John Thackara, How To Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today, Thames & Hudson, London 2015.
If now we take for granted that the World Wide Web has mainly become the biggest market ever conceived by man, with a public of planetary dimensions that is offered ads and products of all kinds with increasingly cutting-edge and innovative systems, it’s not a bad idea if someone reminds us the promises Internet had made when it first came out and how we can keep these alive even today. In his latest book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy, John Thackara – a journalist, writer, theorist of design and, for many years now, organiser of the “Doors of Perception” festival devoted to design in a broad sense, as research into strategies for a sustainable future – invites us to take a closer look in order to answer the question that only few ask in its more radical terms, that is: “Are we really sure the values upon which we are building our Western world are indeed the best?”. Even when it’s clear – like in these hard times of ours – that the model of overreaching growth, which ends up ruthlessly devastating the environment, can’t be followed scot-free for much longer, we find it hard to hypothesise any real alternative scenarios.
Thackara’s first goal is to make us stop and reflect on what we now take for granted, but which we really shouldn’t. If we carefully examine the society we live in, as if under a microscope, we’d see a world that perhaps we never even suspected, where forms of sharing and reusing resources abound in all kinds of contexts, from river keeping to computer component recycling. These are small-scale, mostly marginal experiences but they take credit for pointing out a way, a possible emergency exit with respect to the one Thackara describes as a headlong race towards self-destruction. Here, technology, which – at least in the case of Internet – was born as a possible radical alternative to an economy dominated by multi-national companies and by the monopoly of content creation on the part of a limited number of editorial houses, has in fact proven to be the best ally possible in this seemingly inexorable development, favouring a market trend towards a constant, rapid replacement of devices that, according to the well-known dictates of Moore’s Law, relentlessly become obsolete in a few short months. Thackara draws upon Marx for the notion of the “metabolic rift” between humankind and the planet Earth to describe a collective blunting that supposedly hinders us from clearly perceiving our relationship with our surroundings.
Can we make amends? The book’s objective is to answer this question, and the answer isn’t banal. In fact, the publication contains a serious and documented investigation (the bibliography and footnotes are impressive) that explores various aspects of human life and activities, from what we eat to water saving, from what we wear to how we get around, from urban planning to health. The fil rouge is an invitation to never take for granted that situations of distress, waste and inefficiency may only be faced in already tried-and-tested, traditional ways and that, when problems cannot be resolved, we must resort to an attitude of “resilience”, which today is much praised (passive resistance, which means charging ahead, no matter what).
There’s a different way to look at those situations, and it’s not mere utopia: because it’s based on concrete, visible experiences open to experimentation. For example, we can’t say that a good solution would be to scatter high-tech cities across India. In his reflection on the possible alternative methods of inhabiting space, Thackara reviews the countless small services, based on exchange and sharing, created by the inhabitants of city suburbs across the world, a sort of “DIY urban planning” as the author himself calls it. “The most valuable work in today’s urban economies benefits from close proximity,” writes the author, who dreams of “mosaic” cities, “archipelagos and patchworks”, of exchange and encounter and participation in spaces where the role of the Web and of sharing is of primary importance, and where radical acts can be done, like the one – he mentions – of a couple from Turin that turned some property with a garage into farmland for their son.
This book also discusses the possibility of restoring green spaces by eliminating constructions, of favouring the development of urban architecture based on the evolution of a city’s flora and fauna. With an optimistic tone and a clear vision, Thackara wants to make us realise, in the realities he describes, the small pieces of a puzzle that, as he himself sustains, will soon come together and will lead to a radical “paradigm change”, according to Thomas Kuhn’s definition, in order to re-establish the economy on totally different conditions.
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