The apocalypse is always easier to imagine
than the strange circuitous routes
to what actually comes next.
Fig. 1. Wind turbine scale model (batteries included)
In fact, wind turbines are no simple solution to decarbonising energy in that they are remarkably resource intensive themselves. Indeed, large-scale, for-profit wind farms can be as destructive as existing the fossil fuel infrastructure.
Fig. 2. BP's Helios House gas station in Los Angeles
Just like the multi-million dollar rebranding campaign, the Helios House does not in any way involve the company abandoning its core business of oil and gas exploitation, of “exploring, developing and producing more fossil fuel resources to meet growing demand”. Along with the rest of the industry, BP remains dedicated to digging for the deeper, dirtier, and riskier reserves that will release untold amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Fig. 3. Obama and the fighter jet that runs on biofuels
The Pentagon calls climate impacts “threat multipliers” that aggravate already existing conflicts and risks. The US military consumes more fuel and emits more carbon than any other organisation in the world. It wages wars to protect the US Empire’s fossil energy infrastructure.
In the early twenty-first century, planet Earth finds itself thoroughly designed. The designs imposed upon the planet have been overwhelmingly detrimental to the living systems sharing its thin crust. The world is now said to have moved into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans have shaped their environments so comprehensively that their influence is henceforth inscribed in the geological record (Crutzen). Although it was first proposed as a strictly geological term, the Anthropocene gained traction far beyond geology, taking the social sciences and humanities by storm.
That said, the concept has also drawn criticism on the grounds that it implies that humans are inevitably destined to damage their habitat. The naming of the new epoch itself obscures unequal and divergent agencies at work in anthropogenic ecological change; there is no single “humanity” that has acted in unison as a geological force, nor even agreed to become one. The multiple, conflictual histories and agencies obscured in the unitary concept of the Anthropocene are brought into focus by the various dates suggested as the beginnings of the epoch. The European colonisation of the Americas (Lewis and Maslin), invention of the steam engine, and detonation of nuclear weapons (Crutzen and Steffen) have each been proposed as starting points. Nonetheless, these developments can be attributed to only a fraction of humans and were realised at the expense of other(ed) populations. This designed geological era, it turns out, has a peculiar designer. The figure that I have in mind is less homo faber the maker than homo economicus, who has set in motion extractivist and expansionist projects that have reshaped the earth.
Ezio Manzini claims that “in a changing world everyone designs”. In response, I would like to paraphrase Marx: everyone may be designers but they do not design as they please. They design “not under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under already existing circumstances, given and transmitted from the past” (18th Brumaire). If capitalism has been master-designer of our epoch, then the term Capitalocene presents a fitting counter-narrative to that of the Anthropocene. It unambiguously frames capital as the primary driver of planetary disruption and holds capital responsible for the metabolic rift between human and ecological systems. However, even this critique unintentionally endows the ideology of capitalist realism, according to which capitalism represents “the only viable political and economic system,” with material certainty (Fisher, Capitalist Realism 2). The narrative of the Capitalocene makes it seem as if capitalism is here to stay, that it has stabilised as a geological epoch. It would be more accurate to say that the onset of capitalism triggered the post-Holocene era but is not its ultimate horizon. Instead of abandoning the term, I would suggest that we attend to the notion of an Anthropocene, which compels us to take it literally: now it is up to the human species to shape the next epoch of the planet Earth. This sense of responsibility comes across strongly in existential questions posed by Buckminster Fuller. “If the success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do”, Fuller writes, “How would I be? What would I do?” (qtd. in Sieden 255). This brings on a set of questions of my own. Can the majority of humans redesign their ways of life? Can they substitute their destructive tendencies for reparative and regenerative practices? How can we distribute this task equitably among humans? How might people become eco-social designers able to remake our environments, communities, and livelihoods? Is it possible to design a just Anthropocene by simultaneously decarbonising and decolonising the earth? What happens to design when everyone designs?
What interests me about design in relation to the Anthropocene is its unique strategic position between the material and immaterial, and, by extension, the natural and cultural. Design has powerful immaterial capabilities, which might be harnessed in response to the challenges of material sustainability. When it comes to sustainability, however, design is paradoxically seen as both a culprit and saviour. It is held responsible for single-handedly bringing about resource depletion, environmental pollution, mass production, manipulative marketing, wasteful obsolescence, and bottomless consumerism. Yet it is also presented as capable of overcoming all of its shortcomings, excesses, and failures. Indeed, alongside the changes that it has wrought on the earth, design circulates aesthetically compelling discourses that attest to its own sustainability. The objects that I presented in opening this study represent but a few select instances of a gaping cognitive dissonance in contemporary culture between artefacts in themselves (the actual shapes, materials, and circuits) and their perceived qualities and benefits (as mediated through packaging, marketing, and media). We are expected to believe that if only plastic toys were made to embody ecological values, gas stations were designed “a little bit better”, and fighter jets ran on biofuels, then the worst can be avoided, and the future will be greener.
It is tempting to dismiss these samples as exceptional cases of greenwashing, which deceptively inflates negligible ecological improvements so as to provide cover for unsustainable practices. At any rate, despite their meticulous marketing strategies and sophisticated designs, my three opening objects are grossly inadequate to the task of solving the pressing ecological problematics that beset the Anthropocene. These objects do not serve to exemplify some exceptionally superficial cases, however. Rather, they illustrate the conventional wisdom concerning sustainable design that prevails in society in general. In capturing the core contradictions of green capitalist beliefs, they point to the impossibility of achieving sustainability within a capitalist framework.
The fundamental premise of this study is that misguided projects and false promises such as these must be abandoned. Indeed, design practices must look beyond the ill-conceived concept of sustainability as such. This study, in short, turns on the necessity of unsustaining predominant discourses of sustainable design and embracing novel approaches to theorising and practising design in the Anthropocene.
Design is a vast, slippery, and fuzzy concept. Denoting both a process and product (Ward, Emergence), it is overused in academic literature in fields ranging from technical engineering to social sciences. That said, scholarly studies dedicated specifically to design remain marginal. Designers themselves have provided several normative definitions; here I pick out four: “Design is form-making in order” (Kahn qtd. in Conrads 169); “Design is a conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order” (Papanek 4), “Design is devising courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon 111), “Design is a manifestation of the capacity of the human spirit to transcend its limitations” (Nelson 13). Created in the present but bearing upon the future, design projects are by definition projections, blueprints that mediate between imagination and construction. These definitions paint a positive, optimistic, and inspiring picture of design, as do theories of “design thinking” and “designerly ways of knowing” (Cross). Design is a do-good, lateral-thinking, problem-solving, agenda-setting, future-directing, world-changing, innovative, and creative practice. It is to be found everywhere and in everyone.
Although such definitions certainly point to design’s latent potentials, they nonetheless tend to apply only to rare instances of best practice in design. Rather than providing essentialist or normative definitions of what design can ideally be or do, design studies is concerned with what design already is or does as it operates imperfectly in the real world. Drawing methodological inspiration from anthropology and other social sciences, scholars situate design as a social practice and cultural phenomenon that is embedded in historical and geographical contexts. The artefacts that humans make and use, whether they are made for purposes of productivity, convenience, or delight, are expressions of cultures at their most pragmatic, technical, and mundane. From this perspective, design emerges as a type of knowledge embedded in artefacts. Attending closely to artefacts, it follows, can reveal much about the cultures that produced them. In making the elusive and contested concept of design more traceable and graspable, scholars draw on critical approaches in the broader interdisciplinary humanities. In this way, they explore design’s interactions with social, political, economic, ecological, technological, cultural, and aesthetic systems. In this study, I intend to both build upon and contribute to ongoing developments in the field of design cultures.
The scope of the concept of design has expanded considerably over time. As applied arts and crafts evolved into industrial production, design’s purview extended in every direction and at every scale. A modernist dictum declared that everything from “the spoon to the city” was now subject to design (attributed to Ernesto Rogers, qtd. in Sudjic 35). Today design is said to cover everything from “jeans to genes” (Foster 17). The term has inflated to the point that, as Michael Hardt has observed, design is now being employed as the general name for any kind of immaterial production (qtd. in Hight 72). Richard Buchanan distinguishes among four orders of design. Beyond the historical categories of visual communications and material objects, he notes that design has increased in complexity, such that it now encompasses designing interactions and services, as well as entire environments and systems. Terry Irwin describes a continuum of approaches that spans “Design for Service”, “Design for Social Innovation”, and “Transition Design”. Design’s conceptual territory has been broadened so effectively that its centre of gravity has now resolutely shifted away from material production. This dematerialisation of design may be apposite when it comes to designing services, platforms, and apps. However, this process has been accompanied by a tendency to neglect material production altogether. It is as if the development of design is expected to transcend earthbound materiality and shake itself free from environmental entanglements and impacts. In the meantime, however, the unsustainability of actually existing industrial infrastructure remains unaddressed; in many cases the problem is being aggravated. Whereas the information economy and digital cultures strive to become light and frictionless, product design has yet to catch up, stuck as it is in its heavy and dirty industrial past.
Design is central to relations of production and, by extension, society at large. It is entangled in manifold circuits of value creation, in both the narrower economic and broader societal senses. Products are primarily defined by their use-value, commodities by their exchange-value. The social relations that create products and commodities, though, involve processes of generating and attributing value that are far more complex than that binary schema suggests. This is encapsulated in a formulation that is widely attributed to Marshall McLuhan: “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Put simply, design and society reflect each other. Echoing McLuhan, Boradkar also affirms that “people and things configure each other” (4-5). Artefacts themselves are designing things, endowed with agency, that shape their makers in ways that reproduce particular social relations. In other words, design cements social relations as things and things cement social relations. Marx hones in on the same dialectic in writing that production “not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object” (Grundrisse). It would seem that this mutually transformative relationship between objects, things, or tools on one side, and subjects, people, or “us” on the other, is a recurrent leitmotif in thinking about design. As such, it deserves more rigorous theoretical attention.
To formalise these insights into a coherent methodology, I put forward a framework for analysing design cultures that foregrounds the creation of value. In adhering to this framework, I eschew the conventional object-centric mode of design analysis, which surveys products from cradle to grave. Indeed, my analysis emphasises social relations over material features, processes over products, subjects over objects. Supplementing the subject/object division with a third mediating element, I distinguish three distinct meanings of design, which can be used as a verb, noun, and adjective. There is the activity of designing subjects (designers), circulation of design projects (blueprints), and production of designed objects (products). I name these three processes of value creation design labour, design knowledge, and design artefact:
Table 1. Value-centric framework for design analysis
Approaching contemporary practices through this analytical lens immediately makes their market-based valorisation processes explicit: commodified labour, intellectual property, and consumer goods appear as indispensable elements of conventional design practices. Industrial capital and product design have become so intertwined historically that it seems almost tautological to specify the political economy of design as “capitalist design”. It is as if design could not survive without capitalism’s legal, financial, and logistical frameworks. I name this seemingly inextricable merger the “commodity-machine”. This machine does not merely produce heaps upon heaps of commodities; it reproduces commodification too. When design is implicated in the production of commodified artefacts, in other words, it generates commodified social relations around them. Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that attempts to techno-fix the commodity-machine fail to meet the challenge of undertaking a rapid eco-social transition in a convincing way. Instead, such attempts merely reproduce existing capitalist valorisation processes and commodified social relations. If it is not products themselves that are unsustainable, but the economic relations in which they are embedded, it follows that design can only become sustainable if design labour, knowledge, and artefacts are decoupled from the commodity-machine. With this in mind, in elaborating on this critique of the political economy of design in the first chapter, I make the case for using my value-centric framework in studying forms of design that run counter to the commodity-machine.
If one wishes to practice design without sustaining, preserving, and perpetuating the unsustainable commodity-machine, two political courses of action are typically available. The first is to produce resistance—“many no’s”—so as to build countervailing power. The second is to produce alternatives—“many yes’s”—that pave the way to better outcomes. Inherently, design has far more affinity with the task of producing alternatives rather than with those of formulating demands, lobbying for reform, or fomenting revolt. It is an affirmative, not adversarial practice. Although resistance and generating alternatives are entwined, in this study I focus on the alternatives alone. Among a diversity of approaches to producing alternative social realities, I pick out two strands that are relevant for design: speculative thinking and prefigurative doing. Speculative discourses express visions and tell stories about possible futures. They spark the imagination and make utopias palpable. Prefigurative practices intervene directly in the present while embodying the means and values of a world to come.
Admittedly, designating such prefigurative, speculative, or engaged discourses and practices as “alternatives” implies their marginality relative to conventional practices that predominate in society. Although they are united in opposition to established, hegemonic social relations, alternatives encompass a diverse range of improvised, ephemeral, and niche conditions and projects. Alternative design practices may be influential in the cultural sphere, but they are usually not considered a threat to the commodity-machine. Given both design and technology’s complicity in late capitalism, anticapitalist discourse and aesthetics have tended to assume decidedly critical stances on design and technology in recent decades. The late Mark Fisher laments that the meaning of desire (and I would add innovation, progress, and luxury) has been altogether abandoned to capital. It “is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’”, he proclaims, “because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity” ('Post-Capitalist Desire' 132). Following Fisher’s insight, in this study I reject the false opposition between design and the common good. Instead, I theorise a design practice that has been liberated from its entanglements with capitalism.
A range of other practices have been labelled “speculative design, critical design, design fiction, design futures, antidesign, radical design, interrogative design, design for debate, adversarial design, discursive design, futurescaping, and … design art” (Dunne and Raby 11). These practices project stories and scenarios about how things might be in the future, much like the utopian groups of the Sixties (Archigram, Superstudio). However, given their lack of engagement with design’s material, technical, and functional aspects, these practices are not quite the prime examples that I intend to explore in this study. I shall also pass over projects that remain at a conceptual phase, with little indication as to how they will be actively developed in the future. In recent decades, more engaged design practices have proliferated, emphasising social, localised, and tailored solutions instead of one-size-fits-all industrialism. They have devised meticulous methods of designing with instead of for society. Inspired by natural systems and applied to industrial processes, such methods are mindful of the human scale and cultural specificities. Although these practices compellingly redirect the values, priorities, and purposes of sustainable design, they remain local, context-dependent, and one-off social interventions. As such, they do not allow for the scalability and rapid replication required to meet the challenges of the eco-social transition. I am interested in identifying practices that convincingly overcome all of the aforementioned limitations and constitute a relatively coherent whole.
Just as design labour, knowledge, and artefacts can be subject to commodification, they can also present opportunities for instigating the opposite process. Indeed, existing prefigurative practices can be read through the lens of "commoning". Over the last decade, the concept of commoning has emerged as a compelling means by which to imagine, describe, and analyse what constitutes a viable political-economic paradigm that rivals the state and market forces. Although the verb originates from the commons, a noun of Latin origin, commoning denotes three active, productive processes of shared (use) value creation and shared valorisation: doing in common, managing in common, and holding in common (this is, appropriating for common use). These definitions coincide with my design analysis framework: doing in common equates with shared creation on the part of design labour, managing in common with the shared governance of design knowledge, and holding in common with shared access to design artefacts. Accordingly, Chapters II, III, and IV survey the commoning of labour, knowledge, and artefacts in emergent design cultures. Named after broader cultural practices of peer production, open-sourcing, and the maker movement, I approach design cultures that practice commoning under the rubrics of (i) peer designing, (ii) open blueprints, and (iii) maker machines.
Table 2. Commoning in design cultures
In each chapter, I introduce some significant examples of the commoning of labour, knowledge, and artefacts respectively. All of these case studies are contemporary product design projects engaged in relations of sharing instead of exchange, in producing commons instead of commodities. In each of them, speculative discourses and prefigurative practices are intricately combined. By studying ambitious projects that actively seek to realise their goals in the present, I explore some possible ways to bridge the profound rift between what design says and what design does. I present examples ranging from everyday tools, through building systems, to fabrication machinery. As such, they can all be considered part of a productive infrastructure or means of production. Although they all originate from Western contexts, these examples entail practices of collaboration and replication that take place in cosmo-local or trans-national contexts. More specifically, I attend to design projects that develop, document and distribute design blueprints and instructions; have a substantial online presence and a coherent identity; attracted considerable interest or achieved recognition among the design community (as evidenced in recent exhibitions and publications). I employ the following methods to study the corresponding objects:
• visual analysis of various media produced for the project (photography, website, brochures, videos, presentations),
• discourse analysis of textual statements by designers (press articles, critique and commentary about the projects),
• design analysis of blueprints, in their technical, functional, formal, aesthetic, economic, procedural dimensions,
• close reading of material objects, in their relational and affective qualities (and their making-of, impact, byproducts or offsprings),
• interacting with the projects by conducting interviews, engaging in action-research and undertaking self-production.
While no sample is sufficient to describe emergent cultures of commoning on its own, the suite of case studies assembled in this study constitutes an almost entirely decommodified valorisation of design practices. Indeed, when considered together, these practices hint at a world in which built environments, artefacts, and values that are created through identities, institutions, and social relations that lie outside the circle of the neoliberal subject, market, and exchange. Countercurrents to the capitalist-industrial logic of design have existed ever since the Arts and Crafts movement. Even in the 1980s Nigel Cross was prophesying “the coming of post-industrial design”. It is only more recently that the speculative term “postcapitalist” has gained significant traction as a name for the coming transition. Postcapitalism, which I go on to conceptualise in-depth, denotes an accelerated eco-social transition that would supercharge the existing diversity of alternatives by unleashing the potential of latent trends within late capitalism. Postcapitalism should not be only seen as a general name for practices that are relatively autonomous with respect to capital (i.e., commoning); it is also understood as a loosely coordinated political programme aiming to bring about a systemic transition away from capitalism. The concept is meant to capture the spirit of a time that, though still defined in relation to what preceded it, is nonetheless aware of the evolutionary (if not revolutionary) leap that it is poised to take. I am aware that taking Western, globalised, late-capitalist cultures as my starting point to conceptualise postcapitalism creates a bias towards predominantly white, male and privileged voices, who are more likely to make overconfident, universalising claims about major paradigm shifts. I intentionally leave out non-Western, decolonial or indigenous knowledge and practices, in order to study the latent undercurrents of Western thought attempting to overcome itself, developing an imaginary and practice beyond its own supremacy.
Bringing all of this together, the main goal of this study is to explore the role of emergent design cultures in the postcapitalist transition. To this end, I unpack, analyse, and evaluate contemporary design cultures that, whether deliberately or otherwise, are situated outside exchange relations and market mediation. In so doing, I interrogate the extent to which the commoning of design labour, knowledge, and artefacts prefigure the creation of just and sustainable goods and livelihoods. I am not only concerned, then, to establish the degree to which any design cultures exist outside capitalism or at its peripheries. I also consider whether they constitute the material basis for a new paradigm that effectively disrupts and displaces capitalist modes of valorisation, downgrading them to a non-hegemonic, subordinate role. The sustainability of these design cultures depends on neither materiality nor discourses alone, but on their capacity to unsustain and unravel the value circuits of the commodity-machine. Sustainability, in this context, entails redirecting the production and distribution of artefacts towards viable, desirable, and equitable configurations. By shifting the understanding of (sustainable) design away from dominant towards under-theorised practices, I hope to highlight both the potential of those who seek sustainability beyond the commodity-machine and the challenges that they face.
The ultimate objective of ongoing efforts to alter our current predicament can be summed up by way of reference to the challenge set by Buckminster Fuller for his World Game, namely “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time, with spontaneous cooperation and without ecological damage or disadvantage of anyone” (qtd. in Sieden 51). This interest is common to three subjectivities that I inhabit: designer by trade, researcher by profession, and activist by inclination. This work is by extension intended for three audiences: design practitioners (involved in creative production, emerging trends, practical solutions and positive impact), humanities scholars (interested in cultural analysis, critical theory, political ecology, alternative economics), and social movements organisers (engaged in community building, climate action, just transition and system change). With these audiences in mind, I put the discourses and practices of design projects in dialogue with broader cultural and critical debates, and interrogate their relevance for eco-social transformation. In striving to understand contemporary complexity, I practice “not the interpretation of the world, but the organisation of transformation” (Conti). Neither an activist critique of the commodity-machine nor a designerly crystal-ball reading of the future, this study aims to “look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities —as gifts” (Graeber, Fragments 12). As Rebecca Solnit observes in the epigraph, “what actually comes next” is harder to conceive than utter destruction (21). That said better outcomes are becoming perceptible to those who pay attention, even as socio-ecological catastrophes unfold around us. This study is an inquiry into one of the “strange and circuitous routes” leading towards a better place, at the crossroads of design, ecology, and politics.
 For a comprehensive review of the debate in the humanities, see Chakrabarty; Demos; Morton; Moore; Haraway; Angus; Wark.
 While the term greenwashing originates from activist discourse, it has already been adopted by the marketing sector. I have previously analysed greenwashing extensively as part of my MA thesis on "the design of cultural capitalism" (Balamir).
 In particular, I have found the following methodological contributions to design studies especially useful: Lees-Maffei and Houze; Fallan; Clarke, Milev; Julier; Clark and Brody; Margolin; and Michel.
 A more nuanced description of the options can be found in Erik Olin Wright's work. He identifies taming, smashing, escaping and eroding as four strategic logics of anti-capitalism. Eroding capitalism has the most affinity with the approaches that I explore in this study.
 Beneath the surface of simplistic anti-technology positions, a rich undercurrent of emancipatory thought has embraced liberatory, convivial, and appropriate technologies. André Gorz, Murray Bookchin, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Kevin Carson are notable thinkers belonging to this strand of thought.
 I draw inspiration from design theorists and practitioners of industrial ecology and biomimetic design, notably from Neri Oxman, Jody Boehnert, John Thackara and Gunter Pauli.
 As I explain at length in I.B.1, my interpretation of commoning combines insights from De Angelis, Dyer-Witheford, Helfrich, Bollier, Linebaugh, Federici, Caffentzis, and Ostrom.
 The commons is arguably a pre-modern and non-colonial concept, with a multiplicity of comparable terms in non-Western cosmologies. The theoretical and geographical richness of these correspondences is explored in Kothari et al.
 Consequently, I exclude the following from my case studies: artworks, anonymous or improvised production, indigenous knowledge or practices, software and high-tech devices.
 It takes the combination of raw materials, labour, knowledge and infrastructure to create design products. Raw material supply is also a contested terrain between commodification and commoning, but it is not directly the interest of this study.
 I also attempt to maintain a critical distance to overrepresented voices (Bauwens, Mason, Srnicek and Williams, Bastani, Rifkin) by relying on eco-feminist perspectives (Ostrom, Gibson-Graham, Federici, Helfrich).
 Here I am paraphrasing Thomas Paine, who characterised himself as “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination”(qtd. in Padover 32).
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