How can it be that the fourth most searched term on Google in 2012 was ‘ipad3’? What does that say about our relationship with design and technology? And what hope is there for the power of design to change the world for the better?
It seems an alarming number of people are creating such a short-sighted, self-referencing technological bubble that, when compared with the unavoidable truths of the social, political, and climate crises we face, it seriously questions our ability to make the changes needed to avert, or at least moderate, these problems. Yet, we shouldn’t despair. We should take a look beyond those who, with their heads stuck in the digital cloud, gushingly propose ideas such as the Internet of Things as the solution to all our problems, and look instead at the emerging low-tech counterculture.
If you stick your head out of the door and sniff the zeitgeist, it definitely seems there is a resurgence of creative design for social change. You only have to look at the wealth of open-source instructions at instructables.com, or watch a helpful character on YouTube showing step-by-step how to build a rocket stove, make a hydro-electric scheme from an old washing machine, or wire up a custom computer. Of even more interest is the recent surge in popularity of all things bicycle-related, particularly bicycle power. A quick internet search of a number of companies offering Smoothie Bikes for events will confirm this, and pioneers such as London-based bicycle cinema Magnificent Revolution are hugely popular at festivals. Is this a protest at the tyranny of corporate-owned energy production — literally taking power into your own hands (or feet)? Or perhaps is it a reaction to a sedentary life where machines do all the work at the expense of our enjoyment? Glasgow-based bicycle designer-maker Uula Jero has a very clear philosophy. Jero believes in the potential for people to easily build their own cargo bicycles — The People’s Utility Vehicle — from the large surplus of second-hand, scrap bicycle parts and other industrial discards that are freely available in any urban environment. His designs are open-source, and plans and instructions are available at http://www.toolsforasimplelife.org.
However, the leap from a grassroots counterculture to the mainstream is quite a big one to make, yet it seems that there is one tool that, as well as being typical of the problem, is also paradoxically part of the solution: the internet. The internet is an uncomfortable paradox in that it simultaneously provides the tools for democracy and social and environmental justice but is built on a foundation of social and environmental exploitation. There is a fundamental disconnection between the ideology of cyberspace and the technology that actually runs it: built by slave labour in third-world countries and fuelled by consumer desire and built-in obsolescence. I think the paradox and the dichotomised ideology has its roots in the simple fact that we don’t make things anymore — there is a profound disconnection between the people who make things and the people who use things.
This is nothing new. After all, it incensed William Morris and John Ruskin right at the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Until we begin to bring technology out of the hands of corporations and into our own and our communities, the dichotomy and exploitation will persist. We need what E.F. Schumacher called human-scale technology and I think the internet, with its open-source instructables, idea dissemination, online business and self-publishing opportunities, can give us a huge head start. The internet can show us how to make things, but I think that there is an urgent need for better education in practical craft and engineering skills. I was fortunate enough to study boat-building at Fosen Folk School in Norway for two years, which, when I studied Product Design at Dundee University gave me the technical skills and confidence I needed to design the People Powered Flour Mill.
My idea started with a meeting with Mike Small in 2008, who was busy founding the Fife Diet, just to the south of Dundee across the Tay estuary. It turns out that when you try to source 80% of your food locally, as is the aim of the Fife Diet, there are some frustrating barriers. Although Fife is an abundant producer of food, much of it is unavailable to the ordinary consumer as it is locked-up in an industrialised production system. Although wheat is grown in Fife, and even milled in Fife, no Fife flour is available in the shops: it is all shipped to a centralised packing house for distribution as amorphous ‘British flour’. This is a pity as flour is hugely nutritious when freshly milled, not to mention the potential benefits to community, local economy and the planet in having a small-scale milling plant. To get to that stage would at first appear to be a giant leap, but in fact is achievable as a series of small steps. In France, within a generation, there are now paysanne-boulangers who grow wheat, mill flour and bake bread that they sell at farmers markets. In Austria and Canada, people have small electric kitchen-worktop mills. In Northumberland, Gilchester farm has bought in an Austrian mill so that they can mill the wheat they grow and sell the flour. And now, in Blair Atholl, a 400-year-old water mill now has a bakery attached. It is a case of making a shift in people’s attitudes and belief about what is possible. With my bicycle mill, I wanted to use design to inspire, educate and empower with beautiful, interactive and functional design.
I now work for the Fife Diet, running the Seed Truck, which employs the same three principles to inspire people to get growing their own food. It is heartening to see such resurgence in growing your own food across the country, and huge strides are being made. However, in making the transition to greater technological self-sufficiency, I think all designers, all those with technical, engineering and business skills need to get together to create ventures that will:
- Inspire people to start building their own alternatives to mass-produced consumer technology.
- Redesign and repackage some of the great ecological homemade designs already out there to engage consumers using the aesthetically pleasing visual language they already know from commercial products, but also make plans and instructions available so that a transition from passive consumers to active makers can begin.
- Start human-scale technology business ventures. Who wants to collaborate with me on building a Food Gym and Café with a whole range of human-powered food-processing machines? Who wants to help found the People Powered Designers’ Co-op?
E.F. Schumacher, the great ecological thinker and champion of human-scale technology, wrote the following in the 1970s:
“I can’t myself raise the winds that might blow us, or this ship, into a better world. But I can at least put up a sail so that when the wind comes, I can catch it.” There are some fantastic grassroots initiatives pioneering alternatives to a centralised, industrialised system based on sound ecological and ethical principles — they just need some people with passion to promote them. The winds are blowing, it’s time to hoist those sails!
This was originally published in STIR’s quarterly magazine. We publish selected pieces online every quarter but to read the rest you can subscribe for just £16 a year for four issues and P&P by clicking here.