City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Enskede 10 August 2020

Complexity and contradiction in decision-making; the problem of the centrality of economics, expertise, and ‘the data’; Blitzscaling versus slow growth; moving beyond evidence, towards practice and participation, embracing uncertainty and context; fighting for the slowdown

“Be slow. Let this distract you. Let it change how you think and how you see the world. Because the world is our work.” — Aisha S. Ahmad

When I starting typing this piece in June 2020, to the crackle of a Swedish Radio report describing protests here in Stockholm following the killing of George Floyd back in May, we were confronted by the fact that African Americans have died from COVID-19 at almost three times the rate of white people. (In Kansas, black residents were dying at seven times the rate of whites.) In the UK, Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority groups were twice as likely to die from COVID-19, compared to the general population. Of the first 15 people to die from the coronavirus in Stockholm, six were Somali immigrants. Beyond race, those with respiratory illnesses, from living next to poor air quality, or with other chronic illnesses due to other forms of structural inequality in our systems, also seem to suffer disproportionately in coronatider (‘corona times’ in Swedish).

These crises of climate, health, and social justice are intrinsically entwined. COVID-19 has shone a flashlight on the fissures in our patterns of living and working and caring for each other, revealing the deeper fractures beneath, just as the protests on city streets all over the world seem to exemplify all crises simultaneously.

Yet our ability to approach them systematically, to see them as complex assemblages, is framed by the dominant mental models they fit within. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it in Metaphors We Live By:

“The concepts that govern our thought (also) govern our everyday functioning … In the area of politics and economics, metaphors matter more, because they constrain our lives.”—Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

Our range of possible action is articulated by the extent of our mental models. They are either springboards or cages.

As a metaphor about mental models, the Overton Window seems relevant here, framing ideas that are deemed “acceptable” or “popular” at any given time. Smoking on airplanes used to be acceptable; now it is anathema. Wearing a seatbelt used to be an option at best; now it seems unthinkably risky not to do so. (Watch any episode of Mad Men for a handy reminder of how much the Overton Window can move, and within one generation.)

Politicians tend to stay inside the window, for obvious reasons. Yet the window does move. Indeed it can be forced to move, in the words of Rutger Bregman, by “pushing on the edges. By being unreasonable, insufferable, and unrealistic.” (Or, as Helen Lewis writes Difficult Women, “The battles are difficult, and we must be difficult too.”)

To some extent the window is a container for ideology. In his recent Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty explains, “I use “ideology’ in a positive and constructive sense to refer to a set of a priori plausible ideas and discourses describing how society should be structured.” (my emphasis)

That sense of “a priori plausible” also applies to orthodoxies around techniques for decision-making. Yet in a general context of complexity, and particularly in an unprecedented global lockdown/slowdown as protests over social justice grip cities worldwide, almost any sense of “a priori plausible” may smell a little fishy. And as Rutter, Wolpert and Greenhalgh note, “COVID-19 is, par excellence, a complex problem in a complex system.”

Imagine a set of such apparent certainties about practice: the centrality of economics; of user-centred design; of data-driven organisations; evidence-based policymaking; the importance of efficiency and value-for-money; of following the science; deploying systems thinking; investing in tech; pursuing rapid growth. The amount of Harvard Business Review articles that have been written about these apparent virtues does not bear thinking about. Yet all can be hugely problematic in the way they are being interpreted or exerted, as is increasingly clear. We may need to be “unreasonable, insufferable, and unrealistic” about all of them.

It’s actually easy to pick some of them off, once you get into the habit. What do you do when you cannot use evidence, because something hasn’t been tried yet, and yet you still need to make policy? How can you ‘drive’ an organisation from merely from the things you can capture data about? Why focus on systems thinking, trapped as it is with its cybernetic allusions to rational control and steering — noting, for instance, Tega Brain’s assertion that “the environment is not a system”.

As for ‘following the science’, as David Runciman noted early on in the pandemic, “There’s no such thing as simply doing what the science says. This is partly because the science itself is political — how could it not be, when so much of it is the science of human behaviour?”

COVID-19 teaches us that it is difficult for science to clarify something as apparently calculable as whether wearing a mask helps prevent the spread of the virus (perhaps not least because of the cultural aspects involved in mask-wearing.) Even state epidemiologists across the Nordic regions, with broadly similar training, culture, and data-gathering, can end up producing fundamentally different advice. This does not mean that science is without use, though this is apparently how the president of the USA sees it; instead, it means figuring out how to use science. Following the words of Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society: “we must recognise both the potential and the limits of science,” and “there is often no such thing as following ‘the’ science”.

We can next turn to the utter centrality of economics to policymaking, to politics, and apparently almost all decision-making in contemporary life. How economics managed to achieve this position may well be debated furiously in decades subsequent to ours, perhaps as much as it is largely unchallenged now.

Kate Raworth, herself an economist, recalls: “At Oxfam I had a colleague who, in meetings, would always say, “Well, thinking as an economist…” and I would think to myself, Why wouldn’t you just think as a whole human being?” Paul Romer, another economist, recently concluded that “economists cannot simply dismiss as ‘absurd’ or ‘impossible’ the possibility that our profession has imposed total costs that exceed total benefits.”

Broader perspectives — a wider environment, a range of identities, multiple species, the true complexity of culture, the values beyond financial metrics — are lost once we approach a complex field with the blunt axe of contemporary economics.

In response to COVID-19, the French sociologist Bruno Latour sharply reminds us, “We should remember that this idea of framing everything in terms of the economy is a new thing in human history. The pandemic has shown us the economy is a very narrow and limited way of organising life and deciding who is important and who is not important. If I could change one thing, it would be to get out of the system of production and instead build a political ecology.”

In other words, it’s not the economy, stupid.

As we can see, events can change primary mental models, and rapidly. But equally, events spring from the soil available, and the way the ground has been prepared. In Slowdown Paper 8: An A/B test on our way of life, I used William H. Sewell’s work on the French Revolution to outline the interplay of cataclysmic events and political change, and particularly his concept of the uneven lumpiness of history:

“Lumpiness, rather than smoothness, is the normal texture of historical temporality … While the events are sometimes the culmination of processes long underway, events typically do more than carry out a rearrangement of practices made necessary by gradual and cumulative social change. Historical events tend to transform social relations in ways that could not be fully predicted from the gradual changes that may have made them possible.”—William H. Sewell, Jr., ‘Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille’, Theory and Society, Vol. 25, №6 (Dec., 1996)

Events and mental models are symbiotic: each changes the other, in a somewhat “lumpy” ballet, occasionally with a sudden crescendo. Both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests are responses to 400 years of human activity — in the former case, globalised environmental degradation; in the latter, systematic racism — yet it is the sharp pointy end of these recent events that are accelerants for changing mental models, and thus the world around us. (To Sewell’s “lumpiness” we can add Martha Scotford’s idea of “messy history” (PDF), drawn from a deeper understanding of the contribution of women to the field of graphic design. Or Richard Sennett’s reflection that open systems approaches to cities would convey urban-rural networks as “trembling rather than placid connections — because the connections are complex they are peculiarly open to disruption.”)

But as the injustice in these examples of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter should make clear, we cannot simply sit on our hands and wait for events to occur, in their lumpy, messy, trembling fashion. What about deeper patterns, which may only occasionally be rent asunder by such explosive events? These patterns are rather more mundane, and are so “a priori plausible” that they are rarely questioned, despite the many ways in which they have degraded the soil.

Chief amongst these may be the mental model of growth itself, or at least the kind of growth implied when the word growth is used. Trump promised to grow the US economy by 6%. Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson’s first chancellor (now gone), promised 2.8% growth in GDP per year, clinging to a relatively low bar of the average for 50 years after the second world war. (Not sure how these figures are going, guys? Can someone check? Oh. And oh.)

A typical graph circa mid-2020. Note that this must have so confronted the Financial Times that they could only produce an ‘Untitled Subtitle’.

Growth underpins almost all (over)developed and developing nations. To be clear, this is a particular form of growth, ideally predicated on speed, on scale, and endlessly replenishing, apparently irrespective of finite environmental and social limits and so it is increasingly propped up on debt. This is in turn is predicated on the mental model of the Great Acceleration, a growth pattern running from the mid-20th century and assumed to be continuing today, against which that debt is offset.

Even the WWF’s well-intentioned Living Planet report starts with this context, and its many familiar themes: rising population growth, the rise of mega cities, rapid technological innovation, increased life expectancy, growth in GDP per person, and so on.

“In the last two decades we have entered a new phase with the climate emergency, in which the struggle for social justice requires putting into question the productivist and extractivist model. Growth has ceased to be considered as a source of protection to become a danger for the material conditions of existence of society. It is not possible any more to envisage a process of radicalization of democracy that does not include the end of a model of growth that endangers the existence of society and whose destructive effects are particularly felt by the more vulnerable groups.”—Chantal Mouffe, 15 September 2020

The Slowdown

Dorling’s Slowdown: The end of the Great Acceleration (2020) takes that puzzle apart, piece by piece. Instead of this kind of growth being some infinitely unfolding condition, applicable everywhere, Dorling claims that the Great Acceleration ended some time ago, with the true patterns of our age characterised by slowdown rather than acceleration.

If you have not checked your assumptions for a while, encountering Dorling’s book may be akin to stepping into the ring with a peak-years Mike Tyson, but having never worn a boxing glove. Graph after graph, datapoint after datapoint, story after story — each clobbers you around the head, repeatedly battering home a core message: that despite what we tell ourselves, the world is slowing down, and has been for a while, across almost every single measure that we think is moving in the opposite manner. It’s a far more enjoyable book than the Tyson analogy suggests, but the effect is the same; a startling wake-up call, after which you see the world through very different eyes, and assess your ‘a priori plausible’ plans.

Actually, as Mike Tyson memorably said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.” So if your plan was to thrive in the conditions of the Great Acceleration by pursuing GDP growth, Dorling just punched you in the mouth. Metaphorically, that is. Global population, GDP per capita, life expectancy, fertility rates, house prices, productivity, megacity growth, technological development, even the growth in average heights — each is in its deceleration phase, with ‘the change in the change’ the key variable. Even American student debt, an element we thought as apparently boundless as carbon dioxide, is slowing down.

Unfortunately, Dorling also points out that the only key outliers are CO2 emissions and global temperature, both of which continue to rise, and rapidly. Yet in a sense that too fits into the broader message, as even in the allegedly progressive European countries, researchers are unable to find a way of reconciling economic growth with declining emissions, at least at the rate we need them to decline.

In broader social and environmental terms, as Dorling makes clear, that period of Acceleration was not so Great, producing widespread warfare, divided societies, massive inequality, denuded biodiversity, climate crisis, and fundamentally reduced resilience — as COVID-19 continues to reveal.

Yet slowing down, by taking our foot off the gas — a handy metaphor in many ways, in this context — undercuts the entire enterprise. Dorling suggests that this does not mean the end of capitalism; just that particularly virulent strain with the sensibility of a Rottweiler straining at the leash in pursuit of endless growth.

“Without both population growth and material economic growth, capitalism — the economic system we have become so used to that we cannot imagine it ending — transforms into something else. Something far more stable and sensible.”—Danny Dorling, ‘Slowdown’

“Sensible” isn’t everything, but this would surely preferable to the latest (last?) incarnations of brutish capitalism, perhaps most obviously captured in the utterly egregious phrase ‘Blitzscaling’.

“Blitzscaling is what you do when you need to grow really, really quickly. It’s the science and art of rapidly building out a company to serve a large and usually global market, with the goal of becoming the first mover at scale.
This is high-impact entrepreneurship. These kinds of companies always create a lot of the jobs and industries of the future.”—Reid Hoffman, Harvard Business Review

Thankfully, more enlightened views are emerging, and not only from economic geographers like Dorling, but from corporate culture too. A couple of months ago, the CEO of Kone, one of Finland’s biggest companies and a world leader in the elevator industry, suggested that it was effectively pointless pursuing economic growth now that we have a climate crisis, if we can’t keep the planet viable. (In terms of metaphors, it’s almost too delicious to note that this is from the boss of a company whose products are almost entirely predicated on upwards growth.)

Beyond the possibility of finally addressing the climate crisis, the slowdown could also unlock genuine social progress. Indeed, the shifting dynamic has been driven by various forms of social progress; as Dorling points out, not least by “the choices that women first made once they had won just a little of the freedom to work, vote, and plan the size of their families.” These are not simplistic economic goals, but social ones.

This is the Slowdown’s true potential, revealing why Dorling is so optimistic. He states that a “well-ordered affluent society slows down”, such that wealthier countries slowing down first enables poorer countries to catch up, ultimately levelling out across the board. Dorling points to income inequality “now falling in more countries than it is rising”.

Interestingly, the flurry of research in and around COVID-19 indicates a consonance between Slowdown messaging and emerging consensus. There are now numerous surveys indicating that, at this point at least, many do not wish to ‘return’ to what was there before, to ‘go back to normal’, just as work by Data for Progress indicates that most American voters actually want a green/clean new deal.

An event like COVID-19, alongside others, is a forcing function for assessing mental models. Despite appearances, it is an accelerant of latent patterns, rather than something entirely new. In this case, the virus raises questions about value, about political priorities, about whether the primacy of narrow economic goals outweighs more fundamental questions of care for human and nonhuman environments. In recent years, the rate of questions over GDP growth appear to have grown faster than GDP itself. In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists from over 150 countries published an article stating that “Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality.”

Yet perhaps more extraordinarily, on 22 May, the Chinese government, for the first time in decades, did not set a target for GDP growth, with the government instead giving “priority to stabilising employment and ensuring living standards”.

“We have not set a specific target for economic growth this year. This is because our country will face some factors that are difficult to predict in its development due to the great uncertainty regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and the world economic and trade environment” — Chinese premier Li Keqiang, opening the National People’s Congress

In 2019, New Zealand repositioned their budget around wellbeing rather than GDP, with the governments of Scotland and Iceland indicating they would follow suit. But with all due respect, the combined population of those fine countries is less than that of Wuhan. For China to make this step, its hand forced by “uncertainty” is interesting, to say the least.

So what if we slow down? What then? Ecological economists tend towards some consistent answers here:

All of these ideas, some of them previously ‘impossible’, are now at least within sight, visible through the smudged glass of the Overton Window. Wellbeing increases as people work less, reducing spiralling healthcare costs. Actually implementing an effective tax would cover much of the financial requirement (the 400 richest US Americans pay a lower tax rate than every single other income group, from plumbers to cleaners to nurses to retirees, just as an average member of the richest 1% now receives more than eighty times as much income, and owns 950 times as much wealth, as an average member of the bottom 50%.)

“Hegel predicted that since the American political community was defined by ‘the preponderance of private interest’, it would only achieve a ‘real state and a real government’ after ‘wealth and poverty become extreme’, compelling an economically exhausted people to seek new forms of governance.“ — Pankaj Mishra, Flailing States, London Review of Books, 16 July 2020

There are other forms of structural inequality too, preventing change: the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that redirecting only 10–30% of the world’s existing fossil fuel subsidies could entirely pay for a global transition to clean energy. (Conversely, a nature-led coronavirus recovery could create 400m jobs and $10tn (£8tn) in business value each year by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum, who are possibly unreliable narrators.) Slowing down could enable a far more equitable and resilient distribution of work and value, across spaces, times, and cultures. It actually has to.

“Almost all models of climate change argue for non-linear changes, chance combinations, erratic consequences, all occurring in the coming decades. All this argues that rural and urban must be seen together, as one disturbed ecology.”—Richard Sennett (2014)

Yet the World Bank can only see a COVID-fuelled reduction in GDP as meltdown rather than slowdown, throwing 60 million people into poverty. Noting the vast wealth disparities above, there is no objective reason that a reduction in the rate of growth need lead to poverty at all — unless your mental model is only predicated on the pursuit endless and boundless growth.

The embedded nature of those mental models mean that the idea of a purposeful slowdown will have to prove itself many times over, whereas the inequality baked into current systems remains effectively unchallenged. We do not just get to implement these things, no matter how apparently rational they may seem. My ‘rational’ may be another’s ‘dangerously radical’ (or vice versa).

Geoff Mann notes that the phrase “common sense” is really a definition of “ideology …. (Or) the relationships or institutions that are taken as given, natural or necessary. Every time someone says ‘of course’ or ‘realistically’ they touch on it.”

As we can see this week, this month, this year, it may be the lightening rod of events, and thus changed behaviours, that tend to change attitudes, rather than the other way around. It is hard to motivate people to take a rational planned approach to an apparently radical alternative, given their ‘a priori plausibles’. The rapid progress being made in Minneapolis, Bristol, on retrofitted streets all over the world, is wonderful. But it took awful events to make them happen, rather than the careful deliberation of design and policy. As Mann continues, “ideology is too sedimented to be susceptible to design.” This should give us significant pause for thought—and particularly the designers amongst us, given his choice of words.

However, the Overton Window has been prised open nonetheless, albeit by what Solzhenitsyn called “the pitiless crowbar of events”, and a flock of alternative ideas have flown straight in. Many of them will be thrown back out, as the window closes again soon, just as car traffic bounced back up. Yet some may have made it through permanently, whilst those that were on the books even briefly — giving homeless people a home; giving children childcare; creating a safety net under precarious employment — will have left a few marks on the furniture either way.

Sorting through them consciously involves the difference between strategy versus tactics. Many of those things bundled through the half-open window were tactical — of course we ground airplanes, work from home, shop more carefully, revalue public health systems. The choice as to what remains, though, what becomes new ‘sedimented ideology’, is strategic.

Embracing uncertainty

We will not get there through traditional policy and planning cultures, however. As my colleague Marco Steinberg points out, we are long past our ability to ‘analyse, predict, and then plan’, that old logic of certainty that underpins almost all governmental decision-making cultures. Every day that goes by screams this fact, our newsfeeds a litany of extremes and volatilities of weather, viruses, politics, and culture, yet almost all government policy-making functions are still trundling along in a battered old clown car of Enlightenment-era thinking and practice.

We can create vehicles that allow us to open up to uncertainty, ambiguity, focusing our efforts on learning by doing, and working through that sorting, shifting from tactical to strategic responses, This would be tilling the soil, effectively, such that, after Milton Friedman’s famous phrase on crises, the ideas that spring forth and burst in through the window are those “lying around” on the ground. This may be the biggest mental model challenge of all. How do we tune our cultures of decision-making such that they benefit from actively incorporating uncertainty about fundamental assumptions, and prepare the ground for systemic change?

A few months ago, the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte remarked that in a crisis, “you have to make 100 percent of the decisions with 50 percent of the knowledge.” This is not only the case in a crisis, of course. It is only in the last few decades that we have been broadly aware that it is our actions that have created the climate crisis (awkwardly, those decades being the ones in which the damage was truly done.) Before that, as Dorling points out, we might reasonably have argued that we did not have the knowledge that our actions were quite so destructive — it might not be completely true, but it would be possible to say that we did not have all the data. Perhaps for many it was truly unintentional.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes about the unintentional in the context of multi-species landscapes, which she sees as:

“Products of unintentional design, that is, the overlapping world-making activities of many agents, human, and not human. The design is clear in the landscape’s ecosystem. But none of the agents have planned this effect. Humans join others in making landscapes of unintentional design.”

This is ‘not-planning’, though it emerges from observable conditions on the ground, conditions we can interact with. We did not plan for some of the secondary outcomes of the pandemic, either; for clearer streets and skies to increased social interaction and a deeper valuing of public healthcare systems. This is also an unintentional design, in which we have played a part. But we did prepare the ground for it.

There suggests a different culture of decision-making, predicated on active and direct engagement and interaction with systems, rather than indirect planning, abstract modelling, ‘evidence-based’ and data-driven prediction. In the context of the virus, Holly Jean Buck wrote a highly necessary critique of modelling, simulations, and big data in policy, and the expert-driven, apparently ‘scientific’ approaches it dangerously reinforces. (Last year, I wrote from a similar perspective, about the dangerous hubris around data-driven ‘digital twins’ for cities.)

“We need ‘the other experts’ in the room — all the sorts of expertise that are useful in seeing follow-on effects, to collectively grasp the complexity of these socio-ecological systems. But for these simulations to be accurate, we also need non-experts — not just for “social legitimacy,” or for normative reasons, but to actually see the impacts of the interventions in various contexts. This year may see a populist backlash against modeling, against the role of simulations or big data in policy. We need to not just throw away our simulations because of what happened in 2020, though — we need to make them more populist, more legible, more shape-able. Yet the politics of the moment doesn’t seem to allow for this.”—Holly Jean Buck, Strelka Magazine

Her reclaiming of ‘populist’ is as interesting as it is provocative, implicitly placing a strong emphasis on genuine participation in decision-making, as opposed to way that the idea of populism has been hijacked by largely unrepresentative tyrants. Buck continues, “What does a collectively designed simulation for complex system governance — climate change intervention, COVID-19 management, sustainable development goals, whatever — look like? What other shapes, beyond curves, can it enable? How can it be built?”

This is a good question, but perhaps it is not one to ask academically (not that Buck is suggesting that) or to try to write down. In the midst of July’s ambient fug of chaos (and personal despair), Sahib Singh kindly sent me Rilke’s line:

“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

So Holly Jean Buck’s question is not something to try to nail down, but to live. How do we create ‘policy-designing environments’ which are vehicles for actively constructing policy within, in real-time, and with complete engagement and participation? Perhaps this is the way that uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity can be lived within, and only here does engagement with ‘design for the real world’ mean that care can be articulated, culture can be lived. Building an environment is as far from the ‘Whitehall model’ of SPADs writing white papers as one can imagine (and really, all digital twins and simulations are simply digital versions of that Whitehall process.)

Milica Begovic, of UNDP Innovation, described how their activities are designed to incorporate this sense of uncertainty, building learning through exploration and experimentation:

“In this optic, a development intervention that wants to bring about change, say, in agricultural systems is better seen as a mechanism that gradually resolves/explores uncertainties about system dynamics through learning and adaptation and ongoing sense-making, rather than a series of “fixes” to a well identified set of problems. This might reveal that an agricultural system is a symptom of a larger set of dynamics playing out in the economic system thereby opening up a wider set of entry points and policy options to ‘play’ with.”—Milica Begovic, UNDP Innovation

I’m talking frequently with Milica and Giulio Quaggiotto at UNDP through this period, and this is the approach of ‘a mechanism for gradually exploring and resolving uncertainty’ we’re taking in with some of our innovation practices in Sweden. In effect, we are using places themselves as those mechanism, in a somewhat radical attempt to pull innovation practice “down to earth”, as Latour might have it. We are building the kind of vehicles that Milica is talking about within explicitly ‘place-based missions’, through which we can explore engaged forms of collaboration and experimentation, to uncover and articulate the interdependences between people and place, value and values.

This indicates the value of actually trying to make things happen, too—in terms of flushing out the issues, dark matter or otherwise, that remain hidden, or impervious, to abstract models, to the form of distanced engagement usually practiced by national governments (and many municipal governments too, it must be said.)

Donella Meadows put this well, perhaps as a prescient warning to an analytical culture that would be building models, producing forecasts and roadmaps, or even trying to construct algorithms that would explicitly reveal the value of accessing certain leverage points beforehand.

This can’t be done. Only through trying to deliver—and the notes above suggest a place-based approach leaves systems ‘complex enough’ whilst also being addressable—do you learn what to do. This can sound a bit gnomic (“Only by doing do you learn what to do.”) but there we are. Meadows calls it “the humility of Not Knowing.” Our job is to move forwards, with this humility fully on-board, reckoning with uncertainty as we go. In this way, we are able to observe, engage, learn, pivot, adapt, refocus, reframe.

“Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”—Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (1999)

Beyond evidence

Public health researchers and practitioners are effectively front-line workers in corona-times, so perhaps it is no surprise to find some of the more valuable insights for addressing complexity and uncertainty emerging from this quarter.

Trisha Greenhalgh writes a fascinating and provocative piece for the Boston Review combining marginal gains theory, complex adaptive systems, and what we might simply call ‘work on the ground’. Greenhalgh is writing in the context of COVID-19 giving us what she calls “the biggest comparative case study of ‘evidence-based’ policymaking the world has ever known,” and in short, is firmly questioning whether “evidence-based medicine’s linear, cause-and-effect reasoning and uncompromising hierarchy of evidence deserve to remain on the pedestal they have enjoyed for the past twenty-five years.”

Greenhalgh points to Harry Rutter et al’s earlier paper ‘The need for a complex systems model of evidence for public health’, indicating that the necessarily narrow framing of randomised control trials (RCTs) often misses the broader, richer, or perhaps initially ephemeral or immediately intangible systemic outcomes involved in complex adaptive systems. Greenhalgh makes her point using the kind of resilient urban mobility outcome that COVID-19 might put on the table—the ‘walking school bus’, the kind of self-evidently good practice that can get all too easily dismissed by traditional scientific assessments, or by policymakers looking for easy, narrow evidence that maps neatly onto their existing portfolio.

“Take, for example, the ‘walking school bus’ in which children are escorted to school in a long crocodile, starting at the house of the farthest away and picking up the others on the way. Randomized controlled trials of such schemes have rarely demonstrated statistically significant impacts on predefined health-related outcomes. But a more holistic evaluation demonstrates benefits in all kinds of areas: small improvements in body mass index and fitness, but also extended geographies (the children get to know their own neighborhood better), more positive attitudes toward exercise from parents, parents commenting that children were less tired when they walked to and from school, and children reporting more enjoyment of exercise. Taken together, these marginal gains make the walking school bus an idea worth backing.”—Trisha Greenhalgh, Will Evidence-Based Medicine Survive COVID-19?, Boston Review, 29 May, 2020

A randomised control trial will not tell you a ‘walking bus’ is a good thing, yet this single photo might

As a researcher or practitioner, one can only see those things if you are there. Marginal gains have to be perceived, nurtured, and practiced. And in borrowing Harry’s particular example—the ‘bus’ is an intervention that necessitates participation and involvement—Greenhalgh implicitly suggests how actively prototyping such interventions, rather than attempting to a priori model them, would also till the soil such that their likelihood of success is increased. (If done with empathy and care, of course.)

Of course, the ripple effects of the walking bus would reveal further benefits, well beyond those derived directly by the children. To take just one angle, the displaced vehicle traffic, which is otherwise implicated in ferrying kids to and from school, reduces carbon emissions, improves air quality, reduces accidents, improves health amongst parents and carers, creates space for other activities, and soon. That displaced space means that streets and school environments can be greener, climate resilient (more porous, reducing stormwater maintenance costs, and cooler in summer), as well as more open for community activities such as growing food, physical exercise and recreation, culture, social interaction and politics, and so on. These have knock-on effects for the knitting together of social fabric, as well as increased climate resilience and public health.

Greenhalgh’s critique is particularly apposite given the earlier discussion of upstream practices, which she mentioned explicitly:

“Examples that rarely lend themselves to such a design include upstream preventive public health interventions aimed at supporting widespread and sustained behavior change across an entire population (as opposed to testing the impact of a short-term behavior change in a select sample) … These system-level efforts are typically iterative, locally grown, and path-dependent, and they have an established methodology for rapid evaluation and adaptation. But because of the longstanding dominance of the evidence-based medicine paradigm, such designs have tended to be classified as a scientific compromise of inherently low methodological quality.”—Trisha Greenhalgh, ibid.

In contrast to the ‘evidence-based paradigm’, I read in Greenhalgh a preference for ‘down to earth’ engagement with context, locality, culture, and complexity, which can only be pursued with care, with genuine engagement, with practice, and with agility and openness to unforeseen outcomes and uncertainty, set ideally within a context of deep participation (what muf architects might call “mutual knowledge”.)

It may be that randomised control trials (RCTs) are effectively useless when addressing other complex systemic challenges for upstream outcomes, whether repairing the suburbs, defunding the police, or investing in public health rather than healthcare. RCTs are a useful assessment tool within highly constrained contexts where one can isolate variables, and a step forward compared to making decisions on the basis of no evidence at all in such environments. Yet the vogue for RCTs may actually be preventing our ability to make the kind of progress we need to make.

There are further insights to be gleaned from David Ogilvie et al, in their paper on practice-based evidence pathway in which evaluation can help adjust the compass bearing of existing policy.” (This practice-based approach, with allusions to frequently taking bearings on compasses set to a North Star has much in common with the design-led approach to mission-oriented innovation we’re prototyping at Vinnova.)

“A more nuanced approach to appraising the utility of diverse types of evidence is required … The practice-based evidence pathway is neither inferior nor merely the best available when all else fails. It is often the only way to generate meaningful evidence to address critical questions about investing in population health interventions.”—Ogilvie et al

Finally, Harry Rutter, Miranda Wolpert and Trisha Greenhalgh, writing in the British Medical Journal, describe how COVID-19 could develop our practice in precisely these ways, embracing uncertainty and humility as well as complexity. They suggest we must “collaborate to achieve ‘viable clumsy solutions’”, which is a charmingly accurate description of many design projects as well as science and other research. They propose “five simple rules” for “Managing uncertainty in a pandemic: five simple rules”, which are worth adopting and adapting, pandemic or not.

“Instead of seeking — or feigning — certainty, we should be open about uncertainty, and transparent in the ways in which we acknowledge the limitations of the imperfect data we have no choice but to use. Teams should be encouraged to admit ignorance, explore paradoxes and reflect collectively.”—Harry Rutter, Miranda Wolpert and Trisha Greenhalgh, ‘Managing uncertainty in the covid-19 era’, British Medical Journal, 22 July, 2020

Nothing works except context

Perhaps part of the issue here is the core idea of evidence-based decision-making, or trying to understand and document ‘what works’ somewhere and replicate it elsewhere, simply may not work well enough. Context is everything. Local is everything. Models are not simply transferable, without significantly lossy processes. Finland’s aforementioned Housing First policy may be exceptionally inspiring, yet its recorded impact in Finland does not help it get deployed in the UK or New Zealand, never mind the USA.

A very useful working paper, ostensibly about randomised control trials (RCTs), was recently published by Angus Deaton (July 2020). In it, he addresses these issues of what he calls the mistake of putting “method ahead of substance”. (I mentioned Deaton’s work with Anne Case on American “deaths of despair” in Slowdown Paper 6: A language in crisis) I haven’t reflected upon the paper deeply enough, and I may very well be guilty of reading into it what I want, rather than what it says. Yet at first glance it’s a powerful rejoinder to a couple of decades of development agencies, consultancies, and others acting as if randomised control trials, transferable models, or simplified ‘what works’ principles, are enough. He puts it very simply:

“Context is always important, and we must adapt our methods to the problem at hand. … ‘Finding out what works’ is another common rhetorical slogan that, at least judged by its repetition, is effective among the public. Nothing works except in context, and finding out what works where and under what circumstances is a real scientific endeavor. What works also depends on for whom and for what purpose; what works involves values as well as facts.” — Angus Deaton, ‘Randomization in the Tropics Revisited: a Theme and Eleven Variations’, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper №27600, July 2020

This seems so self-evidently sensible that it is almost laughable. Yet it is so rarely the approach taken, across both public and private sectors, since the rise of new public management copy-pasted techniques from consultancies into government, and the grip of economics on decision-making cultures led to an obsession with transferable models and RCTs.

Ed. I implictly recognise this problem from my own career, for what it’s worth. I’ve often been asked for a simple model or formula to redeploy, or standard process to deliver, and I’ve generally refused, in favour of suggesting something bespoke to the context. This was usually to my own cost, in terms of making life more difficult all round (including for my long-suffering teams.) Even in devising a playbook, I was not suggesting a universally applicable formula, but a set of tools — really, a vocabulary — to adapt to context, and crucially, to ignore if they were not working, in order that something else may be invented instead.

There are many other eye-catchingly useful statements in Deaton’s paper (e.g. “Being wrong did not appear to conflict with being rigorous”; “Even in the US, nearly all RCTs on the welfare system are RCTs done by better-heeled, better-educated and paler people on lower income, less-educated and darker people”; “Finding out what works is not the same thing as finding out what is desirable. Good intentions by donors are no guarantee of desirability”; “When the RCT methodology is used as a tool for “finding out what works,” in a way that does not include freedom in its definition of what works, then it risks supporting oppression.”) And finally, this:

I see RCTs as part of what Bill Easterly calls the ‘technocratic illusion’, that is the original sin of economic development, an aspect of what James Scott has called ‘high modernism’, that technical knowledge, even in the absence of full democratic participation, can solve social problems. According to this doctrine, which seems especially prevalent in Silicon Valley, among foundations, and in the effective altruism movement, global poverty will yield to the right technical fixes, one of which is the adoption of RCTs as the basis for evidence-based policy. Ignoring politics is seen as a virtue, not the vice that it is.” — Angus Deaton (ibid.)

We can see Deaton’s directive that “nothing works except in context” in ‘down to earth’ work led by people like Cate Mingoya of Groundwork USA. Mingoya, writing at ENSIA, describes the work they’re doing as Climate Safe Neighborhoods’, to transform neighbourhoods that have suffered systemic race-based housing segregation.

Richmond, California (Climate Safe Neighbourhoods)

They are working locally as Groundwork Denver; Groundwork Elizabeth, New Jersey; Groundwork Rhode Island; Groundwork Richmond, Virginia and Groundwork Richmond, California in order to “organize, mobilize, and effect systems change to make communities more resilient to extreme heat and flooding.” In this way, they are making them more resilient to the climate, health and social justice crises. (Review their project pages, for example; it’s excellent work.)

“The projects are different, but the goals are the same: to empower disinvested neighborhoods to become more resilient to disasters of all kinds, and to make sure that people who live in these neighborhoods are driving that change.” Cate Mingoya, ‘In a pandemic, we need green spaces more than ever’, ENSIA

As Mingoya says, the projects are different, the goals are the same. We have this work to do. It will take time. Slowdown may give us the reason to locate or create that time. Events are not enough. Models are not enough. ‘What works’ case studies are not enough. It is work to be done, and it is highly local and contextual. Local, not abstract, is where the true evidence exists. It takes care and attention. It can only be done in the most participative of modes i.e. owned, genuinely, by locals. A true value of upstream thinking and practice may be that it is directly tangible to those implicated in it.

A good article by Jasmitha Arvind & Vinita Govindarajan at uses India’s streets to play out these contradictions and complexities, noting both the agency and ingenuity of shopkeepers chalking out new spaces in the street, whilst describing how Delhi police attack street vendors. Only in embracing their complexity will cities be able to address their complexity.

“If cities are recognised as complex, changing sites, lockdown policies can end up being more inclusive, accounting for job precarity of informal workers and the transient nature of migrant homes. A fluid conception of urban spaces can also provide solutions to fallouts of a lockdown.” — Jasmitha Arvind & Vinita Govindarajan, ‘Coronavirus: India’s lockdown has led to chaos because the government misunderstood how cities work’,

Related approaches for decision-making under conditions of uncertainty include the ‘hybrid forums’ model documented in the book Acting in an uncertain world, by Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe, which centres on productively flattening hierarchies between experts, non-experts, ordinary citizens, and politicians (an influence on the Brickstarter project I helped produce at SITRA, and much of my subsequent work with participation).

Helga Nowotny’s The Cunning of Uncertainty provides another point of interest, noting that a science aware of uncertainty rarely takes the straight line, preferring the oblique route, and producing results that are always provisional and essentially uncertain. (Nowotny’s work makes the case for these oblique routes of uncertainty, contingency and ambiguity, which is interesting to consider following Le Corbusier’s aforementioned dismissal of oblique routes, of what Catherine Ingraham later labelled ‘donkey urbanism’.)

Latour’s Down to Earth places these dynamics in the context of the climate crisis, making the case for place-based approaches which can ‘hold’ complexity yet remain firmly grounded. A different example, though on the same subject, is John Kay’s recent book Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers, written with Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England.

All these ideas could resonate with contemporary shifts in other arena, such as ‘feminist(s) project of belonging for the Anthropocene’, ‘convivial conservation’, or approaches centred on ‘more-than-human’ design. Gibson Graham capture this sense of open, ambitious, ongoing experimentation required of this mode.

“The reframing of our living worlds as vast uncontrolled experiments is inspiring us to reposition ourselves as learners, increasingly open to our interconnections with earth others and more willing to intervene in adventurous ways.” — J.K. Gibson Graham, 2011

These varying approaches, with suggestions of place-centred, context-centred, beyond-Anthropocene, or simply more care-ful participative development, all evoke a dynamic of valuable, inquisitive slowness, the polar opposite of the blitzscaling referred to above.

In recent decades, however, it is variations on the latter that has had a numbing grip on the mental models of those in economic development functions, in government innovation agencies, in the popular media, and in finance ministries using only the narrowest band of economic thinking and practice. It may be that the only thing we truly need to speed up is the development of new mental models predicated on slow growth.

Slow growth

The architect Lori Brown recently wrote about her own experience of the COVID-instigated lockdown/slowdown in the context of her work with feminist geography and border politics. She suggests a broader ethics of care, for people, place, and environment, rejecting the false separations of humans and non-humans, as well as the artificial structures and models it has led to; most obviously in the case of national borders which, after all, mean as little to a bird as they do to a virus. She concludes:

“My hope is that during this time of slowness we presently inhabit, within the quarantined-being-in-the-world selves we maintain in order to reduce the virus’s spread and protect others, this relational existence provides a way to more fully recognize our inherent inter-dependency and co-existence. This inter-dependency must become central to what actions will follow”—Lori Brown, SITE magazine

This relational existence, particularly when understanding the continuum of human to nonhuman life, does suggest other mental models for growth. Taking Lakoff and Johnson’s suggestion that metaphors frame our mental models, and thus action, one candidate that springs to mind would be slow growth timber.

Such slow growth wood is a feature of the landscape I happen to live within, across the Nordics, and the wider biome beyond (timber merchants lust after Siberian larch, Canadian Douglas fir, and Scandinavian redwood.) Old-growths are found everywhere, including in the rapidly disappearing Amazon.

Ed. I finished the first set of Slowdown Papers with the image of Old Tjikko, which Carbon 14 dating suggests is around 9,550 years old.

This timber is prized due to its hardiness, density, and beauty. And in its forest form, it is more resilient, produces greater ecosystem value, creates richer biomass, and crucially, research by Roel Brinean and Emanuel Gloor, earth scientists at the University of Leeds, suggests rapid growth trees do not sequester carbon as effectively as slow-growth trees, negating much of their potential as carbon sinks. (See also related research on old-growth forests.)

“Trees that grow fast, die young. It has been known for a long time that faster growing species live shorter. A balsa tree, for example, grows quickly to 20 metres or more but will live for only a few decades, while some bristlecone pine trees have been growing slowly and steadily for nearly 5,000 years … Our models indicate that faster growth results in faster tree death, without real long-term increases in carbon storage.”—Roel Brinean and Emanuel Gloor, University of Leeds

In line with the neo-conservationist movement I’ll touch on later, and the words of Brown, Gibson-Graham and many others—or the story of the Aso Minami-Oguni fab-lab-in-the-forest from Slowdown Paper 17—we might survey the rich terrain of more resilient forms of organic growth around us, rather than unaccountably harking back to the Blitzkrieg for a positive metaphor.

Forest near Granö, northern Sweden

Slow Growth, as in slow-growth timber, is not only richer metaphorical territory, but richer territory generally. Most of our new buildings could be made out of wood, in various forms from machined to hand-turned. A genuinely circular and restorative approach to products and materials reveals how much could be made from cellulose, or even nano-cellulose.

Ed. Subsequently reading the quietly inspirational Low-Tech Magazine on the history and practices of coppicing, a sort of middle-way hovering in-between forest and plantation, I realise that the urban coppice may be a more interesting line of enquiry.
Strandparken timber housing, Sundbyberg, Stockholm

These uses can create a positive dependency requiring the constant restoration of forests—Sweden has increased its crop of standing timber by about 70% from the time of the first national forest survey in 1923, despite significant production. These interactions underscored the see-saw strategy I sketched out in The New Forest (using the pull of wooden building at scale to stimulate the better care of forests, which would also reduces flooding whilst storing carbon in both buildings and forests, and so on.) Back to metaphors, the slow growth models of many Japanese companies, described in Slowdown Paper 18, mean they that of 5,586 companies older than 200 years in 41 countries, 56% of them were found to be in Japan. That is a resilience hard to perceive emerging in many of today’s tech companies.

All these bushels of co-benefits, and many others, come with the slow growth territory, literally or metaphorically. Blitzscaling? Not so much.

The nature of our transition from lockdown to Slowdown may be key. Compared to the fossil-fuel powered winner-takes-all model of late capitalism, with its endlessly divisive politics, a broad appreciation that we are in slowdown, whether we like it or not, begins to takes the pressure off in potentially useful ways—depending on how we approach it.

Dorling suggests we are working against the grain if we do not realise this. It is as if some greater force, some ‘invisible hand’, is guiding not markets but dynamic of change itself. We have tried to resist this, and continue to resist this. We have not yet woken up to this worldview and recalibrated our machinery accordingly. Some of it appears threatening, as if the great victories made in social progress, albeit patchily, have been simply paid for with the profit produced by growth, in the form of welfare states or trickle-down.

Yet not only does that ignore the inconvenient truth of the ultimately fatal ‘externalities’ produced by that mode—again, noting there is no such thing as an externality in reality—and not only does it ignore the numerous forms of inequality also produced by that dynamic, but crucially, it fails to see that the Slowdown has actually been produced by the hard work of social progress, not least in women’s rights, as discussed earlier.

This is lately joined by the clearly increasing awareness that we are reaching the limits of our finite resources, whether biodiversity or debt. Yet this recognition that a Slowdown could mean a re-emphasis on social progress, despite the fact that it is largely produced by social progress, is a long way from mainstream. However, awareness aside, we are implicitly slowing down, accordingly to Dorling and others. ‘There is no alternative’, to play back Margaret Thatcher’s awful phrase against her. Perhaps if we explicitly slowed down, we might enable forward movement on the things that matter. That will not be easy, but it will be a worthwhile battle.

Slowdown is a streetfight

The phrase “settling down” in English culture is of course rather pejorative, as if all the gloriously romantic and heroic ‘raging against the dying of the light’ associated with idealistic youth has been discarded, in favour of a meek and conservative retirement. Yet as we can see, events like COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter are not about ‘settling down’ in that sense at all. They are not really about vicarious ‘engagement’ on Twitter or cloistered academic debate. Instead, as Timothy Snyder writes in On Tyranny:

“Protest can be organised through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets.”—Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

In slowdown states like Japan, Sweden, and Finland, we end up on the streets too, from time to time, and the social progress there is absolutely necessary, more so than outsiders to those countries realise. Yet given the context, the slowdown may generally be a rather more careful, deliberate process, as many are beginning to realise that the slowdown is what we are in. In the USA, the battle is fiercer because the place is more fundamentally broken, more obviously in crisis.

We started with mental models and metaphors. Gary Younge, in the New York Review of Books, writes that:

“The killing of George Floyd stands not just as a murder but as a metaphor… it exemplifies a democracy in crisis.”—Gary Younge, New York Review of Books

And so this is where we do not slow down. There is immense social and environmental progress to make, and a need to do so rapidly. That killing, and many others, makes this horrifically clear, set as it is against a backdrop of the largest number of COVID-19 deaths by far, and an attempt to go backwards on environmental standards whilst producing amongst the largest total and per capita carbon emissions ever put on record.

The unthinking pursuit of rapid GDP growth can be seen as an utterly false goal in this light, a mental model so inappropriate that it is akin to trying to strap a Harley Davidson engine to a sparrow. (This crisis can be seen in other aspects too, as the USA achieves high GDP per capita numbers, yet performs far worse on the indices that matter — education, healthcare, life expectancy, childhood mortality — than many countries with less than half the GDP per capita.)

“Profit-maximising individuals and businesses, it turns out, can’t be trusted to create a just and efficient healthcare system, or to extend social security to those who need it most.”—Shankaj Mishra, London Review of Books

If being the world’s wealthiest nation means this utter breakdown — in fact, if it means actually creating those conditions of systematic racism and dysfunctional public health — shouldn’t we at least consider slowing down to discuss what the hell is going on? Use rage to bring inequality to our collective attention in ways that can no longer be ignored. But unless we finally cool the economic and political engines that produce that inequality, we will constantly tear ourselves apart on the streets, just as we will increasingly trigger pandemics and extreme weather. It may be, learning from previous events, whether the Arab Spring or 1973 Oil Crisis, that these protests are not enough.

“Slowing down is a very good thing — and the alternative is unimaginably bad. If we do not slow down, there is no escape from imminent disaster. We would wreck our very home, the planet we live on. We need to slow down because we have nowhere else to speed to without catastrophic consequences.”—Danny Dorling, Slowdown

But perhaps this will be the most challenging of narratives to develop, in a world generally attuned to value the exact opposite. Can we imagine a president stating they want the economy to slow down? To be inspired by the slow growth of a pine tree? To extol the more complex relational virtues of care over simplistic but measurable efficiency and ‘market cap’? Or promote living standards higher than GDP growth? Or to pin their decision-making on ‘mechanisms that explore uncertainty’ rather than maintaining a pretence at certainty?

“How can we develop regulations and digital pedagogies that prioritise “sharing,” “simplicity,” “conviviality,” “care” and “commoning” above growth?”—Shannon Mattern, ‘Minimal Maintenance’, Lapsus Lima, 2 October 2019

The Anglo-American model, so long the global standard bearer of that this model of growth, has absolutely run its course. There is little to learn from these quarters anymore, at least until there is a radical decomposition. The humility required to do that does not like it is happening any time soon.

In the London Review of Books, Shankaj Mishra, in that most elegant, learned, yet furious way of his, describes precisely how the Anglo-American model was in effect arrived at rather too easily, leading to a lack of resilience—at least compared to countries like Japan, China and Germany, all of whom have to construct new ‘social states’, in his terminology, in response to shattering failure and total breakdown. (There’s an excellent LRB podcast with Mishra, which is definitely worth listening to, or read his original article.)

“East Asian states have displayed far superior decision-making and policy implementation. Some (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) have elected leaders; two (China, Vietnam) are single-party dictatorships that call themselves communist. They share the assumption that genuine public interest is different from the mere aggregation of private interests, and is best realised through long-term government planning and policy. They also believe that only an educated and socially responsible elite can maintain social, economic and political order. The legitimacy of this ruling class derives not so much from routine elections as from its ability to ensure social cohesion and collective well-being. Its success in alleviating suffering during the pandemic suggests that the idealised view of democracy and free markets prized since the Cold War will not survive much longer.”—Shankaj Mishra, London Review of Books

It could be COVID-19, along with the next curves of the climate crisis, does indeed mark the equivalent shattering failure of the Anglo-American model. It sure looks that way. But will we see the humility, endeavour and collective will to build a new social state in response? Not under current owners, as it were. (“Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson: these are men you wouldn’t put in charge of containing an outbreak of acne.”—Ferdinand Mount)

Right now, halfway through 2020, it’s hard to imagine the current POTUS saying anything of value, never mind getting behind the concept of Slowdown, and suggesting that we might “Make America Slow Again, Make America Care Again, Make America Fair Again …”

Similarly, Boris Johnson is presiding over an omnishambles of such proportion in the UK that it’s hard to see anything of value there either. As much as it might pain some to finally look away, it’s currently far more instructive to study the Far East, Far North or Global South for ideas around cultures of decision-making, as Mishra suggests, rather than ‘The West’, at least in its Anglo-American mode.


There are many ways we might reach that understanding, whether prompted by the relentless arrays of data, graphs, and anecdote, or the fierce and righteous battles on the streets in Minneapolis and Porltland, or by the public health researchers embracing uncertainty, or by the deep reflective quiet to be found in the momentary darkness at midnight outside my window in Stockholm.

Move into the darkness, yes, and the ambiguity and the uncertainty — but do so knowing that it is more likely to lead us into the daylight, tilling the soil for ways of thinking and practice that are actually more in tune with our time, and the better times to come.

“Month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by mid-summer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity.”— E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910)

“A silver lining, if there has to be one, is that only a few days after lockdown, I could see the stars again for the first time in years. My city is at a standstill and the smog has cleared. The sky at night is a revelation.”— Wang Xiuying in Wuhan, 2020

Ed. Many elements of this piece originally featured in Tilling the Soil, an essay produced for the Rhode Island School of Design Center for Complexity event, Generation C, in May 2020, though it has been substantially rewritten and updated.

Next: 32. The inspired inefficiency of technology done properly
Previous: 30. The quietly radical importance of everyday infrastructures
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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