Design as Salvation
If the world is flattening, the energy bubble is threatening to burst, and science is on track to make humanity as we know it obsolete, Mr. Pink and Mr. Johnson give us important clues to how to prepare our minds. But what can possibly be done to influence a future of such gigantic forces and daunting problems? Consider the energy problem. Barring massive Malthusian disasters, today’s billions of living humans can’t go back to a world with a more manageable population, so the question of how so many people are going to find the energy to maintain an industrial lifestyle without cooking the atmosphere remains to be addressed. Fortunately, the very ephemeral abundance of the past century left us with at least one dimension of wiggle room. In a world designed for energy abundance, opportunities to redesign wasteful systems abound. Innovation doesn’t always mean inventing a new widget. The best design concerns thinking really deeply and broadly about the methods we use to get things done, the things we use to do that, and the consequences of the ways we do things.
Mr. Kunstler, for instance, seems to lump together “technology” and “innovation” when evaluating humanity’s ability to meet the looming crisis of petroleum depletion. But not all great innovations are technologies. In the 1970s, in response to the first oil shock, the notion that families and nation-states could adapt, in part, by installing more efficient appliances and better-insulated windows led to a design revolution worth billions of barrels of oil. Not being as dreadfully unmindful as we are today about the externalities we design into vehicles, buildings, cities, appliances, and business processes is one possible response that doesn’t require inventing desktop cold fusion or building thousands more nuclear reactors than it is possible to build in a decade. Design isn’t color or pattern, but the way things work, and their relationship to all the human and natural systems in which they are embedded.
The past year was a good one for future-thinkers who want to learn about design, with two such exemplary books as In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (MIT Press, 2005), by John Thackara, and Massive Change (Phaidon Press, 2004), from Bruce Mau and the Institute Without Boundaries. Mr. Thackara is a prime example of a globalized knowledge worker. He lives in France, and the “design futures network” he directs, Doors of Perception, is based in Amsterdam and Bangalore. His premise is, “If we can design our way into difficulty, we can design our way out.” His encyclopedic knowledge of the systemic costs of bad design is complemented by his ability to marshal abundant examples of designers, companies, institutions, and systems that are beginning to get design right — mitigating environmental externalities that used to be invisible but are now potentially lethal, while remaining profitable. Design is not just an aptitude restricted to specialists in the bubble — as Mr. Thackara says, “It’s what humans do.” (The book’s title refers to the state of human thought and communication and technical information flow that air traffic controllers use to control a complex technological system that could go disastrously wrong at any moment.) Mr. Thackara not only thinks broadly, deeply, and systemically — he practices what he foresees, all over the world.
Mr. Mau’s Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about “the design of the world” — the guiding principle behind a beautifully realized, highly visual book created by a network of designers. Where Mr. Thackara tells us about the way design ought to inform the use of technology — and why, and how — Mr. Mau and his associates show how people today are solving problems large and small, global and local. In the Bubble analyzes the whole system integrally; Massive Change looks systemically at the major pieces, through many lenses. The image that sticks in my mind from this book is of a simple metal stove in use in Africa: The Turbo Stove is a lightweight, inexpensive device that can be assembled without tools in 15 minutes; it burns biofuels such as peanut shells, cornhusks, straw, and animal dung with maximum efficiency, providing heat for the poorest populations without exacerbating the problems caused by deforestation and fossil fuel use. This book is as big as the others in this collection, taking on everything from energy and information to markets, manufacturing, and transport.