For the founder of Dark Matter Labs, everything from mortgages to planetary health is entangled. His mission to redesign bureaucracy for the common good can seem both idealistic and the only real solution
Dark matter is the most abundant substance in the universe, and the most mysterious. Although invisible, its gravity shapes everything we can see. As a practising architect, Indy Johar quickly became aware of a parallel with the intangible forces that govern the built environment: maintenance contracts, mortgages, investment models. He saw, too, how they serve private interests at the expense of the common good. What is needed, Johar believes, is a radical redesign of everything from property rights to measures of value. With tongue in cheek, he calls it the ‘boring revolution’. In the vanguard is his free-thinking strategic design practice, Dark Matter Labs.
It emerged seven years ago from London-based Architecture 00, the office Johar co-founded in 2005, which has incubated numerous innovative start-ups including the open-source construction system WikiHouse. It’s in the Hackney studio shared by the 00 family that I meet Johar – 50, casually attired in a quilted gilet, affable but quietly intense.
As he explains it, DML operates like a think-tank. It has overarching ‘missions’, like spatial justice, and collaborates with partners ranging from universities to city councils to formulate small-scale projects intended to infect mainstream thinking. ‘We’re looking at how you organise, govern, contract and finance civic goods’. A non-profit, it has branches in Sweden, South Korea, Canada and the Netherlands, and the 65-strong team including architects, economists, lawyers and data scientists is dispersed around the world. This is a rare visit to base for the frequent-flying ‘mission steward’.
So what made him think that an architect could alter conditions that most regard as immutable? ‘It looks extraordinary, I’ll grant that,’ he says, ‘but we’ve always developed by exploring adjacent possibles that reveal themselves as you work’. The plywood table at which we are sitting was an attempt to democratise design through distributed digital manufacture, but that demanded a new approach to warranties. ‘Every rule is only there until you make a better argument,’ he adds.
Though measured in his speech, there is a sense of urgency as Johar outlines why change is vital. For 400 years, he says, we’ve imagined a world composed of discrete objects that could be governed by simple rules and rigid bureaucracy. It engenders rivalrous, extractive relationships between people and things. Climate change is one outcome. ‘Who thinks of boring property rights as enslaving things to you,’ he asks, ‘and creating externalities that kill?’ (Johar has a knack for the arresting phrase). We need to construct relationships in a way that reflects ‘entanglement’ at local and planetary levels, he says.
Conversation cycles rapidly between the objectives of a given project – how to govern autonomous surveillance cameras, for example – and esoteric references that illuminate complex interdependencies. Quantum physics is followed in short order by machine-enhanced ecological consciousness.
If the scope of Johar’s thinking can be hard to process, so is the nature and range of DML’s work. A single project might produce an entire ecosystem of policy proposals, digital tools and on-the-ground pilots. Most exhibit a blend of idealism and close attention to worldly concerns.
Take the effort to position trees as critical urban infrastructure. The benefits are abundant – from flood mitigation to better health – but hard to quantify and finance. Moreover, trees tended by local communities are most likely to survive. ‘So the real design problem is not drawing a tree on a plan,’ says Johar. ‘It’s the accounting, and doing that in a way that doesn’t put money over other forms of currency, like love and care.’ DML’s solutions – being tested in Glasgow and Stuttgart – include data gathering and tools to measure value and match against liabilities. Other experiments with the governance of nature aim to secure legal personhood for the River Don in South Yorkshire and the Yarra in Melbourne.
Architects have much to contribute to this kind of work, which is essentially about the qualities of place says Johar. ‘They are extraordinary synthesisers of complex information and can imagine anew.’ There is frustration, though, that the profession doesn’t fully recognise the scale of transformation we face. Carbon budgets will allow very little new building or even retrofit, he argues. Designers must envision new ways of sharing, but few are yet developing the necessary capabilities.
Nor has architecture grasped the real significance of the digital technologies that underpin all of DML’s work, from open-source material registers to mass participation in planning. ‘It’s a bureaucratic revolution which is changing our relationship with the physical world,’ he says, pointing to Airbnb as a prime example. ‘That has much more architectural significance than squiggly buildings.’
It’s been years since Johar last sketched a plan, but the project he’s currently most excited about is an experimental home. As well as biomaterials and digital manufacturing, Free House will demonstrate a host of intangible features – perpetual bonds and smart many-to-many contracts – that fundamentally alter the nature of a building. ‘It isn’t owned by anyone, and residents have a stewardship relationship to land which is self-sovereign,’ he says. ‘They have custody over materials in a stewardship chain which will sequester carbon for 200 years.’ The aim is to create a template for zero-carbon housing that creates positive externalities and gets cheaper over time. DML plans to build the prototype with a museum.
The big question is whether such attractive, ingenious ideas can really thrive outside the laboratory. Johar will admit no doubts. Climate breakdown is merely a symptom of the problems with our current system, but also threatens the predictability on which so much depends, from insurance to capital markets. Entanglement can no longer be ignored. ‘Not long ago I’d speak at conferences and be treated as lunchtime entertainment,’ he says. ‘Now pretty serious people are inviting us into interesting conversations. The world has already changed.’