No Single Project Is the Magic Acorn: How All Our Efforts are Working Together
No Single Project Is the Magic Acorn: How All Our Efforts are Working Together
By John Thackara and Tiziano Bonini /

My interview with Tiziano Bonini has ben published in Italian at Che Fara. Here is the English version:

Q Among the many case histories that you brilliantly discovered and reported in your book, is there someone that you believe is extremely central in planning the “tomorrow’s world”?

The sheer variety of projects and initiatives out there is, for me, the main story. No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty oak tree. We need to think more like a forest than a single tree! If you look at healthy forests, they are extremely diverse—and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world. These edge projects and networks, when you add them together, replace the fear that has so hampered the environmental movement. They tell a joyful new story about our place in the world. In contrast to a global economy that degrades the land, biodiversity and people it touches, these projects signal a growing recognition that our lives are codependent with the plants, animals, air, water, and soils that surround us.

Change in urban societies have always been associated with the work of urban planners, politicians, engineers and architects deploying a top-down strategy and mostly disregarding: 1) the central role of grassroots solutions “from below”; 2) the work of artists and designers; 3) good practices coming from non western societies. Your book gives a central importance to these three classes of people and societies to the future of the cities. To learn from the stories you tell in your book, western cities have to change the way they think about themselves and let grassroots movements, social activists, artists, designers co-produce and co-create the future of the cities. Is it possible?

When I meet with city planners or managers I like to start with two questions: “Do you know where your next lunch will come from?” and, “Do you know if that place is healthy or not?” These unexpected questions are a trigger to re-focus on the health of places that keep their city fed and watered. Within this novel framework, new opportunities for innovation emerge- such as urban farming. Innovation here is not much about high-tech control systems. It’s more about new ways to share resources, and collaborate to get the work done. New kinds of enterprise are needed, too: food co-ops, collective kitchens, community dining, edible gardens, new distribution platforms, different ways to share resources, and collaborate. These are all urban design opportunities.

You contribute to thinking about urban planning from the perspective of the designer and of the artist. What are the advantages of imagining the cities of tomorrow from these perspectives?

A The priority is not messages, or concepts, or plans. As Marcel Proust so memorably said “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes”. We need a new story of place, and artists are well-placed to help us tell it. The priority is to foster ecological empathy and richer connections between people and places. This is where art and storytelling come in. They can tweak our interest, redirect our attention, and start conversations in ways that hectoring communications never do.

Q Are you just proposing “degrowth” based solutions or a totally different way of growing based on a smarter usage of the commons? Is western society ready for what it seems a far more less individualistic society?

A A care-based economy, based on the commons, generates a form of wealth that a community looks after, through the generations. The idea embodies a commitment to ‘leave things better’ rather than extract value from them as quickly as possible – as happens now.

None of this is new, by the way. The commons goes back an awfully long way. It describes the way communities managed shared land in Medieval Europe. A care-based economy has existed throughout human history—looking after each other, and the land, in a multitude of ways, many of which don’t involve paid-for work.

Many people say we need to focus on solutions that scale, but to me that’s globalisation-thinking wearing a green coat. Every social and ecological context is unique, and the answers we seek will be based on an infinity of local needs.

Are the changes you have described in the book ready for a mass-adoption – or do we need first the endorsement and the effort of politicians and rulers?

A Transformational change is unfolding now – but for the most part quietly, and away from media and political attention. But in an age of networks, even the smallest actions can contribute to transformation of the system as a whole.

My impression as a writer – that change is already happening – is consistent with the way scientists explain how complex systems change – including economic and cultural ones. By their account, a variety of changes, interventions, disruptions, and oppositions accumulate across time until the system reaches a tipping point: then, at a moment that cannot be predicted, a small release of energy triggers a much larger release, or phase shift, and the system as a whole transforms.

The French philosopher Edgar Morin puts it beautifully: ‘All the great transformations have been unthinkable until they actually came to pass; the fact that a belief system is deeply rooted does not mean it cannot change.’

Q What are the ingredients for a city in order to be sustainable for its inhabitants?

A: Curiosity, and open-mindedness. All the solutions are out there.

When it comes to shelter and place making in these new times, a city’s primary resource is the energy and motivation of its inhabitants. Many functions and services previously provided by public institutions are being reinvented by an accumulation of individual initiatives in trade, housing and other public services.

The most important urban projects, for me, put the vitality of social end ecological systems at the top of the agenda. In planning terms, this translates into support for sites of social creativity: Maker spaces, recycling projects, craft breweries, bake houses, productive gardens, community kitchens, and the like. Every city needs a lot of these and other commons-based spaces.

In their business support programmes, cities need to focus on platform co-ops in which value is shared fairly with the people who make them valuable. “Value” here means shelter, transportation, food, mobility, water, elder care – the lot.

Q Where, to which kind of social groups, subcultures and societies we have to look for new emerging models of sustainable lifestyles?

A: The message I want to convey is that change is already happening. We are not starting from scratch here. So look around your community; there’s bound to be a program or project you’d like to get involved with. Change and innovation are no longer about finely crafted ‘visions’ and the promise of a better reality described in some grand design for some future place and time. Change happens when people reconnect – with each other, and with the biosphere – in rich, real-world, contexts.

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No Single Project Is the Magic Acorn: How All Our Efforts are Working Together