John Thackara: Cultural Theory

John Thackara, former director of the Netherlands Design Institute, has spent the past decade championing smart design with a conference series, Web site, and global network—based in Amsterdam and Bangalore—called Doors of Perception. Metropolis senior editor Paul Makovsky spoke to Thackara about his latest project, “Designs of the Time (DOTT)”; his new book, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (MIT Press); and how we should redefine progress.

You’ve recently become director of “DOTT,” a series of projects involving social renewal in northeast England. What’s the goal?
The region—which includes city, countryside, and coast—will find ways for people to rethink the role of design as something that can spur urban renewal but also social public renewal. My job is to create projects led by citizens that bring together a variety of experts, from planning entities and local municipal government to transport and health companies.

In your latest book you are tough on design as it’s currently practiced. What are the issues?
We have major problems to deal with, such as the environment and the way we’ve organized our cities, and they’re the result of past design decisions. If design has contributed to the problems we face, the only answer we have is to design our way out of these same difficulties.

You make the argument for redefining progress. How should we do that?
I’ve just started talking to a development agency, which like any other regional or national government regards progress as something you can measure in terms of productivity, increased factory output, and more jobs. This is the traditional way we measure progress. The problem with it is that it’s like measuring the speed of a car that is already going too fast, whose speed is damaging the roads and whose ride is not particularly good for the passengers. We have to broaden the definitions of well-being and success that we use to monitor our progress. There are people like Hazel Henderson and others creating new indicators of well-being that take into account such things as the quality of your social context, the satisfaction you have with your natural environment, and the pleasure you take in your family.

You talk about the importance of “macroscopes.” What are they?
A macroscope is something that helps us see what the aggregation of many small actions looks like when added together. My favorite example is that everybody in Melbourne, Australia, is crazy about building small concrete patios in their backyard as a kind of mini fashion item. When you add all those thousands upon thousands of little bits of paving stones and cement together, it turns out that more of the earth is being sealed off from the rain and nature than all the road and airport building programs put together in the same area. This aggregation of small actions is often invisible to us.

You also make a case that people design systems, intentionally or otherwise. What are some examples of this?
The most pressing one for most cities is the disposition of transport networks because any city that is growing is required to find ways of dealing with the pressing demands of cars and roads. So if you have people living closer to where they work, you can reduce the need for transportation. The Swedes, for example, have realized that you can reduce the transport requirements of the same movement of people and goods by huge amounts just by employing existing systems more cleverly. Big systems are often the result of small actions taken by many people over time. All I’m suggesting is that people look at small changes to their work or life situations, not that they take on the crushingly depressing huge burden of changing some big thing.

I liked how you ended your book by saying that we are all designers now.
I don’t expect everybody to be designing chairs and tables because we probably have enough of those at the moment. It’s about the activities of human beings. The only way we’re going to solve the problems we face is through collaboration. It’s not that designers have to stop being designers. It’s just that they’re not going to be doing it to us—they’re going to be doing it with us. That’s a shift that strikes traditional designers as a depressing prospect. But I’ve always found that designers who collaborate with those in different disciplines and different kinds of “ordinary people” find it fascinating and exciting. It’s not a bad prospect for people doing design now.

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