by Lily Consuelo Saporta Tagiuri

From a young age, Jane Withers remembers being drawn to water. As a child she dreamt up imaginative waterscapes in which parts of London were submerged and she could swim home from school or right up the aisle or into a church. Withers, the curator behind A/D/O’s Water Futures has remained fascinated by this illusive liquid. Capturing both the poetic and pertinent qualities of water, her approach is equal parts ritual, education, and magic.

Following Cape Town,  Sao Paulo, Tokyo, London, Miami and Mexico City are just a few of the cities that have been named as cities that risk running dry. This dramatic reality has recently shifted public attention to water and increased the need to work towards collective solutions. We are now at a critical precipice. From researching historic water cultures, to questioning contemporary behaviors, and currently probing future alternatives, Withers’ work exemplifies vital approaches and illuminates the value this precious substance.

Withers’ first formal work started after a formative trip to Bath, where she imagined being able to dip into the now defunct pools. Her intrigue developed into a self-termed “obsession” of visiting places that had once had “strong water cultures.” She channeled her fascination into a book called Hot Water which as well as the contemporary bathroom explores bathing cultures such as Japanese Onsens and Turkish Hamams. “It began to strike me that many of the ways we use water today aren’t nearly as imaginative as historic water cultures,” she said, noting Ivan Illich’s observation that industrialization had turned water from a spiritual power into an industrial cleaning liquid.

“Many of the ancient or vernacular practices could be reframed for today and have a lot of common sense in them [that] we have sometimes lost.” In 2008, she challenged designers to  take action through a course at the Design Academy Eindhoven and a show at Z33 in Belgium called 1% Water and Our Future. It was an exercise in balancing, as Withers termed them, “hard hitting facts... and the rather lyrical poetics of water through a series of projects that addressed things like bathing, drinking, purification, waste, responsibly but also...imaginatively.” She remembers visitors being both shocked and bewildered when faced with their enormous water footprint for the first time.

Since then she has curated a range of powerful water events in unique contexts. In 2012 at a Beijing cafe, her project Wonderwater  Café: asked How Much Water Do We Eat? Confronting diners with the amount of water required to produce their meals. This project enlivened the banal data of water use through its insertion into real world scenarios. In all her work, Withers uses design as a tool to communicate otherwise impersonal seeming facts in a manner that lures visitors into intentional interaction.

In an exhibit called Urban Plunge, she showcased projects for urban swimming. “Through pleasure comes more connection,” she said. In this case, the pleasure is swimming. “If you are going to put your body in it, you really begin to think about qualities of cleanliness and how urban rivers should be treated.” Around the simple act of swimming, the exhibit was able to question issues of public space, environmental degradation, and propose something hopeful. Since the exhibit, some of the proposals have begun construction which hints at a changing tone around water issues.

She made a very public splash through a collaboration with London Department store Selfridges, in which she and food design studio, Arabeschi Di Latte, created a designer “water bar” to commemorate Selfridges eliminating plastic water bottles from their stores and to draw attention to ocean plastic pollution. Visitors were encouraged  to sit and drink to reconsider the value and the ceremony around water. By positioning this piece in London's heart of commerce, she permeated consumer space with an unusually reflective energy. The elegant bar that they served on was made from recycled ocean plastic, giving the waste a second life as an upscale building material. Withers reiterated that to avoid plastic “is incredibly difficult. I manage to more or less avoid plastic bottles or single use, plastic bags. [But] you are always confounded with something else, It permeates so much of what we use in daily life, there needs to be a big shift in how designers think” she said.

There are so many things that are fundamentally quite mad about our water system.”Withers says. “Why do we use drinking water to flush the lavatory or ship bottled water half way around the world?’ think we are all  quite confused. What can we actually do to change some of these habits?”

Water Futures poses that question. Withers has curated an interdisciplinary discussion that she hopes will spark action and new approaches. The topics, she says, “can be hard to get a handle on” but she sees designers as able to join forces and, “communicate to broader audiences...in a way that may get further than the water scientists” can alone. “A designer’s mindset can be very powerful here. Because it can bring a mixture of functionality and imagination.”

While initially Withers found it extremely difficult to get water scientists and engineers involved in design-based work, a decade later the discussion around water is fiercely pressing and consequently collaborative, as evidenced by Water Futures. After catastrophic events such as Hurricanes Sandy and Maria, the Flint, Michigan water crisis, and Day 0 in Cape Town, Withers has seen people begin to change their perspective to recognize this isn’t a set of problems reserved to the global south. To solve such a global issue requires new partnerships and approaches. Withers notes, “There is still a long way to go, hence this program. How can we bring together these different views?”

It isn’t just about communicating the issue, but transforming it. Alongside these exhibits and events, the Design Challenge aims to inspire designers and interdisciplinary teams to tackle the future of drinking water in the urban environment. While issues like water scarcity, pollution, and flooding understandably generate dread, Withers is motivated by the challenge to make this subject approachable and enticing. She sees design as capable of instigating this necessary shift.

In her remarks at the Water Futures Symposium she reiterated that she invites any inspiration and ideas for collaborators or speakers who might be tackling these issues. It will take unlikely collaborations and fresh thinking for us to solve this global crisis holistically and collectively.

Water Futures is a yearlong research program by A/D/O - curated by Jane Withers - that asks the question, "can designers solve the global drinking water crisis?" Learn more about Water Futures here

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.

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