Design better systems in a world overwhelmed by complexity ⊗ An ecological civilization ⊗ Against performative positivity — No.162

This week → Design better systems in a world overwhelmed by complexity ⊗ An ecological civilization ⊗ Against performative positivity ⊗ Attention stewardship ⊗ Reimagining the research lab

A year ago → The most clicked article in issue No.115 was Trees As Infrastructure by Dark Matter Laboratories.

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Design better systems in a world overwhelmed by complexity

At OneZero, Ingrid Burrington interviewing Keller Easterling about her new book Medium Design. This quote seems to “place” the article and book pretty well; “her goal is less to galvanize readers behind her solutions and more to encourage a way of working and thinking that’s guided by creative reconfigurations and collaborations rather than delivering an imaginary TED Talk.” Touches on repair, not looking for the one solution, anticapitalism, ownership, and more. They mention mutualism a few times and you can consider the next piece, from an angle, as doing a “click and expand” on the concept.

I am trying to find a trapdoor out of that habit of mind — the search for the one and only argument, the one and only evil, the one and only enemy, or the Manichean struggle. […]

[T]his book is about another form of innovation that is not a quantifiable proof, a new technology, or a more precise measurement of doom. Instead, an innovation can be a relationship, a protocol, a way that things combine. […]

[K]ind of like a ruthless optimism—kind of an absence of naivete and more of a tactical optimism, understanding that something has to work, and it’s probably more worthwhile to believe that than to be the most correct about how it won’t work.

An ecological civilization

I’m already primed for liking this kind of piece but even accounting for that, it reads like a relatively plausible vision. The end goal is very far removed from our current planetary situation but a lot of the examples and strategies to get to that point are actually doable and quite a few are actually already being applied by various organizations and even countries. Very compressed; the idea is to take something that looks like a lot of the left-leaning policies already needed and promoted around the world, and rethink them to integrate nature and its preservation, while also taking it as a model and inspiration for humans to rejoin the natural world.”

This is the fundamental idea underlying an ecological civilization: using nature’s own design principles to reimagine the basis of our civilization.

Ecologies are themselves fractal, with the deep principles of self-organized behavior that perpetuate life shared by microscopic cells, organisms, species, ecosystems, and the entire living Earth. This form of organization is known as a holarchy, where each element—from cells on up—is a coherent entity in its own right, while also an integral component of something larger. […]

An ecological civilization, … would fairly reward entrepreneurial activity, but severely curtail the right of anyone to accumulate multiple billions of dollars in wealth, no matter what their accomplishments. […]

Manufacturing would be structured around circular material flows, and locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing symbiosis between people and with living systems, rather than minting billionaires. […]

Governance would be transformed with local, regional, and global decisions made at the levels where their effects are felt most (known as subsidiarity). While much decision-making would devolve to lower levels, a stronger global governance would enforce rules on planetwide challenges such as the climate emergency and the sixth great extinction.

Against performative positivity

Danah Abdulla with an important reflection on the role of designers and how they approach the work they do. From the powerful and underestimated driver of convenience, to sometimes questioning some products but not often enough the question of consumption itself, to the fakeness of a lot of “doing good,” to being political, and finally on the importance of some pessimism (yes) instead of an oft blinding and obfuscating focus on positivism and hope.

“Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice. […]

Problems are complex, but design educators want to make them simple. That is why design is all about the toolkit, and design thinking is condensed into a few steps. The complexity requires an engagement with different disciplinary, conceptual, theoretical, and methodological frameworks. […]

[T]ransformative means conjuring up seemingly impossible scenarios of what design could be collectively. To effect any societal change, design needs politics. A politicized designer is a collective designer, because designing is not an activity accomplished by one person. […]

Designers must move away from this positive, optimistic attitude that denies the place of any negativity, an attitude that denies realism. Optimism forces people to blame themselves for their own failures and misery; to never look at the structures of power that contribute to this.

Attention stewardship

Christopher Butler with his reading of the recent interview with Micheal Goldhaber (the “prophet you’ve never heard of” from No.160), and what I think can be a very useful expansion on the idea of attention; towards stewardship and this act of not only controlling our attention but participating in the existence or preservation of ideas outside of the attention of the mass. One does not only keep one’s attention, one also focuses on value that needs to exist.

Culture is a tapestry of ideas, beliefs, and agreements. And as powerful as any idea or belief or agreement may be, each relies upon attention. […]

The more we, as a culture, unify our attention, the bigger the void into which most things will disappear. Girard’s theory suggests that attention, like any product of desire, will ultimately fall into a pattern of mimesis. […]

[T]hese two ideas — the information economy and mimetic theory — intersect at the responsibility we each have to use our attention wisely. To care about what we consume so that we are the beneficiaries of attention no matter if we are giving or receiving it. To care less about receiving attention simply for attention’s sake. To consider our acts of attention as acts of stewardship not just over our own minds, but over the culture of which we are a part.

More → Drew Austin with Disconnection Notice.

Illich illustrates why the internet feels so loud and claustrophobic: The technology that mediates it ensures that every sliver of the sonic spectrum is allocated to someone, and when softer voices aren’t speaking, the loud ones simply travel further. […]

“Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication.”

Reimagining the research lab

Two posts in the ongoing independent research lab discussion. Tom above with some ideas on backer-based financing, Peter after with public funding.

My quick notes: The lab idea is quite adjacent to the On projects, newsletters, products, and formats post I wrote. While they have a lot in common and there’s overlap, I see two different lines here: the lab thinking and creating products and services (Matt), and the one creating publications (me, Peter, Tom?). The former needs more financing which likely takes it out of the subscriber model Tom mentions. I love the “director as show runner” bit because it makes sense, and also aligns with bits of distributed work, the idea of squads mentioned before, and also aligns with the proven theatre/movie set/circus/building contractor models.

One unresolved tension here is how to mix individual backers with institutional backers. Andy covered his first year’s expenses via a grant from Emergent Ventures for example. This might be a strong argument for a more sophisticated platform than Substack to run the subscriptions through – ideally you’d like some nice way to combine individual backers and institutional backers. […]

This whole idea works because I think there’s a strong analogy between the research director of a research lab and a showrunner / worldbuilder. I’m no expert but I have a hunch that research labs only succeed with a strong willed, opinionated research director at the helm who can steer the vision, create worlds before they’re ready and secure funding.

More → Public interest independent research labs

I think there’s a real and important role to play for publicly funded, but largely independent research labs. These independent, publicly funded research labs could come with various focus areas (design, governance, public interest tech…), with different mission statements. They should probably be staunchly interdisciplinary. And they should share their research and results openly.


Header image: Each sphere is a paper published in Nature.