Spotlight: Human Nature

Julia Watson on Design & Nature 

Anna Carnick

A conversation with the Australian-born, New York-based designer, author, and activist

In our Human Nature miniseries, we explore the critical, evolving relationship between humans and our environment through conversations with some of today’s most inspiring, influential, and boundary-breaking design creatives.

For this installment, we reached out to designer, activist, academic, and author Julia Watson. Watson’s practice champions Lo-TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge), a design movement that draws on century’s old, indigenous philosophy and local engineering and architecture to create sustainable, nature-based technology for a better future.

Julia Watson. Photo courtesy of the designer

For those unfamiliar with your work, please explain your focus and approach.

Driven by the existential risk of climate change, in all its varied forms, my work envisions the  retelling of an ancient myth—that humankind can and must live symbiotically with nature. It is captured in my book Lo—TEK, which offers a vision countering the legacy of colonization that views indigenous innovation as primitive, instead framing it as sophisticated design in symbiosis with nature. Lo—TEK is a lifetime of global explorations for local, nature-based cultures and technologies.

Qasab reed has long served as raw material for homes, handicrafts, tools, and animal fodder with the distinctive mudhif houses of the Ma’dan people appearing in Sumerian artwork from 5000 years ago. Photo © Esme Allen; from the book Lo-TEK, courtesy of Julia Watson

How would you encapsulate your work in 3 sentences?

My practice takes a critical view of history and technology, which enables experimentation and the weaving of ancient knowledge on how to live symbiotically with nature into how we shape our cities of the future. It provokes new conversations by challenging other designers to explore an alternative to the current mythology of technology. By championing local innovation, my work is expanding our understanding of green technology and questioning the future of climate-resilient design using knowledge and practices that are sustainable, adaptable, and borne out of necessity.

A view over the sacerd Mahagiri rice terraces, a small portion of the 1,000-year-old agrarian system known as the subak, which is unique to the island of Bali. Photo © David Lazar; from the book Lo-TEK, courtesy of Julia Watson

Is there one particular project you can point to that best represents your values and approach?

Informed by 20 years of travel, research, designing, teaching, and writing, my manifesto titled Lo—TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism, has become a bestseller and a critical body of contemporary text. It is a movement—seeding creativity in crisis, inspired by technologies borne from climate extremes. The vision offers a framework to rethink and rebuild cities and communities while addressing the inequalities that our current systems and stories support.

Las Islas Flotantes is a floating island system on Lake Titicaca in Peru inhabited by the Uros, who build their entire civilization from the locally grown totora reed. Photo © Enrique Castro-Mendivil; from the book Lo-TEK, courtesy of Julia Watson

What is the greatest consistent challenge you face in your work?

Today, sustainability and climate-resilient design are presented as newly emerging fields dominated by two approaches: high-tech investment and carbon-credited conservation. This neo-colonial narrative perpetuates the dominant mythology of technology by deploying universal approaches that favor the global north, irrespective of people and place. My practice highlights the consistent failure of today’s climate change culture to acknowledge the tenets of sustainability derived from indigenous knowledge.

My work strives to decolonize design by reintroducing an age-old, third approach to combating climate change that is readily available, socially equitable, and inspired by local technologies borne of climate extremes. This body of work argues for the imminent need to recognize indigenous innovation embedded with Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) evolved over millennia. I argue that solutions to climate change can be active, adaptive, productive, and complex co-existence of human and non-human species that use biodiversity as a building block for the future. My vision is to bring these solutions to the center of climate change discussions and the forefront of design.

In the Southern Wetlands of Iraq, an entire Ma’dan house known as a mudhif, which is built entirely of qasab reed without using mortar or nails, can be taken down and re-erected in a day. Photo © Jassim Alasadi; from the book Lo-TEK, courtesy of Julia Watson

How can the past inform our way forward?

Lo—TEK is a vision for a future conceived by remembering the past. It offers a new mythology of technology evolved by thousands of nature-based cultures.

Thank you, Julia! ◆


This interview is part of a special editorial series inspired by the Design Miami/ Basel 2021 theme Human Nature, exploring the evolving relationship between humans and our environment—and asking how that relationship must shift. On the eve of the event, Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Design Miami and Anava Projects took the opportunity to connect with a short list of exceptional creatives working at the forefront of environmentally and socially minded design.