Article: Gardening towards the symbiocene – Dutch Design Week

By Linsey Rendell


In In-depth article published on the Dutch Design Week website.

If we want to enable our planet to thrive, we must change the ways we work, collaborate and fund now. So what if everything we design is an opportunity for reciprocity? Linsey Rendell is one of the five Creative Voices selected to both preview and review Dutch Design Week 2023 (DDW23) from their own, unique perspectives. Through an Open Call, international creatives were invited to reflect on current issues and the role designers can play in them. The programme narratives Linsey was asked to review for Dutch Design Week are Product & Craft Design-perspective and the Enabling our Thriving Planet-mission. In her essay Gardening towards the symbiocene, Linsey Rendell explores ways of designing places and economies to enable planetary flourishing. What do we really need to live? We all need food, we all need water, we all need air to breathe, we all need to urinate, we all need sleep. We need access to green spaces and access to information. We need human touch. Clothing for our bodies and shelter from the weather. Ways to process our waste, including our expired bodies. We need bees, wind, worms, topsoil, ocean, trees. We need joy, gratitude, pleasure, and hope. We need relationships. We need a flourishing Earth. What we have is an economy that centres scarcity, extraction, and the presumption of endless growth at the cost of human and ecological life. To enable our planet to thrive, we need systems, infrastructures and landscapes that centre collective well-being within planetary boundaries. How can the ways we design grow an economy of radical renewal? How can we move away from product design for profit to design that produces healthy entanglements between people and place? As we prod these murky intersections, what will we compost? What will we water? And what do we need in the transient in-between? What will we compost? We’re composting ego and ownership. And we’re dissolving illusions of human exceptionalism. ‘We try to own nature and fight over it through money, borders, boundaries, and maps in the language we have defined,’ Jimin Hong narrates in Possession to Nature. ‘But from nature’s perspective, such language does not exist.’ We’re composting unchecked exploitation. Like people, non-human entities are not an object or tool to use, but as real as you are. The changing climate tells us excessive consumption isn’t an option. So we’re composting capitalism too. ‘I’m really inspired by post-growth pleasure and degrowth,’ spatial designer Marte Mei says. ‘I think first, we need to understand what enough means and try to slow down growth, so there’s more space for innovation.’ Rather than designing for planned obsolescence, we could design to support planetary well-being. Yet, in a time of intersecting crises and multiple immediate needs, how might we calm the storm of urgency and scarcity so that design does more than do less harm? What if we learn to give space to the moment so that attention to the present also contributes to a better future? A commentary on human’s lack of focus on what we really need to live, Carys Higgins’ Gone Fishing highlights how fishing has become about the products one can buy to enable fishing or wear while fishing — only to catch and release. In this context, to fish is a sport, an escapism hobby at the fish’s expense, rather than for survival or nourishment. Rather than expiring crafts and expiring species, how might fishing communities give back to the fish’s environment so they thrive, and we do too? ‘A group of withy pot makers from Cornwall told me they are working with the local council to acquire land where they can grow and harvest willow locally,’ Carys says. ‘In this case, the task of fixing environmental issues — such as overfishing with plastic nets — does not need a new innovative solution but a revival of systems that were previously in place. For half of the year, they harvest and make withy pots, and for the other half, they use those pots to fish.’ What will we water? We’re seeding site-specific interventions that recognise, mend, and cultivate surrounding relationships. And we’re watering those interdependencies. What if we shift our perspective to approach ‘need’ from multiple identities, including the non-human? Marte Mei’s Land-Ally methodology nudges open the how of multispecies collaboration. ‘I try to see the role of the designer — or the human in general — as one of allyship,’ Marte says. ‘So, how do you relate to a river? How do you give it space to be itself or to be heard without anthropomorphising?’ Will Water Want explores the possibility of the Dommel river to be a stakeholder in how to develop KnoopXL, an urban zone around Eindhoven’s central station. ‘There’s a lot of commodification towards natural resources of non-human entities,’ Marte says. ‘Historically, the Dommel has been seen as a way to dump waste or an obstacle that’s in people’s way; never something that could have a say in decision-making. So the project was trying to open the doorway for the municipality to acknowledge a river as an entity that can make decisions. I also found that not many people have an intimate relationship with it. So how can I make a piece that invites intimacy, that invites a deeper relationship?’ To raise the voice of the Dommel and invite connection, Marte created two tools for the river to communicate through. Glass objects interact with the Dommel’s fluctuating water level, while a series of aluminium pipes enable people to listen to the sound the water makes as it flows past. ‘In my research, I discovered that there actually is almost nothing the river can say or express in a physical sense — in terms of taking space, claiming space, making its own pathway. The water is extremely regulated. There’s a big latch that regulates how much water goes in and out through the city. There are stone borders on each side, so there’s no way that the river can create a shape. These two tools that I created are playing into the only sense of agency that the river can still communicate, which is — when a lot of rain falls, the water level rises.’ Quietening the human What might our future urban environments look like if we design with, rather than despite, local non-human inhabitants? What does design that is led by processes of multispecies collaboration look, feel, sound like? ‘The first step in my design methodology is to create a relationship to a place,’ Marte says. ‘It’s a very physical first step. It’s just literally me spending time on the location, observing. I draw species that I see or things that become notable when in the location — sounds or sound pollution. I’m trying to become as silent as possible as a human and to really sit at a place and dissolve into that area.’ ‘And then I create an interdisciplinary group of people around me with expertise around this entity. So the methodology starts very tangible, instinctive, and intuitive, and then slowly it becomes more rational and practical.’ Listening and learning with the more-than-human is a process that many human stakeholders could engage with towards multiple desired outcomes. For citizens, giving attention to non-human entities invites stillness in a busy world and increases our sensitivity to who is here and our possible impact on them, which may shift everyday life. For policymakers, this emerging realm invites fertile collaborations for how to shape a resilient city. And it humbles the responsibility of governing lands and people — we don’t need all the answers; there are teachers all around.

‘Why I see a positive shift towards seeing non-human entities as stakeholders is because [the municipality] did create space for this project,’ Marte says. ‘They invited for it. They allowed a workshop with the people who will design that space. They spent two hours of their day really trying to imagine: okay, what if we designed the space differently? A relatively small municipality like Eindhoven already trying to inject this into their decision-making about neighbourhoods makes me really hopeful it will be normalised in the next ten years.’ Building place-based communities German cultural anthropologist Werner Krauss expressed that ‘landscapes are never passive — they are inseparably bound up with the identity of the people that inhabit, shape and administer them’. And so, one answer to how will us-two begin might be inter-being where we are, in place, in community. What is here? Who is here? What do we know? What do we need to know? What are the problems and challenges here? How will we live now? Conspiring (to plot/to breathe together) with rights of nature innovations like The Embassy of the North Sea and the zoöp model, Radha D’Souza and Jonas Staal’s The Intergenerational Climate Crimes Act shares a framework — in the form of legislation — for how design can support our transition from market-based to place-based communities. It illustrates a future — and present, if we’re willing — where an inclusive society extends beyond the human; where fish and wallabies and frogs and fossils are comrades in our shared struggle against extinction. It formed part of The space between us, which asked: what skills and habits should we keep or let go of in order to live together in a good way? What do we need to (un)learn to live together with differences? The wider work, The Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes, ‘reimagines institutions and judiciary processes in a way that decentres the human species, instead making place for place-based communities,’ curator Fabienne Chiang says. ‘There is a wonderful quote in D’Souza’s book What’s Wrong with Rights?’: ‘Land is, quintessentially, a relationship. Land is not a thing. It is a bond that ties people to nature and to each other. Land is the glue that holds people and nature together to form places.’ Products towards the symbiocene What if everything we design is an opportunity for reciprocity and a contribution to the systems that support us? ‘Creating or assembling regenerative products, and then making a regenerative retail concept, is very idealistic,’ says Nadia Troeman, program manager at the Nieuwe Instituut. ‘We’ve all had some difficulty wrapping our heads around what regenerative means — what it means for humans and non-humans, and how regenerative can a product actually be? We still don’t really know yet.’ New Store rethinks the concept of the ‘product’ and questions whether production and consumption could benefit rather than harm the environment. It imagines a future beyond consumption as pleasure, and accumulation as social capital. While the concept is exciting and provocative, the reality is complicated. ‘Making something fully regenerative means that from the material onwards, it needs to be grown in a certain way, it needs to be harvested in a certain way, it needs to be hyper-local,’ Nadia says. ‘Though designers are touching upon these ways of working, many are still situated in the context of recycling, upcycling, circularity, and sustainability — which are all valid and essential. So we decided we’re going to start with what’s there now and then work together to see how far we can get in the regenerative production process.’ The project recognises that our current economy is dominated by capitalism and works within that construct, proposing purchasable products as well as testing alternative forms of exchange. The aim is to create a business model and open a physical store at the Nieuwe Instituut. ‘One ambition is to see if we can make this a working system in the real world, to see if that would function,’ Nadia says. ‘I don’t yet know how eager people are to pay for these things. Because it really is all about money. It is all about comfort. It is all about wanting things now and not needing to wait a year for the table you ordered.’ Yet by experimenting in the open, New Store creates a platform for people to playfully engage with what it might look and feel like to give something to receive something or participate in community-based exchanges — making these shifts safe, tangible, and transparent. So how did it go? ‘We were a bit hesitant that the theme might be difficult to grasp, and it really wasn’t,’ Nadia says. ‘People were very enthusiastic, so that was great to realise. One of the first participants for the Piss Soap project was an elderly lady walking with a cane. She was the first to say, give me a cup; I'll do it.’ Navigating the in-between We are all approaching change from different knowledges, experiences, perspectives, abilities, needs, priorities and desires. We need all approaches to move beyond the present anthropocentric ego-system into a future symbiocene, where humans and non-humans live and thrive together in mutually beneficial relationships. Perhaps regenerative products are still too hazy to know deeply. Beyond theorising regenerative processes and systems from the margins, design enables us to rehearse these design futures. In ‘testing by doing’ — as Nadia specifies of Nieuwe Instituut’s way of working — we could bring shape to how we might do products, do design, do the human otherwise. ‘I believe that there are many ways to (un)learn, but to do so through the body, through action and participation, is one of the most effective ways. Fabienne Chiang And perhaps sometimes we need tools to help us see. For Gaia, How Are You Today?, Yufei Gao 3D-printed 92 terracotta pots where the day’s weather data defines the form. As temperature, humidity and wind speeds diverge from their averages, the pot’s shape bends and collapses. It’s tech that socialises nature — creating interfaces that activate seeing, remembering, knowing. To enable our planet to thrive, more work, collaboration, funding, and change needs to happen, sooner rather than later. To navigate the in-between and arrive at exchanges that enable multispecies flourishing, we must garden and reconfigure what, how, and why we design, and practise change in the open together. ‘Right now, giving space back to non-humans and consuming less feels like a sacrifice to people, but it doesn’t have to be,’ Marte says. ‘To go to a place of ecological healing, we need to accept that better, in our case, will actually mean less. Better will mean thriving ecologically. I think that is the biggest shift that will need to happen for consumers, for designers, for governments.’ Linsey Rendell is an Australian writer and editor living in London. She currently works with re:arc institute, a philanthropic initiative supporting architecture(s) of planetary well-being.