I spent some of the weekend in Newcastle (or more precisely Gateshead) at the DOTT ’07 exhibition which marked the close of this ambitious two year project. Three essential lessons for me, which won’t be surprising to those who know the work of John Thackara, who directed the project:

  • Sustainability is about flows, not stuff
  • Those flows have to include knowledge as well as materials
  • Sustainability needs social, public, and community engagement

The project has been well-documented on the website, but it’s worth pulling out a few personal moments of illumination.

Illumination 1: The ‘NESCO’ energy project, basically a prototype social enterprise model which is designed to use the ability to buy energy wholesale and resell it as a mechanism to reward people who reduce their consumption – so they gain more than just the value of the energy they’re saved. It was linked to an ‘energy dashboard’ which showed the level (and cost) of energy consumed in real time, and your target for the day, basically a constant reminder to switch stuff off.

It was displayed along with a project called Low Carb Lane, in Ashington, which was wrestling with how to get people to start thinking about energy consumption. The scale of the challenge – a healthy dose of realism – was captured in a quote from a resident which said, from memory, “I’m more worried about what the local arsonist will burn next than saving on energy”.

Illumination 2: A project which was designed to contrast the richness of individual lives with the way in which they – and their neighbourhoods – are classified by geodemographic systems such as Acorn. Landscape/Portrait is a project developed by artist Kevin Carter which uses a website to ask people questions about themselves and their neighbourhood (anyone in the UK can join in if they register) and enables you to contrast that with the geodemographic profile. Having worked for companies which use Acorn-based profiling, I liked the quiet subversion of this. One of the project team told me that some visitors had got quite angry when they started to understand the Acorn methodology and read their neighbourhood’s profile for the first time. There’s an interesting question about accountability of commercial organisations in here.

Illumination 3: TREE – a fantastic piece of graphic design by design student Daniel Foster-Smith which enables you, quickly, to ‘read’ how much resources a product consumes, how long it should last for, and how much of the materials are capable of being recycled and how much go to landfill.

TREE - sustainable product map

There are other great things here as well: the ‘necklace’ is effectively a linear park but a virtual one, while the Middlesbrough urban farming project is, I suspect, the shape of towns to come. My wife found the schools-based eco-challenge inspirational (the booklet of stories and case studies which was handed out at the exhibition doesn’t seem to be online yet).

John and the core team are continuing for a few months to ensure the project has a legacy in the area, but it wasn’t clear how long the website would remain extant. I hope it will be preserved as a resource for others interested in sustainable design; if One North East (the regional development agency) can’t do this, I’d hope that there’s an academic institution in the region which can mirror the site.

Finally, while checking links, I found a post by John Thackara on the ‘ten power laws’ of 21st century innovation from mid-2006 which seems to have underscored the practice of DOTT 07. The post is a little corrupted so I’ve re-posted the principles here:

Power Law 1: Don’t think “new product” – think social value.

Power Law 2: Think social value before “tech”.

Power Law 3: Enable human agency. Design people into situations, not out of them.

Power Law 4: Use, not own. Possession is old paradigm.

Power Law 5: Think P2P, not point-to-mass.

Power Law 6: Don’t think faster, think closer.

Power Law 7: Don’t start from zero. Re-mix what’s already out there.

Power Law 8: Connect the big and the small.

Power Law 9: Think whole systems (and new business models, too).

Power Law 10: Think open systems, not closed ones.

Other posts on DOTT 07: DOTT’s top design/sustainability books.