“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. https://josalter.org.uk/portfolio/fruit-routes-maps

“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. https://www.oberonbooks.com/playing-for-time.html

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In an Ecological Civilization, Place is our Professor

I gave a plenary talk (by video) to the China Eco-Civilization Research and Promotion Association (CECRPA) Conference, 17 November 2019.
My focus was an ecological design training platform for designers in China.

会议11月17日:约翰·萨卡拉(John Thackara)全体会议 生态创新培训

In the last 100 years, there have been three eras of design.

During the Industrial Era, design was powerful driver in the rise of mass consumer societies. Design made short-life products desirable to millions of people.

This era saw extraordinary economic growth in money terms.

But on the negative side, as we now know to our cost, this energy-intense and extractive economy depleted non-renewable resources. It also caused a

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December Newsletter

Dates for my 2020 Meetups and Retreats | Report on our Urban-Rural exhibition in China | Next steps for the Social Food Atlas | Recent publications | Thirty-two case-study collections |Five recommended books

For a second year, I’m hosting week-long Meetups|Project Retreats| Residencies at our home in France. If you are a designer, project curator, (post-)grad student, researcher, or writer – and are working on a thesis, project, or book – check out the programme here.

If you need a personal phase-shift right now, we’re also hosting a small number of winter residences.

In November, I curated an exhibition in China called Urban-Rural. Framed by our transition from the oil age to a soil age, its focus was

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People Doing Stuff: Case Study Collections

Words like climate, system, or sustainability are passive. What does work – in reducing the sense of powerlessness and isolation – are examples of real people, taking practical steps, right now. With that lesson in mind, here is a list of case study collections that I’ve found useful, and often inspiring, in my own work.

Traditional Knowledge World Bank
terracing systems, water control, seed sewing…

Ecosystem Restoration Camps
Bolivia, California, Spain, Mexico …

Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI)
bicycle weeder, cotton stripper, fertilizer dibbler…

Honeybee Network, India
traditional knowledge, water systems, forest medicines…

Alternatives India
organic cotton, forest culture, biofences…

L’Atelier Paysan | AgTech Takeback
farming skills, farming tech, self-build

Atlas of Utopias
cargo bikes, community agriculture, social kitchens

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Urban-Rural: 10 Takeaways

The Zhangyan Harvests Future Country Living Festival in Shanghai included an exhibition called Urban-Rural. that I curated. Here are 82 slides of the event.https://www.slideshare.net/johnthackara/urbanrural-exhibition-shanghai-november-2019-john-thackara-personal-slides Below are my ten takeaways. Scroll down for Chinese.

1. We’re in a transition from the oil age to the soil age. The projects in Urban-Rural are signals of what the soil age will be like.

2. Urban and Rural are one place, not two. Streaming platforms that connect farmers directly to the city bring that social connectivity (back) to life.

3. Analogue and digital are also one place, not two. For example, Urban-Rural celebrates digital tools that enable citizen participation in ecological agriculture.

4. A farm is not a factory – it’s a social and ecological system. This is why Urban-Rural puts Shanghai’s BIOfarm centre stage – because it connects such diverse participants and activities. Social diversity and biodiversity help each other.Every city and every bioregion needs such a farm.

5. Making things in Urban-Rural, and leaving the land healthier, are a single process. Atelier Luma’s algae platform – that produces 3d cups out of bioplastics – is about ecology, not just production. Every region needs an algae platfom, too.

6. Sustainable fashion in Urban-Rural is practical, not aspirational. ‘Sustainable’ is when the soil-friendliness of regionally-grown fibre is measured, tested and monitored by everyone involved. That’s it.

7. Small engage with Big in Urban-Rural – and on equal terms. The giant construction company and the biofarmer? The homestay platform and village elder? The e-commerce giant, and chicken breeder? The soil age has arrived: we have much to teach each other.

8. Where we learn, and how, matters almost more than what. Place is our professor in the learning hubs on show.

9. Old knowledge and new tech also appear on equal terms in Urban-Rural. Zhangyan Harvests was created by a Tongji university professor (Lou Yongqi) but the wisdom of elders, in their place, is given proper respect.

10. Ushering in the soil age is the great work of our time. We are privileged to be playing a part.




  1. 我们正处在从石油时代向土地时代向土壤时代过渡的阶段。“城—乡”展中列出的项目都是土壤时代将会有的样子。
  2. 一个地方可以既是城市,也是乡村。APP能使都市人成为业余农民,而流媒体平台能让农民直接对接城市,这些都放大了生活与供给之间的关系。
  3. 一个地方可以既是模拟的,也是数字的。“城—乡”欢迎那些能使市民积极参与到生态农业中去的数字工具。
  4. 农场不是工厂。它是一个社会系统和生态系统。“城—乡”记录了那些将多方参与者和活动连接在一起的农场。每一个生物区都需要一个这样的农场。
  5. 在“城—乡”里制作东西,把土地变得更健康,这些过程都很简单。藻类实验室能用生物塑料生产3D杯子,这关乎生态学,而不仅仅是生产而已。
  6. 在“城—乡”里的可持续时尚都是实际可操作的,不是空口说白话。可持续意味着,本地产纤维的土壤友好程度是可以被每一个参与其中的人测量、测试和监控的。就是这么简单。
  7. 在“城—乡”里,弱者能与强者平起平坐。超大型建筑公司和生物农场主?民宿平台与村庄里的老人?电商巨头和养鸡户?土壤时代已经到来:我们有很多东西要互相学习。
  8. 在哪儿学习,怎么学习,几乎比学什么还要重要。人身处的地方就是所展出的这些学习中心里的教授。
  9. 旧知识与新技术在“城—乡”里也是平起平坐的。章堰丰收由虽由同济大学教授娄永琪牵头,却也融汇了章堰当地老人们基于地方的智慧,他们也获得了同样的尊重。
  10. 将世界导向土壤时代,是我们这个时代的重大工作。我们很荣幸能成为其中一份子。
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Press Release: Urban-Rural exhibition in Shanghai

Shanghai 28 October 2019
Zhangyan Harvests Future Country Living Festival
John Thackara curates Urban-Rural exhibition

Many people want to reconnect with nature and rural life – but cannot move out of the city for good.

Zhangyan Harvests Festival in Shanghai, on 3 and 4 November, is filled with practical ways to reconnect the two worlds.

Highlight of the festival is an exhibition called Urban-Rural curated by the English writer and philosopher John Thackara.

Located in a beautiful high-tech agricultural dome, Urban-Rural features a dazzling array of real-world projects.

“We’re in a transition from the oil age to the soil age” says Thackara, “and the projects in Urban-Rural are leading the way”.

Urban-Rural includes apps that enable urban people be part-time farmers; streaming platforms that connect farmers directly to the city; and an algae lab that produces 3d cups out of bioplastics.

Other Urban-Rural talking points include a Soil Sensing Ceremony, and a plan for next-generation biofarms.

“China takes the health of small farms seriously” says Thackara. “We’ll show how, using the latest co-operation platforms, millions of Small farmers can co-exist with the Big on equal terms”.

China’s next-generation rural hubs will meet their opposite numbers from Europe in Urban-Rural.

Atelier Luma from France, and Casa Netural from Italy, will connect with Shanghai’s Biofarm, and Taobao (Alibaba) Rural Live-Streaming.

China’s Urban Rural Bridge is next to Pontio Innovation from Wales.

Thirty place-based learning hubs from around the world will also be profiled at Urban-Rural. These include a School for Village Hosts; forest schools; and a mobile beer academy.

The Urban-Rural exhibition takes place in this high-tech agricultural dome near the village of Zhangyan.

Zhangyan Harvests is the brainchild of professor Lou Yongqi, head of design and innovation at China’s prestigious Tongji University.

“We’ve been innovating new links between city and rural for ten years now” Yongqi explains., ”but Zhangyang Harvests takes this work up to a new level”.

“We’re thinking biovillage as well as smart village” Thackara explains. “Urban-Rural includes apps to monitor soil health remotely, and ecological restoration that’s enabled by digital and Artificial Intelligence. Our star Internet of Things exhibit lives in a compost heap”.

International guests, who are also speaking at the inaugural Zhangyan Forum on 3 and 4 November, include Andrea Paoletti from Casa Netural in Italy; Maxim Dedushkov founder of Holis, and CEO of the new rural hub Clara, in Portugal; and Andrew Goodman, founder of Pontio Innovation in Wales.

“Old wisdom appears alongside new technology on equal terms in Urban-Rural” says Thackara, “maybe more”.

Liying Huang
email: huangliying1218 [@] hotmail [dot] com
phone: 3 86 18202163016
Kristi van Riet
email: meeting [@] thackara [dot] com

[John Thackara is a writer, advisor and bioregional designer. He curated the celebrated Doors of Perception conference for 20 years – first in Amsterdam, later across India – and was commissioner of the UK social innovation biennial Dott 07 and the French design biennial City Eco Lab. Since 2011, Thackara has curated place-based xskool workshops in 20 countries on the theme: Pathways to sustainability: Urban-Rural Reconnection. He studied philosophy before working for ten years as a book publisher and magazine editor. He was the first director (1993 —99) of the Netherlands Design Institute. Today, he is a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art; adjunct professor at Tongji University in Shanghai; visiting professor at School of Visual Arts in New York, and at Pontio Innovation in Wales; and curator of the Social Food Forum. His most recent book – How To Thrive In the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today – has just been published in China]

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John Thackara Newsletter October 2019

Winter Residencies

Could you use some quiet and private time to focus and reflect? Maybe with some exclusive support from me? We’re hosting Residencies this winter in our old house in the south of France.

Meetups in 2020

Our three meetups here in Ganges (France) this summer went so well (as you can see from our Guestbook and my new Instagram: @john.a.thackara) that we’ve scheduled four more for next year. If you are a designer, project curator, grad student, researcher, or writer; if you’re working on a plan, project, thesis or book; could use some time out; and feedback from me: well, consider coming next year. For next year’s dates, and to read more about our meetups – including the application process – go here: thackara.com/meetup

Rewilding AI

The latest waypoint in my China work, in association with Tongji University, is a keynote I’m doing in Shanghai on 14 October about “Rewilding AI”. I’ll argue that although, yes, there are many reasons to push back against the potential uses of AI, the technology also has positive potential uses. For example, AI can enable ways of knowing, and relationships, that reconnect man and nature. It can be an infrastructure for ecosystem repair and monitoring. I’ll look at ways AI can position AgTech at the service of agroecology – with a special focus on farmer-city relationships. Finally, I’ll propose that AI can be the back-end of governance regimes in social-ecological systems.

Emerging Practices (EPC2019)
Theme: The Beauty of Uncertainty in the Age of AI.
Monday 14 October.
Dock, No.468 Yangshupu Rd, Shanghai.

Back to the Land Reader

I’m proud of the latest Reader we made for the annual summer school I do in Sweden, together with Konstfack, whose its theme is Back To The Land 2.0. The first three entries are Annie Proulx on Barkskins, Simone Weil on The Need for Roots, and Pamela Mang on Storying of Place.

Social Food Atlas

The Social Food Atlas, which we launched in April together with Casa Netural and #Matera2019 in Italy, has grown to 128 listings – from Austria to Ukraine. New projects include Community Kitchen Hub on Dartmoor, England; City Farm Augarten in Vienna, Austria; Pop-up-kitchen at Dottenfelderhof in Frankfurt, Germany; Eat Local movement in Romania; Urban Space 500 in Ukraine; The Cyprus Food and Nutrition Virtual Museum in Cyprus; the SAHA! Women’s Food Truck in Malta. mammamiaaa.it/en/atlas-archive/

Pathways to Sustainability, Barcelona

Museu del Disseny de Barcelona is staging an exhibition and events programme on the legacy of Victor Papanek. My talk on 10 December will explore how design for sustainability has evolved since Papanek’s pioneering work.

John Thackara: Urban-rural reconnector. Bioregional designer. Writer/Speaker. Meetup host.

New at Instagram: instagram.com/john.a.thackara

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Back to the Land 2.0 Reader (2019)

This reader is prepared for the annual Back To The Land 2.0 summer school in Sweden that I run together with Konstfack (Cheryl Akner-Koler) and Annika Göran-Rodell. See also a selection of my recent talks here.

Annie Proulx on Barkskins
Or, how we first got the idea that the earth’s resources are limitless. Proulx’s story begins with the arrival in “New France” – the vast tract of north America and Canada colonised by the French between the 16th and 18th centuries. Two young men set out to earn their freedom by clearing an area of forest; they are soon awestruck by the imposing, often impenetrable and seemingly limitless extent of the forest.

Simone Weil on The Need for Roots
“Rootedness in a place is the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”

Pamela Mang on Storying of Place
“What makes a shift to true sustainability possible is the power of the connection between people and place. Place is a doorway into caring. Love of place unleashes the personal and political will needed to make profound change. It can also unite people across diverse ideological spectra because place is what we all share: it is the commons that allows people to call themselves a community. In every place, geology and nature interweave over time with human history and culture to create a place’s recognizable character and nature—its essence. Understanding these patterns helps reveal new possibilities for how to live in partnership with place, growing a future of greater abundance and creativity for all life”.

Street Food
A wonderful series of short (30′) films on Netflix.

Social Food Atlas
Among the key takeways:

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Back To The Land 2.0 – some recent talks

These videos introduce the annual Back To The Land 2.0 summer school in Sweden that I run together with Konstfack (Cheryl Akner-Koler) and Annika Göran-Rodell. See also my Back To The Land 2.0 Reading List.

Xskool Talk 1: The Metabolic Rift   (20m, 2014)
– the big picture: why we have a problem
– industrial food vs living systems vs financial systems
– metabolic rift as collective dis-association from living systems

Xskool Talk 2: Ecological Agriculture   (17m, 2014)
– thousands of experiments; new values; new geographies,
– focus on the local > bioregions, foodsheds, watersheds
– ecological agriculture: activities

Xskool Talk 3: Social Farming   (24m, 2014)
– food systems are social systems
– growing, distributing, preparing as collaboration
– connecting small actions, rooted in a place, with the bigger picture
– macro systems contain micro-activities

Social Food Forum, Matera, Italy (3m, 2019)
– 15 social food curators meet in Italy

Regenerative City DxCC at Tongji University, Shanghai (25m, 2018)
– cities in a larger context
– health of place = health of people
– urban-rural reonnection

How to connect cities and nature (Aarhus, 2m, 2018)
– look at a carrot in a restaurant
– do you know who grew it? and how?

The skills we need (Elisava, Barcelona, 2m, 2017)
– the most important quality in a designer? curiosity
– a trick to get head? get out of the studio and into the world

Design for a Bioregion (AtelierLUMA, France, 2m, 2017)
– making as connecting – especially with people who are not like you
– making as connecting with the land
– few of the answers we need will be found in peoples’ heads

Commoning Workshop (Museum für angewandte Kunst, Wien, 9m, 2018)
– why we need a new ‘story of place’
– connecting small actions for large-scale change

Future Ways of Living (Milan Triennale, 65m, 2017)
– why we need a new story
– signals of re-connection (with the land, and with each other)
– bioregions as a living ‘frame’ for our work
– co-operation platforms as a way for diverse people to work together

The City and Its Bioregion (IAAC, Barcelona’s FabLab, 35m, 2016)
– why should an architect or urban planner even think about meatballs?
– a ‘smart city’ that does not think about food will soon be a dead city
– design ingredients for “Back To The Land 2.0”

City-Rural Connections (Abadir, Sicily, 3m, 2018)
– what steps could we take to reconnect city and rural?
– how might relational design enhance or multiply these connections?

From Biomedicine to Bioregion: The Geographies of a Care Economy
(UC Berkeley, California, Dean’s Lecture, 1h, 2016)
– why caring for place is a story that reconnects people, health, and context
– from Small to Big: signals of transformation
– going with the flow

Thinking Like A Forest: A Design Agenda for Bioregions
(School of Visual Arts, New York, 50m, 2015)
– what does a “leave things better economy” mean in practice?
– how designers are contributing to this new economy, right now

From Biomedicine to Bioregion: The Geographies of a Care-Based Economy
(UC Berkeley, California, Dean’s Lecture, 1h, 2016, 1h)
– a story that reconnects
– signals of transformation
– from Small to Big
– going with the flow

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