If you missed out at the end of the summer term, or just want to watch it again, we are very happy to announce that this lecture is now available on YouTube – recorded live in Lecture Theatre 1 at the Royal College of Art on 26th June 2018.
We would like to thank the RCA Student Union and the RCA Service Design department, whose support made this event possible. Special thanks to RCASU Co-President Jazbo Gross for editing the film.
Question: What do Design and Economics have in common in the 21st Century?
The back story…
It was last autumn on a trip to CERN – the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Geneva – that I first started to think about economics in a design context. The trip was the start of a project to see what applications a bunch of service design masters students from an art school might imagine for atomic research, that might also address the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nothing major.
Inspiration during the week came in the form of presentations from the scientists working on everything from cryogenics and particle detectors, to dark matter and computer simulations, all of which play their part to support the elusive founding mission – to discover the particles which gave birth to our universe. Since CERN’s inception in 1954, their research has led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson and perhaps most significantly the birth of the World Wide Web from Tim Berners-Lee’s small office.
At the end of the week, the main takeaway for me was the the steadfast humility that underpins the motivation behind CERN’s work. By their own admission, they estimate that we know less than 5% of all the particles in our universe; it is their mission to keep searching for the other 95%, the ‘dark matter’. Famous for their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – a 27 km long underground ring doughnut, where they smash together atomic particles at unfathomable speeds – the scientists work shifts to keep watch for any even smaller, new particles that might be found in the emerging fragments. Essentially they are repeatedly simulating a mini big bang, filming it and watching it back in ultra-slow motion. For me the dedicated curiosity and humility behind CERN’s enduring experiment stands in stark contrast to a discipline, which during the 20th Century, has sought to emulate a science. That discipline is economics.
The current neoliberal capitalist narrative which dominates eocnomic systems across the world, whilst operating in a scientific fashion with its automated electronic stock exchanges, Fintech startups and cryptocurrencies, has a mission which feels myopic compared to CERN’s raison d’être. Rather than seeking to understand the full extent of the universe that economics operates within – Planet Earth with 7.3 billion humans and over 8.7 billion other species – our economic system is currently designed solely around the human species, with arguably a very narrow focus at that. Its remit to deliver increased growth and profits above all else is ignorant to anything beyond its own purpose. As the system now shows signs of imploding (economic crises), and ‘externalities’ start to feel uncomfortably close (climate change, rising inequality, housing crisises etc.), a logical conclusion to draw is that our current economic model is in desperate need of a redesign, and might do well to take inspiration from CERN’s founding principles.
With this in mind and still crunching away at our project brief, (trying desperately to land on something more tangible than our entire economic system), I was excited to click on the link a classmate sent me for a lecture at the London School of Economics: ‘Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist’. I signed up immediately.
The lecture theatre was packed, with a queue to get in and a queue for the book signing afterwards. And with good reason; the lecture was an enlightenment: all the knotted information, scribbled ideas and scrunched up bits of paper in my head from the past few weeks, were arranged into logical sequence as Kate Raworth eloquently unpacked, demystified and rearranged the discipline of economics. Describing herself as a ‘renegade economist’, Kate has a rigorous academic background with two degrees from Oxford covering economics, politics, philosophy and development, yet she has the curious and critical mind, visual lens and grumpy optimism more akin to a designer. Not content with the logic of the theories she was taught, she has sought to rewrite economics and re-educate the next generation through the publication and dissemination of a more holistic perspective which she calls Doughnut Economics.
I waited patiently at the end of the book signing to speak with Kate. I told her about SustainLab RCA and that students of design as well as economics needed to hear her lecture. And so, a few twitter threads later, we had a date for her first art & design school audience during the Royal College of Art 2018 graduate show: Designing Doughnuts – Economics for Art School with Kate Raworth and John Thackara.
Kate’s lecture at the RCA was followed by a conversation with design and cultural researcher John Thakara, a Senior Fellow of the RCA, who also chaired Q&A from the audience. With his decades of first-hand research in communities and institutions across the world, John provided a great design spin on Doughnut Economics and its implications for the next generation of changemakers.
We hope you enjoy watching this as much as we did. On reflection, the lecture and this post are perhaps the more philosophical outcomes of our trip to CERN last autumn. If you’re curious you can check out some of the more applied concepts from the project here and here.
Author: Becky Miller, 19 August 2018 (@beckymiller33)