Radical Design For A World In Crisis

There are no neat solutions to the intertwined climatic, economic and political crises of our time. What will move us all forward together is a radical reimagining of how to design the future.

Nino Ferrão for Noema Magazine

Anab Jain is the co-founder and director of Superflux, a design futures company and art studio, and a professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.


This essay, which has been adapted from a keynote Anab gave at the Design for Planet Festival in November 2022, was developed in collaboration with Isabelle Bucklow, a writer and researcher at Superflux.

ERZEBERG, Austria — Huddled together at the edge of a precipice overlooking an abysmal void, we gasped for breath. Below us opened a vast pit slowly cannibalizing the Earth’s innards. Scorched and dusty terraces cut deeper and deeper into the red rock, a ziggurat carved over at least 700 years of industrial activity. 

The Erzeberg mine produces more than 2 million metric tons of iron ore each year. Considered the world’s largest deposit of the iron mineral siderite, it has been a place of mineral extraction for centuries. Until explosives became used in mining in the 18th century, workers used hammers and chisels to delve deep into the rock. Such was their industry that nearby villages became central locations of the mineral trade, becoming quite wealthy and fueling industrial development throughout Europe. 

Recent estimations of the mine’s incredible mineral wealth project it could continue operating at its current pace for another four decades. Standing there at the edge of the viewing platform overlooking uncountable millennia of exposed geological history, I thought of a question posed by the Italian philosopher Federico Campagna: “What will remain of us?” he wondered in a recent book. “What will stand the test of the end of our future?”

The goal of our visit to the mine, organized through Design Investigations, a program I lead at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, was to surface the ecological entanglements of our material histories as well as the legal, social and economic implications and complexities that emerge from and are covered or uncovered by such excavations. To design today is to acknowledge and explore the nuance of these complexities. 

Following our visit to Erzeberg, we went on to Voestalpine. A two-hour drive north, Voestalpine is a cavernous smelting facility. At the furnaces, engulfed in heat, we observed men in industrial helmets and overalls made of a ceramic fiber and reflective aluminum shoveling ore into the flames to be transformed into steel, as if they were alchemists. Temperatures by the fire can reach 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Tracing the transformation of ore to steel was a neat step along a complex, distributed production system. Erzeberg’s ore often becomes European railway lines, some of which we rode on our journey. But Voestalpine needs much more — the remainder is sourced mostly from Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Texas and Ukraine. Some comes from the edge of the Amazon rainforest, where mines degrade an ecosystem vital not just for the Indigenous communities of the forests, who are forced to pay a heavy price for this large-scale terraforming, but to the entire world.

“The location of vital minerals and materials dooms some communities to be uprooted, others to be enriched.”

The overarching narrative here is that some people — their lives, livelihoods and environments — must be sacrificed for what is considered the world’s second-most important commodity after oil. The location of vital minerals and materials dooms some communities to be uprooted, others to be enriched. As we go further into an era where planetary warming is driving a green energy transition, the need for what David Wallace-Wells calls “an entirely new extractive economy” becomes even more urgent.

Wind turbines are made of steel. Rare-earth elements such as neodymium are needed for the magnets used inside turbine generators. Copper is essential to all power generation infrastructure and electric vehicle technology. In 2020, a World Bank report noted that the production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt could increase by nearly 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean-energy technologies. Riccardo Puliti, the World Bank’s vice president for infrastructure, concluded the report with an expression of confidence in climate-smart mining. 

I’m dubious. The knotty, painful complexities and tensions of the challenges we face rarely have neat solutions. While it’s important to advocate rail travel and (maybe) electric vehicles, it’s also vital to understand that narratives of “clean growth” will have deep and disruptive consequences on communities and ecosystems — often in countries or communities that played no role in the climate crisis yet are expected to bear the brunt of its effects. 

Mining the minerals essential for a green energy transition may appear to solve a problem, but there never is just one problem. As Gregory Bateson warned: “You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system — and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.” Where ill-logic propagates, the environment gets ill, and societies get ill. 

Mining does not follow a linear progression with a neat end. It is a thread that loops, tangles and frays — one of a multitude in a dense tapestry of planetary entanglements. Considering mining as a problem to be solved or solution sanctioned from further problematization, participates in a binary logic of brittle absolutes that we must dissolve. 

The Erzeberg mine. (Stefan Zinell)

Working Between

Turning to design as a guide for how to transform mining is perhaps counterintuitive. Design has a rich history of solutionism; it is a field overrun by proponents of ceaseless growth and endless products. 

But to detour away from solution-oriented thinking, we find ourselves seeking out alternatives that can adequately address the crisis we currently face. As the architect Keller Easterling observes, our dominant cultural predilection for declarative solutions and answers inadvertently eliminates “the very information we need,” which causes us to continue “banging away with the same blunt tools that are completely inadequate to address perennial problems and contemporary chemistries of power.” Easterling’s “medium design” is a practice that accommodates complication, interdependence, misdirection, redundancy, contradiction and failure.

Bruno Latour similarly offered an anthropological and philosophical understanding of design that expands the potential of what he termed “the little word.” “The little word design,” he stressed, is “an important touchstone on how to draw things together.” It promotes “modesty, care, precautions, skills, crafts, meanings, attention to details, careful conservations, redesign, artificiality and ever-shifting transitory fashions.”

Such interventions might at first seem out of step with traditional notions of “design,” but they are gaining momentum, reframing (as the artist Sara Hendren is doing) the work of designers as impresarios, translators, radical generalists and believers. Given the scale and knottiness of the challenges we face, we see design playing a fundamental role as an intermediary, a joiner, working between the problem-solution dichotomy to uncover practices and tools and approaches that might offer entirely new possibilities. 

The practice I’m teasing out, or drawing together, is what I would like to call “ancillary design.” 

“We need to foreground how we’re a part of a larger ecology rather than the masters of our surroundings.”

Mycelial Emergence

“To appreciate the patchy unpredictability associated with our current condition, we need to reopen our imaginations.”
— Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

The operational conditions of ancillary design do not follow a top-down process, nor can they be anticipated, systematized or plotted on paper. The operational conditions of ancillary design require us to reopen our imaginations to a design practice that is akin to mycelial growth. 

Mycelium travels the dark recesses of the Earth; it moves through unseen spaces and emergent conditions, and as it moves it finds and forges new connections and alliances. To the human eye, soil is a space of unknowns. To mycelium, the dark is rich with possibility; through intuitive exploration, mycelium metabolizes such possibilities, making use of what is available while simultaneously nurturing all around it. Such a cooperative interface is essential for ancillary design. 

Ancillary design does not fear the unknown, the undefined and ambiguous; it thrives in between and beneath. Open to ambiguity, it is a practice of moving through a vast ecology of nonlinear causality and emergence. 

The term ancillary comes from the Latin for “subservient, subordinate, serving as an aid.” It is generally affiliated with spatial design and liminal spaces: the loose shadows that haven’t been formalized for specific activities and intended outcomes. Ancillary spaces are not the primary reason for a building to exist, yet they are integral to its functioning. They are transitional or circulation spaces: opportunities for serendipity, for unknown synchronicities, for new emergent connections to be formed.

Ancillary design is not a new idea. It sits in close proximity with post-humanist theories of assemblage, which understands power and social structures as emergent relations defined by interactions and transformations. Nor is its definition locked. To develop it, I am listening to what is already there — to the energetic hums beneath the surface and between the cracks, searching for ways we might nurture and mobilize radical potentialities.  

“Ancillary design does not fear the unknown, the undefined and ambiguous.”

The Method Of Myth

“There are no singular causes. And there are no individual agents of change. Responsibility is not ours alone. And yet our responsibility is greater than it would be if it were ours alone. Responsibility entails an ongoing responsiveness to the entanglements of self and other, here and there, now and then.”
— Karen Barad, “Meeting the Universe Halfway”

One of the key concerns in ancillary design is to resuscitate an ongoing responsiveness to self and other and nurture a responsibility to the Earth. Before we can address the planetary emergencies we face, we must view ourselves as not separate from “nature” but deeply entangled in it. We need to foreground how we’re a part of a larger ecology rather than the masters of our surroundings. 

The nascent roots of ancillary design can be traced back to my childhood. Growing up in Ahmedabad, a populous city of 5.5 million people near India’s western coast, my imaginary landscape was formed by fantasy — mythical creatures, serpents and demons, flying machines, parallel worlds, realms hidden from sight.

This in-between function of myth has a binding capacity, capable of connecting us to the future and prehistory simultaneously, or reconciling different species, temporalities and cosmologies. Myths decenter the human; they offer an opportunity to reexamine our relationship with nonhuman life and the nonliving world, to envision potential futures and reunite us with ancient customs and rites. 

Two years ago, in an effort to explore these ideas, the team at Superflux, the design futures company and art studio I co-founded with Jon Ardern, presented a mythic multispecies banquet set in an imagined future at the Venice Biennale. At a table with 14 stools, plates and ceremonial cutlery were laid for a fox, rat, wasp, pigeon, cow, human adults and child, wild boar, snake, beaver, wolf, raven and mushroom. Outside a “window” was a rewilded city built upon the sediments of plural histories, representative of ecological resurgence. This mythology, a post-apocalyptic vision of more-than-human reciprocity, was accompanied by stories, rituals, soundscapes and handcrafted artifacts. 

“Refuge For Resurgence” by Superflux. Exhibited as part of “Our Time On Earth” in London in 2022. (Superflux & Mark Cocksedge)

Claude Levi-Strauss has observed how artistic representations or material constructions of abstract ideas can “reconcil[e] on the imaginary plane those social contradictions which cannot be resolved on the real plane.” This reconciliation doesn’t so much flatten conflict but rather hold and maintain difference. This opens up the psychic space to ask “What if?” and allow people to experience, test out and embody alternatives to the present. The multispecies banquet didn’t ask onlookers to think of the logistics of a dinner party with a snake. Instead, we wanted people to reopen their imaginations, to wonder: What world might emerge if we saw ourselves as an intimate part of a wider ecological whole?

Inspired by quantum entanglement, where two particles can behave as a single entity even when separated by great distance, Denise Ferreira da Silva wrote of “difference without separability.” What if, she wondered, “beyond their physical (bodily and geographic) conditions of existence, in their fundamental constitution, at the subatomic level, humans exist entangled with everything else (animate and in-animate) in the universe.” In “The Life of Lines,” Tim Ingold writes beautifully on this entangled existence using an oceanic analogy: “Real-life human beings inhabit a fluid reality in which nothing is ever the same from one moment to the next and in which nothing ever repeats. In this oceanic world, every being has to find a place for itself by sending out tendrils which can bind it to others. Thus hanging on to one another, beings strive to resist the current that would otherwise sweep them asunder.”

We sought to explore similar ideas in our multispecies banquet, employing mythic narrative to form a non-hierarchical point of encounter between species. Viewers’ full sensory and cognitive capacities were activated by the installation. They were surrounded in sound, smell and materiality, able to engage in communion with the more-than-human world. Our embodied knowledge is how we come to know the world; we move through the world, and it moves us. This continuous exchange defies the binary barbarism of the mind-body paradigm to catalyze a shift to a felt sense of response-ability and care.

“The operational conditions of ancillary design require us to reopen our imaginations to a design practice that is akin to mycelial growth.”

Undermining Extravist Paradigms

In 2018, to counter rampant deforestation in the Amazon, a group of young Colombians successfully sued the country’s Ministry of Environment and secured political rights for the forest, as if it were a human. This historic legal victory seems undoubtedly positive. And yet, as Emily Barritt, the co-director of the Transnational Law Institute, explained, there were inadvertent repercussions on vulnerable groups.

But the young campaigners were later horrified to find out that as a consequence of their “victory,” subsistence farming communities living in the rainforest had been forcibly removed from their land — environmentalism had become police action. The rationale was that, as a protected area, it should thus be free from human habitation.

This is just one instance of an all-too-common government tactic which “propagate[s] and maintain[s] the dispossession of Indigenous peoples for the common good of the world,” as Jodi Byrd puts it. The Colombian government’s cynical action cruelly showed the need for a broader and more sophisticated framework to facilitate and monitor the decision-making process from court ruling and government action — for Indigenous and marginalized peoples whose land is at stake be involved meaningfully in legal processes. It also clearly demonstrated that if the underlying motivations and repercussions of extraction are not the target of intervention, the dominant paradigm will always seek to subsume any positive movement to its own benefit. What needs to be addressed is not simply the act of extraction but our underlying relationship with one another and with the natural world. 

In 2018, 25 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean came together to sign the Escazú Agreement, a landmark treaty granting not only participatory rights to decision-making processes for “the most vulnerable, marginalized and excluded sectors,” but the support infrastructure to come to such decisions. As the executive secretary of the commission that developed the agreement explained, “it aspires to remove the barriers that impede or hinder the full exercise of [environmental human] rights.”

Without deep, respectful engagement, it is all too likely that Western legal frameworks will adopt, co-opt and mistranslate concepts from the laws of Indigenous peoples that may actually undermine their rights or force them into positions at odds with their worldviews. The intermediary role of the treaty can facilitate infrastructure that allows Indigenous knowledge to be amplified and remain enmeshed with the land.

“Between the void and the waste, where do regenerative and just futures fit?”

Weaving Stories Of Care

Ancillary design practices, without being labeled as such, have been with us since time immemorial. In my home state of Gujarat, for example, weavers in the region known as Kutch have found themselves on the front lines of the climate crisis. Confronted by an expanding desert and degraded wetland areas, they weave motifs into their cloths that tell stories of radically different worlds, a means of passing hope and seeding imagination in their communities to younger generations and to all who will buy their goods. It is a stealthy story of hope from the most vulnerable into the wardrobes and furnishings of the affluent. 

Such practices are in existence all over the world: They draw on available resources or traditions, they are iterative, expandable and scalable. From mythmaking to legal treaties to weaving to movement building, what knits these various examples together is their avoidance of single solutions to complex problems, instead enabling a pursuit of multiple different actions and wider systemic changes with long term, positive transformations.

As we stood at the edge of the dusty void carved out of Erzberg, we realized that huge piles of excess “waste” material were slowly becoming a mountain adjacent to the mine. Dumping the red mud there was a cheap solution, Helmut Antrekowitsch, a professor at the University of Leoben, said during our expedition. So on one side we saw a void becoming a permanent scar in a rugged landscape, while on the other side, a new mountain was rising built from the waste remnants of extractive industry. 

Between the void and the waste, where do regenerative and just futures fit? How can we bridge the fault lines between human and nature, right and wrong, them and us? How can we forge cooperative, plural interconnected ecologies of actions?

I hope ancillary design and the way it can embrace ambiguity, remain open to the unknown, foreground dark emergent potential and encourage plural actions could constitute the practice of finding our way collectively, rather than being stranded on either side of a fault line with no means to cross. There is the potential to knit stories of care, justice, collaboration, love and tolerance that, like myth, can endure and enact ecological relationality.