Dark matter

Fritz Zwicky

Physicist Fritz Zwicky coined the term “missing mass” for what we would now describe as dark matter.

The answer to unlocking a new experience, product or service is sometimes buried deep within organisational culture, regulatory or policy environment.

The Brickstarter project is predicated on explicitly recognising that this ‘dark matter’ is part of the design challenge. (This is part of a strategic design approach.)

We draw the term ‘dark matter’ from Dutch architectural historian and theorist Wouter Vanstiphout’s memorable phrase:

“If you really want to change the city, or want a real struggle, a real fight, then it would require re-engaging with things like public plan- ning for example, or re-engaging with government, or re-engaging with a large-scale institutionalised developers. I think that’s where the real struggles lie, that we re-engage with these structures and these institu- tions, this horribly complex ‘dark matter.’ That’s where it becomes really interesting.” (Vanstiphout, interview with Rory Hyde, 2010)

Wouter’s notion of dark matter suggests organisations, culture, and the structural relationships that bind them together as a form of material, almost. Usefully, it gives a name to something otherwise amorphous, nebulous yet fundamental.

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 is virtually imperceptible. 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, business models it creates, the patent portfolio that protects, 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.

This is all dark matter; the car is the matter it produces.

Similarly, the city we experience is, to some extent, a product of a city council’s culture and behaviour, legislation and operational modes, its previous history and future strategy, and so on. The ability for a community to make their own decisions is supported or inhibited by this wider framework of ‘dark matter’, based on the municipality they happen to be situated within as well as the characteristics of the local culture.

Thus, the relationship between dark matter and more easily detectable matter is a useful metaphor for the relationship between communities, organisations and culture and the systems they produce. This “missing mass” of dark matter 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.

It 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 systemically, a facility with dark matter must be part of our toolkit.

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

Without addressing dark matter – and without attempting to reshape it – we are simply producing interventions or installations that attempt to skirt around the system. This is a valid tactic, but not much of a strategy. A strategy would focus on delivering the intervention whilst also enabling the positive energy it creates to be easily drawn into the system, to shape it over time.

This is a balancing act, as too much time spent immersed in dark matter can lead to nothing being produced, and we believe that change is enabled through prototyping, through making, through demonstrating. Traditional consultancy tends to only deal with ‘dark matter’ exclusively, rather then synthetically produce an alternative or tangible iteration, and so its effects are limited as a result.

Brickstarter is trying to produce something tangible – a physical:digital system, based around real-life case studies – but the Brickstarter project also wants to engage with the dark matter around it, taking advantages of Sitra’s unique position as a public body, such that our prototyped cultures of decision-making might be positively absorbed into wider systems of governance, and so ripple out across Finnish society and beyond.

Again, a delicate balancing act.

Why do I blog this?

This project involves thinking about decision-making in a different way, and one way to approach this is to think about the vocabulary we use. A new vocabulary enables new conversations, and new opportunities for conversations. We believe frequent and intense dialogue is crucial to exploratory work like this; to mix metaphors, we have no map, and so we need to constantly take readings and calibrate our trajectories. Dark matter is a useful shorthand for all of the ‘stuff’ described above. Others might call this “organisational change”, or “transformation” work, but neither of these quite capture the essence of what we’re talking about, perhaps. We see it as important because many of the innovations in this area — genuine citizen participation, bottom-up planning, crowdsourced/funded ventures etc. — are positioned as alternatives to the formal systems of governance they sit within; they are couched as radical disruptions, with little attempt to connect constructively to governance systems. We hope to position our work in the fertile terrain between institutions, businesses and citizens, and engage properly with all of them. This means dark matter work as well as product development work.

(Parts of the text above are adapted from ‘Trojan Horses and Dark Matter: A strategic design vocabulary’, by Dan Hill, Strelka Press)

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7 comments on ‘Dark matter’

  1. namhenderson says:

    Just came across info on the Practice in Participation website
    “a joint venture of southern civil society organisations committed to promoting participatory practices in the empowerment of excluded citizens worldwide” via Polisblog.

    Their use of the term grey literature seems to resemble Vanstiphout’s term Dark Matter, although perhaps since they are referring specifically “to practical knowledge and field experiences (often available in the form of ‘grey literature’)” the term’s meaning doesn’t extend quite as widely as I read your use of the term Dark Matter.

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