2014/10/16 19:00 John Thackara, “Life’s Work:  From doing less harm, to leaving things better”, #RSD3

@johnthackara, first day plenary at #RSD3 Relating Systems Thinking and Design 3, at AHO, Oslo, Norway

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted by David Ing.

Presentation http://systemic-design.net/rsd3-2014/program/

Introduction by Peter Jones.

  • John had worked with Doors of Perception conference
  • Issues that had a service, not given away, could be dealt with by designers and others
  • Former head of Netherland Design Institute

[John Thackara]

Graveyard slot:  the one before people get food and drink

Last year, Harvard neuroscientist presented with 86M neuron, runs on an little energy as a household light bulb

  • Mismatch between functional performance and output
  • Human brain as clever, still capable of missing a few points pertinent to long term survival
  • Runs on cool energy, doesn’t see things in front of it

Three things:

  • 1. Doing less harm would seem to be good for a designer (not as marvellous as it looks)
  • 2. Different ways where actions leave things better
  • 3. Unprincipled designing, what rules could describe leaving things better?

1. Doing less harm

Lexicon of the people who run the planet

“Growth”: without measureable deviation, growth is good

  • In Italy, politician said said growth 43 times, and energy zero times
  • In Sweden, at furniture company, spent 2 days about the things they were doing to make things better, removing lead paint, packing mattresses, procurement of wood (the 4th largest in the world), by 2025, 40% sustainable wood but also then doubling the volume, but we need the growth for sustainability project

Sounds obvious

  • How to justify doing less harm?
  • Growing to infinity on a planet that is finite doesn’t make sense.
  • Growth is in jurisprudence of company
  • Disconnect

“Developing”: almost as good as growth

  • Definition before and after is weird
  • Hunter-gatherer many years ago, would use 1 unit of energy
  • Someone climbing up stairs in skyscraper on London has some body, but needs 60x the energy
  • Caracas: getting people out of shanty towns into skyscrapers, where energy use goes up

“Risk” management:

  • Experts who measure things, and then offer you insurance
  • Risk management enables more damaging behaviour
  • Doing less harm means doing more harm


  • Dark star:  planetary boundaries for earth by Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Resilience as the propensity to take a punch, if resilience, could take that hit
  • But then, why did that guy punch you in a face?

Metabolic rift:  Embodied creates are separated from learning the consequences of what we do

  • Filter over modern society

Noah Raford, expert on complex structures and catastrophic change

  • Checkboard vibrating, halfway through, it stops, can’t know how it will behave

Tim Morton, Ecology without Nature

  • Economic catastrophe has already occured, we are survived
  • Transformational phase shifts doesn’t already occur: eg. stopping fantasy of perpetual growth
  • 2 weeks ago:  “no new buildings, power stations or hard infrastructure after 2020”
  • WBGU Gernmany:  A global transformation of value has already begun, 72% would already welcome a more sustainable society


(2) Leaving things better

Can we heal the metabolic rift?

Reconnecting with place

  • Uniqueness of a place has been overlooked for some centuries

Reconnecting with soil

  • Next year is international year of soil
  • Created a soil tasting ceremony: make tisanes, then put a separate glass with the soil where it had grown
  • Can taste connections

Lexicon for sustainability:  communication artifact and embodied experience

Soils are part of our makeup

Bioregion is a place we can appreciate, instead of the economy map

Robert L. Thayer, Jr:  Life Place, Bioregional

Soil atlas of Europe

  • Could we divide Europe by bioregional places

In New Mexico, dream of local foodsheds

Landlording:  small connections of people reconnecting to living systems and the land

  • Fordhall Community Land Initiative, 8000 people bought the land of a farmer

Watershed recovering in Straw, USA

  • Repairing rivers, fields, with own hands

Reconnecting with rivers (Mexico City)

Philadelpha The Vanishing Point, water underground, restoring the river regenerating that used to be integrated

Watershed regenerating in Jamaica Bay, USA

  • Plant things in the soil that will eat up toxicity

Farming as schooling, in Yorkshire

  • Economics surprising

Pollinator wayfinding in Seattle

  • Bees are in trouble, make a map of a city, find what bees like, and ask people to plant in garden

Watershed management in Tuscon

  • Street by street, volunteers doing rain water management, tearing up concrete, putting in drainage

Urban orcharding, Dundee

Urbanologyjeitinho:  Degree of social infrastructure that is self-organized

Nomadic incubating:  Crate Brewery, in Hackney, London

  • Lab in a microbrewery, where social innovation can happen

(3) Unprincipled designing

  • If we try hard enough, we can not be defeated by complexity, finding ways to nudge systems rather than controlling them
  • Western educated people have a problem with binary thinking:  only one or the other
  • Design-minded, looking for things that could be done better, but without a complicated schema
  • A search for order, point of intervention, has gotten us into trouble

Ranulph Glanville:  Models of the world are not the world

Polyphasic perception

  • Aboriginal people can understand the world in a different way

You can’t know what it’s like to be old, unless you’re old

There’s a gigantic support ecology that doesn’t exist at all, it’s already there, e.g. families

Don’t talk about delivering things:  systems health is a property of a concept

Attend to root causes:  Marc Rettig

Slime mold:  health of a social-ecological system (Ernst Haeckel 1904)

Design like a slime mold?

Sketchnoting of John Thackara presentation by Patricia Kambitsch at https://twitter.com/playthink/status/524374724759916544

Sketchnote of John Thackara presentation by Patricia Kambitsch


See also John Thackara “Green Tourism: From ‘Do Less Harm’ to ‘Leave Things Better’ at http://designonline.org.au/content/green-tourism-from-do-less-harm-to-leave-things-better/

#design, #systems-thinking