This new journal from the Design Museum is on a mission to reshape sustainability discourse

The journal’s first issue explores bioregioning – the process of paying attention to naturally occurring boundaries rather than politically demarcated borders.

21 May 2024


The Future Observatory Journal is a new platform from the Design Museum that aims to publish holistic, actionable and forward-thinking narratives surrounding design and sustainability. Designed by Studio Airport, the journal is a branch of the museum’s research hub Future Observatory – a national design research programme for the green transition – and will be published biannually, with each edition focusing on a new theme.

Why is something like the Future Observatory Journal so important today? In the eyes of the journal’s founder and Future Observatory director, Justin McGuirk, it provides an alternative to the current stagnation within sustainable design discourse. “I think the problem with so much ‘sustainable design’ is that it’s trapped in the existing paradigm and so struggles to move beyond the most narrow goals: reducing a bit of plastic here, improving a bit of recycling there and so on,” says Justin. “It is not inspiring, nor does it embrace the radical potential of different futures, in which, for example, we might learn to respect nature and other species, and finally come to understand that humans are not separate from nature but need to live interdependently with it.”


Studio Airport: Future Observatory Journal (Copyright © Design Museum, 2024)

Greenwashing is a word that’s cropped up more and more over the past few years, used to encapsulate the practice of brands, official bodies and governments purporting to be incorporating or following green practices while a primary scraping of the surface proves it to be lip service. It’s no stranger in the creative industry too. We recently spoke to the creative studio Companion–Platform about how illustration and design is currently being used to mask environmentally damaging practices, and how the studio actively counter these trends by thinking like ecologists.

It’s this sentiment that the journal is trying to fight against too – empty narratives; it wants to provide a new future, and new visions. “Crucially, it is about expanding the frameworks within which design operates, opening up space for new narratives,” says Justin. “Because ultimately the green transition cannot just be a technocratic focus on cutting carbon, but must involve a shift from one story to another.”

The first issue of the journal focuses on bioregioning, “a practice that attempts to understand and operate within natural boundaries, rather than political jurisdictions”, says Justin. He continues: “The reason why that is interesting is because political borders (whether national or local authority) often cut across bioregions, and prevent a coherent approach to managing or indeed regenerating that landscape.” The concept was developed during the counterculture movement in the 1960s and 70s in tandem with the environmental movement. In recent years, it’s had something of a resurgence; taking into account how the core ideals of the concept can promote new biomaterials, moving away from global supply chains, but also, more intangibly, how it can help to grow local knowledge and skills. “You might say it is a much more networked version of the original idea,” says Justin.

Through each issue, the theme will be broken down into three interconnected sections: Forecast, Practice and Strategy. In issue one, Forecast (which acts a bit like trend forecasting for concepts) breaks down some of the key elements of bioregioning into a “vision for an alternative future”, while Practice supports the former with case studies, design practices, interviews and think pieces. And finally, Strategy “zooms out” to decipher systemic and policy implications of bioregioning. Just two pieces in amongst an array of brilliant writing, is an interview with anthropologist and design theorist Arturo Escobar about bioregioning in Colombia’s Cauca River Valley, and a deep dive into Kohei Saito – the Japanese interpreter of Marx, Kohei Satio – and the slow growth movement in Japan.

Through presenting new narratives and frameworks the journal wants to help foster – albeit complicated – a sense of hope. “Simply put, we want to revive the idea that we can still have a liveable future. That’s why our strapline is ‘Design, ecology and a future’”, ends Justin.

GalleryStudio Airport: Future Observatory Journal (Copyright © Design Museum, 2024)

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Future Observatory Journal © Design Museum, 2024

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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