How to Design Better Systems in a World Overwhelmed by Complexity

An interview with Keller Easterling, architect, designer, and author of ‘Medium Design’

Image: PM Images/Getty Images

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 for a transit system using autonomous vehicles, high-speed rail, and buses rather than a world of infinite hyperloops — isn’t a galvanizing take. But her goal is less to galvanize readers behind her solutions and more to encourage a way of working and thinking that’s guided by creative reconfigurations and collaborations rather than delivering an imaginary TED Talk.

It’s difficult to pragmatically negotiate workarounds to or paths out of oppressive systems while still existing within those systems. Design, especially in the service of “doing good,” often ends up putting a Band-Aid over systemic crisis, and speaking abstractly about hacks and workarounds lends itself to accusations of complicity. Easterling doesn’t offer easy answers: One chapter of the book just outlines the near-inevitability of even the most well-intentioned systems going wrong and being corrupted. And yet, that’s not reason enough for her to give up or refuse engagement with the messiness of the world.

I spoke with Easterling in late January. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There’s a part in the middle of Medium Design where you say something about how ideas don’t burst upon the scene or sell books unless they’re presented as individual, leading ideas. When I read that, I thought to myself that this is the problem in trying to talk about the book—I’m sort of expected to say, “Keller Easterling says this is the way forward,” or something, and it’s really written in opposition to that whole idea of the singular great idea or perfect certainty.
Keller Easterling:
The book is trying to expose a kind of ideational monotheism for which we’re still hardwired. The assumption is that the author will unleash a radical new idea that kills the father and replaces everything else. Even when you don’t do that, they will say you did, and they will always use the word “radical.” But I am trying to find a trapdoor out of that habit of mind — the search for the one and only argument, the one and only evil, the one and only enemy, or the Manichean struggle. I want to multiply the terms and spectrums of assessment about politics to increase the chances for change. Consider not only a left-right spectrum, but also a spectrum of political temperament. Not in place of a left-right assessment, but in addition to it. Falling neatly into the trap, a well-meaning yet conforming response might be, “But isn’t that centrist?” Perfect joke structure.

I definitely had some moments where I caught myself reactively questioning the book, because I think I’m just so used to hearing phrases like “neither left nor right” and assuming that can only mean center-right compromise, because that’s the dominant mainstream American politics interpretation of rejecting the political spectrum.
I am not centrist. I come from the left, and I’m an anti-capitalist. But it seems pretty dangerous to me to make capital the singular evil, since there are so many other sources of harm — racist depravity, sectarian hatred, religious division, empires, violently sociopathic leadership, and countless other motives for hoarding authoritarian power while oppressing others and abusing the planet. Capital is often an accessory, but not always. You can’t really measure Trump only on the left-right spectrum. There are other things related to temperament, and they are strengthened by opposition. How can the left be better equipped to deal with these superbugs?

To talk about reverse engineering some of the multipliers in the market is not colluding with the market, but manipulating it. Trying to unwind it, undo it, find antidotes for reversing it. Using some of the market’s own multipliers as a counter-contagion is not “working from within.” It is not third-way neoliberalism. It is not seeing only the market as the only solution to things. But it is also too urgent to wait for perfection or purity. Most of the examples that I’m giving in the book are examples of mutualism. Most are trying to convert financial terms into spatial and environmental terms — to transfer from the abstract ledger of a dominant, often abusive market to a sustainable mode of exchange.

Sometimes it is even taking what would be problems or deficits and converting them to spatial assets through their interplay with other problems. It is the interplay itself that is valuable.

It’s auspicious timing that we’re talking this week, while the markets are having this paroxysm at retail investors finding an exploit in their system and inflating retail stocks. I think it’s interesting how badly everyone seems to want a tidy narrative—“The little guy is taking on the hedge funds!” But getting caught up in which side to root for means not really paying attention to the interesting thing, which is how power works and how much of this larger market system is kind of made up. Have you been following that very much?
I have been following it a little bit, but only newspaper headlines. I don’t do social media, so I don’t see a lot of other undercurrents. The exposure of market manipulation is brilliant, but it is still in the terms of that abstract market. There can be so much self-perpetuating buckshot. Maybe protocols that mix information of different types — heavy as well as virtual information — come with less automatic harm.

Another thing the book navigates is rejecting techno-solutionism without rejecting technology entirely. In one chapter, you describe this proposition for transit design based around switching stations for multimodal transit—combining rail and autonomous vehicles and buses, rather than insisting on one or the other. It’s honestly the first argument for autonomous vehicles that actually made sense to me—not as a singular replacement for all transit, but part of an ecosystem.
Yeah, the [modern] mind loves obsolescence and replacement. The new right answer must kill the old right answer, and there can only be successive thinking, not coexistent ideas. It’s insane that we think this way. And if there is a giant traffic jam of congestion because of using [autonomous vehicles] in lieu of transit, our modern answer is flying cars — the next new redemptive technology. There is a kind of theological structure. Each one is redemptive, transcendent, comprehensive.

I find it difficult in [academia], too, where there is a lot of emphasis on quantitative proofs or solutions. And this book is about another form of innovation that is not a quantifiable proof, a new technology, or a more precise measurement of doom. Instead, an innovation can be a relationship, a protocol, a way that things combine.

I wish the book could have benefited from the practical experience we have following the Covid-19 protocol. It goes from a scale of microns to the scale of territories, with all kinds of things in between — like tiny vapor droplets coming out of our mouths; big, lumpy six-foot distances; masks; and all kinds of behaviors. The innovation is not just the vaccine or new technology but the way we’re acting, the way we put things together.

Were there any examples of unconventional approaches to innovation that didn’t end up in the book that you would add if you could?
I just wrote a little blog piece for Verso about all the things you think about after you finish the book — when you clap your hand to your forehead and realize what you could have said. But for me it’s what we were talking about a minute ago, the burgeoning forms of mutualism and mutual aid — legal structures for reorganizing property against gentrification or cooperative forms of land tenure that have a tradition within abolitionist thinking.

Even small changes to law might help these forms enormously, but they’re also popular tools that citizens promote. I have a few examples of them in the book, but I think I could have developed it a lot more — dwelling more on case studies of community land trusts or agrarian trusts. There’s a growing bibliography that I could have referred to. And to reinforce the connection to abolition: Katherine Franke’s book Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition is a good reference. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s forthcoming book, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition, will surely be nourishing in this way. And I wish I had found a way to refer to Anna Tsing’s work earlier in the book — her discussions of capital, assemblages, and entanglement.

There are references in the text to these practical examples of land ownership and mutualism, as well as cultural analogies. One that really stuck out to me was using the scene of the seduction of Lady Anne in Shakespeare’s Richard III as an example of the workings of “political superbugs” — a term you use in the book to describe figures like Donald Trump who are able to manipulate people and conditions to their will despite being so transparently corrupt and irredeemable.
Because I used to do theater, I once had to play Lady Anne. It was just scene work that you sometimes do when you’re studying theater. But it’s always been a puzzle to me. I was trying to figure out what superbugs like Richard III and Trump do and why they succeed. That scene is a particularly good demonstration of how they do it and just how easy it is for them. They have a faculty that this book is trying to rehearse.

They’re very good at unfocusing eyes to see what people are doing — not just what people are saying. And they’re very good at manipulating these potentials. In the book, I talk about how dogs would never rely only on lexical expressions like “good girl” as a cue that it’s time for dinner or time for a walk. They also see potentials in the room, like where you are in relation to the door, the dog bowl, and the leash. Superbugs are really good at that. It’s child’s play to them. The easiest, almost effortless first step is getting you into a fight. Once they have you in a fight, you are in the palm of their hand. They can do whatever they want with you.

It’s interesting to learn that you have a background in theater, because one of the ways I’ve found myself explaining the book is that it’s kind of a philosophy of “yes, and” — the improv theater idea where an actor has to work with and build off the context being created with their scene partner. You don’t have to love your scene partner’s ideas, but you might be able to find something in them to work with. In the book, you write a bit about learning from the superbugs. How does one borrow some of those tactics without becoming a superbug oneself?
The forms of mutualism that we’re talking about — this knack, know-how, savoir faire, or way of putting things together — is a potentially constructive, nonviolent way of using all of those potentials. These are often undeclared potentials that even also lend a bit of stealth. There’s an example in the book of communities that use problems as a currency. Communities may have absolutely nothing. Not only do they have nothing, but they also have problems. But they choose to use those problems as a currency. They trade needs.

Characters who know how to do that are the people who have the knack, the people who have the savoir faire, the people who know how to do something — the cooks, urbanists, plumbers, and chemists of cultural interplay. The superbug tries to keep everybody in the old monotheistic thinking — tries to keep everyone fighting or oscillating between the one-and-only and the binary. But maybe resourceful designers can manipulate potentials in a way that outwits the superbug.

When I was telling someone about the book, they asked me, “So, do you think this is an optimistic book or a pessimistic book?” I said that I thought it was optimistic, but kind of like a ruthless optimism—kind of an absence of naivete and more of a tactical optimism, understanding that something has to work, and it’s probably more worthwhile to believe that than to be the most correct about how it won’t work. Is that a fair assessment? Is “ruthless optimist” a legible description?
Yeah, optimistic or scrappy, maybe. Or it’s trying to reveal some unexpected, underexploited potentials for design. So many designers are brilliant, correlative thinkers. They “know how.” It’s a pity when this incredible talent is sometimes restrained by the limits of a professional cul-de-sac, because the spatial practices that we’re talking about are much broader and consequential. There’s so much more to do and so many more ways that designers can engage. Sometimes it even makes me a little crazy that there’s not more cultural currency in spatial practices. I think I should know something about digital culture, economics, and so on. But it’s often not the case that a broader culture thinks they ought to know something about space. The book is a rough experiment in that direction that first has to get some relief from stubborn habits of mind.

Precarious author (Networks of New York), educator, and artist (currently, Pioneer Works).

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