How Does This Forest Think?

soil-tasting B

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


Posted in transition & design | Leave a comment

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

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in care & health, social innovation & design | Leave a comment

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

How We Meet Is As Important As Why

This is the text of my talk at the OuiShare Festival in Paris today. 


Did any of you wander around in a group last night – trying to agree on a place to eat?

Welcome to the sharing economy!

Sharing is hard! And that’s just about one meal.

Think about the food systems of a city;  the restoration of a river; the management of waste; or the care of older people.

As we change the way we govern our communities, our cities, and our ecosystems, a variety of different actors and stakeholders – formal and informal, big and small – need to work together – often, for the first time.

Working with people unlike ourselves is not an option. We have to engage with new partners and actors because Read More »

Posted in learning & design, most read | Leave a comment

Keep Your Stuff Alive

The Tending and Grooming Station (below) is a wondrous collection of combs, brushes and other obscure (to me) gadgets. They are used to primp and revive pre-loved sweaters and cardigans that have been disfigured by bobbles and pilling – those unattractive fuzz balls that appear when short fibers misbehave on woolen garments. 

#tendingandgrooming station

Every object has a dark side – and that’s especially true in fashion. Two-wash-two wear tea shirts have a devastating impact on watercourses, air quality, soil toxicity, and human and ecosystem health, in many parts of the world.

It is one thing to draw attention to the hidden costs of fashion – quite another to figure out what to do about them. Exhortations to “buy less, wash less” are little match, on their own, for a global system whose very survival depends on Read More »

Posted in most read | 3 Responses

Cloud Commuting

A two-year project in Belgium proposes new relationships between people, goods, energy, equipment, spaces, and value. Its design objective: a networked mobility ecosystem 

Mobilotoop taxi-van

The signs on the small van describe the services it supports: Taxi; Pick-up; Delivery; Assistance; Vendor; Security; Rental.

Seven functions, one vehicle. As imagined in a project in Belgium called Mobilotoop the van, when coupled with a pay-per-use leasing framework, and radically distributed computing, becomes an element within an asset-light mobility ecosystem.

Mobilotoop asks, ‘how will we move in the city of the future?’  – and does not worry too much about the design of vehicles. ‘Cloud commuting’, in this context, is about accessing the means to move when they are needed (such as the micro-van, above) rather than owning a large heavy artefact (such as a Tesla) that will sit unused for 95 percent of the time.

The first cross-over project of Design Platform Vlaanderen, this two year research project focuses on potential connections between people, vehicles, places and services that – as a single ecosystem – generates new mobility solutions dynamically, and continuously.

Mobolotoop system

With a focus on connections that bring us not just faster but also closer to one another, Mobilotoop is about a system that enables new relationships between people, goods, energy, equipment, spaces, and value.


This may all sound abstract, but Mobilotoop is way of thinking whose time has come. Economics, more than green thinking on  its own, will drive the transformation from here on.

Until now, we’ve moved ourselves – and stuff – about the city in ridiculously wasteful ways. A snapshot from The Netherlands: of the 1,900 vans and trucks enter the small city of Breda each day, 90 percent of those deliveries could be done by bike, or e-bike. Once all system costs are included, a cargo cycle can be up to 98 percent cheaper per km than four-wheeled, motorised alternatives that now clog our roads.

Mobilotoop envisions a mobility culture in which every ride is an encounter, every traveller an entrepreneur.

Mobile media, flexible vehicle designs, and adaptive infrastructure, enable everyone to be a user and a supplier of mobility services. Every commuter can deliver a package on her way to work. Every walker might collect sensor data about the quality of the sidewalk surface, or the air. The electric motor on a pedelec might be used to drive a balcony hoist.


(above: the Mobilotoop exhibition)

In Mobilotoop’s imagination, radically adaptive use is not only about cash transactions. A borrowed vehicle properly used and returned – or a service well-executed – adds to your reputation as a sharer. This enhanced reputation gives you access to use credits, discounts on services, or the use of  other vehicles, equipment, and workplaces.

(Below: the Mobilotoop book)

mobilotoop book

Posted in mobility & design, most read | Leave a comment

A ‘Wild Mirror’ For Desk-Bound Workers

A new scheme in England connects office workers with living systems by means of a ‘wild mirror’: each workspace is twinned with an equivalent area of ecosystem regeneration. 

The restoration of degraded ecosystems — or creating new ones — is gathering pace in different parts of the world.  According to Richard Coniff, China is planting 90 million acres of forest in a swath across its northern provinces. In North America, too: restoration projects costing $70 billion are under way to restore or re-create more than seven million acres of marsh, peatland, floodplain, mangrove, and other wetlands.

These large-scale, government-led efforts are conceived as green infrastructure by governments in response to such practical issues as flood control. This ecosystem regeneration is Read More »

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

Change Labs: What Works?

On Friday 14 March I’m doing a talk and discussion in Dublin.


(Image: Richard Giblett)

To effect system-level change – in health, energy, food, or mobility – a first step is often to reframe the question. In health, for example, ninety-five percent of person-to-person care happens outside the bio-medical system – so how do you innovate there? Read More »

Posted in learning & design | Leave a comment