The thought of flows has great respect for river banks as it is able to recognise their relevance. They are the second to ensure that the first can flow. Blood offers an essential contribution to vital organs in the human body only because of the network of vessels that carries it. On the other hand, a dried-up river bed profoundly disorients us as, with the lack of the corresponding flow, the river bank appears denuded of any power and completely meaningless. The river bank and flow seem to belong to each other and it is impossible to imagine one without the other.
Thus, when a flow breaks its banks (the tangible flow of a wild water course or the intangible wave of an obsessive thought) to push towards an incontrollable surrounding, we are assailed by the fear that things are going badly because it immediately seems that the flow can turn into something that can’t be defined and so dangerous. Flows must run within their banks to ensure adequate fluctuation for human life.
The human species has always constructed banks for the future by starting from the awareness of that belonging to each other. Layer after layer, the structures order the flows and tame them, offering them a semblance of stability. This is what business organisation is for – to offer a precise bank to the sparkling, but disordered, and so unproductive, vitality that each worker would make available to the service of a company without organisation.
What happens if the organisational layers are not limited to containing human exuberance but become its main obstacle? The flows are inevitably interrupted. Here’s a good description of bureaucracy – a structure designed to promote the ordered passage of the flows that becomes fossilised and prevents any flow.
As David Graeber (London School of Economics) noted in the book he recently wrote on the topic,
A cowardly, bureaucratic spirit has wormed its way into every aspect of intellectual life. More often than not, it’s cloaked in a language that enhances creativity, initiative and enterprise. Bureaucratic knowledge is a question of organisation. In practice, starting a bureaucratic procedure inevitably means ignoring the subtle shades of real social existence and reducing everything to mechanical formulae or pre-defined statistics.
In a few words, banks that dry up flows. This spread of dried banks has generated a collective reaction, for the time being haphazard but already recognisable. This is social innovation that aims at reinstating the passage of the flows through the reshaping of bureaucratic constraints.
I’ve called this backpackracy, because it is animated by people who, in addition to a hate of bureaucratic systems, share a passion for movement, lightness and frugality, fluctuating citizens who prefer the power of backpacks to that of offices (bureau) (for a first review in Italian on backpackracy, see the articles in Affari Italiani, Changes, WOW Magazine and TGCOM24, the interviews on Radio24 and TG5, and also some texts published in LinkedIn).
If bureaucracy builds banks, backpackracy prefers the passage of flows, freeing itself of the former and moving closer to the latter, the culture of the project has the opportunity to strengthen its role in every human sphere. This can only be discussed briefly here with an indication of the two main features of backpackracy applied to the design medium.
VUCA is not just an acronym of success
Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) – as, more and more often, the world we live in avoids banks that are very clear, we can only adapt the action to the context. In particular, the traditional concept of skill, meaning knowledge which, once acquired, stays forever in the box of professional equipment, ready to be re-used at any time, is the first casualty. In the VUCA world, lack of skill acquires great value, i.e. the promptness and willingness to try unforeseen solutions in the face of unexpected problems. Anti-bureaucratic designers declare themselves unskilled because they don’t concentrate on the problem look at the wider context in which the problem occurred to find and disperse the main causes instead of limiting themselves to resolving the effects.
Becoming better than being
Bureaucracy loves straight lines because they are the most obvious route between two points and support hierarchies best. However, the predominance of a specific order, the straight line, over infinite possible orders crushes much of the potential of the flows, whereas nature has dotted the world with lines that are not straight to grasp it. Organisations which, to operate, only take the organisation chart (rectangular boxes, exact and predictable hierarchies) into consideration continually generate categories that impose unchanging essences on people (that colleague is a creative person, that young person is a talent, that boss is aggressive) and prevent people from changing, or adapting to changeable conditions of the context.
Backpackracy favours the exploration of becoming and considers the essences provisional labels to be thrown away after use.
The thought of flows is greatly preferred by backpackrats, who help designers to neutralise the worst aspects of bureaucracy – immobilism, rejection of complexity, and repression of the innovative spirit – in favour of research, sharing and change.
A book on backpackracy is in print with LSWR.