John Thackara | Essays

Tribal Currencies [October 2008]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.


Reading blogs about the financial crisis feels like watching one of those reality car chase programmes in which you wait, guiltily, for the felon - or in this case, the global financial system - to crash. It’s hard not to be mesmerised by reports that even the failed $700 billion plan did not address the true scale of the global problem. One insider blogger - Illargi, at Automatic Earth - reckons that "the global shadow banking system, the source of perhaps $800 trillion in outstanding derivatives is shaking on its foundations, and will inevitably tumble." Part of me hopes the crash is real because a meltdown would deflate an economy which will otherwise eat the biosphere alive. But a crash would also cause enormous hardship, including to one’s own nearest and dearest. Besides, rooting for collapse puts you on the same side as the loony-tune end-days crowd - and that’s not a club I want to join. It’s all very complicated.

A healthier response, I’m sure, is to get out of the house and look for positive things to do. As often mentioned here, there's an awful lot of regenerative activity out there – only most of it is below the radar. A lot of people are busy designing and deploying complementary currencies, for example. If this week’s news is not persuasive enough, the need for complementary currencies is well-explained by the Open Money Manifesto. (And whilst you're at it, do re-read Margrit Kennedy's paper at Doors of Perception 8. That one lecture - in Delhi in Spring 2005 - was when I, for one, first realised that the mainstream money system was going to run off the rails in the major way that's happening now). For my part, I plan to become an active user of complementary currencies starting on 7 October: I'm giving a talk that day at the University of Brighton - and I’m hoping to be paid in Lewes Pounds.


Speaking of positive things to do, City Eco Lab opens in 45 days from now. To recap: this two-week-long market of sustainability projects in St Etienne, France, is the pilot of a scalable, reproducable event, at the level of a city-region, that will materially accelerate its transition to sustainability. As with Dott07 which we programmed in England last year, citizen co-design of projects are at the core of City Eco Lab. In that spirit, Francois Jegou is working with AMAP to finalise scenarios of ways to improve community supported agriculture systems. Avinish Kumar is collecting sounds and images of bicycle-based merchants in Delhi for an installation on the delights of de-motorised transportation. Mathieu-Benoit-Gonin is working on a composting event, and Clare Brass from SEED, in the UK, is putting together a presentation of neighbourhood-level composting services. Magalie Restallo is designing a prototype vital flows dashboard for an eco-quartier in St Etienne. Five schools from the region are measuring their ecological footprint (using an adapted version of the Dott 07 calculator); they will begin designing solutions during City Eco Lab itself. Hugo Bont and Olivier Peyricot are building their urban fish farming demo. Emanuel Louisgrand is designing an urban garden toolkit. Bethany Koby and Ellie Thornhill are devising novel ways to select and exchange software and organisationals tools Ezio Manzini, and Allan Chochinov, the editor of Core77, are preparing their keynote talks for 19 November. So if all this money stuff gets just too much for you, come and say hello.


Fifteen per cent of London is at high risk from flooding due to global warming - an area that includes 1.25 million people, almost half a million properties, more than 400 schools, 75 underground and railway stations, 10 hospitals, and an airport (London City ). According to the draft of the London climate change adaptation strategy, an estimated £160bn worth of assets is at stake. That doesn’t sound so much after the last few days. This dry but gripping document does not deal with the causes of climate change - it focuses on effects, arguing that "even if all global greenhouse gas emissions could be stopped today, the immense inertia in Earth’s climate systems means that changes to our climate for the rest of this century are unavoidable”. Preparing for these inevitable changes is not an alternative to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, it says, but a “parallel and complementary action." An immense amount of innovation will be needed to retrofit buildings and infrastructure with equipment to enable greater water and energy efficiency. Even more important than these hard actions will be soft ones - the design of services to help Londoners meet daily life needs in new ways.


"What would architects design, if they did not design buildings?” My question is not a rhetorical one. The inputs and outputs of industrial society are wildy out of balance - and that includes its buildings and infrastructure. We have reached the end of a brief era in which we could burn cheap fossil fuel, and despoil ecosystems, mindless of the consequences. We need to re-imagine the built world not as a landscape of frozen objects, but as a complex of interacting ecologies: energy, water, mobility, food. Our life-sustaining ecologies, especially, need to be nurtured, not swept away, built over, or diverted. The need for new buildings will be rare. Sometimes the design choice will be to do nothing”.

Do you find this abstract to be tendentious piffle? I’m developing this talk at three events this Autumn, and would welcome your critical participation. University of Brighton, 7 October; Arc en Reve in Bordeaux, 9 October; Megacities conference in Amsterdam, 28 October.



The annual Bioneers conference helps identify breakthrough solutions to the global ecological and social collapse imperiling our world. In their own words, bioneers are “social and scientific innovators from all walks of life and disciplines who have peered deep into the heart of living systems to understand how nature operates, and to mimic nature's operating instructions to serve human ends without harming the web of life”. The programme of this year’s meeting in California is indeed amazing. There will be sessions on Green Cities; Using Fungi to Help Save the World; Politics and Environment; Seed Saving and Biodiversity Gardening; Resilience Thinking; Re-Naturing Education; National Green Plans; Pachakuti Mesa Shamanism; Large-Scale Climate Initiatives; People and Stuff; Digital Media and Distribution Innovations; Knowing Our Foodsheds; Herb Walks; Biomimicry and Traditional Indigenous Knowledge; Watershed Guardians; Latin American Agroecology; Sustainable MBA Programs; Slow Money; Local Living Economies; the Greening of Medicine. And that’s just the formal programme. Candidly, it looks like too much to digest – but I’m still sorry not to be going. Maybe the event is best thought of as a kind of Woodstock of one planet living, not as a conference. 16-19 October, San Rafael, California.


One way to handle the excessive richness of the Bioneers meal would be to have just one course. The first day includes a workshop by the Center for Ecoliteracy which developed the award-winning Rethinking School Lunch program. They’re now launching a nationwide eco schools campaign to make K–12 education relevant to the environmental and social challenges of the next several decades. The day kicks off with keynotes by internationally recognized educators Fritjof Capra and David Orr. (If the Center for Ecoliteracy is reading this, we they will touch base with the Dott 07 schools programme in the UK, France and Australia). Thursday, October 16, 2008


I don’t understand the concept of “sustainable technologies”: There are ways to inhabit the biosphere sustainably - or not - and both ways can be enabled (or not) by technology. No technology, on its own, can be “sustainable”. Even six months ago, such pedantry would not have deterred enthusiasts for a eco-tech market projected to be worth $800 billion by 2015 – not counting renewable materials and alternative energy retrofitted to existing infrastructures. I do not argue that wind, solar, biomaterials, bio-energies, green buildings, sustainable mobility, smart grids, water filtration, and energy monitoring products and technologies are all useful – it’s just they are tools – and tools that will be hard to pay for in the times ahead. (The machine tool industry is in free fall in the markets right now). Speakers at Sustainable Innovation 08, who seem mostly to be research and policy types – not red-blooded tech entrepreneurs – may choose to disagree. Besides, the conference is in Sweden, which is a good place to find out about all this…stuff. The country plans to be world's first oil-free economy within 15 years, and is making good progress: Renewable energy consumption now surpasses the 40 per cent mark. 27 - 28 October 2008? Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden.


Can India assume leadership in the world of design? A new book, Indian Design Edge, by Dr Darlie Koshy, takes a ‘hands on, minds on’ approach to this question.There are design case studies, historical milestones, policy perspectives, industry insights, and scenarios. A foreword by Ratan Tata, one India’s industry titans, is added evidence that mainstream design is now taken seriously by mainstream industry.

I hear that Dr Koshy is about to leave his job as Director of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. We wish him well: he has been a generous host of several Doors of Perception meetings in India over recent years – a series which began at NID in 2000. In all our India encounters, the design edge that most inspired us was the sheer variety of “less stuff, more people” services – a quality that the rest of the world needs now to re-discover. It will be fascinating to see what direction NID takes next.


Noon Mongolnavin London to sing its stories on buses and let commuters enjoy more about their dead time on a bus and re-sense stories on the city’s streets. At the moment, Noon is collecting material from people who travel on buses and people who have been living in specific areas to “tell me some hidden stories that might never have been told”. Are you ready to tell all? You need to do so before an an exhibition on 28 November - 3 December at Shoreditch Town Hall.


One of the autumn’s more pretentious announcement has arrived from the Textile Futures Research Group. Asserting that ”textile designers are uniquely placed to inhabit other design fields and cohabit with the world of science,” they go on to promise that “unimaginable (sic) materials are being developed…for applications such as spray on clothing and biocouture.” For my money, textiles’ future belongs to people who can make decent felt hats and slippers. 23 and 24 October, ICA, London.


Warm congratulations to thinkpublic, the social innovation design agency in London: They’ve won the British Council's Young Design Entrepreneur Award. Thinkpublic, formed in 2004 by Debora Szebeko, were one of our partners in Dott 07, when they led the Alzheimer 100 project.


Second Life, Micromovies, Flickr, Virtual Reality, YouTube, Visual Music, Scientific Visualisation, Google Earth: The range of ways we can produce, project and distribute visual material is expanding – but how to manage them? A conference on Image Science, in Goettweig, is about the the inventory, classification and historiography all these images concerning art, popular culture and science. A list of heavyweight speakers includes Felice Frankel, Barbara Stafford, and Peter Weibel. The exploding carbon footprint of the server farms needed to store all these images is not mentioned on the agenda – but you can always raise the issue during Q+A.. October 16 -18 , Goettweig.


At the closing debate of Doors 8 in Delhi a questionaer asked Joi Ito, “is nothing sacred anymore”. Joi’s answer – “open-ness” – has stuck with me ever since. Another global conversation about the art, science and spirit of 'open' has been moving round the world this past year; it involves “people using openness to create and improve software, education, media, philanthropy, neighbourhoods, workplaces and the society we live in”. The next opportunity to talk about thinking, doing and being open is at the Young Foundation in London on 8 November. A Berlin event has also been proposed for early December.


Designer Michael Young, architect Jeffrey Inaba, designer Ilse Crawford, architect and urban planner Jaime Lerner, horticulturalist Lisa White, architect Bjarke Ingels, architect Gert Wingårdh, consumer insight director Shari Swan, zen buddhist teacher Sante Poromaa, sustainability designer John Manoochehri, and economist/politician and writer Antoni Vives, and Malmo director of cityplanning Christer Larsson, are among the speaers at this year’s Design Boost event. 16 October Malmö University, Sweden.


I was critical, at the time it was announced, of a plan by the Rockerfeller Foundation to convene a meeting about Design for Development. Their starting point was “to bring together the world’s best designers with people and organizations that work on the world’s most important and complex problems” – an objective that struck me as being too designer-centric, and too uncritical of the notion of “development”. A report of the meeting at the Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, in June. has now been published - and I have to say that my misgivings persist..The project has acquired a macho new title - “Design for Social Impact” - and there are repeated references to “the social sector” as if society, in all its complexity, is best understood as a market for design services. The language reminds me of time I heard a senior person from Cisco talk about “the sustainability space”. It is also assumed, throughout the report, that ‘the social sector’ contains only NGOs – whereas, for a lot of critics, NGOs are as much a part of the problem as the solution. Most uncompofortable of all, for me, is that nowhere in the report can I find one single mention of the lessons design might learn from other cultures.

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