What should design critics write about?

What issues should the next generation of design critics write about? Where and how should they do this writing? And, how will they get paid for doing so? This is the text of my keynote talk yesterday to Crossing The Line at the School for Visual Arts in New York.

“The first question is easy. You should write about humanity’s new place in a catabolically-challenged world – and the kinds of future that await us.By catabolically-challenged I mean the complex, connected and high entropy world we’re in now – the one which can’t possibly be sustained into the indefinite future. Why? because it depends on perpetually growing throughputs of energy and resources that are not going to be available.

The True Cost campaign calls our economy a “Doomsday Machine”. We strive after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite. The better the economy performs – faster growth, higher GDP – the faster we degrade the biosphere which is the basis of life – and our only home.

It’s madness. And the world is waking up to the fact that it’s madness.The trouble is that no society in history has ever been able to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term.

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Dawn of the new age of coach travel?

If Katla (above: she’s Eyjafjallajökull’s much bigger sister) blows, and grounds flights forever, will this finally be Dr Storkey’s moment?
The blogwaves are already filled with links to Seat 61. But as I’ve Cassandra’d here repeatedly (yes, I’ve made it into a verb) train travel is not all that light once total system costs are factored in.
As the graph shows, the best motorized way, by far, to move long distances is by coach. Buses produce 29g of CO2 for every passenger kilometre travelled, compared with 52g for trains and 170g per passenger km for cars and airplanes.

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Don’t donate – invest

We added a donate button. (It’s on the left). DoorsofPerception.com has been online – and free – since 1994. We’ve waited sixteen years before seeking your support. Now, we can use it.

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The Abbotshaugh Sentinel

old estate tree.png
Could you create an earthwork of significant scale using excavated spoil? The site is in Falkirk, Scotland (56 01 20.95 N / 03 44 30.74 W).
Christian Barnes and landscape architect John Kennedy have written a thorough and thoughful brief on behalf of Falkirk Council. The document is a good example of how artists can spot hidden qualities and potential in places.
Deadline for submissions (details are on page 14) Monday 26 April 2010, 12:00 midnight.

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In place of a “less bad” economy

“A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less – even though they are still polluting?”.
Gunther Pauli is scornful in his new book The Blue Economy of the “do less bad” school of environmentalism.
“It’s an approach which sees billions of dollars invested in less toxic and longer lasting batteries – even though the ‘less toxic batteries’ still rely on mining, smelting and toxic chemistry, are not recycled, and are dumped into the environment to toxify our ecosystems and pose long term health hazards”.
The most entrancing scenario for me is the idea of replacing mining with lichen. Mining, for Pauli, is “one of humanity’s most aggressive interventions. Armed with dynamite, and consuming massive amounts of water and energy, we extract minute concentrations of gold from the depths of the earth”

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Design, regions, and the two economies

The stated ambition of Cornwall, in the the far south west of England, is to become a “green peninsular”. It’s an evocative concept, but people there interpret the word “green” in different ways.

For example, although Cornwall aspires to become a “knowledge economy” it is more of a tourism economy at the moment: Many of the 500,000 people who live in the county rely on five million tourists who come each year to holiday, party and consume. Most tourists leave again, but enough of them have bought holiday homes that the price of the average house is now twenty time the average salary of people born in the county. Designers have helped created gorgeous spa hotels and chic restaurants – but it’s a moot point whether the Cornish people who staff them are knowledge workers.

New uses are also being considered for the abandoned relics of Cornwall’s clay mining economy. But plans for the development, in their place, of offices, shops, and marinas bring with them another dilemma: increased transport intensity. Despite the fact that 27 percent of Cornwall’s carbon emissions come from the transport sector (compared to 15 percent for the nearby city of Bristol), new roads, and airport expansion, figure prominently in its regeneration strategy.

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Eating animals

If Requiem for a Species (below) is shocking at an existential level, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals hits you at the level of lunch.
It’s no less gruelling for that. Among the in-your-face statements that pepper the text: “When we eat factory farmed meat we live literally on tortured meat..and put it into the mouths of our children”. And, “factory farming – which accounts for virtually all meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants – is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment”.
The author is especially appalled by the wastefulness of modern food systems. It takes up to twenty-six calories fed to an animal to produce just one calorie of edible flesh – and yet animal protein costs less today than at any time in history.

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Requiem for a species

“It’s too late to avert catastrophic change. Our politics and institutions are too dysfunctional to make elegant adaptations. We’d better prepare ourselves for surviving as best we can”.
Clive Hamilton’s new book Requiem for a Species is not for the faint-hearted. But my first reaction was to think: “So? what am I supposed to do with this information?”.
There is an element of fire-and-brimstone in the early part of the book. Hamilton lambasts our “greed, materialism and alienation from Nature” before advising us to “abandon the accustomed view of the future as an improving version of the past.”

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What Does Social Innovation Actually Mean?

The organiser of a conference in Poland asked me write an introduction to the programme: what is social innvation, and why does it matter?

For years, business has tended to assume that “being innovative” is the same “introduce new technology”. Companies all over the world innovate like crazy, and compete like mad, to bring out some new ….thing….at ever increasing rates.

Do we need a new product every three minutes? I don’t think so. On the contrary: the survey evidence is overwhelming that citizens despair at this flood of often pointless trash they are told will make them happy.

At the same time, state spending on public services in many countries is likely to shrink by a staggering 20-40 percent in the coming years as the bill for the financial bailout comes due. In the coming social economy, the role of  governments in countries will unavoidably change, and radically, away from the point-to-mass delivery of centrally-produced and paid-for services.

In this context of profound transformation, social innovation has been promoted in three very different ways.

First, some advocates see social innovation as a new way for governments to tackle such social problems as crime, obesity, or an ageing population.

A second approach is to see social innovation as the way to reach a new market for paid-for services – such as health-monitoring.

A third way to think of social innovation is as the emergence of a totally new kind of economy.

Common to all three approaches is the potential of social innovation as a way to co-design, with citizens and communities, lighter ways to organize daily life. When any of these small design steps succeed, even in part, others can quickly adapt them for their own communities and multiply them on a larger scale.

Social innovation best contributes to the emergence of a new economy when it supports the efficient use of local resources. In the radically lighter economy whose green shoots are now poking above ground, we will share all resources, such as energy, physical materials, time, skills, software, space, and food. To do so, we will use social systems—and sometimes networked communications -m in new ways.

A key role in the social economy will be played by new kinds of “social incubators”. These are places, platforms and organisations that enable people to connect and coordinate with each other more easily and convivially than is possible now. These places enable access to space, resources, connections, knowledge, experience and investment.

When regions think about innovation, they often make the mistake  of limiting their expectations, too narrowly, to technology. Technical advantages are costly to achieve—and often short lived because everyone else is looking in the same place.  That said, a social economy will still depend on some technology. Distributed networks will be used intensively. Relationships will be sustained by the intensive use of broadband, mobile and other means of communication. But a social economy will be radically less resource-intensive than the one we have now.

# See also Design Observer’s excellent annotated bibliography of design and the social sector. 

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