Interview with Stuart Walker following the release of his new book, Design & Spirituality : a philosophy of material cultures.
Stuart Walker’s most recent book, Design & Spirituality : a philosophy of material cultures (Routledge, 2021) provides the starting point for an interview in which he contextualizes the ways in which we are in dissonance with the World and how our ways of living are at odds with other more traditional and more sustainable worldviews. He says this is a time to pause and reflect on the primacy we continue to give to material values and how our individual desires tend to override concerns for the common good. To effectively address the urgent need for change, we have to look at ourselves and accept responsibility for this crisis, which can only be overcome by a fundamental shift in outlook and priorities.
What made you decide to present this new book as you did? While it is very different from your previous book,Design Realities (2019), in terms of content, both have similar, and rather unusual formats.
Both books include essays, reflections, more academic pieces, photographic compositions, even poetry. These various writing formats emerge in different ways and from different sources – from systematically building rational arguments, from researching literature, from personal experience and memories, from observations, and from spontaneous thoughts and creative ideas. As such, they are representative of how we tend to think as people, and of the types of thinking that inform design. It is a format I find very useful to explore and examine design from different angles and perspectives. So, in a way, the structure of these books is similar to a product design – each is made up of an assembly of very different kinds of components that, when they are all fitted together, result in a coherent whole.
Bearing in mind that the spirit of things is a central topic of your work, how do you distinguish learning and understanding?
Ever since I was very young, I have created things – I have always found out by doing, and learnt about how things work by taking them apart and putting them back together. I’ve drawn things, played with how things work and how they go together and how they could go together in new ways. We can understand learning as the process of acquiring knowledge, which is rather different from simply acquiring facts. Learning is concerned with a deeper level of knowing – there has to be an internal process of understanding, an internal resonance and an openness to new ideas. We learn through study, books, lectures, observations and discussions, and also by engaging in practice, which is especially important in design; not all knowledge is explicit – not everything can be put into words. Design skills, many of which involve tacit ways of knowing, are learned through practice, and when they are combined with other, more explicit forms of knowledge this leads to expertise. In other words, expertise is acquired over time through an integrated process of learning, inquiry and direct engagement through practice. In this way, we learn through personal experience and an eagerness to find out about and engage in the world around us.
Thought put into action is, in many cases, imprisoned by an endless number of impositions dictated by the way we organize life in society. How can freewill be liberated from all external conditioning and the constant threat of segregation?
In any civilized society, freewill has to be modulated according to accepted behavioural norms – this is a requisite condition of living together in communities – we have to respect others and think of their needs and wishes, not just our own. Having said that, freedom of thought and freewill can also become overly restricted – often implicitly – by societal norms and education systems that, in many cases, direct young people into channels of thinking that prioritize particular subjects over others (especially STEM subjects over the arts and humanities, for example) and that prioritize economic interests and growth agendas over environmental concerns, cultural development and social equity and justice. Such restrictions and constraints can be very powerful. However, in a free society, they can also be contested, and the benefits of broader, more integrated perspectives can be explored and demonstrated through, for example, research, design examples, and local initiatives. Over time, these can build momentum and invoke broader, positive change. It is also important to recognize that long-acculturated norms can be effectively invisible to us – simply because they are long-acculturated norms. We therefore first have to learn to ‘see’ them for what they are. There are various ways we can do this. Travel and experiencing other cultural norms that are very different from our own can help us recognize that many of the things we take for granted and never question don’t even exist in other cultures. These experiences allow us to see our own culture, and ourselves, in a new light. Another way is through examining customs and norms from other times – history is important because it allows us to realize that many of the things we take for granted, and many of the problems these things have created, such as pollution and waste, are actually rather recent phenomena and other ways of living are possible, viable and, potentially, desirable.
Are the creative processes and the imagination hampered by the same circumstances dictated by the prevailing thought?
As you will have gathered from my previous answer, yes, I think creativity and the imagination can be hampered by existing circumstances and prevailing ways of thinking. To think creatively we have to step outside our comfort zone, we have to step onto uncertain ground where we don’t know where we are going and where, when or even if we will arrive. When we are engaging in the creative process we have to embrace and feel comfortable with uncertainty – if we knew where we were going before we got there, we wouldn’t be properly engaging in the creative process.
Spirituality and religiosity are different things. How do they differ in their more and less positive aspects?
Spirituality is concerned with an intuitively apprehended sense of something deeper – or higher – in human consciousness, which lies beyond rational thought and physical evidence. It is the intuitive apprehension that asks ‘why’ and addresses deeper questions about human existence – why we are here, what is life about, and how we should live. These kinds of questions have occurred and recurred throughout time. We seek understanding and answers to these questions but they always elude us in terms of any clear definition – they lie just out of sight – just beyond the veil. So, we keep asking – this is a fundamentally human characteristic.
Religions attempt to put some structure and social cohesion into these perennial human questions; they develop teachings and practices that are – essentially – concerned with how we should live in the world. At their core, all the major religions have somewhat similar teachings – first, a recognition of the mystery of human existence (variously associated with YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, the Tao and so on); and second, the importance of community and consideration of others (as expressed in The Golden Rule, similar versions of which are present in almost all religious teachings). Despite these fundamental similarities, cultural, historical and traditional differences mean that these religions are expressed materially and aesthetically in rather different ways; i.e. in terms of their outer appearances and customs. Even here, however, commonalities are evident – the mystery of existence is acknowledged through communal forms of ritual and worship, and the need to build and strengthen community is expressed through teachings that eschew selfishness and self-oriented ways of thinking, but instead advocate benevolence and charity towards others and the natural world. These things are common to all the major religions.
Importantly, too, they all tend to take a dim view of the accumulation of wealth and possessions for their own sake – regarding such pursuits as antithetical to spiritual growth. Nevertheless, we need some possessions and some financial means in order to live. This then raises the question, ‘How much is enough?’ The great philosophies and religions talk of moderation and sufficiency, but again, this is not definitive – we all have to interpret these in ways that are true to who we are, the times in which we live and the roles we play in society. But in doing so, we must always guard against selfishness and self-indulgence, which are common temptations. Not only do selfish behaviours negatively affect others, they also negatively affect us personally. Which brings us back to the age-old question, ‘How should we live?’
These questions are also important to designers – to what they design, how they design, and who they design for.
Individuals’ inner transformation, their evolution of thought and subsequent behaviour can stem from different social, cultural, economic and natural factors. What allows individuals to structure their spirit and their notion of what is common sense, the reasonableness of things and, above all, the maintenance of the necessary balances?
As I mentioned in the previous question, notions of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘balance’ can never be definitive. They differ according to situation, need, role, environment etc. Determining what is reasonable and what is a balanced response have to be constantly negotiated within ourselves – according to our needs, values, and inner sense of what is right and good. We have to have a well-developed sense of our own moral compass – informed and developed by the teachings of others – parents, family, community, and also the great philosophies and spiritual traditions.
Does the spirit of design have to be redefined? Some terms such as holistic approach or circular economy are frequently mentioned now as in the past, other guidelines have emerged but have remained only as a summary of good intentions. In your opinion, what set of changes can be immediately implemented and will have an effect, in a short period of time, on the most erosive aspects of an unbridled consumer society?
Many ‘mainstream’ companies and governments do seem to be stuck in particular ways of outdated thinking-and-doing that are preventing us from breaking out of our current circumstances in significant ways. The hold of consumer capitalism is significant – its priorities are constantly supported and encouraged by politicians and welcomed by corporations – but it is a system that is highly destructive and exploitative of people and the natural environment. In my view – and in my experience from researching small-scale enterprises in the UK, the US and China – other ways are possible, ways that prioritize community, environmental care and good work rather than constant economic growth and greed. Many small enterprises are living examples of different kinds of values and priorities – they are motivated by factors that are enriching on many levels – the social, the personal, the environmental and the practical. Many years ago, E.F. Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful – it was a powerful thesis that is still true today. All around the world, small businesses are doing the right thing, creating good work, producing good-quality, affordable products, using local resources, and contributing to their communities. There are new sharing initiatives, and young people are informed and motivated to invoke change – for the environment and for everyone’s futures including their own. These examples give me reasons for hope.
Has the role of teaching, the importance of the school and the university also accompanied this imperative need for us not to be accentuating the factors that point to the collapse of the environment and the extinction of many species including humankind?
Research into sustainability, from many different areas, shows the need for integrated, joined-up, systems thinking – holistic ways of knowing. Traditional, indigenous forms of knowledge exemplify this kind of joined-up thinking – practices and artefacts are not reduced to merely ‘form follows function’ and ‘efficiency’ but, instead, are capable of embodying and expressing functional, ecological, communal, mythological, spiritual, and philosophical understandings while simultaneously incorporating skills and economic management – these kinds of artefacts have complex, interwoven, multi-layered meanings which – in this regard at least – far surpass many of our modern technological products. This, however, is perfectly understandable. Artefact types that have been produced and used over centuries have had a chance to become refined and polished in terms of their design and to accumulate multiple meanings. Modern products that have only been produced for a few years have not accumulated such meanings – but, also, they never will because – for the most part – they will be disposed of and replaced by something different.
Our present educational systems generally do not facilitate these kinds of broad, integrated perspective on the world, which are grounded in intergenerational thinking and long-accumulated knowledge. Instead, we divide knowledge up into different subjects, departments and faculties, and young people are taught one knowledge stream among many. In addition, instead of looking to history and tradition and learning from them, we constantly look to the future and seek the novel and the innovative.
We talk of interdisciplinary and integration but we practise and teach disciplinary knowledge and separation between disciplines. There is a need to transcend disciplines – there is a need for post- or even anti-disciplinary ways of learning. In this regard, design has something to offer – fundamentally, design is a synthetical way of thinking – it brings together knowledge from a variety of areas and specialisms to create a new kind of whole. Design is not so much a discipline as it is a process – a way of approaching things. Achieving these kinds of learning requires openness, imagination and creativity as well as a contestation of the existing condition.
The pandemic situation we are experiencing at the moment has caused a vast number of effects, some positive and some negative. There is a kind of dogma related to science, and politicians with governmental responsibilities have used scientists in the vast majority of cases to give credibility to a set of ambiguous measures, to cover up their inability to organize and be effective in procedures. Isn’t it dangerous to rely solely on science?
The contributions of science are enormously important – this is especially so in these current times of pandemic – we are thankful to the medical scientists for so quickly developing effective vaccines.
The danger lies, I think, in skewing society’s endeavours too far towards, and relying too heavily on, the contributions of science at the expense of other ways of knowing – in the humanities, the arts, philosophy and religion. There are also problems associated with taking the findings of science and constantly applying them, in the form of new technologies, which are developed according to an undeclared set of assumptions and values.
Science investigates natural phenomena and explains to us how these natural phenomena work. However, when we take these findings and use them to create technologies we are making value judgements about what is beneficial – but we seldom seem to ask, ‘Beneficial to whom?’, or ‘What are the potential negative consequences of rolling out these technologies in the form of millions upon millions of products that last only few years before they will be replaced by new versions?’ The problems caused by doing this are not the result of the findings of science – they are caused by human decisions to transform these findings into mass-produced technologies that use energy and materials, destroy habits, create pollution and waste, and so on. Consumer capitalism constantly encourages us to take the findings of science, transform them into so-called ‘useful’ technologies, put these technologies into products (often deliberately designed to be short-lived), produce them in abundance, sell them, then do it all again, and again, and again. Obviously, on a finite planet this system is eventually going to exhaust all the natural resources and natural places and, effectively, convert them all into junk and pollution. And this is exactly what we are doing – and we’re doing it faster and faster every year because the main priority is growth.
Today we come to the conclusion that, after all, the term philosophy must be defined by an obsession with transparency and not, as previously stipulated, by a desire for knowledge. Your book also teaches us ways to contextualize how knowledge is perceived, measured or valued. Why is there an immense opacity, misinformation and illusion in relation to what is conventionally referred to as well-being, progress and success?
For far too long, notions of well-being, progress and success have been interpreted primarily in material terms i.e. improving our material standards of living. There is no doubt that many, many people living in the wealthy countries are enjoying material standards of living that were undreamt of just a generation or two ago. People have very large houses, two or three cars in the garage, all kinds technologies and automatic labour-saving devices, and (at least until the current pandemic) they travelled internationally for business and pleasure many times a year. They also have access to an enormous range of foodstuffs flown in from around the world. In Europe, we have cut flowers sold in our shops all year long that come from farms in Africa. These ways of living have to be challenged:
First, they are entirely unsustainable in terms of their impacts on natural environments and biodiversity.
Second, they are grossly inequitable – for a minority of people to be able to enjoy such high material standards of living, millions are living in poverty, working for minimum wages, and being exploited.
Third, these higher material standards of living do not make us any happier. In fact, the rich are getting richer, socio-economic disparities are increasing, and cases of depression and mental-health problems are on the rise all across the wealthier nations.
So why are we doing it? There is much vested interest in keeping this system going, but the problems are all too evident and are becoming ever more acute. Moreover, it seems we have been looking for happiness in all the wrong places – we have been looking out there – to material goods, luxuries, external treats and novelties. But true happiness is within – in the inner person – developing the right kind of outlook and attitude towards self, others and the world – it lies in compassion and benevolence towards others, in moderation of material wants and so on – these are the teachings of all the wisdom traditions down the ages.
How do you look at this propagated new digital age and the promotion of artificial intelligence?
New possibilities and new technologies can be employed well and thoughtfully or they can be highly exploitative and destructive. Our experience over the last 150 years or so demonstrates that they can bring benefits but at the same time they create enormous, seemingly uncontrollable problems. We therefore have to be very cautious and judicious in using, exploiting, and implementing new technologies and we must learn to practise prudence (i.e. foresight) if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes that have brought us to our current, highly precarious stage of human development.
The future no longer holds the promise it once did. Today, we have to be far more circumspect about the potential for good offered by new technologies, and balance this positive view with a thorough consideration of the potential negative impacts and consequences. We need to do this to a far greater extent than in our recent past. We have to be realistic and look at the situation holistically. We have to stop extolling all the virtues of new technologies while ignoring the potential (and likely) consequences.
We are losing an endless number of rituals, habits, traditions and, as a result, a loss of identity with repercussions not only in the communities but also in nature and all that it contains. Isn’t all of this contradictory when we are witnessing a widespread movement in defence of globalized multiculturalism?
The widespread defence of multiculturism is, perhaps at least in part, a result of the perceived losses we are experiencing due to economic globalization – which tend to have a flattening, homogenizing effect. Certainly, today, we are seeing something of a reassertion of local cultures, identities and practices, and a new valuing of those things that are becoming lost. In my own PhD supervisions, I have seen a rising interest among young researchers in traditional practices – in Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Asia. Young design researchers are exploring ways in which design can learn from and contribute to the sustainability of many traditional practices related to the production of products, food, agriculture etc. In addition, organizations like the UNESCO Intangible Culture Heritage programme, and in the UK, the Crafts Council and the Heritage Crafts Association, are supporting craftspeople and their practices. These traditions are important – they matter because they are manifestations of individual and community identity. In addition, they are frequently highly sensitive to, knowledgeable of and dependent on, local environments – they are repositories of context-based, traditional environmental knowledge.
Are we hiding from the truth?
I think we are not really taking on board the seriousness of our situation and how quickly we are losing habitats, species, air quality, and water quality. And with these losses, we are losing those very places that provide us with opportunities for spiritual renewal – the natural world sustains us not just materially but also spiritually – it is important for our own physical and mental well-being. The monocultures created by agro-corporations are incredibly vulnerable. The sprays and chemicals and synthetic fertilizers on which they depend destroy our insect life – and with it vital, aspects of the food chain. The oceans filled with plastics destroy our sea life. The list goes on and on. But plastic trees are no substitute for autumn leaves, bees don’t visit plastic flowers, and we don’t thrive in concrete, polluted environments.
This crisis is not a crisis of efficiencies, material intensifications, or greener technologies. It is a mistake to keep looking ‘out there’ – for the next technology, the circular economy, or some other latest framework, toolbox or guideline. We have seen many such schemes over recent decades and they have made little difference. Resource and energy use keep increasing, emissions keep rising, and the consequences keep getting more and more severe. The real problem is not ‘out there’ at all – it is ‘in here’ – inside of us – we have to look at ourselves – we have all created this crisis – we are all complicit. This is a crisis caused by our worldview; our ways of understanding reality, our world and ourselves; our values, priorities, motivations and aspirations; and our individualism. This is a spiritual crisis – it is about who and what we have become.
This is precisely why I wrote Design and Spirituality : a philosophy of material cultures.
Stuart Walker bio
Stuart Walker is Chair of Design for Sustainability and a Co-Director of the ImaginationLancaster Research Lab, which he co-founded at Lancaster University. He is also Visiting Professor of Sustainable Design, Kingston University, London and Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary, Canada. His research and design work, which have been funded by the SSHRC (Canada) and the Arts Council and AHRC (UK), explores environmental, social and spiritual aspects of sustainability. His experimental designs have been exhibited in Australia, Canada, Italy, and the UK, including a stand-alone show at the Design Museum, London. He’s published over 150 scholarly articles, and his various books include Sustainable by Design; Design for Life; Design Realities and most recently Design and Spirituality.
Photograph courtesy of Stuart Walker
Cover of the book image courtesy of Routledge