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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A “Marshall Plan for tourism” – but with what aim? (20 minute talk)

EU Commissioner @ThierryBreton promises a “Marshall Plan for tourism” – but with what aim? In this talk, I propose a new storyin which the design of new urban-rural relationships creates value by leaving places healthier. Video:

The concept of sustainable tourism was invented 45 years ago – but it was added to global mass tourism, it did not replace it. Since then, although sustainable tourism brands have proliferated, mass tourism has continued to devastate its ‘destinations’ with growing intensity.

Until Covid.

It’s tempting, post-Covid, to welcome the grounding of the world’s climate-destroying aircraft. But in Europe alone, the fate of 27 million jobs, & three million small firms, are also on the line. Our story, going forward, must include them.

EU Commissioner @ThierryBreton promises a “Marshall Plan for tourism” – but with what aim? 

The old tourism story was about perpetual growth combined with feeble attempts at damage limitation. In this talk, I propose a new story in which the design of new urban-rural relationships creates value by leaving places healthier. 

Good work, in this new economy, ranges from ecological restoration, farmer-city connections, and open food networks  – to learning journeys, biohacking, and village revitalisation. 

The talk concludes with a policy proposal: the focus of any Europe-wide ‘Marshall Plan’ needs to be on social infrastructure – the coordination and connecting work needed to create these new urban-rural livelihoods.

(My talk was part of the symposium Re-Thinking Tourism for a Planet in Crisis organised by Jakob Travnik @tuvienna and @AASchool

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Urban-Rural: The New Geographies of Innovation

This is the text of my plenary talk at the Innovation and Emerging Industry Development (IEID) conference in Shanghai on 18 September 2019. I describe three enabling conditions for system change: a capacity for ecological thinking; a focus on social infrastructure (rather than the concrete kind); and a shift of focus from place making, to place connecting.

A cultural disconnection between the man-made world and the biosphere lies behind the grave challenges we face today. We either don’t think about rivers, soils, and biodiversity at all – or we treat them as resources whose only purpose is to feed the economy.

This ‘metabolic rift’ – between the living world, and the economic one – leaves us starved of meaning and purpose. We have to heal this damaging gap.

My talk today is therefore about the design of connections between places, communities, and nature. Drawing on a lifetime of travel in search of real-world alternatives that work, I describe the practical ways in which living economies thrive in myriad local contexts.

When connected together, I argue, these projects tell a new ‘leave things better’ story of value, and therefore of growth.

Growth, in this new story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient.

The signals of transformation I talk about are not concepts, and they are not the fruits of a vivid imagination. They are happening now.

But in conversations about innovation, I am often asked the same question: Are small local initiatives an adequate response to the global challenges we all face?

The sheer number and variety of initiatives now emerging is my first answer to that question.

No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty new oak tree. But healthy forests are extremely diverse, and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world.

My second answer

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Articles in Resilience

Here is a collection of texts by John Thackara selected by Resilience magazine.

How To Thrive In the Next Economy: Preface to the Chinese edition
This book is not about pre-cooked solutions. It’s about building on what has already been done, in our various social and cultural histories, and on what’s being done, right now, in diverse contexts around the world. (May 2019)

Re-wilding the Bauhaus: What its Foundation Course Should be like Today
No textbook for the new foundation course exists – which is probably just as well. The course is better thought of as a journey, than as a body of knowledge. (April 2019)

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The City as a Living System: A Design Research Agenda

This is the text of my plenary talk at the Design x Collaborative Cities conference, 28 and 29 October 2018, Shanghai. It was hosted by the College of Design and Innovation (D&I) at Tongji University, where I am a visiting professor, and DESIS Network. (Here is the 25 minute video).

The industrial age distracted us from a whole-systems understanding of the world.

Paving over the soil, and filling our lives with media, obscured our interdependency with living systems.

The creation of cities that are habitable for all of life, not just human life, will determine the future relevance of design research.

We must learn to think of the places where we live as ecosystems, not as machines.

We need to embrace biodiversity, and local economic activity, as better measures of a city’s health than the amount of money that flows through it.

And we need to foster new connections between people, and place, to bring new opportunities to life.

Place. Care. Value.

A design research agenda along these lines is already taking shape.

The practices of ecological urbanism, or civic ecology, study how to help living organisms, and their environment, thrive together. They enrich city design with the insights of ecology, botany, climatology, hydrology, geology, and geography.

This ecological approach is not preoccupied by the the concepts of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ .

On the contrary, it involves

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From Oil Age to Soil Age: Pathways to Sustainability

On the occasion of my lecture (with the above title) at the Design Museum of Barcelona, during the Victor Papanek exhibition, I was interviewed about relational design, the potential for social and ecological transformation, and the mixed blessings of terms such as ‘future’ or ‘resilience’

Q: You define yourself as a bioregional designer. What does this mean?

JT: During my professional career, I’ve been trying to understand why all the arguments about the damage we’re doing to the planet have never stuck. What I’ve understood is that we had been having discussions in a very abstract sense about words such as ‘sustainability’, which don’t necessarily touch us in our daily lives. There’s a metabolic gap between the natural and the man-made world. Because of this split, we’ve been able to carry on being told the world is in sick condition, but not really feeling it was our responsibility. This is where the subject of a bioregion comes in. Place has a power to connect people to the reality of the situation and to provide a context for networking with people that we would otherwise disagree with. Bioregion is an alternative to all those abstract words, I use it to provoke people to ask “How can we make our place healthier, and have a better future?”.

Q: Your last book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today, looks into a future economic scenario. What is the role of design?

JT: It is diverse, but has a certain common thread: design is more about relationships between people than it is about products. The kind of practice present in all those projects is how

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Civic Ecology as a Design Space

What is innovative in design today? What urgent issues is the discipline tackling? For this special feature in Domus Magazine, Valentina Croci talks with Paola Antonelli, Aric Chen and John Thackara. Paola muses on the disturbed relation between us and nature, the subject of her (then) forthcoming show at the Triennale di Milano. From his observatory in Hong Kong, Aric Chen speculates on strategies and behaviours that can be determined by design. John Thackara identifies civic ecology as a space filled with opportunities for micro-actions by design.

Domus Magazine, March 2018

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When Value Arises from Relationships, not from Things

The following texts by John Thackara were selected and republished by P2P Magazine
How To Thrive In the Next Economy: Preface to the Chinese edition (July 2019)
When Value Arises From Relationships, Not From Things (interview with Valentina Croci in Domus Magazine, April 2018)
Manifesto For Utopias Are Over: Cities Are Living Systems (extract from DAMN magazine, March 2017)
(Healing the Metabolic Rift between Humanity and the Planet (interview with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, December 2017)
John Thackara on Sustainability, Design and Old Growth (February 2017)
John Thackara’s Intimate Tour of the Emerging New Economy (book review by David Bollier, October 2016)
John Thackara on How To Thrive In The Next Economy (interview with Darren Sharp, March 2016)

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“Playing For Time”: creating the conditions for change

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive…Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

In 2004, in the small town of Nexø (above), on the island of Bornholm, in the Baltic Sea, a curious figure is handing out small packages to strangers in the high street. The young woman is dressed in orange, water-resistant clothes that are dirty, smelly and oversized.

Some people accept the proffered package with interest. Others seem doubtful.

Most of them thank the strangely-dressed women politely.

When they open the package, their reaction is one of surprise, and often silence.

The package contains a single, delicately wrapped, fish

I’ve never forgotten that encounter, which happened in 2004.

Nexo is one of dozens of Baltic and European fishing ports where industrial fishing has become unsustainable, and group of creative people had come to Bornholm for a service design project.

They had been asked to explore the question: “when traditional industries disappear from a locality, what is to take their place?”

A bunch of great design and business ideas were duly presented by the group

But what stuck in my mind – for all these years, until now – was not a product, or a plan – but a powerful emotion associated with that fish event.

I was struck then, and still feel now, that respect for the life of the individual fish was what really mattered. The notion of a fish as a mere commodity, as resource for the economy, suddenly – and still feels – unnatural.

Some years later, the two artists involved, Mireia C Saladrigues and Verónica Aguilera, confirmed to me what I’d experienced: “We wanted to find out if we could get people to look at industrialised fishing from a different perspective”.

Their intervention, which they was named Fiskemennesket-Menneskenfisket, was not about telling people to think differently about fish.

Rather, they looked for ways to enable encounters and conversations from which such an understanding might flow of its own accord.

And that’s why, having first spent time with former fishermen, they ended up on Bornholm’s high street, dressed as fishermen, handing out beautifully wrapped herring that they’d salted themselves.

They even designed and printed the wrapping paper specially for the occasion.

People don’t change because you tell them to, or when they’re exposed to shocking stories and images – the tactics used by the environmental movement over decades.

Change happens – or so I concluded on on Bornholm – when people share meaningful experiences in rich, real-world, contexts.

Eleven years after that Bornholm moment, a book was finally published that celebrated the kind of art that had so moved me then.

Playing For Time: Making Art as if The World Mattered brings together the thinking and real-world practices of 64 artists, writers and curators.

“Reconnection with nature is not a moment of magic” the book’s author Lucy Neal, explains; “it’s more of a life practice – dedicated acts of imagination, creative thought, and actions, that persist through time”.

The intention of the book (which was co-edited with Charlotte Du Cann) is to create conditions for more of these experiences to happen, more widely, and on a continuous basis.

This intention has never felt more important than it does now – and is one reason why the book deserves our attention more, today, than when it was published.

Few of the ‘acts of imagination’ described in Playing For Time take place in art galleries, or museums.

On the contrary: they tend to involve cooking, writing, caring, growing, making, building, or teaching – for the most part, in real-world situations.There’s not much staring at venerated artefacts involved – but quite a lot of listening, connecting, sharing and supporting.

Social Fermentation

Two examples from the hundred or more that fill the book:

In Finland, Eva Bakkeslett gives workshops on baking, and on the art and culture of viili, or Finnish live yogurt. She cultivates yoghurt using Eastern European roots, and bakes bread with old microbial cultures from Russia.

“Humans are part of nature, linked to a network of bacteria” the artist explains. “My workshops are about working with nature instead of fighting it. Together we co-create new cultures that embody collaboration”.

Bakkeslett describes her practice as ‘social fermentation’ – a process that gains its vitality from the sensuous pleasures to be had from making, eating, and sharing fermented foods with others

A second example, this time in England, also involves food.

At Loughborough University, the artists Jo Salter and Anne-Marie Culhane worked with the university’s sustainability faculty during the planting of 150 fruit and nut trees right across the campus.

A large folding map (above) shows all the edible trees planted as well as other forageable plants on what they named the Fruit Route.

“These collaborative arts practices carry seeds of the future that can take root and grow” writes Lucy Neal – “but the philosophy of the book is to make it happen yourself”….

Playing For Time, edited by Lucy Neal, is available from Oberon Books.

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