more than human
This encounter takes a new form, a slow conversation between Dan Hill – Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency and author of the Slowdown Papers – and New Constellations’ Gemma Mortensen. Their exchange – from the urban landscape of Stockholm to the wilds of Dartmoor – explores how to create the hybrid conditions for human and non-human life to thrive and what design principles and approaches we’ll need to create the future we yearn for. You can read more about this experiment on our blog.
Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.
Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
Gemma Mortensen: I’m not sure if you can hear it, but there’s a nest of rooks just above me in our roof. And you can hear all the chicks squawking when the mother comes back to feed them. Or their father, not sure.
Hi Dan. I hope you’re well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversation we had a few days ago and a few things have really stuck with me. There’s definitely something, you know, in the big arc that you explained from the great acceleration through what I think of almost as you know, the great pause through the pandemic and then into the era of slow down, as you talk about, and you talk about Danny Dorling’s, you know, the ‘great slowdown’ work, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what slowing down means, and whether slowing down is enough.
And we ended up talking about almost like the unit of management of life and how those have always been human imposed units of geography – the city, the region, the nation state, the continent – and how there’s increasing conversation emerging around the idea of bioregions, a region where it just about makes sense for humans to think about their participation in, and responsibility for, stewardship over a region of interconnected life really.
And it’s funny how, you know, life chooses to sequence itself. Since we spoke, I took part in the first bit of a course called the Old Way, which is run by a group of very beautiful people who’ve been exploring an idea of how you rewild humans, how we rewild ourselves to rediscover what they call our ancestral blueprint, a way of life going back to hunter gatherer times, which is how human beings (homosapiens) have spent most of its time on earth and the features, the characteristics of that way of life, which are perhaps innately in us somehow. And it asks big questions about what has happened since we have become disconnected from those ways of life, from those features and characteristics and the harm that has done us as human beings unable to live and express that blueprint in perhaps the way that we need to, but also the harm that that has done, well has caused us to do, to other species as we fail to understand the interconnected web of life and our responsibility to create a world in which we can, not only cohabit, but be part, you know, be part of an interdependent ecosystem with other forms of life.
I spent a few days camping in the woods with a group of people and we were brought back to basics. We learned how to weave a basket from rushes that have been harvested locally. We learnt how to forage from the woodland around us. We learnt how we’ve become dependent on a kind of very small number of families of the plant kingdom or queendom, and actually how our ancestors, our hunter gatherer ancestors, had a more varied diet in terms of the number of species that they ate and consumed and therefore interacted with. We learned about hunting deer. There are now more deer in the UK than perhaps there ever have been and so that population is managed. We learned about how that’s done humanely. We shared in a moment of welcoming two deer that had been killed into the camp and honoring you know, their life, but also then learning to butcher them and use every part of them for meat to eat. But also then bones the cartilage to how they would have been used to make tools to make, to make bows, how no part of the animal would have been wasted. And we spent time out in nature, understanding the different habitats in which life existed, the insects, the birds, the importance of predators and keystone species, how we’ve lost touch with ourselves as a keystone species, the importance of that role.
The fact that we’ve been told that we’re a poison to nature, or actually we play a really important role within it, but we’ve lost that somehow. And we learned about natural movement about how we would have moved through the land and how our bodies would be in relationship with different tasks, very practically whether cooking or making, or weaving or skinning, but also how we would have sat and stood and moved through the land in a way that was more natural and animal like for our species.
And it was very powerful. It was very moving. Now I don’t think we can return to that past and I don’t think we should glorify it or pretend in any way that it was perfect, of course not. But it does make me ask questions about what we need to recourse to, what we need to reconnect with going backwards, as well as what we need to imagine and dream going forwards and what connection we need to have with our ancestors and a sense of connection to that past and a sense of learning from it.
You talked and you’ve written a lot about indigenous teaching, indigenous ways of life and how that is very much more tapped into and part of and connected to the code of the natural world and how you as a designer or the community of designers is becoming much more aware of the importance of that body of expertise, of knowledge, of wisdom. And it’s a contested area. You know, there’s lots of discussion about whether the west is co-opting indigenous practice and therefore warping and changing it and failing to uphold and acknowledge and respect it and the people from whom it’s come. And what this experience made me really think about is the extent to which we have lost our connection to our own indigeny, the ways of life and the traditions that in this country, in the UK, that was destroyed principally, as we learned over these last few days, during the Roman era where part of, I guess that phase of colonisation in its own way was to stamp out the cultures, the ways of life that pre-existed in a similar way to the subsequent waves of colonisation did exactly the same elsewhere.
And it raises questions as to whether once gone, can that be reconnected to? And how? And so what I wanted to throw out there and to put to you and to wonder was: if we take this idea of the slowing down of an era of slow down, is it also an era of reconnection to something that we’ve lost? And if so, what? And if so, how do we refine that? Not in a way that is naively clasping the past and glorifying as something that it was or could not be, but something that is humble enough, knowing enough to know that we’ve lost sight of things which are not only important, not only wise, but which are such a fundamental part of us as human beings and such a fundamental part of how deep within we have a stirring to live, to be with each other, with other forms of life on the planet. And if we pick up this idea of the bioregion and we infuse in that some of those principles of reconnecting in some way to that ancestral blueprint, to the way in which we want to move and make and commune and truly connect with each other, but also truly connect with other species, with other forms of life, to live with them, not alongside them at arms length and not exactly as we talked about the instrumentalise them, so that they’re a kind of plumbing system for human world. But so that we live in a way where we truly understand our codependency and we claim the importance of our species in the grander scheme of life in a way that is regenerative and not extractive, in a way that adds to life and doesn’t plunder it. And so my question to you as a designer and given your experience working all over the world in many different cities with many different communities is: Where have you seen this being thought through and tried? Where are the green shoots of projects or people or communities or thinkers or doers who are bringing this back to life? And do you think that the principles, the features that you’ve already articulated, whether in your work around the slowdown papers or your work around this idea of a kind of new Bauhaus, like, does that go far enough? Does it encompass in a truly deep sense, some of these bigger questions about who we really are as human beings and what we need not only from and with nature to make human society work, but to truly think of that ecosystem, to truly think of that bioregion. What are the design principles of that?
There we go, there are some thoughts and I look forward to hearing what you think my audio pal, see you soon.
Dan Hill: Hello, Gemma. And so that was incredibly interesting to hear. And thank you for that. And thank you for your impossible to answer question or rather your massive question, which is at the heart of probably what we’re all trying to figure out for the next few decades. And while I was listening to, I was cycling from where I live in the south of Stockholm, just outside the city centre, kind of through the city centre and it was a fairly huge disjunct, even though Stockholm is a pretty green place and pretty blue place and it’s, you know, spread across multiple islands and I was cycling over bridges across those things. Yeah, hats off to you for doing that and thinking about it so carefully and thoughtfully in the way that you do, I think, and made me want to do it too, but, um, at the same time, I really also appreciate the way you considered it as in something to learn from, but not go back to.
I’m on an island called Skeppsholmen or Skeppsholmen, you can say either way in Swedish, I think, and this is a small island, um, just off the city centre. And it’s now actually effectively an island devoted to culture, which is interesting. Culture as in cultural production. The reason I was here, I was cycling to see a new installation by, um, Studio Ossidiana I think they’re called the Italian architects and designers. They have built, um, a lovely installation outside of ArkDes, which is the national centre for architecture and design here, who I work with frequently and, um, on work here across Sweden and beyond. I’m also eyeing, and being eyed by, a fairly ominous looking group of Canada geese. So I’m not sure who has the upper hand in this situation. There’s about six of them and one of me. I’m, larger, but you know, they have the numbers. So Studio Ossidiana’s installation is this really lovely social space built outside the front of the museum. And it’s a kind of a, brilliantly every year, ArcDes reinterpret that space in the summer built to create space for people and birds, a kind of beach, really, it’s almost like a beach in that, cause in the middle of it, there’s a pond and in the pond there’s reeds and things like this and the beach is made out of white, very fine pebbles with, white shells put in them when they’re white sculptural elements, but they’ve got horizontal bars on them so they’re clearly made for perching in some way. There is sort of a wide variety of those. I wanted to record this from there because I’m interested in these, as you know, in these kinds of purpose built Interventions into society, which suggest these hybrid conditions of living and playing and working and farming and eating and socialising with humans and other species simultaneously. And this one’s clearly built for birds. It follows in the tradition last year of an installation that made a huge mark on me. It was called Infield by Linda Tegg, a Melbourne based artist. And the infield traditionally would be the space between the city and the agricultural land, which was sort of semi-cultivated and used to cultivate crops that would then go on the agricultural land or to, you know, I guess waste from the town also ended up there, or waste from the agricultural stuff on the other side, there wouldn’t have been much waste in those days, but either way, the kind of detritus of that middle aged existence, it turned out that was the most biodiverse or it still is the most biodiverse kind of space there. But anyway, so this infield condition, which again is a hybrid of human cultivation with agriculture and animals and birds, it was again, this very biodiverse thing. So Linda Tegg’s idea was to recreate that on purpose in this way that begins to suggest this very kind of organic, spreading, meadow-like condition again, far more powerful and sustainable and, for all the issues with that word, nurturing, biodiverse condition than a lawn say, or a monoculture lawn or a monoculture crop. And so there’s always this interplay with design about control. And of course the easy to critique of design and often warranted is too much about control. It’s about, it’s been about over the last few hundred years design and architecture being used to stamp out nature as the rest of nature I mean, the non-human bits of it as something awkward and out of control and unwieldy and not productive and dangerous and of course that same design was used to do the same thing with, um, people, with people that didn’t conform or people that weren’t part of some universal idea of what a human was the modernist age would be this universalising tendency. We know there’s that easy critique of design and often warranted. And what I am interested in with Ossidiana’s work to some degree, and perhaps Tegg’s work even more, the Infield, is this sense of actually a different type of design, which recognises that things cannot be controlled and shouldn’t be controlled and make space for things to evolve as a kind of an unfolding situation requires constant attention. And then the metaphors that I reach for that would be far more akin to gardening or cooking. And so it requires this tending and nurturing, and those are the verbs that we keep coming back to there. They’re not defining in a foreign forget kind of way, which is often where architecture has ended up by virtue of its business model, meaning it just hands over the plans to someone else and then it’s, it really cannot engage after that in most cases. And it’s not where most cities are, where you have them run operationally by housing departments or a traffic department whose job is maintenance and operations. Instead what we’re talking about here and that’s part of what my work is hugely about and has been, I think ever since I started by virtue of starting as a designer with the internet, which is also slightly of control, that kind of design work is much more about this kind of gardening sensibility, about starting something and taking a step forward and having a sense of direction but then everything after that being negotiated and contested and evolved continually, or as I said with cooking. And I think cooking’s interesting as well, because it also brings up the question of who’s doing this and cooking I like, and I often use this when I’m working on policy, lab teams or, you know, setting up strategic design units or something and in doing that, just to clarify things, I often use the metaphor of cooks and chefs and understand that as a professional designer, you may be more like a chef. But it’s really good actually, if everybody can cook a bit, if your clients, customers, the people around you, whoever you’re making the thing with and for, if they thought of more like cooks where they also have agency, they can also cook.They also know how to work garlic and olive oil and salt and pepper and pasta and a bit of cheese and bring that together to make something, that is of course, hugely useful, not just to. Um, making something that works for many more people, but also having something evolve because people then can adapt that and people bring diverse things and in different places, with different traditions and cultures and different ingredients to hand, and again, different weather conditions and different politics and different aesthetic sensibilities, you know, they will evolve and invent new things there, and that’s fascinating and useful. And that’s great for the chefs. And even though everybody can cook, it’s nice to go to a restaurant every now and then, and you have something incredible made for you. That’s a professional chef situation, but a chef also writes recipes, recipe books, and communicates them and makes TV shows about them or, or, and there’s invention there as well. And of course, amazing chefs, um, cut through with new ideas continually they’re again, drawing old traditions and new traditions into something new and they have the whole richness of food to work with there is a landscape and that is recognises food as, I mean, nutrition as the most basic and perhaps the least interesting thing that’s going on.
The kind of design that I’m interested in and hoping I practice at least a little or at least communicate or teach, is the sense of design as an ongoing exploration of drawing widely from numerous sources, from understanding as best one can a place and a people and an environment and everything it has to offer. But then creating a condition that requires this ongoing adaptability and learning and nurturing. And the designer’s role is to be an active participant within that. Not just drawing up the blueprints, handing them over and then saying, see you later, but actually being part of that situation, being part of the crew, the team, the community, the environment that is responsible for the ongoing evolution of those ideas as they interplay with each other in all of the complexity that a garden does or you know, what’s happening in a frying pan or then in a restaurant and than in a picnic.
So I think it’s, um, I’m much more interested in this approach of what you might call a, I forgot what her name was, she wrote rambunctious garden, that idea of an you also see it in the convivial conservation approach or new conservationist approach that I talk about in the slowdown papers again, this sense of this hybrid centre moving forward, where we’re rebalancing and regenerating and the soil and the forest, and the waters are addressed such that they are a regenerative condition and continually nurturing condition. They are not overfished and over-farmed and over-logged. Anyway, I think I’m, this is to say, I’m interested in moving forwards and I’m interested in the hybrid. That’s the thing I’m most optimistic about and equally… in answer to your question about where’s this is happening? The bits where I see there’s not much to point at, but then I’m optimistic because then I think that’s all to come and it’s all to figure out. I’m interested in helping make that happen. And then, and so, you know, if it was a done deal, it would be better in lots of ways, but then I don’t think anything ever is. It’s always, as I said, more like this garden of continual evolution and I, and I, I would, hoping that my practices evolves is the kind of work that I do again, this idea of adaptive design, it would be called technically, I guess. And working with this sort of funny hybrid of vernacular and high tech and low tech and high tech at the same time is very much predicated on other people doing it, not me. So I’m interested in the fact that it’s not done because I want to see what people do with that. And I, I think the idea is there, I think so many people are super excited and motivated by making this happen. That’s what I see, I see that more than I see a discourse now dominated again about rejecting that, at least from the point of view of design and architecture. You know, the biggest, most famous firms on the planet are doing all entirely the wrong work, often. They’re not suggesting that their work is in any sense actually the future I don’t think, I don’t think that they have to because they’re just doing it, but I don’t think they even make that claim. And I think the interesting discussion, the new work, the new ideas, is utterly dominated by the sense of this hybrid of social and environmental justice, this kind of biodiversity reframe more than human supernatural approach. That’s super exciting and there’s so much thinking and action going on around that now. And now we have to make that happen. That’s maybe where I’ll leave it for now. And I’m interested to see how you react to that. And whether you think that’s enough in a way, because you were very clear, like point to where it’s happening and you gave me a lot to think about, and I didn’t answer your question, but I circled it at least like the Canada geese circled me and maybe I attacked it more than the Canada geese attacked me, but at least I gave you a sense that the answer is there and that’s what I’m interested in most of all.
So from incredibly sunny, warm Stockholm, I will leave you there. I’ll get back on my bike. I’ll sip the rest of my coffee. I’ll see if I can get near the Studio Ossidiana installation without getting dive bombed by seagulls again, I’ll cycle home. And then I’ll upload this and talk to you soon.
Take care. Bye.
Gemma: Hi Dan, it’s Gemma. I had such a vivid picture of you cycling across the bridges of Stockholm on your way to this exhibit, this installation, which to me, you know, out here in the wilds, far away from artistic capitals sounded exciting, quite exotic after all these months of not really traveling to cities. I’m still surrounded by the birds, I heard a chiffchaff and a wood pigeon and down below at the bottom of the slope, just outside of my house, there are a family of Canada geese. And as you described how the geese were kind of warding you off, it made me smile because we’ve been living with this family of geese now for several weeks. And, and even before the goslings hatched, they’ve really made us change the way that we use the space, because they’re so territorial. And since the goslings hatched, there are six of them, you would not believe how much six goslings can shit. There are six goslings and they get taken by their Mum and Dad, an extremely close knit family, always together, down to the river to have their swimming lessons. And I like to go down to this one little pool. It’s quite sheltered, that’s just deep enough to dunk in. And if they’re there, I have to wait my turn, I have to come back later. So it’s really funny. It’s really made me adjust, you know, like I feel in a funny sort of way I am cohabiting with, another species because this is, uh, you know, an experience of living with some wild birds who are very, very assertive about their own way of life and their own territory.
Anyway, hearing your description of the beach of white pebbles and the water and the bright colours and the birds, and this idea of a human intervention that in an urban setting brings these worlds together that might not otherwise have the chance of meeting. It was really beautiful and it made me think about the nature of an intervention or an installation in the way that you described it.
And I think in a funny sort of way, we were both talking about installations. Because the course that I went on, partly, you know, it was with a group of humans, but it was very much engaging with the natural world. And it wasn’t you know real, it was a, it was a kind of public artwork, really a participatory one, but it was a creating a world for a period of time in which you were able to have an experience of something different just as you having cycled across the bridge and arriving at this installation and having that moment of meeting with those birds was having a different experience within the city, forcing you to ask yourself questions about the nature of cohabitation, the nature of, you know, mixing life forms within such a human controlled environment.
The other installation that you described also really got me thinking because you described it as these kinds of plugs, almost like the fringe between the urban centre and agricultural land, both types of place or space, which are very maintained by humans and in the middle of this fringe of unloved, but actually very prospering, land by virtue of the biodiversity there, and this idea of the native plants of the land of Sweden, you know, making it their own kingdom in this fringe patch.
And it brought to mind something that somebody told me the other day, about how in the UK, train tracks, the verges of train tracks, are some of the most bio-diverse pieces of land in the UK, because not only have they also been in inverted commas unloved, obviously in that, you know, in being unloved, perhaps better cared for. But not only were they unloved, but the train acted as a kind of seed carrier, a wingless high-speed bird, carrying seeds from one region to another, across the country, propagating all that different kind of life. And obviously that’s a very, very different kind of unintended consequence, but I really liked that as an idea of a different kind of installation you know.
It also really resonated with me what you were saying about looking forwards and this idea of a lot of the work that you’re doing moving away from a more pyramidal, you know, top-down model of design or architecture in which there is a human, not just humans, at the top, imposing a vision of the world, or a view of life on a space or a process or a community. Moving from that to something, you know, this idea as you called it more akin to a gardener or a chef, someone who nurtures and cultivates, someone who has their hands in the soil, someone who’s very, very adept at anticipating what’s coming through, having an incredible eye for detail and noticing those green shoots and a good instinct, a good knowledge of how to bring them on.
I really agree with that as a shift that we’re seeing in a lot of places. So many of the notions of leadership that we’ve been taught have been so linear and top-down, planning management. And they just, to me, seemed very ill-suited to such an uncertain and complex world. And we’ve been trying it with the New Constellations project, you know, like others were inspired by and work with, to really try and foster and work with this idea of the principle of emergence. How do you situate yourself within a system and really learn about it and become more dexterous, that knowing, you know, how the different sinews of it operate together. And therefore, as you become more adept, as you’re, as you get your eye in, you know, in the to use a gardening analogy, as your fingers turn green how can you can support and enable things that are coming up through that ecosystem to really flourish?
It also made me surprised I think what you said about how you’re not actually seeing yet many practical instances of a new way in which the human species and other species are kind of cohabiting in a kind of unified model somewhere .I don’t mean that in terms of a kind of, you know, sharing a house with a geese, but I mean living consciously as part of natural ecosystems at the city level or at the community level. But it struck me what you said about your optimism being forged in what you are seeing as the hunger of so many people to move in that direction and bring it about.
So I’m left with a couple of questions for you again. And one of those is what you think are the criteria, the kind of, the conditions that really enabled change and transformation. And as a designer, how do you design for those kinds of conditions to be present, to enable that process to start happening? Where are the places that are the equivalent of, you know, your bio-diverse fringe or the side of a train track? Where are the places and people like that? I think there are many, so I’m going to leave it there. I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle that we’re trying to map out and understand.
Over to you, Dan and I look forward to hearing where you record from next too.
Dan: Hello, Gemma. This has taken me a while to reply to you. It feels like autumn is here now in Stockholm. To answer your question properly for someone like me, unfortunately it would take me writing a book or something, or at least a very long blog post, but I’m not going to do that I’m going to kind of instinctively approach your question about what are the conditions and just see what, what words and ideas come to mind.
And the first one really is this sense of being place-based and being present in a place and in a place you can begin to do this work I think in a very powerful way. And I know that sounds blindingly obvious, and you’re sort of thinking, well, hang on on isn’t everything from scooter sharing networks to libraries designed in a place and of course they are, but they’re not designed in the sense that we’re talking about here being placed-based and derived from that place, with that place, with the people and the conditions and the landscape and the materials and the cultures of that place.
So that’s, that’s this first sense of being place-based and being present within that as an actor and being present within it, of course, leads to, immediately, to questions of participation, engagement, collaboration that you’re working with people. And here I’ll just use a very brief analogy again of the way that a designer works with people that enable people to have ongoing change and design of their environment. So this is one of the key things for me. It’s recognising that there’s, there’s a role of the professional designer here, but then there’s the role of as Ezio Manzini calls it, um, everyday designers or everyone is a designer, essentially. That’s very powerful and that’s been a huge change and a recognition of that in the last 30, 40 years or so.
And then the sense of then building in that adaptation change and openness is really important. So it’s no good having cooks if there are no tools or you can’t, well, there’s no ingredients or there’s no ability to make anything new. So as with buildings, infrastructures, everyday spaces, environments, websites, bike sharing schemes, whatever, those things also need to adapt and change and be open systems as Richard Sennett would say.
And there’s a way of designing that without getting into the details. I draw a lot from, Frank Duffy’s idea of pace layers that enables you to understand what’s moving at different paces and enable you to change things independently of each other, but recognising they’re interdependent. There’s ways of designing things that enable change and openness and choice of materials, the way that things are put together and so on. Those are really fundamentally important alongside the skill sharing of the cooks chefs analogy. So you can’t have one without the other, but that enables things to shift and change over time. And it’s really fundamentally important to this kind of work. Again, as with a garden it’s never finished. A house is never finished. A library is never finished. You know, these are ongoing processes.
In that collaboration, in that sense of change, of course, then that puts on the table immediately agreement, decision-making the ability to confront each other with different ideas, but to do so in a way that enables you to say the difficult things. I really like this phrase in Finnish that I learned when I was in Helsinki, which is put the cat on the table, which means say the difficult thing. It’s not often done here in Swedish, which is rather non-confrontational. But then Swedish has the consensus culture, which enables you to deliberate and get to a position over time, which is also very important.
Often in the UK we’re very comfortable putting the cat on the table, but not doing the consensus work. So, and there’s a balance here, but you know what Chantal Mouffe calls agonistics the, you don’t have to agree everything all the time you can also, in a democracy it’s your right to disagree with each other as much as agree – that’s really fundamental. And again, not often done very well I would say in design processes, but in co-operative housing projects in collaborative design or participative design environments, this sense of building a shared sense of trust, engagement, shared values, shared identity, but with diversity, this is the very difficult balancing act but that’s what this work entails.
These are the kinds of things we’re talking about increasingly in design and, and all positioned around if you like north stars, new north stars of environment and health and social justice, which enable you to talk then about different kind of forms of growth or different kinds of collaborations, different kinds of shared value and values. All of those things are being put on the table, and that is a new kind of design, I think. And in Swedish, we have this great word ‘livsmiljö’, which is means living environment. And it’s drawn from the French word milieu obviously. And, um, Swedish as a largely Germanic language, but there are some French words ended up here for various reasons, probably to do with Royal marriage of some kind, but the French language made some useful insurgencies into the Swedish language. And one of them is then the word ‘livsmiljö’ and in Swedish is usually taken to mean the built environment or the natural environment, the sort of material qualities, the fabric of it. But the French word milieu obviously ultimately means the social and the cultural context around things, the scene, if you like. So that’s also very powerful, those things embedded together, the kind of a scene or the scenery, the material qualities and the social and cultural at the same time and this word milieu so I’ve used that a lot and unpacked it here a bit in Sweden, I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that or I’m doing that in the right way, or the Swedes are looking at me blankly when I say there’s this other side to the world, maybe, but anyway, we’re talking about design for living environment so livsmiljö is very powerful because then that goes into these questions of trust and ritual and everyday life and understanding that these are social and cultural conditions, but they’re embedded in things like infrastructures and objects and buildings and spaces. And so my go-to kind of toolkit for this kind of work are really the idea of social infrastructures which Eric Klinenberg wrote a useful book about a couple of years ago, Palaces For The People, but there’s obviously an old idea, but these things around us, these social infrastructure are very interesting, the libraries and laundrettes, plazas and playgrounds, pools and pavements, parks and pubs, schools and streets, museums, markets, cafes, and churches, these things are clearly shared environments, they embody shared ideas and identities and values, the way that we design them, speaks to those things. They’re real physical things, but they’re also clearly to do with culture and the way that we live and work together. So they have like almost all dimensions of Raymond Williams’ definition of culture going on in them. And at the same time they’re, you know, they’re physical bits of infrastructure, again, as you pointed out like a train track is, this place-based approach again comes back into play.
And my friend and colleague Rory Hyde at the University of Melbourne told me a while ago about a great Australian architect called Paul Pholeros, who died a few years ago but his practice health habitat had a very different approach to architectural practice. In the profession usually you might do a handful of buildings in your career actually. It had a very place-based model, it was situated in communities and often actually in indigenous communities in Australia had suffered systematic racism and murder essentially after over a couple of hundred years of colonialism. And, so in very tough conditions. But their model of them being embedded in those places meant that that practice health habitat got through something like seven and a half thousand houses in their career which was extraordinary and you know, changing the lives positively tens of thousands of people in that way. So by being embedded in communities and having this much more daily interaction, literally going around and doing adjustments and nips and tucks and alterations and additions, things like this, ongoing process of design again, it’s kind of nurturing and nurturing, nurturing. So, and they started with this kind of set of almost like a checklist of very basic living conditions in these communities. So, you know, spaces and objects and environments and processes where you could wash children, wash clothes and bedding, remove wastewater safely, improve nutrition, reduce the negative impacts of crowding, reduce the negative impacts of insects and animals, control dust, control temperature, reduce minor trauma, and so on. These are real and sort of life support system stuff. So very, very powerful, meaningful changes to people’s lives if you address that.
And then we have this other side of design as well, the culture and art, which is everything we don’t have to do. If that was everything we do have to do, this is also everything we don’t have to do. That’s also embedded in this and that’s again as you know, Eno said, you know, this is his definition of art it’s sort of everything we don’t have to do, but, and it turns out it’s incredibly important to us. So it’s this funny, contradictory positioning, but that’s, that’s where we are. And so, both of these things, the utility and the aesthetics are embedded within this, this work and that, and this way of being engaged in a place I think that enables us to talk about things like retrofit and repair and care and maintenance in the best sense, again, not maintenance as a negative to be avoided, but maintenance is something that’s a positive act, as with a garden. We don’t call gardening, maintenance, really when you’re tending your tomato it’s something else.
And so for me, this guiding principle is about working with the beauty, the dignity and utility of shared things in everyday life. And if we approach that we’re talking about this complex interplay between function and aesthetics, we’re talking about the sense of shared things, environments, places, experiences, recognising because of systems and cultures, these things are all interdependent and they’re all shared whether we like it or not.
And everyday life being the object. So everyday life can mean things like churches and cathedrals, and it can also mean washing children, you know, a sort of a wider orbit around that, the work of Dark Matter Labs and my friend and colleague Indy, Indy Johar’s, work is related to that work, but, is elsewhere as well as in incredibly interesting moving into that space as a designer and as a network of designers and other disciplines.
This isn’t just purely about designers, at all, somebody, as you pointed out again, like Tessy Britton and Participatory City Foundation is built on many disciplines interplaying that again, this relationship and cooks and chefs and place and community and full disclosure, I’m a trustee of the charity Participatory Cities, I’m hardly in an objective position here, but I, do think it’s amongst the most extraordinary participation work around and it’s doing incredible work already in Barking and Dagenham and elsewhere, but it also has a lot to give elsewhere. On the doughnut economics work and Kate Raworth I think is incredibly interesting. I think, you know, my challenge there is always like, what is, let’s pull it down to the ground, what does it actually mean? And what does it mean when we’re talking about libraries and stop signs and washing children and everyday cultures and environments, again the shared things in everyday life. How does it play out there as a guiding principle, can it play out there? Do we need other things around us? This is aways my challenge with the economists to like drag it down to the ground because they tend to go the other direction. But then again, there are, you know, Kate Raworth’s stands for this work that is being grounded. And I think my colleague Mariana Mazzucato at UCL, likewise, her work around missions again, works best when grounded in the work that they’re doing in Camden and the work I’ve done a little bit around that as well, demonstrates that I think and increasingly powerful foundational economics work and indigenous economics, and some call it indigenomics, work that’s going on as well.
And that leads me to my last point, which was you know, one of the books I read in between my last missive and this one was Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree and Simard’s written this extraordinary book, brilliant book. And based on her brilliant work over the last few decades in the forest in British Columbia and other bits of Canada, looking at this collaborative, regenerative, networking that happens in forests with fungi and different tree species working together in a totally collaborative way, not based around competition, in the sense of Darwin and origin of the species and survival of the fittest at all, but a very different kind of relationship.
And that, that seems to me an incredibly powerful rethinking of this sense of a collaborative, regenerative approach to growth and a kind of a slower condition that rewards this engaged participant of collaborative work. Her work is powerful and then I then followed that with Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk, he’s an indigenous Australian academic, First Nations academic. It’s a wonderful book, an incredibly erudite challenge of enlightenment, and really which is colonial thinking and placing that in the context of the far deeper, far richer knowledge of 60-70,000 years of continuous culture that First Nations Australians have. That’s a really powerful book, particularly following Simard’s book, it’s a really interesting interplay, her being a scientist and of course she lands on the fact that First Nations peoples in Canada and others have known kind of what she was getting at for centuries, millennia. And she’s then used a scientific approach to produce the same kind of outcomes, but she sort of says, they knew this already and why didn’t we pay any attention.
And then places like Japan, interestingly, where you have this interplay between again a sort of an indigenous understanding from the Ainu community in Japan, which turns into then Japanese mythologies, which still pervade every life and sense of rituals and understandings and shared cultures, to some extent, at least. But they plow it in the middle of places like Tokyo, you know, the largest city in the world. So you get this, this is this, again, this interplay, these boundaries zones, these challenges, these contradictions that are massively interested in this edge between the hyper-modernity of Tokyo and then this ancient Japanese mythology, the city in the country, the edge between a train track and the flowers, the idea in the back garden in the middle of Stockholm, you know, like all of these things are happening simultaneously around us.
The old logics don’t work for that, they just do not work at all. And design has some way of unpacking that a bit alongside many other disciplines and, you know, design’s real role can maybe be as an integrator of some of those things, perhaps rather than a leader. It’s just so interesting to see how we begin to reconcile these things. I’m interested then I suppose, between this interplay between forest and city, between what Yunkaporta and Simard might see in the forest and then what I see in the city, I see that in a back street in Tokyo or Melbourne or Sheffield or Los Angeles or Stockholm and those are kind of fascinating cause they’re questions not answers. I don’t have the answers for this stuff, but I know that’s where the interesting questions will be in the interplay between these things, with these new north stars in mind let’s see what we can produce next.
Back to you in Dartmoor and goodbye from Stockholm.
Gemma: Hi, Dan, I just listened back to the recordings that you’ve sent and it kind of feels like we’ve been in touch over well, a large part of this year really definitely through many of the seasons. And I woke up this morning and I live in this valley that as I said, kind of next to this river and everything was shrouded in this thick mist coated in it, all of the branches are now bare. One of the things that I love is that every year, I kind of fear the falling of the leaves, thinking that after what’s an incredible autumn burst of colour, the Oaks and the Larch, which go a kind of Dr. Seuss neon green and then orange and the Acers and the Birch – so beautiful. And then the leaves fall, and there’s all this lichen, that oxidised copper colour of lichen picking out the branches. And then some of the stems are green and brown and the Birch red and beautiful. It’s coming up to the winter Solstice. It feels a kind of heavy, but quite a pregnant time. I just wanted to say thank you because I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve enjoyed the process of the surprise of receiving an audio package that I don’t know what it’s going to contain and the joy of listening and going deep into someone else’s train of thought.
And also having done this really gently and taken our time with it. I’m just back from a really intense period of work in in Sheffield. And I love the fact that your last recording ended with the fact that you obviously have a connection to that city. It’s somewhere I didn’t know before and somewhere I’ve come to love. It’s an amazing, amazing place. And the people that we have met there have genuinely touched our hearts and souls on a very deep level. The work that we’ve been doing with a group of people in Sheffield really made me think about the application of some of what you’ve talked about in theory, in terms of how that’s played out in some ways, you know, with aspects that have felt really familiar.
It was really interesting listening to your last recording, because I feel that we’ve gone on a journey together between starting out with quite a kind of abstract discussion in some ways about, you know, what is a hybrid form. And then in your last recording, I felt that you helped me to think about what some of the new principles of design going into the future might look and feel like. So I thought maybe that I would just try and reflect back some of the things that really stood out to me.
In our work in New Constellations we obviously use the metaphor of, of looking at the stars and stars being something that human beings have used to navigate their course with over you know generations, over millennia and different cultures and continents. And we ask people to think about what is the current set of stars or guideposts that the systems that saturate the institutions in which we live, the built environment in which we experience daily life, the culture in which we experience each other. And obviously at the moment we’re living in, I think the kind of dying days of systems that are inherently extractive of the planet, of each other.
What you speak to and what I firmly and passionately believe is that we are beginning to see the germination of new models, new systems that are restorative and regenerative as many people describe them, that look at repair and care and compassion and love. In a way, what you did for me when you were talking about the future of design was to paint for me a picture of what a new constellation, a new set of stars or guideposts might be for designers for the future of design. And If anyone who considered themselves to be either, you know, a kind of professional or an amateur designer moved in that direction versus designing according to the old stars, the old ways of that old extractive system, imagine what the world could look like.
We’ve got it, right, the penny’s dropped. And now it’s about putting into practice in small and big ways the applications of those new sets of principles.
You’ve really emphasised in what you’ve said to me, that you’re interested in the hybrid, right, of like no one singular model but of the zone in which different things are brought together. And where conditions that typically, when we think about how the world has been designed in a 19th century postindustrial way have been separated, but now we’re looking at ways in which the conditions of living and playing and working and farming and eating and socialising and tending with other humans and with other species are brought back together so that they are symbiotic and simultaneous. You talked about how until very recently we viewed the kind of non-human bits of the world around us as something awkward and out of control and unwieldy and somehow unproductive and dangerous and now is the moment to invite that back in despite the level of complexity.
And when you’ve spoken to this idea of design going forwards, you’ve called it adaptive design, you’ve called it designing for living systems, which I really like. But this acceptance, not just an acceptance, but embracing that things can’t be controlled and they shouldn’t be. And so our work is to make space for things to evolve, to see everything around us as an inherently unfolding situation, something that requires constant attention. It’s not about you know, the old stars or guideposts of design, which would have been ideas of management, maintenance, and operations. You said very powerfully you know, this is how most of the systems of cities are built, the housing department or the education department or the traffic department. You know, those are very much run by those old kind of top-down ways of managing and controlling things. And in this new world, we have to accept that we will never know the outcomes, but we do need to have a sense of direction. And to understand that as we progress in that direction, it is one that’s got to be negotiated, it’s going to be contested, it’s continuously evolving. And so design in that sense becomes an ongoing exploration. And so our work collectively is to rebalance and regenerate and to see the natural world around us, whether that’s, you said, you know, the soil or the water or the forests, all of these things become regenerative conditions for us. And we need to make sure that they are not over-fished or farmed or logged, that we’re continually nurturing them so that they in turn can nurture the cycle of life.
One of the other things you talked about which really resonated was this idea of the symbiosis between professional designers and everyday designers, you know, you also talked about the chefs and the cooks, and if there is that interplay and respect and celebration of the difference of those two roles, but the codependency of them, the vitality in each of them, then that helps to build systems that are open and adaptive. Systems in which things are moving at different paces, in which you can encourage things at different speeds whilst recognising that they are dependent on each other. And then you talked about the ability to confront each other with different ideas, in ways that enables us to say difficult things to each other, to share difficult truths and to do this in a way that builds a shared centre or a space around trust and engagement and shared values and identity, but one in which there is, and has to be, a rich diversity and where the creative power, but also the difficulty, the rub kind of lies.
And you talked about the importance of finding those new north stars of being able to, in that space evolve and iterate on what the new set of values are. The new kinds of growth, the new forms of collaboration, and that resonates very much with what we’re doing at New Constellations, because I guess using the metaphor of the stars, that’s directional right it’s not prescriptive, but we need to have a sense of the general direction in which we wish to navigate. And then you ended with this idea of, you know, the importance of again designing for the living environment but you talked a lot about social infrastructure. You gave a beautiful list you know, from churches to playgrounds, to laundromats, as environments that embody shared ideas, identities, and values, you know, they are all physical spaces that show us who we are and who we want to be.
And the importance of, in these, designing for basic needs and utility, but also for culture and art, art is everything we don’t have to do, but it’s so important to our vitality and life.
We worked with the designer, Hillary Cottam and she is doing a lot of work thinking about the future of care, not in an institutionalised sense, but very much in terms of in this moment in history, all that we need to do to care for each other in the planet and the importance of care and repair. And so what you have left me with, infused as well by her thinking, is of an era of adaptive design, of design for the living environment. One in which designers are highly attuned, are able to notice, are able to apprehend the many points of connection and interrelationship. And through that apprehension, are able to to have a trained instinct for where to tend, what to nurture. And in Hillary’s words, that creates the conditions for care and repair.
I definitely share your excitement about the prospect of a community of people who see themselves as designers reorienting in this way. And like you, I see designers as at the forefront of what could be an incredibly exciting change. And I agree with you that we’ll start to see this in microcosm, in different places, in different ways.
You know, the green shoots of a new system which as more and more of them sprout up, they start to become more evident and you start to see that new ways are being born. And what would it look like if companies were running that way or the systems that at the moment are managed and operational versus adaptive and open and learning become responsive and take these on.
I’ve ended this conversation with definitely no firm answers, but it’s been really, really thought provoking. And in ways that I didn’t anticipate when we started it. And I have felt that I’ve gleaned some kind of clarity or at least, you know, those stars are appearing through the mist for me, you know, your professional world is incredibly different to mine but I feel that we’re seeing similar things and trying to sharpen our vision and see more clearly maybe similar aspects.
And I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the chance to have had this conversation over time and space and through the seasons between one of the greatest cities in the world, Stockholm and I would argue one of the most beautiful places, wild spaces in the world, Dartmoor. You know, it’s also been a story about birds and the bird that has accompanied me through this one is a little Robin, who appears every winter, when so many of the other birds have migrated and he or she is just a little companion, so brave and so curious. And I sit staring out the window and this little Robin just perches on this metal railing. And will just sit and look at me for half an hour. It’s extraordinary. And I wonder what that little Robin is thinking of us. And I wonder what hybrid system they would build if they were the designer and we were subject to their design. Who knows eh.