Biennials and system change

I was invited to give a keynote in Milan to the general assembly of the International Biennials Association. My talk was called Life’s Work: Biennials and Regeneration. Here below is a summary:

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The sad-looking structure above was the Dutch Pavilion not long after the Hannover World Expo ended in 2000.

Having helped to write the brief, I know first-hand that the Expo team hoped for a different outcome. The very essence of the Dutch pavilion was supposed to be sustainability, innovation, and long-term progress.

So what went wrong? Why do so many expos, festivals and biennials promise to change the world for the better – only to end up as trash?

A short answer: Many big-ticket events are thinly disguised real-estate plays in a world that is over-built. Pavilions, stadia and museums are too often conceived as ‘antenna buildings’ whose task is to attract attention to hitherto cheap land – and raise its price.

Looking forward, biennials have a more transformative role to play as catalysts of the system change we need. To grasp this opportunity, the the biennial is best re-imagined, as a model, in four ways.

1.     New story of place.

Biennials are well-placed to to evaluate of a region’s social and ecological assets. In doing so, they can tell an alternative story about  the relationship between humans and the places we inhabit.


When this writer organised City Eco Lab (above) as centrepiece for the French design biennial in St Etienne, we put 50 live projects from the immediate region at the centre of the event. These included urban farmers, watershed restorers, and bicycle couriers. Visitors ate locally-sourced food at Cantine 50km. In workshops, project leaders from the bioregion met with global experts in platforms for cooperation and sharing resources.

Scientists, in their studies of earth systems, biogeochemistry, and systems ecology, are discovering that our planet is a web of interdependent ecosystems in which no organism is truly autonomous – including us.

A biennial can explore, make manifest, and and enrich these interconnections between social and ecological systems.

The ideal scale for a biennial is its bioregion. A bioregion re-connects us with living systems, and each other, through the unique places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibersheds, and food systems – not just  in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’.

These social and ecological systems can be the stars of the show.


For the biennial in St Etienne we made a map (above) of the many projects bringing the river Furan back to life. Most of these projects were unknown to each other;  politicians and citizens were inspired by the discovery of so much positive activity in their own back yard.

A number of creative tasks for artists and designers follow from this approach. Maps of a bioregion’s ecological assets are needed: its geology and topography; its soils and watersheds; its agriculture and biodiversity.

The collaborative monitoring of living systems also needs to be designed – from soil health, to air quality – and ways found to observe the interactions among them, and create feedback channels.

New and artful forms of representation can be commissioned, in a biennial,  to reveal energy and nutrient cycles, or biodiversity, or to show the different ways that healthy social systems depend upon, and are intertwined with, healthy economies and ecosystems.

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Scientists are developing wonderful notation systems to describe living systems that are otherwise invisible. Shown above: ‘nature’s internet’ – the interactions among mycorrhizal fungi in the soils beneath our feet

This new story of place needs to include people, skills and production facilities that have been rendered marginal by globalisation. A biennial can be an engine of economic revival by showcasing locally sourced materials, the skills needed to use them, and under-used spaces with the potential to be re-purposed.

When it is easier to find local manufacturers, people start to work with them. In Scotland, a network of ‘factory finders’ called Make Works, founded by two artists, documents skilled people, places, tools and materials. This open access platform boosts local economies of manufacture and repair. 

2    Marketplace for change agents

Most cities and their bioregions contain a rich diversity of social and environmental innovation – real-world projects concerning alternatives that work.

But much of this activity is below-the-radar, or under-connected. Biennials can be the place (and time) when these project pioneers – together with outliers, and shadow networks – connect with fellow citizens and discuss new opportunities for work and enterprise.


In Designs of the Time (Dott) – the first social innovation biennial – live projects across North East England explored what life in a sustainable region could be like. Topics ranged from urban farming and shared mobility, to community energy and elder care. At the Dott festival (above) project pioneers discussed with 20,000 citizens how to amplify this work.

Their number includes energy angels, wind wizards, watershed managers. citizen foresters. dam removers, river restorers, rain harvesters, urban farmers, seed bankers, master conservers. .. the list is endless. 

In Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest the glossary alone is 100 pages long.

This connecting is itself a form of innovation.

Few of these edge projects and networks tare fighting directly for political power, or standing for election. They cluster, instead, under names like Transition Towns, Shareable, Peer to Peer, Las Indias, Open Source, Degrowth, Slow Food, Seed Freedom, or Buen Vivir.

But when you bring these movements together – for example, in a biennial – they tell a joyful new story about the emergence of the new economy we yearn for.

3     Social Harvest Festival

Biennials can embody a new story about the relationship of man to nature. In this story the key measure of value –  and a new definition of development and progress – is the health of living systems, and the vitality of interactions between them.

Growth, in this new story, means stewardship, not extraction. It means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier,  and communities more resilient.

A biennial is ideally placed to seek out and amplify signals of change that already out there – but unrecognised, and disconnected: New forms of social organizing, new values, new ways of working and living.

The cultural and aesthetic dimension here is itself transformative. Artistic practice is uniquely powerful in changing the threshold of what is seen and what is unseen.

Disco Soupe
As Europe’s Green Capital, the city of Nantes staged the usual trade fair and conferences. But with Disco Soupe (above) the biennial took to the streets and came to life; seven thousand citizens were fed with food ‘waste’.

4     A cooperation platform

A major challenge for change makers is the sheer diversity of stakeholders who need to be stewarded in order to get things done.

As shared public events, biennials can be retooled as bridges and connectors that foster reciprocal relationships between diverse actors united in a common goal: the long-term health and vitality of their place.

Platform cooperativism is hot topic in the tech world right now – but it has huge potential, too, in the context of bioregional transformation.

Sharing and cooperation are not new. Throughout history, humans have collaborated in diverse ways to obtain low-interest credit and capital, training and certification, low-cost insurance and the like.

One task for a biennial is to explore what forms of cooperation existed in that region  in the past – and how these models might be re-purposed using the latest collaboration software and networks.

europe of bioregions
(Above) A Europe of bioregions; each one needs its own biennial

The biennial as cooperation platform need not be parochial. On the contrary, it needs, of course, to be globally connected – a kind of junction box that linking trans-local global networks
 with its bioregion, and the enterprises within it.










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Back to work or college? Need an uplift? #ThackaraThrive ebook special

If you could do with an uplift on your way back to work, or college, please consider my book How To Thrive In The Next Economy; as an incentive, my publisher has just slashed the price of the ebook to £3.17 ($4) If paying me $1 for each year I spent writing the book is not enticing on its own, here’s some of the feedback we’ve had so far:

“Marvelous – so much to think and talk about at every point” Robin Murray “No 3 in our top books for winter” Shareable “Our powerhouse reading list for 2016” Forum for the Future “Radical, relevant and accessible” Konst/Ig Books “One of the most optimistic guidebooks for the future” Core77 “Gives meaning and purpose to young people” The Dirt “Clear-eyed but ultimately optimistic” San Francisco Book Review “A visionary yet practical guide” Green Living “Optimistic without being naive or utopian”  Deco “Addresses the ‘why’ of economic activity we’ve been lacking” Publishers Weekly “Optimistic – small examples with potential to grow into something new” STBY Amsterdam  “A multitude of small actions that work” Abitare

Five Star Reviews on Amazon
“difficult to put down- a refreshing, powerful read” …“a brilliant book – excellent questions, sound research, new directions for the near future” … “life changing, thought provoking” … “an eye-opening book – hope in the future if we start taking action now” … “an Inspiring view of the future” … This inspiring & great book puts a real perspective on connectivity” … “a great inspiration”

“Light in the gloom” Hugh Knowles “Restores my faith in humanity” Amy Twigger Holroyd  “An economy in which life is valued more than money” Warren Hatter “Buy this book! It is wisdom incarnate” Ed Gillespie “Fab – explains why change is essential” Kate Fletcher “How the small be connected together to make the big” Verge “Fertile for microbusinesses” Upstarting “How Repair Economies can Thrive Again” Restart Project “Escape from an economy that devours nature” Better Sydney  “Brilliant: how communities around the world are building the next economy” Natalya Sveriensky  “A must read for #socialimpact: An economy in which life is valued more than money” Design Matters “Leaving things better – growing a replacement economy from the ground up” SustainAbility “Amazing: full of data and real life experiences” @LustForL1fe “Full of aspiration & ambition” Howard Silverman “A cause for celebration” Rory Hyde “A must-read” Andrew Zolli “Excited to see the future again” Lavrans Lovlie “it’s great. I just ordered four” Chris Luebkeman  “a smart read” Marcus Kirsch

Talks about the book
EarthTalks in Vienna.
New York launch at SVA.
Future Ways Of Living, in Milan
Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam.

Interviews about the book
With Allan Chochinov for Core 77

With Jonny Gordon-Farleigh for STIR magazine

With @tbonini for Che Fara

With Peter Jarrett for Berkeley Wellness

How To Order
To order #ThackaraThrive as an ebook click here
 or here

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A beehive is not a factory: Rethinking the modular

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I was invited to write the Preface to Rethinking The Modular: Adaptable Systems in Architecture and Design edited by Burkhard Meltzer and Tido von Oppeln. As the book has just been published, here follows my text:

Back to the Present

Trumpeted as ‘the most significant innovation in beekeeping since 1852’, the Flow Hive  was pitched to a crowd-funding site in 2015 as the bee keeper’s dream product.

‘Turn the tap and watch as pure, fresh, clean honey flows right out of the hive and into your jar’ gushed the website; ‘No mess, no fuss, no expensive equipment – and all without disturbing the bees’.

Helped by glowing reviews in Forbes, Wired, and Fast Company, Flow Hive’s pitch on Indiegogo worked like a dream; having sought $70,000 to launch the product, more than $6 million had been committed on Indiegogo at the time of writing.

Too good to be true? Sadly, yes.

As news of Flow Hive spread, natural beekeepers described Flow Hive’s approach as ‘battery farming for bees’. Read More »

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And my killer project of all is…. (interview with @tbonini)


My  interview with @tbonini has ben  published in Italian at Che Fara.Here is the English version:

Q  Among the many case histories that you brilliantly discovered and reported in your book, is there someone that you believe is extremely central in planning the “tomorrow’s world”?

The sheer variety of projects and initiatives out there is,  for me, the main story. No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty oak tree. We need to think more like a forest than a single tree! If you look at healthy forests, they are extremely diverse—and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world.  These edge projects and networks, when you add them together, replace the fear that has so hampered the environmental movement.  Read More »

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Why messy cities are more modern


(Pic: Being Nicely Messy, CRIT, Mumbai) In London, I did this interview with Midtown Big Ideas Exchange:

Q   Do you believe cities are rational or organized and, if so, what makes them this way?

A    Cities are often conceived in a rational way but usually take on a non-rational life of their own – and thank goodness for that. The spatial grid of New York, for example, co-exists with a bewildering array of unofficial activities at street level. The same goes for Mumbai; her city map looks clear enough – but it does not equip the visitor to understand the apparent chaos of daily life on the ground. The best cities combine both: Read More »

Posted in place & bioregion | 1 Response

Healthcare in the Next Economy

Last month I gave a talk at 
UC Berkeley School of Public Health, as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series, with the title, From Biomedicine to Bioregion: The Geographies of a Care-Based Economy. The video of that talk is here. My interview with Peter Jarrett, for their online journal Berkeley Wellness, is republished below.

The philosopher and writer John Thackara, a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art, in London, scours the world for examples of the ways social innovation can improve the health of communities, which he explores in his blog, He recently spoke at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health about his new book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy. He explores the ways sometimes small steps can make a tremendous difference in solving some of the most intractable challenges in delivering health care.

What are the most serious challenges facing health care?

It’s a multi-dimensional crisis in which trillions of dollars are spent treating the symptoms of illness rather than its causes. Read More »

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No organism is truly autonomous – including us

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An interview with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, the editor and publisher of STIR magazine.
Current and back issues of the magazine are available in the online shop

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Your new book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy, explores practical innovations in sustainability across the world. What stories would you pick out as the most instructive for the scale of change we need to see?

John Thackara: The sheer variety of projects and initiatives out there is, for me, the main story. No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty oak tree. We need to think more like a forest than a single tree! If you look at healthy forests, they are extremely diverse—and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world. Many people say we need to focus on solutions that scale, but to me that’s globalisation-thinking wearing a green coat. Every social and ecological context is unique, and the answers we seek will be based on an infinity of local needs. Read More »

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Recoded City

Recoded City

I wrote this preface for a new book called Recoded City: Co-Creating Urban Futures by Thomas Ermacora and Lucy Bullivant.

I write these words outside the portakabin control room of Shambala, a summer festival in England. On the wall is the street plan of what looks like a mid-sized town. Fifteen thousand people have indeed filled a vast field with tents, yurts, sound stages, composting toilets, drinking water tanks, hot tubs, food vans, cellphone charging stations, yoga enclosures, a barber shop, a meadow filled with aromatherapists, cash vending machines in a caravan, and pagan circles around wood-burning stoves.

Surrounding Shambala’s downtown core is a densely-packed suburbia Read More »

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Are positive stories enough?

“The world is in dire need of a narrative adjustment; that’s why we write” (Hamid Dabashi)

Since How To Thrive In the Next Economy was published in the autumn, my 29 conversations about the book have prompted all kinds of feedback. One question has cropped up repeatedly: In a world filled with melting ice caps, war, species extinctions, and economic peril, how can I possibly argue that the small-scale actions I write about can transform the bigger picture for the better?

My answer: It depends how you frame the picture. Read More »

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