Designing our world 

New ways to think about the planet

Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, was a warning shot about the state of Planet Earth. Gore did a remarkable job of consolidating a wealth of information to sound an alarm about how we humans have been fouling our nest.

But for all of Gore’s eloquence and passion, there was still something slightly off-putting about his message. It was imbued with a familiar Puritanism, the sense that if we are to save ourselves we will have to do without a lot of things we associate with pleasure and convenience. This may be valid, but it’s problematic. Americans don’t do self-denial very well — we’re much better at guilt. And so many of us watched Gore’s film, shouldered a little more blame, maybe bought a couple of $5 light bulbs and that was it.

Gore’s film underscored the point that even the best information about our planetary challenges may not be enough to get us off the dime. In order to effect real changes we have to find new ways of thinking about things. It so happens that a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is dedicated to doing that.

Massive Change: The Future of Global Design feels more like a visit to a world’s fair than an art exhibit. This is in keeping with how the show’s creator, the Canadian design guru Bruce Mau, describes his vision: “It’s not about the world of design. It’s about the design of the world.”

Massive Change begins with a provocative premise, the idea that we have reached the point where the world is now a design object. “Nature” exists, but it exists in inextricable connection with the visible and, increasingly, invisible systems that humans have created to feed and shelter ourselves, to travel, communicate and pursue livelihoods. Seen in this light, nature is a vital part of a larger design challenge facing global society: In one century the world’s population has grown from 1 billion to 6 billion while life expectancy has doubled. How will we house everyone? Or, put another way, “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”

“Design,” writes Mau and his collaborative team from the Institute Without Boundaries, “is evolving from its position of relative insignificance within business (and the larger envelope of nature), to become the biggest project of all. Even life itself has fallen (or is falling) to the power and possibility of design … At the same time, we acknowledge the hubris and inherent paradox of the new position we find ourselves in: We are designing nature and we are subject to her laws and powers. This new condition demands that design discourse not be limited to boardrooms or kept inside tidy disciplines.”

Going “back” to nature, reclaiming Eden, is not an option. People, this show emphasizes, need to take responsibility for the planet we have designed for ourselves. But this needn’t be a reductive task. In fact, as far as Massive Change is concerned, it is loaded with opportunity.

But getting to those opportunities is bound to rile some people. This, however, is one of the greatest strengths of Massive Change — there are ideas here to rile, or at least discomfort, virtually everyone. We can start, for instance, with the show’s assertion that the city needs to be the basic unit of human community. According to Mau and his collaborators, “Density offers hope: With nearly half the world’s population living in cities, density is increasingly becoming the global condition. The denser we make our cities, the more we can sustain ecosystems.”

If the world’s population was stacked vertically, people would take up less space, which would inhibit urban sprawl and free up territory for what Mau calls “the production of nature. If people live in cities, they don’t destroy the country.” Note the locution — “production” replacing the “conservation” of nature.

Others may be surprised by this show’s seeming celebration of Wal-Mart as an exemplary “integrated system” moving information and material throughout the world, connecting markets and cultures in unprecedented ways, employing 1.3 million people and making goods that sold for $100 10 years ago available for $25 today. “Integrated systems: When everything is connected to everything else, for better or worse, everything matters,” Mau notes.

Massive Change sees integrated market economies as forces for good — building global urbanity, creating international infrastructure, getting people out of poverty, even establishing improved standards of corporate accountability. But it also calls for a new way of thinking about economics — one not driven merely by what benefits shareholders, but by a more holistic understanding of community value, a stakeholder model that serves community, environment and future generations.

An entrepreneurial enthusiasm buzzes through Massive Change and makes a strong, if implicit point: The greatest issue facing us today may be whether or not we are willing to be the capitalists we say we are and let dying industries, technologies and, most of all, forms of energy give way to new forms of wealth production that can also better sustain the planet’s burgeoning population. In other words, will we put our energies into designing the future or propping up the past? Take a day and see this show (on your way to Chicago, imagine having a bullet train to take you there). You’ll be wrestling with the experience for weeks.

Massive Change: The Future of Global Design will be at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art through Dec. 31. For more information on tickets and hours call 312-280-2660 or go to

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David Hoppe

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