INTERVIEW WITH INDY JOHAR
An affinity with complex network structures, openness, process-based thinking and small steps smartly made are all points that Indy Johar and OUBEY share in common. Architecture too – because even though OUBEY never worked as an architect, he trained as one before deciding to become an artist..
I also think that the organizational model chosen by 00:/, Indy Johar’s firm of architects, is one that OUBEY would have approved of.
What is your understanding of WE and has it changed since the rise of the Internet?
INDY JOHAR: Yes it has. That’s a really straightforward answer for you! WE is a concept that was probably born or started accelerating about 2001. This was when people start to talk about Web 2.0. Something phenomenal happened: we started to think about the Internet as a social mechanism, as a method to aggregate and organize people – and it became an alternative. I think what we’re starting to prove with the platform economy is that it’s becoming the basis of an alternative to the structural corporate economy. It’s starting to become a different mechanism of organizing civilization.
So I think we’re probably now in the biggest WE in civilization. They used to say that the degrees of separation were six in number. But Facebook did a kind of very PR sort of analysis where they turned around and said it was about 3.74 now, because the degree of platform connectivity that's being built now is huge. And, we don’t even have to go that far: if you look at the level of mobile phone penetration, we are creating a degree of global public addressability where you can actually connect to so many people. And this isn’t a rich person thing: I mean really, if you look at mobile phone penetration, it’s huge. So, we’re in the midst of a type of global WE that wasn’t even dreamt about, only talked about in religious senses as a mythical moment, as a mythical or ideological way of seeing the world. And I think now we can start to see this kind of new emergence of it as a practical method of organization.
So, for you, yourself and your job … How has it changed your job? Since we are doing this interview for WE and the arts, and I would consider architecture as some kind of art form, how does the Internet and your understanding of WE have an impact on your work, on the way you build up your structures and everything?
INDY JOHAR: What I find interesting is that the WE was accelerated into the Internet, and has culturally changed us as human beings. In a sense, it’s been a feedback mechanism into culture. So, from my perspective I think this whole framework, the social WE, has fundamentally changed the nature of how we organize. And by “organize” I mean organize ideas, organize thoughts, organize commitment, organize passion, organize change. It’s changed every order, and I think we’re seeing it most fundamentally in the role of the profession. I think there’s a lot more due diligence, a lot more responsibility going to the designers of platforms, because of the latent “nudges” these platforms have. A lot has been talked about recently on how we can actually nudge decisions and behaviors. And designers can have an influence. So, for example, the classic behavioral economics’ understanding is that if on a pension form you have to tick something to get insurance or if you have to untick something to get insurance, actually you can bias this result by nearly sixty percent, just by that decision.
Now, what we are starting to understand is that actually the designers of forms and platforms can have so much influence on the behavior of people. And so, as we move into this platform economy where power moves from being organized in hard power methods, to being organized in ecosystems, in cultures, I think the role of platform and the role of design becomes much more critical, which means, even more importantly, that we have to have very clean ethics in our behavior. Not only has it changed our fundamental process, I think it’s also changing the ethical basis on which we practice, and re-birthing the idea of a professional as somebody who looks after the public value as opposed to the private value. In the Royal Institute for British Architects, the RIBA, the terminology is we should look after public value, regardless of whoever pays us. We’re meant to be indifferent to whether it’s private capital or public capital. Our only responsibility is to public value. And I think we’re now at a moment when that sort of ethos and ethics are fundamentally crucial to actually building the profession. And for me, we’re in this kind of really remark-able place where our ethical basis, our practical basis and our capabilities are all being fundamentally re-imagined.
But what does this mean precisely for your daily work? Are you refusing jobs right now which you would have done ten years ago?
INDY JOHAR: I’d like to turn that around: I don’t think it’s about refusing jobs. I think the sort of jobs we’re getting are the sort of jobs we would never have got. For example, we’re doing a social investment fund for a geography, a place. So we’re looking at how you do investment in new interesting ways, using tech platforms to help people improve their neighborhoods. How do you do crowd-sourced funding in that infrastructure, what’s the role of events? We’re also designing a school, the scale-free school which is a model of schooling using redundant infrastructure. What we’re doing there is organizing redundant infrastructure in smart ways and sharing that infrastructure to provide services and education in a new way. Right now, we’re in the middle of building a global university. And we’re looking at a completely different way of talking about the university and learning. We’re organizing some pretty remarkable people from all over the world in this project. We’re doing it slowly in an open social way. We’re not trying to lead it; we’re actually trying to evolve the system socially. So basically we’re not just designing a plan and executing it; we’re creating a social legitimacy around the idea; we're slowly evolving into it. So I’ve seen the type of jobs we’re doing, but also the nature of the work we’re doing, fundamentally change.
What does all this have to do with this discipline of architecture? I mean you’re still putting up buildings, aren’t you?
INDY JOHAR: Sure we are. I think one of the key things we have realized is that cities are made as much of software as they are of hardware. The last thirty years has been entirely focused on real estate – the creation of physical real estate. It’s not been created on the basis of any functional value for citizens or economies; it’s been entirely built on a speculative real estate economy. And I think one of the big things is that we’re changing the relationship where our value is attributed. A lot of the value and work we do is on how we can functionally – in a sort of a social and economic sense, not in a programmatic sense – functionally accelerate the value of cities – not in a sort of a real estate sense, but in a kind of contributory sense to a social economy. And that’s about people. That’s about how people organize themselves, how people build new institutions. So it’s about changing the outcome. It’s not about building more buildings. 99 per cent of our buildings will be around for 1,400 years or some ridiculous time. You know, very little change occurs to the built environment, certainly in the developed world. So, if we’re going to have radical change – which we are in the midst of – most of this radical change is going to happen through the software and the social reorganization of cities. And that's where I think our work is focused, and we recognize the role of architecture as absolutely critical, because we have to nudge an influence. Actually we have so much impact on culture in terms of the default nudges we create that it’s micro interventions within actual institutional frameworks.
You are actually broadening the scope architects are working in?
INDY JOHAR: You could say we are broadening it, or you could say that we’re focusing on the outcome that architecture should deliver. We could say, yes, we’re broadening the tools we use, but I think we’re actually focusing more precisely on the outcome architects try to deliver.
And you would say that this is very closely related to the Internet?
INDY JOHAR: I think culturally it’s a product of that generation, no doubt. I think culturally, this WE aspect of it, the social aspect of it, the sort of things that are possible, would never have been possible because the transaction costs would be too high. The transaction costs – the cost of that level of sociability – is just too high. And what the Internet has done is to reduce the cost of that sociability to the point where it’s much more effective than pretty much any corporate means of organizing. So, I think there is something quite profound going on.
Would you consider architecture as a discipline within the arts?
INDY JOHAR: It’s a good question. Personally, I think the whole notion of these sorts of discipline silos is questionable. I find it difficult to attribute value on that basis. You know, whether I would say I’m an engineer or some part of the engineering discipline or a business discipline or a science discipline or an arts discipline – I find all that very problematic. Because I think what we are is system-builders, and in a way our role is to synthesize across many, many spaces and organize and create deep institutional infrastructures for those systems to evolve. So I think it’s a very precise action on our side. So, whether I would define architecture as being an “arts” discipline, I don’t know. But then again my perennial question is what is art right now? You know, what is actually philosophically the role of art in this 21st century? And I think that’s even questionable as well. So, strangely enough, I'm not even sure that the question itself leads us anywhere.
So what is your understanding of art in the 21st century? What would you consider as art? To ask a very precise question: Is the Occupy movement, art for you?
INDY JOHAR: For me personally, art is something which sort of homes in on a truth which hasn’t been articulated before. So it unveils a truth which is psychologically deeply buried inside people, which has not been articulated. And it probably can’t be articulated through the inquiries of logic and other behaviors.
And that’s where my personal experience of art is always positive: when art reveals a way of seeing, a way of understanding which could never have been revealed through another device or another way of organizing.
So, it’s also for your discipline, so it can happen everywhere, basically.
INDY JOHAR: For me, yes.
Do you think that this new understanding of WE as you described it, has an impact on art?
INDY JOHAR: I figure it should. I don’t think we’ve really understood the medium yet. I don’t think we’ve understood how to play with it yet. I think we haven’t seen the great Twitter or Facebook artists of our generation; we’ve not seen the great Twitter or Facebook social media artists of our generation yet. Somebody that can actually do that scale of profound effect. And the power of this generation will be so large when they do it, I think they will be able to have such huge impact so quickly, it’ll be phenomenal.
Do you think that this new understanding of WE as you described it, has an impact on art?
INDY JOHAR: It’s difficult to say … but one interesting project is the Wikihouse.
INDY JOHAR: It’s interesting, because I think it is a poem, it’s not a reality, but it has hit as a Zeitgeist for people. And I found that interesting – just how it unveiled the Zeitgeist. In a sense in terms of its level of engagement with people, its level of discourse in terms of people aspiring to it. What we’ve created is a platform which allows people to automatically take a design and Google SketchUp and be able to print it on a CNC milling machine via G-code and effectively print their own houses. You know, now make it without bolts – we’ve just done a version without bolts. And in a sense, what we like about this is a kind of democratization of the means of production. This kind of whole radical democratization of design, of fabrication, of the production side. And in a sense this journey from the factory all the way back to the garage with 21st century technology is phenomenal. And it’s social in the sense that it’s fundamentally social in its design, its sharing and its infrastructure, and its kind of additive process of behavior and building. But also it’s fundamentally democratizing in its sense of actual completion and empowerment. I think these two things are quite potent.
We’ve had numerous inquiries, people wanted to build it in Haiti; we’ve had people want-ing to build it in disaster zones; we’ve had people wanting to turn it into formal housing. So, lots of people are trying to work with it. And we’ll see where it goes. I think the first level of engagement is just the level of engagement with people sort of saying I would like to have a house like this, I would like to build something like this. I find this really interesting, this psychological engagement. It’s almost like what I meant by the artists – that it has unveiled a truth for people of what they would like.
And that for me is probably more powerful right now than “we’ve had many exhibitions of people wanting to build one.” We’ve build one in Westminster, we’ve build one in Chelmsford, we’re building one in Milan. We’ve had lots of people wanting to build one all over the world in various different conditions. But I think the most telling for me is the psychological unveiling it has done. Many, many people around the world are psyched and perceive this as a possible reality.
You’ve also built this idea of WE into your company concept.
INDY JOHAR: Yes.
Can you explain this a little bit?
INDY JOHAR: Sure. Fundamentally, one of the things we realized when we set up Zero Zero is that too many architects were built around the signature of an individual. And we, you know, we can name any of them, named around their founders and actually created an ego, an ego built into the fundamental design of the model. So if I start a practice, in a traditional sense, I will at first be highly engaged with the projects, I will be leading on the projects. Slowly, as the organization grows I will still be working on many of the projects, but when it grows to more than seventeen to twenty people what happens is that I actually become distant from the reality of the project. This was my personal experience. And when you go from seventeen to twenty people to maybe eighty people, what happens is the role of the principal or founder becomes a kind of caricature. You design a caricature that someone else then executes in an environment. The practical example for me was when I was working in an office, where there were seventeen people, we were designing handrails with nodules on them, a tactile memory, one of the last memories to go. Where-as when we became an office of eighty people, we were designing with color and sketches, because actually what happened was that as the founders become more and more removed from the situation, their method of imprinting became more a sketch. And the sketch was then transmitted down the production line in order to materialize it as a product. And so, one of the things we realized when we wanted to set up Zero Zero was that we wanted to actually change this ecosystem. Because we realized that if you’re going do anything interesting you have to bury your intelligence closest to the front line, and if you’re going to bury your intelligence and your group closest to the front line you have to create a ownership structure which is actually democratic, because if you don’t there’s no way you can create this sort of virtuous economy. So Zero Zero is owned by everyone in the business. It’s remarkably old-fashioned in the sense that for every year you stay there you get more voting equity. Voting equity is not something that can be bought and sold; it’s something that is really there for effectively everyone as they stay for to about ten years. You can’t get any more than ten years, but up till about ten years you can effectively grow your voting influence into the organization. And in that sense it really is a democratic model.
How would you say this model has changed the way people work at your place, think at your place and, you know, get engaged with the stuff they are doing there?
INDY JOHAR: Well, the reality is we’re a twelve-person office, and if you look at the quantum of work and the diversity of work we’ve done, I don’t think it would have been possible for anyone of that size of organization to do this quantum and diversity of work – and quality of work as well if I may say so! – because in a sense it required that devolved authority, leadership and power for that embedment of people to do the things they were doing. So I think it’s fundamental. I don’t think it’s an add-on at all. I don’t think we could have achieved this in any other way.
What is next, in your mind, with this WE idea related to the work you’re doing? What do you see next?
INDY JOHAR: I think the big challenge we face is that not many people really know how to behave like a WE. So recruitment is really difficult. So I think, for me, that one of the big challenges is finding people who really in the deep sense understand how to behave in the WE, and how they can grow. It’s impossible to talk about the near future. I would never even have dreamt of doing the stuff that we are doing. So I find it really impossible to say this is what I ... I think the whole WE aspect of us will become more and more fundamental: it will change the way of building tech platforms, we’re investing in new ways of thinking, we’re building universities which will, I think, be radically different to what we’ve got. So, I don’t know. It’s impossible to say, to be really honest.
This is like the crude beginning. It’s like when Henry Ford built the Model T ...You know this is like a very, rudimentary beginning of a new age. Like I say, we’ve not even seen the great artists yet: you know, we’ve discovered the paint, but no one has really discovered how to paint yet.
Interview by Ulrike Reinhard
INDY JOHAR is a qualified architect, co-founder of 00:/ [zero zero], Hub Westminster and Hub Venture Laboratory, and is a director of the Global Hub Association. He has taught at the TU Berlin, the University of Bath, the Architectural Association, the LSE and University College London.
Indy is a commissioner on the NLGN Commission for Local Government and the co-author of a new book on the civic economy launched on May 12, 2011. He has written for many national and international journals on the future of design and social practice. He is also a Demos Associate and Fellow of Republica.