Reset#5 Dan Hill: Slowdown-Reimagining the Infrastructures of Everyday life

Thursday 5 August 2021 4:00 to 6:00 pm Bradley Forum (H5-02), Hawke Building, City West Campus

Dan Hill is Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency. A designer and urbanist, his previous leadership roles include Arup, Future Cities Catapult, Fabrica, SITRA and the BBC. He’s lived and worked in UK, Australia, Finland, Italy and Sweden. Dan is Professor at Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and Design Academy Eindhoven, and Adjunct Professor at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is a member of the UN Council on Urban Initiatives, a Design Advocate for the Mayor of London, and a Trustee of Participatory City Foundation.

The global events of the last 18 months, from Covid to BLM to bushfires, have shattered many assumptions about everyday life. Yet the fundamental questions so awkwardly thrown onto the table by the pandemic run deeper than these events, and concern far greater long-running challenges framed around crises of climate, health and social justice. Equally, these shifts in living patterns may also be a harbinger of ‘slowdown’ dynamics, driven by decreasing global population growth, diminished productivity, and slowing technological innovation—and the need to recalibrate economics.

What patterns might be forming amidst all this chaos? What are the new forms of cities and places that can be imagined under these conditions? What new patterns and practices of everyday life could emerge, finally addressing these so-called wicked problems? How might new technologies and social infrastructures suggest participative and regenerative relationships with nature and human nature?

In this talk, Dan drew from the thinking shared in his Slowdown Papers series, but also from his project work all over the world, as a designer at SITRA’s Helsinki Design Lab, at Arup in Australia, Europe, and the US, and most recently with Vinnova in Sweden, where he is forging design-led place-based missions to help reimagine streets, public space and food systems. Dan also drew from his significant experience in Australia, exploring how these ideas might connect to current and future cities and cultures. Dan ended by describing how Sweden, and the European Commission, is approaching the New European Bauhaus programme, a leading edge of the Green Deal oriented around sustainability, aesthetics and inclusion.

From an incredibly rich talk we might focus three aspects.

The first is Slowdown itself, a term which Dan was using before the serendipitous arrival of Danny Dorling’s book Slowdown, about the end of the ‘great acceleration’. Sustainability may not be compatible with growth at all, or at least entail different forms of growth—slow growth, or organic growth, or growth of what, to what end?—thus radically challenging our ideas of what ‘growth’ might even mean. The recent IPCC report on climate change and a KPMG director’s recent recalculation of 1972 Limits to Growth are the most recent in a long line of warnings that Business as Usual is not possible. Dan’s talk discussed this in terms of our ‘urban imaginary’, that is, how we imagine the future city and the kinds of technologies what will work with, rather than against, existing earth systems. Some of these urban issues will be explored in Reset #6, on the ‘creative city’. The cultural sector, particularly through the lens of ‘creative industries’ has been deeply implicated in this growth scenario (see Scott Ludlam’s Reset#5 talk). What would a deliberate ‘slow growth’ or ‘slowdown’ scenario for art and culture look like?

The second relates to the New European Bauhaus project, a creative and interdisciplinary movement that seeks to connect the European Green Deal to living spaces phrased as “beautiful, sustainable, together”. Dan expands this into three organising terms: sustainability, inclusion, aesthetics. Most would have no problem with ‘sustainability’ and ‘inclusion’. The various iterations of Green New Deal in the US, EU and Xi Jinping’s recent version, all emphasise de-carbonisation and an emphasis on services and infrastructure (so too the KPMG report and others). But ‘aesthetics’?

The association with Bauhaus would give license to ‘design’, this term has expanded to mean any form of strategic planning or contracted to mean the surface appeal of the object, which may or may not be connected to its usage. The Bauhaus sought to combine industrial design and architecture with aesthetics, not as commercial ‘allure’ but as giving expression to the kind of civilisation we seek to be. This can be found in Herbert Read’s 1935 tribute to the Bauhaus, ‘Art and Industry’: Art is always the index of social vitality, the moving finger that records the destiny of a civilization. A wise statesman should keep an anxious eye on this graph, for it is more significant than a decline in exports or a fall in the value of a nation’s currency.

This kind of thinking is foreign to us now, but versions of it inspired much of the most meaningful and enduring architecture and urban design in the last two centuries. Dan quotes his Swedish colleague Kieran Long, director of ArkDes, the Swedish national centre for architecture and design: It is architecture and design’s task to give form to a societal idea (like justice) through the creation of a setting for people to encounter that idea (like a courthouse). We see in our public buildings and spaces (our park benches and metro trains; a hot dog kiosk and a monument to the dead) what we are made of. Design can not avoid this assignment - it either embraces the task, or it unwittingly displays, or even conceals, society’s prejudices and weaknesses.

Although public spaces are often defined as if questions of engineering, by urban planning cultures, this reveals that they are not only for the use of the public but that they express the values we share in common, and in turn shape those values. The material forms through which we seek to shape and express common values is what we mean by aesthetic. This is not the ‘beaux arts’ tradition of 19th century ‘city beautiful’ architecture, and more than the ‘form=function’ of the Bauhaus. We expect a much more participatory approach to the design of public space. Dan quoted Swedish designer Sandi Hilal, that you can’t have true public space without the public in it, and co-producing it.

Public space is also a digital platform, just as it is part of a wider ‘metabolism’ of energy, materials and finance as in Scott Ludlam’s account. It is also an articulation of politics, of the cultures of decision-making that frame our everyday patterns of living. The aesthetic challenge here is very much that of our own age.

Third, Dan brought back Raymond Williams into the conversation. Reset have been concerned with the ‘foundational economy’ (see Reset#3) which includes infrastructure – often conceived as utilities, roads, cables and waste management. But the built and natural environment is also infrastructure; not just as technical-reliance systems, but as the ‘everyday infrastructure’ through which we live our ‘ordinary’ lives. In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams “writes about how the ordinary around us is actually far from ordinary. It is conjured, in precisely the same way that art is. We can look for ordinary within extra-ordinary, and vice versa”.

“Everything we see and do, the whole structure of our relationships and institutions, depends, finally, on an effort of learning, description and communication. We create our human world as we have thought of art being created. “ — Raymond Williams (1961)

This takes us back to art and everyday life, not as a social service – delivering to social welfare, health, educational, corrective or other social objectives – but as essential to who we are and how we live together. To think the everyday, the build environment, that formation of infrastructures must be a creative act, expressive of our common values.