An illustration of an iceberg, most of which is beneath the surface of the sea. Above: Events and behaviour. Below: Systems.
An illustration of an iceberg, most of which is beneath the surface of the sea. Above: Events and behaviour. Below: Systems.

Why Open Systems Lab exists, and what we’re trying to do.

To live at the beginning of 2021 is to live with a constant feeling of powerlessness in the face of huge challenges and weird contradictions.

As a society, we have the technology — and the will — to avert climate catastrophe and transition to a zero carbon, zero-waste economy. And yet in many areas we’re still not doing it.

We live in a wealthy country, where no one thinks it is acceptable for a child to go hungry. And yet today one third of children in the UK live in poverty, and 17% live in hungry households.

Our homes have…


A response to the Government’s planning White Paper

In August 2020, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published a White Paper called ‘Planning for the Future’ which sets out the most ambitious reforms to the planning system in England since the system was first created in 1948.

It is a matter of almost universal agreement that our planning system is badly in need of an upgrade, and the proposals in the White Paper represent a serious, smart and genuinely radical plan to do it. At the same time, it is also inevitable (and in fact, good) that such proposals will be a subject of vigorous…


This is a written version of a talk given for Civic Square’s ‘Department of Dreams’ event on Friday 19th June, 2020.

I heard a line recently by an American poet called Theodore Roethke, and it has kept coming back to me ever since.

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see”

Crises and tragedies have this strange effect of revealing our real priorities, even to ourselves. They also give us clarity in another way: by stripping off the wallpaper of society and revealing the hidden structures underneath.

In the case of the UK and US, COVID-19 has exposed some…


Yesterday, Jeremy Till (who I’m proud to say was at one point my university tutor) shared with me a link to this extraordinary interview by Matthew Taylor with Audrey Tang 唐鳳, the digital minister of Taiwan. If you haven’t listened to it, do. It’s utterly fascinating. Tang is next-level smart, and in this interview she talks about some of the creative digital design interventions by Taiwan’s government, which contributed to the country’s extraordinary success in combating COVID-19. But as well as being fascinated, Jeremy also described an instinctive discomfort with the idea of a state using technology with such…


Open source face shield by Prusa3D that can be manufactured using a 3D printer .

In the coming months there will be many conversations about what governments everywhere can learn from COVID-19, and what they can do in future to be better prepared for crises.

The list will — I hope — include very wide questions about social resilience, health infrastructure, internet infrastructure, monetary policy, housing, land, and the structure of our economy. …


An image of people building a zero-carbon house using the WikiHouse system
An image of people building a zero-carbon house using the WikiHouse system

‘A new social contract’ — Part 4

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” – Terry Pratchett

A diagram can be a dangerous thing. The moment we see the world differently, we have a new tool to engage with it differently. And the moment we have a new tool, it is hard not to see opportunities to use that tool almost everywhere we look. ‘To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’

The diagram of ‘Democracy as a Platform’ is no exception.

The basic idea is simple; it…


Image credit: ETH, Zurich

‘A New Social Contract’ Part 3

At any given time in history, the leading edge of technology is surrounded by a noisy crowd of startups and salespeople, whose salary essentially relies on giving you the impression that they know something that you don’t.

Like a flock of seagulls in the wake of a fishing trawler, they circle and spin, throwing up a cloud of vague, fashionable buzzwords: ‘the cloud’ ‘the sharing economy’ ’smart cities’, ’big data’, ‘artificial intelligence’Industry 4.0’. …


A New Social Contract, Part 2

“We are all are immigrants in time, immigrants from an earlier world, living in an age essentially different from anything we knew before” — Margaret Mead

The politics of the 20th century were defined as the battle between two opposing ideas: capitalism and socialism; ’right’ vs ‘left’; the free market vs the social-democratic state, the private sector vs the public sector; the individual vs the collective, the owners vs the workers. In the blue corner, Hayek and Friedman. In the red corner, Marx and Keynes.

It used to be reassuringly easy to pick a…


Redesigning Democracy, Part 1

On the morning of Friday 8th of May 2015, the United Kingdom woke up, sleepily rolled over, collectively switched on its phone, and sat up in bed, blinking in disbelief.

The Labour party, having expected to mount a close challenge to David Cameron’s Conservatives in the election of the previous day, had instead been decimated at the ballot box. The result was a shock to everyone on all sides, not least because both campaigns had been equally lacklustre and uninspiring.

But history will remember that election not for who won it, but rather for how it…


Lean, digital and democratic

Everyone hates the planning system. In fact, when it comes to the issue of housing and development, that may be the only thing that everyone does agree on.

Developers and professionals hate the planning process because, to them, it represents an opaque, risky, bureaucratic and highly politicised barrier, which costs them huge amounts of time and money to negotiate.

Communities hate it because the system seems to be locked into a Faustian pact with speculative property developers — large companies building poor quality, unaffordable homes for considerable profit. Communities sense instinctively that regardless of whatever ‘consultation’ may take place along…

Alastair Parvin

Systems designer. Co-founder Open Systems Lab.

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