Hands in the Soil

Dan Hill

Director of Strategic Design, Vinnova
Professor, Oslo School of Architecture and Design
Visiting Professor of Practice, UCL Institute for Innovation
and Public Purpose
Visiting Professor, Design Academy Eindhoven

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Rereading my contribution—Tilling the soil—from last year’s CfC symposium is a little disconcerting. During the pandemic, time has become unusually strange, seeming to both fly by—with a decade’s worth of change in a year, for instance—and grind to a halt, playing out in tiny loops of mundanity.

I’m still sitting in the same house in Stockholm, having visited the office only once in the past 12 months. The night is still “momentarily dark” around midnight, as Swedish midsummer approaches. Grimly, I’m still keeping my own spreadsheet of daily COVID fatalities reported in Sweden (probably something I should have stopped many months ago, but I’m nothing if not obsessive). I’m still scrolling through news dominated by the pandemic, consuming podcasts and essays, and now also books that, given a theoretically slower format, should afford a little more critical remove (though we’re probably all still thinking that it’s too early to draw conclusions about much
at all).

Yet, a year ago, I believed we might need to learn from real-time events, with the clear imperative to engage and prepare the ground for what comes next. Like many, I was trying to convey that this episode—“The one where we all got the novel coronavirus”—is some kind of terrible warm-up for the true crises still brewing and quietly converging before hitting every one of us with devastating force.

We were also witnessing the largest civil rights demonstrations in decades—perhaps ever—playing out in the same streets that the virus had temporarily cleared. That most news coverage of this powerful work has, unconscionably, eased up shows how quickly dominant cultures can snap back—or be snapped back.

But we cannot allow that to happen, whether it concerns Black Lives Matter or the lessons to be drawn from COVID-19. These are not developments to be forgotten, to blithely sidestep as if escaping a glancing blow. We need to drag ourselves back to these scenes, fixing our gaze on them no matter how uncomfortable it makes us—or perhaps because it is uncomfortable.

In that sense, the thoughts I contributed a year ago were my own notes taken at the scene. I was exploring the difference between a rapid emergency response, to be carefully folded away for next time, and what might be structural shifts in the ways we imagine society. Underneath this, those notes dwell on the sudden and visceral reframing of the metaphors we live by, a radical exposure of assumptions hiding in plain sight—which we call common sense.

For instance, we can’t simply “follow the science,” as then-president of the Royal Society Venki Ramakrishnan pointed out, as that, too, is framed by ideology, no matter how much we pretend it is impervious to human foibles. From a practical point-of-view, we might keep coming back to shifts in the language around ambiguity, uncertainty and what Donella Meadows called “the humility of Not Knowing.”

Equally, there’s the sense that events are not enough, but that the patterns in the dust that they kick up still feel vital, fervent, inventive and exploratory no matter how much they remain removed from the core mindsets framing administrations and institutions. During this extraordinary year, there was a lot of talk of universal basic infrastructures, of care and repair cultures, of genuine participation, of reconciling with and truly learning from indigenous peoples, of a “more-than-human” understanding that we are part of nature, not separate from it.

And some of that spaghetti has stuck to the wall, as it were—at least to some degree. As Timothy Morton suggests, we don’t yet have the words for all this so it’s no surprise that some proxies stick while others don’t. Yet the sense of these new cultures is felt, whether or not our words have caught up. (And rest assured, we will find words. We’re quite good at that, at least.)

As the year unfolded with its strange time warp, I kept going back to Danny Dorling’s work on slowdown: his careful presentation of the slowing rates of population growth, technological innovation, productivity and, well, pretty much everything else. My work is largely oriented around cities and places, and Dorling’s data presents tectonic shifts in the assumptions that have been propping up urban development over the past decades.

During the pandemic, cities like London and New York have shed hundreds of thousands of residents. Fundamental patterns of retail, office work, housing and urbanity may likely be changed forever. This isn’t so bad in many cases since previously they were largely unsustainable, unhealthy, unequal and often unethical. But it really depends on what we do next. And that depends on whether we actually wrestle with Dorling’s questions rather than simply poring over the symptoms.

Yet it seems clear that many still don’t have language for this new terrain just yet—or even much interest in exploring it. In the past couple of months, I’ve read The Guardian reporting on China’s declining birth rate and the New York Times on the population growth in the US falling to the second slowest rate since the government started counting in 1790 (described as a “remarkable slackening” over the past decade). In both cases, the reporting was so superficial that it overlooked Dorling’s work, meaning that declining population growth was framed only as an economic disaster, with little sense of the diversity of possibilities and nuance these trends portend. But if these journalists had read only a few paragraphs of Slowdown, the attendant ideologies would be vividly exposed and quite different sets of possible futures would swing into view—ones that are neither utopian nor dystopian per se yet rich with fertile ground nonetheless.

In his extraordinary novel The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson defines ideology as “an imagined relationship to a real situation.” As befits a novelist, that is a concise yet deliciously rich and fecund turn of phrase, and the emphasis on imagination feels profoundly useful. Imagining relationships is one thing humans can be pretty good at—if we let ourselves.

As we live through year two of the pandemic the “situation” is indeed all too real. But our relationships to it and how we imagine them—through our lives and action—will determine what situations can occur next, what we grow from this soil. So just as with COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter, our relationship to the slowdown—imagined as threat or possibility—remains in our hands. And if we dig in, within that soil, different futures can be sown, nurtured, tended, worked over into new shared rituals of everyday life.