Design/Ecology/Politics: Towards the Ecocene


Today I signed a contract with Berg / Bloomsbury Academic Publishers for a book called Design/ Ecology/ Politics: Towards the Ecocene Within and Beyond Error, due to be published 2017.

Design/Ecology/Politics is a clear articulation of the powerful role for design – once informed by ecological literacy and critical perspectives. This book moves the debate in sustainable design beyond its narrow focus on the design of marginally more sustainable consumer products. Ecological theory exposes philosophical problems at the root of the environmental crisis. Social theory exposes the social and political function of design. This book will describe the relationship between these three dynamics. While there are prominent movements in design working towards socially responsive practice, these efforts are hampered by the manner in which power relations are constructed, reproduced and obfuscated by design. Revealing these dynamics creates new possibilities for transformative practice – i.e. design which will create ways of living enabling human prosperity over time.

Ugly Untruths: Data, Visualisation and Human Development

I am presenting the paper ‘Ugly Untruths: Data, Visualisation and Human Development’ with Doug Specht today at the Oxford Big Data and Development Symposium at the Said Business School in Oxford. 

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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.

Brexit: Popularist Backlash

ClvBYpZWQAAc7lgEvidently subjecting a population to crushing austerity causes populist backlashes. We should know this as a historical fact by now. The political classes are not only negligent but wildly reckless. Boris was pro-EU until very recently. Brexit was a political move to grab power. Meanwhile, Scotland won’t let England force them out of Europe. If Brexit happens, the UK will break.

So now an era of even more dramatic instability (starting with an instant 10% fall in the value of the pound). Things could move in many directions now. We urgently need a green-left alliance against both neoliberalism (Cameron + New Labour) and Nationalism/Fascism (Farage). It needs to acknowledge that the political classes (with The Daily Mail and Murdoch) have created conditions for the rise of racist xenophobia. The political classes include the Blairite left, so intensely relaxed about massive inequalities that helped create the conditions for Brexit. They are busy trying to use the moment to oust democratically elected Jeremy Corbyn, with the typical contempt for democracy they have shown over the past two decades.

Let us not blame ordinary people for Brexit. The left would do better to do some deep questioning of how we allowed the far right to hijack the anti-austerity platform. We need to recognise the failure of our own movements to help people who voted Brexit. The resentment created by this far-right/racist backlash has already claimed one a life (Jo Cox, justice campaigner). We will need to organise fast to prevent more sexist, racist and structural violence that this wave of fear mongering encourages. Please actively help or consider how you can show solidarity with the people doing the work to counter these forces.

Naming the Epoch: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Ecocene

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.

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Design and Science in an Age of Entanglement

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.

In the section titled ‘The End of the Artificial’ Joichi Ito claims that “it appears that nature and the artificial are merging”. In ‘The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement’ Danny Hillis claims:

“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.

Ito, J., Hillis, D., Oxman, N. and Slavin, K.  (2016). Journal of Design and Science, PubPub, [http://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/designandscience]

Design as Symbolic Violence. Design for Social Justice. A Conversation @DRS2016uk

This conversation will take place at Future Focused Thinking, the Design Research Society conference in Brighton in June 2016.

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.

Organizing questions

1. How do designers participate in symbolic violence?
2. How can designers reveal and undo symbolic violence?

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Going beyond the “ecological turn” in the humanities

Aaron Vansintjan: ‘The limits of the term ‘Anthropocene’ highlight the danger of using one framework (geology and climatology) to make universal claims about the world—it helps make only one world possible….Perhaps it’s time that academics go beyond congratulating themselves for rediscovering “materiality”, “nature-culture”, and “the non-human.” Not intrinsically political, these terms shuffle neatly behind universalizing, apolitical concepts like the Anthropocene—and end up being used to serve colonialist imaginaries like those of the eco-modernists. Putting it simply, it’s just not enough to say: “Look! material things are important too.”

The continuing relevance of the “ecological turn” within the humanities signals that more difficult work lies ahead: as Todd and many others have argued, it requires acknowledging—and, more importantly, supporting—those who have never turned their back in the first place.’


Talk about the Anthropocene often has a tendency to rely on apolitical and colonialist assumptions. But the turn to ecology in the humanities will require acknowledging—and, more importantly, supporting—those peoples who have never turned their back on ‘ecology’ in the first place.

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‘They shall not pass’ #noparasan


There is an impressive history in England of people standing up to fascists. The tradition of ¡No pasarán! meaning ”They shall not pass” was used by anti-fascists in the famous 1936 Battle of Cable Street. The concept is used today by people determined not to let fascists spread hate on the streets. Fascists must not be allowed to gather. It’s a simple rule and a good one.

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Latour on Paris Attacks

Latour on Paris Attacks: “It would be truly tragic if, by rightly seeking out and destroying those who, within a limited time and place, go about killing innocent people, we delay yet again the necessary work of addressing those who would kill on a deliriously massive scale, over a long period, sweeping away life in all its forms, human or otherwise. Though it is legitimate that a well-calibrated state of emergency allows for secure street demonstrations, the powers that be have to remember that they could declare a different state of emergency, an extreme one this time, that could teach the citizenry how to identify and grapple with the larger enemy. All the more so, since this is a war that finds us very much divided, among nations, territories and peoples, and tragically, within ourselves, as we argue endlessly over the causes and the cures of global warming. Government alone is helpless: it needs all its citizens in this effort. And government should notimpede those citizens who, by demonstrating, are trying to help their elected officials — it might even be an occasion to invent demonstrations more innovative than yet another march from Place de la République to Place de la Nation.”


Installing (Social) Order

LatourLatour on Paris Attacks: 

What is so discouraging about the terrorist acts is that our discussion of what motivated the operations is as insane as the acts themselves. With each attack of this nature, we restage the grand war drama, the nation in peril and the protector-state purporting to rise up against barbarity. This is what states do, we say: we should have a basic expectation of security, and the state should have the means to provide it. End of story.

But what makes the current situation so much more dismaying is that the crimes committed on 13 November have occurred within a few days of another event about to take place that involves tragedies of a different kind, ones that will require that we come up with very different answers to wholly different threats that have nothing to do with ISIS/Daech. I am referring, of course, to the World…

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Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy

“The future Srnicek and Williams conjure looks suspiciously like the present: the West enjoys ever greater abundance and liberation from the excesses of exploitative labour, not through eliminating that labour, but rather through its geographical relocation.”

The Disorder Of Things

The fourth commentary, and fifth post, on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, delivered by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman. Aggie is a Lecturer in International Politics at City University London. She works on issues relating to violence and international theory/philosophy, including war and wargaming, US foreign policy, Derrida, Nietzsche, and post-foundational ethics/politics. Tom is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, focusing on capitalism, development, and ideology. He is variously interested in (in no particular order) the politics of epistemology, apocalypticism, Adorno, international development, and concepts of science.

In a climate of successive defeats, missed opportunities and the consolidation (and even exacerbation) of unequal and exploitative social relations, there are few acts more thankless than turning the weapons of iconoclasm against those already waging a struggle against insurmountable odds. Inventing the Future seeks to rescue the Left from what its authors term ‘folk politics’:…

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The Politics of Data Visualisation: Or How to Over-Simplify with ‘Big Data’ and #DataVis

This article was published last month in the online journal Discover Society.

forests.png-largeOn the Internet ‘big data’ is popularised by data visualisation (datavis) that makes raw data accessible and meaningful to wider audiences. Here big data is harnessed to address society’s problems by illustrating trends and debunking assumptions that contradict the data. Despite the value of this work, the process of collecting and visualising data is never entirely neutral and never complete and so data visualization cannot capture every relevant fact. Something will always be missing. Data visualizations conceal more complicated realities. The decision to collect data and how this data is represented all reflect ideological assumptions and often unstated political agendas. Data displays embody values. These are reflected in which data is selected, as well as the methods, media and styles used to communicate information. Big data driven data visualisation on highly complex and political issues all too often result in a reduction of the complexity and a flattening out of phenomenon to what can be captured with numbers. Purely quantitative approaches to data visualization driven by big data are inadequate on politicised issues as they typically fail to capture power relations, ideology, attitudes and behaviors that cannot be reduced to a number.

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The Visual Communication of the Environment in Theory and Practice: Nurturing Relational Perception

Image-makers have the unique ability to make currently invisible ecological processes and relationships visible. Within the context of an increasingly visual culture, images have potential to nurture the development of new perceptual capabilities and encourage relational perception. Graphic design is well suited to facilitate ecological learning since it can draw on a wide variety of visual strategies to display specific geographic spaces, ecological patterns and processes, abstract concepts and future scenarios. Julie Doyle argues that photography records circumstances of the past, so its usefulness in communicating ecological messages is limited to displaying damages already done (2009). My own work proposes that graphic design has greater potential to respond to environmental communication challenges due to its ability harness the communicative potential of maps, charts, diagrams, graphs, timelines, illustrations, network visualizations, data visualization, information graphics, controversy maps, giga-maps and systems oriented design to make complex information accessible, comprehensible and alluring. With design strategies, image-makers can reveal relationships, patterns and dynamics in complex systems. For these reasons, graphic design has exceptional potential to support relational perceptual practices and the ability to ‘see systems’ – nurturing both relational perception and ecological literacy.

For more information please see my Design Research Society 2014 conference paper. Download the paper here.

Mapping Climate Communication – slideshow for #COCE2015 and #UE2015


The Mapping Climate Communication project offers an overview of how climate change is communicated in the public realm by visualizing actors, events, strategies, media coverage and discourses influencing public opinion. Two large-scale maps and one Poster Summary Report were published on-line October 2014. The project uses two visualization methods: a timeline and a network visualization. The Climate Timeline (CT) visualizes the historical processes and events that have lead to the growth of various ways of communicating climate change. The Network of Actors (NoA) illustrates relationships between institutions, organizations and individuals participating in climate communication in Canada, United States and the United Kingdom. Together these two visualizations contextualize events and actors within five discourses: climate science, climate justice, ecological modernization, neoliberalism and climate contrarianism. Since communication happens at the level of rhetoric as well as the level of action, discourses in this project include explicit messages and also messages that are implicit within political, corporate and organizational activities and policy. This approach reveals tensions and contradictions in climate communication.

Workshop at #COCE2015 – The Visual Communication of the Environment in Theory and Practice: Nurturing Relational Perception

This Saturday 4pm workshop at The 2015 Conference on Communication and Environment in Boulder ‘Bridging Divides: Spaces of Scholarship and Practice in Environmental Communication’  will start with an illustrated theoretical introduction that will display and describe specific visual strategies to communicate environmental information. The session will be followed by an design critique. The design crit is a foundational practice in design education for developing creativity, visual literacy, communication expertise and design skills. It will provide a setting for evaluating and refining individual samples of visual communication design in response to the objectives of each particular piece of work. It will give participants an opportunity to discuss specific examples of visual communication on the environment. The examples for discussion can be submitted by email by anyone interested in participating in this workshop.

Workshop - June2015_Page_09

Image-makers have the unique ability to make invisible ecological processes and relationships visible, tangible and accessible. Within the context of an increasingly visual culture, images have potential to nurture the development of new perceptual capabilities and encourage relational perception. Graphic design is well suited to facilitate environmental learning since it can draw on a wide variety of visual strategies to display specific geographic spaces, ecological processes, abstract concepts and future scenarios. With design strategies, image-makers can reveal relationships, patterns and dynamics in complex systems. For these reasons, graphic design has exceptional potential to support relational perceptual practices and ecological literacy.

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More information on this workshop can be found here. 

Design vs. the Design Industry

Design vs. The Design Industry

This article argues that designers are currently not able to effectively address contemporary environmental and social problems due to the systemic priorities of the design industry. Despite the fact that emergent cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity and design practice evolves creating potential for social and technological innovation, the structural dynamics of the design industry reproduce conditions of deep unsustainability. In this article,“design” is theorized as the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services, and communication. This is a broader practice than the work that is produced within the “design industry.” The design industry operates according to highly reductive feedback generated by capitalism that systemically ignores signals from the ecological and social systems. The exclusive focus on profit and quantitative economic growth results in distortions of knowledge and reason thereby undermining prospects for the design of long-term prosperity. Redirected design practice could be an antidote to this dilemma by transforming the system that determines what is designed. This article provides an overview of the political and economic dynamics that are relevant to designers concerned with sustainability.

Published in Design Philosophy Papers, Volume 12, Number 2, December 2014, pp. 119-136(18)