The designer, researcher, and writer Matthew Claudel at the symposium “The Earth seen from the Moon“

, July 3, 2020

On June 11 took place the second symposium of Towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano, entitled The Earth seen from the Moon. The symposium was part of a three-appointment series that address some key issues of our present. Below is the speech by the designer, researcher and writer Matthew Claudel.

The Earth seen from the Moon, the second symposium of Towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano

The overarching point I want make is that the State must always be rediscovered. This is a challenge that John Dewey gave us, almost 100 years ago. The State, the ways we live together, must always be rediscovered. The crisis we find ourself in is multidimensional: it reflects our institutions and their failing. From the broken food systems and ineffective healthcare that caused the Coronavirus pandemic, to the economic inequality and racism that are ever more clear, especially here, in the United States.
We must rediscover how we live together.

One way to look at this is, yes, from outer space. That’s the theme we want to discuss during the symposium The Earth seen from the Moon, included in the cycle Towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano. Looking at the Earth from the satellite of the expert or philosopher or maybe the tech elite, here at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another is from the actual thick of it. From the individual experiences and injustices, the strategies and resourcefulness of specific people and publics on the ground. What the philosopher Bruno Latour calls "terrestrial logic". 

This was the starting point for an editorial project we did recently with The Site Magazine called PROVISIONS. We invited short contributions from a wide range of people, and it became a special issue of the magazine.
We asked people to reflect on one of three things: 
1. What provisions that you are taking with you from this exceptional time? What are you learning from this moment?
2. What provisions did you already have with you? How are they helping you survive, now? 
3. What provisions, or exceptions are you seeing that trouble you. Things like “temporary” extensions of power through contact tracing technology.
The project is about multiplying lenses, bringing different perspectives into a kaleidoscope. It has become a rich collection of ideas and strategies and warnings. 

Illustrations by Kim Smith
Illustrations by Kim Smith

Now, the question is: what do we do with that? How do we put those provisions to use in the future? 
If my friends at the MIT created an open-source, decentralized way of rapidly manufacturing masks, should you try that in Milan? 
Did the MIT guys completely ignore the distribution problem? Does Taiwan have a good strategy we could borrow?
In general, how do you try out a strategy, and see if it should exist here? And how do you come up with new ideas, in a particular place? 
In other words: how do we hear the signal through all of this noise?
If the next edition of the International Exhibition of Triennale Milano is about rediscovering how we live together on and with planet Earth, we need to hear that signal. We must learn and discover together. 
We have to experiment. 

A few years ago, I started noticing that actors, from government, business, academia, and community groups are doing experiments, with new technologies and policies, in cities. This can be anything from new mobility systems and vehicle sharing, to new land development models and architectural strategies. Over the past four years I did large-scale research to understand how people are experimenting with technology, policy and regulation. 

We found a few things. On one hand, we created a typology of experiments. And we documented some best practices. We also saw the dangers of using an “experiment” as a site for extending power, without any built-in checks and balances. By definition, an experiment breaks the status quo. It’s outside of the norm. In some cases, the norm is just bureaucratic red tape, and you should cut it. But in other cases, the norm exists for a very good reason. This is democratic process, it can prevent abuse of power, or economic injustice, or provide transparency and oversight. So it’s extremely important to understand how experiments are actually happening, in actual cities.

Specifically, we saw experiments doing two very interesting things.

The first is related to alternative political and economic structures. See, experiments usually end up creating a conventional technology or government program. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A new kind of green energy system, for example. But in other cases – the most vibrant and interesting cases – an experiment leads to completely alternative structures. Like a cooperative geothermal pump that is owned by every member of a neighborhood, and makes a perpetual legal contract with the ecological watershed that it draws from. These experiments lead to strange hybrids of things. Things we typically like to keep separate and well-defined, like regulation, ownership, and value. They reveal alternative governance models. Many of them are destabilizing conventional ideas of “ownership,” for example. This is especially common for experiments that deal with land. Normally, at least in the United States, you can “own” land. That allows you to build what you want, and exclude whoever you want, and pollute all you want. It’s no surprise that there are racial, economic and ecological injustices built into land ownership regimes. By breaking those open, experiments begin to introduce alternative kinds of investment and returns, different architectural typologies of building, collective rights to access a space, and responsibility for ecological stewardship. 

The second observation is that experiments can be a place for deliberating common futures. It is a way to not only develop new strategies and systems, but to actually see and experience them, and to deliberate whether or not they are desirable. This radically shifts agency away from experts, and it shifts from abstract ideas to tangible accounts. This is important because a lot of new ideas and technologies imply genuinely conflicting values. They affect different populations in different ways. A network of micro-mobility vehicles will mean something different to a young wealthy millennial and to a single mother of three. An experiment lets us actually see it, and bring the affected stakeholders into contact. Experiments cultivate attachments between unusual actors. By trying it out, we are building accountability. In these exceptional spaces, actors become accountable to each other and to our ecosystems. In other words, we can define what a technology or system is, but also, to deliberate if and how it should exist here, now, with this community. The experiment reveals how we are all entangled in a place, and it begins to structure a lasting web. This is what Stefano Boeri, President of Triennale Milano, described as “decentralizing ourselves”, as individuals and as a human species.

Tibor Kalman, Everything is an experiment, opening pages of Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist…, edited by Peter Hall and Michael Bierut, 2020

During these past weeks and months, it has become clear that everything is an experiment. The legendary graphic designer Tibor Kalman said, everything is an experiment. The Covid-19 crisis, and the social mobilization we see today, have made this real. Governments and companies and community groups are experimenting with new strategies to deal with the crisis. We are seeing a glimpse of dynamic, living policy – in both good and bad ways. We can read the PROVISIONS from The Site Magazine through the lens of experiments. Do these experiments create alternative economics and governance? Do they allow us to deliberate our shared futures, and create accountability? In that way, Covid-19, and the social mobilization in the US have been a probe, or sensor, of all the structural weaknesses in our society and economy. Today, when everything is an experiment, it is becoming clear that we need to change existing power structures, and build accountability with the most vulnerable in society. This moment has made clear that some States do have that capacity. States like Taiwan or New Zealand. Some community groups do. But in general, and especially in the United States, we do not have a political system that is capable of experimenting well. This is the challenge, as we rethink our role on the planet, and with each other. 

Tibor Kalman, Everything is an experiment, opening pages of Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist…, edited by Peter Hall and Michael Bierut, 2020

In conclusion, experiments can be used as a dangerous tool for extending existing power, whether it is economic inequality or data capture and surveillance. But I have also seen that experiments can be a valuable method for building new kinds of societal infrastructure. We need a state that experiments well. One that promotes collective learning at different scales – hyper local and hyper global. One that is perpetually adaptive.

Illustrations by Kim Smith
Illustrations by Kim Smith

Matthew Claudel is a designer, researcher and writer. He co-founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's designX program, where he was the Head of Civic Innovation and an instructor for four years. Matthew has co-authored two books, Open Source Architecture and The City of Tomorrow, and published articles in peer reviewed journals, book chapters and speculative fiction pieces – primarily surrounding the issues of technology, design, and cities. He holds a doctorate in Advanced Urbanism from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his work focused on the emerging practices of urban experimentation as they relate to civic value. He is a protagonist of Hans Ulrich Obrist's 89plus global community of artists, and a frequent collaborator with strategic design firm, Dark Matter Labs.

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