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How Quickly Can We Change Our Culture?

July 13, 2016
Precise glass objects made from sand and sun. The Solar Sinter was designed by Markus Kayser.

Precise glass objects made from sand and sun. The Solar Sinter was designed by Markus Kayser.

Post 7 in a Series on the 2016 Hay Festival

How can we respond to climate change or global inequality when we are locked into a culture of consumerism? Stop trying to solve problems and stop talking about doom, says designer Clare Brass. Martin Luther King did not say, “I have a nightmare.”

Instead of doom and gloom we should project positive future visions, she told a small audience at Hay Festival. Design is the key – designers can make innovations visible. Stop thinking about objects, start thinking about systems – systems like the Loowatt, the waterless toilets that seal waste in biodegradable film. They are now in use in Antananarivo, Madagascar. The waste is processed to produce biogas (to generate electricity) and fertiliser. Loowatts are now used at some music festivals in the UK because they are odourless and cleaner than ordinary toilets.

The Loowatt waterless toilet.

The Loowatt waterless toilet.

Clare Brass is head of SustainRCA, the sustainability programme of the Royal College of Art. Design can create magic, she says – like Markus Kayser’s Solar Sinter, a solar-powered machine that creates precise glass objects from sand. See it being tested in the Egyptian desert in this video.

Design is the key, she says. Rather than protesting against what governments are doing wrong, we need new narratives of what the future looks like. We should make possibilities visible, and designers are good at that.

Brass was one of three speakers at the session How Quickly Can We Change … Culture? Each of the speakers affirmed that we have changed our culture quickly many times before. Historian Molly Conisbee says we can learn about rapid transition from the past. She described how people responded to the unprecedented population growth and migration to the cities of the nineteenth century.

In the crowded cities, new ways of surviving developed. Tradesmen gave families credit to tide them over. There were localised credit schemes such as goose clubs and Christmas clubs arose and others that were privately run by women. Purchasing on tick, sometimes called ‘buying on trust’ became common. Assets could be temporarily turned into cash. For example the Sunday suit could be pawned on Monday and reclaimed before Church on Sunday.

Conisbee is not suggesting that we resurrect these old strategies. But, she says, this history can “challenge our relationship to stuff, and how we use and value it”. It also shows how quickly we can change. Conisbee’s talk at Hay is reproduced at this link.

David Boyle, from the New Weather Institute, spoke about another rapid historical change. At the beginning of the First World War, it was soon realised that Britain would run out of food. The government enacted a law that allowed any private unused land to be cultivated. The policy was implemented very quickly and led to a big increase in food production.

It’s a pity this excellent session did not attract a larger audience. It’s encouraging to know we have been able to change our culture quickly in the past, and exciting to see the “positive future visions” that designers and engineers can create.

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