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The Bioregion: A New Frame for Designing the Next Economy

By: John Thackara

In myriad projects around the world, a new economy is emerging whose core value is stewardship, not extraction. Growth, in this new story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient.

These seedlings are cheering – but something more is needed for the whole to be more than the sum of its parts. A compelling story, and a shared purpose, are needed that people can relate to, and support, whatever their other differences.

A strong candidate for that connective idea is the bioregion. A bioregion re-connects us with living systems, and each other, through the unique places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibersheds, and food systems – not just  in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’.

Growth, in a bioregion is redefined as improvements to the health and carrying capacity of the land, and the resilience of communities. Its core value is stewardship, not extraction.

By focusing our efforts on stewardship as a new concept of value, a bioregion therefore frames the next economy, not the dying one we have now. The idea is culturally dynamic, too. It is literally and etymologically a ‘life-place’, in Robert Thayer’s words, whose unique geographic, climatic, hydrological, and ecological qualities – its metabolism – can be the basis for meaning and identity.

Designers and artists can contribute to bioregional development in various ways:

  • Maps of the bioregion’s ecological assets are needed: its geology and topography; its soils and watersheds; its agriculture and biodiversity;
  • The collaborative monitoring of living systems, the interactions among them, and the carrying capacity of the land, needs to be designed – together with feedback channels;
  • A bioregion’s social  assets – such as waste, recycling  and maker networks – also need to be identified, and connected to each other;
  • Spaces and places that support collaboration – from maker spaces to churches, from town halls, to libraries – need to be identified and, where needed, adapted;
  • New collaboration and peer-to-peer platforms are needed to help people to share resources of all kinds – from land, to time and knowledge;
  • New economic and business models need to be adapted and deployed, such as peer production, commons economics, and open value accounting,
  • Novel forms of governance and discussion must also be designed that enable collaboration among diverse groups of people and enterprises;
  • Every bioregion will need its own identity, too – what the bioregion looks like, and feels like, to its citizens and visitors.

None of these actions mean designers or artists acting alone. But in creating objects of shared value – such as an atlas, a website, a plan, a building, a landscape, or a meeting – the design process can be a powerful way to foster collaboration among diverse disciplines and constituencies.

Developing the agenda for a bioregion involves a wide range of skills and capabilities: The geographer’s knowledge of mapping; the conservation biologist’s expertise in biodiversity and habitats; the ecologist’s literacy in ecosystems; the economist’s ability to measure flows and leakage of money and resources; the service designer’s capacity to create platforms that enables regional actors to share and collaborate; the artist’s capacity to represent real-world phenomena in ways that change our perceptions.

A bioregion provides livelihoods, not just amenity. It builds on existing relocalisation and circular economy efforts that measure where resources come from; identify ‘leakages’ in the local economy; and explore how these leaks could be plugged by locally available resources.

One of real-world case study elements of our short course, Bioregionalism By Design: People, Place and Transformation at Schumacher College will be food systems. We will explore new distribution models and – with ‘social farming’, WWOOFING 2.0‘ and ‘care farming’- the direct participation of citizens in farm-based activities.

Originally published, 4 Jan 2016

Related Short Course

A Short Course With John Thackara, Pamela Mang, Joel Glanzberg, Isabel Carlisle and Simon Bradbury. This two-week course will explore the bioregion in theory and practice, and bioregionalism—the growing global movement that advocates the bioregion as a framework for broader social, economic and ecological transformation. Join long-term leading players in the field of systemic and regenerative place-sourced design who will offer design instruments and principles that will enable you to work at this regional level, connecting up many disparate projects and actors into a new narrative and strategy for action. Read More...

John Thackara

For thirty years John Thackara has traveled the world in his search of stories about the practical steps taken by communities to realize a sustainable future. He writes about these stories online (link is external) and in books; he uses them in talks for cities, and business; he also organizes festivals and events that bring the subjects of  these stories together. John’s latest book is How to Thrive in the Next Economy (link is external)

A Brit who now lives in southern France, John studied philosophy, and trained as a journalist, before working for ten years as a book and magazine editor. He was the first director (1993—1999) of the Netherlands Design Institute in Amsterdam; he was program director of Designs of The Time (Dott07), the social innovation biennial in England; he was commissioner in 2008 of France’s main design biennial, Cité du Design. John is a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art, in London, and a Fellow of Musashino Art University in Japan. In 2015, he received an honorary doctorate from Plymouth University. He is also a member of the UK Parliament’s Standing Commission on Design.

“Innovation happens when motivated people engage with a meaningful question in a rich context”, John explains. In recent years he has led Doors of Perception Xskool workshops in Europe, Brazil, India, and Australia. In each Xskool, a group of invited experts works with local project leaders to identify new opportunities and take the first step – such as a prototype, or pilot – towards making a new enterprise happen. Here are some recent examples: (link is external)

Doors of Perception is helping to lead a  two week course at Schumacher College which runs from 25 April to 6 May. - See more at: