“Architects Often Get Lost In Creating The Image, Not The Conditions For Human Development."
Architect Indy Johar speaks to Emerge about designing a post-ownership society with Dark Matter Labs.
Indy Johar is an architect and the co-founder of Dark Matter Laboratories, an organisation developing new support frameworks for collaborative system change. In this conversation with Tomas Björkman, Indy explains how he came to the concept of ‘dark matter', designing ‘self-sovereign' property and how Sikh philosophy has helped to shape his worldview.
Tomas: You started your organisation, Dark Matter Lab, some years ago. That sounds intriguing! What do you mean by ‘dark matter’, and what are you doing in your organisation?
Indy: I’m an architect by training, and I’ve worked on a lot of interesting housing solutions that were unfortunately being limited by outdated rules and regulations. For example, it’s very difficult to get a mortgage to build an open-source house from within the current financial system. We created Dark Matter because we realised that the rules and governing mechanisms are out of date, and unless we address this directly we'll keep replicating the same behaviours.
What happens when our environment becomes self-conscious - do we own it? Do we cohabit it?
Tomas: So dark matter refers to the underlying structures, rules, regulations and assumptions that underpin our world view - things that we usually take for granted and don’t think about. That's why you call them dark, because they are not immediately visible?
Indy: Exactly, we realised that there was a whole world of things that seem normal and natural - like the idea of property rights - but are actually not natural at all.
Tomas: So when you say that you are a Dark Matter ‘Lab’ - what does that mean?
Indy: We carry out small scale experiments that are indicators of larger scale transitions. One example we're currently working on is looking at how to create the legal and institutional framework to acknowledge the environmental service provided by trees, in a way which allows for their self-sovereignty. This means looking right to the core, at the kinds of language we use to create contracts that move away from ideas of control and ownership. By doing this we are also engaging with larger questions. How does this change our relationship with the world? What happens when we no longer own our environment - do we cohabit it? What’s our relationship to property rights then? We’re trying to create practical, experimental probes that allow us to imagine a whole new world.
Tomas: So it’s really about changing this ‘dark matter’ of society to unlock human potential and thriving. Sounds very practical, and experimental, but at the same time, potentially very radical and transformative.
Indy: There are many other brilliant people doing brilliant things and I think we are a small contribution to that reality. With the systems change work that we do we’re looking to build a portfolio of experiments into this reality. On one hand it’s about exposing systems, and the other giving a new perspective.
Things like animal extinction at a rapid rate and water pollution are feedback, and this feedback is forcing us to redesign our deep codes.
Tomas: Sometimes you talk about ‘deep code’, and changing the deep code of society. What do you mean by that?
Indy: I think we have structural frames that have been perceived to become natural, which are not natural. They exist as a result of the last 400 years of thinking and have become deeply buried into our society. They are like pieces of code that are the source materials for the world around us.
Tomas: So they are part of what Daniel Schametberger calls the ‘generator-functions’ of society, the fundamental assumptions and language that are actually reproduced through us?
Indy: Yes, and the institutional infrastructures and mechanisms as well. We have been operating with these deep codes for years and they have been fantastically useful to get civilisation to this point. However they are now the cause of the massive systemic failures we’re seeing around us. Climate change is a symptom of these deep code failures, not the problem.
Tomas: So was it the wrong deep code that we applied, or unconsciously or consciously invented, or is it just outdated?
Indy: I would say outdated. 400 years ago the world was perceived to be infinite. In an infinite world you would design your institutional infrastructure in a very particular way and we coded our law, our language and our worldview through that lens.
Tomas: Some environmentalists might call it the ‘empty planet’ world view. There was the idea that we were living on an empty planet.
Indy: A theoretical empty planet, yes. And then we went from a relatively infinite plant, to a dependent planet.
Tomas: Or a 'full planet', an interdependent planet. A few hundred years ago we could neglect our interdependencies but now we can’t do that anymore.
Through our micro biomes we are a multitude of internal organisations. The idea of the isolatable human is a false reality.
Indy: And that, I think, is at the core of this transition. Things like animal extinction at a rapid rate and water pollution are a feedback mechanism, and this feedback is forcing us to redesign our deep codes.
Tomas: What are some other examples of deep code?
Indy: The notion of property rights. Property rights are a construct which says I am an individual, my home is my castle and the value of that land is mine. The reality is this is not how a house works. Although it may have once served a purpose, the illusion of being able to separate myself is false.
Tomas: But back then we were living in a collective world, the concept of 'an individual' allowed us to be able to create identity.
Indy: Yes, and I think this was a fundamental pathway to this moment. Going through individualisation creates the capacity for interdependence. So property rights is a construct of individualism. Other examples of deep code are found in culture and language. We have adopted this way of speaking about ‘I’ ‘we’ and ‘you’ but maybe part of this transition is about reframing these pronouns - something that is already going on in the gender debates we’re seeing - in order to reframe ourselves and relationship to each other. We need to recognise that for you and me to arrive here we’ve had to go through 12 million years of evolution together. We also need to recognise that humans - as Daniel Schametberger says - are ‘emergent forms of nature’. Through our micro biomes we are a multitude of internal organisations. The idea of the isolatable human is a false reality. This is what I would call primal deep code, looking at how language actually constructs our world view. So you have the definition of self, the language, then institutional infrastructures - whether that’s private property rights, taxation models, accounting structures... these are deep codes, and these are what we are experimenting with.
Tomas: So Dark Matter Lab is trying to make these layers of deep code visible and experiment on how can we can change them?
Indy: Exactly, we are experimenting in terms of linguistics but also technically looking at how we can build these new infrastructures.
Tomas: So you came into this thinking from your architectural background, let’s go far back now, when did you decide or realise that you wanted to become an architect?
Indy: For me the magical moment was in my third year of architecture school when a wonderful professor I had, whose name was Helena Webster, asked us to write an essay on the future of the city. I just fell in love with the topic, suddenly it all made sense, I couldn’t see architecture until I understood the philosophical intent.
Tomas: So this made you reflect on architecture in the context of the city, the way that architecture influences our lived environment, and the impact this has on us as humans. I think it was Churchill that said “we form our buildings, and then our buildings form us.”
We’ve created a world where our environments have been designed to drive consumption, or exacerbate bad behaviours in ourselves.
Indy: Exactly. We’ve created a world where our environments have been designed to drive consumption, or exacerbate bad behaviours in ourselves. We’ve created environments which are massively light and noise polluting and therefore fundamentally detrimental to our human development. Architects often get lost in creating the image, not the conditions for human development.
Tomas: And you realised that you wanted to be an architect of human conditions when you were at University. Could you describe it as transformational - this way of looking at the world, and yourself?
Indy: It was, it also goes back to reading a lot of Sikh philosophy as a child. For me Sikhism is a way of understanding the world. Once I was asked who the best Sikh I know was and I said it was my friend Paul Cardinal, who’s a Catholic! In the architecture of Sikhism, for example, everyone would eat on the floor - whether you were a king or a farmworker - this was a new form of justice.
Tomas: So you were raised in the UK in the Sikh faith?
Indy: I was born in the UK but my parents were from pre-partition India. Partition happened a few years after my dad moved to London. I got what I would call a passive Sikh upbringing, but I remember listening to philosophy audiotapes when I was 9 years old in bed which gave explanations for things like the reason Sikhs wear the turban.
Tomas: And why is that?
Indy: At that time, in 15th Century Punjab, the caste system had divided people into different groups based on profession, traders and so on. What Sikhism decided to do was have everyone take the word ‘Singh’ in their name. ‘Singh’ was the title of kings, so everyone was effectively anointed king, hence why Sikhs wear the turban, because to grow hair was a great privilege. This gave everyone the notion that they were kings or queens, because this included women too. You had to be both a philosopher and a warrior.
Tomas: A thinker and a doer.
Indy: Yes, so at a very early age that was the thinking model I received, then I read a lot into Buddhism and so on but what it opened up was a way of seeing the world. This idea that there is God in everyone and everything. If you take it conceptually, what does it mean if there is God in everything? What is your relationship to the other then? What is the division between you and me?
Tomas: Then we are back at interdependence.
Indy: And then we are back at Quantum Physics. Interdependence on a Quantum level, gravity is what brings us together.
Tomas: So already at nine you were listening to this, and before YouTube or Netflix!
Indy: My grandfather was into philosophy. Before that I hadn’t been a fan of doctrine religion, in its truest sense I don’t think religion as a structure is a great thing. What is intriguing is looking at how it gives people the scaffolding to intentionally construct society and frameworks of how we can live together.
We’ve constructed society on loss aversion and control, as opposed to ennobling and unleashing.
Tomas: Intentionally or unintentionally, because we constantly construct society - whether we are aware of it or not. And then you are back to Dark Matter, and deep code. Could you say that your realisation of the fact that we humans constantly create and replicate this ‘deep code’ is something that came very early in your life?
Indy: I have always found it fascinating how most contracts are focused on limiting harm. Actually the infrastructure for unleashing human capacity is very limited. We have a massive cognitive bias to loss aversion, and we’ve constructed society along the lines of loss aversion and control, as opposed to ennobling and unleashing.
Tomas: Unleashing human potential and higher consciousness.
Indy: This may be a controversial thing to say, but I don't think we've fully freed ourselves from slave economies.Most of our economy is still modelled around control and the profit motive, even though there is data which shows that financial incentives are poor incentives. Autonomy and self discovery are much more powerful incentives. Governance for control has been our paradigm, so now we need to make the paradigm shift from control to ennobling people to be the best version of themselves. These are choices.
Tomas: So this is what you are dedicating your professional life to. When did this become your mission?
Indy: It happened slowly, it had to emerge. I felt that there was this question that needed to be answered, and I had the privilege to be able to look at it. It’s the work that has to be done. It’s not just me, it’s a whole group of people standing together.
Tomas: Is this group getting any larger, do you think?
Indy: I think these perspectives have become a lot wider spread just in the last 6-9 months. The feedback cycles are coming fast, we’ve gone from the perception that climate change would be our grandkids problem, to realising that climate change is our problem. Increasingly people are recognising that climate change is a symptom of a structural issue. Our structures have been designed from a different place in history and we are now in a different phase.
Tomas: If you would point to three aspects of deep code that are not serving us well any longer, where we need a 'mind shift', which three would you point at?
We need to get rid of all packaging and look into building a circular economy where in-organic material can be repaired, preserved and reused.
Indy: First is rivalrous economics. We need to move from a competitive mind frame, to a cooperation mind frame. I think that an alternative economic framework to do this already exists. Second is abolishing ownership. Ownership is the function of a very particular worldview, and in terms of stewarding places and assets it is no longer the right way of dealing with these things. I am not talking about rental economies, I’m talking about transcending the idea of ownership completely. Circular economies will need to be post-ownership systems. In the future we could imagining 'self-owning' assets; like self-owning, self-driving cars governed by algorithms to maximize public utility, rather then maximize an owners financial value. Or self-owning real estate, again governed by algorithms programmed to maximize public utility.
Tomas: This going away from ownership becomes easier when we hopefully are moving away from a scarcity mindset, to one where there is enough for everyone as long as the resources are shared in an equitable way.
Indy: Exactly. The third is the material economy. We need to get rid of all packaging and look into building a circular economy where in-organic material can be repaired, preserved and reused. It will have to be fast. This is the work ahead.
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the lead editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Photos by Tomas Björkman
Tomas Björkman is a social entrepreneur, philosopher and co-initiator of Emerge.