phd research week 44

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John Thackara at Puma Sustainable Design Annual ConferenceDesign Museum London

I was really looking forward to this event as I had never before heard John Thackara speaking live.  He presented the lecture 'the desert of the real'. focusing on three main points about the way we communicate sustainability issues.  I will here explain the main points which are extremely relevant to my own research project.


"Why is it that, even when we are exposed to shocking stories and images, nothing seems to change in the system as a whole? What are we as designers to do if we create a powerful piece of communication – and it has no impact? " Thackara (


"The Desert of the Real" We live in distraction and segmentation, smart-cities, quantified self movement, big data mad-house... can we escape this desert of the real?   We lust speed but we are blind to its true cost.  We live in distraction and segmentation. Perhaps we should look at the 3.5 billion years of analogue data instead.


"Green Communications" Am I not going to look where I see unpleasant things? Thackara presented the typical image of a man at the airport lounge browsing through his smart-phone as the TV plasma broadcasts horrible attacks in a war zone.  it is "somewhere else".  Just like the images of photographer Edward Burtynsky on the global environmental disaster and industrial manufacture (above) are "somewhere else".  Out of sight out of mind?

"pictures have been charged with inspiring dissent, fostering violence or instilling apathy in us, the viewer. Regarding the Pain of Others will alter our thinking not only about the uses and meanings of images, but about the nature of war, the limits of sympathy, and the obligations of conscience."  Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, 2003


"New ways of knowing" We miss important stuff because: its invisible its somewhere else we don't even notice we ignore because we are too educated

Underneath our feet, within the soil, there is an incredible network of tree roots and chemicals, a 'microbial Internet', 'nature's Internet'.  Ants have subliminal perception (unlimited amount of bandwidth) and they communicate hormonally with each other.  Have we become too distanced from the natural ways in which biology was created to communicate in the first place?  has this been replaced with technological circuits instead? It has been proven that the environment helps shape cognition.  Mind is shaped by physical environment.  This is the reason why natural cultures, and indigenous cultures, understand natural systems better.  They see man at the center of the ecosystem, not at the top of the ecosystem.  This is resilience.

We cannot longer afford to be indifferent to the content of sustainability.  Passion needs to translate to action.

We need actions that connect us emotionally with living systems.  This is not an original thought.  E.M Forster already mentioned we 'only connect' we are not separate from our natural culture.

“Nature pulls one way and human nature another.”― E.M. Forster

We need less messages and more interactions.

"The savage Mind is our mind" (Levi Strauss) Can it be the Designer's mind? - Asked Thackara