When the Bubble Bursts

Review of In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World by John Thackara (The MIT Press, 2005). Originally published in Blueprint, July 2005. Author’s book site. Full book information on MIT Press site. Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Cover of ‘In the Bubble’

‘In the Bubble’ brings together a number of contemporary intellectual trends — sustainability, environmentalism, people-centred design, decentralisation, learning from nature, locality, technological modesty, asceticism — and considers “how to design a world in which we rely less on stuff, and more on people”.

It is a little difficult to determine, as Thackara would put it, to what question this book is the answer. The key premises of the book seem to be that with population growth, increases in consumption, accelerating change, and inefficient use of resources in “a world whose carrying capacity is limited” our current trajectory is unsustainable. At the same time, we put “smart technology in pointless products” and “foist technology onto a world that does not need it”.

However, we can deal with these challenges as we “have a tool, design, with which to shape them”, and should instead “look for ways to enhance the kinds of daily life that we experience here and now”.

Irrespective of its premises, ‘In the Bubble’ provides intriguing examples of current developments in and around design, from many countries, industries, and types of organisation. And Thackara doesn’t discuss design in a narrow sense, instead picking up on developments such as inclusive design, design for adaptation, service design, participative design, and system design.

Thackara picks up on some key ideas that have yet to be widely appreciated, around networks and the real world, platforms over products, visualisation, forms of knowledge, community, and learning, and he notes the lack of discussion of the impact on our bodies and on society of smart and connected technologies.

Though Thackara doesn’t develop a substantive underlying design theory, he does present high-level design approaches in the Mobility and Learning chapters, and in the Flow chapter he presents seven, more general, ‘design frameworks’. “This book will have done its job”, he concludes, “if it provokes you to think about one or two small design steps you might take on Monday morning”. In that sense ‘In the Bubble’ will probably be considered a success.

Much of ‘In the Bubble’ is intriguing and novel, and some of the scenarios Thackara paints are quite appealing. However, those scenarios often simply sound like worthy versions of the kind of lives well-off European already live (good food, well-paced life, pleasant locality), or imply some kind of state control or socialistic transformation from which Thackara would run a mile. As a result, the ideas in the book are hard to grasp.

Overall, for all its intrigue, ‘In the Bubble’ is very ‘heavy, man’. In particular, the chapters Lightness, Speed and Mobility weigh, and wear, you down with their bleak portraits of our spiralling problems. It is “demotivating to be confronted by a task that seems too hard”, Thackara writes, but he still falls victim to this tendency with his unexplained vortex of heaviness, his ambiguous attitude towards people (victims, consumers, or problem-solving partners?), and his reticence towards explanatory theories.

Nevertheless, you should read ‘In the Bubble’ as an eloquent statement of what is becoming accepted wisdom in and around design and innovation, a thoughtful analysis of the applications of information technology, and a journalistic tour de force through emerging design practice.

Originally published at www.spy.co.uk.