Episode #147 Flourish: Designing new paradigms and expanding our agency with Sarah Ichioka
What will it take to restore balance in our world? How can we repair our devastated environments, and secure future generations’ survival? And what’s they key to unlock the mindset shift to enable truly regenerative transformation? With Sarah Ichioka, co-author of Flourish: Design Paradigms for our Planetary Emergency.
Sarah Ichioka is co-author with Michael Pawlyn of ‘Flourish’ a rich, inspiring book that outlines key paradigm shifts for this time of planetary emergency. Looking deeply into the web of life, Flourish proposes a bold, imaginative – and do-able – set of regenerative principles to transform how we design, make and manage our buildings and our communities.
Sarah is an urbanist, curator, writer and podcast host. Connecting cities, culture and ecology, she has been recognised as a World Cities Summit Young Leader, and one of the Global Public Interest Design 100. She is founding director of the Singapore-based strategic consultancy ‘Desire Lines’ and is co-author, with Michael Pawlyn, of the book ‘Flourish’ and co-host with Michael of the Flourish podcast.
In this expansive, incisive conversation, Sarah expands on the five paradigms she and Michael identified that are holding us back in the old ‘business as usual’ frame and the ways we can shift our world-view to new ways of thinking, being – and designing our lives.
Drawing on the work of foundational thinkers like Freya Matthews, Donella Meadows, Janine Benyus and Ronan Krznaric, plus existing communities such as the Los Angeles Eco Village, Sarah shows us that the ideas and actions are already in place, we just need to build them bigger, proving that, as Willam Gibson has said, the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.
Manda: My guest this week is designing and writing a way through to that flourishing future. Sarah Ochioka is an urbanist, curator and writer, connecting cities, culture and ecology. She’s been recognised as a World Cities Summit young leader and one of the Global Public Interest Design 100. She’s founding director of the Singapore based strategic consultancy Desire Lines. She’s also co-author with Michael Pollan of an amazing book called Flourish, with the subtitle Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency. And I found this book in the spring, and genuinely, it is one of those that I read over and over, and pretty much every page has a corner folded over, which you may think is an abuse of a book, but for me does bring me back to the bits that I really want to look at again.
Manda: That and highlighting the text, which probably puts me in the realm of vandalism of books. But there we go. This is a book that encompasses what I think we really need to know as we’re moving forward, in a way that is utterly accessible for everybody who isn’t a designer, as well as being explicitly for those who are. It predicates on a lot of the things that have founded the ways that I think, and then it carries them forward. As ever, Caro has done an amazing job with the sound production, but we were recording from Singapore to the UK, so it’s not absolutely perfect. For which we apologise to your ears and your general sensibilities, but I really believe it makes sense and that everything Sarah says is well worth listening to. So with that in mind, people of the podcast, please welcome Sarah Ochioka.
Manda: So Sarah, welcome to the Accidental Gods Podcast and thank you for joining us from Singapore. How is life over there? Are you actually in Singapore at the moment?
Sarah: I am, that’s right Manda. Thanks so much for inviting me onto your show. I’m delighted to be here.
Manda: And some ungodly hour of the day with you. So thank you. So we thought that we’d start with you reading the very opening paragraph under the quote from Murray Bookchin, which was the first thing I saw when I opened this, which made me so happy. So few people even reference Murray Bookchin any more. And there it is. If we do not do the impossible, we will be faced with the unthinkable. Which has to be the crowning anthem of our time at the moment. Although you then also go on to Arundhati Roy: Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. And we very nearly named this podcast ‘Another world is possible’ after that. So thank you for both of those. But then please, could you read us the opening paragraph?
Sarah: At this moment, when the looming global crisis is painfully clear, with record breaking temperatures disrupting and destroying lives, land and livelihoods around the world. It may sound naive to point out that we already have nearly all the solutions we need to address our predicament. Yet if we focus on the right signals rather than the noise of the distracted and anxious attention economy, the path to a positive future appears clear and within our reach. Will we squander our final opportunity for transformation or choose to embrace a flourishing future?
Manda: Wonderful. Thank you. And yes, and those two key points: that we do have all the answers and this is our transformative moment. I was listening to Daniel Schmachtenberger yesterday saying what does a civilisation look like that manages to survive the teenage phase of its technological development? Because we’re in that kind of suicidal technocidal, we’re either going to destroy ourselves or we’re going to come through to be something different. And your book really for me is a blueprint of the coming through. So first of all, I’m deeply grateful that you wrote it and that I found it. Thank you. So I’d really like to explore how you and Michael collectively came to write the book. But to begin with, how Sarah came to be the person who brought what you bring to this book. Because you had been studying eco villages in the US and civic agriculture in Singapore before you ever got to this. And at some point I read in 2005 you went cycling round Bogota with Enrique Penalosa, who is the mayor of the capital, between his seconds as mayor. So you’ve clearly been really exploring the possibilities of this and being really adventurous through your life, as well as your professional work as a designer. So just key us into the key points of how you get to be one of the co-authors of Flourish and also how you get to be cycling around Bogota with the mayor of the capital. That would be handy too. Over to you.
Sarah: Thanks, Manda. So, of course, Flourish is very much a co-authored work. It’s the work of four hands, between myself and a beloved colleague, Michael Pollan, who’s a regenerative architect and biomimicry expert based in London. And he and I knew each other from our time… I spent about a decade working in London before I relocated to Singapore about another decade ago. And maybe like you, from my understanding of your bio, have had a really interesting and winding path so far in terms of my career. But I think a unifying thread, the thread that I’ve been following along that curving path, has been a strong interest in human settlements and how the design of the spaces that we inhabit shape our relationships to one another and our relationship to the environments within which we find ourselves at any given time. And that thread has taken me from working, when I originally graduated from university with a degree in history, you know, working for a public housing agency in New York City; through to work in London, first at London School of Economics, a research project there that looked at global cities. Which is what led to being able to accompany my boss at the time, to an amazing tour of a number of global cities, including Bogota.
Sarah: So that led to the incredible… actually I got one of the worst sunburns of my entire life at that time. Not being used at the time to life in equatorial context. And yeah, had amazing memories but also my skin will never forgive me for that cycle trip. And for a time as well led an organisation based in London called the Architecture Foundation, which was a non-profit that sought to engage the public in these conversations about the impacts of the design and inhabitation; of buildings, public spaces and cities more broadly. And then Manda, as you mentioned, had a number of years just pursuing passion research projects. So in the bridge between my time from London to Singapore, I had a grant from the amazing Grant Foundation who have funded any number of amazing investigations, interdisciplinary investigations. They’re such an amazing organisation. But they gave me a grant to explore new forms of intentional communities that had sprung up, not in the typical places where we might imagine them, in more rural settings, but actually in post-industrial cities in the United States, which is my home country. And that was fascinating.
Sarah: And then when I first came to Singapore, which I now call home, I had the great fortune to be a research fellow with the National Parks Board here. The National Parks Board of Singapore has really, I feel, been at the forefront of, in a Singaporean context, at the forefront of bringing a biophilic nature, nature centric way of thinking about urban life. And so I, having known their reputation from afar when I moved here, was so keen to engage with them. And they were interested in the work that I’d done previously with community based urban design projects. And so I built on that experience to look at their burgeoning civic agriculture program here, which now numbers in the thousands, of community gardens island wide. A very interesting time in the program, when it was moving from its baby phase into growing to be the more mature program that it is today. And it was really a wonderful, wonderful way into the place that I now call home. So that’s a long and winding description of a long, even longer winding professional path. But you wanted to know what led me and Michael to collaborate on the book. That’s right.
Manda: Yes, I did. But just a little bit, I would like to drill down into that a bit. Because you started off with a history degree and history is great, but now you’re looking at the present and the future. What led you specifically to design? Because within the things that you’ve been looking at, you could have become a regenerative agriculture person. You could have become a permaculturalist, which I suppose is a kind of design, but you’re more, as far as I can tell, interested in the design of the built environment.
Manda: What specifically led you to think that that was the place where your passion was drawing you?
Sarah: That’s a great question. I have always been interested in the design of buildings and spaces since I was a very small child. And I think originally I thought that after my undergraduate degree I would go on to study architecture. But I think my experience with New York City’s housing department helped me understand that there are ways to think about the city, at a scale beyond the individual building. And then the master’s degree that I took at the London School of Economics furthered that belief, I guess. It was a hybrid degree that was a joint urban design and social science research degree, and I realised I was a lot more interested in not necessarily in holding the pencil or the mouse, for designing projects, but working as a larger part of a design team or indeed client team. Or helping others to client designers with a greater understanding of the social and environmental context within which the work would be situated.
Manda: Right. Thank you. That makes a lot of sense. And then second bit of drilling in: I’m really interested in the civic agriculture in Singapore. Is the aim to become food self-sufficient within the island?
Sarah: So at the time the program was first initiated by the government and it was originally modelled on the Britain in Bloom program, which as you know, is much more about kind of civic beautification. So at the time it was originally conceived, but this would have been many, many years ago. It was first conceived with a sort of beautification, civic pride aspect to it. But it was a beautiful time for me to engage with the program, because they were really pivoting to become much more about connections with cultural practices and a much more sophisticated sense of what community means. And also a realignment; as with so many cities now, a realignment with the food security agenda. And so now I’m no longer resident at the National Parks Board, but my understanding of being more arm’s length from them, is that there’s now much more of an agenda. There’s a 30% by 2030 target to provide certain local foodstuffs. So Singapore has always predicated its idea of food security in a very modernist sense, a very industrialised sense, of having secure global treaties to ensure that they have a diversified food supply. So looking at food security, sourcing produce from places as far flung as Australia, North America, China. But now there is there’s an emerging focus on providing for local needs, both through farms at larger scale, at local agricultural production, but also through the civic agriculture, these smaller community based plots.
Manda: Interesting. Okay, this is not where I thought the podcast would go, but I am – partly because a lot of our focus here on the land where I live, is trying to bring local food to local people. We’re setting up something called the 80% project, which is can we get 80% of the local people sourcing 80% of their food from sustainable local sources? The aim would be good, partly because I think given the right price rises in fossil fuels, forgetting the whole climate emergency, it’s not going to be practical to ship things around the world in the way that we were doing. And I’m wondering whether that is a thing that would be logistically possible in Singapore. Are there people with the interest? If you were to say, look, here’s a couple of acres, we need a few dozen people to really bring permaculture ideals to this and really grow for your neighbourhood. Are there people who are interested in that? Or is Singapore more technocratic than that?
Sarah: We’ll have to tell the Singaporean Government about your 80% target since they’re target’s 30%. So it is an island. There are many competing demands on the available space, for example, to provide more affordable housing. But there are also, when one has a slightly more blue skyed frame to it, you can look at the current allocation of land use is to, say golf courses or military land, and say easily that could be converted over to agriculture. It is probably a question of well, is there a will at the top to reallocate that land would be question number one.
Manda: You mean, are they prepared to give up their golf courses?
Sarah: Yes. Are they prepared to give up their golf courses! You know, actually, recently there has been the reallocation of golf course for affordable housing. So there’s a precedent there. I think it would be probably more difficult in this context to give up the land that’s currently deployed for military use. But I think what’s interesting is some of my colleagues at the National Parks Board at the time, were making the argument for diversifying and intensifying use. So thinking about how some spaces, as in many other cities, you know, the New York Cities of the world; looking at current redundant spaces within the built environment. So can can the tops of all car parks be converted to growing space? You could probably get to more than 30% if you wanted to. But it also depends, as I’m sure the conversation you’re probably having locally, is what kind of food are we talking about? And what kind of food are the population willing to embrace and be enthusiastic about?
Manda: Yeah, exactly. Yes, we live in the middle of nowhere, so, you know, we’re in a very rural area. But even so, we were having the conversation last night with friends over dinner; there is a limit to how many parsnips people are prepared to eat through the winter before they really start throwing their toys out of the pram. And you can do that in wartime, because you can just go, Well you eat the parsnips or you starve. It’s your choice. There’s nothing else there. But when you’re in a global economy, then that’s much harder. And yet a lot of the narrative that we’re getting is from people quite high up in the kind of climate aware space, is that we need to move to wartime thinking. And the problem with trying to do that with the population, certainly in the UK, that’s barely interested in the climate emergency, is that it’s not actually wartime and it’s quite hard to impose that on people. So yes, exactly. Can we grow more interesting things than parsnips through the winter to give people to eat?
Manda: But I also was wondering again, we spoke to Janice Birkeland on Thrutopia recently, and she had quite interesting designs for how you could retrofit cities. To grow on vertical surfaces as well as on horizontal surfaces. And also we’ve had conversations with people embedded in transport saying that within a couple of years fossil fuel is going to be too expensive for people to drive the cars. Most cars will be electric and they will be on a very sophisticated algorithm where you sort of go “I want to go into town in 10 minutes time” and the car turns up and takes you, drops you in town, another one picks you up. So you don’t own your cars anymore. So therefore car parks cease to be a thing, quite fast. They just don’t need to happen. And that’s a huge amount of urban space that if we chose to, we could go, right that’s our growing space. See all those car parks? We’re growing there now. And I wonder, is that thinking percolating through or am I just at the very fluffy fringes of the climate movement here?
Sarah: I think that that thinking is percolating. Certainly the vertical, especially when it’s technologically enabled, vertical growing, that’s very prevalent in a number of Asian cities now. I think that the repurposing of car parks tends to be something that… with climate service car parks is probably somewhere that works better as a conversation in a land rich context. So somewhere like North America, somewhere like Australia, which has been incredibly car dependent to begin with and has the luxury of those sprawling spaces. I saw a fantastic documentary that showed, I think it was somewhere in California, a new system that was being deployed,that could just be rolled out over existing asphalt car parks, that was incredibly inspiring. This comes back to the idea of the technology or the methods and practices already existing. We just need to look for them and think about how they can be transferred or scaled or recontextualize in different places.
Manda: There was something else that I’d said that you wanted to come in on. Let’s go there.
Sarah: Yes, thank you. I was really interested in the wartime framing. Because obviously one of the things that Michael and I point out in our book or that fascinates us, is how the metaphors that we use can really shape the way that we think about things. With the wartime footing example, I am completely onside with the idea that we need to capture this sense of urgency and capture the sense of the need for collective action that that evokes. Especially if we’re thinking maybe about our grandparents stories from World War Two. But at the same time, I think one of the major challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises is trying to also do the work to understand where is the enemy? Or who is the enemy? And possibly the thinking about the framing… Our tendency to want to frame situations in terms of having an enemy that we need to come together to combat. Even a lot of the language around combating climate change. It’s, you know, it goes a lot of the way there. But I think it can perhaps limit our understanding of the necessary transformation.
Manda: Yeah, it holds us in the old paradigm, doesn’t it? And no problem is solved from the mindset that created it. And it’s this binary win lose paradigm that got us here in the first place. So it’s, I think it’s a deeply unhelpful metaphor, frankly, but it’s becoming increasingly prevalent. So things like this podcast are going to be finding ways to create other paradigms. So let’s hook back to where I thought we were going to begin with, which is… So you and Michael decided to write a book together. Just very briefly, what led you to that path? And then we’ll look at the book itself.
Sarah: So I guess we, like you Manda, and many people that we know and admire, have been trying to think about where we find our place in our collective need to mobilise swiftly towards transformation. And Michael and I have both been active more broadly in our communities, but we realise that our position of greatest leverage was probably within the built environment sector, because that’s where both of us had a certain degree of expertise and also had a platform of sorts that we could build upon. Maybe in the same way you with your writing. And so we thought that focusing our efforts and directed towards our colleagues, friends, peers, the broader community who worked in the built environment, was the right way to channel our energies. And we felt that there was a really opportune moment where we could see the emergence of a much higher frequency of use of the term regenerative, within our sector and adjacent sectors. But we felt that there wasn’t a very clear definition attached to that. So we saw an opportune moment to try to join that conversation and bring those – the people that you referenced earlier – the many people who inspire us from adjacent fields. To bring our understanding and synthesis of the wisdom that they offer in adjacent fields, whether it be philosophy, sociology, the arts. And try to digest and translate those thinkings into language and frames that would be accessible to a broad group of built environment practitioners.
Manda: And beyond, I would say. Because I am not a built environment practitioner and genuinely this book was so inspiring. And one of the things that made me actually run down the stairs and have to read it out to my partner, was that you defined the difference between sustainable and regenerative very early on. Which I think is so important, because the two are being used in greenwashing contexts so often now, and it’s really important that we actually nail down what they mean. So for us on the podcast, can you give us your distinction between sustainable and regenerative?
Sarah: Absolutely. So sustainability is a term that’s been in common usage since the mid-eighties and when it first came into prominence through the Gro Harlem Brundtland report on Sustainable Development. And it was originally generally embraced but was very quickly diluted in terms of its meaning. But we still all use it as a placeholder now. The challenge is that the framing of sustainability suggests that what we want to be doing is continuing what we are currently doing indefinitely. And in doing so, it both overlooks all of the dysfunctional aspects of our current system, and it also overlooks the fact of how many vestigial harms are built into that system. So even if we were to continue doing what we are doing now, sustainably, it does not account for all of those past harms. And Michael and I are very inspired by leaders in this field, people like Bill Reed of the Regenesis Group, or Daniel Christian Ball, who’s written a fantastic book called Designing Regenerative Cultures, who point out that actually we should be aiming to get above that line of neutrality. At the very best, sustainability is about doing no harm, at very best. Doing less bad. And getting above that line of neutral impact, to think about making a net positive impact, which means that we will also be working towards undoing those past harms.
Manda: So in a second, I really want to look into the book, but the podcast just prior to this one that everybody will have listened to, that isn’t out yet; I spoke to Jennifer Hinton, who’s a researcher in Sweden who’s whole thesis is about the difference between for profit and not for profit businesses and how we shift our entire economy to a not for profit basis. I’ve also been talking to Janice Birkeland, who’s another designer, who is very clear in her very blunt Australian way, that sustainable is okay as long as it’s not costing anybody anything. That basically designers were really happy to fold in sustainable ideas as long as it didn’t affect the bottom line. And so putting those two together, we get to a situation where as long as businesses and the designs that they fund, are aiming to make a profit for their shareholders, then it is very unlikely that we’re going to persuade them to actually apply regenerative principles. That not only doing less harm or possibly even doing no harm, but actually beginning to repair the damage already done, is not a profitable business. But it could be the remit of a not for profit. The whole point of a not-for-profit is you design what your aim is, and if the aim is regeneration, then that’s absolutely what you’re there for. And you are allowed to make money, but that money pours into regenerating. So I’m wondering, are you seeing in the move towards design, a shift from for-profit to not-for-profit, which seems to me the only possible way that we could get genuinely regenerative design built in? Or am I wrong? And is there a way to get regenerative design in a for-profit environment?
Sarah: So a lot of what you’re saying resonates with the fifth paradigm that we outline amongst our five regenerative paradigms in Flourish. Which is the need to move from centering our economies around growth, to recenter it around to the lodestar of planetary health. And I think my position on it would be perhaps not to debate whether or not a business should make a profit, but whether that is the sole or the leading objective of a business. And I think the major flaw is that for so many businesses, that is their primary objective, as opposed to thinking about in what way they might be (the good or service that they’re providing) might be actually enhancing the lives of their customers or of their communities. And then building out from that. So if that can yield a profit, brilliant. If it actually needs to be delivered under a non profit model, then let’s find a way to do that. But for me, it’s about the centering of purpose; in this case, regenerative purpose; within a given business or broader economic system. That for me would be the driving emphasis.
Manda: Yes. Brilliant. And are you seeing that happening in the wider design world?
Sarah: So I’m really interested to see what the final outcomes of the great resignation. Which in many advanced economies has seen people during the pandemic and subsequently leaving their jobs en masse, because they are not satisfied with either the working conditions that they had to tolerate, or in many cases are feeling alienated from the values or lack thereof of their former employers. And that has certainly been present within the design or built environment industries as well. Where you’ve seen many larger employers losing employees who may have had this moment to contemplate, and probably were in a position of economic privilege, where they could take the decision to to leave and try to start on their own, or seek out other employers who are more aligned with their values. So I think there is potentially a transformative possibility there, but it’s a bit too early to see how it really shakes out. But there has been a movement. I mean, towards the end of writing flourish I just out of interest, did a search of the B Corps database. B Corps are a program that came out of the US but is now growing worldwide. And I don’t know if your listeners will know about it already, but it’s businesses that have to centre purpose over profits and enshrine that legally in how they govern their companies. And there are quite a number of design, architecture, development businesses who are registered globally with B Corp. So you can see that as an emerging trend. You can also see community interests, corporations and more architecture and design firms moving to an employee owned model, etc.. So I think you can see yeah, I think you can see it as an emerging area for hope.
Manda: Yay! Okay, that’s cheered my morning up enormously, thank you. So let’s head back to the arc of what I thought the podcast was going to be, before I sidetracked us all the way. And begin to look into exactly the five key paradigm shifts that you mentioned. Because I love the idea of paradigm shift. So let’s before we even look at the five, just because it might not be a phrase that listeners are used to, tell us what a paradigm shift is for you. And then let’s explore the five. We’ve already touched on the last one, but let’s go back to the beginning and start again and and see where that takes us. I suspect there’s going to be quite a few rabbit holes, but let’s go with paradigm shifts and then go with the first one.
Sarah: Happy to do so. So by a paradigm we mean simply a mindset. Or other people might use the term worldview. That is a set of beliefs that actively shapes what we might do as individuals or as societies. And Michael and I were inspired by the thinker Donella Meadows, who is an amazing systems thinker, who, if your listeners are not familiar with her work, please rush out and find a video of her speaking or find one of her texts to read. I think she will inspire anyone, no matter what they do in life. And Meadows, as a great systems thinker, I looked into examples of places to intervene within a system, work for maximum leverage. And reviewing 12 of these possible points to intervene within a system, identified as the top two most effective to intervene at the level of the paradigm or mind shift, or even more powerfully than that, to intervene at the level to transcend paradigms altogether. And so Michael and I set our sights on that level to the penultimate level and set out to think, what are the degenerative mindsets or worldviews that we see are holding back those of us who are working in the built environment more broadly or inhabiting the built environment? So as you mentioned, Manda, everyone has a stake in in the built environment, right? Whether we design it or simply live in it, we have a stake in it.
Sarah: And that led us to think about what regenerative mindsets might replace those. And when we talk about a shift in paradigms, we are not suggesting an abrupt break or rupture between one to the next. Because I think that’s actually a myth of industrial culture. If I think about American culture, the lose £50 in two weeks diet sort of way of thinking about cultural change, right, that’s not really what we’re looking for. We’re thinking about how we move from an existing paradigm towards this new, more promising regenerative one, whilst taking people and things and practices along with us that may still be working or functioning. So for example, when we talk about shifting overall from a sustainable mindset to a regenerative mindset, there are many amazing, valid things; people who would classify themselves have been working tirelessly for decades, who would classify themselves as sustainable practitioners. So we’re not trying to throw them on the rubbish heap, but rather integrate them into the transition towards regenerative. So we’ve outlined five key shifts that we feel are important places to start. But we know that great thinkers like you and other people who are who are reading the book, we hope that it will inspire them to think about other mindset shifts that they’d like to see transformed.
Manda: Super. Thank you. Yeah, fascinating. And I loved that you started from the perspective of Donella Meadows. Because like you, when I came across that I got to the penultimate one, the, the let’s make change by changing paradigms. And that seemed to make sense and it took me about five years, I think, to get my head around the top one of just transcend paradigms and what that might look like, and what it might feel like. And yet I don’t think you can get to the transcending of paradigms except through the route of transforming existing paradigms. So finding two super bright people who had sat down and worked out key paradigms that we could shift, was just genuinely inspiring. So let’s really briefly, because time is moving on, just go through them and maybe have a little think about how you got there and where it took you. So the first one is possible-ism: evidence, uncertainty and agency; here we explore new ways of thinking about our capacity to effect change. And we’ve already talked about that a little bit with our mindset of war and how that narrative of us versus them, or us versus competition, or us versus the planet, is not a useful paradigm to move with. So what other paradigms did you identify in your field of design that you thought were not useful, and what could we move them to?
Sarah: So that first one, the evidence that you’ve just read out Manda, is moving from what we see as a degenerative paradigm of thinking about things as a binary between optimism and pessimism, you know? If we apply those to our current situation, an optimist would say, Oh, I’m sure someone in Silicon Valley is going to come up with some fantastic new technology and I’m going to still be able to drive my car and eat steak and it’s going to be great. I don’t need to worry. Everything’s going to be fine. And a pessimistic view of our current situation would be like, Haven’t you read the headlines? The glaciers are collapsing. There’s really nothing we can do. We’re all going to die. And we propose as an alternative to that, the idea of possible ism, which is really trying to understand, under our given circumstances, what pods might still unfold. Based on trying to collect as much fact and insight as we can on the matter. And think about that as a way for designing or acting more broadly under conditions of uncertainty. And once you adopt this different mindset of actually, let’s not accept that everything’s going to be great or everything’s going to be terrible, but actually think what could be possible in a given situation? That then leads directly on to the idea of what can I do in this given situation, to take the step down this possible path? And how might I hold the hands of others so we take this step together? And so this possible ism for us is twinned with the idea of expanded agency. So instead of moving from an idea of it’s too big, there’s nothing I can do about it, why even bother. Thinking actually I do, within my sphere of influence, have the ability to work together with others to effect change. So I am going to work to recognise and expand my own agency in this given situation.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. Yes. And and just hooking into that, I’m doing a regenerative agriculture course online, which is great fun, and I feel a real fraud because we got like 30 acres here and there’s a young woman on the course who’s farming two and a half thousand acres on the island of Eigg in Scotland, and another one who’s 3000 acres on the island of Luing. And they swim the cattle across to another 2000 acres. And it’s like, Oh, okay, I’m feeling overwhelmed by 30. I’m going to just shrink into a corner. But also, the woman running the course pointed out, and this hadn’t really keyed in for me; that we know less than 1% of stuff about the climate. We measure what we know and then we infer from those measurements. And yes, the measurements don’t look great. It would be easy to slide into pessimism. But the other 99% of the stuff we don’t know, we don’t know. You know, it’s full of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns. And within that sphere, there has to be an extraordinary capacity for possibility, for total catastrophe, but also for absolute transformation.
Manda: And unless we want to be the person who’s pushing us towards total catastrophe, which most of us really don’t, I think then we have that expanded agency that you talk about to to explore what are the ideas that are already out there, because human creativity is astonishing. And as you said in that opening paragraph that you read, a lot of the problems that we know about, we know how to fix. We just have to decide that we want to. So in many ways, finding the ‘we want to do this’ incentive is what we can do in our expanded agency. Is look, tell people, hey, guys, the ideas are here and that we could do this and nudge people along that path. And then we have no idea where it goes and where it goes could be amazing. So I just want to put that out as a counterbalance to the conversation that some of us on Thrutopia had the other night, with someone very bright who suggested that our timeframes are a lot shorter than we thought.
Sarah: It is also very important for this paradigm, to remember the context of privilege. So I think that also I actually find it ethically immoral, that’s not too strong a term, to adopt an optimistic or pessimistic mindset, as I just described, when one is sitting in a position of relative comfort and security. Conveniently ignoring the fact that for many people, you know, if you live in Pakistan this week, the climate apocalypse has already happened. So for the two of us in Singapore and the UK, to be having a conversation about whether or not we should just ‘someone else is going to solve it’ or ‘it’s too late to do anything’ in our conditions of relative safety still, to me seems unconscionable. Right? So it’s like if you adopt that frame, I would hope that the impetus to expand our own agency becomes even stronger and more urgent.
Manda: Yes. Thank you. Very good point. Yes, for sure. So let’s move on then. So your second chapter is biomimicry writ large: Co-Evolution as Nature, Stewardship and Living Systems, setting out a rethinking of the dualistic view which sees humans as separate from the rest of the living world. So that’s really what Accidental Gods is founded on, is this How do we reconnect with the web of life in a way that feels real to each of us, so that we can ask, What do you want of me and respond in real time and abandon the human idea that we have all the answers. And instead embrace the idea that the web of life might have the answers and we just need to listen to them. How did you and Michael move into this and where did it take you?
Sarah: That’s so beautiful. I almost just want to leave the summary with you, Manda. I mean, that’s essentially…there you go. That’s chapter two.
Manda: Yeah, Well, I would like to talk a little bit about Janine Benyus, for instance, who I’ve not yet managed to lure onto the podcast. So let’s expand a little bit. Because also I think in design, so much of design could be working with the living world instead of just building concrete blocks on top of it.
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. So we are, Michael is an expert in biomimetic architecture and that has traditionally been looking at understanding the forms and processes of nature to design buildings or objects that are inspired by hundreds of thousands of years of R&D by Mother Nature. And we were really interested in Flourish to take this to another level. We were inspired by the work of the eco philosopher Freya Matthews, who has set out principles of deeper biomimicry, which I think is more aligned with what you describe as your Accidental Gods frame. Which is not just learning from and imitating the rest of the web of life, but actually designing in collaboration with the rest of the web of life. And trying to develop the tools to understand, listen and understand what the rest of the web of life might be asking of us.
Sarah: And it’s taking it a step further from designing for nature or designing with nature, but actually ambitiously to think about it as the call to design as nature. To understand ourselves as an integrated part of that web of life, whether that’s how we interact with a site that shows in for a building or public space, that the living materials that might be part of the construction of that space and so on.
Manda: Yes. Yeah. And that does feel to me as if the big paradigm shift: If we could get the whole of humanity to engage with the web of life in that way, then the parking lot doesn’t happen unless the ground calls for a parking lot and the chances are, I think, that it’s not terribly likely to do that. And so then you rethink, okay, so what are we here for? As a very brief aside, when I was doing the Masters at Schumacher, I wrote my first term paper on what a shamanic economics look like? Because we’d been told all about Buddhist economics and various other forms of economics. And someone, because they knew I was in the class, got very enthusiastic and said, Well, I think Brazil, they’ve got the shamanic economics, because they they go and they do a ceremony with the river before they build a dam to to placate the spirit of the river, basically before they build a dam. And it blew all my fuses, much worse than kind of ordinary classical neoclassical economics. No, no, no. That’s not shamanic economics. Shamanic economics is you go to the river and you ask what the river wants. And I would be so surprised if what the river said was All I want is a billion tons of concrete to block all the water, that’s really a good thing. So I was trying to think what is a shamanic economics then? And I was doing lots of shamanic walking and dreaming and journeying and it was the day before I was due to hand in and I was doing a walk. And my practice at that point was to call in the God and the spirit that I work with most and try and walk so that they’re seeing through my eyes and hearing through my ears.
Manda: And then I’m seeing through them, seeing through my eyes, hearing through my ears. And I’m asking the question over and over what does the shamanic economics look like? And the horned God basically stood in the path in front of me and went, okay, stop. That is so the wrong question. But. Oh, really? I’m writing a paper on this and I have to hand in on Monday. Are you sure that’s the wrong question? Because that doesn’t feel great. And it’s like, Yeah. Yeah, you need to work out what humanity is for. Before you work out what does the economics look like, because how can you have an economics unless you know its purpose? And that that then became obviously the thesis around which I wrote that particular paper. And it seems to me that that is heading for me towards that transcendent paradigm. Is what are we here for individually and collectively? Because I don’t think for anybody making enormous amounts of money and destroying ourselves in the process is actually what we want to be here for. But it’s the default that we’ve found ourselves at. And shifting that would be would be quite a good thing to do. So finding ways to answer that question of what are we actually here for, seems to me quite core, but I’ll get off my high horse at that point. So I love chapter three, which is Changing our View of Time. So the paradigm here is a longer now deep cyclical time and holarchic progress. And you drew quite a lot here on the book, The Good Ancestor whose author’s name I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce because you know how to say it properly.
Sarah: Roman Krznaric
Manda: Thank you. So tell us a little bit about the different ways we could look at time.
Sarah: In chapter three we first examine our current way of thinking about time, which is very standardised, sort of an industrial way of thinking about time. That everything is measured down to a standardised millisecond and that everything is measured and that we value time in terms of our productivity within it. And that’s very much tied to a capitalist way of thinking about.
Manda: Time is money.
Sarah: Our lives and our value. Time is money. Exactly. And so the way that we would sum up the transition or the paradigm shift that we’re after could be summed up in the words of karma Tyshun from Bhutan, who says Time isn’t money, Time is life. And tied up in that, it’s a much deeper, richer, embodied holistic sense of time, that resonates back to a pre-industrial age, where our concept of time was much more rooted in seasonality. It was much more rooted in the rhythms of nature, in the spaces that we inhabited, and much more marked by specific shared cultural rituals that might have been grounded in the fertility cycles of that place, and so on and so forth. And in addition to that, more qualitative, rich nuance, life inflected sense of time. We also want to think at the scale of the planet and planet time and geological time, and understanding that once you take that much longer view of thinking, just if we focus on Mother Earth and the length of time that she’s been around, it suddenly makes the scale of our actions as human beings. It puts it all into perspective. And where we draw very strong inspiration from the philosopher Roman Krznaric who you mentioned Manda. Is his encouragement that with that perspective, how do we think forward in terms of what our legacy will be. Our individual lives might be flying past in the blink of an eye, but the actual impacts of the current decisions that we individually and collectively take today, have huge repercussions because of the technologies that we’re using to make them within. Huge repercussions for future generations of all species. And so how can we, taking that longer view of time, frame our decision making processes differently, To take those impacts into account?
Manda: Yeah, and Roman talks about Cathedral thinking. That sense that in the past we would start projects that people knew they were never going to see in their lifetimes, but they were still good things to do. Or even planting forests. You know, the new forest in England was planted to create a forest that would be giant oaks many, many generations after the people who planted them. So in the book, Roman talks about cathedral thinking in that sense of very, very long time spans of thinking about time, but also in terms of the cyclic nature of time. You mention in the book an Amazonian tribe, I think. Who defines time by by the sense of the things that they can smell in the forest at any given period. Was I right with that?
Sarah: So another amazing author who I would strongly recommend. There’s a book called Pip Pip; A Sideways Look at Time by Jay Griffiths. And one of the many evocative examples that they share is the people of the Andaman Forest in India, who follow a scent calendar. A floral fragrance to describe the time of year. And of course, we can find many other similar examples in Indigenous and traditional cultures of measuring time in ways that are attuned with the natural cycles of place.
Manda: And I am also remembering in Afghanistan and the Taliban saying of the West as they kick them out: you have the watches, but we have the time. Which they just had a very different sense of what time meant and what they could do with it, than the people who had ignored Kipling and decided that they could yet again colonise somewhere. So your fourth paradigm Symbiogenesis, Mutualism, citizen activism, with which we are in wholehearted accord and public luxury. Talk us a little bit about your views on citizen activism as much as anything else, but also really intrigued by public luxury.
Sarah: We talked earlier in the conversation about the metaphor of being on wartime footing, and I think that another metaphor that is really holding us back, but which all of us have completely internalised or have to do a lot of work to purge and release, is that of ‘survival of the fittest’. Which of course has its origins in Darwin’s origin of the species, although it’s actually not, it’s not his term originally. It was…
Manda: Somebody else.
Sarah: Contemporaries of his period who were very keen to transfer ideas of evolution across to their social setting. So it wasn’t Darwin himself who is the origin of social Darwinism, but that is still very much with us. This idea that in society it’s every man, every person to themselves. There’s always someone else who’s looking to eat your lunch. If you don’t work to get something, someone else is going to snatch it from you, zero sum, etc. etc., etc. Where we found really interesting and interesting alternative metaphor to shape our thinking is still drawn from evolutionary biology, but it’s just drawn from more recent understandings and more advanced understandings of how life actually does evolve. So yes, there is definitely an element of mutation and natural selection, but there is also a very strong strand that was first publicly argued by the amazing biologist and science communicator, Lynn Margulis. I actually really want to take the time to give this side note, if you don’t mind. All of the recent obituaries of the late great James Lovelock that I read did not co-credit Lynn Margulis as the co-creator of Gaia Theory. So Lynn Margulis was the one who gave James Lovelock the scientific underpinnings of Gaia theory. Anyway, another amazing contribution that Lynn Margulis made to the world was her theory, which has since been proven, that a lot of life has initially evolved through once separate, smaller units of life coming together and in interaction and eventually becoming a new form of life.
Sarah: And this process she dubbed Symbiogenesis. So kind of the making of something new through interaction. And we think that that’s a really interesting alternative metaphor to explore, more regenerative metaphor, to explore in contrast to that of competition or survival of the fittest. And this could take the form in terms of how we think about the way that change might happen. Are we fighting against one another for limited resources, or are we going to work as activists together to come together and demand the change that will benefit all of us? So that would suggest a different kind of politics. Or are we going to think of ourselves as competing for others, for scarce resources and just trying to focus on whatever we can accumulate ourselves within our own private domain? Or are we going to take an alternative view that thinks about devoting resources to public shared goods that we can all enjoy? So that’s the example of public luxuries there. We’ve borrowed the term from George Monbiot. Are we going to invest in public luxuries that the majority of us can enjoy together?
Manda: Yes. Yes. And Aaron Bustani took that a step further with his fully automated luxury communism concept, which is… One day I’ll get him on the podcast too. Just while we’re here, you mention as a case study in the book, The Los Angeles Eco village as something that is actually living this. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Sarah: Happy to. So Los Angeles Eco Village is in a neighbourhood in downtown Los Angeles that I was able to study about ten years ago. And rather than fleeing the neighbourhood in the wake of the racial justice uprisings that happened after an incident of racialized police brutality, the founding residents of the eco village decided to stay in the place that they were and invest their time in helping to heal and regenerate that place in terms of its economy, its physical landscape, and just general quality of life. Not just for themselves as a closed group, but also their broader set of neighbours. And they have regenerated a series of quite typical American Southern California low rise residential buildings, but through the implementation of a series of different governance and legal structures, including some that will probably be known to listeners of this podcast, like a Community Land Trust. They have incubated any number of amazing regenerative businesses that provide right livelihoods for the residents, as well as providing regenerative services like affordable child care or bicycle repair services, or a community supported agriculture, urban agriculture scheme to their broader neighbourhood. They’ve come together to regenerate the shared public spaces. So a bit of the example you gave, of a car park. Probably if you asked the ground underneath it if it wanted to be a car park or not, it probably would want to be something else. They’ve in the very car centric culture of Southern California, managed to convert several of the car parks into these beautiful flourishing community gardens, with a strong social justice component and food security component.
Manda: Gorgeous. Thank you. And if it can happen in downtown Los Angeles, it can happen anywhere, more or less. All righty. So your final paradigm is planetary health, qualitative development, living metrics and flows. And this is one of the ones that’s most oriented towards design, I would say, but still utterly applicable to everybody who isn’t actually a professional designer. So talk to us a little bit about flows and planetary health.
Sarah: Absolutely. So, as we quickly discussed earlier in the conversation, this paradigm is about a shift from growth for growth sake, to thinking about how we design our economies to centre the health of people and planet, which are of course integrally intertwined. So planetary health holistically. This applies not just to the design of economies, but also the design of resource flows. So rather than thinking about our current material economy, which is a make take waste model, where we extract materials, use them for a limited period of time and then dispose of them. As if there was an ‘away’ to which we can throw things. This is looking at working as designers to think about circular flows or cyclical flows, in the way that nature herself does. So there is no waste. There is only a new material flow that can be used in some other way. So this could be applied to how we think about designing our buildings or how we think about producing products that we want to use by closing the loop on things like water or chemical flows, etc..
Manda: Yeah. Yes. And stopping to think what we need, I think. This is back to what is humanity for. Do we really need a new iPhone every year? Or could we design an iPhone or a phone that that basically is renewable? So we’re heading down towards the end. In your conclusion, you ask the question: ‘Are these changes beyond the scope of built environment professionals? We certainly need new legislation, but governments are very unlikely to legislate unless they feel that they are heavily supported by business and a significant majority of the public. We can’t sit back and wait for legislation. We need to act according to what we believe is right and then push for the legislation to catch up. And for the avoidance of doubt, we don’t see the professional and political spheres as separate’. That just makes my little activist heart sing. So I’m wondering, since you wrote that, because it was published last year, therefore the writing largely the year before, in lockdown, I’m guessing. Are you seeing changes in your profession and their capacity to exert pressure on the political sphere? In the time since.
Sarah: We’re seeing some. So certainly more of the words are being used.
Manda: Okay, that’s a start.
Sarah: So that’s a start. I am not sure that I see as many built environment professionals as I would like becoming politically active, but there are very positive examples, I think particularly in the UK, which was the where the built environment declares movement, which now has thousands of members globally, started. And is now spread to adjacent professions such as civil servants who work in local authorities. And there’s also the Architects Climate Action Network, which is very, very active. I have a huge amount of respect for their work, largely in the UK. I think that’s where I see the greatest signs for hope. It’s when built environment professionals are coming together in coalitions to understand that they, as individual firms, might not have tremendous political power. But if they are able to show up en masse, they become more powerful and more visible. And I do see a shift in the architecture and design press, who are very much the tastemakers and the gatekeepers, and often where clients come into contact with architects. Where there is, you know, if you think about the Financial Times, they have recently featured deep retrofit projects or they’ve featured work of designers who are trying to incorporate indigenous wisdom into their design. So I think there is movement. I am still waiting to see whether that is going to become the groundswell that we need it to be, or whether it is going to be captured by establishment forces and simply become greenwashing for business as usual. And I think that’s where a defence of, or a holding accountable, for when people are using these terms, to really be able to substantiate through action and practice what it is that they mean by that, is essential. And that’s what I see as a kind of a key thing to watch for in the next year or so.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. Alrighty. So final question, because we’re really way over time, but it’s been so interesting. If it wasn’t captured, if this does become the leading edge of a wave; if we were to make really good decisions right now all around the planet. Have you got any vision for, let’s say, ten years hence of how a city might look that is different to now that would be heading in the right direction?
Sarah: Probably quite a lot like the Los Angeles eco Village, in that many hands will be involved in its making. Things will probably feel quite experimental. I think we will have to let go of a certain polished and standardised aesthetic that many of us growing up in a globalised society have come to associate with good design. I think it will look different in different places, because it will be very localised in terms of the given climate of that space. The cultural traditions that come together in the particularity, particular mix of that space. And in general it will focus around this idea of public luxury where we will see a lot more emphasis on spaces that are shared and spaces that provide the most good for the most people. So we’d see a lot more shift to active mobility, to walking, cycling, green spaces instead of car parks. And the air will feel a lot cleaner. The air will smell sweeter when I smell it. And I think in general, people will be more connected in with their local systems. So they’ll be spending more time in nature within their cities and they’ll be interacting more with their neighbours in these shared spaces.
Manda: That is brilliant. Thank you. So that feels almost like a perfect place to close. But actually, I’d really like to hear from you the last paragraph of the book. Because again, it’s a wonderful, exciting call to action. So Sarah, would you read that for us now, please?
Sarah: We know that we have an alarmingly short time to transform our relationship with the rest of the living world. But that does not mean we have to accept our fate and sink into despondency or seek to hide from reality in the shallow pleasures of consumer culture. Far from it. We must mourn what has already been lost. And then we need to rise and regenerate. We need to join with clear eyed young activists and wise elders alike, to maximise our agency in a rolling wave across society. We need to act in a way that benefits those who will come after us. We need to challenge business as usual stories that hold us back. We need to collaborate like never before. This is what it means to live now. As designers, this is what it means to be truly creative, truly contemporary.
Manda: Glorious. Thank you so much. This is what it means to live now. That is a perfect ending. Sarah, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Sarah: Thank you, Manda. It’s been my tremendous pleasure and I have so much admiration for everything that you are doing, in maximising all the different facets of your own agency. So I think you’re a perfect example of that, of our first paradigm shift. Thanks again for having me.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Sarah and to Michael for writing the book, Flourish. For the podcast, which is glorious and they have some really interesting guests. I have linked both in the show notes and I encourage you to search them both out. The book really is a very inspiring read and perfect if you are looking for end of the year gifts, whatever we’re calling the season, that’s coming up. For people who read non-fiction, actually, even for people who think they don’t read non-fiction; it’s not a techno designer’s book. It’s a book designed for everybody. And it touches on so many of the aspects of different thinking that we like to allude to on this podcast. It brings them all together. So thoroughly recommend it. And while we’re here, our numbers are growing. Thank you for spreading the word. And I’m getting increasing numbers of emails from people asking how they can support the podcast. So there is a Patreon page. But to be honest, I would ignore that because you don’t get anything else for signing up through Patreon. Please feel free if it’s your thing, but I am never going to put anything behind a paywall. So the sign up for Patreon can get anything extra is just not going to happen. What you could do, is go to accidentalgods.life and join up to the membership and then you actually get something.
Manda: And if the monthly subscription is too much and we are in what is euphemistically called a cost of living crisis and is actually a predatory capitalism falling down around our ears crisis, then contact us. firstname.lastname@example.org would be good because if you contact Manda at accidentalgods.life, I will have to send it to Faith who organises these things. But either way we can sort you out a different level of membership. But then you actually get something. You get the whole Accidental Gods membership program. I’m not going to detail all of it here. It’s on the web. Go and have a look. But it’s our attempt to bring everybody closer to a point of conscious evolution and emergence. But it’s also a way of connecting with other people who feel the same, who listen the same, who have the same ideas, or at least similar ideas. We have buddy groups. First and third Wednesdays of the month we have an hour’s Zoom call and we can connect with each other and answer questions and do meditations. We run gatherings. There have been fewer this summer because I’ve been doing the Thrutopia Masterclass, but they’ll start up again as of samhain, end of October, where we’ll be looking at living and particularly dying with clear intent.
Manda: And then next year, all of the gatherings will be focussed on using intent to bring ourselves closer to where we need to be and doing that in a regenerative way. And as a member you get reductions on the costs of all of those. So we’re trying to make it so that it’s a valuable thing to have. So this is beginning to feel a bit like an ad and that wasn’t the intention. But if you want to support the podcast, I would strongly encourage you to go that route rather than the Patreon route.
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