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John Thackara ‘Designing for all of life, not just human life’

John Carter
October 23, 2018
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October 23, 2018

John Thackara ‘Designing for all of life, not just human life’

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Gerry Scullion: 00:06 Hello and welcome to another episode of This is HCD. My name is Gerry scullion and I’m a human centered design practitioner based in Dublin, Ireland, and this week I caught up with one of my design heroes, John Thackara whilst I was hosting the incredible Service Design Days conference in Barcelona recently. I was so happy to speak to John, having read much of his work for such a long time and currently reading his latest fantastic book ‘How to thrive in the next economy’ a book that has led to the Wall Street Journal to call John ‘cutting edge design expert’ or even the Great Bill Moggridge stating ‘whatever you’re designing, keep this book next to you know’. Now, I’m lucky to say I have a signed copy of this book in my hands right now to giveaway, so be in with a chance all you need to do is go over request to join the slack channel on where I’ll be giving the book away inside the channel. In this episode we discussed John’s work at great detail, his keynote at service design days, and spoke about the greater purpose of design and maybe even human centered design isn’t broad enough as it should include animals and the greatest resource of them all, the earth. Now this episode is definitely one of those where you want to listen and then repeat. So here we go.  

Gerry Scullion: 01:17 A very warm welcome to the This is HCD podcast John.

John Thackara: 01:20 Thank you. I’m happy to be here with you.

Gerry Scullion: 01:23 So we’re coming live from the Service Design Days conference in Barcelona and thoroughly enjoyed your excellent keynote this morning, and we’ll get it a little bit into that after we discuss who you are and how you got to where you are today.

John Thackara: 01:38 So I am by trade a writer, although I studied philosophy and my whole life has been as a writer, looking for stories about people living in ways that could be described as hopeful alternatives to the ways that we’re living now under the general framework of sustainability and search for something better. Yeah, and you’re a senior fellow of the Royal College of Art. I am indeed associated with the Royal College of Art. I work with quite a lot of universities on a kind of external basis as an advisor and a helper setting up new programs for the most part, which are all in more or less. I’m having common connecting with the outside world from the academy or the Ivy Tower, that absolutely we’re in.

Gerry Scullion: 02:22 So the keynote that you delivered this morning, tell us a little bit about that and where it’s origins began for you.

John Thackara: 02:29 Well, I talked today about what the title ‘good growth’ about the difficulty we all have in designed in the economy generally of reconciling the awareness that we’re doing damage to the planet and our own social kind of structures by an economy which keeps on growing and growing without end apparently, and the difficulty of arguing or acting in a way that would stop that growth happening. And I spent many years of my life telling people that gross is bad. That doesn’t make much because people don’t like to be told, unwelcome used. So my focus, the last 10 years of my life really is on activities that make the world healthier but don’t necessarily make the GDP higher and certainly don’t extract for energy and resources from the planet. So making your place healthier is for me a kind of benchmark of good growth because when our places healthier, we’re healthier as people in their communities. Yeah. And that’s sort of kind of a trick to get round the question that nobody can really accept the idea of not growing. What I’m basically saying, well we don’t want to grow in the old way. We want to grow in a new way where we add health ad vitality to the places that we all share.

Gerry Scullion: 03:39 I know when we we first met the other day, one of the first things that we spoke about was human centered design and you being a philosopher, you came back to me with saying, well I have a problem with the title ‘human centered design’ because it doesn’t include the likes of animals and plants and it really should be called ‘life centered design’, and it’s is a great segue into discussing how we can as designers include that type of thinking into the methodologies of human center design…

John Thackara: 04:09 …And not just as designers, so I’ve spent a long time coming to the conclusion or just being taught by scientists and by not just by modern scientists, by wisdom traditions like Buddhism and the old faiths actually have a similar worldview which is that everything is connected and that human beings are not separate from the planet that we live all were part of it and the from the tiniest bacterium to the biggest climate system. Everything in one way or another effects everything else. Even if we can’t identify that. Once you make that your framework for being a designer will be any other actor in the world. You start to be a bit more cautious about maybe there are things that will happen as a result of me doing something to the situation that would be undesirable. Whereas so far, particularly the modern economy growing, growing, growing, innovating, innovating, innovating is the kind of default mode of action.

Gerry Scullion: 05:06 So I’m actually reading, would you believe (opens folder) ‘How to thrive in the next economy’ by John Thackara, and inside you make a really good point about innovation. You mentioned, if innovation was such a great thing, well then why do we have all these problems with climate change and global warming and all these huge issues like with mental health etc. And that’s a really, really strong point that innovation could be seen as a dirty word for some reason.

John Thackara: 05:30 Creativity is another word. Innovation, progress, modernity, development. There’s all these words that sound incontrovertible and you know, automatically good until you then look a bit closer and look at the consequences of them.

John Thackara: 05:46 So innovation as far as I can figure out is neither good nor bad. It depends what you apply it to. So for example, a financial system which really finished it all off in 2008, is the result of incredible innovation by very clever people. But the reality for the planet and the people who are affected by its behavior is very, very bad. So it’s just we fetishized this word for, I don’t know why we have, but policymakers love it. Corporate leaders love it. Tasting that it automatically good to innovate. And I think, Hey, wait a minute, we should say innovate to what end and who benefits, which goes back to the life center design piece.

Gerry Scullion: 06:23 I’d like to hang on that point little bit longer. You gave a couple of examples of life form within your talk, and one in particular that contains bioform within a raindrop. You could see that something is so minuscule, but there is so much life in it.

John Thackara: 06:37 Well, I’m just like everybody else at this conference at Barcelona has spent much of the last 20 years being mesmerized by the Internet technology and the amazing things that it can do. And it’s only in the last 10 years that I’ve been exposed to unhappily met botanists and biologists and ecologists who say, wait a minute, nature contains incredible complex sets, works of its own systems. But it’s only visible because either because we don’t look at them at all or they’re underneath our feet or they’re in the air or they’re tiny like bacterial systems. And so Simon Sublime was a twitter character who does incredible 200 magnifications of a drop of water in order to show us millions of bacteria and we only know about a tiny percentage of them. And so this is where you think will innovation to kind of change the way we drive cars is it’s okay, but it’d be much more exciting to me if we could focus more energy on understanding their life. It’s already been here and on the right, literally on our palm of our hand when it’s raining.

Gerry Scullion: 07:37 So what does that mean for the designers? It was a super interesting talk, but for the designers out there, and one of them said, what can I take from this and how can I apply this learning back into my, into my day to day job in an organization? For instance, say there’s a couple of designers here that were in FMCG. How can they actually take what you’re talking about and apply it to their day to day lives?

John Thackara: 08:04 Maybe I could do that in two bits because it’s. I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy to go to your organisation. So that ‘all of life thing’ is that we need a filter when we’re thinking about changing the world at all, whether it’s a kind of ‘where we live or the products that we use or some kind of infrastructure’ or ‘some kind of social organization’. And I’ve just discovered that if we begin our inquiry with a question, will this be good for all the life that is in this place that actually makes it easier to say, well, wait a minute, we. If we don’t know for sure that it’ll have a positive effect, maybe we should pause for a moment and the world is filled with unexpected consequences of well intentioned actions, for generations from climate change. Being a global one, nobody set out to change the climate. We had all sorts of brilliant engineers saying, look, I can burn this coal and I can make this train go really fast and I can change the way we experience time, et cetera. Nobody in the entire history of the industrial revolution said, let’s see if we can trash the planet, did that, but now we know things that we didn’t know then. So rather than things, I dont think we should beat ourselves up. It’s a very unfortunate condition we’ve arrived at. But okay, next step. Let’s see what we can do to make the place healthier. Rather than saying, oh my God, we have to stop doing all these evil things. How can we make this river healthier, this forest healthier as a playground outside our kids’ school, healthier the air in our cities, healthier. And break that down into little bits and it’s always possible to find an action however tiny like growing food at the school yard or in restoring a bit of little creeks that feeds into the bigger river. There’s always things that you can do. And I just think that those little actions are very kind of therapeutic, even if they don’t automatically save the world.

John Thackara: 09:59 That’s part one. Part two is how do you go to the boss of your gigantic fmcg company and say, by the way, we have to stop selling soda or soap or crisps. You can’t do that because these companies, are operating according to principles and incentives and structures and laws in many cases which require them to grow, which require the officers to deliver increasing benefits to the people who are in the shares. So again, there are some people who are pretty incurious, but for the most part, they’re not evil people doing evil things because they hate the planet. Saying it’s my job to increase shareholder value.

Gerry Scullion: 10:37 Yeah. Make the business grow to me like organizations or like the hungry hippo games. You remember the hungry hippo game in the eighties was as captain eating all the white balls. Right? So how do you stop the hippos eating all white balls?

John Thackara: 10:51 I think that any sentence containing how do you stop people doing something? I’ve just learned to better experience it will end in failure because if you say you must not do this or you can’t do this or we can’t do that. People just basically filter time zone out. Therefore the trick is in the art and I don’t pretend to be an expert.. What can we think of an activity which is positive and creative and create the value in the world that we can do that in some way or another down the line, could be also conceived as a benefit to the company as well as to ourselves and the world.

Gerry Scullion: 11:23 So it’s a little bit like the hungry hippo game where they eat one of the white balls and then they do some good. So like they eat something and there is something else, because I know like I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, we see these large like fast food companies and you know, they might pay for a playground and it’s like maybe I’m a cynic. I definitely am probably closer to being a cynic. What are your thoughts on that as regards to saying, well look, you know, we know we’re making people fat, but we’re also giving them a playground to run around, play off, burn off that energy.

John Thackara: 11:54 My own experiences that I think there are two sorts of big companies. The majority, uh, as I said, framed by incentives and laws about shareholder value and very misguided a frameworks that have evolved over the years and a few smaller number of just playing evil and they regard this as a sign of weakness if you worry about the planet or children’s health or stuff like that. Yeah. Well I’m not saying if they actually have a sort of matcho culture. My Dad worked for basically a good company, proctor and gamble for 44 years. Quaker origins and ‘do no harm’ is a kind of philosophy. The fact that in aggregate some of the products and the services that they’ve evolved over all those years did create damaging situations, not to mention the somewhat old fashioned view of women, for example, that is a byproduct of their desire to grow rather than the byproduct of being big or small. And I think that I had arguments with my dad all his life about, you know, do we really need to have all this detergent going into the sea?

Gerry Scullion: 12:56 Healthy discussion is not arguments.

John Thackara: 12:58 I think so and it, but it took us a surprisingly, you know, decades to reach your other good an understanding that we both maybe had some kind of good points to our arguments. Yeah. That was interesting.

Gerry Scullion: 13:08 Yeah. So there was a really interesting code. You’re going to have to help me fill in the gaps in the. Because I’ve seen a lot of information in the last two days about the power of the small elements and how they can actually have transform the bigger elements.

Gerry Scullion: 13:20 Tell us where the quote and that to me is the crux of the entire conference. It’s the power of the individual designers and how they can actually help transform organizations for good and I know there’s designers listening here, they see the potential and they see the opportunities in these organizations and they want to transform it, but they may feel alienated and they’re not empowered enough to do it. And that quote was the one that hangs me over across the entire conference.

John Thackara: 13:47 So that quote was probably the father of complexity science, Ilya Prigogine, who said that, uh, in unstable complex system, small islands of coherence has the potential to change the whole system. And I love two things about that. One is the notion that the things that I searched for a small islands of coherence, people doing a small food project, small river project as well, social care project, which appears to be infants decimally small compared to how big the awfulness is.

John Thackara: 14:21 But the therefore small, it’s not less important than big in a complex system where it can trigger a change. And then the second thing I like about that is that it doesn’t require you to change the big thing in one hit. And I completely sympathize with the many designers I’ve learned over many years who are kind of in trapped or basically a living and working in a big organization which has very clear requirements to grow, to innovate, to transform all these words and fighting them directly I think is probably not usually a good idea. I once was a so called Director of Research at the Royal College of art and I started that job filled with the zeal that I was going to turn this place into an outward facing green organization and I issued all these edicts and told them what to do and the professors all completely ignored me.

John Thackara: 15:10 And so that was when I learned that you don’t change and if it could be a big institution like a university or a company, you can’t tell it to change. And indeed the fathers and mothers of complexity science a lot warned us not to even try. This is the way that you change the system is intervening around the edge, doing little projects such in some way or another, tweak the system and then the big thing changes hopefully at some point, but unfortunately you never know really an advanced when that’s going to happen.

Gerry Scullion: 15:37 Can you give me examples of where you’ve seen this work quite well?

John Thackara: 15:41 I mean, my whole life is filled with little examples and I’ll give you an example of the food systems of France, which is, although they have lots of small farms, it’s still dominated by Agri business and big European programs and they had a very kind of popular but clunky box scheme called nef, which was all about people delivering a slow, soggy box of cabbages to adorn the Thursday night like some of us have experienced and a guy called [inaudible] who is a chef, but also an industrial designer said, surely we can organize this in a more kind of convenient and fun way.

Speaker 2: 16:16 And to cut a long story short, he created a platform called La Ruche, which is like the bee hive, which is a way for local people to connect directly with the growers in their region. They can order online and it’s all much easier and more fun and they’re like 600 or more of these now in France. It’s completely transforming the system. But each one of these interventions is tiny, you know, it’s one route organizer and 20 families and maybe 10 farmers. But if you multiply that by 110, a thousand and then in the near future 10thousand, and Lo and behold, the otherwise unstoppable agribusiness has been sort of eaten away from within, like, like termite nest.

Gerry Scullion: 16:55 Yeah. Well it’s fascinating. There was another example you had, um, I think it was in Chile with us, with Abby? Abby Rose (Sustainable Food Trust) as well…

John Thackara: 17:06 There is two. The, one of the other examples that inspires with development. It’s called our field and it kind of comes out of the bread movements. And so I’ve got this theory that bread people and beer people are very happy. But sometimes they meet obstacles.

Gerry Scullion: 17:20 I had my two hands up when you said who eat/makes bread.

John Thackara: 17:24 You have to ‘make’ bread. I’m talking about breadmakers I know, but the, uh, the beauty of bread is that when it’s made by hand and with love and joy, then it’s clearly much better, but it’s not per se local a lot of the time because local heritage grains have disappeared for most of Europe and big chunks of the US, uh, during the industrial period of agriculture. But of course there are people out there saying we must have heritage grains so that our bread can be local and local.

Speaker 2: 17:51 Pure, right. And of course this turns out to be complicated because it’s difficult for the farmer to take that risk just to please a few foodies are activists. So our field set up by Abby Rose, some friends, is a kind of collaborative greenfield growing venture whereby 50 or 60 citizens may invest 100 pounds or 200 pounds in this case as the kind of members of the association that takes joint responsibility for the field with the farmer. And then they discussed together and share the risks together of saying, well, let’s try this seed or let’s try this approach. And so if it all goes horribly wrong, which apparently does quite a lot in the first few years, then the farmer doesn’t go bust or you know, lose his farm and the people that are working with the farm, I learned very quickly that actually growing grain is a complicated business, but because it’s shared and it’s kind of a social activity as much as a business one, probably more social, they have fun and joy and they kind of meet new friends and

Gerry Scullion: 18:51 …and they learn and they get, the whole thing becomes an of um, shared enterprise.

Gerry Scullion: 18:55 That’s what they’re, what they’re trying to achieve. Excellent. John, we’re towards the end of this conversation around your, your keynote put. And there’s a couple of questions we always ask guests when they come on. And I’m going to ask you the three questions. Okay? So tell us the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?

John Thackara: 19:12 I would very much like to hear the sound of my voice less, even though throughout my life I told myself the same thing that is to say to listen to people even when they are not providing me with a clear instructions around that I’m waiting for because I do know that people need time and you need to know that they’re being listened to in order for them to have the confidence to kind of get their thoughts straight who I’ve always been far too impatient and so yes, you mean and I start to fill in the gaps and that’s very irritating for them and probably unproductive for us both.

Gerry Scullion: 19:45 Excellence. Second question, John, is what is the one thing you wish you were able to banish from the industry and the industry being the design industry or or broader business industry?

John Thackara: 19:55 It’s not a probably a very serious thing, but I get very bugged when people stand up and say, what I’m interested in is, and I always feel like saying, I don’t care what ‘your’ interested in. I want to know what I’m interested in and please don’t keep telling me what you’re interested in. It’s a kind of. It’s an artist do it worse. It’s a little kind of tick throughout the creative industries, which I think they should make me personally very happy with. Could stop that.

Gerry Scullion: 20:19 Excellent. And what advice would you give to designers for the future?

John Thackara: 20:25 Avoid hanging out only with other designers in a pretty spirited and extreme way. It’s a big problem that designers sit around talking to each other about what is designed and it’s not. Doesn’t get them very far. Get out of the house, get out to the studio, get out of the design school and meet people in the outside world that are not like you, that you may not understand. You may not even like them, but make that a practice in your life. And it’ll be so kind of refreshing to have connections and conversations with people you weren’t expecting to.

Gerry Scullion: 20:56 Excellent. I totally agree with that. Um, so John, if people wanted to reach out to you and get in touch, tell us how they might do that. It’s a very sensibly want to buy my book or just connect with me. I have a website called, t h a C K, a r I’ll put a link in the show notes and it’s A. Yeah, there’s 25 years of blog posts and stuff that you know, the world will not end if it’s all burns tomorrow, but I’m rather proud that it’s there.

Gerry Scullion: 21:27 Absolutely, and I can totally recommend how to thrive in the next economy. The book, it’s Great. It’s available on book depository. It’s available all over the place. My wonderful publishers temps and Hudson, who I get on really well. They do a good job. Yeah, it’s coming out in China and a couple of months, so I’m very excited about that. What they’ll make of it, I’ve no idea. That’s excellent.

John Thackara: 21:47 What I might do? Actually while I have you on the podcast, I’ll buy another copy of this, maybe sign up and we’ll. We’ll do it a giveaway on the podcast. That would be brilliant. Yeah. John, thanks so much for your time for here. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

Gerry Scullion: 22:01 So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you’d like to be part of the conversation or community, hop on over to this eight where you can request to join the slack channel and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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