December 02, 2011

From Druids, to Biorefineries: Innovation In A Small Nation

How best do you help a resilient economy emerge in a region that has one foot in ancient ways and traditions - its other in the world of global universities and nuclear power?


[Left: "The Hill Farmer" by Bedwyr Williams. Right: a nuke]

North West Wales has the ingredients to be one of Europe's most resilient regions. Its valuable assets include a lot of relatively undamaged land; clean air and biodiversity; abundant water; sea; low population density; and a deeply-rooted language and culture, supported by dense social networks - "a bit like the roots of a leek" as Dr Einir Young put it to me - in which land, mind and spirit continue, powerfully, to resonate.

] Energy Island

A much contested proposal is that Anglesey, adjacent to Bangor, should be developed as an Energy Island. In a last throw of the dice for the thermo-industrial economy, Horizon Nuclear Power, which is part owned by the French EDF, wants to build "two or three" nuclear reactors on the island.

Anglesey was the breadbasket of Wales not so long ago, and is surely needed to serve that function again. The proposition that a 3.3GW nuclear plant might be included in a "mix" with food growing is not well aligned, to put it mildly, with a resilient economy.

Anglesey's nukes are unlikely, on balance, to be built. Capital costs determine their economic viability and capital is in - well, let's call it short supply. They nonetheless remain a looming elephant in the region's room. (Curiously, the only discussions that crop up during my visit concern what to do about roosting bats displaced by site clearance - and the decision to build a third bridge off the island for people to escape if a nuke blows.).

] Bridge to the future

Sitting between the Big of the nukes and the Small of the rest is Bangor University and its £37 million arts and innovation centre, Pontio.


The stated purpose of this ambitious new building, which is due to open in 2013, is to be a bridge (its name in Welsh) that will "promote learning and research, create jobs and wealth, foster world-class innovation, drive economic growth and regeneration, and support the local community and Welsh culture".

That's one ambitious bridge. A discussion has therefore started in earnest about what Pontio's priorities should be, and why. Last week I joined this conversation at event in Bangor called Innovation In A Small Nation

The format was simple: flying visits to local projects that are the seedlings of an emerging new economy, followed by multi-disciplinary workshops to explore what might be done to help them flourish.

] Bioeconomy

Dr Adam Charlton, a researcher at the Biocomposites Centre in the Welsh Institute for Natural Resources, described to me a plausible and enticing future bio-economy.


A network of grassland micro-refineries would transform biomass into a range of fuels and materials. These would replace industrial chemicals traditionally produced from oil - from agrochemicals, biofuels, and water treatment, to lubricants, adhesives, coatings, waxes, biopolymers, packaging, essential oils, cosmetics, personal care products, nutraceuticals - the possibilities seemed endless. These product lines could be worth £500m to the Welsh economy.

A new demonstration programme called Beacon is the next step in Wales' ambitions to be a centre for bio-refining. Geneticists, microbiologists and agriculture experts are collaborating to build a medium-sized bio-refinery with the capacity to produce on the thousand-litre scale. It will turn locally grown crops such as rye grass, miscanthus, oats and artichokes into the fuels, plastic composites, pharmaceuticals and other commercial products that Charlton told me about.

The promise of a bioeconomy is real enough - but so are the dangers. In other parts of the world, vast tracts of rainforest are being cleared to make way for biofuel producing crops - some of which function as aggressive invasive species. Controversy also surrounds the displacement of crops for food by crops for fuel. A third concern: whenever you gather a lot of biomass at a central location, one output will be large amounts of nutrients and biochemical oxygen demand that often degrade water quality.

For Beacon's funders, its task is to deliver 200 businesses - not to strengthen the ecological resilience of Wales. True, Beacon's policy is to use plants that do not need to be cultivated on the best food-growing land. But in other countries land classified as "marginal" often turns out to be the home of rural populations living more lightly on the land than we do.

A bio-economy that simply substitutes biofuels for fossil fuels is not a green one. The strongest demand for bio-products comes from the most resource-hungry sectors of the doomsday economy: aviation, the military, pharma.

If compound economic growth remains unchallenged as the First Directive of Welsh development, it will be hard for Welsh bio-innovators to put the health of the soil ahead of pressure from powerful global markets.

Hard - but not impossible. Finland, with a far bigger biomass resource than Wales, is exploring bio-economic solutions based on "different forms of earning logic" because 'the market for small-scale is large".

Could Wales focus its nascent bio-economy on regional rather than global needs? To do so, it would need to embrace a new notion of economic progress that is restorative rather than extractive. And to achieve that, she would need to foster novel connections among companies from different industries that are not accustomed to working together.

Good, because Innovation In A Small Nation was about just this latter kind of connectivity.

] Stewards of the soil


Could a future bio-economy be consistent with the long-term health of Welsh soil - its 'terroir'? I next meet a man who thinks about little else. Tom DeLuca, Professor of of Environmental Sciences at the university, tells me, unprompted, that he was "awake all night worrying about disturbing the soil". (That's him on the left above, together with a bunch of biomass).

"The health of the soil is crucial to food security over the long term" DeLuca explains, "but we keep stripping nutrients from rural areas and feeding cities with them. Plants and soil are symbiotic, a single living system". We should not treat them separately - but market pressures often force us to do just that.

DeLuca's immediate concern is the commissioning of a new rhizotron. This below-ground laboratory, set to be the only one of its kind in the UK, will enable scientists to study soils and plant roots in situ, and thereby advance our understanding of soil carbon dynamics and plant-soil interactions.

DeLuca's colleagues are also studying aspects of North Wales as an ecology of bioregions. An ongoing "catchment to coast" study, for example, enables soil science to collaborate with ocean science in a single context.

The aim is to integrate the study of rivers, estuaries and coastal waters within a single functional and linked system, and to understand how nutrients and organic matter introduced into the sea from rivers can affect coastal water chemistry and productivity.

] Salt of the sea

The coast is not unexplored territory for Welsh innovators. A canny entrepeneur called David Lea-Wilson sells a million-plus tubes of Halen Mon 'gourmet sea salt' to upscale restaurants and one-percenters in 23 countries.

bangor halen mon.png

Halen Mon salt sells for a nifty 22 times the price of supermarket salt - but Lea-Wilson does not apologise. "The price reflects what it costs to make" he says; "the salt crystals are harvested, rinsed, dried and packed entirely by hand".

Artisan sea salt making was a major activity in Britain once before. It was displaced in the nineteenth century by the industrial-scale processing of underground rock into what we now know as table salt. In recent times, as word spread that chemicals such as sodium ferrocyanide are added to make supermarket salt flow easily, the cheap product has had a bad press.

Sea salt, promoted as the pure alternative, has not been without its own critics. Our team's visit to Halen Mon coincided with media reports that questioned the health benefits of sea salt. Lea_Wilson has robust and persuasive answers to these latest questions.

Besides, the challenge posed to our team of explorers concerned not salt, but water. Specifically, what use might be found for the 20 tonnes of distilled water that the company produces a day during its salt extraction process?

An initial brainstorm threw up applications to do with steam irons, micro-brewing, and pisciculture. My own first thought, given Lea-Wilson's celebrated talents as an entrepreneur, was that he should freeze the stuff and sell it in Greenland's restaurants as organic ice.

On further reflection, Halen Mon can clearly play a big role in the innovation of products based on the outputs of Adam Charlton's biorefineries.

] Green Shangri-la

Our next stop was the Celtic Round House at Cae Mabon, an enchanting eco-retreat located in a forest clearing by a rushing river not far from Bangor.


Twenty five years ago, when Eric Maddern, an Australian storyteller (and, latterly, an honorary Chief Bard of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) first moved into the valley, he built a thatched roundhouse of the kind the region's ancestors lived in for three thousand years before the coming of the Romans.

Twenty years on, the Cae Mabon clearing now contains seven elegant natural dwellings. These include a strawbale Hogan, an oak and slate longhouse, and a cob cottage. The site, judged recently to be the number one natural building project in the UK, was described as a ‘Welsh Shangri-La hanging on a hillside overlooking the mountains of Snowdonia’.

The built dwellings on their own are not yet the basis of a sustainable rural enteprise. Maddern needs to innovate new services and activities to make use of the buildings; (they can accommodate up to 30 people). He needs to market these to new groups of people; take bookings and enable transactions; and coordinate all the activities - from food, to parking - that use of the site by a group entails. And he needs to do all this without compromising the unique spirit of the place.

Cae Mabon is a tiny business that has received no EU or government grants in 25 years. For its future sustainability, a long-term solution needs to be found. Sites such as Cae Mabon are like the region's antibodies. They play a literally vital role in healing the crippling disconnection within Western culture between body, soul, spirit, and place.

] Hill farm as learning farm

Our next stop is Moel Y Ci, an old Welsh hill farm that is now constituted as a social enterprise with 700 community shareholders. This ownership model enables local people to share responsibility for a shared heritage of natural, social and cultural resources.


[Pic: Jon Harold stands in a bird hide that was constructed at Moelyci using traditional carpentry methods. Photograph: Gareth Phillips/Guardian]

On-site activities range from large-scale composting for the local authority, and training in such field skills as coppicing and hurdle-making, to a market garden complete with sizeable polytunnels and to 50 allotment gardens.

One field has been turned over for intercropping of soft fruits and wildflowers. Another field is the home to rare fungi, discovered by a volunteer; Moelyci turns out to be one of the most important wax cap sites in Europe.

wax cap mushroom.jpg

There is also a resident ecologist because the land includes a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Moelyci is bustling, even in late November. The centre's two founders and (unpaid) directors, Della and John Fazey, make a convincing case that the farm can be a high value learning resource. Local people learn conservation skills and environmental management, food production, horticulture, tree surgery and so on - all on the job. Perhaps as valuable: They reconnect with nature as they do so.

Moelyci receives no steady long-term funding. Ten years on, the Fazeys still spend a huge amount of time writing grant applications, to a bewildering array of potential funders, to keep things going. For researchers in the university, writing grant applications is second nature - and professors usually get grad students to churn out the mountains of paperwork that keep a department's research funds flowing. Moelyci's most pressing need as an alternative to endless grind of grant writing.

] Model farm - old as new

On our way back to Bangor we visit another stunning building, Hendre Hall which was built as a model farm in the nineteenth century.


[Pic: James Innes, on the left, who runs Hendre Hall's events, talking to Dr Andy Goodman from Pontio]

The model of agriculture Hendre was built to embody has disappeared from most of the UK - but less so in Wales. Anglesey was the breadbasket of Wales just a couple of generations ago and can be so again.The physical conditions exist for the region to rediscover the best of pre-industrial agriculture; innovate new services to make it viable; and also innovate a mosaic of new-generation rural enterprises.

A network of rural hubs coud play a key role in such a transformation - and Hendre Hall would make a brilliant one of those. The question is: How?

] Enterprise By Design

After these flying visits, we return to the university to discuss what these disparate assets might mean for Innovation In A Small Nation - and what role Pontio might play in the emergence of a restorative new economy.

Pontio is a a wee bit over-specified for a rural enterprise hub - but, tant pis, the building will happen. The opportunity now is to develop an engaging script around which a multitude of potential actors and crew can coalesce.

North Wales is blessed with a multitude of promising actors - from local energy projects to permaculture networks and courses. The region's assets also include established centres with their own networks such as the nearby Centre for Alternative Technology which is world famous in its own right as a centre for environmental inspiration and courses.

There also exist new models in Wales of rural enterprise centres that draw on old roots but operate in a modern and networked way. My favourite example is the Myddfai Trading Company in South Wales. The narrative is is inspired by the Physicians of Myddfai who were herbalists in the twelfth century. Now, some time later, a £450,000 BIG Lottery Fund grant has enabled the village to set up a social enterprise that is nurturing a variety of new start-up businesses.

A thought occurs: For the cost of one nuclear power station (in round numbers: five billion pounds excluding government subsidies, insurance, accidents, waste, safety, security, or decommissioning) one could give grants £3m plus to each of the 1,357 villages in Wales

] Script revision

In filmic terms, the original Pontio 'treatment' - which persuaded its investors to shell out 37 million pounds for the building - revolves around an idea of innovation dominated by technology and the promise of compound economic growth.

This original script cannot be scrapped, but it can surely be improved. Scripts alway evolve. Its next iteration needs to focus on the emerging restorative economy whose vitality is based on social-technical innovation at the service of the 'net present assets' of the region.

A shift in emphasis along these lines might not be that hard an ask. For example, the co-sponsor with Pontio of Innovation In A Small Nation was the university's Centre for Advanced Software Technology and its EU programme Inventorium. You might think, as I did at first, that a digital centre of excellence would be an unlikely bedfellow for permaculture farming or druidic retreats. In the event, the Inventorium team ventured outside its natural comfort zone with positive energy and good humour.

Small nations can be flexible in ways that big one cannot.

Additonally, although Wales is famous for its language, there seems to be little patience with talking shops. An important department within Pontio will be Enterprise By Design. Dr Andy Goodman, one of the originators of programme, tells me his group is determined to develop self-sustaining projects that connect the university with small companies and communities externally - and end up as a viable business. Goodman and his colleagues have developed and tested a project model that works; the next phase is to choose partners to work with - and that remains, healthily, an open book.

With this kind start-an-enterprise engine under its hood, Pontio is well-paced to connect disparate companies and communities, support their meetings, and host their conversations. This connecting can be the most important kind of innovation that Pontio does.

] Spirit of the place

When I set out on foot to catch a 6am train, Bangor's railway station and surrounding area have been plunged into darkness by a power cut. If this is a peak-oil practice drill, Bangor comes out well. A solitary guard used the flashlight on his mobile phone to iliuminate the platform, and the atmosphere among the dozen or so of my shadowy fellow passengers was rather cheerful.

Who needs blazing artificial light when you have that kind of spirit?

Teg yw edrych tuag adref.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:04 PM

September 02, 2011

Iceland: eaten alive, or growing to live?


"Who needs oil when you have rain?" The ad for Landsvirkjun, Iceland's national energy company, dominates this month's Icelandair magazine. It sits alongside other ads that feature wild spaces, rugged outdoor clothing, and all-round natural purity. The message is not disguised: Iceland is blessed by massive amounts of clean energy.

The true picture on the ground, sad to say, is murkier. Landsvirkjun's greener-than-green power stations may well employ geothermal and hydropower - 'the rain' - but their massive megawatts of output are not used to keep Icelanders warm. Most of their energy powers a global extractive industry - aluminium - that, seen as a whole, is one of the most dirty and wasteful in the global economy.

For a start, it takes huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy to mine bauxite at its point of origin, and the extraction process nearly always involves habitat destruction, soil erosion, acid mine drainage, watercourse pollution, loss of biodiversity, and the displacement of local people too powerless to resist. More dirty fuel is then needed to power shiploads of ore as they cross the globe, from places like Australia, to Iceland's smelters.

Black smoke is also emitted by the ships that carry 400,000 metric tons of processed aluminium from Iceland to manufacturing centres in China and the US. Upon arrival, more non-renewable energy is used to transform all those ingots into billions of beer cans - half of which, 50 billion of them, are thrown away each year.

[Recycling aluminium uses only five per cent of the energy it takes to extract new metal from bauxite, and the mining campaign group Project Underground calculates that Americans throw away enough aluminium every three months to rebuild the US's entire commercial air fleet. But the mining companies and smelters don't control global aluminium flows downstream; returns to them are better if they dam rivers and blow up mountains in Iceland].

Companies like Alcoa are moving to Iceland because the energy there is cheaper, not because it is cleaner.

In his book Dreamland Andri Snaer Magnason describes how successive governments have striven to make Iceland "one of the largest aluminum smelters in the world." They do this by selling pristine wilderness to predatory corporations at low energy prices. One of these, Century Aluminium, pays one fifth the price for power than is paid by citizens and small businesses, such as farmers.

Previous Icelandic governments used the promise of jobs to promote their transfer of public assets to private companies. But those promises have proved unreliable. During construction of the Kárahnjúkar project, for example, nine out of 10 workers were foreign; and once operational, only a handful of staff is needed to run these highly-automated plants.

The trouble is that Iceland is not only beset by brutal mining firms and pliant local politicians of limited imagination and empathy. The country's mis-named 'clean energy' revolution is fuelled by a global contest to control mineral flows. China's new embassy in Reykjavík, for example, will be the largest in the capital. Why? Because Beijing sees Iceland as a logistics hub in new global resource trading routes across the Arctic Circle that are being opened up by melting ice.


A railway connection from China, through Russia, to the Nordic countries and the Norwegian port of Narvik is part of this vast but under-reported plan. It's is on the same scale of ambition as the transcontinental railroads in the United States, and the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Russia, that were pivotal in the industrialization of those two continents.

But Iceland's too-cheap energy is not just attractive to superpowers such as China and its plan to reconfigure global mineral flows. The country's squeaky cheap energy now also figures in plans for 'clean' data services.

Although the world’s data giants, such as Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo!, have worked hard to make their servers energy efficient, most of their their machines are still powered by coal or nuclear power. A Greenpeace report called titled 'How Dirty Is Your Data?' said that many IT brands wilfully omit the source of energy from their published calculations. But the companies are under pressure to improve: more than 400,000 Facebook account holders recently petitioned the company to use more renewables.

The search for clean energy is one of the drivers behind cloud computing. An Icelandic start-up, Greenqloud, aspires to be Europe’s green cloud computing leader in a market set to be worth $150 billion by 2013. The company argues that it will be fully powered by two clean-energy sources found in abundance in Iceland: geothermal and hydro power.

Well, yes - except that those two energy sources are not at all so squeaky clean at all when you peer behind the green curtain.


At first sight, Iceland's spectacular wild open spaces look lifeless. Iceland's energy lobby mocks the selfishness of environmentalists who oppose the use of assets that may look nice, but are otherwise useless. But what looks bleak and lifeless from a helicopter is often rare heathland habitat that harbours different types of endangered mosses and lichens, as well as other plants that could be vital for other uses we do not yet know.

The threat to Iceland's wild habitats echoes a similar situation in California. There Bruce Pavlik, in a piece for the LA Times, has warned that a rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to fragile California ecosystems."California's desert lands are in some ways a perfect fit with the renewable energy industries necessary to combat climate change" Pavlik wrote; "There's sun. There's wind. There's space. But the biologically rich but arid desert ecosystems are remarkably fragile".

So too in Iceland. Once topsoil and plant life have been disrupted for the placement of dams, infrastructure, roads, transmission lines and the like, restoration would be cost-prohibitive, if not technically impossible - and in any case can take 100 years or more.

] Self-cannibalism

In that context, the dynamiting, digging, and re-direction of rivers involved in Iceland's energy engineering resembles self-cannibalism. All, of course, in the name of progress, modernization, and growth.

And there are plans to increase the servings. Iceland’s Energy Master Plan lists more than 60 wilderness locations that could in principle be exploited. Landsvirkjun on its own wants to double production in the next decade; so do other energy producers.


If the energy development imperative is followed to its conclusion, one of the world's most beautiful places will be chopped to pieces by dams, and festooned by power cables. Iceland could end up like like a beautiful, sturdy beetle - trussed up, and sucked dry, in an energy-spider's lair.

] The beetle that escapes

It feels, to this outsider, as if Iceland is intent on self-immolation because she cannot imagine a persuasive alternative. Big energy projects denote decisive action and a dynamic future. Boutique farms, a jumper business, or a few backpackers in a campsite, sound too small, too puny, as the basis for a secure future.

This is where the visitor can perhaps be useful: as a mirror in which a country's residents see more meaningful possibilities reflected back than they had realized were there. In that spirit, it strikes this visitor that Iceland could also be the beetle that escapes - for two reasons.

The first is that although the march of the global extractive economy may look remorceless, it suffers from a fatal weakness: its utter dependence on fossil fuel. It's simply not feasible that bauxite will ever be dug out of the ground, torn out of mountain tops, shipped across the world, and turned into beercans, by digger versions of the Toyota Prius.

Nobody knows how the coming post-peak-oil energy transition/crash will play out in detail, but one thing is assured: the profitability of the extractive industries will be a casualty. Even leaving aside questions of environmental impact, it makes no policy sense to stake Iceland's economic future on an industry whose prospects are so risky. An energy-extractive economy leaves Iceland totally dependent on external forces outside her control.

So what, apart from waiting, can be done now? This brings me to my second reason for optimism: the emergence in Iceland of alternatives to the energy-aluminium economy. These alternatives can help grow Iceland's resilience to the challenges to come. They can create meaningful work and livelihoods for Iceland's citizens. And design can help them succeed.

One of these is food. An obvious way to use Iceland's bountiful warm water and cheap energy is in new varieties of organic glasshouse horticulture.


I visited an inspiring farm, Akur [below] where Thordur Halldorsson and Karolina Gunnarsdottir have spent the last 20 years creating the prototype for such a market almost single-handed.


Their farm produces tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers using 400w overhead lights, and ambient geothermal heat, on soil enriched with manure from chicken farms and local mushroom growers. Halldorsson told me how inspired he had been by a visit to Tropenhaus, Switzrland's "tropical island in the Alps" which uses renewable energy to produce tons of bananas, papayas, mangos, carambola, dwarf bananas, guavas, physalis, litchi, durian, mangostana, pomelo, pomegranate, avocados, pineapple each year. Halldorrson is convinced they could do even better in Iceland.

His partner, Gunnarsdottir, is also enthusiastic about the potential for growing herbs in glasshouses. She is professionally trained and up-date on the science of herbs in medicine, and is confident that Iceland could be self-sufficient in a huge variety of specialized herbs. [Gunnarsdottir smiled politely when I mentioned my total knowledge of the subject: this text on Health, Grooming, and Medicine in the Viking Age.

The Agur team has also been instrumental in building an organic food accreditation scheme, and a farm-to-table distribution portal.


While still small, this online platform could directly link hundreds more of Iceland's farmers and speciality producers with customers in Reykjavik and beyond. It also has the potential to cut out parasitic intermediaries, while creating work for new kins of distribition system. A variety of regulatory and financial obstacles still need to be tackled, but this new-paradigm distribution platform is ready to be developed.

There is tremendous potential to innovate new ways to grow, pack, distribute, prepare and store new kinds of crops - and the elements of a fertile ecology are not limited to Icelandic glasshouses. The country's human as well as natural ecosystem has incredible potential. Andri Magnason gave me a slide [below] that contains 6,000 farmers' names. 2,000 of them farms that are now deserted, but many of these independent farmers can potentially become part of this food innovation ecology:

Icel farm names.png

The missing ingredient is confidence among the broad population that a country-wide ecology of small food producers can be a meaningful alternative to dams and diverted rivers. This confidence can gollow, I'm sure, if farms like Agur can be developed as learning and visitor centres. In other countries, demonstration farms are booming - especially those where people can go and work for extended periods.

There is also potential for innovation and new work in Iceland's fish industry - although here, the driver would in part need to be defensive. Iceland's fleet, which already catches two per cent of the world's fish, is highly developed in terms of technology. But it takes a ton of oil to catch a ton of cod, so the coming oil shock and energy descent will have a severe impact on the industry's viability. Right now it is a primary producer, and too much of its catch is exported fresh by air to other countries where value-adding processing takes place.

There is a huge opportunity here to develop new ways to dry, flsh-freeze, and pickle fish rather than leave that creative work to far-away countries. This innovation would take as its starting point the imminent need for fish to be exported slowly by sea, rather than quickly by air. The expertise for a paradigm change in fishing exists. As Andri Magnuson writes in his book, "Iceland has trained biotechnologists, chemists, food scientists and business managers who could double the value of the cod or capelin catch. Healthcare, pharmaceuticals, herbs and spices and complementary medicine are global industries worth billions"

A second kind of economy with spotential in Iceland is eco-tourism and agri-tourism.

Thanks in part to its devalued currency, but also to discount air travel, Iceland's tourism numbers have doubled,to 600,000, since the financial crash of 2008. But there are two dangers here. The first, obviously, is the coming oil shock: You can't fly airplanes full of tourists on geothermal energy. The second is the known danger that tourism can kill the toured. Sheer numbers of tourists now swamp such destinations as Venice and Barcelona - and for modest economic benefit: an awful lot of the money tourists pay for their Venice trip goes to the tour operators, not to local traders.

There's an added danger in Iceland that mass tourism will physically damage the landscape. If a single jeep leaves the road for a spin across the permafrost, it can take 20 years for the mosses and alpine plants to recover.

So what could sustainable tourism be in Iceland? Could the country develop new kinds of ecotourism in ways that conserve the environment and improve the well-being of local people?

Two trends in other parts of the world could be harnessed in Iceland: providing the means for vistors to travel there by slower means; and second, that their visits be for longer periods, in order to work and to learn - not just to play, or to soak in hot tubs.

One idea is that multi-skilled groups would spend time in Iceland helping to bring some of Iceland's 2,000 abandoned farms back to life.


It would be disrespectful, after so short a visit, to proffer a longer list of such half-formed suggestions - but I must add one more anyway: the possibility that Reykjavik will soon boast *the* coolest new shub around. A disused electricity power station called Toppstöðin is being converted into a 'power plant for ingenuity and craft'. The idea that a former electricity power plant be repurposed for social innovation is sublime. Shown inside Toppstöðin in the picture below are three of my hosts. From left to right: Dori Gislason, Andri Snaer Magnason, Soley Stefansdottir:

Dori Soley Andri.png

Do please read Andri Magnason's book, Dreamland


You may also [and should] download and watch Dreamland the movie in the USA here and in Europe here.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:36 AM

May 26, 2011

From participatory mapping to coastal livelihoods


I'm a huge fan of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge. The annual international design award grants $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a 'bold, visionary, tangible initiative that is focused on a well-defined need of critical importance'' and 'comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach. Winning solutions are 'regionally specific yet globally applicable to solving the world's complex problems'.

I wrote about last year's winner here.

I am therefore looking forward to the Finalist Presentations that take place in New York City on Wednesday June 8, 6-8pm. I'm speaking - but not for too long: the evening is mainly about the four candidates. Their number includes: alternative income initiatives to protect coastal livelihoods; software that turns a laptop into a mass messaging hub; and participatory mapping in the Congo Basin.


Posted by John Thackara at 12:12 PM

March 20, 2011

From bankster HQ to start-up central in Iceland

The Start-Up Kids is a documentary about young entrepreneurs who have founded web and media startups in the US and Europe. Made by two young Icelandic women, it contains interviews with tech-leaders of today and tomorrow.

The founders of Dropbox, Vimeo, Flickr, Wordpress, Posterous and many others talk about how they started their company, and what their lives are like as an entrepreneur.


But what I most like about this project is the office of its producers [below]. They are working out of a former building in Reykjavik of the notorious and now defunct Glitner bank.


The building [below] once housed people who wrecked Iceland's economy. It's some kind of poetic justice that it has now been turned into one of Iceland's seven incubators for - well, start-ups. The banksters' former pad is now named after its neighbourhood Kvosin and is supported by the Iceland Innovation Centre.


I'm adding Kvosin to my collection of inspiring ways to re-use buildings formerly occupied by banksters - including the amazing Monumento project in Sao Paulo.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:08 PM

January 03, 2011

Afghan culture museum


A lifetime ago, during a six month journey in Afghanistan, I passed the spectacular site of Bamiyan, shown in this photograph, on my way into the Hindu Kush. This was long before the three enormous statues of Buddha, carved into the sides of cliffs, were destroyed by the Taliban on the grounds that they were an affront to Islam.

A two-day visit did not make this hippy-tourist an expert - but the impact of that site has lived with me ever since. The statues could only have been created by one of humanity's most ancient civilizations - and yet that cultural and social legacy is hardly ever mentioned in contemporary media coverage of the country.

It is welcome news, therefore, that a project to create a virtual museum of Afghan culture has been launched in Paris by an independent producer, Pascale Bastide. The celebrated and visionary architect Yona Friedman has agreed to to design and "build" a virtual structure that will enable access to Afghan collections which are now physically scattered in many museums and private collections around the world. Every art object will have its own geographic, ethnological, and historic information; a panoramic table will situates these objects in the larger context of European, Mideastern, and Asian civilizations. There will be also a special pavilion offered to Afghan people to deposit their own archives.

"My fundamental idea about architecture is that we are overbuilding" comments Friedman; "earth is over occupied. A museum, from this point of view, doesn't need to have a building". Rather than attempt to fill the cavity left after the demolition of the giant statues with a new buillding, his idea is to use that space as a kind of grid, or promenade, to present the online exhibits.

Another collaborator in the project, Michael Barry, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, states that "several moments of mankind's fate and creativity were sealed on what is today Afghan soil - and the world needs to see that".

Posted by John Thackara at 01:13 PM

April 07, 2010

Don't donate - invest

We added a donate button. (It's on the left). has been online - and free - since 1994. We've waited sixteen years before seeking your support. Now, we can use it.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:12 PM

April 03, 2010

Design, regions, and the two economies

The stated ambition of Cornwall, in the the far south west of England, is to become a "green peninsular". It's an evocative concept, but people there interpret the word "green" in different ways.

For example, although Cornwall aspires to become a "knowledge economy" it is more of a tourism economy at the moment: Many of the 500,000 people who live in the county rely on five million tourists who come each year to holiday, party and consume. Most tourists leave again, but enough of them have bought holiday homes that the price of the average house is now twenty time the average salary of people born in the county. Designers have helped created gorgeous spa hotels and chic restaurants - but it's a moot point whether the Cornish people who staff them are knowledge workers.

New uses are also being considered for the abandoned relics of Cornwall's clay mining economy. But plans for the development, in their place, of offices, shops, and marinas bring with them another dilemma: increased transport intensity. Despite the fact that 27 percent of Cornwall's carbon emissions come from the transport sector (compared to 15 percent for the nearby city of Bristol), new roads, and airport expansion, figure prominently in its regeneration strategy.

The development of Newquay Airport, for example, is promoted by some business and tourism interests as a vital element in Cornwall’s regeneration; they want it expanded to handle more than a million passengers a year within 20 years. But others oppose airport expansion not only on environmental grounds, but also because it would lead to an even greater demand for second homes in Cornwall.

Cornwall's Eden Project finds itself in a bind here: It struggles to reconcile its position as an environmental showcase with the fact that so many of its million-plus visitors go there by car.

A few years ago, persuasive alternatives to big-ticket, high entropy regeneration projects were thin on the ground. But today, a competing Cornish economic reality is emerging in the form of social and ecological projects right across the county. The region is filled with groups actively involved in the restoration of ecosystems, teaching each other environmental stewardship, recycling buildings and equipment, cultivating fungi, swapping seeds, growing medicinal plants, planting community fruit and nut tree nurseries. There are courses for families on green woodworking , permaculture, and blacksmithing and bushcrafts such as wild food foraging.

This emerging social-ecological economy is restorative, self-reliant, and steady-state.

The question facing last week's DottCornwall seminar on 'emerging design practice' was therefore a tough one: where can, and should, designers aspire to make difference? As Jeremy Myerson, the event's chair, pointed out: "Designers have done well out of globalisation; the challenge facing designers now is whether they have the skills and sensibility to make a meaningful contribution at a local scale".

These are live issues for Cornwall. Dott's partner in last week's event, for example, University College Falmouth, hopes to spend nine million pounds (10m euros) on the construction of a new design centre, the Academy of Innovation and Research (AIR).. Work on designing the building has already started - but what the building is for, and what will happen inside it, remains unresolved.

The AIR building will be entered into the development balance sheet of Cornwall as a "plus". But in the country's emerging social-ecological economy, that much money could also have been used to seed 1,000 grassroots projects around the county. The trouble is that it's notoriously harder to allocate regeneration budgets to social activity and ecological restoration.

Nabeel Hamdi, a speaker at the Dott workshop, advocates a lost cost, little-by-little approach to development and planning. "Design disturbs that which it touches", Hamdi told the meeting; "we need to give priorrity to the existing life and intelligence of place. There are vast latent resources in existing situations".

Hamdi, the author of "Small Change" and "Housing without Houses" is working with Habitat for Humanity on a "mind shift" - from "building shelters" to a greater appreciation for existing social and ecological assets.

Far too much design research is process based, he commented; designers need to think less, and feel more.

The event's second keynote speaker, Ezio Manzini, also talked about design and the ecology of place. In Milan, for example, he's associated with a new project called "Feeding Milan". It's all about linking and enhancing exisiting small projects - "amplifying the creativity of communities that already exist" - farmers markets, purchasing groups, community supported agriculture (CSA) projects.

In Cornwall itself, the Transition Towns movement is following a similar path. The transition model (I'm quoting their site) “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye". But they don't just look: Transition groups develop practical to-do lists in response to the question: "for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how are we going to rebuild resilience in response to peak oil, and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?”

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a geographical area, and because it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities (the open space method) that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view. The same cannot be said of traditional development projects. A box called "public participation" usually needs to be ticked - but this step is perceived by many development managers to be a tiresome impediment to the serious work of building motorways, airports or office complexes.

Kevin Lavery, Chief Executive of Cornwall Council, is sensitive to the danger that development projects can do more harm than good. "Dott will have to serve the landscape as well as the people", he has commented; "Cornwall is a beautiful place to live and work and one of the biggest challenges for the initiative is to ensure that it stays that way".

Most of DottCornwall's projects are indeed place-based. Its Eco Design Challenge, for example is highly successful example of place-based education that is spreading school by school.

The dilemma for Lavery, and for Dott, is that the rules which determine how regional development projects are funded are not so nuanced. If it can be demonstrated that a capital project - such as a new design centre, or an airport, or a road, or a science park - will contribute to a region’s growth, productivity, and Gross Value Added, then a project is likely to qualify for funding. The criteria used to evaluate projects exclude so-called “external” costs such as energy, water, and use of the biosphere as a whole. As a result, development projects can and do go ahead- in Cornwall and all over Europe - that add value on paper but cause untold (because un-measured) damage to social and ecological assets of the place.

So long as two conflicting economic models co-exist in Cornwall - a capital-intensive, growth-at-all-costs one, and a steady-state, social-ecological one - designers can play in both.

But this have-it-both-ways situation cannot last. As Gunther Pauli puts in his new book The Blue Economy"a thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less -- even though they are still polluting?".

For regions, as for companies, the choice is becoming clear: between the doomsday machine perpetual growth economy we have now, and the social-ecological one that's ready to take its place.

* * *
For a background essay on this theme, see my White Paper for Design Innovation Scotland:Clean Growth: From Mindless Development to Design Mindfulness.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:39 PM

December 12, 2009

Hand-made clothes for all


This Louis Vuitton ad features shoes which cost about 600 euros (US$700) in the shops. I don't know how much Louis Vuitton pays for them, and I don't know how much they will be paying Tony Blair to help sell them but I'd be surprised if the unit cost to the company is what: 60 euros? half that?

The numbers may be confidential, but it's no longer a secret that Louis Vuitton products are not hand-made by horny-handed French craftsmen. On the contrary: the labour-intensive aspects of Louis Vuitton shoe production take place in India.

But final assembly and finishing happen in Italy - so the louche young man in the ad could well be genuine.

This arrangement allows the shoes to be labelled as ‘Made in Italy’ - at the end of a process the company describes as "industrial craftsmanship".

Other writers have written at length about the marketing and communication games played by European fashion houses. Besides, if LVMH can part too-rich fools from their money, and treat their suppliers modestly well, it's not clear to me that a grave social or environmental crime has been committed.

Many me-too luxury brands, struggling to compete with the sophistication of the LVMH operation, source production far less ethically than Louis Vuitton does. This Chinese sweathshop/prison supplies other brands:


My point is different: why should the benefits of this kind of distributed design and production be limited to to luxury brands and powerful high street retailers here in the North?

During my visit to Sri Lanka (story below) one industry leader referred the Sri Lanka of of a few years ago as a "nation of tailors" - with the implication that that the country was less advanced then than now.

I offered a different view: that a "nation of tailors" is a positive attribute for these new times.

A nation - or at least, a factory -  that is wholly dependent on one powerful buyer from the other side of the world - a buyer that (as we heard) can switch to another country at a moment's notice - is less resilient to sudden change than is a nation/industry/factory that has a richer range of capabilities. 

This conversation followed our group's visit to a state-of-the art 'green' factory:


The production workers we saw in the MAS factory are not Savile Row tailors - but I am certain they are resourceful and skilled enough to produce clothes and accessories to a high quality.

The scenario we started to discuss is one in which Sri Lanka starts to produce clothes for customers using communication platforms that connect maker and designer and customer directly. (Thanks to Ian Brown for that link).

If this radically dis-intermediated relationship were to be based based on total transparency conerning costs, the expensive marketing, retail and brand communications - not to mention 40% profit margins - of the luxury brands could be removed from the equation.

Such a scenario sounds implausible in the context of the big business that's being done right now between Sri Lankan factories and rich world corporate buyers. But it would surely be feasible for some companies and designers to experiment in a modest way - perhaps under a different flag.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:35 AM

December 03, 2009

From King Parakramabahu to ethical fashion


Some people blame the Enlightenment for our present troubles. The scientific revolution, they say, gave man ideas above his station. We frequently harm natural systems, goes the charge, because of our delusional belief that we are separate from, and have dominion over, nature.

This myth of apartness, the charges conclude, dulls the responsibility we'd feel if we felt ourselves to be co-dependent members of natural community.

History suggests that modernity is not uniquely to blame for messing with Gaia. During his reign as King of Sri Lanka from 1153–1186, for example, Parakramabahu asserted that "not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man". He went on to construct or restore of 165 dams, 3910 canals, 163 major reservoirs and 2376 minor tanks - all in a reign of 33 years.

Parakramabahu started a tradition whereby every Sri Lankan king would build dams; the island now contains more than a thousand. No country in the world contains so much man-made irrigation per square km.

True, many of the eighty largest ones were built by foreign contractors using international development finance; today, these mega-projects would probably be frowned on. But the most intense - and indeed sophisticated - fiddling by man with nature took place 1,000 years ago.

Green factories


I learned about King Parakramabahu during a visit last week to a bra and panty factory in Sri Lanka - MAS Intimates Thurulie - which is one of the greenest factories in the world.

Almost as impressive as the rainwater capture tanks, cement stabilized bricks made of local materials, anaerobic digesters, and water-saving sculpted landscape, was the fierce competiton between rival manufacturers MAS (where I went) and Brandix to prove to us visitors that its factory was greener that the other's.

More than a million people (out of population of 20 million) work in Sri Lanka's fashion industries, so it's critical to the whole economy. Companies have to contend with two pressures: One one side are powerful foreign buyers such as M&S (the MAS factory's sole client), Tesco, and Victoria's Secret. (The latter's buyers tend to arrive in large helicopters).

Sri Lanka's industry must also contend with competition from other fashion producing countries, from Turkey to Bangladesh, that also need to support hundreds of thousands of small and micro businesses. The big global buyers can and do switch production from one country to another at a moment's notice if they deem it necessary to do so for competitive reasons.

Squeezed like this, it's no small matter that Sri Lanka has resolved to compete on the basis that it's companies are ethical and sustainable, not just cheap. A centrepiece of this strategy is Garments Without Guilt.

But how to proceed? This was the question posed by the
Sri Lanka Design Festival to an International Symposium on Ethical Fashion. Here below is the text of my 30 minute contribution.

] Fashion in a green economy
] John Thackara speech Sri Lanka Design Festival 30 November 2009

I will talk today about the emerging green economy – its ethical basis, and in particular the unique opportunity for Sri Lanka to become a model that can inspire and teach the rest of the world.

I will talk about the concept of clean growth - and whether it is, or is not, a contradiction in terms.

I will conclude with some practical suggestions about how to innovate for sustainability – especially when the fashion buyer has so much power, and when the interests of so many different stakeholders need to be aligned.

Our situation today is uniquely challenging. Financial collapse. Peak oil. Climate change. Insecure food systems. Each of these challenges is daunting on its own. Taken together, they surely mean that business- as-usual is over - for good. The old ways will not return.

Yes, there are “green shoots” - but they are not the same old plants. They are the first sign that new economic and social life forms are emerging: social and business arrangements quite unlike what we have all known until now.

What your overseas visitors have seen over past few days suggests strongly to me that Sri Lanka has the potential to be one of these new life forms.

Globally, we have arrived at what complexity researchers into complex systems call an “inflection point” - a tipping point. After forty years of talk and prevarication about what needs to be done, of putting off inevitable change, I believe our instinct for survival is finally taking hold.

I say survival, because the existing economy - the economy in which Gross Domestic Product is the only measure of success – has become, in the words of the True Cost campaign, a “doomsday machine.” It is programmed to grow to infinity in a biosphere whose carrying capacity is finite.

The fashion industries have not been immune from the madness of chasing growth: More and more collections every year, regardless of the costs and consequences.

Many people in this room are more expert than I am on issues to do with pesticides, dyes, water, energy, and waste. We all know what the problems are.

But let’s not beat ourselves up unnecessarily. Fashion is no worse than many other industries in its introspection, and disregard for the bigger picture.

The information technology industry is notorious for looking only inwards inside its tent. The car industry, likewise. Aviation? totally in denial. Sustainability advocates with names like John who fly around the world? Not much better.

Our subject today could just as easily be food. Thanks to four decades of innovation and modernisation, the world’s food systems are twelve times less efficient today, in terms of energy and energy out, than they were when I was a child.

Food systems are a main cause of the global obesity pandemic. As today’s obese children get older, and develop diabetes and heart conditions, their sickness threatens to overwhelm health services of advanced countries. At least fashion is not to blame for that!

Whether it’s food, or fashion, or shelter, or transport, all the systems by which we organize daily life so badly are symptoms of a structural problem: they operate within an economy whose only measure is money.

What does not get measured, tends to get forgotten – and then, concreted over. GDP does not take important aspects of our societies into account: neither the informal sector, nor the well-being of populations, nor the health of ecosystems.

It’s madness. And the world is waking up to the fact that it’s madness.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, the economist Lord [Nicholas] Stern gave a talk at the People's University of Beijing. Stern, a key architect of the global status quo, stated the unthinkable: “we have to question whether we can afford future growth”.

Can’t afford to grow! What an extraordinary thing for a former World Bank chairman to say! Even its most ardent former advocates, in other words, believe the basic operating system of the global economy is broken.

But wait a minute: the basic premise of the global economy is perpetual growth without thought about its impacts on the biosphere. Who knows how to operate economically under such constraints?

The countries that are not yet wrongly-developed, that’s who knows.

For the last 30 years, the word development has been used in this sense: that advanced people in the North must help backward people in the South catch up with their own situation. Hmmm.

But consider this: the average US citizen emits as much CO2 in one day as someone in China does in over a week, or a Tanzanian in seven months. Or this: a tourist to Mali from a rich country uses as much water in 24 hours as a villager who lives there uses in 100 days.

Big D development - top-down, outside-in development - tends to view human, cultural and territorial assets - the people and ways of life that are already there - as impediments to progress and modernisation.

The development industry – which is what it has become - measures progress, in other peoples’ countries, in terms of growth and increased consumption. Big D development tends to devalue human agency and existing contextual knowledge. And it often seeks to replace people with technology, automation and “self service”.

Automation? In a world with six billion people and rising? Very smart. Not.

I'm haunted by the writer Maggie Black's words here: "millions of people are expelled to the margins of fruitful existence in the name of someone else's progress".

That’s why my one of key points today is this: We are all emerging economies now.


The predicament of industrial civilization is that we have been striving after infinite growth in a world of finite resources.

A growing number of people, having realized that this is absurd, are now engaged an argument whether any kind of economic growth is consistent with sustainability.

In France, there are advocates of "decroissance" - "de-growth" - a radical change of course which its proponents compare to getting a drug addict off heroin. Advocates of degrowth propose to replace GDP with a “steady-state economy”, on the basis that any other course is a threat the planet and humanity.

Others say that while some aspects of today’s economy are dirty, not all of them are. Carbon-based transportation and energy generation may be dirty, they say. but clean and waste-free production, or a focus on labour-intensive services, can surely expand the value of the economy without doing harm.

My problem with this latter version of ‘clean growth’ is that it still limits our understanding of the economy to the production of paid-for goods and services; it’s “GDP-light”.

For me, a better way to replace ecocidal GDP is to redefine what we mean by value, and wealth.

Rather than think of the economy as a machine for churning our merchandise, we should think of “economy” as the sum total of the ways we take care of so-called “current assets” - human, natural, and cultural assets.

Viewed through this lens, of valuing current assets, our economic focus shifts from perpetually increasing extraction and consumption - to preservation, stewardship, and restoration.

And do you know what? This is not complicated. The rules for a green economy are, following three decades of research and reflection, well understood.

Rather than strive to make the most profit, regardless of the consequences, a green economy:

1 sets out to meet human needs, whilst also protecting the capacity of natural systems to support life;

2 does not use natural resources faster than they can be replenished by the planet;

3 does not deposit wastes faster than they can be absorbed.

For high carbon, high entropy, highly complex societies, these rules are indeed hard to implement. But for an emerging economy like Sri Lanka, the jump is not so great. It’s more a matter of self-confidence than about re-tooling the whole economy, as is the case in the North.

The key to a new economy, in other words, is principally about a mindset – a clear ethical framework.

That ethical framework is easily stated: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life: Acknowledging the biosphere as a systemic whole in which human beings are a co-dependent part.

Ethical statements along these lines crop up throughout the modern age. In 1949, for example, the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold proposed what he called a "land ethic" that would guide "man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it".

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community" wrote Leopold. "It is wrong, when it tends otherwise". ["Biotic community" here is another name for what we now call the biosphere].

Leopold argued that harm was frequently done to natural systems because of our culture's belief in its separateness from, and dominion over, nature. This myth of apartness dulls the sense of responsibility that would follow if we felt ourselves to be co-dependent members of natural community, he wrote.

This sense of apartness is not universal. This myth of apartness is notably less pervasive in Sri Lanka.


An ethic based on an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life, does not mean the abandonment of science or engineering.

On the contrary: it's because of what science has taught us about the biosphere, and about the complexity and precariousness of nature -- things that we did not know at the start of the modern age - that the time has come to re-define the ethical basis of the economy.

You may argue that this is to state the obvious: That of course your people respect life, and the conditions that support life.

But I stress the word unconditional. If a commitment is unconditional, it does not mean "take account of"; or "pay due respect to"; or "move steadily towards".

It does not mean "minimise adverse effects on nature" - it means a target of *no* adverse effects.

Unconditional does not mean generating "less waste than any of our competitors" - it means a commitment to zero waste, and zero emissions.

All very fine and virtuous, you are probably thinking - but what’s to stop our competitors stating that they, too, have an unconditional support for life - only they then quietly cut corners and play games with the spirit and practice of ecological accounting?

When there are 40,000 lobbyists in Brussels alone – and probably double that number in Washington - what’s to stop the good guys losing out to the greenwashers?


A green economy has to be about ethics and metrics. It’s about clear moral purpose, backed up by rigorously defined and implemented measures.

At the technical level, new tools for ecological acccounting are coming along. Two years after the Stern Review, a report called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), by Pavan Sukhdev, was published by Deutschebank and the European Commission.

Setting out a "comprehensive and compelling economic case for the conservation of biodiversity", TEEB promotes a better understanding of the true economic value of the benefits we receive from nature.

According to TEEB, the global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests than through the banking crisis.

TEEB has the potential to be the trigger that transforms how business measures, and therefore looks after, these life-critical assets. The Stern Review, and TEEB, provide new ways to measure the ecological impacts of economic activity on a large scale.

New tools are also nearly ready to help individual companies and communities measure the impact of their day-to-day operations on ecosystems. These tools, too, are in the pipeline.

In December last year, a report was published by Business for Social Responsibility called "Measuring Corporate Impact on Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Review of New Tools”. These developments mean that the true costs of long and complex supply chains can be measured.

Metrics and standards is, I know, a complex - and not always gripping - story. One of the biggest challenges is the sheer number of them.

Many people know about Fairtrade, which is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.

But there are already close to 100 different labels addressing environmental or social sustainability, or consumers’ health, in the textile and clothing industry alone. The proliferation of labels and standards adds fog, not clarity, to the subject of ecological accounting.

One way to ensure that the good guys win - and the bad guy greenwashers have to toe the line - is to base the whole system, the whole fashion ecology, on principles of open-ness and transparency.

I know this runs against the deepest habits of the fashion industry, but in an open system, the liars will be found out.

A second way to ensure the good guys win is to find certification partners who are above reproach. Just as an example, I’m tremendously impressed by the work of Christian Aid in mapping the global impacts of supply webs.

It was Christian Aid who demonstrated that the UK, which had been boasting that it was only responsible for two percent of global emissions, was in fact responsible for 12-15 percent of global emissions once their ownership of production in China and India was factored in.

So yes, we need metrics to police our impact on the natural world. But what about the people side of sustainability?

In Europe and the US – in the “advanced” economies - there’s a tendency to equate “green jobs” with such occupations as the installation of solar panels, or erecting wind turbines.

There’s an assumption that a knowledge-based and creative economy necessarily entails more high tech, is more complex, and involves a higher monetary throughout.

But for me a green economy is not about replacing one set of production-line jobs with another - only in a green building, and framed by ethical terms and conditions.

We have all been impressed by the extraordinary achievements made here in Sri Lanka on both these counts. But I hope you will take is as a mark of respect if I make the suggestion that you can do even more.

For a green economy needs to be be about livelihoods, not just jobs.

The concept of livelihood embraces all the resources and activities – material, social, natural - required for a means of living. All of life, not just nine-to-five life.

Jobs invariably involve money. Livelihoods, being the property of a community, may or may not involve money.

For example, artisan communities contain vast amounts of knowledge. In India, for example, there are up to 15 million people for whom artisanship, and livelihood are as one. What they know about working with nature, and its materials, in a place, are the means by which they are able to do their work.

There are at least as many artisans in South Asia as there are creative professionals in Europe. Probably many more. Your artisans did not go to design schools, and their knowledge cannot be expressed in words, numbers and rules.

But for me, their tacit, contextual knowledge is at least as valuable and important as knowledge owned by the “creative class”.

As my friend Jogi Panghaal has taught me over 20 years, we all have so much to learn from artisans about their habitats, their food and drink practices, dance forms, healing traditions, their stories, songs, theatre, and dance, dress and traditions.

Jogi likes to say that “you make with material, but the material makes you".

A skilled artisan knows more about economy of means than 100 value engineering consultants. One local farmer is more important to food security than a laboratory full of genetic engineers.

This is not to be sentimental about artisans.

We northerners too often make assumptions about people who do what they do, and live in particular ways, in response to specific conditions. It’s insulting of us to demand of ethnic or indigenous communities that stay as they are, and don’t change, just because we find their ways of life quaint – and marketable back in the North.

Sometimes traditonal ways are optimal; sometimes a fusion of old and new will be better. But it’s not for outside experts to make that call.

There need to be continuous discussions, between all actors in the fashion ecology, about what are appropriate and sustainable types, tempos and scales of production.

Designers have an important contribution to make – but not as the bringers of product bluepints and price points.

Designers can cast fresh and respectful eyes on a situation to reveal material and cultural qualities that might not be obvious to those who live them.

I hope I have made it clear by now that the green economy is not being made by clever guys staring at computer screens in shiny resrrtch buildings, protected by guards.

No: the green economy is being made wherever people are growing food in cities. The green economy is where people are opening seed banks. It’s being made where communities are removing dams, and restoring watersheds.

Anywhere you find car-share schemes, or off-grid energy – there is a green economy hotspot.

You’ll find the green economy wherever people are launching local currencies. Non-money trading models are cropping up like crazy: nine thousand examples at last count. In their version of a green economy, 70 million Africans exchange airtime - not cash.

Thousands of groups, thousands of experiments. For every daily life support system that is unsustainable now - food, health, shelter, and clothing -– alternatives are being innovated.

The keyword here is *social* innovation.

Social innovation is all around us. Every community contains assets in the form of people and their skills and their culture. By some accounts, there are one million grassroots environmental organisations out there in the world; the website Wiser Earth, alone, lists 120,000 of them.

Examples in the North have names like “Post-Carbon Cities” or “Transition Towns”.

The Transition Towns movement, especially, is highly significant if you want evidence, here in Sri Lanka, that things are changing, and profoundly, in the North.

Transition initiatives, which only started a couple of years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. More than 200 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Towns, or cities, districts, villages - and even a forest.

A further 2,000 communities around the world are "mulling it over" as they consider the possibility of starting their own Transition Initiative.

The transition model - I'm quoting their website - “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye".

But they don't just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks.

The essence of their idea is to create a disaster response preparedness plan just in case the calamaties of peak oil, and economic or environmental collapse, actually happen.

Transition Towns practise risk management and due diligence - but in a social context.

Transitioners, as they call themselves, develop practical to-do lists; they put those items in an agreed order of priority and then start to work on the priority tasks they’ve agreed on.

Their focus is the notion of resilience. “Fui so” in Chinese: the capacity of a system to adapt to change, to rejuvenate.

Resilience means the capacity of a place-based community to survive without the profligate energy and resource consumption that the advanced economies have become used to.

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people, of course, have different interests, agendas and capabilities. But they are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.

Just like the artisan communities I talked about a bit earlier.

A second reason the Transition model is so powerful is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities - the "open space" method - that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view.

I do not suggest that Transition Towns is a model you need to adapt for Sri Lanka. On the contrary, you have fascinating experiments here.

We were impressed by direction being taken by the Slow Food movement here for example, and fascinated by the business model for sustainable food, agro-forestry and rural development of a private entity, Saaraketha.

I hear that your home-grown Sarvodaya movement, active in 15,000 villages here, shares many of the Transition Towns interests: self-reliance; community participation; micro-credit; an holistic understanding of communities and natural systems. And Sarvodaya has been growing and adapting for nigh on 50 years.

There are elements of Buddhist or Ghandian thought in Transition thinking, too. But it is inevitable, and right, that responses to the great transformation we are all involved in will take different forms in different contexts.


For the last part of my talk I promised you some practical suggestions about how to proceed from here on in the fashion industry – especially when the buyer has so much power, and when the interests and cultures of so many stakeholders need to be aligned.

I borrowed a phrase from the theatre director Eugenio Barba to describe this stage of our journey: “the Dance of the Big and the Small”.

It is true, of course, that who holds the purse, has enormous power. But she or he is not omnipotent.

On the contrary: the most important feature of the green economy I have described today is co-dependency – of man and nature, developed and under developed, of artisan and fashion system.

As I said at the start, I sense, everywhere I go, that awareness of co-dependncy is being rediscovered at astonishing speed. Untold millions are waking up to the fact we are not separate from and above the biosphere. We live and act inside a complex of inter-connected systems.

As that realisation sinks in, we are realizing that our journey is not headking for a single place, like Xanadu. Our destination is not a thing, like a Holy Grail.

Sustainability, or resilience, is not a secret code that will be revealed, with great fanfare, when we complete a trying pilgrimage.

Nobody knows how the green economy will look or work in detail. I don’t. You don’t. Sir Stuart Rose from M+S doesn’t know.

No: a green economy is about ways of perceiving, and ways of acting in the world that we will discover together.

We have heard a lot about the buyers for huge brands whose only interest seems to be to drive down prices. We’ve heard how fast fashion seems to be accelerating of its own accord, with more and new products launched at ever shorter intervals. We’ve heard that young people seem to be unconcerned by big picture issues, and drive this manic consumption along.

The answer is not to try and confront this rampaging beast head-on.

The answer is to create experimental lines and channels on the edge of your main business. Give people access to experiences – and some products – that are unexpected, different, and authentic. And see what happens.

I learned this week about a special problem in the regard: if you launch a line of “ethical” products, they make all your other products look, by implication, un-ethical! So create a parallel brand, like the airlines did when threatened by the low-cost carrriers.

One of your industry leaders told me of his pride that Sri Lanka has evolved from a “nation of tailors” to a “master of integrated solutions”.

To be honest, this does not sound to me like progress. I respond more warmly to the idea of a tailor than to an “integrated solution”.

Please look after and nurture your tailoring traditions – but look for new ways to make them viable as a business. Connect the people who make things, here, with people in other places who need clothes and would dearly love to have a direct relationship with the person who makes them.

The true fashion innovator will bring new and different actors together on modest experiments of the kind I just described.

The most important innovation tool will be a question, not a product specification: “how might we connect our tailor-makers to individual customers in a way that delivers value to all the parties involved fairly, and sustainably?”

There’s always a danger, in talking about ethics, as I have done here today, that one ends up sounding like a priest telling people what to believe, and how to behave.

I know the fashion industry well enough to know that this would be a futile way to act.

I prefer to be thought of as a bee, than a priest. Bees cross-pollinate between plants - and don’t forget: without the bee’s visits, there would be no life. There are many individuals out there – the odd ones out, the people who don’t fit neatly into a box, or into a budget heading. They are often the bees among us.

But I also talked about the Dance between the Big and the Small. Maybe what we need is a new kind of dance master to teach all the different actors new steps, and how to work together. It would be fun to explore that idea but - perhaps just as well - my time is up.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:12 AM

October 05, 2009

Do you want to be exhibited in New Delhi? in three days from now?

Our good friends at Quicksand in Delhi (together with B.L.O.T. and Codesign) are curating an art event from start to finish in four days. It's called "Pop Up Arthouse" and they invite creative people everywhere to submit works that will be shown at Mocha Arthouse, Vasant Kunj, in a few days from now. You don't need to read more here: check it out now

Posted by John Thackara at 07:34 AM

September 08, 2009

Classroom design competition - two winners announced


Our friends at Architecture for Humanity ask that we spread the word that the winners of its 2009 challenge have been announced - and we are happy to do that.

The accompanying press release quotes a World Bank estimate that "ten million new classrooms are needed" to reach its targets on education and that, in addition, "tens of millions of crumbling classrooms - including many in the United States - are in desperate need of upgrading".

"Meeting this demand for better learning environments will constitute the largest building project the world has ever undertaken" says the Bank.

This assertion, while no doubt welcome to architects and builders, is tendentious in the extreme. There is no evidence that throwing money at building projects makes a vast difference to the education that happens within them.

On the contrary: money for hard infrastructure is too often invested at the expense of money spent on teachers - or on simply getting out more.

Elaine Hall, a British education researcher who studied past building programmes, found that while improvements to schools where the buildings fell below an acceptable standard did have a significant impact upon health, student morale and student performance - the same could not be said once an adequate standard of provision was reached.

What is or is not an "acceptable standard" is a moot point. Hall's research seems to confirm my own prejudice (on page 147-148 of In The Bubble) that "there's no need to purpose build huge numbers of schools and colleges".

This argument was put more cogently than I ever could put 35 years ago by IIvan Illich in Deschooling Society. The more pressing challenge, surely, is to confront the the dimishing spaces of childhood.

But let's accentuate the positive. We are proud to announce another winner - The Doors of Perception Other Classroom of the Future:


Posted by John Thackara at 02:50 PM

September 07, 2009

China's clean little secret


As an experiment this weekend, I went through all 192 stories tagged "China" on a major eco website. More than 90 per cent of its posts were about at least bad, and often terrible, environmental news and developments.

It's not that these grim stories stories were untrue, or unimportant. It's just that their aggregate impact is disabling. One feels overwhelmed, as with so many aspects of the ecological crisis.

The negative slant is amplified by the fact that most of us in blog land rely on news feeds from wire services. Even if they had the inclination to do so, wire services' offices are so lightly-staffed that locally-based journalists simply don't have time to go out into the field looking for positive developments.

As a second experiment, therefore, I decided not to write about the latest grim report about the impact of industrial agriculture on the ozone layer, headlined Nitrous Oxide Fingered As Monster Ozone Slayer".

I wondered: is anything positive happening in China to offset this latest nightmare?

A short search took me to a project by Chinese scientists, in collaboration with regional and municipal authoriities, to study the effectiveness of biomass in absorbing toxic contents from eutrophic water.

A growing number of lakes and ponds suffer from eutrophication - suffocation by algal blooms - like the one above near Chengdu, Sichuan, China. The problem is often caused by fertiliser running off the land.


Anyway, the good news is that some of their experiments, which involve the use of oenanthe javanicas planted in floating-beds, suggest that these palnts can be effective when used for water purification.

I don't know about you, but this story cheers me up a lot. If you know of similar stories - or of websites where I can find more like it - please let me know, and I'll write about them here.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:35 AM

July 12, 2008

Cameron Sinclair reply

In my text for Design Observer about design and development I questioned some aspects of a project by Architecture for Humanity. This throughtful reply to me from Cameron Sinclair has not yet been posted at Design Observer so I'm posting it here.


"Great post, as per usual, and yes there are some strong and valid points you raise. Naturally I do object to the generalization made in the comments about the AMD Open Architecture Challenge for a few reasons.

"Firstly. The point was not to develop a project for others but in collaboration with. The challenge was borne out of an RFP that 103 communities from around the world applied for (a dozen of which were from India). Three local community organizations were selected, by a global group, and we developed a brief/criteria in unison with the client/end user - ie. not the imposition of technology, rather the inclusion to already existing programs. These included a health facility in rural Nepal, fair trade chocolate factory in Ecuador and a youth media lab in Nairobi.

"What was striking in the criteria development that while, as you point out 6M people in India are getting cell phones every month, the community in Kenya were looking to utilize technology for skills training, job creation and community out reach. Can this be all done with a cell phone - yes - Can it only be done with a cell phone - no. Creating equal access to technology is not just providing one option but many options. This is where the overlap with architecture happens and that well designed, appropriate, energy efficient structures can make a difference.

"This is my second point. Architecture is no longer about form making - it never was - it is about creating appropriate structures that interweave the local context of a community and that hopefully inspire. Many young and emerging architects are not taught the way that many ‘star-architects’ are currently practicing. These designers are creating structures that are not only appropriate but are site specific based on local knowledge and involvement. The challenge had 800+ designers from 35 countries develop a conceptual solution where the winner, selected by community members, has the opportunity to realize the design with both the local client and design professionals. This entire process will take a couple of years, most of which will be on the ground.

"My third point is that all 400+ designs are now CC licensed solutions that can be adapted and replicated by others. When the designs are for social change they should be shared. Hosted on the Open Architecture Network, this allows local community organizations and regionally based NGOs to find a solution and work with designers to adapt it to a specific site. Currently we are scaling our 2004 competition to 16 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (60% of the designs are from local architects and the other 40% are a marriage between international/regional firms and locals).

"Finally, just a side point. I find it a little arrogant of writers to speak of design and architecture as a 'western' or 'developed world' notion - and then occationally insinuate the ‘look at what they are forcing on them’ self-guilt world view. There are designers, both licensed and unlicensed, all over the world. They are not divided by boundaries but by skill and desire. There will always be the Zaha Hadids and Karim Rashids of this world but there are also the Diébédo Francis Kérés, the Rodney Harbers and the Yasmine Laris of this world. For as many designers working in the realm of architectural plastic surgery, there are just as many working in the emergency room. The difference is that the latter are not seeking accolades and therefore do not grace the covers of magazines and the design media. In addition to training more global architects we need to encourage and develop new schools of design where the work is. Ie currently we are training 70% of the worlds’ architects in the developed (over developed) nations, yet 70% of the work is in emerging nations.

"Yes there are a dozen 'examples' where we can point to designers screwing up, getting it wrong, undervaluing the input of the community. Yet there are hundreds of stories where quiet moments of innovation have been an element of incredible change in a community. Most of us who are actually building look at bemusement to all the structures going up in Dubai and Doha - why are those deemed as great feats of 'design excellence' but yet a community led participatory process is often scrutinized by cynical, often western, eyes.

"Perhaps it is time to write stories of the successes on the ground. Come join any of us, but do expect to pick up a shovel when you are on a site visit"


Posted by John Thackara at 12:34 PM

May 18, 2008

Emerging Economy Report


Our friends at CKS in Bangalore have published a hefty research document called Emerging Economy Report. Key regions of the world, the report states, are being transformed by the phenomenon whereby soft infrastructure - such as, especially, mobile phone networks - is installed despite the absence of hard infrastructure (such as roads, or nation-spanning power grids). This is a crucial element of what Ezio Manzini calls the "leapfrog hypothesis" in which developing countries jump over the environmentally most damaging stages of industrial development. The CKS report confirms that emerging economies are indeed innovating environmentally efficient modes of energy consumption, whilst also achieving unprecedented economic growth. The Report contains a rich variety of images of real people in real places in India, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Brazil. It argues strongly for the importance of informal settlements in large cities where tens of millions earn their livelihoods in the informal economy; in developing countries, for example, the majority of urban retail is conducted outside the corporate sector. Favelas contain very few chiller cabinets. Although most micro-entrepreneurs operate outside the formal economy, they offer a dynamic and flexible variety of goods and innovative services in response to changing market needs. The irony is that although fifty per cent of all poor households practise home-based income generation of one kind or another, street traders are routinely rounded up and placed in compounds or cooperatives as part of a city’s "clean-up" programmes. Delhi, for example, is trying to get rid of 200,000 street food vendors in order to 'clean' the city for the 2012 Commonwealth Games. If the "clean up" is successful the effect will be to shift millions of citizens from a diet of freshly cooked food to one based on fat, burgers and frozen meals. Some 4.6 million informal economy workers have been displaced in South Asia in recent times and another 25 million are under threat of displacement. We can be pretty sure that these 25 million informal traders operate in a far more sustainable and efficient way than the heavy formal systems that would displace them. Let's hope that the CKS report helps to persuade the private sector and governments that the informal sector is a vital and natural part of all efforts at social reconstruction and environmental sustainability. Every major company and government agency with an interest in emerging economies should buy this report. And then one of them please lend it to me because the cover price is euros 3,000.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:35 PM

February 11, 2008

Ahmad: probably not the target audience

Emaar Properties has teamed up with Giorgio Armani to build and manage thirty Armani hotels and resorts around the world - one of which will be included in Burj Dubai, the the world's largest skyscaper (above) that is now being built. As one of the world's largest developers, and a "global provider of premier lifestyles and pioneer of innovative community-living concepts," Emaar must be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the global design economy.

Somewhat less well-publicised than Burj Dubai (and curiously absent from the company's website) is a US$43 billion Emaar project in Pakistan called Diamond Bar City. Emaar is constructing 4,000 luxury high-rise apartments, residential resorts, hotels, and casinos, on two islands - Bhudal and Bhuddo - off Karachi. The project has been the focus of intense debate since it was given a government go-ahead at the end of 2006. At the time, Government officials described the islands as being 'deserted' but the Asian Human Rights Commission says the livelihoods of about 500,000 fishermen - indigenous people who have been living on the islands for centuries - will be directly and severely affected (bottom picture.) Nearly 4,000 fishing boats make a trip every day near the Bundal coast, but their routes are already being disturbed as the deep water channel has narrowed due to Emaar's land reclamation. The construction of a bridge and deforestation will further constrict channels used by fishing boats. The 10,000 ha under mangrove cover on these islands also represents a unique habitat for juvenile fish and shrimp in the area, and Bundal Island is the breeding ground of Green Turtles and several rare bird species.

When the Pakistan government signed a 99 year lease contract on twin Islands,it did not conduct an Environment Impact Assessment as required by law, before making the contract, and the Chief Minister of Sindh, in deciding to support the mega project, said that “land is not superior than development”. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Karachi calls Diamond Bar City a "disaster project."

So where does this leave the design industry? For example a British design company, The Brand Union does a lot of Emaar's corporate communications. (The Brand Union is WPP's global brand agency). "We have a deep understanding of the Emaar brand and, for each project, we delve deep into the details of the project – understanding the masterplan, architecture and examining the profile and psyche of the target audience," says the company's chief executive in Dubai, Hermann Behrens.

It will be interesting to see whether Ahmad (not his real name) who has been in the fishing trade for decades, will feature prominently as a member of the "target audience" in brochures for Diamond City. "If Diamond City is built on Bundal island", Ahmend told a local reporter, "all the rich of Karachi will move in there and the poor will be left behind. We will then not even get drinking water.”

Posted by John Thackara at 08:47 AM

April 19, 2007

Delhi street kitchens face closure amid hygiene drive

The Guardian reports on the threat to Delhi's 300,000 street food vendors in the name of "hygiene" and "modernisation" ahead of the 2010 Commonweath Games. If you have any contacts in the Indian judiciary, please ask them to read about the food system experts who went to India to learn how to bring this tradition back to their supposedely modernised cities.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:43 AM

April 17, 2007

Hunter gatherer designers and cellular churches

Our friends at WorldChanging are running a series of think-pieces to celebrate Earth Day. My piece is about designers as hunter gatherers, and what we can learn from the explosive growth of cellular churches as we seek ways to expand the footprint of sustainable design.

An intriguing piece in the same series by Bill McDonough argues that "to move from improvement to revolutionary transformation, we need 5% of the human population committed to cradle to cradle flows".

A curious contrast emerges here. As a lad, I was a paid-up Trotskyist vanguardist. Whenever the membershp of our party exceeded 100 people it would split, with great acrimony. These days, I advocate working with apolitical NGOs, corporations, and churches in order to achieve mass participaton in the transition to sustainability.

Bill, on the other hand, seems to be moving in the opposite direction. He quotes Mikhail Gorbachev - I think, approvingly - on the notion that "significant change can come from the actions of a few". Shock horror: could there actually be political disagreement in the green design ranks?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:12 AM

April 01, 2007

Druids as designers

jmg.jpg Which box does one belong in during these curious times? Jan Jaap Spreij sent me links to two excellent articles - on peak oil, and the future of industrial society - written by the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. Great beard, great writing. But have you noticed how young Grand Archdruids look these days?

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 AM

March 12, 2007

High-tech beads for the natives?

(COMMENT AT END: we've had to suspend comment function because of spam attacks)

You know what? I just don't think Sunnyvale, California is the right base from which to save the world with Tech.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Architecture for Humanity have announced a $250,000 competition for the design of technology centers in the developing world.

Dan Shine, director of the AMD's 50x15 Initiative, says "the creative designs developed in this competition will contribute to our ambitious goal of connecting 50 percent of the world's population to the Internet by 2015."

Had the organisers spent more time in South Asia, or in Africa, they'd be aware that six million mobile phone accounts are being opened each month, just in India, right now, today, without the participation of a single "technology centre".

The explosion in cell phone usage is even more pronounced in Africa - from just one million in 1996 to 100 million users today, and rising exponentially.

AMD's 50% figure is likely to be reached years before 2015 because of the smart ways poor people share devices and infrastructures.

Shine says that the prize will be for the design of a "sustainable technology facility and community center which incorporates a centralized building equipped with internet connectivity solutions designed to enable an entire community to access the transformative power of the Internet".

That's two uses of the word "centre" in a single sentence. The words "old" "western" and "paradigm" spring to mind.

AMD's new competition is as misguided as the $100 laptop project. It's based on an outdated model of individual device ownership that may seem normal at the TED conference in Monterey, but has little to do with daily lives of the people it's supposed to benefit.

The press release concludes that "we are challenging the creative world to design innovative structures".

That challenge, too, is misguided. Amazingly innovative structures are already emerging in Africa and South Asia. As Aditya Dev Sood told us last week in Delhi, mobile communication is revolutionizing economic and social life in rural India, spawning a wave of local entrepreneurs and creating greater access to social services.

Amazingly, poor people are managing to do this without the participation of the "creative world".

Check out the new study by The Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS) commissioned by Nokia.


Cheap phones and falling per minute charges in India
and elsewhere don't mean that public places for people
to gather and use new-ish technologies are not useful.
Cheap paperbacks and Amazon did not close public
libraries. Video Volunteers in NYC have a successful
community video unit in India, and telecenters (just
about everywhere) have been important gathering places
for people to do other activities than go online.
Shared access to resources is more than a cost-saving
device. Media Labs like Waag and De Balie in your
town(Amsterdam) have partnered with places like Sarai
in Delhi and certainly serve a local purpose too.

While I'm critical of some parts of the XO (former
$100 laptop) project, I think you might catch up on
what's happening with it before you dismiss it.

All that said, I will conceded that some really odd
tech projects have been deployed in developing
countries. LINCOS in Costa Rica and the expensive ITU
telecenters in Mali and Uganda. And writing from San
Jose I would agree that the best designs may not hail
from Silicon Valley.

-Steve Cisler

Thanks for that. The comparison is with deBalie and Waag would suggest I over-reacted. But these two Amsterdam organisations are political-cultural centres. Technology was added (in Waag's case, c700 years after it was built) as extra infra, not as their raison d'etre. In the case of Africa and South Asia I make no claim to superior expertise on appropriate technology; it's just that wise people on the ground have hammered it into my head repeatedly that progress starts with people, collaborating, not just with the arrival of tools. JT

Posted by John Thackara at 01:00 PM

January 25, 2007

How rural India benefits from mobile comms

Mobile communication is revolutionizing economic and social life in rural India, spawning a wave of local entrepreneurs and creating greater access to social services according to a new study by Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS) - our partners for Doors 9.

The research, commissioned from CKS by Nokia, identifies seven major service sectors including transport, finance and healthcare that could be radically transformed through mobile technologies.

Mobile phone ownership in India is growing rapidly, six million new mobile subscriptions are added each month and one in five Indian's will own a phone by the end of 2007. By the end of 2008, three quarters of India's population will be covered by a mobile network.

Many of these new mobile citizens"live in poorer and more rural areas with scarce infrastructure and facilities, high illiteracy levels, low PC and internet penetration. The study looks at how their new mobility could be used to bridge the growing economic and social digital divide between rural and urban areas.

Read the full story here.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:28 AM

October 05, 2006

Vote for La Voute!

Our friends at La Voute Nubienne are among the 13 finalists of the Ashoka-Changemakers Competition on "How to Provide Affordable Housing." This ancient architectural technique, traditionally used in Sudan and central Asia, but until now unknown in West Africa, can accelerate appropriate house-building in the Sahel. The Nubian Vault (“la Voute Nubienne” or VN) technique uses basic, readily available local materials and simple, easily learned procedures. The major cost element is labour, so cash stays in the local economy. Raw materials, too, are locally available, and ecologically sound. In Burkina Faso, trained VN builders are becoming independent entrepreneurs.

La Voute Nubienne has been shortlisted by a panel of five distinguished judges. Now it's over to the online community - ie, you - to vote in three winners. Each voter is required to cast three votes - otherwise your vote is rendered invalid. (Ashoka say this is a good way of ensuring fair play, and has worked well in past competitions). The deadline for voting is October 16, 2006. The Changemakers Innovation Award winners will be announced on October 17, 2006.

So please: get cracking and vote here for La Voute Nubienne - and two others!

Posted by John Thackara at 01:01 PM

October 04, 2006

.000001 % solution

Doors 9, with its focus on energy and food, is about an important security issue. We seek funding to the tune of .000001% of America's Homeland Security budget to pay for scholarships so that project leaders may come to New Delhi from different parts of India and elsewhere in South Asia. If you are able to fund a scholarship or two, please contact:

Posted by John Thackara at 09:39 AM

September 17, 2006

Last days of Rome (cont.)

I was told last week that 250 new five and seven star hotels, 1,000 major new restaurants, and a second indoors ski slope three times bigger than the one just opened, will be completed in Dubai over the next next five to seven years. So that's where all the designers and architects went. The good news is that three feet wide cracks are rumoured to have appeared in the gin palace houses built by slebs on those floating reclaimed islands.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:53 AM

July 03, 2006

How to be good

At last week's Aspen Design Summit 150 concerned designer-citizens explored ways that they might contribute to sustainable community development, education innovation, and social entrepreneurship. (Other reports are at Core77 and at unBeige.There are many images at Flickr

(Humbug check: I was an enthusiastic participant – and paid to be the moderator - of the Summit).

The stated aim of the event was to “launch a design revolution to put an end to poverty in developing countries by conceiving new extreme-affordability products”. The Summit was challenged to “create a road map to focus the design, engineering, business and education expertise, represented by Summit participants, to address the needs of the poor”.

Real-world projects were the focus of the Summit. Project leaders told us of their work at a grass roots level in Myanmar and Nepal, St Louis and Detoit, New Orleans and the South Bronx.

As previously stated the word 'development' too often implies that we advanced people in the North have an obligation to help backward people in the South to ‘catch up' with our own advanced condition. The problem with this approach is that broader measures of sustainability and well-being tend to be ignored. Or, worse, they are viewed as impediments to progress and modernisation.

The participation in Aspen of people from rooted, real-world projects helped ensure a degree of sensitivity to context, and to existing social relationships, in our discussions.

A degree, but not a lot. At the end of the day, we were high on altitude - but low on context. We discussed ideas and plans for and about people located hundreds or thousands of miles away. As someone remarked, “you can pretend to care, but not pretend to be there”. Second hand representations, however well-crafted, are not the same as direct experience.

This confronts the design world with a substantial dilemma. Eighty percent of professional designers are in the representation business. But designing a poster about an issue, or launching a media campaign about it, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change an aspect of their everyday material reality.

This dilemma is especially pointed for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which organised the Summit in Aspen. Full credit to them, then, for organising an initiative that benefits such a small part of its membership directly.

And one especially positive outcome of the Summit is that it forces us to address some tricky questions.

For example: When we talk about design and social innovation, how confident can we be that we are not searching for personal salvation by “doing good”?

And: If we are genuinely to exchange value - ather than donate it, unasked - what do we have to offer that people want, and need?

And what about the matter of agency? When designers in the North (or rockstars, or NGOs) sally forth to help “the poor” - who is acting for, or on, whom?

Reflecting on these questions, I conclude that we need some Rules of Engagement to govern design-aid expeditions. So - with the caveat that rules are there to be broken, or at least argued about - I propose:

Rule one: Look near as well as far. There’s a lot of work to be done nearby as well as far away. It’s easier to enhance the human resources, culture, heritage, traditions, know-how and skills of a local culture than that of a distant one.

Rule two: work for actual people, not for categories. Be on your guard whenever you read the words “the poor” (or “the elderly” or "the blind" or “the disabled”). These casual (and widespread) habits of language disembody and dehumanise people. (If you don't believe me, ask a blind person).

Rule three: Respect what’s already there. Designers are trained to to change things for the better - not to leave well alone. The good news is that visiting designers can act like mirrors, reflecting positive things about a situation that local people no longer notice or value.

Rule four: empower local people. Any design action that rearranges places and relationships is an exercise of power. A good test for the sensitivity of Incoming designers is whether they enable people to increase control over their own territory and resources.

Rule five: commit long-term. When Sergio Palleroni offered the support of design students to communities in New Orleans, he commited to a minimum of three years’ engagement. It takes time to understand a situation, time to listen to local people and gain their trust, time for appropriate solutions to emerge.

Rule six: Small is not small. Small design actions can have big consequences, many of them positive ones. If someone builds a bus stop in an urban slum, a vibrant community can sprout and grow around it. Such is the power of small interventions into complex urban situations. Read Small Change, by Nabeel Hamdi for more inspiring examples of thre power of thinking small.

Rule seven: Think whole systems. Aspen project leader Paul Polak reckons the design and technology of a device, such as a pump, or sprinkler system, is not much more than ten percent of the complete solution. The other ninety percent involves distribution, training, maintenance and service arrangements, partnership and business models. He and Jim Pattel at Stanford Business School get students to plan whole business solutikons to development opportiunities.

Rule eight: hands-on or hands-off. Hungry people need posters and campaigns less than they need food to eat.

We prepared a briefing on design-related social innovation for Doors 8.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:06 AM | Comments (2)

April 03, 2006

Intel's PC for India

Intel has launched a PC platform to meet the needs of rural villages and communities in India. The "ruggedized" Community PC is equipped to operate in a community setting while accommodating the varying environmental conditions prevalent in the country. Intel also announced an initiative called “Jaagruti” (“Awakening”) to support the spread of rural Internet kiosks that will use the new Community PC. These kiosks would be operated by local entrepreneurs and provide neighboring communities with access to services such as e-Government forms (land records and marriage licenses, among others). The Intel project looks more likely to succeed than the $100 laptop being developed by MIT MediaLab. As we commented when the laptop was launched at Davos last year, the idea of one-person-one-device misses the important point: connectivity is at least as much about the design of clever business models as it is about the private ownership of technological devices. The Doors crowd learned this lesson ten years ago when the extraordinary Sam Pitroda spoke at Doors 4, in 1996. Pitroda enabled hundreds of millons of people to gain access to telephony in India by designing the Public Call Office (PCO) concept - a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure. The PCO model, which is further explained here, also informed our exploration of infrastructure design at Doors 8 in Delhi last year. Then, Intel's Tony Salvador started an interesting argument about the ethics of ethnography used for and by commercial companies. By what right do designers study peoples daily lives if their purpose is to develop new products? Who owns such information, anyway? (Louise Ferguson has compiled a handy archive of texts about the subject; and there's another good one here which I learned about from Mark Vanderbeeken).

Posted by John Thackara at 11:31 AM

December 20, 2005

"Solidarity economics and design"

An edited podcast of my lecture last week at the Royal Society of Arts in London is available online.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:28 PM | Comments (1)

November 22, 2005

Flat out

“I’m exhausted just writing about this” says Thomas Friedman on page 170 of The World is Flat. The book does move swiftly along, but I'm sure its author is perked up by today’s news that he has won $50k as winner of the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs business book of the year award. The World is Flat is filled with anecdotes about change in different parts of the world that threaten our fatcat lifestyles in the North. “One cannot stress enough: Young Chinese, Indians and Poles are not racing us to the bottom, they are racing us to the top” writes Friedman. He adds that “in China, when you are one in a million, there are 1,300 other people just like you” and quotes the chairman of Intel saying that “they will get to the same level as us in a decade”. Friedman writes brilliantly about the logistics that underpins the globalisation of smartness. UPS, we learn, maintains a think-tank, Operations Research Division, which works on supply-chain algorithms. Thanks to a school of mathematics called “package flow technology”, two percent of the world’s GDP can be found in UPS delivery trucks or package cars on any given day. Friedman also reminds us that globalisation is not a new phenomenon. The trend was first highlighted by Karl Marx who first wrote 150 years ago about “the inexorable march of technology and capital to remove all barriers, boundaries, frictions and restraints to global commerce”. So far, so good. But I lost sympathy with the book when it became clear that Friedman buys into the inexorability argument 100 percent. It's not that he is unaware that downsides exist: He lets slip at one point that “when you take the middleman out of business, you also take a certain element of humanity out of life”. He also agrees that some obstacles to a frictionless global market are “institutions, habits, cultures, and traditions that people cherish precisely because they reflect non-market values like social cohesion, religious faith, and national pride”. But for Friedman, a resolute free marketeer, non-market values are second-order. For him, the trend towards commercialised flatness is unstoppable and, on balance, a good thing. In the end, I recommend you read this book for its reporting - but what you make of it comes down to values. Friedman travels widely, but he betrays scant understanding - and no empathy that I can detect - for the non-American cultures he dips into. Towards the end, Friedman's smug insularity turns nasty. He writes about the “backwardness and stagnation” of the Arab world, and commands: “either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain forever in the rear of technical advance”. By this point, the author’s technological determinism becomes cultural bigotry.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:08 AM | Comments (5)

September 19, 2005

How to deal with cultural emissions

Does tourism kill the toured? An unexpected overnight in Barcelona at the weekend reminded me that cities should be be careful what they wish for. Barcelona is the most-quoted example in the world of a city that has used design and creativity to make itself attractive to tourists. But having come in their hordes, they are eating the place alive. When I first ate at Restaurante Los Caracoles 25 years ago, most of its customers were local. On Saturday night, most of its its customers were foreigners - loud, pink, huge ones. (I do not exclude myself from this category). At least 50 percent of the tourists and conventioneers arriving to eat looked clinically obese. Some found it hard to squeeze through the door. The percentage of obesity among the cooks and waiters working like crazy to feed us was %. Meanwhile, outside on the Ramblas, Spanish families trying to stroll slowly with children were jostled by gangs of drunken Easyjet Brits on their way to party.
Carbon emissions are not the only damaging by-product of tourism. Tourists change local cultures, too - especially temporal ones. Londoners, who hurry, can't help but impose their own time values on places they go to for weekend breaks. But I have a solution. Visitors to Southern cities should be compelled to spend time in Temporal Quarantine at the airport on arrival. Once judged to have slowed down, they would be given a smart bracelet to wear for the duration of their visit. The bracelet would contain GIS software that would detect any stagggering around, and an accelerometer would detect unseemly pedestrian speed. Anyone caught disrespecting the city's normal tempo would be subject to compulsory liposuction on the spot. I am told it is is an enervating procedure.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:21 AM | Comments (3)

September 08, 2005

How to rebuild, or how to be?

The papers today say that rebuilding after Katrina will cost the same as the war in Iraq. In the unlikely event that so much money is forthcoming, what will it be spent on? Are new freeways and malls the wisest way to rebuild? Before firms like Halliburton start pouring concrete, a moment's pause is in order. One interesting vantage point from which to consider alternatives to business-as-usual rebuilding is the New Economics Foundation's Well-being manifesto.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:28 AM

July 21, 2005

The limits of Live8

Overheard in The NYU Bookstore, Washington Place: Girl on cell: 'So I went up to my Professor just now? And I was telling him I've chosen a country for my project. He was like,"Africa? That's not a country." I was like, "Come on, what was all that Live 8 stuff about, then?". He was just like, "Never mind. Africa is fine."...Yeah, totally.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:06 AM

July 08, 2005

Disruptive behaviour

A breathless email from Tony Perkins invites me to Stanford to watch lions eat Christians. Or so it sounds. Tony writes that his conference, Always On, is about “the sweet spots in the technology markets…where innovation is disrupting behavior and creating new business opportunities”. His website concludes, “come play in our spontaneous and uncensored arena”. The text does not specify whose behaviour is being disrupted, and whether we will all experience it as “sweet” when it happens. But something tells me the investors who dominate the AO roster don’t expect their own lives to be disrupted. For a moment I thought Chai Ling, former student leader at Tiananmen Square, was there to speak up for the forcibly disrupted masses; but it turns out she went on to do an MBA at Harvard and now runs a software company. Old-paradigm events like Always On don't matter if you regard disruptive innovation as inevitable, and therefore morally neutral. But if innovation - which used to be called modernisation - can make things worse, as well as better - should not innovators, and the guys who bankroll them, take responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Maybe I should stand outside the hall with a placard saying "Repent!".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:22 AM

July 07, 2005

African response to G8

A range of African NGOs and organisations has expressed frustration and concern in response to statements from G8 that world leaders would solve Africa's problems with limited debt relief and increased aid. Writers and campaigners from a range of African countries have expressed their views in the Alternatives Commission for Africa report. For most of its contributors, the problem is that Africa needs less control by the IMF and the World Bank, not more. International financial institutions have failed Africa with flawed policies that centre on enforced privatisation and user charges. Blair's commission argues for an increased role for the private sector, and is focused on more input from Western transnational corporations.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:16 PM

July 04, 2005

Dealing with good and bad news

Someone told me (offline) that my reaction to Live8 yesterday was unduly critical. Isn't it better for people to be charged up and optimistic about a big challenge, such as poverty, rather than overwhelmed and demotivated? It's a tricky call. I still agree with George Monbiot that Live8 will have done more harm than good if provides a smokescreen for governmental actions on aid that are so riddled with terms and conditions that they are "are as onerous as the debts it relieves". Gary Silverman made a similar point in Saturday's FT: "the trouble with feel-good weekends such as Live8 is the next day's political hangover: where do we go now?"(July 2 page W2). Is there a middle way between happy-clappy pop concerts, and cynical inaction? One answer is to educate ourselves better. The Worldchanging website, for example, does a brilliant job in publishing a stream of stories about "the tools, models and ideas for building a better future". The site's editors, Alex Steffen and Jamais Casco, have quickly built up a large readership by orchestrating intelligent discussions of the question: how do we create a future which is sustainable, dynamic, and prosperous? Supposing some among the Live8 masses get hungry for more knowledge, and find it in places like Worldchanging, the question then becomes: what do they (we) do with this information? The challenge for good ideas sites, like Worldchanging, is to keep the good stuff coming but without making us feel anxious that that we are not responding adequately to this flow of good ideas. This is where the need for kinds of institutions, and new kinds of politics, comes in. Of which, more anon.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:23 PM

July 03, 2005

How good it feels to feel

"Everyone is, suddenly, globally, politicised" froths an embarassing article about Live8 by Euan Ferguson in todays Observer. Puleese.The atmosphere this morning reminds me of Princess Diana's funeral. The emotions released yesterday are heartfelt - but narcissistic. It feels good to feel. Watching a rock musician in a London park is not an optimal position from which to empathise with someone in Africa - let alone to understand the issues. I don't claim any expertise either, but I've been reading around. George Monbiot wrote last week, of the the debt-relief package for the world's poorest countries likely to be unveiled this week: "Anyone with a grasp of development politics who had read and understood the ministers' statement could see that the conditions it contains - enforced liberalization and privatization - are as onerous as the debts it relieves". The G8 meeting will announce this package, tell the Bonos and Geldofs of this world that "we listened" - and Africa will be screwed.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:32 PM | Comments (1)

June 17, 2005

One-dimensional Doors?

At deBalie in Amsterdam, a conference called Incommunicado is debating issues to do with information technology for development (ICT4D). I could not stay for today's debate, organsed by Solomon Benjamin, on “culture and corporate sponsorship in the ICT4D context” - so I make this contribution remotely. Benjamin, quoting as one example Doors 8 in Delhi (where he was a speaker), asks: “What is the agenda of these organizations? Is the electronic art they are exporting merely paving the way for the big software and telecom firms to move in, or should we reject such a mechanical, one-dimensional view?”. One way to resolve this pertinent question would be for Dr Benjamin to re-read what was written and what was
said before and during Doors 8. My reading is that people at Doors argued miltantly that technology is not, of itself, virtuous. It's what people do with it that matters - and what people do with new media is not for us in the North to dictate to the South. We went to compare experiences, not to download expertise. Doors was criticised at the time for associating with corporations (firms like Nokia and HP were sponsors) - but opinion on that among our critics seems to be softening. Some speakers at the opening event of Incommunicado argued that new strategies for develoment will unavoidably involve the private sector, so they (the companies) should be involved in discuission, not demonised and excluded. And a text published at Incommunicado called "The Delhi Declaration" proposes “the cultivation of hospitality and attention by practitioners towards people engaged primarily with discourse”, and for theorists and researchers to be “sensitive to the exigencies of practice and artistic creation”. I think all this means: let’s lunch. So we will.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:22 AM

June 09, 2005

Small is not small (cont.)

Build a bus stop in an urban slum and a vibrant community sprouts and grows around it. Such is the power of small interventions into complex urban situations. Small Change by Nabeel Hamdi is another of my 'finds' in Seattle's anarchist bookshop - although on closer inspection the book was not published out of a commune in Oregon, but by Earthscan in London. It nonetheless has a rich history. Born in Afghanistan of Iraqi parents, Hamdi studied architecture at the AA in London before spending a career in a huge variety of contexts helping with participatory action planning and the upgrading of slums in cities. Every page of Small Change contains an implied critique of old paradigm, top-down, outside-in, development thinking. Hamdi judges the approriateness of projects by the degree to which they evidence trust and mutual respect - but he is not moralistic. He demonstrates the wisdom of the street through cooly written and unsentimental case studies. It's worth buying the book just for the story about the pickle jars.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:20 AM

April 25, 2005

So you want content?

We have posted several more of the presentations from Doors 8. Among these are a text from Ezio Manzini in which he develops his critique of "the tunnel that a mistaken idea of comfort, and an equally mistaken idea of economic growth, have driven us into". He proposes a new idea of well-being, and argues that "traditions can be reframed as social resources, valuable building materials for the future". Jimmy Wales' gripping presentation about Wikipedia (now over the 500,000 article mark) is also online. David Burney's beautifully illustrated talk on the hard infrastructures of New York (including its waste systems) is there. Check out, too, Teko London's innovative visualizations of "journeys of care" in a decentralized, community-based health system. The non-video bits of Joi ito and Marko Ahtisaari's final session wrap are also there, together with Derrick de Kerckhove's intervention on 'the internet of things'.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:38 PM | Comments (1)

April 06, 2005

Open letter to Dr Solomon Benjamin

Dear Solly,

My attention has been drawn to your post of 28 March on the Sarai Commons-Law mailing list.

I am usually pretty relaxed about criticism. After all, if our events failed to provoke discussion and disagreement, they would be feeble events indeed. One reason I was so happy to be introduced to your work, and then to be able to ask you to come to speak, was that you bring such clarity and sharpness to the issues we set out to understand and discuss.

I am especially sympathetic to your pointed question about "our attempt to constantly map our cities in a un-questioning way". I raised similar questions myself, before and after Doors 8 - but your doubts are more sharply stated. You are right: we need to think far more critically about the use of cartography and mapping by designers in the context of research and product development.

But one sentence in your posting is upsetting and, frankly, demeaning. You write (about the programme) that it contained "Little on improving corporate accountability though, but then, the sponsors would hardly approve of that topic as a session heading". The clear implication is that our corporate sponsors were able so to determine the agenda so that nothing that might have discomifted them appeared.

The facts are as follows. First, I did not solicit the approval of our sponsors, or their input, on any aspect of the the programme. The agenda for the Doors 8 programme was determined by me personally according to a policy that has applied very publicly to all Doors events since 1993: corporate agendas (or those of any special interest group, including designers) shall not influence or impinge on the programme in any way, period.

For Doors 8, we did discuss with several companies the content of one pre-conference workshop on "Service Design In Emerging Economies"; this was conceived and executed as a special interest event about business issues; it would have been strange (if not impossible) to prepare it without involving business people. But apart from that one workshop, which was one event among nine days of events, the entire programme was developed independently.

Second, the total amount of money contributed by commercial sponsors to Doors 8 was a rather small proportion of the total costs of the event when the time of staff members is counted in. We wish we had raised a lot more sponsorship. But by far the largest part of the global budget for Doors 8 comprised time and resources donated by the two organisers: the Doors of Perception Foundation, and the Centre for Knowledge Societies.

The suggestion of improper corporate influence is especially damaging considering that the event was only possible because our modestly paid staff colleagues worked 18 hour days for weeks on end. Another success factor in our event was the work, time and enthusiasm of dozens of unpaid student volunteers from Indian colleges and universities.

I am writing to you publicly like this because your comment follows a series of jibes that, until now, I had decided to ignore. During the months before Doors 8, we heard continuous reports of ill-informed chitchat to the effect that Doors was a "commercial" event at the service of corporate interests. The fact that such comments were, are are, totally untrue does not stop them being damaging. They should stop. Hence this letter.

For the record, I am as delighted now as I was a month ago to have discovered your work. The energy and insight you brought to the Doors conference was something special, and helped to make it a fabulous and memorable event. I look forward to inviting you to another Doors event as soon as possible.

With warm regards,
John Thackara

Posted by John Thackara at 05:55 PM | Comments (4)

March 30, 2005

"Small is not small"

A session at Doors 8 on service design for emerging economies left a tricky question unanswered: how do we determine when is a market is ‘emerging’ - and when it has emerged? And, is it possible to design the relationship between small pilot projects, as potential tipping points, and large scale system or market change? Ezio Manzini half answered that last question a day later with the observation in his keynote that “small is not small”. Even small design actions are political today, he said, because anything that shapes connectivity and information architecture inevitably impacts on knowledge and value – and therefore power.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:49 AM

March 15, 2005

How digital rights management will harm the developing world

India-bound Michael Coburn draws my attention to a paper by Cory Doctorow on how Digital Rights Management will affect the developing world. The piece is written for an International Telecommunications Union report aimed at telecoms regulators in national governments around the world; they are trying to figure out which DRM to adopt. Doctorow questions the "DRM hypothesis" that the public is dishonest, and will do dishonest things with cultural material if given the chance. Besides, he says, DRM won't work: 'there has never been a single piece of DRM-restricted media that can't be downloaded from the Internet today. In more than a decade of extensive use, DRM has never once accomplished its goal'.My own view is that anything that restricts the free flow of communication is obnxious in and of itself - but that the value of protected - and therefore frozen - content, is modest relative to live contact between humans, which is far more important. But we need to be vigilant on both counts.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:58 AM

March 12, 2005

Design in development (cont.)

A large meeting last week at the Tropen Institute in Amsterdam marked the launch of a new project, Dutch Design In Development (DDiD). Participants ranged from young designers struggling to make a living by importing textiles from Africa, to eco-tourism marketeers, and consultants who advise global companies how to behave responsibly. My own contribution was to complain that economists tend to define ‘development’ in terms of growth and productivity but ignore their impact on well-being. The day I spoke, a survey by the New Economics Foundation in the UK found that although the British economy has doubled since 1970, peoples’ satisfaction with life has barely changed - and their consumption of antidepressants has skyrocketed.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:49 AM

February 20, 2005

Want to be a knowledge superpower?

According to an India survey in Britain's New Scientist magazine, 'if the sub-continent gets everything right it will have the third largest economy in the world by 2050, after China and the US. India is not yet a knowledge superpower, but it stands on the threshold'. Is this a good place for India to be? America and Europe are already knowledge superpowers: does this make us happy and content? I don't think so. If being a 'knowledge superpower' means the mindless growth of technoscience, then it's an undesirable destination. India (and the rest of us) can do better. As Susantha Goonatilake reminded us with his talk on 'civilizational knowledge' at Doors East last year, 'Western scientific logic is twofold: 'X' is either 'A' or not 'A'. There are four-fold logics in the Buddhist tradition - and a seven-fold logic in the Jain tradition'.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:51 PM | Comments (1)

February 17, 2005

On natural and man-made disasters

The spectacle of Bono and other glossy celebs singing for tsunami victims was a somewhat quease-inducing sight on the box the other night. As P Sainath points out in indiatogether,"Number of homes damaged by the tsunami in Nagapattinam: 30,300. Number of homes destroyed by the Congress-NCP Government in Mumbai: 84,000. The elite wants a society geared to deal with rare disasters - but shows no urgency at all when it comes to the destruction of the livelihoods of millions by policy and human agency".Dunu Roy points out that many slum clearances "are as much to do with the space they live in as with the work that they perform, and have been promoted by the bilateral and multilateral funding agencies". Squatter Citycontains excellent coverage of these issues.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:52 AM

February 14, 2005


So Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Laboratory at MIT, is to bestow laptop computers on poor people for just $100. To the punters in Davos, where Negroponte was promoting his project, $100 probably sounded cheap: many were paying $100 an hour to be there. But in Mali, where 90 percent of the population lives on $2 a day, Nick's Laptop would cost people two or three months' earnings. During thoughtful exchanges on Worldchanging, Robert Neuwirth pitched in with a criticism of "top-down, tech-heavy approaches to democratization and globalization" - and others pointed out that radios and telephones score higher if you actually ask people what they need. As we learned from the extraordinary Sam Pitroda at Doors 4, back in 1996, connectivity is as much about the design of clever business models as it is about tech. Pitroda enabled hundreds of millons of people to gain access to telephony by designing the Public Call Office (PCO) concept - a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure. PCOs exemplify the kind of design skills that we need to learn from India (for example, at Doors 8) and adapt to our own situations.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:08 PM | Comments (4)

February 07, 2005

Spooks: why you have to be in Delhi for Doors 8

By 2020 globalization is likely to take on much more of a non-Western face. So says the US National Intelligence Council (NIC), a think-tank that advises the CIA on the likely course of future events. A new report called The Contradictions of Globalization says that Asia will "alter the rules of the globalizing process". The report adds, anxiously, that "advances outside the United States could enable other countries to set the rules for design, standards, and implementation". This is why Doors 8 in Delhi can be so important: this is the right moment to accelerate the emergence of post-tech-push models of innovation and development. The NIC talks apocalyptically about 'a force-multiplying convergence of the technologies - information, biological, materials, and nanotechnologies - that have the potential to revolutionize all dimensions of life' - but that kind of macho tech-talk is tedious and old hat. Doors 8 is about more nuanced uses of tech as a support - sometimes - for new kinds services that keep people, not tech, at centre stage.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:27 AM

February 06, 2005

Wrongly developed design?

I've been asked to give a lecture on 'design in development' at a conference in Amsterdam on 8 March. It will be an interesting opportunity to test the waters in Europe ahead of the main event of Doors 8 itself. I'm more than a little uneasy about the word 'development': it implies that we advanced people in the North have the right or even obligation to help backward people in the South 'catch up' with our own advanced condition. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm more in tune with the anonymous author of Bolo Bolo, "P.M", for whom the North is 'wrongly developed'. Standing still is not an option for either North or South, but I'm looking for a better word than development to use in my talk.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:51 PM

January 10, 2005

Design and disaster (cont.)

Many architects are eager to help with post-tsunami rebuilding in Asia, but "now's not the time for them to switch off their computers and rush for the next flight to Indonesia or Sri Lanka. They'd have little to offer, and would be just more mouths to feed. My advice to them is to study, to learn the skills that will make their contribution truly useful when diasaster strikes in the future." So counsels Architecture for Humanity's Cameron Sinclair in a story by Jonathan Glancey in today's Guardian . Zygi Lubkowski, the Ove Arup engineer and chairman of the Society of Earthquake and Civil Engineering Dynamics, says in the story that there is a place for sophisticated new design and technology - but only when and where local traditions and ways of building and living cannot be readily adapted to cope with future emergencies."We need to plan ahead to make places that are both safe and special", he tells Glancey; this means "working humbly with local people wherever we are wanted or can help, but not imposing fashionable design ideas". Appropriate design knowledge is embodied (in people) and situated (in a context): this has to be one of our reference points when we discuss, at Doors 8, the kind of infrastructures we need to enable the timely sharing of design knowledge.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:26 AM

January 01, 2005

Design and disaster

Our partner in the organization of Doors 8, Aditya Dev Sood, was in Phuket, by the sea, with 15 members of his family, on a post-wedding vacation, when the tsunami struck. Thankfully Aditya and his family, at least, are safe. So, too, so far as we've heard, are other friends of Doors in places hit by the disaster. The experience has been a shocking one, but it also brings the theme of Doors 8 - "infra" - into focus. We need to ensure that Doors 8 makes a meaningful contribution to the recovery process. There are at least three ways to do this. First, we will devote time at the event to an evaluation of the design challenges revealed by the disaster. We are therefore keen to hear from people in, or going to, areas affected who can brief us, first-hand, on some of those challenges. Second, one topic already on our agenda is: how best might we share design knowledge when and where it is most needed? Alex Steffen from, and Jimmy Wales from wikipedia, will join our discussion on this issue. Third: Doors 8 includes two days for Project Clinics when the expertise of delegates can be applied to the development of future projects. More on all this in due course.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:11 AM

November 23, 2004

From new economy to anti-economy

"In our economy, everything has a price - but nothing, it seems, has a value. We find it hard to really tell whether the things we value are growing or dying". So begins an excellent interview by Joe Flower with "anti-economist" Hazel Henderson. The yardsticks we have chosen to measure our "progress" are economic ones: margin, GNP, jobs, the Dow Jones, the prime rate. Everything else -- the health of our children, clean air, the safety of our communities, the feeling of belonging, a sense of meaning -- has to compete on the same grounds, and the comparisons become absurd. Environmental damage, stress on workers, or risk to consumers from the costs of things don't count at all in such economic measures, until they get turned into dollars by suits or regulatory action -- and then they get counted on the plus side. Henderson is developing a national quality of life measure for the U.S. "We are going to distribute it with the Calvert Group in Washington, D.C., starting in the fall. We want to release our quality of life indicators, without putting money coefficients on them, at the same time that the government puts out the GNP". Read the interview here.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:40 PM

October 30, 2004

Emergent Economics

m. kennedyI'm delighted to report that Margrit Kennedy, a world authority on complementary currencies, has agreed to join us at Doors 8 in New Delhi.
Non-cash economic systems are, for me, where a genuinely new economy is being born. And where so-called emerging economies are in many respects ahead of "developed" ones. (Barter dates back thousands of years in India).If a light and therefore sustainable economy means sharing resources more effectively - such as time, skill, software, or food – then economic systems for exchanging non-market work have got to be part of the answer. Networked communications, and wireless networks, can be repurposed as enabling infrastructures to help systems like local and complementary currencies, Ithaca Hours, Time Dollars, LETS systems, micro-credit programs, interest-free banking, and other community-oriented monetary systems, scale up.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:44 AM

January 22, 2003

Bangalore diary

Writing from India, where he encounters designers, digerati and Bollywood producers who want to put him in a movie, John Thackara considers the potentially thrilling future of IT in the subcontinent.

To Bangalore, India's IT city, to speak at the first India Design Summit. The event is organized jointly by the National Institute of Design (NID) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

Business leaders here anticipate keen competition from China, in markets ranging from textiles to software, now that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has further opened up Asian and global markets; they are looking for new ways to innovate higher-value products and services. NID's new Director, Darlie Koshy, persuaded CII to stage the summit as a signal that design will be one of those ways.

Koshy's timing strikes me as excellent in two respects. First, India's manufacturers and software industries are preparing to move up the value chain of the world economy, and they seem to have decided that design can help them do that. Secondly, NID graduates possess a unique combination of social responsibility - and entrepreneurial zeal - that are perfectly suited for these New Times.

For its part, the CII, too, is in the middle of a generation shift. Its new vice-president, Ashok Soota, is president of Mind Tree Consulting, one of India's software powerhouses; Soota is a keen supporter of design as an alternative to what he described as the ‘LCP Raj’ - the stifling decades after independence in which Indian industry laboured under a regime of Licenses, Controls and Permits.

The Design Summit summit had a somewhat ceremonial flavour, with lots of senior people saying rather general things; but the CII will now set up a design working party to work out how best to turn this abundant goodwill into projects.

The day I arrive, a report by Forrester Research predicts that within five years the proportion of spending on offshore services in global IT budgets will rise from 12 to 28 per cent of total expenditure. As I comment at the conference, only America could describe a subcontinent with one billion people as part of an ‘offshore’ industry. But nobody seems to share my indignation.

People I meet are more engaged by a discussion of the different ways design can help them develop new kinds of services, supported by IT. My own talk is about the move away from tech-driven innovation towards a new model which I nickname ‘the re-engineering of daily life’.

Sir Christopher Frayling, chairman of the UK Design Council, made a well-received speech about design as one of the ‘creative industries’ that the British government (and, to my horror, the Dutch minister of culture), favours right now.

Personally speaking, I can't stand the ‘creative industries’ concept: the words conjur up ghastly images of a world filled with advertising executives and rich design consultants. Creative industries thinking is redolent of a point-to-mass mind-set that may have worked in the new economy - but won't wash in these New Times. The good news is that I have the strong impression that the follower generation, certainly in India, shares my distaste for the creative industries concept.

December 2nd
After the Design Summit Jogi (Panghaal, Director of Doors in India) and I visit the new campus of Bangalore's National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). Bangalore NIFT is the latest in a nationwide network of seven educational and research institutions first established in the 1990s. (NID's new director, Darlie Koshy, was previously at NIFT). NIFT's Director in Bangalore, Hema Maya, and her senior academic, G. Somasundaram, a professor in fashion management studies, tell me that their task is to deliver the designers and managers (600 graduates each year) and business strategies needed to expand India's share of the global textile and apparel market from one to at least five (and preferably ten) per cent by 2010. NIFT is such a buzzy and focussed institution that I'm sure they will succeed.

Another new design institute in Bangalore, Srishti, has been set up by Geetha Narayan and Poonam Buir Kastur. When I arrive there, Jogi is running a workshop about the mapping of communications in a network of nine villages somewhere in the countryside nearby.

Our next stop is Infosys where Sridhar Dhulipalar has aranged for me to give a talk. The Infosys campus is more like a small city state than a company. Within our first minutes on campus we bump into a crowded national delegation from New Zealand, led by its IT minister, and another group from AT+T, apparently including its chairman. The Doors of Perception delegation is more modest in size - namely, the two of us - but we've nabbed the lecture theatre first so the other guys don't get to grandstand like we do.

Infosys City, as it's called, is an enormous site: 28 buildings cluster among ponds, fountains, lawns and and shrubs. There are Food Courts, conference centres, and a huge gym. Mind you the latter, although filled with brand-new machines, is empty: I presume everyone is working. The only unsure touch is an expensive high-tech 'presentation suite' in the main corporate building where you are shut in a darkened room and subjected to a ghastly audio visual show about the digitally-enhanced lives of Indian yuppies. Speaking personally, I was a hundred times more impressed chatting to Infosys staff after my talk than by this automated sub-themepark experience. Infosys should chuck out the tech and replace it with a tearoom.

After Infosys we head for the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT). This élite postgraduate facility hosts 122 hand-picked students in an expensive, if rather hideous, building paid for by Singaporean investors. Our host - IIT's director, Professor Sadagopan, who had been a speaker at the Design Summit - is besieged by two separate Chinese delegations and by phone calls from the the Chief Minister. So we don't stay long.

Singapore is spearheading the development of an ‘IT Forum’ to coordinate strategy among an Asian belt of IT cities including Bangalore and Hyderabad in India, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. David Lim, Singapore's IT minister, reckons there is complementarity in this ‘infocommunications ecosystem’ between China's manufacturing base, India as a software powerhouse, Korea's bandwidth capacity, Japan's global leadership in wireless services, and Singapore as a test-bed for new services and business models. Pan-Asian rhetoric like this is persuasive, but I'm not convinced much will come of it. Most IT alliance action nowadays is company-to-company (B2B) not state-to-state (S2S).

December 3RD
Our next stop is General Electric's equally lavish new campus, the Jack T. Welch Research Centre, which has just opened in another outskirt of Bangalore. The campus has been designed and built at amazing speed. Its Bangalore-based architect, Naresh Navasimhan, shows us round. Eleven hundred researchers are already busy in eleven labs developing polymers and synthetics, modelling new chemicals, engineering smart ceramics and metallurgy, and so on. Nearly everone here, we are told, has at least a masters degree or a PhD.

I'm reassured to see plenty of people in white coats putting powders into glass pipettes - and not just rows of young guys staring into computers. The team here evidently works together well; the duration of research projects has been reduced sharply by cutting the steps in GE's standard process from 24 to seven. Research costs, as a result, have plummeted from an average of $2million per project to $200,000. Small wonder that GE has decided to enlarge the facility to 3,000 researchers as fast as possible (or that the company's US-based researchers are anxious about their futures). Several thousand construction workers are hammerng away putting up a new group of buildings.

Welch-ville is impressive as an example of global-scale research production. But although the facility is brand new, the atmosphere feels resolutely Old Times. A vast sign over the food court exhorts us to ‘Welcome GE's New CEO, Jack Immelt’. I learn that the (new) Great White Chief did not, in the event, show up in person, but manifested himself by telepresence instead. Inside the facility, otherwise bare walls sport policy exhortations in ghastly typography. A traffic sign at the entrance reminds visitors that the speed limit is not ten, and not 15, but 16 kph; 10 miles an hour is GE's global on-site traffic standard. The acres of lawn with rows of powerful water sprinklers, full-on during the hottest part of the day, are also pretty shocking in a city which has a severe water shortage. I don't imagine this will endear GE to environmentalists, but neither do I imagine they will care too much.

Back in the city I meet 40 designers and architects at an informal get-together organized by Jacob Matthew, an organiser, in his private time, of Bangalore's Designers Friday network. Matthew's 28-strong company, Tessaract, consults for big retailers, manufactures furniture, and runs an interesting design shop. Along with most of the professionals I meet, Tessaract seems to be doing pretty well - so the evening was hardly fertile ground for my talk about the need for design to re-invent itself. But once again I am struck by an openness to new ideas and the intelligent way designers and architects here plot their course.

December 4TH
For me, the major story in India is the potential for the design of services by, and with, rural and urban poor people. This is not about aid, but about a truly vast, un-met market that myopic TelCos, all of whom seem to be mesmerised by high-cost, high-bandwidth business networks, seem unable to focus on.

M. S. Banga, chairman of Hindustan Lever, pointed out in a press interview during my visit that India's software industry has impacted less than 500,000 people among a one billion-strong population - but that more than 700 million people work in agriculture (living in roughly 700,000 villages). If the income of these people were to rise by a modest three per cent a year, overall GDP in India would grow by 1.7 per cent a year. And the country would also benefit from a reduced rate of urbanization. Mumbai (Bombay), I learn, is growing by 160,000 people a week - whereas the last time I was here the number was 60,000.

Connectivity is no longer the main obstacle to wealth creation via communication services. On my last but one day, an impressive programme to bridge the digital divide is announced. Under Plan 9000, Pace, a Hyderabad-based computer training company, will launch 3,000 self-sustaining computer centres in Andra Pradesh and 6,000 in the rest of the country. Each will be staffed by three computer science graduates who will be helped to procure equipment such as computers, scanners and software. Each centre, which will have cable internet access, will service 15,000 people - about 100 million in total.

As with the Public Call office (PCO) innovation of the 1990s, a combination of new technology and new business models is making serious inroads into the digital divide in India.

The crucial step is to accelerate the design of new services to take example of this more broadly available connectivity. At the Centre for Knowledge Societies(CKS) in Bangalore, Aditya Dev Sood's team documents developmental ICT projects throughout South Asia. The Bangalore-Hyderabad area is probably the only region in the world where global-quality high-tech and Bible-age lifestyles co-exist, and I'm sure Sood is correct to argue that test projects done here can stimulate service innovation throughout South Asia and the African subcontinent too.

CKS and Doors have agreed to search for ways to support service design innovation in different rural and urban contexts. CKS is looking to expand its project documentation activity, while Doors will support pilot projects that involve collaborative mapping of communication flows, and the design of service scenarios, in diferent situations.

Institutes such as NID, where Professor M P Ranjan has pioneered scenario design techniques for several years, have started to train designers about the use of design scenarios for this kind of work, so plenty of qualified people are available once the projects get underway.

Bangalore operates at multiple speeds. GE's huge research centre seems to have been built in less time than it takes to order a beer at the Bangalore Gold Club, where I am staying. Bangalore is less frantic than Mumbai, or even Ahmedabad, where we did our first Doors event in India last year. One reason for a certain tranquility is that the city contains several large parks. These are are owned and occupied by India's army and airforce. India's nearest external enemy, Pakistan, is thousands of kilometres to the north - but the British, who liked the climate here, turned sleepy little Bangalore into a a garrison city during the nineteenth century and India's military never left. I saw hardly any troops or military vehicles, but their city-centre grounds are so extensive that there could be many divisions of them hidden away.

Speaking of the military, an article by Anuradah Chenoy in the Asian Age (30 November 2001) enlightened me more about the Afghanistan situation in 500 words than all the western media coverage I'd seen since 9/11. Chenoy's ripping yarn includes these gems: By 2050, Central Asia is to account for 80 per cent of US oil and gas. The Taliban leadership was invited to Houston in 1997 and promised $100 million a year in transit fees when the Bakhu-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline is built. Vice-prez Cheney was previously president, CEO, and a major stockholder in Haliburton, a leading energy services group. Bush Senior is a member of the $12 billion Carlyle Group whose private equity investors have included ... the Bin Laden family. Bush Senior is said to have met the Bin Laden family twice. Gripping stuff.

Only four million mobile phones have been sold in the whole of India, but everyone seems to have one here. People mostly use pre-paid cards, and a price war is raging between local TelCos and international networks such as Orange. There are signs everywhere for "MOTS" (Mobile On The Spot).

The tempo of business is determined by the use of mobiles: Jogi and I make appointments a few hours in advance; call from taxis or auto-rickshaws to say we are arriving; and a couple of times, people call minutes after we leave a meeting to confirm the points we just agreed.

Speaking of mobiles, Nirmal Sethia, a management professor from California, reflects at the design summit on the "lost 20 minutes" of his students. This is the amount of time they spend packing up their papers (and Palms) at the end of one lecture and walking across campus to the next one. "Five years ago, they would either chat to each other, or possibly walk alone reflecting - as I fantasized about it, at least - on what they just heard," says Sethia. "Nowadays, most of them are talking on their mobile before they are even out of the lecture hall. I speculate not only about what they're talking about - but also about what they are now missing from college life."

December 5TH
En route back from Bangalore to Europe, I have one more day in Mumbai. Ravi Pooviah, a communication design professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, has organized a four-day conferece on interaction design at the Indian Institute of Technology and invites me to give a talk. Another group of very smart students and researchers. By now its 37 degrees, and I'm beginning to flag, but it's tremendous fun to be there.

Since I last visited the Mumbai/Bombay IIT in 1994, a row of bizarre apartment blocks has been erected by the lake. Each one is at least 40 stories high and boasts either a Grecian temple, or some kind of Italianate cupola, on its top three floors. Las Vegas meets Milton Keynes - not the sort of thing they'd approve of back in Holland. During a break at the conference, I learn that the Mumbai/Bombay scene has been more badly hit than Bangalore's larger software companies. If money paid for those blocks, they deserve it.

In Mumbai on my last evening, two young film producers approach me on the street and ask me if I want to be in a Bollywood movie. I say yes, of course - and then ask them what my role will be. Nobody mentions mentions the title, let alone the plot, of the movie. "You can choose between the police chief and the hotel manager," they say. I say I'll do the hotel manager, and ask when they start shooting. "Eight o'clock tomorrow morning." Talk about just-in-time production. Sadly, I have a flight to catch - but just in case I'm throwing away a fortune, as well as a new career, I ask about the pay. "It's 500 rupees before tax," (about $10) they say. Five, perhaps less, after deductions. I tell them my agent will call them. Maybe.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:28 PM