(as published as guest column in Eureka Times-Standard on April 13,2005, reproduced here as an opportunity for discussion via the comments... Also, some additional quotes that didn't make it into the published piece:
"The most valuable service designers and artists can provide a locality may therefore be to help it develop a shared cultural vision of the future, but not to design the future for it."
"Around the world, the vast majority of small and medium-sized companies operate within a radius of fifty kilometers of their headquarters location. Local conditions, local trading patterns, local skills and local culture are critical success factors for the majority of organizations." )
by Bill Kowinski
In a book to be published later this month, global business and design guru John Thackara isolates ten principles he believes will characterize cutting-edge opportunities for a better future, based in part on lessons of the last decade in technology, business and others aspects of the real world. Of particular interest to the North Coast is Principle #4: Locality.
The focus of "both business and social innovation," he writes, is shifting from locomotion to locality: "Authenticity, local context, and local production are increasingly desirable attributes in the things we buy and the services we use. Local sells."
At the same time, Thackara believes that how many localities market themselves doesn't work. "There's a big difference between selling soap and making sense of a place---but many place marketers don't get it." They imitate each other, and try to trade on nostalgic themes they all have more or less in common. "Identity has become a commodity. Diversity or distinctiveness have been edited out," and every city depends on the same kind of facilities and publicity.
What attracts visitors is real difference; what attracts investment is real information about real opportunities and quality of life. It requires the locality to be permanently engaged in knowing itself, as completely and in as much depth as possible. "The lesson is that design for locality is not about a return to simplicity; it involves dealing with more complexity, not less."
Thackara is interested in more than analyzing efforts and predicting trends. He wants design to help create a better future. But many trends and opportunities to build what's necessary for that future converge in the local. Sustainable local economies can be encouraged by designing and investing in sustainable energy and other sustainable industries, for example.
He also sees important roles for the arts, not so much in creating spectacles to encourage business but in helping to create community, and aiding in exploring the qualities of this place. Above all, art is personal, and the personal encounter is one of the major advantages of smaller places.
There is a lot of good news for the North Coast in Thackara's analysis. We have not destroyed the complexity of the natural world to nearly the same extent as most cities. Citizens have denied industries and businesses that might harm the natural and cultural environment. People here are participating in planning and decisions that affect their future. Now the North Coast is in position to focus on local innovations and sustainable industries, particularly those that will be needed in the global climate crisis, which is likely to dominate the economics and politics of the next 50 years or more.
Thackara's book ("In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World", from MIT Press ) suggests that small localities can compete with larger places by forming networks with each other. If people within localities and among them can work together, which technology makes easier to do, their combined assets and energies can compete with metro areas, while each of them can still offer superior social qualities. It is their context of "intimacy and encounter" that will "win out over the big centers." (Contrary to predictions, technology hasn't eradicated face-to-face encounters; it encourages them, and people want them.)
Technology does provide new methods for sharing resources and infrastructure, for facilitating local economies and creating new opportunities for individuals and small businesses in small and rural places.
None of this is automatic, and all of it requires intelligence, energy and truly appreciating and valuing the diversity of people, places and ecologies that creates the local context. But does offer possibilities that could direct the North Coast towards a better future by becoming more truly itself.
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