ISSUE N°1 — Apr. 2024

Future Observatory Journal

Design, ecology and a future


Bioregioning redraws the boundaries of climate action, using the immediate landscape as a template for design, politics and regeneration. Zooming in is the new scaling up.

Welcome to the first issue of Future Observatory Journal. Are you surprised to encounter a new iteration of something as ‘old media’ as a journal? You are probably not alone.

And yet we felt an urgent need for it. There is an empty lot in publishing where design, ecology and futures intersect, and it feels important to build something there. The primary reason is to reshape the discourse of design and ‘sustainability’. So much design that purports to address the green transition is trapped within systems and structures that have no desire to be changed, and will brook only a thin environmentalism. They will allow for improved recyclability, reduced plastic and the electrification of everything, as long as quarterly profits stand. Those innovations will never be short of coverage.

The purpose of Future Observatory Journal, however, is to create space for rethinking the frameworks within which design operates. We want to widen the space for considering more fundamental shifts in the narrative. The futures that this journal probes are those in which existing systems are challenged, modes of thought expanded and forms of practice evolve. But our strapline says ‘a future’ because, frankly, we want there to be one. So the journal is making a tiny stand against the ‘de-futuring’, to quote Tony Fry, of so much tech and net zero discourse. 

Since Future Observatory was established in 2021, bioregioning has been a consistent topic of conversation with researchers in our portfolio, and so it emerged naturally as the theme of Issue 1 of the journal. We have used ‘bioregioning’ as a verb, which we borrow from John Thackara and others, because it is an active form that is as much about people and knowledge as it about land. But bioregionalism has a long and uneven history, dating back to the counterculture of the 1970s, and carries an air of idealism if not naivety. It is both explored and critiqued in this issue. But the fact that it is an emergent mode of practice, even if mainly aspirationally, suggests a necessary challenge to globalised mass-production and mass-consumption in all their magnificent extractive efficiencies. We are used to thinking immaterially in ways that elide all boundaries, both geographical and ecological. Yet a regenerative future depends on recognising the ways that matter is rooted in place. The bioregioning espoused here is not some parochial idyll but a globally networked system for deepening the knowledge embedded in local landscapes.

Finally, a brief word about the way Future Observatory Journal is structured. We open with a Forecast that presents an overview of the theme and that, hopefully, conjures an alternative future. The Practice section substantiates that worldview with case studies in design practice, as well as essays and interviews that offer a richer investigation of the theme. And we conclude with Strategy, in which we zoom out from the practice level to examine what would need to change at the systemic or policy level for bioregioning to become a more accepted and practicable future. That’s the sequential logic, but please read and enjoy the journal anyway that suits you.

Justin McGuirk

Part 1 - Forecast

Interactive Essay
4 propositions


A Future Observatory Forecast
This forecast explores the ‘-shed’ as a radical way to rethink design and manufacturing.

Part 2 - Practice

2,700 words

Contested Terrain Introducing the bioregion

Ella Hubbard
Bioregions have a long and tense history. This primer charts the changing landscapes of bioregional thought, from the back-to-the-land movement to the deep ecologists and the resurgence of bioregioning today
11 annotations

Donella Meadows Revisited

Donella Meadows and Calvin Po
In this previously unpublished text, the renowned systems thinker sets out a vision for bioregional learning centres. Four decades on, we provide a critical annotation from today’s perspective
Case Study
1,925 words

Lo-Fab A local fabrication model from Rwanda

Cher Potter
For MASS Design Group, constructing a building means thinking through land, materials and craft across a bioregion. A new campus for conservation agriculture in Bugesera, south-east Rwanda demonstrates their particular approach
9 guidelines

A Manual for Bioregional Design

BC architects & studies
A set of guidelines, precepts and pieces of advice for designing with the bioregion in mind. Read online or print out the poster for your studio
6,040 words

‘We must choose between narratives’ An interview with Arturo Escobar

Arturo Escobar and Justin McGuirk
The influential anthropologist traces the overlaps between thinking bioregionally and pluriversally, with an eye to alternative futures for the Cauca Valley, southwest Colombia
Case Study
1,342 words

Slow Fibres Scaling the Fibershed movement

Shayari de Silva
Fibershed is building regenerative textile practices from Northern California to Sri Lanka. What are the obstacles to taking a local system global?
2,953 words

Off the Map Design across bioregions and borders

Justinien Tribillon
Reflecting on the friction between hard political boundaries and the blurry edges of bioregions
1,341 words

When Extraction Comes Home Mining the EU for rare earth metals

Sharon Prendeville
A new piece of EU legislation will dramatically increase mining for rare earth metals across the continent, securing supply chains but damaging landscapes. What happens when we are confronted with the material realities of our consumptive lifestyles?
From the Portfolio
5 objects

From the Portfolio Future Observatory research projects

Lila Boschet and Jennifer Cunningham
As well as publishing and curating, Future Observatory funds design research projects at different scales across the UK. From the Portfolio brings together a group of objects emerging from our funding portfolio which respond to the theme of the issue
2,317 words

Reading Saito in Kagoshima Slow growth possibilities in an incomplete city

Dan Hill
Environmental economist Kohei Saito is already changing the way we think about degrowth and climate breakdown. How might his thinking be applied at a neighbourhood scale?

Part 3 - Strategy

Strategy Report
2,831 words

Islands of Coherence

The implications of bioregioning for design, policy and communities