Insights / Societal Transformation
”We’re moving from the world of small-scale experiments to large-scale transitions”
On the deep-code transformation required to solve our planetary-scale problems
4 Oct 2022

Who are you?

— I’m Indy Johar from Dark Matter Labs, I’m an architect looking at the scale of the transition we face over the next ten years.

During Helsinki Design Week, you held a keynote during the seminar Design and the City: Learnings from a 10-Year Journey. What did you talk about?

— What I was trying to lay out was the nature of the transition that we face which I think is relatively unique:

1. I think what’s very clear is that we have a planetary-scale problem.
2. What’s also very clear is that this requires a deep-code transformation into our very ideas of self, ideas of how we exist with the world, how we relate to the world, and how we relate to each other.
3. The speed and scale of what’s required is of an order and magnitude that’s more equivalent to the transition of the World War. And I think that everything is going to change; our energy systems, our material systems, our food systems, our nutrient systems — all the way through to how we make decisions as societies in a complex, emergent world. We’re at the apex of that transformation, says Johar.

And, when people approach you after you’ve held your keynotes, what’s the response you hear from them?

— My keynote and talks are always evolving, and what’s different, I think, is two big things:

— First, I think we can legitimately start to talk about the ’planetary scale’ of the challenge — I couldn’t talk about that 6 months ago.

— The second thing that’s becoming very clear is the quantum and the scale of the challenge we’re facing — the nature of what is now receiveable by society has changed. And what’s very clear is that we’re moving from the world of small-scale experiments to large-scale transitions. And not large as in centralised in positions but large as in micro-massive, where millions of small things happen simultaneously in response. Our transition strategies aren’t going to be centralised impulse systems, but micro-massive swarms of interventions that we’re going to have to create new capabilities to build, almost like a new, emergent capability rather than top-down in positional capabilities. It’s a new response which I think is recognised because we don’t have the coordinative, centralised anti-democratic systems in the world to be able to impose change. We don’t have the capacity to do that, we don’t have the control capacity, and I think that is going to be one of the big revolutions.

Have you thought about the reason why you couldn’t talk about that half a year ago?

— I could say it, but I don’t think that anyone would hear me, while now, people are starting to hear it. So, there are three phases of transition, we’re moving from globalised markets to a geopolitical organisation which is self-interested and then we have to go planetary. If we don’t go from geopolitics to planetary, we don’t make it as a civilisation — all the numbers are pretty evident.

— And that’s not just even the climate change effects. If we’re going to wars, multiple wars are kicking off as a result of resource wars that will also self-terminate us. There’s an imperative now to go from a geopolitical to a planetary conversation in a new way and that’s going to require a different scale of intervention — at the ground as well as at the planetary scale. And I use the word ’planetary’ rather than ’world’ or ’globe’ because I don’t think it’s just about a decision of the level of human systems but a human-machine ecological system, that’s being reconfigured on that sort of planetary scale.

You also mentioned the war in Ukraine as the first ’war of resources’.

— Yes, Syria was the first ’climate change war’ in history, as we saw climate-change effects, and agri-cultural patterns that drive population bases into urban environments. They destabilise these urban environments and, as part of that regime, drive some of the vast movements of human beings around the world. I think Ukraine is now the crystallisation of resource wars as we reach the framework of effective resources becoming strategic weaponizable devices. As we move from the markets to geopolitics, then resources become geopolitical weapons. And that’s what we’re starting to see; system-scale wars which are no longer about just artillery but actually information systems, food systems, energy systems — and all these systems are being weaponized. And we have to start to think about that as a new theatral war and we are starting to see that happen globally, so this is just the beginning. But like I say, I think this is the thing that shows us that we have to find a new, great peace. We have to discover a new great peace of the planetary scale and that is an evolution of human civilisation to operate the planetary scale, and that is a face shift in humanity.

The keynote also addressed what role the cities can play. Can you examine it?

— For me, cities are the point of the crisis. If you look at CO2 production or externality production, cities are the source of it, and simultaneously, cities are where the human capital exists to reinvent it. Their resource impact flows as well as input flows are generated by cities. So, cities have to not be defined by the red line boundary of the city but by the metabolic flows of the cities, the in-and output flows and how we shift them becomes key responsibility of the city. I think the future is going to be deeply imagined in cities right now. It’s gonna have to be in those locations — for that is both the situational convergence point of the poly crisis and the point source of our crisis, that’s where we are. And we don’t have the material resources to effectively unbundle or reimagine that. We’re going to have to find a great transition of our cities into a new way. And what’s really important is that our cities were designed for predictability, physical health, and other things, but they were not designed for mental health, nor designed for noise pollution, air pollution, sound pollution, and the cognitive human environments for your growth and development. They are designed for pollution — all those invisible — so we’re living in a massively micro-polluted environment in terms of information pollution, air pollution, sound pollution, smells, and all those things. I think we have to transform our cities to be able to accommodate this next human development round.

Can we also feel optimistic about the future?

— The pathway to optimism is clear, which is that as a civilisation, we’re going to move to a planetary civilisation and that means human-machine ecological systems, building a new capability at a planetary scale and that’s almost a planetary-scale consciousness that’s emerging. We are starting to become self-aware of our impacts on the planet, and that self-awareness through satellite technology and other things allows us to mitigate our impacts. We’re now starting to operate at a planetary scale as a civilisation. And I think that is a transcendence of human civilisation — we’re in an arch of a new position and a new theory of how we relate to the planet. And it could be argued that we’re in the moment of trying to discover how to bypass the Fermi paradox, which is the paradox where we don’t see thousands or millions of civilisations in the universe because they don’t understand how to go from competitive theory of evolution to collaborative theory of evolution at a planetary scale. And that maybe is one of the key paradoxes of civilisation development and we are in the middle of trying to make that transition. And that I think is an extraordinary thing.

And who plays the bigger part here? The political leaders or you and I?

— I think it’s and. The political leaders are trapped as much by the Overton Windows (a model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and influence politics, Ed’s note) that they are held in. So this has to be a human development transition. The industrial revolution was facilitated by the educational revolution. We’re going to have to look at a new human development revolution as a key part of our transition to a new planetary civilisation. It’s a mutual story rather than an exclusive story. And I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for us — this is not about just energy or materials, but our human development capabilities and reimagining them to exist in a planetary framework, says Johar. He adds:

— It’s also about challenging languages. I keep using the word ’planetary’, while I think that we imagine localism. Nothing is local! Nothing here is local, all the metals, everything, this thing that I hold in my hand — we are creating an illusionary politics, whereas actually, we’re standing on a planetary scale. And I think we have to embrace the planetary scale rather than run away from it because we’re afraid of it.

Indy Johar in Helsinki — his keynote is available here (15.00)