The pandemic of early 2020 pushed the global population into a new reality. Many of the forms of life we were used to — ways of communicating, gathering, existing — have been transformed in irreversible ways. As members of Guild of Future Architects, we’ve been devoting great time to what all of this means and will mean. We’ve been careful not to operate solely from the current state of the world, but to consider life anew and how best to design future systems for greater levels of trust, justice, and beauty.
My time of quarantine has been spent reflecting on our conversations and researching practices from a variety of branches of knowledge, cultures, political leaders, philosophers, and social eras. Here are some of my notes on ways that we can re-approach design to create a world that’s more just and healthy for all forms of life.
To begin, I’d like to start by reflecting on the words of theorist and philosopher Benjamin Bratton: “The job of design in the 21st century is to undo (much of) the design of the 20th.” The pandemic, on its own, showed society that many of the “taboo” or “impossible” requests (like remote working as requested by employees with physical disabilities) could be implemented, and the only barrier was the opinion of the institutions and their value of said requests. The social uprisings happening a couple months after the wake of quarantine have introduced even greater levels of anarchy and empowerment of the people, as their demands for justice are being realized faster than ever before. These times have allowed us to further question the status quo, observe how well it is serving us all (or not), and realize our agency in enforcing radical changes.
Education for “omni-specialization”
In Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, he describes the origin of specialization and how it has been a tool to create few dominating forces and many comprehensively incoherent workers. Buckminster equates specialization as a tool for societal oppression and the empowerment of the elite. And in many ways, I agree. Specialization in education was implemented for sake of profitable efficiency as we entered the mass-industrialization era. Specialization was not designed for comprehensive innovation that could challenge and reject status quos, but for the emphasis and deeper implementation of status quos. There is great power in understanding the relationships between a variety of branches of knowledge for a fuller understanding. I could imagine an omni-specialized 7th grade pedagogical practice including geometry, chemistry, and design to discover best hair protection practices that retain moisture of tightly coiled hair. Cornrowing is rooted in African fractal geometry, chemistry would be used to observe relationships between hair and the ingredients within products, and design to combine both sciences for a cohesive system. This also challenges the neutrality of eurocentrism in education by exemplifying culturally relevant pedagogy — but I’ll dive deeper into that another time.
Mythologies of design
As stated earlier, designing practices need to be redesigned. Design since the European Enlightenment and industrial revolution has considered the role of a designer to be the visionary, creating solutions for the users. There are several parts of that assumption that I would like to challenge. Victor Papanek was a strong advocate for design being done only within interdisciplinary teams. The designer’s role is not the sole visionary, but the bridge between innovators of different fields. Design practiced in siloed dimensions and mediums results in avoidable blindspots. Designing “for” needs to be an antiquated and rejected practice and replaced with designing “with,” or “by.”
Papanek also expressed how the most important team member within any design team is the person who would be the beneficiary of such service or product. They are an expert within their lived experience and will always have an understanding far greater than someone with the privilege to learn about their conditions outside of lived experience.
My final challenge to the normalized practice of Western design is that the person/community on the receiving end of the service/product is labeled as a “user.” Labeling the audience as a user inherently flattens their multidimensionality, and negates both their agency and humanity. That language is traditional of relationships between technology and humans, and poses harmful consequences in ways designers are considering the end results of their services.
The problem with universally ingraining the superiority of Western design values and practices is that it negates the more ecologically-friendly practices of Asia, Africa, and South America. There’s the circular design potential of Japanese wood joinery (absent of material more difficult to recycle), the long-lasting wooden structures through Japanese wood burning, the bamboo-based architecture of Indonesia that allow for the material used to be created and recreated in the span of a few years (as opposed to the decades required to grow wood), the fig tree root bridges of India, or even the fractal urban design of a variety of African cities — a direct challenge to the Eurocentric Euclidean settlement design that does not mold around nature but forces nature to mold around the inhabitants.
The European Enlightenment enforced the mythology of innovation and technology at the intersections of humanism, capitalism, and racism while severing the relationship between innovation and the ancestral and indigenous practices and wisdom of their foundation. Our yearning to profit quickly and become globally powerful is harmful and rapidly extracting natural resources without concern for repair. Architecture and other elements of the built environment often practice human-first and human-centered forms of design, while not considering their ecological and planetary effects. For instance, building homes and roads with concrete is suffocating the earth.
There is a cycle to natural systems that are the most efficient and should be the root of all design systems moving forward for sustainable impact. Because Americans and other Westerners have designed systems that hide our mess and toxic contributions to the planet, there is little holding us accountable.
Governmental design could also be rooted in biomimicry. The Subak rice terraces of Bali are one of the most egalitarian and democratic forms of farming collaboratives. In order for the entire system to run effectively, a system that serves as the water source for entire communities, everyone must have an equal role. One greedy community member could damage the entire water supply that we all rely on. Our current governmental structure in the U.S. is labeled as a democracy, but operates more as an oligarchy, with great power in few hands. Those most in power also do not have to deal with the negative consequences of their actions. By creating systems of equal reliance and subjugation to consequence, there is greater accountability.
Economic design is political design
American economist Paul Krugman identified a strong correlation between economic health and political behavior. His work shows that extreme economic inequality gives rise to extremely polarized politics — potentially to such an extent that the society could become ungovernable.
Shortly after WWII, most Americans considered themselves to be middle class, and political disparities were at one of their all-time lows. Though the U.S. became very prosperous post-war, there were relatively high rates on taxes for profits even in the midst of vigorous growth. This allows for the return on assets to be less than the growth of the economy, so wealth was not perpetuating itself into extreme disparity. But today, the rate of return on assets is higher than the growth of the economy, allowing for the rich to continue to become richer — and for the politics to become increasingly more polarized.
Trees are socialist design
We can even use biomimicry to redesign social orders. For example, let’s consider how trees of the same species are relatively socialist beings. Their growth and operation are synchronized amongst each other for collective harmony. If one tree is depleted of a certain resource, another will transfer their resources through their roots. Their roots serve as an equitable redistribution mechanism to provide all with what they need, not allowing for the hoarding of a few.
As we enforce systems that are healthier and more equitable, it’s wise to study and observe the practices of different social orders, including socialism. Past President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, pioneered the development of an African Socialism to create self-sufficiency and interdependency of Tanzanians, called Ujamaa (circa 1961). Ujamaa emphasized and was rooted in community, love, and service. It aimed to create a classless, equal, and just society after being recently freed from British colonial rule. This African Socialist design materialized in a variety of forms, including a village-organized political structure. This structure resulted in political representation which was localized. Because of this, community engagement was increased by 90%, from 100 thousand to one million people in the span of 5 years. This political structure also developed legislation designed to enforce local hierarchy and participation of leaders. Each local leader represented their community’s interests, and just as importantly explained the current politics to their local population. Ujamaa realized immense success and potential, and though it eventually came to an end (circa 1985) there is great insight to be gathered from its practices.
Unquestionably, that capitalism can result in great innovation due to monetarily-incentivized competition. For example, the streaming wars between media entities such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video are resulting in some top-notch forms of entertainment. The innovation that arrives due to competition is noteworthy. But I believe that innovation can also stem from systems that are not rooted in the exploitation of subjects at the margins. What sort of political or economic structure that will take, I’m not sure. I’m also not sure if it currently exists. But I hope we leave this pandemic designing a new one. One that is ecologically-centered, biomimicratic, and universally empowering.
- HOME AppleTV series (apple TV)
- Ron Finley’s masterclass on gardening
- Paul Krauman’s masterclass on economics
- Teaching to Transgress—bell hooks
- Freedoms and Socialism | Uhuru na Ujamaa—Julius K. Nyerere
- Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism by Julia Watson
- Politics of Design — Victor Papanek
- African Fractals — Ron Eglash
- Pattern Thinking — Buckminster Fuller
- Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth — Buckminster Fuller
- Whole Earth Catalog — Stewart Brand
- Architecture of Equity — Craig Wilkins
- Hippie Modernism — Andrew Blauvelt