John Thackara’s Network of New Thinking

John Thackara, former director of the Netherlands Design Institute, has spent the past decade championing smart design with a conference series, Web site, and global network—based in Amsterdam and Bangalore—called Doors of Perception.

Below are web-exclusive excerpts from the discussion between Metropolis senior editor Paul Makovsky and Thackara.

How do you get two big systems operators to collaborate, to talk to each other, and actually do something that actually is productive?
In Uppsala, Sweden, the regional government has prevailed upon transport companies and supermarkets, to collaborate in an effort to use their existing resources more efficiently. If, for example, you’re a trucking company, and you can use your capacity thirty percent more efficiently, your profitability actually benefits. If you’re a supermarket and you can distribute stuff around the region using thirty percent less vehicle movements by doing this in a more clever way, then your costs go down. So it’s a mixture of environmental awareness and straightforward efficiency planning. Big systems are often the result of small actions taken by many people over time. What I’ve understood about how things change is that the impact of small changes can be very big. All I’m suggesting is that people look at small changes to their work or life situations, not that they take on the crushingly depressing huge burden of changing some big thing.

What about this issue of design cities? You used to have the Bilbao effect where good architecture by a star architect regenerates a city. Now cities are promoting themselves as design destinations or having design biennials.
In one sense, since I’m now running one myself, I’ve been alerting people to the dangers of me-too design policies. Cities should beware of what they wish for, based on what I perceive to be the problem that Barcelona has now encountered, which is that they spent twenty years doing an absolutely brilliant job making everything from their bars to their lamp posts beautifully designed—but that, combined with the phenomena of the Olympics, big investments, and cheap air travel, they’re now swamped with tourists going there for a couple of days who don’t know much about the culture, don’t respect it, and therefore, I think, damage the quality of that which they want to visit.

You organized an interesting conference on quality time with different experts from around the world. What were its conclusions?
We had a very fascinating meeting with city planners, the people setting up the high-speed train system with some designers, and artists. And the proposition was: there’s going to be high-speed train travel around Europe, but are there ways, when you get off this train, you don’t encounter exactly the same bland, highly technical environment at every stop, so that the globalization on the land robs out the differences between places? And the kind of quality time proposition was: can you move on a train fast, but when you get out of it, move around a city slowly and experience things that have, perhaps, a special quality based on that place? Everybody said, “Yes, this would be a good idea.” So, we designed in a few days, scenarios for services that would be available to somebody on these high-speed trains when they would get off, and what would happen to them when they would kind of walk around a location, a city. But I think it’s too early to say that any of them have been implemented.

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What were some of those scenarios?
My favorite one was called “train to farm,” because all over Europe there are lots of farms that are struggling economically to make a living with agriculture. They have buildings, land and nature, and they’re wonderful places, and many of us have been commenting about the appalling experience of going to conferences in awful convention centers and crappy hotels, so why couldn’t we find some to get people to go to a conference, not to a convention center but to a group of farms? They go by high-speed train; they arrive in the city, they get on a bicycle or a horse and cart or walk to a farm, and then the facilities are functionally advanced but it’s not a great big kind of mall-type thing. So the environment in which you meet as a group is high-quality with natural qualities to it. Your life quality goes up by going to a conference like that. The other scenario dealt with finding ways to introduce people on these high-speed trains to locally grown or produced food, either on the train itself through Japanese-style lunch boxes, or at the very least, having the equivalent of farmers’ markets in their railway stations, so that people could get off the train and immediately get what was locally good rather than hamburgers or pizzas from the trains.

What came out of your last Doors of Perception conference, which took place in New Delhi and was devoted to infrastructure?
It was an extraordinary event. One of the things that came out of it was a determination on our part to radically shift our emphasis away from talking about things towards doing things. For the first time we had ten days of workshops in and around the city. They were so exciting and so mind-expanding and they created such interesting connections between people, that that was clearly a very good thing to do. There are all sorts of things we can learn, borrow from, and adapt from other cultures by people in the West who are designing services and products. The sooner we start doing that in a smart way, the sooner we’re going to make faster progress. It’s not about us taking our expertise to the majority world and bestowing it upon them, it’s pretty much a mutual exchange process.

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