Meet Frank O´Connor
He is a Global Expert & Thought Leader, and the co-founder of ANOIS – a leading global agency creating value through design for sustainability, circularity, responsibility, equality & social justice. We had a chat with him around our shared values and interest within environmental impact.
Hi Frank and welcome to this conversation. Could you please tell us about yourself, who you are and what you do?
I wear many hats in my daily life as a system designer, activist and human being, where I employ my skills in communication, strategy, art and design offering critique, guidance, mentoring, inspiration, provocation, creativity and solutions. I am driven by a thirst for learning and an evolving, relentless passion and desire to change things for the betterment of humanity.
Systems design for sustainability runs through everything I have been involved in. I am in a very unique position and am fortunate to have applied what I consider to be good design to most professional roles; from practicing designer to PhD researcher, from design mentor to design research director, from design activist to policy advisor in design, from founder of a design agency to design lecturer, from design consultant to writing about design and so on.
I have always been critical, hopeful and productive. However, in recent years I have got increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress. We are destroying our planet’s biodiversity, we have rising inequality, severe social deprivation, a climate, housing and resource crisis. And they are simply the headlines.
My work touches all of these. The projects are very varied, the majority are self-funded by me and my life partner Jude Sherry. To support our own projects we provide consultancy services to private businesses and the public sector.
You have a quite an extensive background starting out as a consultant in 1995 – can you talk to us about your journey, why it started and how it evolved over the years?
I grew up in the 70’s/80’s in a beautiful, wild and hilly countryside in rural Ireland, what an amazing playground it was. My parents enshrined the importance of helping out in the local community, sharing, growing your own food, home cooking and baking, reusing and repairing. We were the first generation to have widespread access to higher education.
A chance conversation with a chemistry lecturer in year 3 got me started on my design and sustainability journey and helped me find my passion. An idealistic 20 year old I became the first person to call for a circular economy in Ireland in January 1989. This led to being awarded a Scholarship to do a Masters in design for assembly and manufacture and then a position in the Alps Corporation where I introduced the company to the concept of ecodesign. In 1995 I quit my full-time job to do a self-funded PhD and devote my life to the field. Alps retained me for 3 years as a consultant which is where my consultancy experience began.
From the mid ‘90s I was part of global ecodesign pioneering collective experimenting, practicing, consulting, researching and teaching in the field. I also became one of the World’s first product ecodesign lecturers. In the ‘00s I set up the award winning international Ecodesign Centre.
Consulting on what I believe in has taken me across the World, working in all of the major continents. I’ve met heads of state, advised the national and intra-national governments, businesses, educational institutes and charities and won numerous awards and accolades. Far more importantly I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing people from so many diverse cultures and backgrounds and hopefully contributed along the way.
These days Jude and I collaborate to apply a systems design approach with a combined urban and product lens, always with sustainability, circularity, responsibility, equality and social justice at the core. We are very selective who we work with. It’s a decision we take time to reflect on. We focus on what we believe will have the most impact. We want to work with those to want and are ready to change, we refuse to work with those who wish to greenwash. We are not motivated by money, titles, awards or career success, just real impact. We are not prepared to compromise on our values which makes running an agency for change pretty challenging.
This is helped by Jude and I choosing to live a relatively simple and minimalist life. I am extremely lucky and very grateful to have found my passions, fund them so far and be eager to try new stuff on a daily basis with Jude.
I see ecodesign as taking full responsibility for all of the environmental impacts…
Eco design is a theme that seems to run your work, please explain more what that is and how you see how the understanding and application has evolved over time?
I see ecodesign as taking full responsibility for all of the environmental impacts of a product, building or urban space, from conception, through multiple life cycles, including reuse, repurposing and recycling. Too long we have ignored these impacts with dire consequences for our health and the health of our planet.
I was awarded a PhD in 2000 for my ecodesign research proving the thesis that multiple life cycle products needed a multi-stakeholder collaborative approach along the value chain. Over the years I have evolved my approach to take a systems design perspective. I am considered a pioneer and leader in the field.
As far as I recall we met the first time when you were the director of The Eco Design Centre in Cardiff, can you talk to us a bit of what the centre was all about and what you learnt from that experience?
Yeah, the Ecodesign Centre was my professional ‘baby’ for about 12 years, from initial concept to development, launch and global success.
Informed by my industrial experience, international best practice and my PhD research, I believed an agile knowledge-intensive Centre would be a key mechanism to make ecodesign happen through delivering collaborative multi-sectoral projects in partnership with the private, public and third sectors. I also believed this helix-model of positioning the centre between government (policy development), education (curriculum development), and industry (products and strategy development) would be key to long-term success. After 5 years of R&D and several pilots, I set up the Ecodesign Centre in 2006 focusing on applied research, capacity building and collaboration.
From the outset my aim was to co-create a collaborative culture based on trust, integrity, sharing and openness, engaging and empowering staff and clients through facilitating interdependent relationships to achieve effective long-term results. Over 7 years we worked in over 20 countries, across Asia, Africa, Europe and Americas.
Looking back and realising you led the way is a weird feeling, particularly when it is still deemed best practice so many years later and yet overall global progress has been very disappointing.
The centre was designated a Welsh Government Centre of Excellence in 2008 and recognised as best practice by the European Commission in 2009, a number of countries since followed suit in naming us as international leaders for breaking new ground and pushing the boundaries of ecodesign practice and policy. The work inspired the European Network of Ecodesign Centres (ENEC) which we launched in partnership with four other European regions and the European Commission in 2012. And the Centre’s model and achievements were further recognised in 2013 when we won the World Green Design Contribution Award at the European Parliament.
I had already made my mind up before I picked up the World Green Design Contribution Award that I was quitting and handing over responsibility to the team and our partner University. I was not satisfied with the progress. Global consumption was on the rise, product obsolescence was still the norm, and we were facing a resource and climate crisis. While our work was drawing international acclaim it clearly wasn’t enough. And I felt I had taken the business model of maintaining strong contractual ties with a University and Government far enough. I knew it was time to reflect, re-energize, recharge and come back with fresh insight. My gut feeling was that I needed 100% freedom to be truly agile, in total control of the brand values and focussed on impact.
Looking back and realising you led the way is a weird feeling, particularly when it is still deemed best practice so many years later and yet overall global progress has been very disappointing. However, there is no doubt now that the Ecodesign Centre was ahead of its time. The true impact of our work is still being researched as recently reminded by government policy makers who turned to me for advice and guidance on how to make ecodesign a reality in their respective country. However, radical change and innovation is needed, now more than ever. This is where my current agency anois comes in. I believe that anois is also ahead of its time. I am convinced that 10-15 years down the line others will follow our leadership in systems design.
For the last couple of years it seems to me that you have synthesised your expertise and experience into a new setup, can you exemplify that with describing a project or two you have done?
My time out after the Ecodesign Centre led to a change of direction, a tightening of my core values, and an upskilling in social art and urban design amongst other disciplines.
What followed was one of my career highlights where I was invited to spend 9 months as an artist in residence with an international art practice Artstation, based in a social housing complex in an urban area applying my emerging immersive, dialogic, empathetic process. This convinced me that community building should be a key element of my work and life.
Around the same time Jude and I were collaborating on business models for sharing, circularity and sustainability, as well as city mapping projects so we decided to set up our agency anois. We also became life partners. anois means ‘now’ in Irish emphasising the urgency of our work and the need for immediate change. Our activities and projects encompass a very wide range of fields, disciplines and sectors. The line between our urban and product activities is so blurred that in many ways they have become one. We provide a vision, steer strategy and outline potential solutions, backed by international best practice and data.
Everything we do reflects our urban RestPlayWork model where through an immersive-dialogic approach we creatively (re)imagine the World around us, always placing people, their well-being, a sense of place and prosperity at the centre along with a transparent and functioning social contract. What this means in practice is that we believe everyone should have a place they can call home (Rest), a space where they can have fun and create (Play), and access to fair, just, meaningful employment (Work). Our current large scale immersion is focussed on Cork city, which is where we moved to in November 2018 from Amsterdam. The work has drawn widespread attention on traditional and social media and has resulted in us inputting into the content for and appearing in two TV documentaries around the future of urban planning and alternative circular based economies. Honestly, as our work is so experimental we really don’t know where it is going to lead or how we finance many of our activities but we both believe we are going in the right direction, and the feedback to our city activism and immersion has been particularly positive, which is energising. We continue to believe that if you have the will, you will find the way.
How do you see the environments of cities and sustainable cities evolve in the years ahead of us?
To strive we need safe, liveable, healthy, beautiful, playful, creative and productive environments. They need to be seen as social spaces, with a focus on being, experience, sharing, creating and playing and not just spaces to consume.
We hope cities will be co-designed with the people, for the people, with all resource use maximised for the benefit of everyone. We are pioneering new ways of building urban communities and environments around this idea through our RestPlayWork model. As well exploring ways to provide indie responsible products and services through creating resilient local and foundational economies and enterprises with purpose, which offer needs-based, local, circular goods from under-utilised urban resources.
Caring for others is crucial, this means continually working on your empathy, listening and observation skills and controlling your ego.
People, organisations and indeed communities who want to engage and enhance their effort, what would be your advice to them?
Clearly every person and situation is unique. I’d say follow your heart, believe in yourself and stand up for what you believe in. You need to say ‘No’ to what doesn’t feel right. Caring for others is crucial, this means continually working on your empathy, listening and observation skills and controlling your ego.
It’s also very important to never lose your sense of wonder and fun and always stay hungry for new knowledge and insight, questioning and challenging everything. I have found that self-care and learning how to continually re-energise is key. Meditation and time with nature have helped enormously here.
Images by Jude Sherry, Anois
and Glenn Davidson, Artstation
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