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Worldchanging Interview: Bruce Mau

This article was written by David Zaks and Chad Monfreda in September 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Massive ChangeMassive Change opened with a bang last weekend at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. Bruce Mau, Jennifer Leonard and members of the Institute without Boundaries introduced their project, which is not about the world of design, but about the design of the world. Instead of looking at the traditional disciplines of design, the team surveyed 11 'economies' ranging from movement to the military in attempt to identify the leadership and dominant trends in these fields. They were pleased to report that all of the economies were trending towards sustainability. Worldchanging readers will be familiar with many of the projects featured in Massive Change, which also appear in a book. We had a chance to sit down with Bruce Mau and ask him a couple of questions.

Chad Monfreda: Would somebody else have also concluded that things are moving in a positive direction if they had done this anytime during the last 100 years?

Bruce Mau: I think that it would have been infinitely more difficult to do even 10 years ago because these things would have been much more isolated in their distribution. Finding the projects would have been so much harder, and the flip side of that is things are circulating so much, there's so much more activity.

One of the big discussions in our project was the value of open source. I met this extraordinary guy who runs IIT in India, and he said, "You have no concept of what it means because it's inconsequential to you. What's the likelihood of you going away from the service providers and the quality of service that you have in your office and your studio to an open source format. You're not going to do it because there's no real incentive for you to do it. When you get to the developing world and go into India and provide free access to software, you have no idea how revolutionary that is in terms of providing tools to people that simply wouldn't have access before."

We were working at MIT the day that they put all of their coursework online. Think about what that does. A kid in India can now access everything that MIT has. If you look at the REVA you'll see that capitalism is open source even though its infrastructure is to lock down ownership. But the fact is that you are distributing a way of conceiving things so that someone in India can make that little car. When you look at it you don't say that that's an Indian car. You just say that is a cool little car. It's electric, and if I live in a city I want one of those. The fact that it came out of India, terrific!

CM: Do you think there is any danger of oversimplification and therefore overconfidence in these solutions?

BM: I think for one thing the science of reality has become much more complex. We realize what the limitations are in terms of our capacity to order things, and I think that one of the reactions to Massive Change is that designers are just megalomaniacal. They just want to get their hands on everything, they want to control everything, and it is actually not the idea underlying it and it is certainly not the way we think and work. The idea is actually that if you don't understand the complexity of the ecologies and the systems that support us and design at that scale we will trash it all.

If you look at Toronto as an example, we are beginning to get to design at the scale of the ecology, but it is radically at odds with the political reality of the city and the various communities around it. What is happening in Toronto is that there are two major projects. One is called the greenbelt. They have superimposed on this region a map that says all these lands are currently in a more or less natural state or in rural development will be maintained in that state, and development will be contained within these other areas. They've really designed it at the scale of the region of the province, which is pretty big. It's about 8 million people.

The other one is called the Oakridges Moraine, a geological formation that cleans the water in this part of the world. They've said the Oakridges Moraine will not be developed. It is introducing a kind of scale of intervention that we have never had before because each town did what it did, and the ramifications are dreadful. The implications as you can see today are really terrible. So it's starting to actually design at that bigger scale, and it is not about controlling it in a singular sense. It is not about one group getting responsibility for it, but it is about saying we have the responsibility for stewardship at this level. It is only by getting to that level of understanding of the whole ecology that we can actually make good decisions locally. In each point in that field, you can be guided by overriding intelligence that informs the field.

CM: Is it about changing the rules that people operate from and giving them individual choice but not dictating what will happen?

BM: It is a kind of game theory to say if we change the rules in this way, these are the outcomes you will have. It maintains the entrepreneurial dimension at any point in the field, but it informs each point with the intelligence of the field. But I think the question of overconfidence is certainly an issue in the sense of thinking that you know the system, and in fact we know we can't know the system. We can't possibly know the complexity of the ecology of the region. It is humanly impossible. But on the other hand, at least the alternative that has been in the past is that we simply don't manage it and trash everything. In Canada we have declared certain parts pristine and important. We preserve those and use that as a license to trash everything else. We make a national park.

We are working on a project in Toronto called Downsview, which is a 300-acre park in the city, and what we said we would really like to do is invert the diagram. So instead of having 300 acres where you behave intelligently, surrounded by an ocean of stupidity, can't we make a park of stupidity in a general context of intelligence? That is where I think we really need to get to because there are always going to be things that we have to do that are basically stupid. We don't know how to do it better than that, we really need to do it, so can't we compress that into 1 or 2% of our environment instead of being the dominant idea with islands of intelligence in it?

David Zaks: 'Design' has had connotations of consumerism. Do you see it opening up to be less about passive consumption and more about active participation in the design process?

BM: Yes, for sure. I think what happened when the Macintosh was introduced, [and you could start] choosing fonts it was like the Trojan horse of design because suddenly people were starting to design things. They started to shape the way things looked in their own work. When I started in typography, it was just not talked about, but now it's a common discussion. My kids know about fonts. They understand that they are designing things, and they understand when you change the fonts, it changes the tone of the letter. They totally get that.

Think about what is happening in terms of distributing the capacity to do things, to manipulate images, to produce sounds. I heard a couple of days ago that the Barenaked Ladies just released their new album. They are releasing all the tracks so that you can mix it yourself. So you can get their mix but you can make it a whole other song if you want by funking up the bass. That kind of design intervention and the capacity shape your experience. Especially young people just expect that is what they are going to do.

CM: Often times there are great solutions that aren't getting it into the hands of the people who need them. Do you think it's possible to do that without a devolution of capacities?

BM: I don't think that there is going to be a solution to that problem. I think what's evolving is a complex ecology of solutions. For instance, what the UN and the World Bank do is one way of thinking about facing problems head on, but a little microfinance project out of Toronto in Africa is another way of doing it. But it's actually coming at the problem in a real transcdisciplinary, multivalent way to put the problem in the middle and come at it from every direction. Some of the things are going to fail and some of them will be more successful than others. Out of that we probably will get some real developments in the same way that our own economy and our own culture evolved. It wasn't about saying here's the right way and let's write it down so that everyone knows. It's actually writing down a whole bunch of them and saying try this and try that. Clearly what is we're in a period of experimentation that is off the charts from anything before.

I went to the world future society conference, and Ray Kurzweil was there. He demonstrated this device, and it was just unbelievable. Six years ago he started working with an organization for blind people and said that in 2006 we will have everything we need to make a device so that I can open a book on a page, take a picture of it, and it will read it to me. He said it would take about six years to develop the software to integrate all of the technology. He demonstrated the device. It was one of the really truly most awesome experiences I ever had. He opens a book, he holds the thing up, and it starts talking to him. It's saying, "I can see two sides, I can see three sides, I can see four sides of the book.", And he snaps a picture, and a few seconds later it starts reading the book out loud. There were about two thousand people there and everyone was like, "Oh my god, that's awesome." He says first of all it's very complicated to do this. It seems very straightforward but in fact you have to design it because the book is not flat, so it has to know where the book is because I'm blind and I can't see the book. I don't know if I'm holding it above the book so it's first of all got to know where the book is. The light's not right, so it's got to figure out how to take the picture and get the information. The book's curved, so it's got to be able to flatten it out and put the text back on a flat surface, and then it's got to convert that to language and understand the cadence of the sentence and speak it out loud. It's actually quite a lot of work to make that happen instantly. So he does this thing, and he says that blind people from now on have access to, instead of just the brail books, every book that's in the library.

At the end, this guy comes up and says, "Mr. Kurzweil, obviously everyone in the place was awe-inspired by your device. It's phenomenal. But I wonder if you really understand the implications of what it might mean for the world."

And he says, "What do you mean?"

"Well of course for blind people it's worldchanging, but think of the billions of people who are illiterate and what that means for them. Suddenly they have access to knowledge for the first time. These things are no longer inaccessible to them."

Everyone was like, "Oh my god". Imagine that.

DZ: With so much innovation happening and some of it in unexpected quarters, how do you know a worldchanging design when you see one?

BM: The common denominator that we were looking for is that the design of that thing or process or service or whatever it is pushes the resolution to a higher order. It's an order of magnitude more resolved than the previous regime. If you think about the way that we used to develop singular solutions you can see that a lot of the things in Massive Change are about solutions to solve that problem but first of all that it don't create a whole bunch of new ones, and secondly may solve other ones too. One of the best examples is the energy and water project by Dean Kamen. He solved the energy problem. In the past that's where we would have stopped. We would have said, hey great, 25%, that's an A. You get an A if you can convert 25% of the energy to electricity. The fact that we're burning off 75% and pumping it into the environment...hey whatever. But he says no, we're going to turn that into free energy to do something else. It's resolving the solution at a higher order because he's solving two of the fundamental problems at once.

CM: There are many correlates to that. In the field that we work in, we'd like to better manage ecosystems for human well-being. In the past timber plantations were to maximize timber yield, or croplands just to produced food. We're beginning to realize opportunities for not maximization but optimization across multiple benefits, so we can get clean water and regulate disease vectors and produce food and fiber all at the same time, while providing...

BM: ...Culture and all these other things.

CM: It can be hard though to get people to think that way.

BM: It's hard because the way the media is structured you're mostly talking to people who don't know a thing about what you're talking about. They're starting from such a basic level, and think they have an obligation to their reader to keep it simple. Can you make it into one sentence? Can you just cut away everything that's making me itchy so that I can understand it?

Part of our work has to be, here's a clear way of understanding a complex idea. Einstein once said things should be as simple as possible but no simpler. It's a stroke of genius because that's the challenge. Our media demands that they be simpler than possible.

CM: It's a problem of translation.

BM: That's the kind of work you're doing.

DZ: Regarding global warming, how do we make maps or visualizations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse pollutants in the same way the image of the ozone hole catalyzed how people thought about the problems and solutions to convey a message to get the policy wheel rolling and to solve, on an international scale, these serious problems that we're facing?

BM: That's where I think the communication dimension of what you're doing is so important. Like understanding how to move people emotionally to these ideas without making the idea somehow less than what it really is, without cutting it down to something that it's not. As simple as possible, but not simpler.

Massive Change: An Interview with Bruce Mau is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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