“You are lucky being locked down there!”, surprisingly the common opinion of most friends and relatives, or better, exactly those who never understood my choice to come and live in a remote and wild place. Last year, they were asking me -some worried, some derisive: “What are you doing all day long?”. As if real life is delays, desks, aperitifs and weekends. Today, guzzling spring water after plowing, playing with the little one in the woods every day, walking one kilometer in the sun for garbage is good luck. We are not so different: we probably live the epic of our own life instead of reality. But I don’t forget we are both privileged, and both hypocrites. Sorry.
During my frugal winter, I had one obsession in my head. How to work -individually and collectively- on what John Thackara calls metabolic rift:
“the alienation between humans and nature that opened up with the growth of the modern economy”
I’ve resolved I would familiarise myself more with the surroundings. The Buttignan, the Frascola, the Lovet, the Rodolino, their peaks and forests. I can comfortably follow them from morning mist to moonlight. I’ve been observing them, catching their silence distorsion, learning useless things. In a few weeks, I’ve been searching for them during the day, up to the point where spotting them from a new angle would excite me more than anything else. We have ended up sharing some of the most beautiful moments of solitude as true soulmates. I’ve started to care more, to feel for them: the lack of snow has become a worry, a warm Christmas twice a nightmare.
The climate emergency should concern us more than the last virus. Maybe a pretentious ask for a society that worships wealth and ignores inconvenient predictions to later name them black swans. I know. But unprepared leaders are showing that on a relatively minor disaster they can somehow take action, that lobbies are not invincible, that people will follow unpopular and restrictive measures for better. There is hope.
Think of a forest. Not necessarily a blazing one. It is an enjoyable piece of land, maybe a mysterious place, actually an ecosystem to preserve but at the end only an important resource supplier to the short-term, profit-driven society. Well, a forest is a living system, not a factory. In an alternative, stewardship economy only some of the slowest growing trees among the highest in number could be sacrificed; the young and rampant ones or the rare presences would deserve time and space to rise. Even naturally fallen trees would not necessarily be exploited: deadwood is life for plants, insects, mushrooms, bacteria, and even us. But this is not what one thinks. Now, I can excuse all of us -average citizens-, especially those who cannot even draw a tree. But I cannot excuse us who are thinking systemically all day long — designers-, especially those who cannot get out of their screens.
Did you ever realize the so trendy User Experience is a tech bitch? And that Human-Centered Design per se is dangerously outdated and limited but if you then force it into digital, that’s where it screws up the world?
The context should always be way larger, the purpose so different. In the end, concretely, it’s about caring for territory -the combination of people and other organisms in a definable space.
You don’t choose, the land does *
I came to live here because I fell in love with the harsh landscape and I got struck by the vicissitudes of gone generations. Centuries ago this was a rich and powerful community, with trade happening in Florence and Amsterdam. The valley quickly became overpopulated, forests were progressively turned into grazeland, until the economy collapsed due to uncontrolled growth and extensive extraction. Sounds familiar?
Nature regained control over the exploited fields and the abandoned hamlets but local society never recovered -it crumbled under the pulling forces of the Italian economic miracle.
I never made plans to help out with small things here, it just happened. Day after day, I ended up seeing my profession develop where it would be less obvious but with those who are most in need. To design in a scarcely populated valley affected by a progressive socio-economical decay. To collaborate with the baker, the farmer, the postman, a teenage student, on how to transition this neglected territory from a miserable today to a tomorrow of epochal changes the world will soon face.
Resurgence is the new innovation **
Patrizia is an energetic primary school teacher, a folk musician, former local councilor for arts and culture. Moreno is a geek urban planner, passionate historian, awarded honorary citizenship for his long term studies on the valley. We set no expectations, we have no budget, we simply decided to invite the population, average age 55+, to:
- trust someone again, after years of political disappointment;
- describe their real needs, both as individuals and community;
- map available resources and constraints;
- agree on a first challenge to tackle;
No social media but phone calls and a couple of A3s at the bar.
Amazingly, we had 60 out of 650 residents showing up, making it my biggest session ever to facilitate. The audience was quite heterogenous: shop owners, innkeepers, a dozen youngsters, some 80+ vibrant folks, the two mayors and a few councilors, including a couple of visitors involved in cultural activities in close-by villages.
Moreno and I gave brief talks about last centuries’ facts and figures, why a wicked problem should not be intimidating and how design is what we all use to turn imagination into reality. The plenary activity was again surprising: the first demand was to become a true, participative community; followed by the necessity to attract new, young residents. To somehow confirm the above and complicate things, the lack of openness was seen as the main limitation in this valley. We had imagined that discussing resources we could end up in some sort of materialistic talk, but the majority considered land and water as their richness.
Quite naturally, people indicated water as a priority. The region is characterized by three connected reservoirs created in the 1960s. An intervention that radically modified nature, society, and economy of the region. There you go, the collective metabolic rift to be healed.
When my luck will be over, we will take a closer look at the fragility of this ecosystem. We will try to understand what can be done to imagine a sustainable future for this territory.
With urgency and patience. No matter if some of us won’t be there to see the results. No land is truly ours.
* inspired by Fabrizio De Andre’s words about Sardinia;
** inspired by the awesome work of Superflux Studio about Post-Human Design.