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October 31, 2008

City Eco Lab - the encounters



Like all that soil? One of the key ideas in City Eco Lab is to make eco-systems, earth and water the basis of re-imagining the city - not "the economy".


The lower photograph shows jonggi, or earthen jars, used in Korea to store condiments and kimchi pickles. The image introduces a statement about food storage that Debra Solomon has published at culibog.org by way of a preview of her participation in City Eco Lab, at the Cité du Design Biënale in Saint-Étienne which runs from 15-30 November. (The full November Doors of Perception Report is here).

(Together with chef Paul Freestone, Debra will be pickling, sauerchocrouting and making delicious kimchi as one part of her installation in the food area of the event).

I love this image because it answers, for me at least, a central question posed by City Eco Lab (which is, after all, the main event in a national design biennial). If a sustainable life is to be less about stuff, and more about people - with few new buildings and products being made - what is there left for designers and artists to do?

A big part of the answer is to seek out daily life solutions that already exist - such as the collaborative, low-energy food storage solution shown in the photograph - and then to adapt and improve them for new contexts.

We can discuss that further if you make it to the event - or via this blog.

For now, here is a summary of the encounters and presentations that will run in City Eco Lab during its two-week run. This list will evolve day-by-day and announcements posted on the City Eco Lab blog. (The blog will come properly to life life just before the opening).

Avinash Kumar on the story behind velowala.org, a media installation made by a team in Delhi that brings the bike-based commerce of the streets of India alive – in St Etienne. (Saturday 15/11)

New economic models, complementary currencies, local economy trading schemes, alternative trade networks, community supported agriculture: Bethany Koby & Ellie Thornhill talk about their shop-within-a-shop for eco-software. They are followed later that day by special guest Alex Steffen, editor of Worldchanging. (Sunday 16/11)

Allan Chochinov, editor in chief of Core77.com, gives a keynote on “design imperatives”. Later, a worskhop on design and energy wil discuss: can design help us choose among the growing number of green energy offers ? (Tuesday 18/11)

Clare Brass + Flora Bowden from SEED Foundation talk about neighbourhood-level composting services. Later there’s a design clinic : Design for mobiliy, or de-motorisation? There follows a special keynote by Ezio Manzini on "design strategies for the small, local, open and connected". Oh yes, and the French edition of In The Bubble is launched at 18h. (Wednesday 19/11)

A sustainable world will be densely networked – but not by closed, proprietary neworks. Juha Huuskonen (Pixelache, Piksel, Pixelvärk, Afropixel, Pikslaverk, PixelAzo) and Jean-Noel Montagne (CrasLabs, Paris) discuss how self organisation and technological autarchy will be crucial in the coming years. (Thursday 20/11)

Emanual Louisgrand talks about l’Ilot d’Amaranthes - his gardens on brownfield sites in Lyon. Later, a design clinic on Food and the City features Matthieu Benoît-Gonin (Jardinethic) ; Debra Solomon, (culiblog.org); and François Jégou (solutioning.net). (Friday 21/11)

Doors of Perception lunchtime discussion. If you are serious about hoping to do a similar event in your own region to City Eco Lab (or Dott 07), Doors cannot fund it, but we can help with the strategy and process. (Saturday 22/11)

Design clinic for and with local companies.(Monday 24/11)

How to find, document and enable eco-materials - and human savoir faire (Tuesday 25/11)

Re-connecting a city with its natural systems, including projects for St Etienne’s River Furan. Plus a design clinic on sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS). (Wednesday 26/11)

Pirjo Haikola from the Why Factory (NL) a research institute on the future city founded by Winy Maas and MVRDV, shows how maps are used in rethinking, researching, reshaping and enhancing images of future urban life. (Thursday 27/11)

Citizens and designers involved in one of St Etienne's "eco quartiers" (eco neighbourhoods) will discuss what functions make a place eco - or not - and how to measure their performance. (Thursday 27/11)

The City Eco Lab restaurant serves food sourced within a 80km radius - the maximum distance food may travel in France without being refrigerated (Friday 28/11).

Posted by John Thackara at October 31, 2008 11:15 AM


you wrote:

If a sustainable life is to be less about stuff, and more about people - with few new buildings and products being made - what is there left for designers and artists to do?

A big part of the answer is to seek out daily life solutions that already exist - such as the collaborative, low-energy food storage solution shown in the photograph - and then to adapt and improve them for new contexts.


I've been thinking about your model of achieving sustainability via doing (almost) nothing new and wondering just how sustainable it really is.

By which I mean: it seems unlikely that the whole of human civilization will think it's a good idea for architects to design few new buildings, engineers to create few new constructs and so on. Indeed, even if this was true for a time, how many generations would pass before there was an ideological revolt against even the most well-intended constraints?

I suppose the reply would be that 'peak oil' (along with the other theorized peaks) will sort all that out by collectively forcing us to make do with less, whether we like it or not.

That's debatable, to say the least (not that oil will become scarcer, but rather, that this will happen on the timetable and in precisely the way peakists describe and that our response will be as they imagine). But even if, for the sake of argument, I fully accept the peakist view it seems to me that humanity's answer will not uniformly fall into line with the 'small is beautiful' visions you and your colleagues espouse.

For example, perhaps S. Korea (which I know a thing or two about) concludes that the way to deal with peak is by developing a more sophisticated grid and building even more super-dense urban centers (to capture greater efficiencies of scale), as opposed to the hauntologically shaped idea of small town, 'everyone's a gardener' localism.

Would such a 'high tech' response clash with the implicit ethical assumptions built into your model (i.e., the apparent belief that 'localism' means generally nicer and more 'human scaled' communities)?

There's also the question of capitalism or rather, the near total lack of a critique of capitalist logic in the eco-design movement.

We don't have hundreds (maybe thousands, I don't know) of brands of toothpaste simply because designers are currently too fond of innovation (which, unless I miss my guess, you believe to be one of our problems). We have too many brands because profit is the key motivator of capitalist enterprises and market differentiation is often achieved via novelty (also, there's the matter of research genuinely producing better formulas for inhibiting disease and decay).

My point is to bring to the forefront the fact that much of what the ecologists of various stripes attribute to a 'separation from nature' or gigantism or what have you is the direct result of market ideology.

The eco-design movement appears to believe that this ideology will either go away because of the various peaks or be tamed and shrunk to small community, 'human' scale. But what would prevent, say, a British agribusiness firm (or design firm) from simply co-opting localized farming and design work and un-doing the localization movement by adapting itself to the language (the way Whole Foods, in the US, both encourages and dominates organic farming)?

What I'm pointing at here is what I see as a very large blind spot in your movement, whose heart is certainly in the right place and which bristles with intriguing ideas but which seems to think it can build a parallel world without completely taking the dominant one into account.


Posted by: D. Monroe at October 31, 2008 05:45 PM


I did not mean to propose that we do "nothing new", and I share your disinterest in "everyone's a gardener' localism."

Although I still prefer those kimchi pots to the freezer section in Tesco.

What I meant to say is that the most important innovation needed now is social, not technical.

The problem with the scenarios like smart grids and super-dense urban centers in Korea is that the money, energy and human resources needed to build them are unlikely to be available.

(Read John Michael Greer's paper on "catabolic collapse" for an explanation of why not).

You are right, of course, that many of the smarter corporate dinosaurs will try to co-opt localism; that's already happening.

It's just that when you are small, swarming is more effective than kicking.

Posted by: John T at October 31, 2008 06:48 PM

Yes, Greer's paper is interesting, though I'm disturbed by the large number of eager apocalyptarians who've adopted it as a source text.

I note that all of his examples are societies which were expansionist.

Consider this excerpt, which describes the western Roman Empire's collapse:

The collapse of the western Roman Empire, by contrast, was a catabolic collapse driven by a combined maintenance and resource crisis. While the ancient Mediterranean world, like imperial China, was primarily dependent on readily replenished resources, the Empire itself was the product of an anabolic cycle fueled by easily depleted resources and driven by Roman military superiority. Beginning in the third century BCE, Roman expansion transformed the capital of other societies into resources for Rome as country after country was conquered and stripped of movable wealth. Each new conquest increased the Roman resource base and helped pay for further conquests. After the first century CE, though, further expansion failed to pay its own costs. All remaining peoples within the reach of Rome were either barbarian tribes with little wealth, such as the Germans, or rival empires capable of defending themselves, such as the Parthians (Jones 1974). Without income from new conquests, the maintenance costs of empire proved unsustainable, and a catabolic cycle followed rapidly. The first major breakdown in the imperial system came in 166 CE, and further crises followed until the Western empire ceased to exist in 476 CE (Grant 1990, Grant 1999).


What intrigues me is the way Greer identifies the mechanics of collapse while missing the larger point his research reveals. Which is that the theory and practice of endless expansion, rather than societal complexity, was the root cause of the collapse of the civilizations he cites.

We have, for example, no idea how Rome would've fared had she contented herself to the boot of Italia (or, as Gibbon instructs, corrected the system created by Augustus by creating an actual democracy rather than an 'absolute monarchy, hidden by republican forms').

It's my contention that in our own time, capitalism is the expansionist ideology which prevents us from achieving a more rational and resource-wise global society (only a person trying to eternally sell you something new would think landfills -- instead of re-use -- are a good idea).

Actually, this means that although I still have disagreements with your program (at least, as I understand it presently) I completely agree with you when you say:

"What I meant to say is that the most important innovation needed now is social, not technical."

Although, I'd like to see a balance of respect between technical and social innovations. Speaking of which, I recommend the following book which, in my view, is a good first attempt:

"Sustainable Energy - without the hot air" --

In short, let's not assume out of hand, because it flatters our 'green' philosophy, that those smart grids are off the menu.


Posted by: D. Monroe at October 31, 2008 08:31 PM

I just wanted to thank you for all your work on the Biennial of Saint-Etienne, and for this presentation of City Eco Lab...
I am a guide for the Biennial and I am happy to find all this information on your website... even if everything is written in English (a little harder for me to understand)...

Thank you
Laurent Guerrieri

Posted by: L. GUERRIERI at November 19, 2008 11:40 AM

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