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Liberating the power of 'local' on the North Coast

In a book to be published later this month, global business and design guru John Thackara isolates 10 principles he believes will characterize cutting-edge opportunities for a better future, based in part on lessons of the last decade in technology, business and others aspects of the real world. Of particular interest to the North Coast is Principle No. 4: Locality.

The focus of "both business and social innovation," he writes, is shifting from locomotion to locality: "Authenticity, local context, and local production are increasingly desirable attributes in the things we buy and the services we use. Local sells."

At the same time, Thackara believes that how many localities market themselves doesn't work. "There's a big difference between selling soap and making sense of a place -- but many place marketers don't get it." They imitate each other, and try to trade on nostalgic themes they all have more or less in common. "Identity has become a commodity. Diversity or distinctiveness have been edited out," and every city depends on the same kind of facilities and publicity.

What attracts visitors is real difference; what attracts investment is real information about real opportunities and quality of life. It requires the locality to be permanently engaged in knowing itself, as completely and in as much depth as possible. "The lesson is that design for locality is not about a return to simplicity; it involves dealing with more complexity, not less."

Thackara is interested in more than analyzing efforts and predicting trends. He wants design to help create a better future. But many trends and opportunities to build what's necessary for that future converge in the local. Sustainable local economies can be encouraged by designing and investing in sustainable energy and other sustainable industries, for example.

He also sees important roles for the arts, not so much in creating spectacles to encourage business but in helping to create community, and aiding in exploring the qualities of this place. Above all, art is personal, and the personal encounter is one of the major advantages of smaller places.

There is a lot of good news for the North Coast in Thackara's analysis. We have not destroyed the complexity of the natural world to nearly the same extent as most cities. Citizens have denied industries and businesses that might harm the natural and cultural environment. People here are participating in planning and decisions that affect their future. Now the North Coast is in position to focus on local innovations and sustainable industries, particularly those that will be needed in the global climate crisis, which a growing body of experts believes is likely to dominate the economics and politics of the next 50 years or more.

Thackara's book ("In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World," from MIT Press) suggests that small localities can compete with larger places by forming networks with each other. If people within localities and among them can work together, which technology makes easier to do, their combined assets and energies can compete with metro areas, while each of them can still offer superior social qualities. It is their context of "intimacy and encounter" that will "win out over the big centers." (Contrary to predictions, technology hasn't eradicated face-to-face encounters; it encourages them, and people want them.)

Technology does provide new methods for sharing resources and infrastructure, for facilitating local economies and creating new opportunities for individuals and small businesses in small and rural places.

None of this is automatic, and all of it requires intelligence, energy and truly appreciating and valuing the diversity of people, places and ecologies that creates the local context. But it does offer possibilities that could direct the North Coast towards a better future by becoming more truly itself.

Bill Kowinski is a writer who is reviewing the Thackara book for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in Arcata.

The opinions expressed in this My Word piece do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of the Times-Standard.

Editorial Notes: Re-localization is a key part of a long-term strategy for peak oil, shared by writers such as Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler and the Post-Carbon Institute. John Thackara, the subject of this piece, has a website with extensive online archives of his essays and a Self Interview. Other essays related to energy:
The thermodynamics of cooperation Is carbon-based energy yuppy crack? Winners! The killer application is green
Bill Kowinski, the writer of this piece also has an extensive homepage. He writes:
"My interest in what you're calling peak oil is in renewable energy and its potential as a sustainable industry, but more than anything, the climate crisis. Here's a link to a fairly long piece on that: Reframing the Climate Crisis You might also be interested in a piece on hydrogen energy lab here in Arcata: Two Men and A Hydrogen Atom
-BA

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