Last week I presented a keynote at the Design History Society Annual 2022 Conference in Ismir Turkey on the theme of Design and Transience. My talk was called “Design History and Design Futures: Beyond Anthropocene Ontopolitics.” I used the time to consider how design history might look at design artefacts and designed systems if we were to consider all design through the lens of ecological entanglement. This is not a minor difference from the current way of thinking about design.
Design has a pivotal role to play in creating new sustainable ways of living on this planet. But changing direction in design involves moving away from some of the assumptions that are propelling unsustainable and defuturing design practice. Design is evolving in response to debates that have emerged over the past 50 years as the sciences, the social sciences, and the arts integrate ecologically engaged ways of knowing into knowledge systems that have traditionally erased the ecological. This theory can inform the dialogue between design history and design futures. Examining the assumptions embedded in ideas, priorities and value systems that inform design history, we can potentially create space for new agencies for regenerative design futures.
In response to feedback I received at the conference I am going to develop the paper by applying the theory to some historic examples of “good” design. If we apply a lens consistent with Anthropocene ontopolitics, many examples of good design will need to be re-evaluated. I am interested in your opinions readers so if you have any examples of design artefacts that should be evaluated through the lens of ecological entanglement, please feel free to comment below or message me.
I’ve uploaded “Design History and Design Futures: Beyond Anthropocene Ontopolitics” keynote for the Design History Society’s 2022 Annual Conference on Design and Transience to slideshare (link below). I’ve only included slides with quotes, along with AI images – they can be downloaded. My own words will be in the upcoming paper.
All AI generated images and slides are published as Creative Commons – Attribution and Share-alike. More images can be downloaded on Instagram here.
What could be more important than sustaining habitable living conditions on Earth? Climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental problems demand changes on an order of magnitude well beyond the trajectory of business-as-usual. And yet, despite accumulative social and technological innovation, environmental problems are accelerating far more quickly than sustainable solutions.
The design industry is one of many industries mobilising to address environmental imperatives. While sustainability-oriented designers are working towards change from many angles, addressing climate change and other environmental problems on this scale demands much more dramatic transformations in economic ideas, structures and systems that enable – or disable – sustainable design.
Put simply, designers cannot design sustainable future ways of living on scale without a shift in economic priorities. Human impacts on planetary processes in the Anthropocene require new types of ecologically engaged design and economics if the necessary technological, social and political transitions are to take place.
World making design
Design is crucial to this debate because it is key to the creation of future ways of living. Designers make new ideas, products, services and spaces desirable to future users. With the shape of a font, a brand, the styling of a product, the look and feel of a service, the touch of a garment, the sensation of being in a particular building, designers serve the interests of customers (generally, those with disposal income). They do so according the logic and modes of governance generated by what is valued by economic structures. Design is the practice that makes capitalism so appealing. Continue reading →
Perhaps I am biased because I did my PhD at this university, but last month’s Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD11) “Possibilities and Practices of Systemic Design” at the University of Brighton felt to me like the most ecologically engaged design conferences I have yet to attend. The RSD11 community are working in a wide variety of ideas and practices for systemic design. Often this work includes a focus on justice-oriented design for sustainable transitions. RSD11 included an impressive stream on confronting legacies of oppression. The systemic design research community (now formally established as the Systemic Design Association) has developed theories and practices over the last decade that are now being advocated by the UK Design Council as a design approach for Net Zero. There was so much good content I made some time to capture and share just a few moments, ideas, and reflections on key themes that I consider to be particularly relevant to current debates in design theory and education.
I will start with the Tony Fry, one of strongest voices on designing viable futures in an era of planetary crises. Fry emphasises that we must be careful about the definition of “sustainability” to build capacity to move beyond “sustaining the unsustainable” – which sadly characterises the defuturing work in much of the design industry today. Moving beyond defuturing practice will be done by “redesigning design” and depends on an expansive design practice and “informed futuring” based on critically and ecologically engaged design education.
This design education theme emerged in Fry’s keynote in response to a question by System Design Association’s board chair Silvia Barbero. The popularity of this theme is evidenced in Dan Lockton’s popular tweet (below) – and as a topic of conversation in the final panel and plenary. Judging by nearly two hundred people on Twitter alone are concerned about the capacity of design education to deliver the types of knowledge needed to meet design challenges of the futures. We discussed the narrow and instrumental focus of attention in some design schools and how this impacts our attempts to advance responsible design, design for sustainability, social design, decolonising design, etc.
Design’s role in reproducing or even creating new discriminating structures and systems – or, alternatively, creating liberatory ones, was developed in the many sessions in the “Confronting Legacies of Oppression in Systemic Design” stream. Social justice oriented ideas have made impressive progress over the last five years in design theory and this was very much evident in these sessions. There was also time to consider some of the challenges this community faces now that our ideas are gaining some legitimacy in institutional spaces.
Josina Vink facilitated an intense fishbowl where tensions were discussed. One particularly troublesome issue that arose in this space and a problem that exists as real threat to both the justice-oriented design community and the sustainable design community, is the issue of appropriation.
Appropriation occurs where ideas generated in the margins of dominant discourses (often by marginalised groups) are extracted from the communities that have nurtured these ideas and practices, decontextualised, rinsed of their transformative potential, and used in ways that destroy the value of the idea or practice. Some examples of appropriation could be:
Where people who are not engaged in a field (or in a particular social or environmental struggle) assume they can re-define key terms – and typically do this in ways that undermine the concept and its potential to enable social change.
When an important sustainability or social justice concept is used in ways that undermines and/or neutralises it.
When environmental ideas / social justice concepts are used in inappropriate ways to greenwash or whitewash unsustainable or oppressive, discriminatory, and unethical practices.
When academics use the ideas and work of activist-scholars without citation.
Where progressive ideas are used as statements of intent or vision statements with no attempt to put the ideas into practice.
The list above is a partial list of the various ways that the appropriation of the language of justice and sustainability devalues the work of scholars and activists who leading these movements. This list describes just a few ways appropriation can happen in academic spaces. Appropriation not only delays (or wrecks) progressive movements – but it also harms individuals working (often on the margins) for social change. Appropriation was a dominant theme in the fishbowl as those who have been involved with building capacity for social change in design witness the appropriation of their work.
Also speaking to the theme of justice was Lesley-Ann Noel who described the work of moving beyond good intentions: “learning how to see oppression so we don’t reproduce it.” Noel highlighted Arturo Escobar’s version of the pluriverse in design theory and asked: “could design be guided by different design principles?” Noel presented her “positionality wheel” as a tool to prompt reflection and better understand power, agency, and relationality.
Another highlight was Mathilda Tham’s keynote, with her Earth Logic proposal, and metadesign practice. There were many helpful reflections here. The idea about the importance of self definition (see below) for feminist designers struck me as particularly helpful, and echos Noel’s ideas on positionality – especially for designers who are advocating on behalf of traditionally marginalised groups.
Danah Abdula described the contradictions of sustainability in graphic design. This keynote illustrated the various ways graphic design is so complicit with greenwashing – but also, potentially, able to help re-imagine and remake the material world. Abdula’s presentation illustrated the politics in communication design and how agency is diminished with uncritical approaches to communication design. The article Against Performative Positivity captures these themes in more detail.
For RSD11 colleagues, please forgive me but I can only capture a few moments of so much good content. This blog is very partial. I have not even made time to describe my own mini-workshops on net zero or a second one on design education. These were good too! I want to thank the whole team at the University of Brighton for hosting such a great event. Also thanks to everyone involved with building the Systemic Design Association from scratch over the last 11 years. I have learned to much from this community since I attended RSD1 is Olso – and this was probably the best conference yet. Papers and posters are on the SDA website.
Five papers have just been published with our editorial from the Power and Politics in Design for Transitiontrack at Loughborough University’s Research Perspectives In the Era of Transformations conference 19-21 June 2019.
The politics of design transitions remains marginal in design research. With our call, we hoped to receive contributions that problematised design’s current roles and conceptualised new roles for design in the context of sustainability transitions to attend to issues related to how power is and should be dealt with.
Learning to take action strikingly illustrated PhD project by @nikiwallace on the personal, political and professional transition & theorising the double bind – in our track Power and Politics in Transition Design track #ADIM2019pic.twitter.com/f3UGZyoLGZ
There is precious little left wing mainstream media to offer effective counter analysis – as both the BBC and The Guardian have been dominated by the viciously anti-JC centre right. The Corbyn-supporting social movement that tried to resist these forces did everything we could to bring counter analysis and narratives to people’s doorsteps over the last month. It was not enough. No where was that more apparent than in South Thanet where our brilliant Labour candidate was defeated by a corrupt Conservative quietly enabling the destruction of local health services.
I am attending the EAD2019 this week in Dundee where I will present my paper “Ecocene Design Economies: Three Ecologies of Systems Transitions.” I am publishing the link to this paper here.
Ecocene Design Economies: Three Ecologies of Systems Transitions
Despite accumulative social and technological innovation, the design industry continues to face significant obstacles when addressing issues of sustainability. Climate change and other systemic ecological problems demands shifts on an order of magnitude well beyond the trajectory of business-as-usual. I will argue that these complex problems require addressing the epistemological error in knowledge systems reproducing unsustainable designed worlds.
Ecological literacy is a basis for nature-inspired design. Ecologically engaged knowledge must inform design strategies across the psychological, the social and the environmental domains. With the expansive three ecologies perspective, interventions at the intersection of design and economics can enable systems transitions. This theoretical work informs a framing of the current epoch in ways that create a foundation for the creation of regenerative, distributed and redirected design economies.
Enabling Difficult Confrontations for Intergeneration Solidarity and Survival
Presentation at the “Critical Pedagogies in the Neoliberal University: Expanding the Feminist Theme in the 21st century Art [and Design] School” session, #AAH2019 –Brighton, April 2019
I will use this paper to reflect on tensions between generations of feminists with a focus on strategies of denial and their toll on the goals of feminist movements. Feminists movements have historically worked (with varying degrees of success) to end the normalisation of denial of social injustices and symbolic, structural and/or actual violence. Feminist pedagogy must intensify challenges to various manifestations of denial responsible for reproducing patriarchy, oppressive social relations and ecocide.
This paper will address denial in the face of divisive issues such as the ‘me too’ movement; the precarity faced by younger generations; and the intersections of patriarchy and ecological crises. It is based on my personal experience as a daughter of a feminist academic in Canada, as a student at art school and my current role as lecturer in design education oriented towards social and environmental justice. Solidarity and even survival depends on our ability to make confrontations with disturbing information a catalyst for change. The lessons learned from feminist struggles inform the work of confronting oppressions, including those on issues of environment justice.
My experiences have led me to the conclusion that many, if not most, oppressive behaviours and attitudes are rooted in various types of denial and unconscious bias. Both are deep seated forces that prevent many of us (and especially those with more privilege) from seeing things that disturb our self-image. Feminist strategies such as transformative learning help us negotiate these difficult confrontations. These are needed now more than ever in higher education and beyond. Unfortunately, neoliberal modes of governance all but destroy opportunities for transformative learning.
29-30 June 2018
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London, W1B 2HW
The global challenges of the Anthropocene demand shifts on an order of magnitude well beyond the trajectory of business-as-usual. Ecomodernists’ fantasies of technological salvation are unhelpful when they sideline work undoing the assumptions that created the conditions of the Anthropocene in the first place. Erroneous ideas are embedded in the cultural fabric: the laws, policies and practices that determine how we live and act upon our surrounding lifeworld. The inevitable contradictions are increasingly dysfunctional. The Capitalocene concept (Moore 2014) more helpfully highlights the specific socio-political dynamics that propel environmental crises. Yet there are limitations to this critical approach. While defining the problem, it is does less well envisioning viable alternatives. Ecological theorists Gregory Bateson and Felix Guattari offer a foundation for approaching these contradictions by thinking simultaneously about three interconnected domains: the self, the social and the ecological. Conjoining these three ecologies, this paper will describe the contours of an emergent ‘Ecocene’ (Boehnert 2018) as a generative alternative. Moving beyond the limitations of reductionist models of the human psyche and knowledge systems, design interventions must nurture relational perception and foster new sensibilities. As subjects opening inward, in participation with our surrounding lifeworlds, intersectional solidarity demands engaged encounters with oppressions that threaten collective futures. The Ecocene is a foundation for the redesign of the system structures that determine what is designed. Participant designers, well versed in ontological entanglements, are well poised to enable these emergent ways of seeing and knowing to make transitions to another world not only possible but desirable.
Bateson G (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Boehnert J (2018) Design, Ecology, Politics: Towards the Ecocene. London: Bloomsbury.
Guattari F (2000/1989)The Three Ecologies. London: Continuum.
Moore J W (2014) ‘The Capitalocene. Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis’. Accessed online.
Design/Ecology/Politics: Toward the Ecocene describes a role for design in making sustainable ways of living not only possible but desirable. This book examines the relationships between three domains. Part One ‘Design’ explains how new ways of living are created and made appealing. Part Two ‘Ecology’ explores the philosophical problems at the root of the environmental crisis and how design can either contribute to – or address these problems. Part Three ‘Politics’ describes why sustainable transitions are currently so difficult to achieve. By theorising design, ecological and socio-political theory concurrently, Boehnert describes how social relations are constructed, reproduced and obfuscated by design in ways which often cause environmental and social harms. Where design theory fails to recognise the historical roots of unsustainable practice, it reproduces old errors. With the understanding that design negotiates the intimately intertwined space between self, society and the environment, design can more effectively engage with complex contemporary challenges. The transformative potential of design is dependent on deep-reaching analysis of the problems design attempts to address. With this ecologically literate, critically engaged and intersectional feminist foundation, design is a practice primed to facilitate the creation of sustainable and just futures.
Design, Ecology, Politics: Toward the Ecocene has been published by Bloomsbury Academic February 8th, 2018. The book website is now live. The launch on Regents Street in London, February 9th, 2018.
Design theorist Rachel Armstrong states “there is no advantage to us to bring the Anthropocene into the future… The mythos of the Anthropocene does not help us…we must re-imagine our world and enable the Ecocene” (2015). New ecologically informed ways of thinking and living must be designed. The transformative Ecocene describes a curative catalyst for cultural change necessary to survive the Anthropocene. It shifts focus from the problems to the solutions. The Ecocene depends on a new understanding of human-nature relations and the generation of new types of development and design informed by an ecologically literate perspective. Ecological literacy provides a basis for integrated thinking about sustainability. It also politicises design processes. In this talk, I will discuss the conditions that will make the design of the Ecocene possible. By situating my analysis at the intersection of design, ecology and politics, I will argue that design for sustainability must be informed by social theory (that reveals the social function of design), ecological theory (that describes human relationships with the environment), and political theory (that demonstrates how power and ideology reproduce unsustainable conditions). Located at the nexus of these fields, I will explore how designers participate in the construction of future realities and how to enable transformative design practices.
The neoliberal consensus is dying — but how much damage it does on its way out remains to be seen. Corbyn’s anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal Labour Party destroyed the Tories’ majority despite a deeply hostile media environment and internal struggles with the Blairite wing of his own party. In this context, Labour achieved the largest vote share increase since Attlee in 1945 (nearly 10%). Young people hit the polls on mass (72%) in support of Corbyn. Ousting this failed ideology from our political, social and educational institutions cannot happen fast enough for those on the frontline of its assault on our lives.
Neoliberalism is an ideology and a mode of governance that is now so pervasive that it is often accepted as simply ‘the way thing are’. It results in a type of politics and institutional power that is dismantling democratic social institutions in favour of unaccountable private power. It is characterised by policies favoring marketisation, metrics driven modes of governance, financialisation, privatisation, deregulation and reregulation (facilitating market processes with benefits for the most powerful actors). This undoing of democratic institutions is accompanied by a rhetoric of freedom and personal choice that obscures these transformations.
The resulting circumstances are extraordinarily difficult to navigate for a public that experiences increasing austerity, precarity and insecurity. This social upheaval is an inevitable response of a system that will always prioritise the interests of those with financial capital. Markets are where decisions are made. The public declarations of the powerful are not reflected in policy.
Design schools sit at a pivotal place in enabling neoliberal assumptions, processes and institutions. Design is a practice involved with making new ways of living possible by inspiring particular feelings, attitudes and subjectivities. Neoliberalism depends on having its ideological premises accepted and internalised and thus one of the primary roles for design is to create an illusion of wholesomeness that masks exploitative dynamics. Designers are involved in constructing the subjective grip of the neoliberal order — but we can do other things. Design schools need to make these options clear. The only way we can do this work is with a critical approach to the power.
Neoliberalism is an intensified form of late capitalism that exploits its own social and ecological context. Since economic prosperity depends on the society and the environment that neoliberal policy abuses, this exploitation creates an endless series of crises. This is the essential contradiction in capitalism. With every crisis more authoritarian mechanisms are used to maintain the current social order (within increasingly tenuous and dangerous circumstances). Deepening public frustration and anger is evident in so-called popularist backlashes that lead to even more authoritarian governments (May and Trump). The alternative is anti-neoliberal and anti-austerity social movements (Corbyn and Sanders).
Corbyn’s Labour demonstrates that neoliberalism can be challenged even by groups under relentless attack. Neoliberalism must be ousted from our political systems and our social institutions to create viable futures where we can start to address the varies crises neoliberal policy has generated. When we make neoliberal assumptions, mechanisms, structures and its violences visible we create a foundation to build alternatives. Design schools that want to be enable these progressive futures that serve rather than exploit young people need to check their politics now.
This paper explores the risks of uncritical approaches to big data on issues of development with a focus on how it is harnessed in images. Accurate information is a basis for effective policy making, yet big data is far too often understood as empirically incontestable. This apparently evidence-based analysis can obscure more than it reveals. We examine how big data is being mobilized in data visualization on issues of human development in ways that serve ideological agendas. We will begin by examining how images work with a re-contextualization of impressionist art. A critic of Cézanne declared that his artwork was nothing more than an ugly untruth, a deliberate distortion of nature. Using this notion as a starting point, this paper questions how data visualisation illustrates trends and presents truth claims, through the privileging certain perspectives and importantly the rejection of others. We will then examine Max Roser’s Our World in Data (OurWorldinData.org) as an example of data visualization on issues of human development. Through these examples we will develop the concepts of digital positivism, datawash and darkdata as critical tools for approaching the communication of big data. Data visualization and artwork both reflect perceptions of the world, power relations, special interests and ideologies. The impressionists painted the unseen and unknown through painting voids. This paper posits that we could avoid the obfuscations of big data by understanding that its voids are political, but also that these voids might help us more clearly see power and ideology in data.
Dr. Joanna Boehnert is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM) at the University of Westminster.
Doug Specht is a Research Associate and Visiting Lecturer at the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster.
This presentation covers work I have written about for here and here.
The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the geological epoch where humanity is dramatically affecting geological processes. The name draws attention to severe environmental problems – but it also does other things. Jason Moore asks: “Does the Anthropocene argument obscure more than it illuminates?” (2014, 4). Donna Haraway argues that the Anthropocene must be “as short/thin as possible” (2015, 160). Moore, Haraway, S0lon and Latour claim the concept uncritically imports Western rationality, imperialism and anthropocentrism – and thereby narrows options for the development of sustainable alternatives.
It is important to be specific about exactly what ‘anthropos’ are doing to destabilise climate systems and other planetary boundaries. There is a particular model of development driving dramatic Earth System change. There are other options. In response to this problem, the Capitalocene is a concept that asserts: “the logic of capital drives disruption of Earth System. Not humans in general” (Salon, 2014).
Bruno Latour says the Capitalocene is “a swift way to ascribe this responsibility to whom and to where it belongs” (2014, 139). It is more specific. Consequently it opens space for other opinions. Yet while the Capitalocene is critical, is not creative. Beyond the assumptions of Anthropocene and the critical perspective of the Capitalocene, new ways of understanding social and ecological relations are emergent.
Design theorist Rachel Armstrong states “there is no advantage to us to bring the Anthropocene into the future… The mythos of the Anthropocene does not help us… we must re-imagine our world and enable the Ecocene” (2015). New ecologically informed ways of thinking and living must be generated. The Ecocene has yet to be designed. Its emergence depends on a new understanding of ecological-human relations and new types of development that emerge from this perspective. The transformative Ecocene describes a curative catalyst for cultural change necessary to survive the Anthropocene.
A presentation at Climate Change: Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics University of Brighton, Thursday 28-Friday 29 April 2016.
The MIT Media Lab launched the Journal of Design and Science (JoDS) in early 2016 with four essays that aims open “new connections between science and design”. The central themes are the emergence of ‘participant designers’ within ‘an age of entanglement’ and the shifts inherent in this approach to design. The JoDS essays theorise an engaged design practice but the political economy of design is under-theorised and a particular problem with the representation of the ecological is evident.
The ways in which nature is understood enable or disable the design of sustainable ways of living. The dismissal of the ecological in the ways we think, in design theory and in design practice is the legacy of a culture that has ignored the interests of natural world. One way to examine the dismissal of the ecological in theory is to refer to Gregory Bateson’s theory of ‘epistemological error’. The western premise of radical independence is wrong. Humankind has conceived of itself as the sole proprietors of sentience and the rest of the world “as mindless and therefore as not entitled to moral or ethical consideration” (1972, 62). The narrowing down of our epistemology to reflect only our own interests (or even the interests of our own species) and the instrumental processes we use to do this are at the root of the most severe environmental problems.
“We humans are changing. We have become so intertwined with what we have created that we are no longer separate from it. We have outgrown the distinction between the natural and the artificial…We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement”.
It is true that plastic debris is clogging up the guts of marine animals and there are endless examples of similar entanglements. The artificial and the organic are definitely interacting in countless ways on all scales across the global ecosystem. But the ‘end of the artificial’ concept has more to do the legacy of epistemological error and the particular type of political economy that emerged from this error than the so-called merging of the ecological and the artificial.
This coalescing of the natural and the artificial has far reaching consequences. If the artificial things that humans have designed and constructed are of the same order as natural processes that have made it possible for humans to flourish over 40,000 years – this influences the ways we understand and value natural processes. The ecological sphere has evolved over millions of years to enable life-sustaining conditions on this planet. In stark contrast to the ecological, the artificial has not endured the test of time. It has not evolved to work in tandem with the ecological. In many places it disrupts the dynamic balance ecosystems need to sustain and regenerate themselves. The climate system is the most dramatic example.
Just because it is possible to ‘edit’ nature (genetic engineering, synthetic biology, geo-engineering) does not mean the organic and the artificial are the same, or that they have equivalent value. We might redesign nature into what appears to the most cavalier amongst us as a ‘better’ place, to suit human needs and desires – but we cannot predict with certainty the consequences of the most dramatic interventions. On the other hand, nature has experimented for millions of years to refine the evolutionary moment that we find ourselves in now, one that we are quickly degrading. Since humans have already caused irreparable damage to the climate system, to biodiversity and to a vast array of ecosystems and species, now is not the time to build new theory that will further dismiss ecological concerns.
I will publish a longer version of this review in the near future.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Design embeds ideas in communication and artefacts in subtle and psychologically powerful ways. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term symbolic violence to describe how powerful ideologies, priorities, values and even sensibilities are constructed and reproduced through cultural institutions, processes and practices. Through symbolic violence, individuals learn to consider unjust conditions as natural and even come to value customs and ideas that are oppressive. Symbolic violence normalises structural violence and enables real violence to take place, often preceding it and later justifying it. Feminist, class, race and indigenous scholars and activists describe how oppressions (how patriarchy, racism, colonialism, etc.) exist within institutions and structures, and also within cultural practices that embed ideologies into everyday life.
The theory of symbolic violence sheds light on how design can function to naturalise oppressions, and then obfuscate power relations around this process. Through symbolic violence, design can function as an enabler for the exploitation of certain groups of people and the environment they depend on to live. Design functions as symbolic violence when it is involved with the creation and reproduction of ideas and practices that result in structural and other types of violence. Breaking symbolic violence involves discovering how these processes work and building capacities to challenge and transform dysfunctional ideologies, structures and institutions.
1. How do designers participate in symbolic violence?
2. How can designers reveal and undo symbolic violence?