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The Living Museum: A conversation with William McDonough

Hello, and welcome to The Living Museum, the podcast of the Royal Commission for AlUla, with me Arsalan Mohammed. In today's episode, we meet the Founding Partner at William McDonough + Partners and Chief Executive of McDonough Innovation, William McDonough.

An architect, thinker, author, and environmentalist, McDonough is respected as one of the world's leading advocates on sustainability. And he's an advisor to the Royal Commission for AlUla, where his Cradle to Cradle Theory of Sustainability for the Future is a key part of the regeneration of the historic site. And in this conversation, he's going to outline for us just some of the exciting ideas which he intends to preserve the past and create the future.

Cradle to Cradle as a concept has been in circulation since you coined the phrase back in the mid 1970s. Could you summarise for our listeners the core essence of the philosophy?

Cradle the Cradle is a way of looking at the world, the way nature looks at the world and one thing's waste is another thing's food. If we think about a cherry tree and the blossoms in the spring, they come, they go back to soil quickly, and they feed the system. So, they are not waste – they're actually food for future cherry trees. If we think about the idea of human production in the last 5000 years, we realised that when we started taking metal from the ground and making Ploughshares, for example, or implements, we were taking something that could then become food for the next technical implement. So we have the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, and so on. And these materials go back into cycles, just like those cherry blossoms. So in nature, things go back to soil and regenerate. In technology, they can go back to industry and regenerate industry.
So Cradle to Cradle says, instead of thinking about cradle to grave, which is actually an industrial term, but it means a linear economy of take make waste, is that we eliminate the concept of waste, and see everything as a valuable nutrient for the biological systems, or the technical systems. So, it's not cradle to grave, it's cradle to cradle. So, instead of designing for something you might call end of life, for each thing, you talk about end of use and then we talked about next use. And so things are sent out, they return, they get reprocessed, they regenerate, and we can do it again.

It's a very bold and revolutionary concept, the idea that there is no such thing as waste, that everything could ideally be repurposed for its next life.

It's next use

It’s next use – sorry, yes.

And that, you see, designing for end of use, is very different than designing for end of life. That is because if you design for end of life, you think, oh, when we finish using this, this can end up in a landfill, you know, a grave or an incinerator, a crematorium. And so you think of it as a living object. It's a projection. But these things are actually very useful. And we if we think of them as designed for end of use, then the question is, well, what do I use it for now, which means you start designing for next use. That's the circular economy.

So, the Circular Economy is more beneficial to society?

It can be, we have to be careful, because just because it's circular, doesn't mean it's beneficial. Circular is a quantification. That means again, really, and that can be immensely valuable if we can use materials again and again and again, but only if they're safe and healthy. Because that's the qualification. And with Cradle to Cradle, the first protocol is to make sure it's safe and healthy. Or if we're bringing it back from this last use, if it for any reason has been toxified or contaminated or whatever, or even manufactured with toxic materials, as we see often today in things that are like fast fashion, with dyes that are questionable, then we want to purify them before we put them back out. So, the Circular Economy is a great thing, because it lets us use resources again, but it also needs to be qualified with us making sure they're all safe and healthy.

How have the people of AlUla historically used resources and how does that demonstrate regenerative and biomimetic approaches akin to the Cradle to Cradle concept that we're discussing of sustainable design?

One of the things that the ancient people had was a very clear understanding of natural forces. So, they would be fully engaged in nature as it is. They would work with the water that was allowed to them by the natural systems, they would work with the energy flux, typically solar that was available to them, and they knew how to manage it. So, if we look at the buildings of AlUla, these ancient places, certainly the tombs – as caves, typically - were temperate places, but also the housing was compact, so that it was very convenient for movement and you could move around. There were, I think, seven tribes located in the ancient city there and they could be in neighbourhoods and they could see each other and be with each other to trade, share stories, have a culture by being compact, and one building shared another building. So, it was quite effective as a community and also very efficient as a physical structure for people. So, that practicality came from natural systems being the context and the content of these buildings and places.
The oasis aspects were clearly connected to the water situations, and the ability to have verger and green space. And then the trading would have been very connected to materials that were needed, like metals, or things that could be transported and shared various kinds of carpets and, and special things like spices and, and delightful objects of other places. They were connected completely to natural systems and follow the laws of nature while they were doing their industrious work.

That's fascinating. Is it possible to drill down a little bit more into this and see how archaeological digs and excavations, plus the wealth of historic research that has been done around AlUla, reveals these practices that we're talking about at the moment. How do we see that today?

Well, a very simple place to start is with energy and if we realise, these communities were all solar powered in almost every way, because that was where the energy came from, in ancient times. So, they would have used various cuttings from the trees and things like that for fuel. They would have used them for building roofing and shading. And the substructures of the roofs in AlUla are palm fronds, you know, building boards, to attach with mud, and so on. So, there's that kind of natural connection to various materials that [are] used for building. At the same time, the energy required to feed a horse or to feed a camel was coming from the natural world. You know, work directly with renewable power transportation was, wasn't just a good idea, it was a law. That's where the food came from. As they develop their herds of goats and things like that and domesticated animals to their purposes, if you look at a goat as an industrious creature, with a human, you see astonishing symbiosis that is there because they can eat just about anything. So, even in the desert, they can take the, the most spindly looking bush that has the tiniest bit of water in it, and then and then eat it and then produce milk, and butter and flesh and skins that can be used for bags of water and fur that can be used for wool for making tents and making carpets and making even clothing. And so, all of a sudden, you have this goat that has been domesticated to the point where it becomes this astonishing resource for the families, and since we also have nomadic tribes moving through, you realise the nomads had the goats, the goats are quite a special industrious feature because they, your factory for your tent and your food and your liquids, and your fats, and even playmates for your children – that's why we call them kids – and they follow you around, which is amazing, your factory is following you around.

*Laughing* that is remarkable.

It is remarkable.

I've never thought of it in that way before, but even down to the nicknaming of children as kids, this makes perfect sense. I didn't realise that they were so prevalent in that region at that time...

They're completely symbiotic. So, and these tribes move long distances and they're nomadic, you know, cycles. And so you have them and then you also have the traders who are moving up and down through here. So, it's quite a really interesting moment in history where we move from being a hunter gatherers, which is sort of scattered tribes wandering in certain areas, to more coherent gatherings of people that are actually moving intentionally, on a regular pattern through the year to follow essentially the grazing potential various areas, so they would move into places when things are growing and bring their herds with them. And then we also have the traders who are crossing and creating these thin lines of commerce throughout. So, you can track those in your archaeology too. And you're seeing the beginning, you know of transport routes and of sedentary civilization because all of a sudden hunter gatherers evolve into nomadic tribes evolve into, into settlements. And so as those tribes move around and they find a place like AlUla, they settle down because they can – because it can provide them with an annual coherent resource. And that means you treat it with great dignity and respect because it's only going to be perpetual if you don't abuse it. And so the idea of having an oasis with water, and your first order of business is to preserve, protect the water. To use it to, you know, with maximum utility with least damage or negative effects. So, that's really what you can see there. And that's exactly the same story that needs to be brought back into modern life, which is the protection of the commons, by the individuals as a community, recognising it is a life source of the community and the individual is part of that community and should not abuse it, because it will affect everyone. So, this is apocryphal in modern times, as we see systems collapse today on a global basis. And we ask, what is the tragedy of the commons when certain people take more advantage of a resource than that would be otherwise entitled, given the communal nature of the requirement to preserve the resource.

In a utopian setting, there would be this wonderful respect for our primary Commons as he put it. But isn't human nature such that there were in any group or society, there will be those who would seek to monopolise the resources for themselves and exclude others, which would then precipitate the imbalance that drags us downhill?

Yes, indeed. But that's, that's part of what we develop culture for, is to attend to that issue so that we can take everyone into account. That's culture. In this place, there was a culture of generosity and even when passed laws, or vendettas or other visceral relationships where people are seeking advantage or take total control, if you came, I'm sure, in ancient times through here, you weren't immediately seen as the enemy coming to take away things. You were seen as a person moving through the desert, who needed water and needed food, and would be greeted with water and food because the people here who then moved out from here to do things would expect the same and would hope for the same. There's a fundamental overlying culture of generosity and grace. And then, you know, after a few days, you might say to someone, you know, you're overdoing it. So, you just overstayed.

That's enough water... *Laughing*

Time to move on... *laughing* take the water and, and get on your way and you're fine. Yeah, we did our job... It is about humans becoming a culture and I will, obviously, we hope in the future, that we could all do this generously because the earth is now clearly a resource that is of real concern because it's actually sources of water, sources of soil, sources, sources... And in my world, I call these resources only if we're using them for a second time.

A lot of people conflate resources with sources. Can you just spell it out for us a little bit how you differentiate between what is a source what is a resource?

When I look at the sources of materials and energy and water, and things that we use, and I think about those sources. Often people will talk about raw materials sources or raw materials, or they'll talk about natural capital or natural resources and things like that. I like to reserve so to speak, the word 're', and the prefix, for using something again. So, 're-cycle', 're-generate', 're-source'. And so we can talk about original sources instead of resources. So, in the case of AlUla, it is a source of water, it is a source of community building, it's a source of dates, things like that. But when you look at a date palm, it only becomes a resource when you care for it as an orchard – every cycle, you get a new crop. So, it's re-sourcing dates, you see. So, the idea of resources to me is this wonderful notion that humans have found the ability to take materials and living systems and turn them into resources. So, think of the date palm orchard as they grow older as capital. It is an immense resourceful enterprise and the currency of that capital from that investment is dates and sugar. So, every season it provides you with sugar and food, fibre. So, that's the currency provided by the capital that is the orchard. So, you don't cut down your capital if you expect to have currency. So, this is 're-currency'. Nature provides us with that. It's quite wonderful really.

How can design protect and safeguard AlUla's historical authenticity while it's transforming into a global destination?

The power of design lies in its fundamental root, which is that it's a signal of human intention. When you wake up in the morning and you say I have designs on the world, you are planning something, and that has an effect. So, the designers wake up and they have assignments and most of them are optimistic and they're designing things that are for human benefit. So, if we say, what's our intention? And then you take a place like AlUla as a place to inspire those intentions, what are the intentions for AlUla? Well, it's to remain authentic. We have a very powerful example of an authentic experience, you are going to a place where you get to see the night sky, without light pollution in the desert. If you've never done it, it is worth the trip. Just that alone, to just feel that silence be in it, stare at the sky at night. It's astonishing. And then from there, you can see all these various artefacts of ancient artifice, but that artifice was authentic. These are artefacts not artifice. The artefact of nature is something that we can see how it's evolved. And, and then when we see the human production over time, we can also see how it's evolved. And so we can enjoy the prospect of memory is experience, which is something people can have today their experience and artefacts or the history of the place, then the question is for designers for a place like AlUla, how do we make the new experience, the experience of the present, a dignified artefact of the future? So, in AlUla, we want to make artefacts worthy of the next thousand year future. So, to be consistent with the place imagine designing things that will be just as astonishing to people 1000 years from now, as these things are to us today. One of the important things to understand about projects of this kind, with this ambition, is that they're not afraid to look at the question of ‘forever’. And we want to preserve the artefacts of the cultures that lived in this place, and the world that they found, and bring it forward into the future as artefacts that are respected. And so we want them to last forever. So, there's care in preserving things that might otherwise blow away. So, that's one. And then secondly, is this idea of taking forever, is a chance to be humble. And so these changes we're looking at, aren't going to happen overnight. They're going to happen because we all are thinking in ways that allow us to explore these ideas. So, there's great humility in it. And so, it's very wonderful really, that this project is going to take forever and to remember that the work of progress is always a work in progress. So, that's where we are. So, this will take us all, and it will take forever. But that is the point.

We're always just starting now.

We're always just starting now.

Can you give us an example of how the adoption of Cradle to Cradle philosophy and the proposed design concepts can address some of the challenges in today's global climate crisis?

Well, when we look at the climate crisis, we can trace it back to the question of carbon in the atmosphere, in its various forums, and so, that means we have to address that. So, the way we look at carbon, because we don't want to demonise carbon, we want to realise that carbon is an incredible living force. In fact, we are carbon ourselves. So, we characterise it as living carbon. And the production of living carbon, which is, you know, photosynthetically derived typically from the sun striking the soil and the plants and photosynthesis, and still you have the orchard and you have the trees and the bushes and all things going along with that... that's living carbon. And that can be grown, it's regenerative, it can be harvested for fires and things, but at a scale that is balanced by the system and nature which knows how to balance carbon naturally, up to the atmosphere down into the plants like a fountain gets refilled. And then you have durable carbon, which is carbon that is locked into solids like the limestone or, you know, fossil, fossil hydrocarbons and things like that. That's also durable carbon if it's a polymer in a plastic that can be recycled and can be realised as durable carbon over time. And then there's fugitive carbon which is carbon escaping and going into the atmosphere as a toxin. Because a toxin is a material in the wrong place at the wrong dose with the wrong duration. And so, water itself can be highly toxic if you surround yourself with it for six minutes. So, anything in excess has to be considered. So, carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere is something we can consider undesirable and so AlUla is going to be looking at the ancient inspiration, which is working from current solar income. So, we will be working from the sun and its various forms, including wind, and so on where appropriate. And that's a big deal. So, you're not going to have to be burdened by it. And you're not going to have to be overwhelmed by equipment and things like that you're going to be living there quietly in a place that doesn't have particulates in the air or noise from those behaviours, and that's the future.

This is something you believe we can achieve at present? Do we still need some time - a decade or a few decades - to realise this? So, for example, you're talking about plastics being renewable and fully biodegradable. Is that something that is presently achievable? Or do we still need to go a little bit further for that to be practical?

Technically, yes, practically, no. The idea of the composting for those materials needs to be organised And you have to have recovery. Really on any of these things before you can talk about recycling or composting. So, the hierarchy of use for all of us at this point would essentially be the first is – perhaps at an extreme level - refuse. So, people are saying, 'No, I don't want this'. If you're looking at single use plastic, there are people standing there with a straw, and a cup with a lid saying, you know, unless this can go in the in the garbage and I know it's going somewhere, where it's managed properly, they're starting to say, 'This doesn't feel right', especially younger people. So, you start saying, 'Well, I refuse to do that', or single use packaging in the store, 'Why do I need a package when I can have it in a bag or buy it in bulk?' So, those things are all cultural shifts that are going to require attention and they're not ready for primetime, per se, but they're coming. But, on the other hand, we have to celebrate single use plastic, so that's confusing for some people. And certainly in the age of COVID, we will want materials wrapped in plastic for sanitation. But after that we see reduce, like, let's not use things we don't need to do the job, then we have reuse. And we can reuse a lot of things, instead of being single use, but again during the age of COVID, reuse is something that will be revisited, so to speak, by people because they'll be wondering if they really want to reuse that thing that was used by someone else previously, and there'll be worried about is it sanitised and whatever. Think of a hotel room today and think of a hotel room six months ago. Six months ago before COVID, you would think I'm going to a hotel and has clean rooms and you're expecting cleanliness and so on. Today, you'll be expecting a disinfected room. So, it's a whole other level of clean. I think that's fair, people should expect that and we need to design for that. So, I think those are protocols that will be brought into place. We'll be looking at even the soaps and the cleaning products and materials down to the molecule for health and safety. And it'll be part of the basic community at some point in history. So, that's exciting because after you think about reuse, then you have to question that certainly we want to reuse as many things as we can and should.

When we talked last time, you quoted this wonderful passage, and I wonder if you might be kind enough to quote it to us again, as we wrap up this conversation, but it was a chapter on timeless authenticity.

Modern life has become what I would call, I’m coining a word for it, but it’s a bit odd, which is, it’s become ‘timeful.’ And then we're also mindless. We're in such a hurry that we're mindless about some of the effects of our actions and so one. Or we don't want to know. You know, you have the bottle, you drink the water, you’re in a hurry, you throw the bottle, and you’re timeless, you don't want to think about it, I mean, you're timeful and you’re mindless. I don't want to think about this. It goes somewhere, and something, and I'm not even going to think about. Then what we're looking here, is a condition that can create a kind of timeless mindfulness. So, you're there and your time is eons really when you can see the stars like that or you can think deeply or experience a place that has this incredible history. So, you become timeless. You start thinking about how big it is, and then you become mindful because it's something really worthy of your experience and consideration. So, you become timelessly mindful, instead of timefully mindless. So, that's one thing. But then if you then take that notion, that you're going to connect to this larger issue, and think well, what would we do now? This is your invention. This is creation of by humans. And so it reminds me of this quote from Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, and he said, 'If you want to bake a pie from scratch, first, you have to create the universe. If we want an apple or piece of crust, we have to create the universe that would bring us the apple'. So, that idea of going back to first principles, what is happening in AlUla, we were engaging with the question of, well, what if we bake a pie from scratch? Well, then we have to go find that universe that has been created for us to engage in and then start there and make that. Let’s follow the laws of nature first, they're not just a good idea. It's the law.

That was William McDonough, advisor to Royal Commission for AlUla and pioneer of Cradle to Cradle Design, the Circular Economy and the Circular Carbon Economy, and of course, co-author of 'Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things’, which is definitely recommended reading for anyone curious to understand more about his core philosophy. To learn more about William McDonough’s work in the meantime, head to
In the meantime, though, do remember to follow us on Twitter at @RCU_SA and do share this podcast with your friends and social networks. Until the next time, stay safe, stay well and bye for now.