Orton Family Foundation's Reviews > In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World

In the Bubble by John Thackara
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Aug 07, 09

Read in December, 2005

In my former life as an anthropologist, I had the unique experience of spending time with the Hadza people, the last hunter-gatherer tribe in East Africa. While I never quite warmed up to dining on spoiled kudu and singed monkey, I did come to appreciate the Hadza’s innate capacity for innovation. From food gathering to building shelter and social networking they are strategic opportunists par excellence who waste nothing, least of all good information.

Perhaps this is why John Thackara’s In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World resonated so deeply with me. Mid-way into his heady manifesto on “design mindfulness,” Thackara calls on us all to become “hunter-gatherers of ideas and tools,” breaking out of the box of our mono-crop silos to spot opportunities for system change at the juncture between industries, professions and social sectors.

Thackara is a design critic, business provocateur and self-described “symposiarch” who organizes collaborative innovation projects in which designers, together with grassroots innovators and citizens, develop new service concepts and prototypes. His ideas and work, though far-ranging, center on a vision of sustainability and ecology of place. Thackara’s definition of design is an inclusive one of great relevance to people in the planning field, suggesting “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

The central thesis of this book is this: “If we can design our way into difficulty, we can design our way out.” Thackara sees the effects of poor design everywhere, pointing out, for example, that “mindless” sprawl is anything but. Sprawl, he deftly argues, results from a conspiracy of intentional policies, practices and design decisions played out across industries and systems, none of which are random. “Out of control is an ideology, not a fact,” he asserts and then seeks to back it up by suggesting how thoughtful, humanized applications of technology can give us better control of the same situations and systems we now feel victimized by.

Most of the examples of “design mindfulness” of interest to those of us in the planning field are about harnessing the collaborative power of the Internet and other social technologies to create open learning networks and support community decision-making. He writes, for example, about The Open Planning Project, a New York-based organization that advocates for a free, distributed and open geographic information infrastructure to help citizens engage in meaningful dialogue about their places. Such technology applications that enhance human connectedness and quality of life are key to Thackara’s vision of a sustainable future and will resonate with those of us interested in the application of new tools and technologies to planning challenges.

If Thackara falls somewhat short, it’s by inspiring us with visions of new tomorrows without leaving a sufficient crumbtrail to follow. Some of the innovative projects and efforts he cites, while intriguing, are barely underway and not yet ready for prime-time. Some of the more compelling ones don’t yet have websites, let alone measured results. Like Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, In the Bubble is the kind of big idea book that, despite intentions to the contrary, runs the risk of creating more acolytes than actors. That would be unfortunate because, as the Hadza know well, we can’t survive on good ideas alone.

Read more reviews by the Orton Family Foundation in our Scenarios e-journal at http://www.orton.org/resources/public...

-John Fox
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