I’m writing this dispatch from Assisi, the small hill town in Umbria, central Italy, where I grew up and where my family still lives. Like everyone else these days, my physical contact with the outside world has been reduced to once-weekly shopping runs, and like everyone else, I feel a sense of disbelief seeing my home town as I had never seen it before, even on the coldest of winter nights – altogether emptied of life.In any other year, Assisi, the home of St. Francis – credited by many as the first patron of environmentalism, at least in modern Western culture – would be bustling with preparations for the new season and for the onslaught of tour buses, camper vans and overloaded station wagons the Easter break would bring. Instead the trattorie remain empty, the local specialities go uneaten, the city remains silent, and the masterpieces of medieval art and architecture so many travel so far to see go unvisited.This place, and this sense of open-ended, timeless suspension we all inevitably feel in these days, lend themselves to the contemplation – from the outside, as it were – of the conditions of life we define as ‘normality’. A word we hear frequently these days is ‘unprecedented’. But is what we are living truly unprecedented? If anything, one could argue that crisis is one of the few constants in human history, and the ability to overcome it is what defines our nature as a species. We are more inclined towards change by evolution than revolution, and human nature will always strive to turn crisis into a new beginning that builds on what came before. Assisi, with its basilicas, cathedrals and majestic frescoes by Cimabue, Giotto and Lorenzetti – the reason anyone comes here in the first place – are themselves the expression and the product of the emergence of a new model, a new culture, a new economy and a new civilisation following the implosion of an empire that once seemed indomitable. If an institution as mighty and impregnable as the Roman Empire succumbed under the weight of its own scale and complexity, making way for the distributed, agrarian economies of the Middle Ages, what makes us think our own reality is immune to crisis, and invulnerable to fundamental change?
As the historian and economist Michel Bauwens points out, the story of the Italian peninsula after the collapse of the Roman Empire is the story of a gradual transition, driven by the unsustainability of what had come before, from an economy of scale to an economy of scope. As the cities emptied out, and with it the knowledge system of urban libraries, wealthy patrons and elite academies, a new form of distributed knowledge centres and distributed economies emerged that would have been unthinkable for the Romans.
What, we may ask ourselves at this point, does this mean for us as designers? A good starting point would be a thorough re-reading of our Buckminster Fuller, who famously stated that most of his advances were made by mistake. ‘You discover what is when you get rid of what isn’t’, as he put it. History has imposed on us – temporarily at least – conditions unthinkable in the context of 21st-century life: skies without planes, cities without cars, a moratorium on frantic movement across the planet. I cannot speak for anyone else, but much of this I would gladly do without – or at least with less of – and as these weeks have proven, productivity can take a multiplicity of unexpected forms. The condition of lockdown is universally unpleasant, and for some much more unpleasant than for others, but it is also a rare opportunity to assess the price we have accepted to pay, often unwittingly, for certain privileges we consider indispensable. Do we want our streets to remain forever the domain of cars, or can we imagine a quieter city of people moving more slowly, breathing cleaner air, perhaps jogging up and down as the inhabitants do these days in the streets in front of their homes to exercise a little? Strategic designer and urbanist Dan Hill once defined the current urban paradigm as ‘the city that cars designed while we weren’t looking’ (Dan Hill, On the smart city, 2013). Well, now we are looking.
The real point here is that however many lessons we may care to learn in these days of lockdown, and however many alternative realities we care to imagine, very little can be built through individual action, other than to demand more of the kind of decisive action we are seeing these days on the part of our leadership. To take the question of our reliance on cars as an example, asking individuals to surrender the mobility they offer would involve an unsustainable level of sacrifice for most people living in a city that was designed by cars for cars. The problem is more complex than simply incentivising the use of public transport – it touches the very heart of the productive system that underpins our economy. Designers will be key in the construction of this new reality, but only if the level of ambition in our thinking is ramped up by several orders of magnitude. What is needed, and what these days offer us a window onto, is intervention on the level of the code underlying the city, as Dan Hill himself has argued – systemic, structural change that upends our current economy’s radical dependency on movement, reprioritising instead the self-sufficiency of neighbourhoods, removing the need to travel to survive, normalising other forms of interaction – all in the name of the collective interest.And this is where I see a true message of hope in the current conditions. It is estimated that approximately one quarter of humanity, maybe more, is presently living under lockdown, sacrificing its fundamental liberties for the sake of the common good. The sacrifice made by the poor, the weak and those dependent on others is immensely greater than for those privileged enough to be able to wait out the pandemic in comfort, but its universality nevertheless has little precedent as a demonstration of communal effort. What we can learn from this crisis is that in the face of clear and present danger, we are still capable, as a species, of collective mobilisation. And in terms of dangers presented, despite the almost unthinkable and still escalating loss of life, the present pandemic and the suffering it is causing pales by comparison to the escalating suffering wrought by another crisis which moves more slowly but threatens us far more fundamentally: the climate crisis. The conditions we have come to regard as necessary are no longer conducive to life, and now is the moment to consider what we are actually going to do about it.
We are all aware, deep down, that our current model exists in an equilibrium as tenuous as the Roman Empire circa 545 AD. Deep down we know it is destined to change, and that whether by choice or by force of circumstance there is a new world to be built. Collective mobilisation will be necessary, and sacrifices will need to be made. It will not be sufficient, let alone morally justifiable, to externalise the costs of this transformation onto the weak, poor and those we cannot see or hear. But if we are sufficiently ambitious, the reward will be worth it. We’ve done it before.