This week, DesignDigger presents a daily critical reflection from a designer, critic, or researcher on Dutch Design Week, which starts on Friday. These creative voices can be in the form of a long read, installation, or visual column. Today, Australian writer Linsey Rendell mediates on designing with the more-than-human to reimagine forms of production and consumption. “When we do away with the structures and ego of ownership, what do we really need to live?”. Rendell reflects on the design perspective Product & Craft and the DDW mission Enabling our Thriving Planet.
Imagining products otherwise
As we continue to over-extract from Earth’s budget, causing widening social inequalities and depleting the life on which we depend in the process, we need a fundamental restructuring of our relationship with planetary systems. How might design be an ally to nature and an active participant in regeneration? Rather than supporting unsustainable models of extraction and consumption, how can design become a tool for reciprocity between people and the planet? The responsibility of design and designers in these complex climes is to reimagine and cultivate products, systems, and environments that enable people and the planet to thrive.
But how do we define what it means to ‘thrive’? Kate Raworth describes the space between our necessary social foundation and our planet’s ecological ceiling as the safe and just space for humanity. ‘An economy that is regenerative by design is one in which people become full participants in regenerating Earth’s life-giving cycles so that we thrive within planetary boundaries. This is our generational design challenge,’ Raworth writes in her book Doughnut Economics.
Shifts in design
When we meditate on the possibilities and processes of enabling the planet to thrive through the lens of product design, we quickly arrive at production’s bedfellow: consumption. Within our present economy – dominated by capitalism – joy, pleasure, fulfilment and flourishing are often closely tied to consumption. Amid these current conditions, people become users and consumers rather than people. What if we could swap out using and consuming for supporting, accessing, and enabling? What might that look like in everyday life? Beyond shifts in language, we need shifts in systems, frameworks, mindsets, approaches, and relationships. Shifts in design.
If ‘all that you touch, you change; all that you change, changes you,’ as Octavia Butler writes in Parable of the Sower, similarly, we are designed by all that is designed. So – what if everything we make is regenerative by design? How will production and consumption change? What skills or knowledges do we need to adapt to this new paradigm? A look through Dutch Design Week’s 2023 program reveals winding and elastic ways of listening and learning that rethink stubborn constructs, experiment with alternative trajectories, and practise these design futures in the open.
Approaching products as a means to reduce environmental damage and improve planetary health, New Store reimagines the concept of retail by challenging traditional practices and recalibrating how goods and services are exchanged. It defines products as tools for doing less harm (sustainable), designing out waste (circular) and restoring ecological flourishing (regenerative). By adopting this approach, New Store transforms consumption from a destructive activity to one that might even nourish the planet.
In rethinking this relationship with consumption and accumulation, we can also consider how we might form more empathetic, meaningful connections with objects and material belongings. The Product Chronicles explores how design can strengthen relationality between people and products and encourage long-term guardianship. Possession to Nature extends this dialogue on the things that surround us, asking: what does it mean to possess? Humans draw borders and build fences to give visual and physical definition to the land, waters, or property we attempt to contain. Interrogating this language of lines and walls, we learn ‘water refuses to take and hold marks’ as Robert McFarlane writes in The Old Ways, troubling the anthropocentric ego-system.
When we do away with the structures and ego of ownership, what do we really need to live? ‘A strong sense of community is a constituent part of a flourishing life,’ writes Erik Olin Wright in How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century. So how might design grow reciprocity and equity in our coalition with nature, and enable collective — human and more-than-human — flourishing? Rather than solely theoretical reimaginings, the DDW programme includes practical demonstrations of change grounded in the tactile.
How to hope to be will guide participants in making bio-bricks using household organic waste as a substrate to form mycelium. The bricks grown during the workshops will be assembled in an outdoor construction, forming part of The Symbiocene Forest. In this speculative epoch, human and more-than-human activities are no longer separate as we remember and return to mutual, interdependent processes. A walk in the Symbiocene continues this thread with a future multispecies garden dotted with co-created interventions. Here, gardening is not just for human food production or floral pleasure, but can be aesthetically pleasing to pollinators or provide pathways for foxes. ‘Our relationship to land cannot heal until we learn to listen,’ Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass.
These visualisations of the shifting relationship between humans and the more-than-human hint to how we might support ecological life and symbiotic living through systems, connections, products, and languages. Will Water Want investigates the voice and agency of the Dommel River, nudging open the dialogue on the how of multispecies collaboration — how might humans design as allies of a river? Exploring Posthumanist Design through Making too prods the murky unknowns of more-than-human design as praxis, asking: what if our design ethos placed the well-being of the entire ecosystem first? By recognising the agency and animacy of rivers, soils, and species, we can move from practices of domination and extraction to respect and mutual flourishing. Every project becomes an opportunity for reciprocity and a contribution to the systems that support us.
While we might eventually arrive at a future where products as we currently recognize them don’t exist, the reality of transitioning there will be messy and fragmented, with coalitions and collectives finding multiple contextual paths through the in-between. In her book in Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown writes that ‘science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together’. Dutch Design Week creates a testing ground for concepts, ideas, practices, visions, and exchanges beyond the coordinates, constructs, and crises of today. It can be approached as the seeds of a potential garden – of biodiverse voices, human and more-than-human entanglement, and mycorrhizal networks of connection. By experimenting collaboratively, in the open, we can grow an emerging economy of radical renewal.
Linsey Rendell spends her time researching, imagining, listening, writing, learning, unlearning, and gardening — to design ways of being and becoming that are gentler for people and the planet. Linsey worked as contributing editor at research and design lab SPACE10 and as content editor with Planetary Praxis, an interdisciplinary research group investigating social, digital and environmental justice.