Alex Steffen and Bruce Sterling

South by Southwest Interactive 2005
52 minutes, 24.1mb, recorded 2005-03-15
Bruce Sterling and Alex Steffen
Humans face serious ecological problems in the next 50 to 100 years. Are the solutions to these problems going to be political or legal in nature? In this inspriational South by Southwest keynote, speakers Alex Steffen and Bruce Sterling say neither is true; the solution will be found in the world of design.

Alex Steffen of and Bruce Sterling, science fiction author and recent design instructor at Art Center College of Design discuss the problems facing us and some of the solutions. The problems they see range from habitat destruction to climate change, from population growth to energy shortages. Alex and Bruce think that while the problems are getting worse there's a sense of a race between the problems and their solutions: that the world is getting better but the real question is whether its getting better fast enough.

"Protocrat" is the term Bruce coins for the creative, community-minded individuals who will participate in the realization of these solutions; a group of inventors, venture capitalists, journalists, and designers. One of the reasons that the solutions to our problems can't be political or legal is that it's no longer enough to live a mindfully green lifestsyle; the solutions must be adopted by everyone as a part of the status quo. Protocrats are the people who adopt new technologies and push them our of the lab and into the "real world".

Bruce uses the phrase: "the actual is the new virtual" to describe one of the ways that design will become the norm as far as solutions to the big problem. In discussing the ideas behind "fab-jects" (fabricated objects), and the "object processor" and how digital designs can now be translated directly into reality using 3-dimensional printers (or fabricators), Bruce and Alex detail a world where the benefits of clean water can be delivered to a village that's never had clean water, essentially by emailing them a water pump.

How can we redesign properity so that we can deliver prosperity to the whole human population? How we can design solutions to the problems of air polution, traffic, over-population, and food shortages? How do technological leapfrogging and the eviro-coture, treefrogging movement impact these problems? How can we change our long-term consumption patterns? How will bio-mimetics and neobiology help us create a sustainable ecology? What is our most intimate relationship with manufactured materials (from your shoes to jet-fuel additive) and what are the sinister effects of this relationship? Can mining dumps help us solve these problems? What is the Internet of Things? These are other questions that Alex and Bruce explore while they talk about how we can choose the future that we want and not the unthinkable future we'll have if we change nothing.

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Alex Steffen is the editor of, a group weblog which hopes to establish "models, tools, and ideas for building a bright green future." He has reported on ecologial issues an 4 continents and consulted for evironmental groups and foresight projects.

Bruce Sterling is best known as a science fiction writer and futurist, and is also the founder of the green design movement Viridian Design. He recently taught design at Art Center College of Design.


This presentation is one of a series from the South by Southwest Interactive Festival held in Austin, Texas, March 11-15, 2005.

For Team ITC:

  • Description editor: Cori Schlegel
  • Post-production audio engineer: Stuart Hunter

This free podcast is from our South by Southwest series.