Every so often, over the course of last year, I received an audio file from Dan. I’d open the file as I’d open an envelope, intrigued to see what I’d discover - the nostalgia of childhood memories of writing pen pal letters stirring within me. Each time, Dan was somewhere different and, through his words, his world materialised around me. The bridges of Stockholm, the passing of the seasons, the rhythms of urban life. He was the town mouse, I was the country mouse. I would record and send him replies from the fringes of Dartmoor. We took our time and a conversation unravelled over a year across many miles and many megabytes. Maybe one day we’ll meet.
It took me a long time to figure out what a designer does. For most of my life, I assumed that designers created blueprints for physical and tangible things - a stool, a building, a machine. It has only been in recent years that I have come to understand that some of the people I most respect and admire are designers - of models and experiential processes and communities, things that are inherently relational and, in many ways, intangible. At some level perhaps I am one too. In fact, I think anyone who lives is a designer of some kind.
My conversations with Dan got me thinking about how we have come to organise society around units that we can manage and control. Units reflected in the structure and composition of our government and local institutions - departments for planning and transport and housing and commerce. However, we live in a world that is full of complex and interdependent relationships with millions and millions of points of interplay between them. Just like the natural world and the natural systems on which we depend.
Dan spoke of how, even when considering sustainability, we have come to see the natural world - the sun, the soil, the rivers, the woods - as plumbing for human society. A society that, with its need for linear units, is singularly incapable of forging reciprocal and harmonious relationships with rivers that bend and wind that blows and silt and sediment that is carried across borders. Some of the most interesting questions about new models of governance arise out of consideration of bioregions; asking what kind of realm or unit of the planet makes sense from the perspective of the integrated natural world. Asking how we would think about governing an ecosystem rather than a parish council? Which region should we be accountable for and to? What would governance look like if it arose from our interdependence on the natural world and not our misguided sense of our sovereignty over it?
Dan introduced me to cultural interventions designed to challenge our sense of sovereignty, in which the audience experiences cohabiting spaces, often marginal spaces, with other species. As we move beyond only-human to ‘more than human’ approaches, it will necessitate moving away from notions of control - in which nature is stamped out as unwieldy or messy and people who don’t fit the norm are pushed away through a tendency towards universalisation and uniformity. Instead, the move towards adaptive design is one in which there is space for evolution. An approach that requires constant attention, tending and nurturing. The role of a gardener more than a military general.
This description of open and interacting systems - of working within things and not on things and of opening up spaces in which new kinds of shared values can be discovered - felt very familiar to me. It’s an approach we have set out to follow at New Constellations - recognising uncertainty, putting linear approaches to one side and allowing for emergence and adaptation. I won’t lie, I’ve found it challenging - gone are the old and familiar ways of planning: instead, there is a constant process of designing new methods as you go in order to be responsive to the possibilities of new discoveries and outcomes. But it’s the only way to go in this era of radical uncertainty and there are rich resources to draw on - from ideas on emergent strategy from adrienne marie brown to the many communities of learning emerging - such as the collaboration between Doughnut Economics Lab and Civic Square and the work of Onion Collective - who are putting big ideas into practice on the ground and learning as they go.
One of the most helpful pointers Dan gave me (see other useful links below), was to Frank Duffy’s idea of ‘shearing layers’ in design - an idea that led Stewart Brand to formulate the ‘pace layers’ below, the different time horizons on along which things change (from fast to slow in the diagram below).
It seems to me that we need to reverse our ways of working so that we start with nature and work outwards across culture, governance, institutions, commerce and fashion rather than the other way round. This fits with the work we’ve been doing with the economist Paul Collier in Sheffield recently, who uses the idea of three clocks - the 30 year clock for vision, the 10 year clock in which to foster the capabilities needed to reach that vision and the 3 year clock in which to get started. As well as Hilary Cottam’s thoughts on the difference between Chronos time, or clock-time, and Kairos, or flow-time, and the need to bring flow-time back into our culture and ways of caring, living and working.
With thanks to Cassie Robinson for introducing us. Other things we drew on in our conversation include:
Brian Eno on art and culture