The invisible revolution according to Indy Johar
By Debika Ray
“We're in a moment where most of the world around us is going to have to be reimagined”
For a man whose self proclaimed mission is to build “the boring revolution”, Indy Johar is involved in a range of exceptionally interesting projects. Multiple initiatives sit under the London-based studio he co-founded, 00 (project00.cc) – from architecture practices, to a platform for ordering locally made furniture, to an open-source construction system for zero-carbon homes. He has advised mayors, set up Impact Hubs (community initiatives that bring together innovators and entrepreneurs to create social change), led high-profile research initiatives and taught at universities around the world.
But, it’s the recent addition to this portfolio that caught the attention of the judges of this year’s London Design Medal. Dark Matter Labs is a design practice that focuses not on buildings or products, but the underlying ephemeral infrastructure – systems, institutions and policies – that enable or constrain them. These range from laws around property ownership, contracting and public accounting, to entrenched social and political norms and conceptions of value – in other words, the many thousands of decisions that shape cities such as London.
In its indifference towards objects, aesthetics or trends, the practice’s work could be seen as unashamedly boring – yet, it’s also radical and vital. “When we set up Dark Matter Labs in 2016, everyone seemed to be talking about physical things, but I think the revolution is in what we don't see around us,” Johar explains. For example, he says, while automotive companies have been pouring huge amounts into developing electric cars, it is actually electric bikes that have started to transform the way we use cities – not because of the material innovation behind individuals objects, but the aggregate impact of their use.
“Our work is built on an assumption that, increasingly, we live in an entangled world and that requires you to construct relationships in a different way,” he says. A lot of this work takes the form of building symbolic prototypes (for example, a proposal for trees as urban infrastructure) or experiments (systems for encouraging long-term thinking), suggesting ways to overhaul our current contractual, financial and public infrastructure.
The notion that better management of public affairs – “good governance” – is the key to society’s success has often been criticised for being technocratic, but Johar insists there is a political lens to his work. “It’s about, first, dealing with the fact that the way we conceptualise value at the moment is creating massive negative externalities, such as climate change. Second, democratising people's agency to make the city and creating civic legitimacy. And, third, giving people not just the freedom to escape, but the freedom to care.”
To enable all of this, Johar has constructed a new type of design studio that incorporates the skills of data scientists, finance experts and lawyers. This doesn’t mean he sees no role for professional designers in the future; rather, he sees the discipline evolving and expanding – practised by specialists, but infiltrating every aspect of life.
“We're in a moment where most of the world around us is going to have to be reimagined,” Johar says. “Design is an act of synthesis, so I think it will play a central role across the material, social and institutional, and how they interweave. I see the discipline growing.”