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Design/Ecology/Politics: Towards the Ecocene

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

Design/Ecology/Politics describes a powerful role for design making sustainable ways of living – but only once informed by ecological literacy and critical perspectives. Instead, the design industry normatively perpetuates unsustainable development. When design does engage with issues of sustainability, this engagement typically remains shallow due to the narrow basis of analysis in design education and theory. The situation is made more severe by design cultures which claim to be apolitical. Where design theory fails to recognise the historical roots of unsustainable practice, it reproduces old errors. New ecologically informed design strategies hold promise only when incorporated into a larger project of political change.

Bringing design, ecological and socio-political theory together, I describe how power relations are constructed, reproduced and obfuscated by design in ways which often cause environmental and social harms. Communication design can function to either conceal or reveal the ecological and social impacts of current modes of production. Revealing these dynamics creates new possibilities for transformative practice. This change-making potential of design is dependent on deep-reaching analysis of the problems design attempts to address. Ecologically literate and critically engaged design is a practice primed to facilitate the creation of viable, sustainable and just futures. With a critical ecologically informed foundation, designers can make sustainability not only possible, but desirable.

 

It will be available in October 2017 for $19.99.

Design vs. the Design Industry – Paper for the DRS 2014

Design vs. The Design IndustryPaper to be presented at Design Research Society’s conference DRS 2014.

Design can be understood as a practice that evolves as new cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity, context and system dynamics. These emergent capacities create greater potential for social and technological innovation. This paper will argue that despite emergent skills, designers are not able to effectively address contemporary problems in a sustainable manner due to the systemic priorities of the design industry. This paper theorises ‘design’ as the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services and communication as 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 results in distortions of knowledge and reason undermining prospects for the design of long-term prosperity within the context of the current political/economic regime.

Download the paper here.

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’

The paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ was presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in June. This paper can be downloaded on www.academic.edu and on the EcoLabs website.

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ABSTRACT: The United Nations’ green economy programme radically re-imagines the commons as a space where ecosystems services will be quantified, marketised and traded. This paper will examine issues with this version of the green economy for environmental communicators. It will review the etymology of the concept, examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail and situate these proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will suggest strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. This paper will argue that in stark opposition to green economics with its focus on participation and democratic processes, the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by privatizing ‘ecosystem services’ – thereby taking environmental decision-making out of a political sphere and into the marketplace.

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ 

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) (2011) flagship document titled “Towards a green economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication” and accompanying UNEP reports at the Rio+20 in June 2012 launched the green economy project. The reports use strong environmental language as a means of presenting their version of green economy as a far-reaching programme of reform to address environmental problems on a global scale. While the rhetoric suggests that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis, green economists and a wide variety of social movements are less convinced by the proposed policy mechanisms. Civil society responded at Rio+20 with a plethora of critical responses: condemning what they claimed amounted to the corporate capture of the United Nations (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012); condemning the UN’s “Natural Capital Declaration” (Banktrack, 2012); condemning 20 years of Greenwash (Bruno, 2012); and indeed, condemning the entire green economy project (Nadal, 2012; Brand, 2012a; Patel & Crook, 2012). The Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth (2012) issued a strongly worded “Kari-Oca 2 Declaration” (2012) describing the UNEP’s green economy as “a continuation of colonialism” (p. 1) firmly rejecting market-based solutions, REDD, and intellectual property rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In the wake of the polarized positions at Rio+20, the conference ended with both civil society and the United Nations unimpressed with the outcomes. The New York Times claimed Rio+20 “ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism” (Romero & Broder, 2012); The Guardian’s headline read: “Rio+20 outcome a focal point for frustration among campaigners” (Ford, 2012); and London’s Financial Times announced “Rio+20 lacks ambition, says UN chief” (Clark, 2012). The conference failed to achieve binding targets, but more significantly the conference launched the UNEP’s green economy programme, which aims to redesign the processes through which the global commons will be managed. Clearly the green economy is a fiercely contested idea and the UNEP’s version is strongly opposed by a wide variety social movements concerned with both ecological conservation and environmental justice.

In naming its programme the green economy, the UNEP implies a reframing of the entire economy along green lines. The language even suggests a connection to a particular school of economic thought concerned with the environment, that of green economics. However, the programme itself is largely concerned with attempting to protect the environment by establishing policies that will quantify and trade “ecosystem services”. This will be done in ways that reflect specific policy prescriptions of different schools of economic thinking on the environment, namely environmental economics and ecological economics. Since green economics is a field with radically different policy prescriptions to what is proposed, the naming of the new project creates severe confusion with contested definitions of the “green economy”. In this paper, the UNEP’s green economy programme will be referred to as “UN’s GEP” to avoid confusion with what green economists have been describing as “green economics” for over a decade.

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Review of DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers

Designing Learning for Tomorrow: Design Education from Kindergarten to PhD
DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers

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Oslo Opera House and skyline

I travelled to the DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers with some trepidation. While I have high expectations of the content produced by the Design Research Society (DRS) and was already intrigued by some of the papers and keynotes, my concerns emerged from what I am witnessing in design education in the UK. I was travelling to Oslo supported by a crowd funding campaign rather than the institution where I had been working when I wrote my paper. As an advocate of sustainability literacy and an early career researcher witnessing (and feeling) the impact of the austerity agenda in higher education in the UK, I wondered if the conference would rise to the challenge of confronting the most serious issues in design education.

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Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

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The paper ‘Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design’ has been accepted for the Design Research Society  // CUMULUS 2013 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers in May 2013. This paper is available for here for free but it will only be published and presented at the conference proceedings if I am able to find sponsors. THANK YOU to everyone who helped raise the money for this presentation! The crowdfunding campaign worked and I will present this paper in Oslo next month.

Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

Abstract: Responsible design in an era of scarcity and risk associated with environmental problems must be ecologically informed. Ecological literacy is necessary in order to both understand the nature of environmental problems and to respond effectively by designing sustainable ways of living. Embedding ecological literacy into design education is happening at the most progressive institutions – and yet for many others, sustainability education is still virtually absent from the curriculum. Progress is slow despite the fact that natural scientists warn that risks will escalate if we do not take dramatic action. Ecological literacy is a severe challenge as it disrupts educational cultures and challenges basic assumptions about what constitutes good design. While sustainability can seem profoundly difficult, ecological learning is the basis for sustainable design and thus it is a basic imperative in design education. Design education needs to expand its scope of inquiry to include a range of disciplines in order to address complex environmental problems. This paper will present an introduction to ecological literacy for design education, describe six ecological principles including associated concepts in systems design, and explain why critical thinking is necessary to make the work of transforming structurally unsustainable systems possible.

Keywords: sustainability, philosophy, design education, knowledge, ecological literacy, epistemology, philosophy of design education, multidisciplinary design education

The paper can now be downloaded from the EcoLabs website here.

The slideshow of the presentation can be accessed here.Nature-Patterns2012M

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIG THANKS to everyone who made it happen by supporting the crowdfunding compaign. On Twitter you are: @Ian_Willey @blindspotting @hugh_knowles @karinjaschke @sDesignLabs @paul_chandlerUK @sorafferty and @jenboehnert. Some of you are not on Twitter (as far as I can tell) and you are Richard Owen Frost, Prof. Gregory Stock, Jonathan Crinion, Joel Davis, Ali Hodgson, Chris Kitchen and a few Anonymous contributors.

Design Culture Salon 3 – Design Activism: how does it change things?

Design Culture Salon

Tuesday 26 February 1900h-2030h
Hochhauser Auditorium, Sackler Centre, V&A

Panelists:
Jody Boehnert (EcoLabs)
Jonathan Chapman (University of Brighton)
Noel Douglas (Occupy Design)
Paul Micklethwaite (Kingston University)

Climate change, resource scarcity, economic crisis and struggles for social justice have given rise to new movements in design that seek more than creative and commercial fulfilment. What models of design practice support this? How might design work with other activist practices? What role do universities and museums have? How can design activism work with marginality?

Free, but booking is essential:: http://www.vam.ac.uk/whatson/event/1971/date/20130226/

The Panel

Jody Boehnert is an environmental communicator, designer, educator and activist who lives in Brixton. She is founding director of EcoLabs (http://eco-labs.org)
– a non-profit studio visualising complex environmental issues and recently completed an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded PhD titled: ‘The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy: Design, Learning and Emergent Ecological Perception’ at the University of Brighton…

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A Critical Look at RSA and TSB’s ‘New Designs for A Circular Economy’

In the UK social institutions maintain their legitimacy with claims that they are responding the environmental crisis with initiatives capable of transforming our economy into something that could exist in perpetuity. The single most important factor in the continued failure of the vast majority of initiatives is the dismal lack of ecological awareness demonstrated by those who put these projects into practice. A technologically advanced civilization that is not ecologically informed simply has no long-term prospects; it will not even understand the ways in which it is destroying itself. Businesses are keen to project the image that they are working towards a circular economy and dramatically lowering both pollution and quantitaties of natural resources needed in the industrial cycle. Are these flashy claims an honest representation of progress, or simply a new front for business as usual?

Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy by made2bemadeagain – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

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2012: ‘The World is Not Ending. It is the Opposite’

Over the holidays I have read the latest Club of Rome report Bankrupting Nature. I did this not because I enjoy reading non-fiction over Christmas but because I am grateful for the time I have to celebrate and I am compelled to consider how others will be able to do the same considering the deterioration of global ecological systems.

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Two things became apparent: 1) the extinction crises is accelerating, 2) we have more knowledge and understanding than ever to address ecological and social crises. That second point was the good news. The bad news is that I can say with some confidence, as someone who works in London at the interface of environmental communication, ecological informed design and sustainability education, that we are simply not making the ecological crises a priority. Instead of using the wealth that is still abundant in this country to address environmental problems – we are squandering the opportunities we now have to catalyze transformation.

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With severe ecological destabilization, possibilities for future prosperity disappear. Yet in education and economic policy, the basic fact that we depend on the stability and abundance of the Earth is largely ignored. We are simply not building the social institutions that would enable social transformation. Part of the problem rests with the educational establishment; ecologically literacy is still marginal in higher education. For this reason, the capacity to understand, much less respond to current problems is extraordinarily low. This blog will review the state of our capacities for cultural transformation in the UK at the end of 2012 by looking (very briefly) at social institutions and social movements. I will start by proposing that we take note of the words of the Mayan people.

In 2012 we survived the final of all the anticipated ‘end of the worlds’ and the media typically simultaneously mocked and commercialized what became the spectacle of the end of Mayan Long Count calendar, the 5,125-year cycle that ended on 21 December 2012. A film called  ‘2012 The Mayan Word’ documented the voices of the Mayan people who had some potent things to say:

“The world is not ending. It is the opposite: we are finishing ourselves off…The prophecies are given for us to check ourselves. What are we doing? It’s clear that if we don’t do anything to recover the equilibrium of Mother Earth, we are digging our own grave” (Maria Amalia Mex Tu’n, 26 mins). Continue reading

The Role of Design in an Era of Crisis at V&A

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The statement below introduces a seminar at the V&A on September 19th. I will also publish two statements on apolitical design. The events is free but booking is required. 

Does design practice today work for the common good? Are our cultural institutions serving the interests of common people and the planet? While capitalism imposes harsh austerity on the public – it is also increasing profits for elites, the 1%. This dynamic is a threat to democracy and our collective futures, but these dangers are camouflaged by the design industry and our cultural institutions that fail to take the crises we face seriously enough as we head toward unprecedented and irreversible ecocide brought on by the logic of profit for profits sake.

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Design vs. The Design Industry

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Five days ago I uploaded a new paper titled ‘Design vs. The Design Industry: Conflicts in Emergent Orders‘ to the EcoLabs website that has now been downloaded over 470+ times. I should include an explanation as the paper is a bit of an oddity. This paper was not written for design audiences (although it is highly relevant for them). I was invited to write the paper by the ‘Atlas Economic Research Foundation’ and it will be published on this journal on-line hereContinue reading

The Politics of Future Visioning – on #FutureScapes

Sony, with the help of Forum for the Future, had launched a project called Futurescapes. The project relies on four scenarios which can be seen on the project website. Typically, these scenarios are not informed by the most menacing dangers to our collective futures. While scenarios can be powerful tools, if scenario builders are not willing critique their own assumptions (especially in terms of ecological realities and social justice) – they are wasting their time (if the goal is exploring sustainable futures). Limiting the analysis in this way, however, IS good for Sony and other corporations interested in inspiring consumer confidence.

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