How AI might be used to enhance local knowledge

[Indigenous peoples have a closer relationship with the ecologies of their land than those who practice ‘production agriculture’. But their intimate, fine-grained knowledge can always be enhanced. Sarah Kaushik (above) describes a system in which biodata collected from plants could be ‘heard’ by the farmer as music]

I wrote the Foreword (below) to a new book called Decentralising Digital. The project explores the possible roles that mesh networks, the Internet of Things, voice enabled Internet, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, might play in enhancing ecological agriculture. The design brief: how to enhance the farmers’ ability to understand the health of their soil, and their care for biodiversity. The project is a joint venture between Quicksand Design Studio in India, and the University of Dundee in Scotland.

In the new economy emerging from these turbulent times, the word ‘development’ is taking on a profoundly different meaning. Its core value is stewardship, rather than extraction. It is motivated by concern for future generations, not by what ‘the market’ needs in the next few months. It also respects social practices – some of them very old ones – learned by other societies, and in other times.

This new kind of development is not backwards looking – it embraces technological innovation, too. But technologies are evaluated against the higher purpose that innovation should support – and living lightly on the planet is the most important new purpose for us all.

Living lightly happens to be second nature for poor people who cannot not rely on the high entropy support systems we’ve become used to in the cities.
The resource-light ways with which rural communities meet daily life needs are usually described as poverty, or a lack of development – but, in 35 years as a guest in what used to be called the ‘developing’ world, I’ve come to a startling conclusion: People who are poor in material terms are highly accomplished at the creation of value in ways that do not destroy natural and human assets.

This is not to trivialize the extreme challenges faced by poor people on a daily basis: financial precarity; threats to land rights; disrespect for grounded local knowledge; promotion from the centre of inappropriate and poor quality technical solutions. But, to the extent that a resilient economy is based on local production, human labour, and natural energy – well, the poor rural people of the world are further down the learning curve than the rest of us.

This book is about accentuating the positives among rural communities in Karnataka, India. It explores the possible roles that mesh networks, the Internet of Things, voice enabled Internet, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, might play in enhancing daily life practices that are already successful: ecological agriculture, forest conservation, water management, and place-based education.

Designing for change, in this book, is not much about single, problem-solving ‘solutions’. Its focus is more on ways to improve existing social practices – such as social systems based on kinship, and ways to share resources, that have deep roots right across South Asia and beyond.

In the North, the sharing or Peer-to-Peer economy has been presented as a novelty in recent times – but people in other cultures have collaborated, and supported each other in times of difficulty, over generations. Many of these have atrophied in many cities – but not so in the ‘undeveloped’ communities featured in this book.

Technology can play an important role as the supporting infrastructure needed for these social relationships to flourish. The re-emergence of gift exchange can be made possible by electronic networks. Mobile devices, and the internet of things, make it easier for local groups to share equipment and space, or manage trust in decentralised ways. Technology can also help reinvent cooperative practices – sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, exchanging, & swapping – in which money is but one means among many of holding or exchanging value.

The how as well as the what of innovation is novel in this book. Potential uses of technology are explored in tentative, experimental ways. The actors directly involved learn bit by bit, and reflect as they go along. Space and time are reserved, in this process, for diversity; several different possible outcomes are often explored at the same time.

The futures explored in this book may be local, social, and decentralised – but they can inspire and guide us all. The world can learn from practices here that are community-centric, ecologically-balanced, and culturally-respectful. Whenever we encounter an opportunity for change in our own context, and ask: who has answered a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, or piggyback on, what worked before? The rural communities people, featured here will be one place to look.

The design practices here are more relational, than transactional. They respect the human embeddedness in the natural world. Prospective design actions are respectful of existing social and cultural practices, and ecologically sensitive.

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The Anthroponaut’s Wordbook, by Karin Fink. A prologue

The following is my prologue to The Anthroponaut’s Wordbook, by Karin Fink, which has just been published by Postmedia Books.

The scale of the societal and environmental challenges we face can be debilitating. Feeling powerless to change the course of events, the inclination to switch off can feel like self-defence. Karin Fink’s response is both nimble and wise. Rather than confront the enormity of unfolding events head-on, she sets out to start conversations and foster relationships – one at a time. Rather than re-draw the whole picture at a stroke, her focus in this book is on small connections, and how to enhance them. This approach to connections and relationships echoes the words of Ilya Prigogene, a founder of systems thinking: “When a system is far from equilibrium”, he wrote, “small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system”. Small islands of coherence, for Karin Fink, are discrete concepts and thoughts that, when articulated, can trigger new conversations among individuals and groups that might have been at loggerheads, or worse, before. The power of this approach is evident from the first entry in this book, on Affluence. Rather than denounce a fallen world for its greed and avarice, we are given a novel interpretation of the word itself – the idea that unmediated contact with nature might be a better measure of wealth than money, or possessions. An innocuous invitation to think ecologically, rather than economically, transforms the meaning and purpose of growth – but by indirect means. Rather than measure progress against abstract measures such as money, or GDP, ecological growth means observable improvements to the health and carrying capacity of the land, and the resilience of communities. Value is created by the stewardship of living systems, rather than the extraction of ‘natural resources’. We are not commanded to change our behaviour. Rather, a subtle tweak of language takes us down a conversational path – away from a world of abstraction, and into a world in which we are part of the web of life. This work is not neither symbolic, nor utopian. We are invited here to experience new connections, not just think about them – to connect with all of life, not just with human life. As Martin Buber counseled, “all living is meeting” , and reflecting on new meanings for that one word – affluence – is an invitation to explore relationships to other living beings, to seek out ways to be part of nature, rather than separate from it. The beauty of this approach is its subtlety. Rather than command us to stop killing the planet, conversations can start in this book that lead us, like a meandering river, to respect soils, waters, plants, and animals as co-equals, with us, of the places we inhabit. This transition is not a dreamy cruise to look at the view – it entails new work. Connecting with place brings with it the duty to care for place – but the pages that follow can show us how – step by step, island by island.
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Re-wilding the Bauhaus: what its foundation course should be like today

To mark its centenary year, the Bauhaus published Design Rehearsals: Conversations About Bauhaus Lessons. My contribution was a response to images from Oskar Schlemmer’s class on ‘The Human’. I’m re-posting it now on the occasion of the @BauhausSeas launch event on 20 May.

The Man portrayed in these images is a lonely one.

A preoccupation with the human being as an autonomous subject must have felt liberating at the time – but today these images speak of abstraction and ecological indifference. They remind us of what we have lost: Situated and embodied experiences that once gave us meaning – a sense of connection to each other, and with the living world.

The sadness evoked by these images can also be productive: they contain the seeds of a Vorkurs, or Foundation Course, to replace what has been lost.

This course would foster ecological literacy, and a whole-systems understanding of the world.

It would reunite two worlds that have been sundered: wisdom traditions from other places and times, and the latest insights of systems thinking and complexity science.

The course would expose students to complex interactions between life-forms, rocks, atmosphere, and water. It would help them discover that the entire Earth is animated by interactions among systems at different geographical and temporal scales.

The experience of mapping biotic communities would teach them that everything is connected – from sub-microscopic viruses, to the vast subsoil networks that support trees.

Art, in the new course, would ensure that students connect with living systems emotionally, and not just rationally.

By making students curious about “what we’re inside of”, in the words of Nora Bateson, art would teach students to explore complex interdependencies with joy – even when they remain perplexed.

By making them aware of the power of small actions to transform the bigger picture, art would also foster activity – not just awareness, or introspection.

Many core elements of such a course already exist. Pockets of vitality can be found wherever students are attentive to the relationships between living organisms and their environment.

Ilya Prigogene described such experiments as ‘small islands of coherence’ in an otherwise chaotic world. http://thackara.com/notopic/industrial-production-is-not-the-purpose-of-life/

Caring for life – and its interdependence with the nonhuman world – is a new source of value on these islands.

And because ecological practice involves new ways of thinking about connection, patterns and context, the new course would bring designers quite naturally in contact with adjacent disciplines such as climatology, hydrology, geography, psychology, history, and many more.

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Cities as Lifeworlds

Ahead of a talk in Milan at the Politecnico di Milano, I was interviewed about relational ecology and design

Q: Sometimes “sustainable” ways of living are often more expensive. They are more elite, how can we make them more accessible?

A: Good question. Food is an obvious example, but many ‘green’ products and services seem to be more expensive than other products with similar performance. The near future means:
a) focus on local and direct relationships between producers and users; and
b) eliminate most marketing, branding and packaging. They add cost to the transaction but don’t add value to the product itself!

Q: How can we make local initiatives global?

A: Why would we want (or need) to do that? The solutions that work best are local, context- specific, and ‘owned’ by the people involved. Of course, yes, we should share knowledge about novel approaches – but scale is not a requirement of sustainability.

Q: Covid is changing our relationship to cities and urban life, and at least in some regions pushing toward more localism and a distributed usage of space. How can design contribute to this change, and is there any opportunity for a more balanced relationship with the nature and the ecosystem?

A: I have no answer. It is too soon. Many many millions of people this year have experienced life without the costs and discomfort of commuting. At the same time, they have had the opportunity to connect with nature nearby – even if it is a ‘weed’ on their balcony.

Q: Has this “relational” approach has been included in National or local policies? If not, why?

A: In High Nature Value Farming, the importance of ecological connections and corridors is well established in policy. And in place-based and territorial innovation (for example ‘smart villages’) more and more attention is being paid to ‘cross visits’ and learning journeys in which people learn from the place and learn from each other (rather than learn online, or in a university!). Of course, Covid will disrupt these tendencies.

Q: How a local dimension is impacting sustainability and thus how Design can help it?

A: The arguments and reasons for localisation have been well-discussed for many years. Covid has been a catalyst to make many of these abstract discussions real. The “15 Minute City” concept being implemented in Paris is a good example.

Q: How can we extend the relational culture so to promote the relationship with the place and materials worldwide ?

A: We need to make two questions universal:
– where did the materials in this product come from?
– did the production of these materials leave their place healthier, or not? Thus approach is beginning to spread in fashion and textiles, for example.

Q: To what extent can we, must we, insert ourselves, put our hand into nature, given the fact that we are the living beings with the most power to create, modify and destroy? (are humans nature too?)

A: Yes we are part of nature – which is one reason I don’t agree with the strategy to ‘protect’ nature in sealed-off areas. Nature needs people. People need livelihoods. Our job as (….) is to create “good work” for people.

Q: How COVID will change the way we will take care about people?
A: Platforms to make person-to- person care easier should be a priority.
Q: What is the most valuable contribution Design can provide in facing the COVID challenge?

A: Design needs to ask these questions first: “has anyone found a different way to meet this daily life need (for food, shelter, care, mobility etc)? In the past? In another culture?” Let’s find out what alternatives already exist, first, and then explore how to adapt and improve on those.

Q: Are education and culture sufficient enough to shift people behaviour?

A: Some people think education and culture are the main obstacles to people changing their behaviour!

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john chris jones and ‘designing designing’

Its publisher, Bloomsbury, describes designing designing as “one of the most extraordinary books on design ever written”. It’s therefore welcome news that – after a period out of print – this classic book has now been reissued. (That’s my copy in the photograph above; it just arrived). The following text is included as an afterword. It was written by me to celebrate jones’s The Internet and Everyone in 2000, and was then republished on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

I’ve been rereading The Internet and Everyone by john chris jones.

I’ve been astonished once again by the sensibility of an artist-writer- designer whose philosophy – indeed his whole life – first inspired me when I was a young magazine editor more than thirty years ago.

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The relationship of my texts to a dead fish

The following is a conversation with John Wood, professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, and joint editor (with Julia Lockheart) of the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice. Please cite: Thackara, John (2021), ‘The relationship of texts to dead fish’, Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, 14:1, pp. 5–11, doi: doi.org

Keywords: relational ecology; theory of change; stories; embodied experience; biodiversity; ecosystem; civic ecology; bioregion; design; social fermentation


Abstract John Thackara’s theory of change is borrowed from Ilya Prigogene: ‘when a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system’. As a writer, he explains, his work therefore involves a search for small islands of coherence – that he can later describe – in which social and ecological relationships thrive together. His aim as a curator is similar: he strives to enable embodied encounters with situations (or ‘islands’) in which we feel ourselves to be part of nature, rather than separate from it. This work is therefore not symbolic, like ‘systems thinking’. It is more field work than head work. ‘I want people to experience relational ecologies, not just think about them’, Thackara states. He cites the artist Eva Bakkeslett as describing this process – the cultivation of ecological and social connectivity – as social fermentation.

John Wood (JW): It’s kind of you to spare us some time.You are probably best known in creative circles as a notable editor of Design Magazine and for your informative and highly readable design publications, books like In the Bubble (2006), How to Thrive in the Next Economy (2015) and, of course, your trailblazing ‘Doors of Perception’ conferences. I note that, before dedicating yourself to supporting the design cause, you studied philosophy and journalism. I should explain why I mention this. Although the Journal’s name includes the word ‘writing’, some of us still feel strangely nervous about having to ‘do’ reading or writing. Arguably, quite a lot of artists, designers or craftspeople feel more comfortable hanging around the studio or workshop than they do in the library. So, although the Journal sometimes touches on the use of writing for creative discovery, or as a way to develop theory, I guess it is best at promoting writing that helps artists, craftspeople or designers to clarify their purpose, or to become better practitioners.

John Thackara (JT): Good! I’m not good at talking about abstruse design theory – even though I did study philosophy before starting my first job. In that first job, which was with an architecture publisher, my task was to seek out developments at the edge of the design world and get people to write books about them. Later, when I evolved from being a commissioning editor to being a design critic, and when I was editor of Design, I still didn’t see it as my job to tell designers what to do. Rather, I tried to introduce new conversations that might enrich the practices with which they were engaged. But others saw my work differently. In the early 1980s, one of the founders of Pentagram (the celebrated graphic design company) accused me of stealing the word designer. In retrospect, I’m not unsympathetic to his complaint. These days, the word design has expanded almost to infinity.

JW: That’s a clear explanation of how you navigated what we tend to see as the gaps between practices of writing and design. Did any philosophies, or philosophers, have a strong influence on what you did?

JT: Well, a training in philosophy encourages you to ask why things are as they are, and that habit has persisted. But I don’t want to exaggerate the amount of philosophy I use in my work. The other day I found one of my old university textbooks in a box. Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind. Every second or third line has a heavy notation, made by me as a student. Today, I can barely understand any of it. In my case, philosophy is more of an attitude than a method. I probably owe an apology to professional philosophers, as well as to professional designers – but I just can’t stop asking ‘why?’

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Sensory Orders

Image: Ania Zoltkowski

For an exhibition called Sensory Orders at Laznia Centre for Contemporary Arts, in Gdansk, 32 artists, designers and writers were asked: “What sensory conditions are you are working with under present conditions? What sensory orders do you see emerging in the social-political environment around us?”

My theory of change is borrowed from Ilya Prigogene: “When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system”. As a writer, my work therefore involves a search for small islands of coherence – that I can later describe – in which social and ecological relationships thrive together. My aim as a curator is similar: I strive to enable embodied encounters with situations (or ‘islands’) in which we feel ourselves to be part of nature, rather than separate from it. This work is therefore not symbolic, like ‘systems thinking’. It’s more field work, than head work. I want people to experience relational ecologies, not just think about them. The artist Eva Bakkeslett describes this process – the cultivation of ecological and social connectivity – as social fermentation.

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Bottom-up Biodiversity

Whether connecting schools to farms in France, daylighting rivers in Mexico, or rewilding grasslands in Patagonia, we’re learning how to ‘do’ biodiversity well. Fifteen minute read.

Illustration © BAFU | Pierre Dubois, collectif Marie-Louise
This text was commissioned by the Swiss Ministry of the Environment, FOEN. It is also available online in these other languages:
German Biodiversität nach dem Bottom-up-Prinzip
Italian Biodiversità dal basso verso l’alt
French Biodiversité : une politique de terrain https://umwelt-schweiz.ch/fr/innovations/john-thackara
Chinese (available as pdf from author)

“The world has failed to arrest the steep decline of nature. The world must act fast to avert catastrophe”.

These recent headlines have been dispiriting – but they are also misleading.

High Level Meetings and international summits may indeed be an imperfect model of change – but at ground level, a million positive projects tell a different story.

Whether connecting schools to farms in France, daylighting rivers in Mexico, or rewilding grasslands in Patagonia, we’re learning how to ‘do’ biodiversity well.

Ecological Restoration Camps are a notable example. More than 26,000

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Interview with BBC Mundo

Coronavirus | “Una de las locuras que se ha apoderado de Norteamérica y Europa es el pánico que les entra cuando las cosas van mal”: entrevista con el filósofo John Thackara William Marquez BBC News Mundo 16 junio 2020

John Thackara es un filósofo y autor británico que se ha embarcado en varias profesiones y actividades, desde periodista, editor, diseñador, conferencista, asesor, profesor y hasta productor de eventos. Pero se distingue más como agente provocador de ideas alternativas para un nuevo modo de vida.

Durante más de 30 años ha viajado por el mundo recopilando ejemplos de las medidas prácticas que diferentes sociedades a nivel local y comunitario han tomado para realizar un futuro sostenible.

Muchas de estas ideas son el tema central de sus libros -ha escrito más de 10- de sus conferencias y seminarios, en los que insta a gobiernos a incorporar como parte de los cambios sociales que se avecinan, particularmente en el marco de la crisis del coronavirus.

Thackara habló con BBC Mundo de una “nueva economía” para el mundo, que proviene de propuestas puestas en práctica en el regiones menos desarrolladas -contraria a la economía global de eterno crecimiento- y de sus teorías que se enfocan en los aspectos sociales, ecológicos y relacionales de la comunidad humana.

Esta entrevista ha sido editada por razones de claridad y concisión.

Usted habla de un cambio de estructuras, actitudes y comportamiento de la sociedad humana. ¿Qué tan urgente es ese cambio?

No estoy implicando que haya una necesidad de cambio ahora fundamentalmente diferente a otros períodos de la historia. Creo que

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