June 16, 2022
Designer Julia Watson on Reaching the Age of the Symbiocene
The age of the Symbiocene can’t come fast enough. How does your installation at the Barbican Centre suggest we might get there?
The installation is like a future history—it suggests what our urban environments might be like if we had shaped them using the principles, ideas, and knowledge systems embedded in many Indigenous communities’ way of life. The idea is to create nature-based solutions to infrastructure challenges so we can live more symbiotically with our environments.
In India, for example, the Khasi community has developed the only bridges able to withstand the force of the monsoonal rains, made from the living roots of fig trees, which they train to grow across the riverine corridors of the Jaintia Hills region in Meghalaya. Instead of cutting them down and using them for timber [which would rot], they allow the living trees to continue supporting the local ecosystem. At the Barbican, we’ve imagined a canopy of trees that winds its way through the city. It would be a living, changing structure that you could walk through and it would grow stronger over time. This thriving ecosystem would also have other benefits: it would reduce the urban heat island effect in city centers, and boost people’s wellbeing. It’s not just about the technologies, the installation encourages us to think holistically about how Traditional Ecological Knowledge can be translated into an urban context.
Can you define Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) for us?
It’s very specific, place-based knowledge built up over generations, often incorporating belief systems. It teaches us about understanding our environments and working with site-specific conditions and restrictions to design with nature, rather than working against it. We need to understand weather patterns, seasons, and flowering times, for example. I added the word ‘Lo’ to TEK in the title of my book to stand for ‘local’, but also as an antagonist, pointing to our inherited biases about this highly sophisticated body of knowledge—and the analog technologies it is used to develop—which people have often labeled as primitive.
We’re living in the age of the Anthropocene, a time when humans have asserted their dominance over nature, seeing the earth as theirs to exploit. When we finally reach the age of the Symbiocene, what do you think our descendants will say about our actions up to now?
When people look back at our extractive industries, they will probably think that most of us were incredibly primitive in the way that we treated our planet—how we supplied energy and used nature as a ‘resource’.
Before we get there, our weather patterns are likely to get more extreme, and flooding will become commonplace. For the Barbican show, you collaborated with the Ma’dan or Marsh Arabs, who live on floating islands in the wetlands of the Euphrates river in Iraq. Their way of life has been threatened in recent decades by the systematic drainage of the marshes for political ends, but what can we learn from them about how to adapt to changing water levels?
The Ma’dan create beautiful, cathedral-like structures out of the only locally abundant material, qasab reeds. These reeds are integral to every single aspect of life for the Ma’dan people and they provide food for their water buffalo. They build their islands on fenced-off sections of living reeds, which continue filtering pollutants from their water, and they construct their homes in as little as three days without using a single nail, plank of wood, or pane of glass. These structures will eventually biodegrade back into the ecosystem, so it’s about an adaptive, reciprocal relationship with nature—which is what we need to strive for. Permanence isn’t everything.
How did the Barbican collaborate with the communities’ work in practice?
We held online workshops with the communities, where we discussed the technologies, shared knowledge, and discussed the challenges of our urban environments—you can watch videos of these at the Barbican. The architectural models are borne out of these discussions.
Indigenous communities protect about 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity yet they are disproportionately affected by climate change and their lands have often been exploited by industrial farming. When designers look to them for ideas about building in symbiosis with nature, how can we ensure these communities are not exploited once again, this time for their knowledge?
If we are beginning a process of knowledge sharing, we have to make sure it’s not extractive. To protect the intellectual property of the communities involved in the Barbican Centre installation, the collaborators have taken part in a spoken word contract: an oral “Oath of Understanding”, entered into through unalterable “smart contracts” encoded on public blockchains. But I don’t think The Symbiocene—or my book—advocates for the migration of technologies from one context, taking TEK and applying it to a city. That wouldn’t work, which is why we’ve made the urban locations of our models undefined. It’s more about adapting our thinking, shifting to place-based knowledge, and a symbiotic design mindset.
But the main thing is that, through the book and this exhibition, we are advocating for the recognition of Indigenous wisdom and technologies. Climate conversations and IPCC reports rarely recognize these communities’ innovations. We’re saying that they need to be given a platform, funding, and support from governments around the world. All too often, governments have caused the erasure of these technologies and the communities’ way of life. If these communities and their nature-based infrastructures could be supported instead, that could have a huge impact on social and environmental inequity, as well as climate change.
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