John Thackara doesn't carry a rulebook. When the British-born sustainable design expert visits a city, he looks for people already working on innovative projects, or who have ideas worth exploring.
The "guest provocateur" is here for 4 Days, an "unconference" organized by local design firm Breakhouse Inc., intended to open up community conversations about sustainable design. "There's a slight problem with this sustainability thing. People think it's boring or that the interesting stuff has already been done, happening somewhere else," Thackera says on the phone from his home in southern France. "But that's not true."
Thackara will act as an "accelerator" for Haligonians involved in grassroots projects like urban farming, and for those interested in "having a conversation about what contribution their project is making to a potentially sustainable city or region."
It's a cross-disciplinary approach of sharing resources among like-minded architects, designers, developers and environmentalists. Though Thackara has many thoughts on development ("trophy buildings" have a short lifespan; forget tall or short, "what's the environmental impact?"), the bigger part "is finding ways of doing day-to-day activities in much lighter ways."
Artists also play a role as they "help communities look at the world through fresh eyes." Recently Thackara was in a rundown part of Berlin that's being revitalized by artists organizing community events in small galleries. "They're not sitting in a large gallery making all sorts of beautiful art pieces, they're trying to stimulate conversation," he says. "I don't call myself an artist, I call myself a designer, but the sustainability story is about getting people together to talk about practical things and it's a very fun activity."
Thackara's hefty resume includes a stint as design correspondent for The Guardian and director of the Netherlands Design Institute. Currently, as director of Doors of Perception, he organizes global conferences on design challenges around technology, taking a militant stance that "mobile telephones or the internet or websites are only crucial to sustainability in so much that they help human beings work together better."
In addition to Thackera's meetings, 4 Days is hosting the TEDx on Thursday, an offshoot of the popular Technology, Entertainment and Design conference. Combining recorded talks with local speakers, TEDx kicks off with a discussion on "Global Perspectives, Local Learning." On Friday, there's a special Pecha Kucha, focused on "Design a Better Life for Halifax."
On Saturday at 1pm, Thackera presents his observations from a most unusual podium: the second-floor balcony of the apartment building at the corner of Hollis and Morris, scheduled to be demolished soon. The 250-year-old legendary building will go out with a Cardboard City from Spacing Atlantic (see page 51), music and a barbecue.
Thackara isn't sure yet what he going to tell the crowd. "My job there is to say what I think is exciting and valuable and has potential in Halifax, and not tell people what to do," he explains. "I emphasize, that the value of me being there is to come at it with fresh eyes, no more than that."