Designer, activist, academic and author, Julia Watson is a leading expert on indigenous nature-based technologies.

Her unconventional practice led to research, writing, and design projects inspired by pilgrimages to indigenous sites, while her formal education led to teaching positions at Harvard, Columbia, RISD, and Rensselaer universities.

Julia’s work has been widely published in journals such as SPOOL, Topos Journal, and the Indigenous Peoples and Climate Technologies Guidebook.

In 2019, her award-winning book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, published by Taschen became a bestseller featured twice in The New York Times, The Guardian, Monocle, and Architectural Digest and many more publications.

Her studio work involves landscape architecture, urban design, writing, public speaking, and futures consulting for the sustainability & innovation sectors.

Julia lives between Brooklyn, NY and Springs, Long Island with her family and their dog Rigby.


MATTE: We would love to start by knowing better your publication Lo—TEK. Please correct us if we are wrong, Lo-TEK is a movement that investigates lesser-known local technologies (Lo), traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), indigenous cultural practices, and mythologies passed down as songs or stories, is this correct?

JW: Lo―TEK, is a word I made up that represents a design movement to rebuild an understanding of indigenous philosophy and vernacular architecture that generates sustainable, climate resilient infrastructures.

It’s different to the word ‘Low-tech’, which was a term previously used to describe these technologies  meaning, unsophisticated or primitive. It’s also in contrast to ‘high-tech,’ which is the fascination and evolution of industrialism, and largely defines the era we are in.

It’s been important for me to define these technologies because a fascination with high-tech and the erasure of these Lo—TEK innovations is why we are in the climate crisis.  At a certain time in the last few hundred years, we defined what technology was.  Of all of the thousands of technologies found across the globe, including Indigenous local technologies, a really small sliver of Eurocentric systems were included which began our globalized, modernized path forward. That got us to where we are now, which is a fantastic development as a global civilisation, but we're also in this paradox of being in a world that is threatened by climate change and environmental crises, and that has social and economic off-spins.

Derived from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), Lo―TEK is a cumulative body of multigenerational knowledge, practices, and beliefs, countering the idea that indigenous innovation is primitive and exists isolated from technology. It is sophisticated and designed to sustainably work with complex ecosystems.

MATTE: Can you please give us an example of Indigenous design technologies that offer solutions to climate change and where you discovered this particular technology?

JW: The bheri wastewater aquaculture system of the Bengalese in the East Kolkata Wetlands is a living and incredibly resilient urban circulatory system. The system is synonymously a fishery, waste management system, agricultural field, rice paddy network, community hub, grazing land, and heritage site. It processes 50% of the sewage that comes out of the city of Kolkata everyday through a simple symbiosis between sunshine algae and bacteria, saving the city millions of dollars annually. For the community who live around the wetlands, the filtration of water is an act of giving back to the gods. Spiritual connection to the Mother Ganga, whose river water flows through the wetlands, plays its own role in this ecosystem, with Ganges water believed to cleanse the body and mind.

The sangjiyutang mulberry dyke and fish pond system integrates this process with fish, livestock, and dykes, called tanglu. Several methods of agricultural production work in symbiosis to create this complex multi-dimensional eco-agricultural system. This sustainable closed loop system incorporates renewable energy, water management, nutrient recycling, and food production through cropping, mulberry tree growing, silkworm rearing, and livestock and fish cultivation. The system also functions as part of a much larger scale reservoir for water storage, flood regulation, and drought mitigation for the city of Huzhou.

MATTE: You have been described as an ecological pioneer and designer of sustainable future scenarios, you have been consulting a lot of companies to align their missions with global sustainability goals by designing and implementing systemic change within Sustainability, Innovation, and Futures sectors. Is there any particular collaboration that you are willing to share with us?

As a consultant on sustainability and climate adaptation for the Innovations and Futures sectors of companies, I provide insight on how to adapt the value-chain by instituting systemic change within a company. I’ve done a couple of collaborations with the Innovation divisions of: Cartier Innovation Labs, NIKE, Audi, Space10 for IKEA.

MATTE: Can you share with us the concept behind your recent installation of Winter Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center, your creative process and the ultimate ecological and social goals might be behind this project?

JW: Our Winter Channel Gardens design titled “Forest Foraging”, is a seasonal planting palette inspired by our north-eastern forests and including sculptural stumps in the process of decay, which provide critical habitat for our hibernating species. It is reminiscent of a multi-layered, evergreen, canopied forest of Pines, Amelanchier, Redbuds and Plum Blossoms, which give way to unique winter blooms in the coming weeks, like the Winter Rose, Camellias, Rhododendrons, Azaleas,  and Mahonia along with and colorful yellow bare-branching shrubs of the Cornus surrounded by lush winter ferns.

We use the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center as an experimental space for urban rewilding, by using biodiversity as a building block for all species. The Channel Garden acts as a corridor for pollinating animals and insects within the dense urban fabric. Through thoughtful plant selection, specific species of birds, butterflies, and bees are attracted to the gardens throughout the year.

The native plantings and urban wildlife becomes a dynamic educational tool for the public to understand the indigenous species of our City.

MATTE: From March this year your work and research will be shared in the exhibition “Garden Futures. Designing with Nature” at the VITRA Design Museum - Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.  Can you tell us more about how you contributed to the exhibition and what we are going to see there?

Lo―TEK will be featured in the Vitra exhibition drawings and as content from an interview on the topics of how to translate indigenous land care management practices into mainstream landscape architecture and “gardening” practice, and the challenges in doing so. There will also be a panel discussion for Vitra on the Garden Futures exhibit with Paulo Tavares and myself, moderated by Viviane Stappmanns, the curator of the exhibition.


MATTE: How your journey started and what inspired you to get into architecture, sustainability, indigenous heritage, culture and knowledge?

JW: Raised in Australia, I studied Architecture in Brisbane at the University of Queensland, which had an indigenous design research unit. In second year architecture, every student took a seminar called Aboriginal Environments. That opened my eyes up to a knowledge and understanding- about design and the built environment that were not Western and that were not part of what your typical Architectural education. Brisbane also lies on a really wide snaking river with mud flats, and the coastal beach of the West Pacific, and I was always connected to my natural environment — to the rainforest, to the river, to the mangroves.

I’ve traveled the world to prove an intuition that humankind’s most sustainable innovations are local solutions created millennia ago. In 2006 I moved to the US for a Masters at Harvard University, focused on the conservation of contested sacred sites, and graduated with the highest award of the Landscape Architecture department. My unconventional approach to practice led to research, writing, and design projects inspired by pilgrimages to indigenous lands and sacred sites like Mt Kailash and Machu Picchu. While my formal education and approach to landscape and architecture led to teaching positions at Harvard, Columbia, RISD, and Rensselaer universities. In 2019, my twenty years of travel culminated in an award-winning book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, published by Taschen, which quickly became a bestseller.


MATTE: What would you like to achieve in the following steps of your career? Is there any collaboration or installation that you would like to bring to life in the future?

JW: Working alongside indigenous experts, architects, planners, engineers, governments, and other actors who can help bring Lo—TEK into large scale urban projects. Lo—TEK systems have an ability to cleanse without the need of additional energy sources, protect us from climate change without expensive High-tech systems, and offset food and water scarcity for millions.These innovations present the opportunity to redefine our energy, food, water and waste systems— and to transform so much more.

MATTE: Do you have any suggestions in terms or books or academic courses for the younger generation interested in ecosystems preservation and sustainability?

JW: The Blue Economy: 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs by Gunter Pauli

Lo—TEK Water by Julia Watson, the sequel to the first book focused on water-based technology, available in Spring of 2025!



Images Courtesy of Julia Watson Studio

Photo Credits: Amos Chapple, Esme Allen, David Lazar, Jassim Alasadi, Alireza Teimoury, Enrique Castro-Mendivil, Iwan Baan

Interview by Francesca Valente – Talent Director