Ellen. She talks as lucid & decisively as her name sounds. She is refreshing to listen to, she paints, draws, makes videos, designs, plays the guitar, writes, works for the city of Ghent en cooks. When I arrive at her place she is preparing cannelloni tubes with spinach.
“What does that mean, normal,” she replies when I ask her about her vision. “We tend to marginalize everything that is deviated from this ‘normal.’ We are afraid of what we don’t understand. And that fear either comes from the outside environment but often from our inner side. People are afraid of themselves. There is a difference in what we feel & think, and what we want to feel & think. Did you know that people with a depression have a more realistic self-image than people who never have any problem with who they are?”
So, this means the world is on the right track since there are a lot of people with issues these days, I think. A friend who joins us at the table says that psychiatrists or therapists think that the ‘real crazy ones’ never show up… They don’t see how talking can be helpful.
Ellen continues: “ And who decides what/who is wrong or right? The universe is, by its very nature, immoral and it is us people who give meaning to it. If we disfavour people, it tells us more about ourselves than about these people. Those are the themes I’d like to work with.”
There is a big chance that Ellen got selected into a small group of ‘creative rebels’ at the Unschool of Disruptive Design in Berlin because of this vision. For a whole week that international group got immersed in how disruptive design can influence human behaviour. A hard nut to crack for me but like I said; Ellen explains well with a lot of examples she seems to snatch out of her socks, haha. “Everything is cause and effect. Every design influences its user. By rethinking this behaviour you can, at best, make the old product obsolete. Take for example a water heater. At some certain time, somewhere in England, the energy consumption peaked like crazy. Turns out that people massively turn on their water heater during the commercial break of a movie. We all fill these things with too much water. Design can fix this. A lot of people already have a tap with boiling water. Or take for example a snake plant with broken leaves: Maybe it didn’t get enough water, or the cleaning lady who gives the plant water is sick. Maybe it just needed more sun. Maybe those leaves were just old or the jug is too small. Maybe this plant comes from a shop from abandoned plants. The possible causes are endless.”
A trigger for good behaviour.
If I understand well, by thinking disruptive, you analyse the whole process and doing so, you minimalise stereotypical thinking patterns. A next question pops up: Is it possible to think disruptive at a political/ social level ( read: to make the 20th-century politics obsolete, aha!)
“Changing human behaviour is extremely difficult. You need to find the right trigger. Take, for example, Tesla. One tweet by Elon Musk that his car can pull up from zero to hundred in 1.9 seconds, instantly made the electric car sexy. Suddenly everybody wanted to have a Tesla. That tweet was the trigger. Just like the commercial break raised energy consumption. Everything is cause & effect but an excellent water heater doesn’t necessarily change behaviour. If you see how many causes a sick snake plant can have, imagine how complex things become at a social level? It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. I read on your blog that Portuguese don’t recycle much. What’s the trigger to make them recycle? What’s the context? Money? Time? Interest? Dictatorial past? Education? What determines their worldview? Catholicism? The way Europe is treating them? Domestic politics? Belgians are páying so people collect their garbage! What’s the trigger? Criminal policy? One tweet about garbage as a feedstock so companies start investing in waste?
With our house (which is really ours now! No, shit! It’s from the Portugues State Bank!) I want to make ‘Back to Basics’ sexier. Simplicity. The trigger for me was a documentary Tomorrow in which Charles Hervé, an ex-international jurist, explains how you a small piece of land you cultivate by hand, can produce as much as a piece of land ten times bigger for which you need a tractor. You need to cultivate smart. Rethink things. The insight that plants are self-sufficient and capable to do all the work for you if you plant them well is a very attractive idea. We are talking about perm culture. But also the way people from all over the world were talking about money, waste, communities, climate change and systems made me think/ doubt about myself. The knowledge that thousands of people are rethinking ways of living & working together was hopeful… And I wanted to be a part of it… And now we bought a Portuguese Quinta with two acres of land, aah!
I ask Ellen what she wants to design or accomplish. “creating more accessible cities for disabled people. Infrastructure today excludes by definition a lot of people. Cities can become much more accessible than they are today.”
Thanks to Ellen and other people in my life I start to think in a more constructive way. More purposeful about what we can do in Romariz. “This process has a name: Life Cycle Analysis,” explains Ellen, “What is the impact of a project/ a product and what behaviour does it provoke? How can I work more ecologically & ethical at the same time? Davy is good in this. How often did I hear him on the phone explaining architects, contractors & politicians with hands and feet how simple adjustments in a (social) house can make a difference. For example, hanging light switches twenty centimetres lower, near your hands.
Maybe this is the sexiest part of when you are deviating from what is ‘normal’: all these exciting people you are suddenly surrounded with… In search of that huge common trigger.