By Design or by Disaster 2020


2-5 April 2020, Free University of Bozen–Bolzano, Italy

This series of conferences co-develops with the Master in Eco-Social Design at the Faculty of Design and Art of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. It is an occasion for a lively exchange on creative practices triggering eco-social transformations. Both guest speakers and audiences come from diverse fields of practice and professional cultures, ranging from progressive local agricultural entrepreneurs to internationally known designers, researchers and activists. The conference offers a mix of inputs, dialogical-collaborative formats, hands-on workshops and excursions in a convivial atmosphere (get in an impression via the web sites of the 2016, 2017 & 2018 conferences). In 2020 the conference will be again connected to the festival “hier und da – gut leben im ländlichen Raum / il buon vivere nelle zone periferiche” in Obervinschgau / Alta Val Venosta, a beautiful upper valley and a hotspot of eco-social innovation. This year’s focus is:

Focus 2020: Cross-cutting Strategies

The aims of the social-ecological transformation are clear enough: keep global warming below 1.5°C, foster biodiversity, functioning ecosystems, soil fertility, care, commoning and democracy; reduce the extinction of species, externalisation, exploitation, inequalities, injustices and alienation, etc. In other words, establish cultures and economies that allow a good life for all humans and other living beings worldwide now and in the future.
Which are the most promising strategies to succeed in this ever-more urgent transformation? How can a diversity of strategies reduce risks and create momentum? How can a multitude of complementary changes lead to a “great transformation” within the tight time frame of 15 to 30 years estimated by scientists to avoid the catastrophic decline of life on earth?
The conference will tackle these questions concentrating on transformation processes in which designers can play roles. We look in particular on what can be done within the European landscape while taking into account interconnections with actors in other cultures and geopolitical regions.

We are asking the following people and groups to contribute with talks and workshops: I.L.A. Kollektiv on pathways to solidary post-growth, Armin Bernhard (Obervinschgau/Mals) & Carolin Holtkamp (Uni Innsbruck) on the strategies for radical change in Mals / Obervinschgau, Saskia Hebert on transformation design, Extinction Rebellion on protest and progress strategies, the local FFF and Scientists for Future, Kathe Rich on Feral Business Coaching, the Center for Political Beauty on aesthetic strategies, Tillmann Santarius on the interrelations between the digital transformation and eco-social transformations, Elisabeth Shove on politics, practice and sustainable transition management, Laura Centemeri on social movements, ecological transition, degrowth and transformation, Harald Gründl (IRDV, EOOS) on change from within and activism.

We cannot afford to invite all. Which are your preferences? Who else would you like to hear, see and work with? Suggestions welcome.

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Transformation strategies designers are contributing to:

Connected niches


Many future viable alternatives are developed in niches. Their size and structure allow to be radical, experimental and to adapt quickly. They often are building upon situated knowledge and peer-governance, and are trying to move towards decommodified and non-dominant relations among humans and between humans and nature. Niches interconnect to learn and to strengthen each other, and to minimize risks, among others the risks of being co-opted or marginalized. Even if these distributed structures are increasingly well-interconnected, their agency might not be sufficient to get the transformation done in time on a larger scale.


Change from within

Others are trying to change the system from within its big structures, in corporations and institutions. Small changes there have a huge impact. But the long leverage comes along with the risks of becoming appropriated, of losing direction and focus, of making the system more agile and eventually “greener” without really changing its dynamics of exploitation and externalization, and thus, optimizing the wrong.  Rules and incentives of the current economic system make it hard for (big) businesses to work for the common good. The business models and power structures of the big players in the globalized economy make them path-dependent and resistant to change. But changing them seems to be necessary to get the transformation done in time.


Making things public and protest

Protest and other ways of making things public influence debates and attitudes. Social movements show how powerful this can be. But in the end, it’s decisive that changes happen in politics, institutions, businesses and daily life. When social movements don’t get to this soon, they risk running out of breath.


Technological innovation

Technological approaches are powerful today. But alone they might not be enough for succeeding in the great transformation for a variety of reasons: they are driven by interests of extremely powerful actors and accessible primarily for the more privileged and rich; even the most promising technological solutions in history showed “collateral damages” later; so far no country managed to decouple economic growth from resource intensity and environmental destruction, among other because of the rebound-effect – the phenomenon that more efficient technologies lead to more extensive usages, which overcompensate the efficiency gains (example: motors became more efficient, but more people drive more kilometres with more cars, which are more highly motorized, bigger and heavier). Therefore, technological progress without cultural and political progress won’t do the job. Depending on how technologies are designed, distributed and governed, technologies can be instruments of domination for the few, or of emancipation and empowerment for many.


Clearly, these are not the only strategies of transformation to which designers are contributing. To just mention a few others: circular economy, green and ethical consumption, sustainability education, change of attitudes, social imaginaries and practices, the creation of resilient structures, of spaces and instruments for democratic processes, participation, peer-production, etc.

The global policies and politics related to sustainable development are not mentioned, because designers barely have any role in international political negotiations such as in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is the basis of the Conference of the Parties (COP) resulting in the Paris Agreement in 2015, or the Sustainable Development Goals that have been formulated by the UN in the same year.

While the formulation of general goals has been relatively successful, the resulting transformation policies and actions stay within the business-as-usual of the current economic culture. In particular, wealthy societies and privileged actors tend to maintain the status quo. Only under pressure, significant changes seem to be possible. Within this type of societies, pressure comes mainly from big business/finance and their lobbies on one side (for example regarding the digital transformation), and from social movements and their supporters on the other (for example the climate movement). Decisions are often compromises and changes are correspondingly slow. Too slow to get the great transformation done in time. How can change processes become quicker, without sacrificing civilizational achievements like civil rights and liberties, rule of law and democracy? To the contrary, how can progress actually build up upon these achievements to move towards truly solidary and open societies? Which democratic forms of decision making can be activated? How can all this be done without fueling authoritarian actors and ideologies even more, but to the contrary withdraw their foundations and push them back?

How can the diverse transformation strategies complement each other to minimize risks and maximize the momentum for a quick and profound transformation? Which (kind of) collaborations, alliances and institutional arrangements should be strengthened and started? What can designers contribute? In which roles and processes? Which kind of design practices and strategies are needed? What are the structures designers can become part of or build upon to have livelihoods that allow them to fully engage for the social-ecological transformation in the long run?

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