Finding a new soil for design

Design school years seem so long ago now. 2002, 2003, 2004… The iPhone was not born yet, we still worked on slow Power PCs at school and the iMac was barely born. One of my study projects was the creation of a full “interactive CD-ROM” about Jacques Tati. Fifteen years have passed and the human world has mutated at an insane speed. And so did my vision of design.

2020 is already labeled as a turning point, the last year that will still look like the previous ones, if we are ever so lucky. One of the latest to kickstart systemic changes wide and deep enough if we want to hold a single chance to go beyond the many hurdles leading us to a resilient mode of life, ready for what will threaten us soon.

2020 will be the year where I seal the direction of my personal design research.

I am happy to share some details of if with you. Feel free to see this as binding for you as much as for me.

Setting stones

Common Future[s] has been my thinking playground since it was born in July 2018. The mere fact of having to put together its objectives, put words on things such as “refuse the dogma of exponential growth” or “create convivial tools” allowed me to clarify my intentions as a design practitioner. A lot of reading, research and rephrasing to build conferences or written pieces also brought me to realise how everything is political and that our designers’ duties are to not only acknowledge it but also to apply it to our practice. Design is a political act but it must now step on a higher level by embracing it fully to become a re-politisation tool. Everything needs to be re-politised: from the services we offer to people to the topics and projects we accept to work on. We have to re-politise code, implementation of tech, business decisions, even the making of laws and public space, the one we leave to citizenship, in theory as much as in practice. Re-politising things is allowing anyone the ability to reclaim their agency in order to build their own radicality (inspired from Corrine Morel-Darleux, French politician). This is one of the cornerstones of the systemic change that we need as fast as possible.

The Anthropocene as a new soil

The omnipresence of the Anthropocene is now a given. I favour Bruno Latour’s definition of it : 

The Anthopocene is the undeniable fact that Earth is now reacting to our action in an irreversible way.

I am absolutely convinced that this fact must quickly become the foundation of everything: design, education, partisan and public politics, business models, inhabiting models, life styles, finance… Our new soil is anthropocenic and it is made of unpredictable moving sands that will become less and less welcoming to our humain civilisation.

This fact is not trivial. It means that as of today, we already have to deal with a less and less stable climate, startling and more intense natural episodes and constantly decreasing resources. If everything around us reacts to our actions, and even worse, to our past, long gone choices from decades ago, it is obvious that we have to tread with an unprecedented care when it comes to our present choices. Ecology (that some people describe as a paralysing concept not allowing us to go beyond the current cosmology of humankind being allowed to separate themselves from a “natural environment” it doesn’t really belong to, for it’s been able to gradually protect itself from its constraints) is still subject to debate in the design world. We are still allowed to see ecology and environmental issues as a side option, a branch of design focused on our relationship to nature. I absolutely understand how hard it is for some of us to confront ourselves to the Anthropocene and to realise that it now has to replace what we thought we knew about the world instead of just being “one of the many ways to do design”. But without a soil to inhabit, without climate and territorial stability, without matter to work on, what is it left of design?

[Image description: a poster in a French train station informing passengers of an unexpected, unprecedented natural accident that will make impossible all trips to the South of the country, right next to a LED screen displaying an advertisement.]

Finding ways to make design “land” onto the planetary limits that were always around but willingly hidden will be the first piller that I will base my thoughts, research and actions on.By creating precedents, writing articles and sharing my thoughts, I will try to do my part of this mission at an unprecedented scale.

How do you make something land onto planetary limits, how, to quote Alexandre Monnin, Diego Landivar and Emmanuel Bonnet, can we become “ecological redirectors” [FR] whose mission is to reassess, replan, redirect everything within these limits? My focus will be precisely aimed at this, applied to design.

I already foresee a few leads: empowering individuals, freeing knowledge and preserving the commons, allowing data and knowledge tied to the Anthropocene to be freely published and popularised, putting into question the way we share knowledge, especially in education…

Design decolonialism

Decolonialism has been a topic of interest since a few months now. The further I move into the understanding and dismantling of my own white, educated, europe centered female designer, the more I touch on subjects about the recognition of the exploitation of people, territories, countries and ethnicities and the reparation of prejudices that occurred. Design decolonialism asks to take measure of the fact that without this massive exploitation that has occurred and is still occurring, there is no modern design. No access to resources, to scandalously cheap manpower. Design decolonialism is trying to recognise, repair and try new ways of doing. It asks to let go of a lot of space too, a space taken by white, western designers at the expense of others. We have to free some space for them now.

But decolonialism shows another interesting angle, the one of the glorified myth. Universalist design and omniscient designers feed a colonialist mindset for me, or at least an exploitative one. Within the modern design practice, we have a deep work to do on ourselves about how we choose to be and how we choose (or not) to dismantle our own vision of our job and industry. We also have to fire up a huge piece of work about how we consider people. Service design contains countless examples of how we try to solve “problems” for people in deep vulnerability in which we dictate a way that is not theirs, negating their vision and what they experience every day. User centered design was meant to solve that. But beyond our pretty experience maps and personas filled with verbatim, what space is left for these people to assert their existence in their own way, to exert their intentionality, their agency? I feel that we are currently invading their space with our shiny design methods.

Design decolonialism also touches the de-californication of it. We need to step back from North-American centered design, as well as European centered. It is a tough one for it is a powerful vessel of infinite comfort and a promise of a better world. But what it hides is even more atrocious: there is always someone (or something) who will pay for this allegedly better world that ends up being slightly better for an insignificant part of the population. No, that’s not this kind of design that I want to practice.

Internet has never been free

“Also, I think we’re finding out the actual price of free. Twitter is free. Facebook is free. Both those idiots need to make money somehow. So they sell your data to people who want to sell you other shit.”, says Mike Monteiro in his latest newsletter, right before suggesting we pay a 50 dollar subscription to Medium. I will dedicate no time here to expand on how the platform has been drifting away from its initial promise of a better world for writers before installing paywalls like so many others in order to become another commercial service. Better admit the lie later than never, but a broken promise is still one, especially when it was wrapped in beautiful values. In my eyes, it is still the mark of an immense disrespect.

Here is the fact, though. Internet was never meant to be free and we are slowly lifting the veil that was hiding it all this time. We are discovering the price of having delegated, without our informed consent, a massive part of the web to huge corporations which are even now too big to fail. We are now in the middle of the realization that the real price of a web that looks like us, a web that would respect our privacy and intimacy. Still, we stand here astonished to discover that their promises were sheer capitalist wind. After all, how did we think they were going to be able to finance the titanic infrastructures needed by their endless expansion, if no one was designed to pay in the end? Every new day brings its new bills for this forgiveness, this exploitation that we have let happen, mostly on lies. We pay with facets of our existences being “farmed” (people farming is the term coined by Aral Balkan when it comes to surveillance capitalism) until it is too late to step back or withdraw. We are already locked tightly to platforms that we can barely leave.

If you want to start a de-google-isation [coinage borrowed to Framasoft], it will require months of little and big changes and discomfort added to your daily lives. It has now been several months that I have tried to switch from Google services at least for personal and professional emails, some of which I have to pay monthly for, but even then it is almost impossible to close a Google account because it is linked to so many other services that an immense majority of my peers are using (with professional habits that would make any corporate lawyer scream in agony). How am I supposed to leave an ecosystem in which I am trapped against my will?

My 2020 mission of supporting people into reclaiming their own bit of the web has already started. I am incredibly lucky to be working with the Framasoft team to support the building of Mobilizon. We started last year by settling on the purpose and values of the tool, studying uses around events and organising, to bring forward Mobilizon’s wider mission: to allow the biggest number of people to organise freely, respectfully of their personal lives. Mobilizon is a new kind of software, at least for most of us: it is federated, part of the fediverse.

I had already started to list a few of the differences between Twitter and Mastodon in this article. Federation brings a lot of new concepts that can remain easy to understand if they are well explained, but difficult to really bring everybody on board when so many of us are so used to platforms that are not only “free”, but visually perfect and functionally extremely robust. Having to build your own little part of the web without thorough technical knowledge is mission impossible for 95% of us.

Here is the new challenge that lies before us: we want to make Mobilizon an ice breaker in its field, a real federated project but with a thick layer of pedagogy and educational help in order to make sure that everybody, with no exception (or at least shrunk down to the minimum) can make a first step towards their own little bit of the web as they please. There are huge educational stakes here. We are moving towards a massively different way of considering the web. Our current collective understanding has been damaged by more than a decade of super powerful platforms creating an unprecedented hurdle to overcome. Patience, maieutics and pedagogy will be needed. I will try to bring my contribution to this vast endeavour with Mobilizon, but also with other projects aiming at making the web easier for everybody.

There is another underlying question when we raise the question of the price of the Internet: who is going to pay? With time, skills, or money? I hope that we will come up with new ways of financing and distributing the cost of things. A few experiments have already been conducted on the Mastodon world, with instances playing with memberships or donations to share the costs of hosting and maintenance. This is what I do on my own instance, where I invite members who want to join to give a little something if they can. I am being very transparent about the costs of providing with a Mastodon instance: domain, hosting (delegated to Hugo from, costs reach a yearly 135€. (yup, I too am unable to install my own Mastodon instance and chose to delegate this task to someone more skilled than me!)

Which new contributory models will we come up with, models that are just and equitable, to reconquer bits of the web and build structures that are strong enough to be immune to surveillance capitalism, especially for the weakest among us?

Systemic mutations

The last topic that has reached my ears right now could be summed up by the study of weak signals of systemic mutations. One of them started to show up for my colleague Thomas and me after each occurence of our talk “Design for desirable futures” around the French tech/design world.

It is always hard to perceive progress at scale of a society as big and globalised as ours. It is even harder to decipher weak signals blended in the global mess. As soon as any political change shows up, we witness a rise of populism, significant withdrawals on human, especially women’s rights, repeated attacks on the most precarious populations… Entities constantly fight to critique who does what and how they do it, turning activism into a tricky endeavour.

From one chat to another, we started noticing an interesting pattern. Individuals are starting to pop out of organisations. They come to us and tell us about their paths towards new modes of living, their doubts as well as their fears, the cognitive dissonance they suffer from every day without finding anything to soothe it, or where to start, really. They tell us about what they tried to change in their lives, even if they are in a line of work that does not seem to want to move. They tell us about intimate lines of thoughts, trying to reconnect to what is happening around them, to what bears more meaning and purpose.

With time and hindsight, I feel that te dissonance and our inability to live with it too long will be the main agent of change. As burnout is the positive symptom of a sick society of work, dissonance and individual vitality will help people refuse the injustice of the whole situation. The fashion / mascarade of corporate responsibility is one of these symptoms too: now businesses have to create a box where to store the “green stuff” so that employees who are seeking relief can find a little. Even if the procedure is just a joke to me, it says something: we need a different business paradigm.

Direct action? Civil disobedience? Publishing content? Demonstrating in the streets? Non violence? Individual action? Distributed and complex problems ask for complex answers. We have a duty to make sure that none of the mode of actions above are mocked. Rather, we need to help every one understanding how each of them actually has an impact in order to combine them properly and efficiently.

What if change comes from within, from this tiny but growing percentage of people hoping and asking for something different in their work and the structures upon which they depend? In the very privileged industries we occupy (tech and design) where offer has (until now) been always bigger than demand, I witness a growing number of dev profiles looking for ethical companies and industries to work in, with more spare time to dedicate to their personal projects, even pushing organisations to show their values, most of the time inline with ecology (or at least what tech sees from it). It is a start. In 2019, a growing number of students in France spoke up and signed manifestos, showing their disappointment in the quality and nature of the education they receive, even in prestigious schools, too remote from our current reality, too detached from any pragmatic tool that could help them tackle the unprecedented challenges ahead that we know little to nothing about, except a few scientific projections.

Being able to design is also being able to listen to these weak signals and support, with our tools and practice, the possibility of change from within. It is supporting organisations so they can go beyond the limiting concepts that they have sometimes entered out of laziness (sustainable development, corporate responsibility); it is also being able to teach differently: I have the annoying tendency to instill ecology, accessibility, impact and politics in every design class, even if it was not part of the initial request. And that was just a start. More and more schools are asking for situated lectures, maybe not towards the Anthropocene yet, but at least towards a more updated worldview. I always make sure my lectures are based on and illustrated with topics that are fiercely centered around the Anthropocene: “how to make people aware of their individual energy consumption?” / “how does the design of a city influence the production of waste?” / “how to restore in our daily lives ancient and forgotten food techniques and traditions?”. This kind of topics allow students to question facets of their daily lives that they are not used to explore: which cooking techniques have been erased, profiting who and what? What benefits would bring reinstating fermentation, clay pot cooking in our homes? What does it say about our relationship to food, cooking, our dependance to supply chains and complex logistics? How should we preserve recipes as much as ingredients? Design becomes a support, a sum of tools that I use as pretexts to question the current world.

It is our relationship to this world that I try to tickle here and there through these experimentations that aim to open new doors of reflexion within these student minds. Supporting all forms of transformation from within is supporting people so they become a force of ecological redirection from where they stand.

An attempt at Anthropocenic design principles

The first tool that we will publish through Common Future(s) has a face at last: **its purpose is to summarise the necessary actions in order to make design shift from “capitalist” to “earthly”. These principles are built around three big pillars (new starts: data that has been willingly put aside and that we have to reinstate as quickly as possible, new postures of the self: all that we need to change in ourselves to be able to overcome our very human hubris, and new modes of action: because new problems ask for new tools). Our work now will focus on describing each pillar and sub-pillar, as well as finding the best way of publishing it (digitally or not) so that these principles are open to contribution, enrichment and adaptation to other industries.

[Image description: the three pillars of anthropocenic design principles displayed in a chart pie]

A lot of things already tacked in this post can be found in these principles which are the byproduct of two years of research and reflection together with Thomas Di Luccio. We will do our best to make sure these principles evolve in the right direction and can be meaningful even to other industries.

2020: pivot year?

Brexit has been pushed further to January 2020. It will also be the year of town elections in France, and the already controversial USA elections. It will also be the year of an even more pronounced reality surrounding us that is the base of everything we should do: what surrounds us reacts to our actions, irreversibly.

Here is my roadmap right before your eyes for my design practice. I hope it will inspire you. Have a nice ride too!