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Designing for the Future Versions of Ourselves

This article was written by Jeremy Faludi in December 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Design%2010000.jpgMany unpleasant byproducts of today's design industry last thousands of years; but what things do we want to last that long? Who besides the Long Now and Yucca Mountain designs things to last 10,000 years?

Last Spring, on a road trip, I visited Hoover Dam. It was as impressive as you'd expect for something taller and wider than the Great Pyramid of Khufu, a single structure that irrigates three US states. It's engineering with a capital E. That wears off after a while, though, especially if you consider the dubious environmental impact of creating the hemisphere's largest artificial lake. The thing that still impressed me days later was the monument there to commemorate the dam's construction. ...Or, rather, the monument's floor.

The floor of the Hoover Dam's commemorative art piece is a star map for its location on the date the dam was finished. They did that because this structure was so monumental they planned it to last thousands of years. They consciously planned it to last longer than this country, the English language, maybe longer than our civilization. They wanted to leave something readable by whatever future civilizations came along, and they reasoned that anyone advanced enough would have precise astronomy, and would be able to read the star map and calculate back through time to the date that the stars would have been in those positions for that latitude and longitude. It's brilliant. (And they have a textual explanation of it, inlaid into the floor in bronze, which is so verbose future archaeologists could practically decrypt English from it.) Nobody outside of The Long Now thinks that way these days.

Contrast that with an anecdote from William McDonough's speech at Bioneers 2000, in which he recounts a meeting where scientists from the Hanford nuclear plant were trying to decide how to design a sign or architecture to warn people five thousand years in the future about the radioactive waste there; some local Native Americans who were at the same conference laughed at them and said, "Tell the scientists not to worry, we'll tell them where it is." He uses it to illustrate his point about people needing to feel like they're indigenous in order to act responsibly with the Earth and others. Design for 10,000 years can mean design for the future versions of ourselves as much as it means designing for strangers.

Few designers think past the next project cycle, because the businesspeople paying them usually don't think past the annual revenues. But what if both these groups of people started to look further ahead? Japan has a tradition of this, with many companies (such as Honda) having a 100-year plan, but in most of the West this is a foreign concept. There are a few corporate exceptions (like National Instruments, for the geeks in the audience), and many municipalities in Europe have thought this way for ages, but how many designers have? John Thackara and the Long Now's Brian Eno put together the book Eternally Yours with some other great European designers, but there are few other resources out there.

Designing for long-lived products is not the only strategy of import; obviously some things should be designed more ephemerally, such as packaging. There's no sense in a plastic wrapper you tore off in ten seconds sitting in a landfill for a decade before decaying into the soil, or a styrofoam cup that you used for an hour lasting thousands of years. Designing away the things you don't want to still be here in 10,000 years is just as important. Mountains of landfill, clearcut forests, undrinkable rivers, and the like can be designed away just like they were inadvertently designed into modern life. All it takes is collective will and ingenuity.

When you think of lasting, permanently valuable design, you probably think of architecture first--the pyramids, Petra, other ancient temples. But archaeologists have found jewelry over 5,000 years old that could still be worn today, and 1,000-year-old Chinese jade vases that are still functional and beautiful. (Maybe one, somewhere, has been in continuous use all that time.) The Long Now is giving us an idea what a 10,000 year clock would look like; what would a 10,000 year farm look like? (Would it be terra preta?) What would a 10,000 year factory look like? I invite you to leave comments about what and how you would design for 10,000 years.

photo by author

Design for 10,000 Years 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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