigenous knowledges help us inhabit our own places in a more adaptive and responsive ways? Can connection with these kinds of lived experience help us redefine development, and progress in our own situations?

Appreciation for the value of traditional ecological knowledge is certainly growing. For one thing, the gap between the two world views has been narrowing. Since the 1980s, especially, scientific discoveries have undermined the idea that man is separate from nature.

From the study of sub-microscopic viruses, yeasts, ants, mosses, lichen, slime moulds and micorriza – to trees, rivers and climate systems – a profoundly startling picture has emerged. Our planet is a web of interdependent ecosystems. On a molecular, atomic and viral level, no organism is truly autonomous – and that includes us.

The importance of this new perspective is profound. If our minds are shaped by our physical environments – and are not just a bunch of synapses clicking away inside our box-like skulls – then the division between the thinking self, and the natural world, begins to dissolve.

Having worked hard, throughout the modern era, to lift ourselves ‘above’ nature, we are now being told by modern science that man and nature are one, after all.

This is something that indigenous peoples have known all along.

But some words of caution are needed here. Contact with Tonantsintlalli teaches us that indigeneity is a practice, not a thing. This practice is situated, place-specific, and relational. It is shaped by multiple timescales – not all of them linear ones. It exists among an ecology of actors – human, and non-human – and the places we inhabit.

Indigenous knowledges, it follows – culture, language, history, and ways of life – are diverse. They are not recipes, as if for a cake. They cannot be extracted, printed on method cards, and applied to people, or places, somewhere else.

Given those qualities, what kind of relationship with indigenous knowledge should we aspire to – especially people like this writer who are who white, male and privileged?

Our first responsibility, I believe, is to deepen our connections with our own places.

The ‘work that reconnects’, of the kind taught by Joanna Macy, develops understanding that we are part of a living world, not its external observer. The addition of ecology and systems literacy can enhance the capacity for attention, attunement, and care, that we now lack.

The work of reconnection is not incompatible with scientific enquiry. On the contrary: scientific and indignenous knowledge can complement each other and expand a shared menu of potential insights.

Whether it’s eDNA analysis used to diagnose the condition of damaged soils, or Artificial Intelligence that translates of indigenous languages, new technologies can be positively transformative, too. And in his new book Gaia Alchemy, the English scientist and ecologist Stephan Harding describes the reintegration of rationality and intuition, science and soul as a living process right now.

One way to be fair, and respectful, in our relationship with other knowledges is to change the words learning from to learning with. With a commitment to collective learning, we can combine knowledge systems of South and North, learn from a of a multiplicity of approaches, and, in Arturo Escobar’s words, “inhabit a world where many worlds fit – a pluriverse”.

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Microbes and Social Equity. Tools for Changemakers. Meetups & Offsites

March 2022 Newsletter CONTENTS
Microbes and Social Equity
Tools for Changemakers
Multi-Species Cities
Design for Planet
School for Village Hosts
Meetups/Retreats
Offsites for Teams

MICROBES AND SOCIAL EQUITY (VIDEO)
Ninety nine percent of life is invisible – so how do we design for that? To begin that conversation, I talked with Dr. Suzanne Ishaq – a microbiome researcher and founder of the Microbes and Social Equity working group.
youtube.com/watch?v=cdFaJLt89ck&t=1528s

TOOLS FOR CHANGEMAKERS (VIDEO)
Mutualaid. Local money. Collaborative care. Alternative futures are being created around the world – but not, for the most part, in plain sight. I talked with David Bollier about his new book which brings dozens of social projects like these to the fore.
youtube.com/watch?v=iiOLJgbCsO4&t=485s

YOUTUBE (OUR NEW CHANNEL)
Please consider subscribing.
youtube.com/channel/UCfUo8y36zsXyQU_LbrwI-uA

Design for Multi-Species Cities (PROJECT REPORT)
What would it mean to practice design in the knowledge that the well-being of humans, and non-humans, is inter-connected? A recent design workshop in Milan explored just this question: practical ways to make cities hospitable for all of life, not just human life. Students chose from three aspects of green infrastructure: a) Soil Care, Composting, Fermentation; b) Trees, Microparks, Edible Forest; c) Microbiome Inspired Green Infrastructure (MIGI)
lifeworlds-multi-species-cities-and-relational-design

DESIGN FOR PLANET: people, soils, animals, plants (TEXT)
In what practical ways can design engage with places as living systems? Ways that are regenerative, and not its opposite? @designcouncil asked its eight Design For Planet Fellows, of which I am one, to share “an inspiring design”. I chose a project at Luma Arles, called Regenerative Empathy, about the design of new relationships between people, soils, animals, and plants in the Camargue bioregion in southern France.
thackara.com/place-bioregion/an-inspiring-design/

SCHOOL FOR VILLAGE HOSTS
Who needs a ‘Village Host’? Well, in Italy alone, 5,500 small villages (those with 5,000 or fewer inhabitants) have been declining; in Spain, 3,500; in Serbia, 4,700 – to name just three of the countries involved in this new project. Many new activities and livelihoods are emerging – post-Covid tourism, agro-ecology, land-based learning – but such projects do not organise themselves. Read more about about this pan-European Erasmus+ project (which I’m advising) here:
thackara.com/learning-design/open-school-for-village-hosts/

BACK TO THE LAND 2.0 SUMMER COURSE, SWEDEN 
Summer masters course on sustainable food systems and biodiversity. 20 June to 28 August.
The registration deadline has passed, but you can join a waiting list.
www.backtotheland.se/

THACKARA MEETUPS / RETREATS
I’m hosting three Meetups this summer at our home in southern France. If you are a designer, architect, project curator, postgrad student, researcher, or writer – and could use some help focusing your thesis, project, or book -– this year’s dates are:

 24 May – 31 May
 14 June – 21 June
 7 July – 14 July

• We’ve prolonged the Early Bird reduction for May:
150€ off (offer ends 1 April)

You can apply by sending an email to meeting@thackara.com, describing your project and/or why you’d like to participate.
For further information look at thackara.com/meetup

Offsites for Teams
If you want to bring a small team for an independent offsite – maybe for fewer days – please get in touch. I can be available for sessions during your stay if you wish – but you determine the programme.

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Open School for Village Hosts

The Open School for Village Hosts – a pan-European Erasmus+ project – has been launched in Barcelona. Above: project partners meeting at Elisava earlier this month. (This post is a preview: the project’s website will be launched shortly).

Village Hosts bring new social, economic and ecological life to small villages and their local economy.  They create new livelihoods, and good work, in emerging urban-rural markets: positive-impact tourism, nature reconnection, adventure sports, farm-shares, learning journeys, wellness retreats, work-vacations, heritage trails, and more.

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Design for Multi-Species Cities

What would it mean to practice design in the knowledge that the well-being of humans, and non-humans, is inter-connected? A recent design workshop at Milan Polytechnic explored just this question: practical ways to make cities hospitable for all of life, not just human life.

‘Driade’, Alessia Pinna| Clarissa Cuoccio | Heitor Lobo Campos |
Mika Lessmann | Innocenzo De Risola

Students were challenged to design an artefact, an intervention, or an experience, from one of these three aspects of green infrastructure:

  • Soil Care, Composting, Fermentation
  • Trees, Microparks, Edible Forests
  • Microbiome Inspired Green Infrastructure (MIGI)
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“An inspiring design”

goats spreading seeds


For its inaugural meeting, @designcouncil asked its eight Design For Planet Fellows, of which I am one, to share “an inspiring design”. I chose a publication called Regenerative Empathy – and below I explain why.

“Place” wrote Simone Weil, “is a doorway into caring. Love of place can unite people across diverse ideological spectra. It can unleash the personal and political will for the profound changes we need to make”.

But healthy places are alive, and filled with dynamic interactions. In what practical ways can design engage with places as living systems? Ways that are regenerative, and not its opposite?

This document, Regenerative Empathy, describes a design project in 2018 about just that question: How to design new relationships between people, soils, animals, and plants in the Camargue bioregion in southern France. (The link above takes you to a 110 page pdf)

Led by landscape architect Teresa Galí-Izard, twenty grad students were given an unusual design brief: regenerate the soils of the bioregion – its rhizosphere – as a biological, living entity.

They were instructed to do this by creating new associations and synergies between between, people, animals, vegetation, weather.

Technology could be part of the story, but not its driver.

Among the proposals emerging from the work:
– An archepelago of pastures in the Les Alpilles mountains from which goats would disperse seed, and regenerate soil;
– a landscape in which the lives of pigs and peach trees help each other;
– peach trees – pruned, and carefully maintained – interacting with the messy, unpredictable habits of pigs;
– a system of collection ponds, alongside existing drainage channels, that would enable interactions among cypress trees and sheep, cattle, fruit trees, and rice.

When these design studies are added together, a dynamic and life-providing landscape emerges from what had been forgotten and marginal land.

A design that interacts with diverse disciplines is central to the process recorded here. The student designers had to find and engage with different sources of knowledge and information.

Framed by the space of life called the rhizosphere, they studied geological maps, and climate data, and read scientific articles. Above all, they did extensive field work: talking with farmers about food production; with social historians about culture; with ecologists about ecosystems.

The student designers shared their insights and proposals using a sparse shared language: black-and-white line drawing.

Four years after I first encountered this work – when it enchanted, but perplexed me – I finally understand its title. If design is to be regenerative, empathy with diverse actors and processes is essential.

And not just with the diverse forms of life that are there, in the bioregion, now. Regeneration involves delicate interactions between climate and geology, and sensitivity to layering of events and histories over time.

Regenerative Empathy is a Studio Report from the Fall 2018 semester at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design based on the option studio “Rhizosphere,” taught by Teresa Galí-Izard. The studio was made possible with support from the LUMA Foundation.


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Microbes and Social Equity – Dr Sue Ishaq in conversation with John Thackara

The more we learn about life on earth, the clearer it becomes that the well-being of humans, and of non-humans, is inter-connected. They are a single story. Sustainable design, in this context, means designing for all of life – not just human life. That’s a big step! Not so long ago, human-centered design was considered progressive in itself – and now we have to design for all of life? All of life is not just large, visible lifeforms – like trees, or bears. It also includes microbes that are all around us, and inside us – but invisibly. Ninety nine percent of life, it turns out, is invisible – so how do we design for that? To begin that conversation, my guest in this conversation is Dr. Suzanne Ishaq – a microbiome researcher and founder of the Microbes and Social Equity working group

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My newsletter: Meetup dates | Regenerative Design in China | Back To The Land 2.0

CONTENTS
Dates for my Meetups/Retreats in 2022
YouTube Channel 
Nature Reconnection: Hour of Ecology Project
Regenerative Design in China 
School for Village Hosts in Europe 
Back To The Land Summer School in Sweden 
Recent Publications

THACKARA MEETUPS
PRE-ANNOUNCEMENT & SUMMER DATESAfter a two-year pause, Kristi and I are hosting three Meetups this summer at our home in southern France. If you are a designer, project curator, postgrad student, researcher,
or writer – and are working on a thesis, project, or book – check out their feedback in our guestbook.

This year’s dates are:
Tuesday 24 May – Tuesday 31 May
Tuesday 14 June – Tuesday 21 June
Thursday 7 July – Thursday 14 July

We will invite applications (basically, a short email to us) from
mid-February. Go here for further information: thackara.com/meet-ups.
And if you are not already a newsletter subscriber, please sign up here.

REGENERATIVE DESIGN IN PRACTICE: 
OUR NEW YOUTUBE CHANNEL
The words ‘regenerative design’ sound great – but what do they mean in practice? In the videos on our new youtube channel, inspiring pioneers explain what their work entails in practice. Henriette Waal (Atelier Luma) tells me about ‘Living with Rising Water’ and ‘Weaving for Wetlands’. Indy Johar (Dark Matter Labs) talks about ‘Nature as Infrastructure’. In Hour of Ecology, I discuss the role of design in nature reconnection.

REGENERATIVE DESIGN IN CHINA
In China, at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Yongqi Lou (Vice President at Tongji University) I’m developing the agenda for a thematic cluster where Regenerative Design meets climate finance, artificial intelligence, ecological restoration, green infrastructure, and agro-ecology. This work builds on the bioregioning agenda, and the Urban-Rural expo we did in Shanghai at the end of 2019. In a recent work-in-progress talk called Beyond Calculation: AI and Sustainability I ask: Can AI serve all of life, not just human life? And if so, how?

DESIGN FOR PLANET FELLOWSHIP 
Together with eight colleagues, I’ve joined the #designforplanet
Fellowship recently launched by Design Council in the UK. Over the coming months, we will explore ways to turn the promise of Regenerative Design into practice. Our themes include design for adaptive and resilient places; the restoration of natural systems; and design for nature reconnection.

OPEN SCHOOL FOR VILLAGE HOSTS
Post-Covid tourism. Agro-ecology. Land-based learning. Many new activities and livelihoods are emerging in small villages around Europe – but these social innovation projects do not organise themselves. A key role is
played by project producers and curators we call “village hosts”. A pan-European Erasmus project called Open School for Village of Hosts, which I’m advising, will create a training program, a knowledge exchange platform, and a pilot project. More details to follow soon.

BACK TO THE LAND 2.0 SUMMER COURSE, SWEDEN 
Together with Konstfack, I’m once again running the international summer masters course on sustainable food systems and biodiversity. Running from 20 June to 28 August, the course combines online study with a live week long workshop in the rural Swedish village of Hjulsjö. All are eligible to apply, and EU students are charged no fees for tuition. Registration opens on 18 February; applications close on 15 March. My fellow tutors are Cheryl Akner Koler, Annika Göran Rodell, Corina Akner and Anna Maria Orrù.

RECENT PUBLICATIONS
The relationship of my texts to a dead fish (Writing in Creative Practice).
Climate: Are We Thinking Too Hard? In Common Table.
Reconnecter villes et campagnes: l’approche biorégionaliste  (French
translation of Bioregioning: Pathways to Urban-Rural Reconnection)

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Beyond Calculation: AI and Sustainability

this image links to the video on Youtube

SUMMARY
Trillions of dollars of climate finance need nature to be machine-like. But nature is not a machine. So how shall we proceed? In this 20′ talk, I explore two questions: Can AI serve all of life, not just human life? And if so, how?

BACKGROUND TO THIS TALK
In Shanghai, at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Yongqi Lou (Vice President at Tongji University) I’m developing the agenda for a Thematic Cluster around the agenda of Regenerative Design.

My job is to identify opportunities where Regenerative Design meets climate finance, artificial intelligence, ecological restoration, green infrastructure, and agro-ecology. The work builds on the bioregioning agenda, and the Urban-Rural expo we did at the end of 2019. The results will feed into new programmes during 2022.

Also in 2022, I will be part of the #designforplanet Fellowship launched this month by Design Council. Together with eight colleagues, we will turn the promise of #RegenerativeDesign into practice.

The talk transcript below (or click to see see the video) is a form of work-in-progress: it’s my keynote for International Forum on Innovation and Emerging Industries Development (IEID) in Shanghai 02 December 2021. I gave the talk at the invitation of Professor Filippo Fabrocini

Transcription of “Beyond Calculation”

Good data are important if we are to understand and reverse the destruction of nature that’s so distressing to us all. And it is good news that more and more data about biodiversity is becoming available thanks to the marvels of satellite imagery, DNA analysis, and other data analysed by AI.

But is artificial intelligence enough, on its own, to drive the ecological transition we so desperately need?

My key point today: AI can be a support for transformational change. But a truly just transition will only happen when, in the words of Raimon Pannikar, we “see nature differently, relate to nature differently, and understand our purpose here differently”.

Seventy five years ago, in 1944, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his First Law of Robotics. It stated: “A robot may not injure a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”.

Around the world, numerous groups have puiblished ethical principles for AI. By one estimate, 172 statements have been published so far. China’s version is aligned with most of the other statements: AI should be re-oriented in the service of human good.

If we think of Artificial Intelligence as a kind of robot, then Asimov’s law could easily be updated: “AI may not injure a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’.

There’s been more disagreement about implementation of such a law. How can we ensure, experts ask, that AI systems will understand what we mean? Do what we want? This question, too, has a history. Back in 1960, the mathematician Norbert Wiener asked, “Are we quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire?.”

That one word – ‘purpose’ – highlights the core dilemma that I will focus on today.

Because even if we could be sure that AI would understand and obey an updated Asimov law, such a law would only mention “what’s good for humans” . There’s no mention of all the other life forms we share the living planet with. This humans-first approach has had catastrophic consequences throughout the industrial age.

Even before AI came along, “what’s good for humans” helped shape an economy that extracts vitality, as well as resources, from the planet’s living systems.

This cultural disconnection – between the living world, and the economic one – explains why we either don’t think about rivers, soils, and biodiversity at all – or we treat them as natural ‘resources’ whose only purpose is to feed “the economy.”

The idea that “the economy” exists in a separate domain from life itself sounds crazy when you say it out loud.

By the same token, It makes little sense to discuss the purpose of AI in isolation from the bigger picture of life on earth, and our place within that.

President Xi alluded to the need for a larger purpose just a few days ago. In a speech about the Belt and Road Initiative, he called for a “new development paradigm”.

This idea – a new concept for development – is for me the best place to start in any discussion of where and how we use AI.

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