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  1. We and our things. From consumers to users of our products?

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    Each person living in Europe owns an average of 10 000 items – a figure set to increase. Antje Di Foglio of the District Future team is product designer and has been exploring the aging of things for years. She has a sustainable vision: Let us turn back into users of our products.

    During his first week in kindergarten without his mom, little Jonas takes his cuddly toy with him. Grandpa Karl flatly refuses to trash the old, tatty carpet in the hallway. The things and we – there is definitely something between us, some sort of relationship, a connection, some flying sparks.

    If we and our things have a common history: The owner of this polar bear is 25 years old. Picture: Antje Di Foglio.

    In fact the things that surround us are more than mere objects of utility. The wardrobe in the bedroom, my jeans, the walls in my parents’ house, the little wall in the garden: Our things are points of identity and key elements in our world and help us to position ourselves. Who am I and where am I at the moment? We can express ourselves with their help and have something to hold on to. But what do we do if the number of things in our life is ever increasing? And we replace, substitute, and dump them more and more rapidly to buy new ones? What does this do to us and our world?

    In fact the things that surround us are more than mere objects of utility. The wardrobe in the bedroom, my jeans, the walls in my parents’ house, the little wall in the garden: Our things are points of identity and key elements in our world and help us to position ourselves. Who am I and where am I at the moment? We can express ourselves with their help and have something to hold on to. But what do we do if the number of things in our life is ever increasing? And we replace, substitute, and dump them more and more rapidly to buy new ones? What does this do to us and our world?

    Things are manufactured to be consumed

    “Today, things are manufactured to be consumed”, states Antje, who studied at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. While traditional materials like wood, metal, china, leather, and linen age with dignity and can outlive generations, most of the materials used today would only become shabby and damaged over the years. Shirts made of polyacrylics, sideboards made of pressboard, the sofa made of faux leather: “These materials do not age. They fall apart.”

    This is, according to Antje, not only due to an economic system which relies on “planned obsolescence”, i.e. the built-in defects of products. It is also a Western concept of esthetics which we have all taken in by now. “This is the Hellenistic view of the world in whose tradition we are rooted and are familiar with”, she explains. “Everything is about perfection and youth! Today, products should be beautiful, shiny, immaculate. It is about personal optimization by ‘doing more’ and ‘buying more’.” Beautiful means new. And what is not new can go.

    Wabi-sabi instead of everything new

    In Japan, Antje discovered an alternative way of seeing things, a theory of esthetics, a philosophy: It is called “wabi-sabi” and includes the aging, the imperfect, incomplete and ephemeral, discovers the beauty within. A wooden flooring with deep scratches due to decades of use by a family. A jacket which was elaborately, but still obviously mended. A broken china plate, which was put together using liquid gold.

    Impermanence in gold: the Japanese technique of Kintsugi. Picture: Wikipedia

    “Wabi-sabi is about honesty and authenticity”, says Antje. Things are allowed to tell their story. They can show that they are in use, being needed, and live together with their people.

    “The poor elves of Yiwu”

    Fact is: During the last century we have lost our connection to things by distinguishing between manufacture and consumption of products, between craftspeople, workers, and buyers. A global phenomenon, which turned low-wage countries into the Western world’s textile factory and workbench. One example are the Christmas villages in the Chinese city of Yiwu which gained a weird sort of fame. Two-thirds of all Christmas decorations are manufactured there. Without even knowing what they actually produce, the migrant workers there work by the piece for a pittance; the German newspaper FAZ once called them the “poor elves of Yiwu”. And published pictures of the Chinese photographer Chen Ronghui who shot a father and his son at work – standing in red paint and chemicals, their heads only poorly protected by Santa hats.

    Almost all Santa hats like this one are produced in the Chinese city of Yiwu.

    Is Yiwu everywhere? Probably it can be seen as a symbol for our unrelatedness to our things. And this venomed, Far Eastern Christmas idyll quite plainly shows the impacts of this disconnection: People and the environment are being exploited for products which did not come to stay. Year after year they end up on the scrapheap. Year after year we buy them anew.

    From consumers to users?

    But: What can the consumers do? And which potential for change is implied in the self-understanding of the manufacturers? Anyhow, for Antje both sides are responsible – and she believes that change is possible. “We, the designers, act in a complex and ramified area of conflict and bear a huge social and moral responsibility from which we should not escape, are not allowed to escape. We designers work for the people and on relationships, our esthetic order of things keeps them grounded in a chaotic world. Products have to become more sustainable, more ecological, and more humane. There must not be design just for the sake of design.” What would happen if we would treat the things with respect again, honor and respect the work and care of the manufacturers? If we surround ourselves with things that are allowed to age and live with us – wouldn’t we realize that we do not need so many new things?

    “‘Which are the things I like to live with? Which are the things I am related with?’ we could ask ourselves”, says Antje. “If we shop like this, we are also more likely to consume things which are more appreciated and loved and with which we want to live for a long time.” More and more consumers are, according to Antje, looking for the real, the true, for authenticity and meaning. “We are running short of resources, in a few decades the oilfields will be drained. A new understanding of the consumer will emerge. Maybe we could put it like this: We have to move on from consumers to users of our things.”“

    Antje Di Foglio studied product design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. Her thesis “Spuren der Zeit” (The marks of time) dealt with the relationships and emotions into which people enter with their products – and their meaning for culture and society. A bound copy of her work is on display in the Future Space – come and have a look!
    As a member of District Future, Antje wants to show the people and citizens how small steps can actively make a change for ourselves and others and change our consumer behavior. Because we are sure: Buying has an effect – on the world we are part of, the world that surrounds us, the world to come, and ourselves. In the new year, we want to contribute to a conscious, sustainable, and more regional consumption and revive cultural skills like barter and repair. Together with you we would like to think about the way sustainable consumption could look like in Karlsruhe’s Oststadt. We will keep you informed on our website, Facebook & Twitter!

  2. World Cleanup Day 2013: talking instead of doing?

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    It was a surprise: the District Future – Urban Lab stand proved to be more popular among citizens than the Karlsruhe Cleanup action itself. The sunny Saturday in the heart of Karlsruhe discussing the possibilities to rethink trash showed that people have many good ideas about sustainable city development, but revealed a selective attitude towards topics people are willing to co-operate on.

    In the morning of the 21st September the Bürgeraktion Sauberes Karlsruhe and the District Future – Urban Lab teams set up a stand in Karlsruhe city center on Ludwigsplatz, all ready for the World Cleanup 2013 in Karlsruhe. Our pavillion was composed from two parts: the first part offered practical tools like city maps, gripping tongs, garbage bags and gloves for volunteers who wanted to participate hands-on in the cleanup action, while the other one shared information about sustainable urban development in general and the District Future as well as ways we as citizens can contribute to the cleanliness of our environment in particular.

    It turned out that once people realized we were not part of the political „last day before the elections“ campaign, exemplified by the Greens who took place next to us, our pavillion became highly popular. We were glad to note that several people came to Ludwisgplatz especially to find out more about our project, even from other cities. As a result of hundreds of discussions, over 40 positive wishes were added to our board „I wish to have in the Distric Future…“ and 20 negative aspects were highlighted on the board „In the District Future there shouldn’t be…“. The main wishes were connected to more respect and openness towards each other, more shared spaces and activities, as well as cleaner environment around us. The main problems included egoistic and consumerist attitudes, careless waste disposal and polluted environment.

    The main message of the day was that every person can make a difference and influence their immediate surroundings in a positive direction by their personal actions. As a healthy environment is vital to our well-being, the cleanup day is a way to contribute in a concrete hands-on way.  However, on Saturday there were less people wanting to participate in the cleanup than there are fingers on one hand.

    As part of the global Let’s do it! network 8 million volunteers from 107 countries have participated in 139 cleanups since 2008. In 2012 approximately 100 people from Munich, Bochum, Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin and Karlsruhe collected garbage as part of the Let’s do it! Germany’s contribution to the World Cleanup 2012 campaign. In 2013 only Karlsruhe and Leipzig organized a cleanup and the number of people actually doing hands-on collecting was 15. Taking into account Germany’s reputation as an environmentally aware nation, such lack of participation is surprising. Especially when looking at the situation in the neighbouring countries like France with nearly 10 000 volunteers in 2012 and the Netherlands with voluntary cleanups in nearly 70 municipalities in 2013.

    The lack of involvement couldn’t have been due to the lack of information, which was readily available. It also couldn’t be because Germany is so clean that there’s nothing to clean – dozens of dissatisfied people complaining about the amount of garbage on the streets and parks during the 2012 and 2013 cleanups are a living proof of that. Perhaps the root of the matter lies precisely here: people complain about the situation without willing to take direct action to change it. There seems to be a prevalent attitude according to which voluntary cleanup is something unemployed people should do, whereas the employed people already pay their taxes and have thus already done their part…

    Despite the lack of hands-on participants, the day on Ludwigsplatz proved to be a highly interesting field experience. Our team of three (Oliver Parodi, Sarah Meyer-Soylu & Kaidi Tamm) was so actively involved in discussions with the citizens that there was hardly any time for making a cleanup round ourselves. However, we were able to share and collect many good ideas and connections, making our first public stand in the city a valuable experience for the further development of the District Future project.

    Share your thoughts in the comments below! Find further pictures of the event in the gallery.

  3. World Clean up Day 2013 in Karlsruhe

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    World Cleanup Day 2013 in Karlsruhe: The District Future Urban Lab cleans up!

    On 21th September the World Cleanup Day 2013 takes place in Karlsruhe. It is the first time that the District Future cooperates with the initiator Bürgeraktion Sauberes Karlsruhe together with Karlsruhe Amt für Abfallwirtschaft and Karlsruhe city council. We warmly invite you to join the team between 9-17 on the Ludwigsplatz and making the city a better and cleaner place together. Let’s do it!

    Located on the Ludwigsplatz there will be an information stand for the Karlsruhe World Cleanup Day 2013. It offers both information about the necessary cleanliness of the city and ways we can contribute to it, as well as practical tools like gripping tongs and garbage bags for volunteers who want to participate hands-on. The District Future team cleans up, shares information about the project and discusses sustainable solutions to garbage-related problems.

    The World Cleanup Day 2013 belongs to the global network Let’s do it! World Cleanup. Since 2008 volunteer from more than 100 countries have been active in order to clean up our environment. From Germany citizen groups from Munich, Bochum, Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin and Karlsruhe participated.

    Data

    World Cleanup Day 2013 in Karlsruhe, initiated by Bürgeraktion Sauberes Karlsruhe in cooperation with the District Future – Urban Lab

    Date & time: Saturday, 21th September 2013, 9.00 – 17.00

    Place: Karlsruhe city center, Ludwigsplatz-Waldstraße

    Further Information

    Let’s do it! World Cleanup Germany

    Let’s do it! World Cleanup

    Bürgeraktion Sauberes Karlsruhe (german)

    Facebook event (german)

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