On Social Design

In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World

I first heard John Thackara speaking at an OpenTalk at the ExperimentaDesign Bienalle, in Lisbon. That was 2005, but ever since I’ve been a confessed follower of his writings. I bought In The Bubble that very same day and it became one of my cornerstone student books, from which I drew inspiration and a lot of questioning. I was one of those students who longed for the exercises to be a bit more about purpose and real problem-solving, and a little less about indulgent self-expression. The book even had a similar structure as one of my all time favourite books, Italo Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium“. I was dwelling for years in Calvino’s Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity, and on the suspense of the unfinished Consistency. I found it a fresh way to approach them again after Thackara’s own frameguides: Lightness, Speed, Mobility, Locality, Situation, Conviviality, Learning, Literacy, Smartness, and Flow. In the Bubble is a tour de force that rides along these principles.

When I recently came across the notice that it is out in French, Italian and Portuguese (from Brazil), and expected soon in Dutch, German, Japanese and Chinese – the memory of those days came back, and how novel most of those ideas were to me, and it felt like taking it off the shelf again.

In the Bubble is about a world based less on stuff and more on people. It confronts us with the straightforward questions: What is this stuff for? What value does it add to our lives? and their multifaceted answers. The solutions and alternative paths he presents don’t form any Utopian scenario, but rather present us with a vast array of innovation projects and products already real. This wealth of examples emphasizes how ethics and responsibility can inform design decisions without hindering social growth.
The less-stuff-more-people world will still be in need of good design – systems, platforms and services will have to be efficiently put together. This transition from what he calls “innovation driven by science fiction to innovation inspired by social fiction” is still hold back mostly by inadequate information diffusion (overloaded and underframed) and a lack of holistic and systems thinking.
“Use, not own” is one of the mottos he sets forth. This implies a shift to a service-based economy, rather than product-based one. Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and of The Next Economy, while considering this book once stated:

“If there is one pervasive criticism of global capitalism that cuts across all ideologies, it is this: goods have become more important and are treated better than people. We are producing higher quality computers than children. John Thackara’s brilliant book about quotidian design describes design innovation driven by social fiction instead of science fiction. This is design focused on what Fernand Braudel called ‘everyday life’: the demands and pleasures of caring for others, raising children, meaningful work, and journeying. These inspired and innovative technologies return people to the heart of the world and help them create a fulfilling life.“

Thackara also exposes the often forgotten vision of how “every product that enters our lives has a ‘hidden’ history, an undocumented inventory of wasted or lost materials used in its production, transport, use, and disposal.”

Thus, if you have any French, Italian or Portuguese speaking friends interested in these issues, here’s a good recommendation for them. Added to all that has been mentioned, the new edition is said to be substantially changed from the original English edition. It’s abridged, and it features an updated introduction and three new chapters – on Food, Development, and Telepresence.

The French edition was translated by Anne Despond-Barre and is published by Marc Partouche for Cite du Design Editions. The Italian edition was translated by Niels Betori and is published by Pier Paolo Peruccio for Allemandi. And the Portuguese edition is published by Marcelo Melo at Virgilia and available from Saraiva.

Meanwhile, you can listen to John Thackara himself reading extracts from the book in an installation at the Permormative Cities exhibition at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture.

Original article by Joana Bértholo.

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