Excerpt from “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” by Dan Hill

, Cities

Understanding the organizational context behind the design.

Book cover

We live in an age of sticky problems, whether it’s climate change or the decline of the welfare state or city. With conventional solutions failing, a new culture of decision-making is called for. Dan Hill is an Associate Director at design and engineering firm Arup. He suggests considering urban reality, keeping in mind the Dark matter. Strelka Press published book about Hill’s view at the phenomena, and Strelka Magazine shares the excerpt of this book.



Dark matter is a choice phrase. The concept is drawn from theoretical physics, wherein dark matter is believed to constitute approximately 83% of the matter in the universe, yet it is virtually undetectable. It neither emits nor scatters light, or other electromagnetic radiation. It is believed to be fundamentally important in the cosmos — we simply cannot be without it — and yet there is essentially no direct evidence of its existence, and little understanding of its nature.

The only way that dark matter can be perceived is by implication, through its effect on other things (essentially, its gravitational effects on more easily detectable matter). With a product, service or artefact, the user is rarely aware of the organisational context that produced it, yet the outcome is directly affected by it. Dark matter is the substrate that produces. A particular BMW car is an outcome of the company’s corporate culture, the legislative frameworks it works within, the business models it creates, the wider cultural habits it senses and shapes, the trade relationships, logistics and supply networks that resource it, the particular design philosophies that underpin its performance and possibilities, the path dependencies in the history of northern Europe, and so on.

Photo: Istockphoto.com

This is all dark matter; the car is the matter it produces. Thus, the relationship between dark matter and more easily detectable matter is a useful metaphor for the relationship between organisations and culture and the systems they produce.

Strategic design often involves doing what the physicist Fritz Zwicky started doing in 1934 — looking for the “missing mass”, the material that must be inescapably there, that must be causing a particular outcome. This missing mass is the key to unlocking a better solution, a solution that sticks at the initial contact point, and then ripples out to produce systemic change.

The dark matter of strategic designers is organisational culture, policy environments, market mechanisms, legislation, finance models and other incentives, governance structures, tradition and habits, local culture and national identity, the habitats, situations and events that decisions are produced within. This may well be the core mass of the architecture of society, and if we want to shift the way society functions, a facility with dark matter must be part of the strategic designer’s toolkit.

Photo: Istockphoto.com

Dark matter surrounds the various more easily perceptible outcomes that we might produce — the observable physical matter of a neighborhood block, a street food cart, a mobile phone. It is what enables these things to become systemic, to become normative. It is the material that absorbs or rejects wider change.



Dark matter is what makes it difficult for installations to scale. The design world is full of prototypes, installations, one -offs. The idea is the easy bit. there are so many ideas produced every day, every-where, that installations and prototypes are almost a necessary pressure valve, a way of getting things out of one’s mind.

Yet such temporary interventions are often accompanied by claims as to wider significance; that an installation, say, can suggest a new way of doing, of living. Indeed it can, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. If it’s too easy to get an idea accepted, you’re probably doing it wrong. You’re probably not disturbing the dark matter enough.

Strong gravitational lensing as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in Abell 1689 indicates the presence of dark matter / photo source: Wikipedia.org

A genuine and concerted engagement with dark matter is what would enable an intervention to become systemic, permanent, influential. It is not enough to produce the prototype of an entirely new paradigm for the motor car, say, without redesigning the organisation that might design and produce them, the supply chains that might enable their construction and maintenance, the various traffic and planning regulations that must absorb a new vehicle, the refueling infrastructure, and so on.

Equally, attempts to reach into that dark matter and produce change will not be as effective without an artefact that can demonstrate the benefit of such change; that can motivate, in effect.

The strategic designer has to work in both modes, recognising that both are connected by an umbilical cord. This is also akin to John Thackara’s idea of the macroscope — as opposed to a microscope — a notional device or strategy that enables one to see an entire system, its composite dark matter perhaps, from the perspective of the artefact, the particular instance of matter.

John Thackara / photo: Uros Abram

Thus, the strategic designer has to understand the characteristics of dark matter just as designers might understand wood, steel, glass, pixels and grids. For the strategic designer, the relationship between the observable physical matter and the imperceptible dark matter is indeed as symbiotic and essential as it may be to the cosmos. Manipulating one both enables and affects the other.

We need to understand more about dark matter’s particular qualities, affordances, pinch points, pliability, how it performs under stress, its elasticity, its history of use, its possibilities. Recognising that dark matter is entirely dependent on context — a particular place, time and culture — makes this more complex than trying to understand steel, say, but no less important to the future of cities and societies.

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