Eindhoven Design Academy. Design Symposium: the Design Paradox

This talk was presented at the Eindhoven Design Academy Symposium: The Design Paradox, the 29th October 2015.


After a short introduction, I will present the cleanweb and the research and design work I’m doing in the area. I will then outline the perspective I have taken to understand the tension between Thing and Nothing: a psychological perspective where attention plays a key role in constructing Thing, the foreground, against Nothing, the background. In the third part, I will look at the challenge of transitioning a society that is fundamentally based on an exploitative, extractive relationship with nature to a society that is more respectful and has a two-way “giving and taking” relationship with nature – what I like to think of as a regenerative relationship. I will argue that design has a fundamental role to play in exploring and proposing new meanings that redefine the frontier between what is being attended to and what is not: between Thing and Nothing. I will illustrate my argument with a few examples drawn from the cleanweb discovery platform we are building: IYWTo, now in beta at beta.iywto.com.


Thank you for the invitation to provide some food for thought to the Design Symposium. I am a great admirer of yours and was very keen to visit the Eindhoven Design Academy and feel the spirit. My proxy is every year in April in Milan where one of my favourite visits is to your space, even now that it is at the far end of the Ventura area in Lambrate. A long walk always rewarded by very good discoveries, provocations and conversations with the designers.

In my work, I’m exploring the cleanweb: “as a way of creating new connections between the community and the environment through the web”. My objective is to harness these connections so as to accelerate the emergence across society of new attitudes and behaviours that are more respectful of the environment, that is, they reduce direct and indirect greenhouse gases emissions, primarily CO2, and resource depletion.

beta.iywto.com - landing page on 30.10.15

The approach I have taken is through making. We are building a web app, called iywto, that works as a discovery platform and a hub where people, actively engaged in the transition, exchange innovations, experiences and ideas. Working with a lean team, we have structured the problem space into six core areas (Energy, Food, Habitat, Mobility, Things, Water); built a database of over 300 digital products and services that help to live more sustainably; and a very simple interface to discover, try out, share, review and comment. After six months of very intense work, we are now opening the platform up to more start-ups, more groups and associations, schools and universities.

The purpose of what we are doing is to accelerate innovation and adoption by offering a platform where people who are looking for ways to live more sustainably can easily discover new products and services to do so; where start-ups can present their products and services and engage into a productive dialogue with citizens to make their products and services better; and finally cities and local councils can learn about, assess and compare solutions for the local problems they want to solve, going beyond what their traditional suppliers offer.

Let’s now turn to the second topic and frame the tension between Thing and Nothing. The perspective I’ve taken to discuss the tension is psychological – from the perspective of an individual – and is essentially grounded on attention. I take that Thing is what is attended to and Nothing is where attention wanders freely. Let’s take a simple example to explain this movement:

Think of a beautiful night, in the summer, it’s the first week of August, you are sitting outside and the stars are glowing, your attention keeps drifting from embracing as much of the starry sky as possible and focusing on stars, planets, satellites, dots traveling through the sky. You ask: Is this Venus? Is that moving dot an airplane? Or is it a satellite?.… But what you really want to see is a comet and its meteor shower; and make a wish…).

When looking at the way we interact and construe the world around us, we are inevitably at the intersection between perception, action, language and culture. From a perceptual angle, seeing a thing is about closing a shape by shifting attention between focus on the closed shape in the foreground and the background around it, while attending to the surroundings intermittently to detect early signals of new candidate things emerging and events happening. But giving substance to a Thing, is also embedding it into a course of action in relation to one’s goals, what the thing affords

Remember how many ATMs you came across on your way to the Academy today; tomorrow morning leaving your house give yourself the goal of getting some money and arrived at the Academy, do the same exercise. You are likely to recall many more ATMs

It is also embedding the Thing into the culture one inhabits. Giving a name to a thing is framing it in a particular language

Think of the 65 words Hawaiians have for describing fishing nets

with all the associated meanings that each of these words carries. From a cultural perspective, it is about classification of things according to shared categories and pre-defined conventions. But most importantly seeing, touching, naming generate narratives, memories, emotions and conversations:

Think of the often quoted example from the pragmatic literature. At a dinner party, a guest asks: “Can I have the pepper?” but nobody answers “Yes, you can”. As an answer, someone will pass the pepper

Within any cultural system, we are constrained by frameworks of interpretation and meanings that set the boundaries of what is Thing and what is Nothing. The problem with the transition to a low-carbon, regenerative society is that we need to transform quite fundamentally our reference system, to redesign the boundaries of what is Thing and what is Nothing. Here are some examples of how the cleanweb enables this transformation. 

Out of sight, out of mind. In our urban affluent society, waste is a kind of Nothing. We tend to ignore it, we tend to hide it. Services like Streetbank, eReuse and many others put the focus of attention back to waste and help to make it available to others, individuals or communities: electronic devices tools, clothes we are not using anymore and have stored in some cupboard. Services like FareShare collect surplus food from restaurants, hotels or canteens and deliver it to charities that transform it into warm meals for people in need. Winnow transforms restaurants’ waste bin into a food waste tracking and management device.

Out of the blue. There is a Thing in our surroundings, but what comes before is a kind of Nothing. We don’t know what materials go into the production of artefacts we use in everyday life. Fairphone, the sustainable smartphone organisation, is a journey that starts with setting the conditions in which the metals necessary to manufacture the smartphone are mined, continues with the sourcing of recycled plastics and components, then moves to China and sets the labour conditions where the assembly takes place, managing along the way the environmental and human impact of logistics and transport. The journey end with delivering a product that is modular and that customers can easily upgrade, repair, repurpose and recycle. Apps like the Virtualwater,  or Metro Pro Trace, give visibility on the water, materials and energy used to manufacture products. Services like Farmdrop connect directly with the farmer and the fruits, vegetables and groceries available at that time of year.

Materiality is taken for granted. Thing is not what is attended to. Service is. Here the focus of attention moves away from Thing and ownership  and goes to the benefit it delivers. Rent luggage is a service that delivers luggage, like suitcases, ski cases or other special containers for the duration of a vacation or a trip. Blablacar is a ride sharing service where people who are going from A to B offer, for a fee, the seats they have spare. Things, like the pieces of luggage or the car are transient. The benefit that they deliver – carrying my stuff or myself from A to B – is what matters.

Materiality is rediscovered. Utilities, such as electricity or water, are taken for granted, apart during exceptional circumstances. They are Nothing in the sense of things we do not attend do. But now with solar energy and water shortage they become Things: solar panels, inverters, home batteries, water tanks.  There are many cleanweb services dedicated to solar energy: evaluating, planning, financing, managing, distributing. Fewer are dedicated to water, but most have the same structure.

I hope I have convinced you of two things: 1. that the change our society needs to go through to transition to a regenerative way of living is a massive cultural challenge, that need a radical redefinition of our frames of reference; 2. that the movement from material to immaterial; from product to service is by-directional: Thing becomes Nothing and Nothing becomes Thing.