Why Our Design Festival Has No Things In It

In 2007, I was asked by The Observer to write a short preview of the Dott07 Design Festival.

The house is cold, someone keeps turning the lights off, and the greywater toilet is blocked again.

As a way of life, sustainabilty often sounds grim. The media don’t help: they tell us we have to consume our way to redemption. The shopping pages are filled with hideous hessian bags, and ads that used to be placed by  double-glazing cowboys now feature wind turbines and solar roofs. Adding mental discomfort to the mix, politicians scold our bad behaviour as if we were children dropping litter – and preachy environmentalists expect us to feel guilty when we fail to embrace their hair-shirted future with joy.

Could one planet living be made desirable, better than what we have now? I think it can, and I have evidence to prove it.

For the last 18 months, Designs of the time  has explored what life in a sustainable region (North East England) could be like, and how design can help us get there. The results of our efforts are on show at the Dott 07 Festival, on the banks of the River Tyne in Gateshead, which opened last week.

Although Dott 07 is a design event, it is not filled with shiny products. The Festival’s main exhibits are not things, but people – people who’ve been busy exploring practical ways to live better, more modern lives with less stuff.

One example is the UK’s biggest urban farming project in Middlesbrough. Three weeks ago, 8,000 citizens celebrated a bountiful harvest of fruit and vegetables grown in municipal flower beds, allotments, roadside verges, and skips, all over town. 2,500 people at the Middlesbrough celebration ate a town meal based on recipes created by pro and am chefs in communal kitchens.The main contribution of designers was to make visible, and connect together, people, knowledge, and resources that for the most part were already there. An “Edible Middlesbrough” map, on show at the Dott Festval, was commissioned by the town as an action plan for the years ahead. Uniquely for a development plan, the map highlights flows of food rather than rivers of traffic.

The Dott Festival also features Year 8 school students re-designing an aspect of their school. A year ago, more than 80 schools in the region responded when Dott 07 posed them two questions: “how big is your school’s carbon footprint?”; and, “what design steps would it smaller?”.

Partcipating students had to find ways to measure resource flows in their school: how much water is used, how waste is dealt with, how pupils get to school, where their food comes from. These numbers, represented in 3d graphics, gave them nsight into how their school was performing as a system. Phase 2 was to design ways to make these systems more efficient. The students had help from professional designers and architects, but many turned out to know as much about the issues as the experts – and some students went out and talked to local businesses in a kind of reverse education process.

Another Dott 07 project, called Move Me, looked for ways to improve transport provision in Scremerston, a small rural community in Northumberland. The idea was to identify un-met transport needs and then design ways to use exsting public and private transport resources in a radically more efficient way to help people to get around.

At one level, Move Me was about ride-sharing, which is not such new ideas. But ride-sharing – in common with all schemes to share resources and time – is bedevilled by issues of trust and security: how do you ensure that the stranger sharing your commute to work is not a psycopath? The breakthrough, in Move Me, was the realisation that, when a sharing service is co-designed by the ctizens who will use it, many of these trust and security issues can be resolved without major effort.

Less stuff, more people. The patterns of daily life emerging from Dott 07 rely more on social solidarity than on fancy buildings or shiny objects. The contribution of design is to make it easier for people to help and support each other in ways that bring material benefit in the immediate term.

A Dott project called Low Carb Lane, for example, looked for ways to make being energy efficient affordable for poorer people, not just a lifestyle choice for the well-to-do. Our homes are responsible for one third of total greenhouse gas emissions, and small changes can have a big impact. But for people on low incomes, investing thousands of pounds on insulation, new boilers, or solar panels, is simply not an option.

The solution developed by Dott’s designers, live|work, is a financial service called SaverBox. A package of energy-saving measures, such as loft and cavity wall insulation, make someone’s home cheaper to run, and greener – but the occupier does not have to make a large up-front investment. Instead, each month, the household pays off  the cost of the insulation at a rate less than the energy savings that are generated by the insulation. The SaverBox scheme can be replicated nationwide using the existing structure of Credit Unions.

A less stuff more people spirit informs another Low Carb Lane outcome, the proposed NorthEast Energy Service Co-operative, or NESCO. NESCO is the prototype of a not-for-profit energy utility: it would work for the benefit of its members by putting them in control of their energy use, encourage energy efficiency, and make energy payment processes transparent.

Dott 07 projects have addressed basic aspects of daily life: food, schools, transport, energy. The idea is not to dream up global solutions to the challenge of one planet living but, on the contrary, to provide practical benefits for real people in a specifric situations. The tools, methods, models and services developed for one context during Dott are available to be adapted, scaled up, and multiplied by others. Whenever small steps taken by Dott 07 look lke succeeding, even in part, others can quickly follow suit – only better, and faster. This model of change gives governments a clearer task, too. They can stop hectoring us about personal behaviour change and concentrate, instead, on removing obstacles to change and creating incentives for the mass social innovation that wll be the basis for a sustainable society and economy.

Dott 07 is a project of the Desgn Council and the regonal development agency One North East.



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Druids as designers

jmg.jpg Which box does one belong in during these curious times? Jan Jaap Spreij sent me links to two excellent articles – on peak oil, and the future of industrial society – written by the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. Great beard, great writing. But have you noticed how young Grand Archdruids look these days?

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Food systems: the design agenda (Doors of Perception 9, New Delhi, 2007)

Global food systems are becoming unsustainable in terms of environmental impact, health, and social quality. Up to 40 percent of the ecological impact of an ‘advanced’ city can be attributed to its food systems.
But what to do?
Doors of Perception 9 – on the theme of “Juice” – explored issues at the intersection of food, fuel and design. We went to India in a search for inspiring new models and tools.
Our event – which was more of an expedition and a camp than a conference, brought together experts from all parts of India, together with social innovators active in live food-related projects in: Miami, New York, Portland, Toronto, Vancouver, Santiago. Havana, Florence, Dyestad, Newcastle, Middlesborough, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Frankfurt, Naples, Dubai, Istanbul, Gaza, Jerusalem, Melbourne, Beijing, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkota.
During the day, mixed groups of Indian and international experts went on expeditons to explore markets, crocus farms, and street food culture.
Each evening, they related these experiences during discussions of food information systems; food miles and energy use; localisation of food systems; Community Supported Agriculture; urban farming; sustainable packaging and distribution; agritourism; and street food.
In Food systems: the design agenda John Thackara reflects on some of the lessons we learned in Delhi.
Our partners for the event were the Centre for Knowledge Societies, culiblog.org , PixelAche, the Royal Society of Arts, and Designs of the Time (Dott07). Feel free to download the Doors 9 poster, designed by Abishek Hazra.
Since Doors 9 in 2007, interest in the subject has exploded. Architects and city designers the world over are exploring ways to put food and water systems at the heart of city planning and design. Doors of Perception supplied a speaker and gave communication support to a seminar in The Hague to launch Foodprinting The City, a two-year project, organized by Stroom to explore the possibilities of food production in the Dutch capital city.

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Comment unfree

In response to spam attacks we’ve had to turn off the comment function here. Apologies for that: If you’ve had a comment blocked, please send it to desk at doorsofperception dot com com and we’ll post it manually.

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High-tech beads for the natives?

(COMMENT AT END: we’ve had to suspend comment function because of spam attacks)
You know what? I just don’t think Sunnyvale, California is the right base from which to save the world with Tech.
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Architecture for Humanity have announced a $250,000 competition for the design of technology centers in the developing world.
Dan Shine, director of the AMD’s 50×15 Initiative, says “the creative designs developed in this competition will contribute to our ambitious goal of connecting 50 percent of the world’s population to the Internet by 2015.”
Had the organisers spent more time in South Asia, or in Africa, they’d be aware that six million mobile phone accounts are being opened each month, just in India, right now, today, without the participation of a single “technology centre”.
The explosion in cell phone usage is even more pronounced in Africa – from just one million in 1996 to 100 million users today, and rising exponentially.
AMD’s 50% figure is likely to be reached years before 2015 because of the smart ways poor people share devices and infrastructures.
Shine says that the prize will be for the design of a “sustainable technology facility and community center which incorporates a centralized building equipped with internet connectivity solutions designed to enable an entire community to access the transformative power of the Internet”.
That’s two uses of the word “centre” in a single sentence. The words “old” “western” and “paradigm” spring to mind.
AMD’s new competition is as misguided as the $100 laptop project. It’s based on an outdated model of individual device ownership that may seem normal at the TED conference in Monterey, but has little to do with daily lives of the people it’s supposed to benefit.
The press release concludes that “we are challenging the creative world to design innovative structures”.
That challenge, too, is misguided. Amazingly innovative structures are already emerging in Africa and South Asia. As Aditya Dev Sood told us last week in Delhi, mobile communication is revolutionizing economic and social life in rural India, spawning a wave of local entrepreneurs and creating greater access to social services.
Amazingly, poor people are managing to do this without the participation of the “creative world”.
Check out the new study by The Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS) commissioned by Nokia.
Cheap phones and falling per minute charges in India
and elsewhere don’t mean that public places for people
to gather and use new-ish technologies are not useful.
Cheap paperbacks and Amazon did not close public
libraries. Video Volunteers in NYC have a successful
community video unit in India, and telecenters (just
about everywhere) have been important gathering places
for people to do other activities than go online.
Shared access to resources is more than a cost-saving
device. Media Labs like Waag and De Balie in your
town(Amsterdam) have partnered with places like Sarai
in Delhi and certainly serve a local purpose too.
While I’m critical of some parts of the XO (former
$100 laptop) project, I think you might catch up on
what’s happening with it before you dismiss it.
All that said, I will conceded that some really odd
tech projects have been deployed in developing
countries. LINCOS in Costa Rica and the expensive ITU
telecenters in Mali and Uganda. And writing from San
Jose I would agree that the best designs may not hail
from Silicon Valley.
-Steve Cisler
Thanks for that. The comparison is with deBalie and Waag would suggest I over-reacted. But these two Amsterdam organisations are political-cultural centres. Technology was added (in Waag’s case, c700 years after it was built) as extra infra, not as their raison d’etre. In the case of Africa and South Asia I make no claim to superior expertise on appropriate technology; it’s just that wise people on the ground have hammered it into my head repeatedly that progress starts with people, collaborating, not just with the arrival of tools. JT

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The carbon footprint of virtual worlds, Hummers, and Brazilians

I hear from Nick “still in the US without air conditioning” Oakley that a Second Life avatar uses about as much energy as the average Brazilian. Lesson: even virtual worlds have a real carbon footprint. I told a similar story, this time about server farms, in my book. Upon discovering that we share a (probably unhealthy) interest in climate infoporn, Nick went on to tell me that the Hummer H3, with a fuel efficiency of about 9 mpg, uses less energy over its lifetime than a Prius.
It’s Monday, we leave for India in a week for now, and things are rather busy – so I simply don’t have time to reflect on what these important developments signify. So you do that – and let me know your conclusions in a week or so.

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An angel called Pradsa

Are you shaping the tools or techniques that help other people shape their world? There is no job description for what you do. You mix dedication to social change, confidence with people and organisations, and technical knowledge or skills. You are part of a growing number of committed
people using innovation and ICT to help others work on social and political issues. PRADSA (Practical Design for Social Action) is running a series of workshops around the UK to share best practice amongst people with your hybrid interests and skills.If you are working, however informally, in this area please contact Catherine, by email at:

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India’s new design policy

When I first visited India 20 years ago, the country had fewer design teachers for a population of more than a billion people than had Wales – whose population is three million. The supply of teachers seemed to be stuck because India had just one national public design school: the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad.
NID had (and has) extremely smart faculty and students. But their number – 400 or so per cohort – is tiny in comparison with the 60,000 elite students who attend the country’s Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) – and who have played such a major role in the global IT boom.
It’s good news, then India’s new National Design Policy, which was published on Friday, decrees that four more National Institutes of Design, on the pattern of NID, will be set up in different regions of the country.
The new policy also encourages the establishment of departments of design in all IITs, the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), and in prestigious private sector colleges. The objective is to spread quality design education to all regions of India.
So far, so good. But I was shocked and dismayed to find no mention of climate change, sustainable development, or resource efficiency, in the press release describing the Cabinet’s “vision for a National Design Policy.”
The emphasis of the vision is on “making India a major hub for exports and outsourcing of designs.” This does not sound like the basis for a post-waste, post-consumerist, sustainable economy.
Frankly, if it ignores sustainability, India’s new design policy will make the global situation worse. A lot worse. 80% of the environmental impact of products, services and infrastructures is determined at the design stage, and India is a global industrial power.
Along with other friends of Indian design, I have been arguing for some years for a “leapfrog strategy” in which India jumps directly from a resource-guzzling productivist model to a more advanced, sustainable – and competitive – services-based model.
Doors has been arguing this case in India for six years. The focus of our first formal event in India, at NID in February 2000, was on the transition to a services economy. We expanded this discussion in Doors East in 2003, and at Doors 8 on Infra in 2005. The theme of Doors 9 on Juice , in two weeks’ time, returns once again to the leapfrog idea, this time on the context of food and energy.
India’s new design policy suggests that we have not argued well enough.
The leapfrog hypothesis is doing much better in China. Ezio Manzini, a pioneer of the idea, was on the front page of the Peoples Daily a few weeks ago on just this topic. Senior Chinese policy makers told us, then, that they are looking to develop a fundamental “transformation of our economic growth model”. They said they expected design to play a crucial role in this tranformation.
On a third reading of last week’s announcement from the Indian Cabinet, I discovered a nugget of hope near the bottom of the last page. Item xvi.11 of an Action Plan to implement the Policy says a proposed new India Design Council should “Take effective steps towards ‘cradle to grave environment-friendly approach’ for designs produced in India so that they have global acceptance as ‘sustainable designs’”.
This reads more like an afterthought than a ringing endorsement for design’s biggest opportunity in 200 years. But it’s better than nothing.
Will India’s design education fall further behind? I doubt it. India’s designers are fast on the uptake. Give them the tools – in the form of the promised new institutions – and I’m confident they’ll adapt them to the task of One Planet Economy design.

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Wanted: designer of a dreamy den or a tantalising tent

The culmination of Dott07’s year in North East England (where Doors is programming the content) will be a festival in October to celebrate the achievements, challenges and experiences of all those who have taken part in projects. Our dream for the Festival location is that it will inspire people to enter, and empower them, once inside, to engage with the stories and with each other on equal terms. In other words, the look-and-feel should be the opposite of a raucous trade fair or a self-obsessed art event. Keywords: encounter; participation; interaction; empowering; active, welcoming. When you leave you should feel inspired, not exhausted. Who do you think could do this best? Tell them to check out the Dott Festival Creative Tender

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