Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
— Wendell Berry 1
In the picture, I’m standing in a wheat field in western Kansas. I’m five years old; the wheat is higher than my head. It’s late summer, almost time for harvest.
My grandfather was born not far from where I’m standing. This is his land, his wheat. A few years from this moment, it will be my father’s responsibility, and eventually, maybe mine.
Even after he left this place—first for school and then the war—my grandfather still returned every year in the summer, just in time for harvest. When my dad was a boy, my grandfather brought him along. Later, my father brought me.
I was too young to remember that first trip, but there were others sporadically over the years until I was twelve or thirteen. The last trip was not long before my grandfather died. By then I was taller than the wheat, but I could still stand inside the enormous wheel of the combine harvester for another picture before my dad hoisted me up on the seat beside the farmer. I rode along in wonder as great swathes of wheat were devoured in the wide mechanical jaws of the combine and whooshed over our heads into the truck behind.
The Farm And the Prairie
Wheat, like corn, rice, and most domesticated grains, is an annual plant. Every year, new seed must be planted, which will survive only one growing season and produce only one crop. Each year, all the seed, all the water, and all the fertilizer that went into the soil is reaped with the harvest along with all the sweat and all the fuel required to plant it.
Because the growing season is relatively short, the soil has nothing in it for much of the year. When the rain comes, and there are no roots to hold the soil, it washes away the surface and takes a layer of topsoil with it. Even flat and well-managed cropland loses tons of topsoil per acre every year through erosion.
Through the development of fertilizers, irrigation, and bio-engineered crops, farmers have actually managed to increase crop yields over the years by finding new ways to extract more from less. Just as the car industry has developed incrementally more efficient gas engines to squeeze a few more miles per gallon out of a finite and dwindling reserve of fossil fuels, the agriculture industry has so far been able to increase production rates even as the destruction of the soil continues to accelerate.
Already, this engineered growth shows signs of slowing. Eventually, the clock will run out.
Much of the western part of the state of Kansas has been cultivated for farmland, but to the east, in the Flint Hills, the rocky landscape that gives the region its name has yielded less willingly to the plow. Here, the tall grass prairie that was the natural ecosystem of these plains before agriculture displaced it still covers several thousand acres of rolling hills. Much of it has been used as grazing land for livestock, but the deep, resilient root system of the native grasses keep hold of the soil, protecting against erosion.
In contrast to the annual grains that make up the foundation of our food system, prairie grasses are perennial plants. Each year, when the grass above ground dies in the fall and winter (or during a drought), the roots, which make up as much as 75% of the plants’ biomass, stay intact below and produce new growth in the spring.
Everything about the prairie ecosystem is self-renewing. In addition to protecting against erosion, the year-round plant cover actually returns more nutrients to the soil over time than they use, meaning that soil covered in prairie grass is actually improved rather than depleted over time.
The farmer needs chemicals to fertilize his crops and protect against infestations and diseases that target one plant at a time and spread easily. Because the native prairie is a diverse ecosystem made up of many mutually-beneficial organisms, it has been resilient enough to thrive for thousands of years without intervention.
It’s almost cliché at this point to bemoan the fact that the work we create as digital designers doesn’t last very long. Whatever we make is bound to be obsolete, replaced, or just plain gone in a few years or less. We’re like the farmer after a harvest, watching the rain fall on an empty field.
Steve Jobs gave an interview at NeXT in 1994 which resurfaced from the Silicon Valley Historical Association archives after his death.2 In response to one of the questions, comparing Silicon Valley to the European Renaissance in the fifteenth century and Jobs himself to Isaac Newton, he replies matter-of-factly, “All the work I’ve done in my life will be obsolete by the time I’m fifty.”
With his unceremonious departure from Apple almost a decade behind him and his triumphant return not yet on the horizon, he takes the long view: “It’s sort of like a sediment of rocks. You’re building up a mountain, and you get to contribute your little layer of sedimentary rock to make the mountain that much higher. But no one on the surface, unless they have X-ray vision, will see your sediment.”
With digital interfaces, there’s only so much we can do to make our products more durable. We’re limited by the ephemeral nature of our materials. And we’ve learned to work in a way that takes advantage of the fact that digital material is so easily disposable. We try things; we learn something; we erase things, and we try again.
But the process, the way we got there, has a longer lifespan. The process is the sediment, the deep root system where we store up knowledge over time. Each product we create is just what surfaces above ground, a crystallization of the sum total of everything we’ve learned up to that point.
If all we celebrate is what is visible on the surface—the fragile plant and not the durable root system—we limit the scope of our ambition to the shortest possible horizon. Are we making layers of sediment for future generations to build a mountain, or are we planting each year’s crop of new products and watching them wash away once their short-term value is harvested and consumed?
The emergence of ideas like “responsive design” and “future-friendly thinking” are in part a response to the collective realization that designing products that solve one problem in one context at a time is no longer sustainable. By refocusing our process on systems that are explicitly designed to adapt to a changing environment, we have an opportunity to develop durable, long-lasting designs that renew their usefulness and value over time.
Pentagram recently designed a new system of pedestrian wayfinding signs for New York City. The designers chose to create a complementary system to the subway signage system designed by Massimo Vignelli almost a half-century earlier.
That signage system, which has itself become an icon of the city, has evolved significantly from the original standards, adapted through an often chaotic process of implementation challenges, budget constraints, and the messy reality of a living city. But for all its growing pains, the core system is still in use and is still actively being adapted and extended.
Vignelli designed another system, in 1977, for the National Park Service (NPS). The modular system, called the Unigrid, allowed the NPS to create multiple sizes of brochures, fold-out maps, and posters by reusing the same elements and structure across all the materials.
Like the subway signage system, the Unigrid system was designed to bring order to a chaotic process. The NPS is a widely distributed organization with widely varying needs and staff capabilities. Because the Unigrid was designed as a simple, modular system, it was straightforward to create many different brochures separately that felt like part of the same system. Because it was designed to be modular and flexible, it was possible to adapt it to new needs over time without dismantling the foundation of the system.
Even the most ambitious systems don’t always have what it takes to survive. Vignelli’s New York City subway map, which he designed alongside the subway signage system, was famously replaced a few years later after continued complaints from subway riders. Vignelli was quoted by the New York Times, calling the replacement map a “mongrel” for its messy mixing of “naturalism and abstraction” (Vignelli’s map was much-hated by New Yorkers for wildly misrepresenting above-ground distances in favor of diagrammatic purity). Michael Hertz, the designer of the map which long outlasted Vignelli’s own, responded that “mongrels” or “hybrids” are “usually healthier, smarter, and longer-lived creatures than his ‘thoroughbred’ turned out to be.”
Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.
— Italo Calvino3
The largest shopping mall in the world is a ghost town. Built on former farmland in the suburbs of Dongguan, China, the New South China Mall covers 9.6 million square feet, with leasable space for as many as 2,350 stores. It has seven zones with features that mimic landmarks from international cities like Paris, Rome, and Venice, including an eighty-foot replica of the Arc de Triomphe, and a 1.3-mile canal complete with gondolas.4
It’s almost completely empty. There is no airport in Dongguan to bring shoppers from more populated areas, and there are no highways that reach the mall’s location.
The New South China Mall is the largest, but far from the only mall in the world standing vacant. All over the world, the great hulking masses of “dead malls” loom over the suburbs, the ghosted outlines of dismantled signs on the walls of the department stores like the shadows of an earlier age of commerce.
Edged out by the rise of “big box” stores like Wal-Mart and Target, and unable to adapt to the changing calculus of a series of economic downturns, the shopping mall has become a symbol of stagnation and decay. But it began as something completely different, an ambitious idea in the mind of the man with the now dubious distinction of being credited as the “inventor” of the shopping mall.
Victor Gruen, an architect and city planner who grew up in Vienna, was disgusted by the American suburbs. Inspired by the broad plazas and civic centers of Europe, he hoped to design a new built environment that would restore a sense of civic life and community to the sprawling, isolating chaos of the suburbs. As the architect for the Southdale Mall near Minneapolis, the first enclosed shopping center in the United States, his original designs included plans for a 400-acre development with apartment buildings, houses, schools, a medical center, parks, and a lake.
Gruen designed an ambitious system to right the wrongs of the suburbs, and fix the mistakes of the urban downtown in the process. Whether or not his grand plans may ever have succeeded, what he hoped to create was a diverse system of mutually beneficial elements which could have an impact greater than the sum of its parts. He held on to that hope, even as the developers he partnered with convinced him to build the minimum viable commercial product which would support the construction of the rest.
Of course, the only part of his plans that ever got built, at Southdale or any of the other countless developments which rapidly copied and expanded on its model, was the shopping center. Instead of building Gruen’s system as the foundation, the developers extracted just the most lucrative piece and optimized it in isolation for one outcome: profit. Once chosen, that metric became the one thing that every other part of Gruen’s idea would eventually be traded against.
By the end of his life, Gruen left America as disgusted with his own invention as he had been with the suburbs when he first arrived. Appalled by the metastatic sprawl the malls had spawned and the “ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking,”5 he eventually disowned and disparaged his own creation. In a speech in London in 1978, he declared, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” He died in Vienna in 1980. He never returned to America.
The Failure Of Success
It’s natural to want the things we make to last. Even the smallest things, the ones made of the most fragile stuff. We want them have meaning, to be useful, to be bigger than ourselves somehow. Every product we launch into the crucible of the real world, every project we deliver to the mercy of a client or leave in the hands of our colleagues after we leave a job. Every acquisition, every exit, every pivot, every shutdown, every bitter end. Somehow we hope to invest some quality in the things we make which will outlast our involvement.
The modern practice of agriculture is based on a system of annual monoculture because it’s what gets results. Because the plants have no long-term systems to support, all their energy goes toward producing grains, which means bigger harvests. By planting huge fields with only one crop, the large commercial operations, where most of our food is produced, can operate as efficiently as possible. Year over year, annual monoculture feeds the most people the most efficiently. It’s also completely, transparently, inherently unsustainable.
We can’t afford to follow the same model. We’re beginning to recognize our own monocultures just as the short-lived efficiencies we extracted from them begin to unravel. The premise that we can design for a manageable number of combinations of screen sizes, platforms, contexts, and devices is quickly eroding. The diversity of variables in our ever-changing digital environment demand thoughtful systems designed around principles durable enough to outlast increasingly brief cycles of obsolescence.
When we start with the assumption that optimizing for rapid, unbounded growth is a goal, we immediately narrow the possibility space. There are only so many choices we can make that will get us there. The same choices that made annual monoculture and the shopping mall the most efficient engines for short-term growth and profit are the same qualities that made them unsustainable in the long term.
There are more ways to scale than growth. There are more ways to deepen our impact than just reaching more people. What if we put just as much effort into scaling the impact of our work over time? Can we build digital products around sustainable systems that survive long enough to outlive us, that are purpose-built to thrive without our constant cultivation?
A Little Bit Of Money And A Hundred Years
If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.
— Wes Jackson
A few hours east of my grandfather’s farm by interstate highway, just outside of Salina, Kansas, there’s a barn. It’s a barn like many other barns around here, but every year for a few days in the fall, it fills up with people. They come from all over, for an event called The Prairie Festival, and set up camp in the surrounding fields.
They come for many of the same things you’d expect from a harvest festival in the American Midwest—food, music, dances, bonfires. But they also gather in this barn every year to discuss “the problem of agriculture,” in the words of Wes Jackson, who founded The Land Institute here with his wife Dana in 1971.
The Land Institute began with the radical idea to question the entire premise of annual monoculture and look for an entirely new system of agriculture to replace it. Using the native prairie ecosystem as a model, teams of researchers and students here are working to find a new way of feeding ourselves which would sustain and enrich the soil instead of depleting it.
They’re using many of the same techniques, like hybridization and selective breeding, which have been so successful at increasing yields in commercial grain crops, to develop promising strains of native, perennial plants into viable food-producing crops.
A few years after he started the Land Institute, Wes Jackson was asked about its chances for success. Was it even possible to develop a perennial mixture of plants which can even approach the yields necessary to be a viable alternative to commercial grains for food production? His response was characteristically understated: “Given a little bit of money and up to a hundred years, we can do it. I see no reason why it can’t be done.”6
Thirty years later, The Land Institute now hopes to be able to grow enough of its most promising grain, a type of wheatgrass they call Kernza™ to begin supplying it to farmers within a decade. But this is just a proof of concept, not even a minimum viable product. The hundred-year goal is not just to create one viable perennial crop, but to develop a “perennial polyculture”—many diverse systems of plants which can be planted in mixtures and form the foundation for continual improvement and adaptation in climates and regions all over the world. A sustainable system designed to adapt and survive.
There’s a patch of land on my grandfather’s farm that’s set off from the rest on a small, sloping plot with rocky soil. The wheat has never grown as tall here, or yielded as much grain as the rest of the farm.
Last summer, the last wheat crop that would have grown on this land was harvested. This year, it will be reseeded with native grasses as part of the Conservation Reserve Program, a USDA program that offers a small incentive to landowners who restore or protect native grassland on their property.
The land has other uses: there are still a few oil wells pumping, and the grassland is good for grazing. But underneath the ground, a new root system is growing, and soon it will start to build the soil back up. Maybe someday this land will grow food again. Maybe my grandchildren will come stand out in this field too, just in time for harvest.
Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Reclaiming Politics (1991). ↩
John McLaughlin, Steve Jobs 1994 Uncut Interview (Silicon Valley Historical Association, 2013). ↩
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace, 1974). ↩
Utopia Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall, directed by Sam Green and Carrie Lozano (2009). ↩
Malcolm Gladwell, “The Terrazzo Jungle,” New Yorker (2004). ↩
Wes Jackson, New Roots for Agriculture (University of Nebraska, 1980). ↩