How to Design Better Systems in a World Overwhelmed by Complexity
An interview with Keller Easterling, architect, designer, and author of ‘Medium Design’
Keller Easterling is an architect, designer, and author whose works traverse a wide range of spaces. I came to her work as someone interested in complex systems — a topic that Easterling, a professor of architecture at Yale, has been writing about for decades. She has written about everything from the Appalachian Trail (in Organization Space) to North Korea’s demilitarized zone (Enduring Innocence) to special economic zones and broadband infrastructure (Extrastatecraft).
Medium Design, Easterling’s new book, can be read as a corollary to her prior work. Extrastatecraft, for instance, provides detailed descriptions of various sprawling, techno-solutionist systems that prop up capitalism and their negative impacts — but readers didn’t find explicit guidance concerning what to do about them. To be fair, a lot of books about capitalism do this; there’s plenty of cultural currency in being the most right about how bad things are. And factoring in the interconnected crises of climate change, political demagoguery, algorithm-enabled far-right radicalization, ever-widening income inequality, ever-growing refugee populations, and, of course, living through a pandemic, things are pretty bad, and solutions are badly needed.
Easterling doesn’t provide simple solutions. Medium Design actively works against popular culture’s hunger for simple solutions. While embracing a diversity of tactics for a diversity of crises, Easterling puts forward an expansive definition of “design” that includes examples of systemic hacks like community land trusts and tactical refusals of market norms like social capital credits. The “medium” in question is more a reference to being in the midst of things and making unusual connections rather than something between XS and XL design.
Technology tends to be the handmaiden of grand narrative thinking, with a lauded new idea (blockchain, self-driving cars, living in space) deployed to steamroll and erase current problems. Easterling’s observation that integrating new technologies with existing ones rather than full replacement — such as introducing multimodal transit switch points…