Socially Smart Sanitation

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Above: Build it and they will come? In the world of toilets, it’s not so simple.  (Photo: Quicksand)

What if sanitation is not just about the kit? If sanitation solutions cannot be mass-produced at will, like a box of software, what, then, is the alternative? 

Nearly half the world’s population lacks access to a toilet, so the desire for scale is understandable. By some accounts, eighty percent of the world’s illnesses can be traced to untreated fecal matter, and the health consequences of open defection are especially dire for poor people forced to live in densely packed urban communities. Nobody disputes that something major must be done.

Given the scale of the challenge, large-scale solutions that will improve life for large numbers of people sound like good news. India’s government, in this spirit, has proclaimed that ‘toilets are more important than temples’ and is committed Read More »

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How to be a rock

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(Above: A forest skills workshop in Big Tree Country)

Last month I spent a day in a small town of 2,000 people in Perthshire, Scotland, with the following group of people: a blacksmith; a book maker; a soldier turned master mead maker; an artist whose work explores how we interact with the ecology of the earth; a student of the ecosystems to be found in dry stone walls; a curator of artist-led walks; a man who helps youth hostels reinvent themselves; a botanist who specialises in sphagnum moss; another artist who makes outfits that disguise you as a rock; a public arts funder; someone from a field studies centre where one can see the Clouded Drab (a rare moth); a fiddler who organises traditional music festivals; a nurse who leads healing walks; a designer of natural golf courses; a raspberry farmer; an outdoor education provider; the tutor at a forest school; a felter and knitter; a man who ”hated going to the potatoes”; a breeder if ill-disciplined Hebridean sheep; a man who studies lumps and bumps in the landscape; a digital arts producer; a bare foot walker; a designer of water cleaning systems; a book festival organiser; and a countryside steward.

Our task was to imagine new ways for residents and visitors to connect with the ecological and cultural assets of The Cateran Trail. This 64 mile (103 km) circular track, in the heart of ‘Big Tree Country’ in central Scotland, Read More »

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Leathershed lab


On Saturday 12 December, together with Mansi Gupta, I’m running a workshop at the UnBox Festival in Delhi.

We will develop the programme of a Lab, to be situated at the heart of India’s largest leather-producing region, that will develop products and services that combine clean forms of leather making with direct connections between between producers and customers. Read More »

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Shelter Without A Concrete Roof

Public performance in Kisangani. Image © Studios Kabako
Public performance in Kisangani. Image © Studios Kabako

Studios Kabako, a dance company from Africa, is the winner of this year’s 2014 Curry Stone Design Prize, an important international award. Using dance, theater, and music, Studios Kabako help local communities envision positive alternatives in a city that has known devastating armed conflict over many years. The company has pioneered a form of development that is based on social creativity rather than real estate plays.

Based in Kinsangani, the Congolese performance and theater studio was founded by Faustin Linyekula in 2001 to address social memory, fear, and hope in the aftermath of civil war. During a decade of urban interventions and cultural activities, the studio has enabled a flourishing an ecosystem of dance activities. Studios Kabako are pioneers of a new way to practice ‘rebuilding’ that ‘s based far more on human energy than on pouring concrete.

“Many world regions face terrible fratricidal wars” explained Emiliano Gandolfi, director of the Curry Stone Prize. “We must learn to envisage an alternative to the culture of destruction”. Faustin Linyekula’s work demonstrates the remarkable results that can happen when the transformative power of art is applied to the ways we practically create a sustainable future.

When Linyekula founded the studio young Congolese people, especially, were living without hope –  too preoccupied by daily survival to imagine an alternative. As recounted by the renowned theater and opera director, Peter Sellars,“Faustin is training a generation of kids to challenge everything about their surroundings. He has created an energy among youth in Kisangani that insists on moving forward. His work is never self-pitying, there’s always this alertness, this awakeness, that has the spirit of challenge in it. It refuses to say ‘Oh, poor Africa.’ It says, ‘OK, pull your life together. Lift your own game’.”

As a platform, Studios Kabako is light and mobile. Although the studio maintains studios in the city centre, it takes its work to the rural fringes and to vacant areas of Kisangani in the form mobile performances. Studio Kabako is currently working on plans for more facilities within the city that combine environmentally friendly technologies, communal living systems and new educational models, all of which are unprecedented in this region.

“Culture is one of the most powerful means of providing a shelter for a community. That shelter doesn’t have to be a concrete roof.” Synthetized Suad Amiry, founder of RIWAQ, winner of the CSDP award in 2012, and member of this year’s jury.

(The author, John Thackara, was also a member of the jury).

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Housing Without Building

The family of swallows that spent the summer in the eaves behind my office here in France have headed south for the winter. Soon, as Christmas beckons, they’ll reach their destinations: Botswana, Namibia or South Africa. After just two months gorging on insects, they’ll begin the epic journey back. The strongest among them will make it back in just five weeks, traveling 200 miles a day.

And I thought my air travel was profligate.

As an artefact, the swallows’ nest is not exactly the Taj Mahal. It’s a ramshackle structure, made of mud pellets and straw, stuck crookedly to the wall. But it seems to suit them well – or rather, the surrounding habitat does. Their physical abode is a safe enough place to park their young – but it’s not a gated community. What brings the swallows back every year is not their house but the surrounding environment as whole: open air for easy flight; fresh water from the river; flying insects to feed their ravenous young. I have come to envy how lightly they manage to live. We humans burn through billions of tons of resources, to support our our own structures and lifestyles. Swallows throw their nests together from found materials.

Preoccupied by swallows, I posed the following question last month to a meeting of Nordic Housing Association managers: Do we really need to build more boxes? Read More »

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How Does This Forest Think?

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Xskool on Grinda
UnBox in India

Forthcoming events


Fifty designers, artists and architects spent a week at our Xskool on Grinda last month to explore two questions: What does this food system taste like? and, How does this forest think?

One team staged the Soil Tasting Ceremony shown above. They made infusions from ten different berries on the island and displayed them next to soil samples taken from each plant’s location; the soils were displayed in wine glasses. We were then invited to compare the tastes of the teas and soils in silence. It was a powerful moment. (There are more images here).

Ahead of the event I thought soil health would be hard to sell to a cerebral group of (mostly) grad students. Today’s designers think far more about connecting with each other, I assumed, than about connecting with the soil. Why would they? Fewer than half of us ever see or touch the stuff.

My concern that living soil would not engage designers proved unfounded. It was like pushing at an open door. Xskoolers went scrabbling around the forest of Grinda like so many voles. They found ways to catch the taste of the forest and put it in a pot. They made cookies with forest berries and bartered these with tourists. They created tactile pathways so we could we feel the forest through our feet. A Latvian designer made pine cone syrup and gave it to Teacher, who was mightily pleased.

This positive energy was welcome, but unexpected. In searching for an explanation I came across a wonderful book called Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh.“We yearn for connection with one another, and with the soul” McIntosh writes, “but we forget that, like the earthworm, we too are an organism of the soil. We too need grounding”.

Resilience and systems thinking, I concluded from McIntosh’s book, will never be transformational in the absence of systems feeling. But how? Asking researchers to empathise with earthworms feels like a big ask. For every designer learning how to think like a forest by tasting one, as we did on Grinda, thousands more spend most of their time in studios, online, or within the rarefied walls of the research economy.

Perhaps my search for a ‘solution’ to the ecoliteracy ‘problem’ is old-fashioned. In a post-Xskool reflection, Helen Silvander wrote: “If we truly want people to value nature and food from a sustainable point of view, maybe we should allow them to fight for it a bit. Instead of simplifying, maybe we should de-organise. Instead of widening the path, maybe we should explore what happens when we erase it, and let time be the currency of payment”.

Here is the Xskool Facebook page.  I also gave this year’s Xskoolers a Food Systems ReaderXskool  was a partnership between Doors of Perception, Konstfack, and FuturePerfect Festival. This event builds on a series of experimental Xskool encounters over the last three years including Xskool Grinda 2013.


For this year’s UnBox Festival in New Delhi (12-14 December) I’ll be joining Mansi Gupta for a workshop to develop the programme of the Kanpur Design Innovation Lab. The project embodies, in Mansi’s words, “a new story about the leather industry and the people who work in it”. The Lab, situated at the heart of India’s largest leather-producing region, will develop products and services that combine clean forms of leather making with direct connections between between producers and customers. If I have any say in the matter, I’ll also be re-visiting the subject of cycle commerce  and my modest proposal for the de-motorisation of Delhi. 


Reyjkjavik, 11 September, Nordic Housing Association
Reyjkjavik, 12 September, Iceland Academy of Arts, MA Design Workshop (Tel +354 552 4000)
Eindhoven, 15 September, Plaza Futura at Club Natlab
Växjö, Sweden, 24 September, Linnaeus University
Oslo 15 October System Oriented Design Conference
Dundee, 22 October Chiasma, Sustaining Rural Scotland
Buenos Aires, 28 October, International Design Festival
Amsterdam, 20 November, Pakhuis de Zwijger, De energieke samenleving


Contact me by email at  john (at) doorsofperception (dot) com
Twitter @johnthackara


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Reading Small Signals



We’ve invested huge resources over the ages to keep the man-made world, and nature, separate – but there are signs everywhere that those those priorities are changing. Working through the consequences of that is a challenge for us all.

Many signals of change are small on their own but, taken together, tell a new story. There’s the new scheme in England, called Hummingtree, that connects office-bound workers with living systems by means of a ‘wild mirror’; each workspace is twinned with an equivalent patch of forest that’s being regenerated. In gritty Oakland, I learned that urban forests, living walls, and green roofs are being used to filter air, water and soil in and around its ports. I also saw the ad for a ‘wildflower farm apprentice’ to help a social enterprise trade wildflower seeds; that kind of work didn’t exist a few years ago. Neither did de-paving, food co-ops, river restoration, edible forestry, or pollinator pathways – but examples like these are cropping up all over. At multiple scales, this combination of social and ecolgical innovation adds up to living concepts of infrastructure.

The how is as important as the why. Back in England there’s the small farm that has 8000 landlords. Shares in the farm cannot be traded on the open market, but this shared ownership model enables the community to share responsibility – with the farmer – for growing food. This approach would be a great addition to a project I visited in California called The Food Commons. Launched at the epicentre of global agribusiness, this inspiring prototype combines social, political and technical innovation.

Other signals of change are so scattered that they can go unnoticed. In China, so-called ‘battery-bikes’ are outselling cars by four-to-one – but this story is missing from Western media. In The Two-Wheeled City I argue that a system-wide phase-shift in transportation is gathering pace. In Belgium, a project called Mobilotoop, about cloud commuting, is further evidence of an asset-light mobility ecosystem in which networks are used to share equipment and infrastructure. (I describe other ingredients to help a cycle commerce ecosystem flourish in Cycle Commerce: The Red Blood Cells of a Smart City).

Some signals of change point in contradictory directions. In Ethiopia, an inspiring social enterprise called Sole Rebels –  the world’s first Fair Trade shoe brand – employs and trains highly marginalized people; uses organic and bio-based materials; and obtains its leather from free-range cattle herders. But Sole Rebels must compete with a vast new project called Shoe City, also in Ethiopia, whose 200,000 guest workers are paid ten times less than workers on China.

Two recent texts of mine – A Whole New Cloth: Politics and the Fashion System, and Keep Your Stuff Alive – explore this core dilemma for fashion: despite more than 400 eco labels, an incremental ‘do less harm’ approach has addressed the symptoms, but not the principal cause, of our difficulties – a perpetual growth economy.

Some brightly flashing signals divert our attention from more important developments. Last December’s G8 Dementia Summit, for example, grumpeted the fact that one hundred million pounds will now be spent in a race to identify a cure or a ‘disease-modifying therapy’ for dementia. In The Dementia Care Economy I argue that the likely outcome will be the creation of a Dementia Industrial Complex – and the mass production of un-met expectations. Recent personal experience has reinforced my strong belief that the presence of human beings – not labour-saving technology – should be the priority.

The most promising innovations in the ways we care for each other – from child care, to dementia support – involve collaborative service networks. These empower family members and volunteers to work in equal and reciprocal relationship with professionals. In a conversation with Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P network, I learned that the rise of social co-operatives represents a new frontier in the shifting boundaries of public, private, and commercial spheres. In global law and governance, too, the concept of Buen Vivir or “good living” manifests a political concept of citizenship that includes all life, not just human life.

Although, taken together, these signals tell a new story about where we’re headed, the story remains stubbornly obscure. In The Desert Of The Real – my contribution to the Puma Sustainable Design Lecture series – I argue that we need to cultivate greater perceptual diversity, and new ways of knowing, if we’re to meet our ecological responsibility towards future generations.


My talks and Xskool workshops – which you can read more about here and here – explore the above questions in unique contexts: What are the key social-ecological systems in this place? how night one design in them? and, how does one get started?


Contact me (John Thackara, Doors of Perception) by email at  john (at) doorsofperception (dot) com
Twitter @johnthackara

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When Tech In Care Is Evil

I spent the last two weeks in-and-around a care home in England that looks after people with dementia and terminal illness, and their families – including, this time, mine.

In four wings, each with 12 residents, 24/7 care is provided by teams of trained professionals who work 12 hour shifts. During the day, for each wing, three carers and a qualified nurse work continuously within yards of the residents; at night, cover is provided by a carer and a nurse.

Their hour-by-hour duties include helping people eat and drink;  changing clothes and bed linen; helping people shower and clean; cutting finger and toe nails; helping people use toilets, bed pans, sanitation pads, and commodes; filling in forms; attending staff training sessions.

A lot of the time – a lot – carers sit and talk with the residents, reassure them, read books or magazines together, or simply hold their hands, or hug them.

Twice a day, it’s true, one of the nurses would tour each wing to give medicines to the residents; a few residents needed more intensive medical attention. But I reckon that ninety five per cent of this demanding, time-consuming and emotionally-draining work involved caring – not doctoring, and not ‘curing’.

In my family’s case, we saw a doctor twice during those weeks. The first was when a non-resident General Practitioner (family doctor) popped in for ten minutes, did not sit down, nor look any of us in the eye. He waved a Do Not Resuscitate form around like an election pamphlet, and then left. The second doctor, another GP, came later, at the end – as some regulation or other prescribed –  to pronounce my family member officially dead. He performed this service with grace and tact.

These discordant intrusions by doctors did not matter. Those final hours were peaceful, even beautiful, thanks to the quiet, attentive and  loving care of the people who surrounded us in the home.

A few hours later, when I turned on the television for the first time in weeks, it was to see the UK prime minister, in London, addressing a room full of people clad in smart suits and name badges.


Speaking in forceful, Churchillian, style, Mr Cameron declared that “we must fight dementia” and announced a £100 million global research project to find a cure. “I know some people will say that it’s not possible”, said Mr Cameron, “but I will not be defeatist. With a big global push we can beat this”.

As I wrote back in December, after the G8 Summit on dementia, the likely outcome of this so-called “race to identify a cure” for dementia will be the creation of a Dementia Industrial Complex. It will  run by-and-for the glossily-clad experts in Mr Cameron’s audience – and it will do literally nothing to support the low-paid care workers that supported my family and thousands of others like it  in recent weeks.

Neither patients nor carers are even represented – not at all – on the much trumpeted World Dementia Council that was set up after the G8 Summit.

It’s dispiriting, but not surprising, to witness politicians parroting the false promises of the Tech lobby. But it’s a tragedy to see that an organisation that once represented carers has jumped onto the same bandwagon.

With its Dementia Friendly Technology Charter, the Alzheimer’s Society has given its imprimateur to the implausible notion that technology – rather than the presence of human beings – is the best way to enable people with dementia to live independently.

It’s doubly depressing that the Society asked a for-profit tech company, Tunstall Heathcare, to write its ‘charter’. Write its own orders would be more accurate. It is Tunstall ‘s corporate mission that, when it comes to dementia care , we can and should, “buy” peace of mind. “Just press the button” promises Tunstall, “and one of our operators will be on the line.” 

And then?

I know I’m emotional right now, but I’ve reflected on this a lot over several years and believe it has to be said: The notion that technology can substitute for the presence and care of human beings in care is not just misguided. It’s evil.

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Food As A Commons

People go hungry not because of a shortage of production, but because the food available is too expensive, or they lack the land to grow it on. In California, the prototype of a combined social, political and technical  solution has been launched which promises to unlock the food system crisis.

Kiel & Dan per thru grill

“This could be it”. The speaker, Dan O‘Connell, is peering through a grill (above) into the cavernous interior of boarded-up corner shop in downtown Fresno, California. His fellow explorer, Kiel Schmidt, concurs: “It’ll take a bit of work, but we’ve got a bunch of people with skills lined up to help”.

For Schmidt and O’Connell, two founders of an organisation called The Food Commons, the building is on their shortlist for a retail store that will make fresh food available to some of Fresno’s 500,000 poorest citizens – for the first time. Within ten years, they plan to open a retail hub in each of the city’s food deserts – and this will be the first.

Our location certainly fits the bill of a food desert. We’ve driven for half an hour past miles of empty Read More »

Posted in city & bioregion, food systems & design | Leave a comment