Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 78, may 2009

Micro-utopian seeds for change

In times of recession the privileges of the everyday are questioned. In crisis the questions become more urgent, and the cry for radical answers might pass a desperate situation into a catastrophe. We have to move with caution. At a conference in connection to last years design biennale in St Etienne, the renowned design professor from Milan, Ezio Manzini, brought this transferral of problems into attention. He argued that if “modern life”, as we know it, comes into a downwards sprial we should not only worry about economy or climate change, but the social instability it might create. Such instability can easily turn into civil unrest, which can result in political urgency and the public cry for “THE one solution” as there seems to be “no other way”. If people feel threatened and afraid of the future they might ask to be brought back to a time where “traditional values” were cherished, where there was predictability and security, and where the modern life was prospering. If the last century taught us anything it was that such desire for the one solution, often provided by the one leader, can easily turn history in a regretful and bloody direction.

Manzini’s wish was that design should be a tool for visions, especially in a time of crisis. We need to show that the future is not a bad place, even if we should face a global crisis. Design must be an inspiration as well as offering solutions. In times like this, design must offer a wide multitude of inventive illustrations of the future, a colourful palette of a million solutions that can compete with “THE one” that might one day be offered by some shady figure to rule them all. Design is to create attainable micro-utopias, playful as well as realistic, fantastic as well as applicable. These are all ways for facilitating accessible and discussable visions to make the future more welcoming in times of doom and gloom.

An example from St Etienne was the Eco City Lab exhibition curated by John Thackara, proposing an extensive supply of tools and designs for a more sustainable living. It proposed everything from urban farming and renewable energies to clean transport and locally grown slow food. All amazing and though-provoking DIY-like projects for facilitating a complementary everyday in a sustainable way. Yet they were all different from what we usually see in the glossy design magazines; they were not shining objects of desire but much more like strategies for survival, needing users’ engagement and participation. A collection of small sustainable ideas.

What was exemplified at the Eco City Lab was a multitude of small co-existing solutions, not a competition for the best idea. The big change of the future is not one solitary big step, but a million seeds of utopian projects, all merged in chains of repetitions, iterations and improvements. What is promising these days is that we can get a lot of help from internet communications in spreading ideas, improving on methods and disseminate best practices globally; many coexisting complementary systems – of energy, transactions, farming, transport, knowledge and community. Small ideas, tested actions and empirical interventions, all aimed at a more sustainable future and built to co-exist as compatible LEGO-parts. And as we all know, multiplication can create powerful numbers.

Perhaps we can use a permaculture food-forest as an illustration of this design climate. The food-forest is a systematic design of a complex interactive system that can complement or even compete with the cheap oil-subsidized monoculture farming of today dependent on chemical fertilizers. The food forest, with cleverly designed cycles of soil nutrition and climate resilience can be a model of a multiplicity of dynamic small scale utopian design actions – all coexisting with the bigger system as an abundance of design solutions. Here, small projects give energy to others in cycles of interactive engagement.

And as someone asks for the ONE solution we should think of the words of Buckminster Fuller – “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”. We should come to action, design of a million new models and an abundance of micro-utopian seeds that can render the dystopian futures obsolete.


next column >