"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next."

Arundhati Roy 

 

“Get your knees off our neck”

Rev Al Sharpton 

Damian White

Dean of Liberal Arts, The Rhode Island School of Design. dwhite01@risd.edu

Through facades, packaging, rendering, styling, streamlining, prototyping and performative promises, design has always been good at hiding. COVID-19 has revealed things below the surface about the design worlds we live in that the mainstream design industry, and a good deal of design education, has not been so keen to linger on over the last two decades. Design has many potential valances. There have been moments across the twentieth century when it has been open to systemic critiques of what exists and provided a space for dialogue with revolutionary social movements about the material, visual, spatial and cultural forms that could support an emancipatory future. There have been times when design has created a space where different kinds of voices could engage in worldmaking and desire-shaping. Yet design is also very easily drawn into formalist and instrumental approaches which cleave making from history, design from politics. A good deal of design thinking over recent times has largely traded systemic inquiry for the search for incremental win-win solutions within the existing system. This has oftentimes run alongside cultivated innocence for exploring the entanglements of race, class, gender, empire and other modes of subordination and ecological unravelling with our designed economies. Could an event that in two short months has left 350,0000 dead; become entangled in urban insurrections against ongoing police racism and state violence; undercut the income of working designers everywhere and which has possibly foreclosed the futures of many more young designers, force us towards new directions? Could it give voice to the marginalized currents within design which have long argued that discussions of racial justice and settler colonialism, climate crisis, labor exploitation, ecology and gender, have to move from margins to center?

Understanding the racial political economy of complex systems after COVID-19.

The pandemic has brought about — as all pandemics bring about — a confrontation with the design of “complex systems” to be sure. The impact of living through the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression is very probably going to have long lasting generational impacts. COVID-19 has torn across the landscape in some strikingly selective ways, preying on the elderly, vulnerable and immuno-compromised. It is likely that the economic downturn will negatively impact millennials in particular, flattening wages and curtailing their capacity for wealth generation. Moreover, this comes on top of existing research which has suggested that millennials were already dealing with a two-track labor market, delaying homeownership and holding more debt than past generations — particularly in terms of student loans. This moment may well deepen existing generational splits in values and political alignments. Nevertheless, as we have already seen in the debate on climate change, discussions of the racial wealth gap or the gender wage gap the use of generational thinking and categories to understand, explain and ultimately assign responsibility for phenomena, can quickly hit its upper limits. And, most obviously, in relation to COVID-19, as Keeanga-Yamahtta-Taylor has observed, if we miss how this pandemic has already turned a public-health crisis into “an object lesson in racial and class inequality,” we will miss much. 


When COVID-19 hit, upper income New Yorkers of all age groups quickly departed the city to their holiday homes and bolt holes across the country to take themselves out of harm's way while possibly bringing new viral loads to other communities. The pandemic has torn through the multi-racial and multi-generational working-class neighborhoods and households of urban America from Queens to Detroit. It left the racialized, classed and gendered bodies of healthcare workers, bus drivers and grocery clerks exposed and with no choice but to work. The owners of nursing homes and meat packing facilities successfully lobbied state and federal governments to protect their business from liability. The workforces in these facilities — disproportionately comprised of immigrants, women and low wage people of color — were forced back to work, often without adequate protection or healthcare. We do not have sufficient data on the social epidemiology of the pandemic to fully understand how genetics and demography, age and environment, race, class, gender disability and other factors interact with COVID-19. But, as Julian Brave Noisecat has observed, the fact that the Navajo Nation in the United States has experienced the worst cases of COVID 19 outside Wuhan is sobering. It suggests that when the histories of this pandemic are written in the United States, the way in which the coronavirus has exacerbated the existing deadly impacts of race and class will have to be foregrounded.

Critical to the structure of a green stimulus will be the construction of a design politics that builds out new climate resilient, but high-quality public infrastructures
“in beautiful, imaginative, low-carbon ways.”

"Most modern people assume that our species controls its own destiny. We’re in charge! We think. After all, isn’t this the Anthropocene? Being modern people, historians have had trouble, as a profession, truly accepting that brainless packets of RNA and DNA can capsize the human enterprise in a few weeks or months."

Charles C. Mann

If generational talk might not always help us grasp populations that can shelter in place and populations who are effectively seen as disposable, it would also seem apparent that if design is to grasp what is politically at stake in this moment, we need to explore not only the racialized political economy but also the political ecology of the pandemic. Notably, we will have to think harder about the ways in which the pandemic has operated as an epidemiological disrupter of the social ecologies that we have been busy (mal)designing for decades. 


The interventions of the epidemiologist and political ecologist Rob Wallace are important here. In Big Farms Make Big Flu, Wallace argues that we have designed an agricultural system that in terms of its economic geography has constructed a direct transmission pipeline between the deepest pathogens in the forest and urban centers. Wallace notes that the basic configuration of neo-liberal agro-food industries are premised on hyper-intensive factory farms increasingly reliant on monocultures, massive overuse of antibiotics and other pharmacology for their functioning. This has run alongside the dramatic expansion of land clearance and deforestation in the Global South variously driven by mining, animal agriculture and so on. It is through these patterns of change — changes which mirror Neil Brenner and his colleagues’ ongoing attempt in urban geography, to map the spread of planetary urbanization expanding into hinterlands — that we are seeing an increased circulation of pathogens.

Wallace argues such forms of animal husbandry and land use change, coming together with the land grabs, expulsions, the ongoing dispossession of peasant and indigenous people and the undercutting of rural smallholder production is bringing together animal agriculture and wildlife in novel and dangerous ways. A widening circuit of agro-production and trade extends increasingly deep into the forest and back out into the cities. As industrial agriculture spreads out it puts pressure on hinterlands and we see increasing spillover between wild and agricultural animals. A change in the ecologies of the host species that were typically confined to specific ecosystems are now increasingly bumping up against peri-urban regions where humans are concentrated. This is occurring across any number of species – from geese and bats to mosquitos. It is this configuration of agro-industrial production, that Wallace argues not only generates vast breeding grounds for zoonotic viruses but also, through deregulated global trade and travel, ensures that pathogens that are able to make it out can spread across travel networks and access susceptible populations very quickly.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic would seem to have demonstrated the salience of Wallace’s concerns. Again, his analysis invites design to engage with the systematic and structural issues he raises. In terms of political ecology of COVID-19, questions are going to reverberate around the safety and adequacy of the design of current agro-food networks for workers and consumers across the supply chain. We of course need to be aware that these discussions can quickly take xenophobic forms. We have already seen attempts in the US to mobilize populations around fear of the “China virus” and mobilize old tropes of non-white folks as disease carriers. But, as Charmaine Chua and her colleagues have argued, a more careful mapping of the politics of logistics might create new opportunities for organizing across these supply chains and more awareness of the strategic choke or leverage points that could open up opportunities for organized labor and environmental movements to press for different outcomes.

 

The extent to which the shock of affluential world experiences of supply shortage for the first time since the second world war may prompt a rethinking of the wisdom of large sectors of the economy being entirely reliant on global just-in-time production chains. Calls for de-globalization of course can take, and are already taking, quite reactionary forms. Prior to the pandemic we were already awash with populist BREXIT nationalisms, Sino-phobic trade war rhetoric and so on. But as Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen have argued, there are other power geometries and reconfigured geographies premised on solidarity, justice, low carbon imaginaries and ecological integrity which might have new openings.

 

COVID-19 has reinforced what has been clear for a long time, notably that the US healthcare system, the most expensive healthcare system in the world was failing dismally to meet the needs of its population and that a private pharmaceutical industry in the United States, ridden by conflicts of interest, has done little to invest in antibiotic research in three decades. Conventional wisdom had it that such entrenched interests were so powerful as to be only open to minor reform. We were told that it took nothing short of a great depression and the experience of World War II to create the political conditions to build the British National Health system. Perhaps the experience of mass unemployment, the sight of over-spilling body bags and medics being forced to jerry rig their own PPE with raincoats and scuba diving goggles might shift our thinking here?

The design, planning and architectural implications for the design of urban or rural futures that will be drawn from the pandemic are similarly hard to predict. Félix de Rosen has reminded us that from Olmstead to Le Corbusier the management of space through architecture, land use and planning has always been influenced by public health movements and anxieties about pandemics. We know from many of these late 19th and early 20th centuries debates that they unleashed a complex political terrain to engage with. Few have mapped this moment better than Dorceta Taylor’s The Environment and the People in American Cities: 1600s-1900s which documents fragile labor-environmentalist alliances often undercut by racist conservation and planning schemes, where anxieties about hygiene, “racial contamination,”racial mixing and eugenics often played a deciding role in the design of the landscape. Prior to the pandemic debates among conservation scientists, political ecologists and activists had already become fraught around the question of whether the best way forward is to support land sparing or land sharing, locally controlled agro-ecology, regenerative agriculture, sustainable intensification or some hybrid. [1] 

 

The relationship between urban density/sustainability and health is likely to receive a new round of interventions following the crisis. Yet what does seem apparent though is that all these questions raise systemic and structural issues. The will require that we dig into the racialized and classes histories of conservation and urban planning. They are going to require new or the reworking of old relations between design education, ecology, political economy and the humanities. 

[1] For some sense of the range of perspectives in the discussion see variously Raj Patel and Jim Goodman “A Green New Deal for Agriculture Jacobin 04.04.2019; Max Ajl “Beyond the Green New Deal”; Angelina Sanderson Bellamy and Antonio A. R. Ioris “Addressing the Knowledge Gaps in Agroecology and Identifying Guiding Principles for Transforming Conventional Agri-Food Systems” Sustainability 2017, 9, 330; World Resources Institute “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”, authored by Tim Searchinger, Richard 4. Waite, Craig Hanson, Janet Ranganathan, Patrice Dumas and Emily Matthews; "How to Sustainably Feed 10 Billion People by 2050, in 21 Charts" by Janet Ranganthan et.al.;  Ted Nordhaus “The Environmental Case for Industrial Agriculture”. On the land sparing/Land sharing Debate see Fred Pearce “Sparing versus Sharing” Yale 360 and Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher “Why E O Wilson is wrong about how to save the Earth”.

If COVID has laid bare the history and geographies of racial capitalism in the United States, in all its brutal cruelty, and upended the social ecologies of the present, it does ultimately suggest that design needs to be fully conscious of the deeply political role it will play in building post-pandemic futures. What are the resources that can guide us here? 

 

Radical designers have already responded to the pandemic through calls to help produce personal protective clothing via 3D printing, help generate pop-up testing sites and the like. Much of this work is urgent. The line between these kinds of proposals and what the blogger Kate Wagner has called corona-grifting can be thin if the latest singular design intervention is (again) disconnected from dialogue with broader social movements or any structural or system understanding of the failings of the system. We have seen a resurgence of interest in mutual aid, neighborhood support, talk of the virtues of victory gardens, WWI style and the like. If this contributes to a broader sense of communal possibility, it could be beneficial. If it merely re-enforces the default of the last few decades into more localist, small is beautiful, anarcho-radical interventions though, an opportunity will be lost. If we see the ways in which the pandemic has wreaked havoc across the landscape as symptomatic as well as anticipatory of the broader systemic crisis — of climate, institutional decay, political legitimacy and inequality that surround liberal democracies everywhere — we are going to need to work with design friendly political imaginaries that might allow us to both grasp the complexity of this moment and think and act differently at many scales.

 

Let us consider three bigger imaginaries here — the ecological/climatological, the digital and the decolonial that, both prior to the pandemic and after the pandemic, are going to decisively shape the politics of our designed futures and, more likely, are going to require a design politics that can address systemic and structural failings.

Design and Planning
for a Green New Deal

The Green New Deal has had many half-lives since it first emerged in 2008 as a set of proposals to deal with the Great Recession of 2008/2009. We have had fairly straightforward technocentric and neo-liberal iterations of the Green New Deal proposed by Tom Friedman, corporatist Green New Deals proposed by the European Commission and all manner of further national and regional variations that have their own distinct features. The most recent political eruption of the Green New Deal in the US, triggered by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s failed attempt to establish a special house committee to create a Green New Deal in November 2018, has had an interesting afterlife. 

 

The core theme of the Green New Deal is that the climate emergence necessitates that we must now embark on a vastly complex multi-decade iterative ongoing project to decarbonize the whole economy and adapt as best we can to a warming world. But most critically this must be done in ways that support and augment struggles for social, environmental and racial justice. At the core of AOC and Markey’s proposal was the notion that in order for designs for post carbon energy transition to obtain any kind of public support, they need to be linked to broader hopes and aspirations for better jobs, affordable healthcare, sustainable urban worlds, viable and regenerative rural worlds. 

 

As is well known, House Resolution 109 was quickly dismissed as a “green dream or whatever” by Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. It generated further ire from various center-right environmental groups such as Jerry Taylor at The Niskanen Center or the Breakthrough Institute who warned that the GND was overloading the climate agenda with additional social issues which would merely guarantee failure. Who was going to fund this boondoggle? Such liberal grandstanding, according to climate realists, failed to understand that any possible post-partisan path to success in the US Senate would almost have to go through Susan Collins and Joe Manchin and speak to their political concerns. Even sympathizers of HR109 could acknowledge in November 2018 that it was a proposal that was big on aspirations and short on details. [2]


The obstacles to the realization of the GND have not disappeared and its critics and detractors are still there. But the GND has been propelled forward not only by the ongoing (and often invisible) work of environmental justice movements led by women and people of color who have anticipated the arguments of the GND for nearly two decades, but also by a re-galvanized indigenous movement which has offered us the Red Deal by Generation Gretta and hundreds of thousands of school strikers. Additionally, the GND has been amplified by the voices of a generation of younger academics, policy makers and activists – to be found in New Compass, Date for Progress, the Democracy Collective, 350.org, People's Policy Project, the Design Justice Network, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Feminists for a Green New Deal and Sunrise. [3]

If COVID has laid bare the history and geographies of racial capitalism in the United States, in all its brutal cruelty, and upended the social ecologies of the present, it does ultimately suggest that design needs to be fully conscious of the deeply political role it will play in building post-pandemic futures. What are the resources that can guide us here?

[2]For Right of Center critics of the GND see Jerry Taylor An Open Letter to Green New Dealers and Michael Liebrereich Green New Deal – Trumpism with Climate Characteristics”. For a centrist take on the Green New Deal from the Breakthrough Institute see The Green New Deal and the Legacy of Public Power”. For Left/radical critics of the Green New Deal proposal see Between the Devil and the New Green Deal”. A response from the Indigenous Environmental Network can be found here Talking Points on the AOC-Markery Green New Deal (GND) and Resolution. For excellent reviews of the whole debate see Thea Riofrancios Plan, Mood, Battlefield - Reflections on the Green New Deal and David Robert’s The Green New Deal, Explained.

[3] For a small selection of a vast literature see Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Thea Riofrancos A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, Verso, 2019; A Feminist Agenda for a Green New DealNick Estes 2019 “A Red Deal”.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Green New Deal, though, has been the ways in which it has legitimized the work of assorted architects, designers, planners and engineers to consider the legacies of their disciplines past to create openings for the future. It has also forced more of a systemic turn in our architecture-design and politics discussions. For example, Billy Fleming and Nick Pevzner have both observed that the Green New Deal has exposed the drastic curtailment of ambition that four decades of neoliberalism has had on the potential to develop public focused architectures, urban planning and landscape designs. For a field that once proposed interventions into urban futures and the construction of public infrastructures as grand as Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace in Boston, the GND has highlighted the massive constraints that have been imposed on forms of architecture and design that are now largely focused on office park prettification, or improving possibilities for real estate accumulation. Fleming and Pevzner have also sought to highlight the many ways in which the first New Deal not only put artists and designers back to work through the Civilian Conservation Core, The Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, but also called architecture, designers and artists to a public mission and actually employed them to enact this vision. Most critically though, these interventions underline that the construction of a post-carbon future is unthinkable without galvanizing the whole field of professional design to step up. The Green New Deal here could provide a mechanism for employment but also a means through which all kinds of designers have career paths in public service open to them that have largely been foreclosed. 

 

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the evolving discussion around the contribution that design could make to the green new deal is just the recognition that there is no shortage of work to do. The Green New Deal, for example, asserts that we will need to decarbonize the grid in 10 years. Whether we accept this deadline or not, as Kiah Goh and Dustin Mulvaney have observed, this call to implement a transformation of the power grid has profound implications on land use change, urban planning, the use of public land and national parks. And as such, the implementation of the kinds of cross continental transmission infrastructure and smart grids that can facilitate load sharing are going to depend on a transformation of the planning infrastructure. As Kate Aronoff has argued, it may also require extended engagement with the design of new models of social ownership for energy utilities, or reconsidering the possibilities of co-operative utilities.    

 

Daniel Aldana Cohen and Johanna Bozuwa have similarly focused on the need for a Green New Deal to make connections between the climate crisis and the housing crisis. Both have focused on the urgency of re-legitimizing and the need for affordable, sumptuous, low carbon public housing at the center of future political struggles. As Cohen has elegantly argued, there are multiple models, from the public housing constructed by municipal socialists in Red Vienna to the experiments with housing co-operatives, that could guide us here. Such observation connects to the ongoing work of Daniel Barber to re-read and unpack the tangled complexity of modernism in architecture. Barber has argued modern architecture was a climate project in many respects, which allowed and focused on the management of climate and climate adaptability. To be sure it had authoritarian aspects but it also had insights that we are not done with. Alexandra Lillehei and Billy Fleming again have argued that, in terms of public infrastructure, the pandemic has drawn attention to the central role that parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces play in cultivating our collective well-being. Critical to the structure of a green stimulus will be the construction of a design politics that builds out new climate resilient, but high-quality public infrastructures “in beautiful, imaginative, low-carbon ways.”

 

The Green New Deal is an imperfect, evolving discussion. It has, for the first time in a generation though, stimulated a substantive discussion between designers, planners, radical policy advocates and critical theorists about the systemic failings of where we are now and how a consequential design politics might work and think about its interventions at scale that could contribute to structural change.

The Stack, Terraforming
and Digital Design Futures