Expedition Æqualis: a conversation with Reon Brand

  • Forecasting
  • Interview
  • Research

How do we switch towards an eco-centric mindset? And what role does design have to play in it? Reon Brand challenges our notion of sustainability with the Gaia future scenario.

Expedition Æqualis is a research project by Dutch Invertuals in collaboration with The Future Laboratory, and Reon Brand, principal designer at Philips. Together we embarked on a journey to navigate towards an ecocentric future.
The project builds on a study called ‘Co-emerging Futures’, published in 2019 by Reon Brand, and a future scenario named Gaia. We asked Reon Brand to discuss his research with us.

In your research paper Co-Emerging Futures, you discuss an eco-centric future scenario named Gaia. Can you briefly describe this direction and what it implies?

Gaia represents a profound departure from the traditional sustainability paradigm, which hinges on waste reduction, a shift towards a circular economy, and improved resource management to secure human prosperity and foster a conducive environment for nature. This widely accepted approach lacks robust scientific grounding and fosters a deceptive illusion of “all will be well.” In reality, the room for ecosystems to recover and thrive remains limited.

Gaia diverges from this model, offering a novel ontology that redefines humanity’s place in the natural world. Rather than seeing humans as a distinct species on top of the ecological hierarchy, Gaia positions us as just one among numerous species coexisting within Earth’s diverse ecosystems. True planetary health necessitates vibrant, interconnected, and interdependent biodiverse ecosystems. To achieve this, we must reevaluate our relationship with the planet, shifting away from imposing our goals and desires upon it. Instead, we must learn to coexist harmoniously with natural systems, fostering a healthier and more meaningful existence for all life on Earth.

How do we start this transition towards an eco-centric future?

Adopting an eco-centric mindset involves progress across three crucial dimensions. Firstly, at the pragmatic level, we must champion a regenerative approach to agriculture and materials, steering away from our current industrial reliance on harmful extraction and processing, which saturates the world with toxic chemicals and materials. The transformation calls for our entire industrial foundation to harmonize with nature and become bio-compatible.

Secondly, we need to craft new narratives and sources of inspiration that guide humanity toward a more meaningful existence rooted in reconnection with nature. It’s imperative to depart from the obsolete notion that consumption and material progress guarantee happiness.

Lastly, a profound ontological shift is required to foster a deep sense of spirituality, allowing us to engage with nature not just through reason and intellect but also through a profound emotional connection. Instead of relying only on our analytical left brain, we must activate our emotional, intuitive, and spiritual center—the right brain—to cultivate a profound sense of unity with nature and a heartfelt love for our place within the natural world.

Reon Brand presenting during Expedition Æqualis' dinner in 2022

What do you think is the role or responsibility of design in facilitating this transition?

Design has long served as a pivotal tool within the realms of industrial and experiential economies, profoundly influencing human desires and fueling consumption. Much like engineering, innovation, and marketing, design bears a share of responsibility for the present environmental crisis characterized by excessive consumption and ecological degradation.

Now, design must harness its well-established imaginative prowess with a new purpose in mind. It holds the potential to become a potent catalyst in reshaping human lifestyles towards a Gaia-centered culture, aspiring to coexist harmoniously with nature. Instead of perpetuating a consumer-driven mindset, design can lead the way towards a more sustainable future where humanity seeks to integrate with natural ecosystems and to live in a deep relationship of mutuality with planet. This transformation in the role of design is essential for addressing the pressing environmental challenges of our time.

What is for you the goal behind Expedition Æqualis and the collaboration with Dutch Invertuals and The Future Laboratory?

‘Expedition Æqualis’ represents a collaborative endeavor involving myself, Dutch Invertuals, and The Future Laboratory. This initiative aims to pioneer a multidisciplinary approach, delving into the limitless potential of an eco-centric world. In this envisioned reality, all species coexist as equals, and the traditional boundaries between life and non-life dissolve into deeply entangled systemic relationships.

A primary impetus behind this initiative is to shift the design paradigm away from its current anthropocentric focus, which often exploits nature. Simultaneously, it seeks to ignite inspiration within human culture, encouraging a fresh perspective and aspirations for a novel experiential landscape. Through design, we aim to cultivate possibilities for transformative relationships with our environment.

Furthermore, ‘Expedition Aequalis’ aspires to craft an ‘eco-imaginarium’ replete with new identities, innovative design aesthetics, and pioneering materials. These elements are intended to evoke a profound connection with nature while sparking curiosity and engaging the human senses, creating an intriguing and provocative sensory experience.

Did you discover or learn anything interesting during the collaboration?

Our journey thus far has been a profound source of learning and introspection for all involved. It has proven to be an incredibly enriching experience. While we’ve made significant strides in experimenting with new materials, aesthetics, and exploring potential systemic relationships aligned with GAIA principles, there is a pervasive sense that we’ve only begun to tap into the vast potential for exploration and transformation within the Expedition Aequalis theme.

One key realization has been the challenge of developing and cultivating the right ‘mindset and feel’ necessary for intuitive GAIA-oriented design. It’s all too easy to revert to the traditional reductionist approach of design thinking. Consequently, our collaborative process, which involves a community of designers sharing their explorations for collective reflection and feedback in an open and trustful atmosphere, stands as a crucial mechanism for instilling and advancing the spirit of GAIA. This ongoing exchange of ideas keeps us on the path of evolution and deeper alignment with GAIA principles.