February 11, 2012

Design In The Light of Dark Energy

[ This text is a shortened version of my talk at last month's conference in Philadelphia on Architecture & Energy; proceedings of that event will be published as a book later this year. Whilst preparing the talk, and this text, I also prepared this Reading List for Mr Monti. ]

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When the new Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Mario Monti, gave his acceptance speech to the Italian Senate before Christmas, he used the word "growth" 28 times and the word "energy" - well, zero times. Why would this supposed technocrat neglect even to mention the biophysical basis of the world's economy? Energy, after all, is at the heart of industrial growth society: industrial production, our cities, our transport systems, our buildings and infrastructure, food and water flows, the internet - they all critically depend on oil and gas

Mr Monti is not the only politician promoting growth over common sense and the laws of physics. They'e all at it. President Obama, in his State of the Union message, stated soothingly that "we don't have to choose between our environment and our economy." Mr Obama was not lying, because a choice has already been made. 'We' have chosen the protection of business-as-usual over any pretense that we will leave the world better for our children.

Mr Obama, for his part, has in fact committed to leave the world a much worse place. Asserting that the US needs to develop “every available source of energy” - including oil and gas - he then announced that he will “sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects”. Frack, Baby, Frack.

Mr Monti and Mr Obama are better described as theocrats, than technocrats. Their principal job is to keep us in thrall to a myth: an economy that expands to infinity in a finite world.

When our leaders talk about change, but implement the opposite - as is happening now - they often use technology optimists as cover. This happy clan scoffs at the very mention of resource constraints. By 2050, they assure us, the world's energy needs could be met painlessly by a montage of wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and sustainable forms of bio-energy All that's missing is the will and determination to make it happen.

Over to you, Mr President.

Our predicament is far deeper than that. Mainstream renewable energy strategies suffer from an existential flaw. They take rising global energy ‘needs’ as a given; calculate the quantity of renewable energy sources needed to meet them; and then hand the job of implementation over to governments and the market. Typical of this approach is Britain’s environment minister. Last week she stated that the world “needs" 50% per cent more food, 30 per cent more water, and 45% more energy, by 2050 - and announced that she's going to the Rio+20 earth summit in June to put those demands on the table.

Her not-so-hidden message? Suck on that, tree-huggers.

If our leaders were leaders, rather than politicians, they would ask how important all these 'needs' are, anyway. Instead, they plough ahead as if the transformation of international energy systems can be achieved without environmental or social cost. Poor countries are expected to 'share' their energy resources without complaint. Expensive and heavy energy arrays are to be dumped into wilderness areas - such as arid lands in Spain and France, or the deserts of North Africa - on the false assumption that these lands are 'empty' or 'useless'

The political class, and its techno-optimist courtiers, also ignore a logical inconvenience: it takes a lot of energy and money to harness energy. Even in a booming world economy, the required resources would be hard to mobilize. In the deflationary global crisis unfolding now it is implausible, to put it mildly, that even a fraction of the needed costs will be found.

Only a theocrat would have the nerve to suggest that the same growth-at-all costs global economy, that caused today's multiple crises, can be the engine for their resolution.

As a clean-energy future remains steadfastly on the far horizon our capacity to set priorities is further handicapped by wildly under-estimating the task at hand. In all economic activities, energy that you can measure - such as the utilities bill of a building, the cost of filling up a car, or the overheads of a hospital - are only one cost within a bigger picture. A new technique called Systems Energy Assessment (SEA) measures the total energy demand of business and daily life activities. Phil Henshaw, a pioneer in SEA, describes as "dark energy" the many energy uses, that businesses rely on, that are kept out of view by by a combination of hidden subsidies and so-called environmental services, supplied by nature, that nobody pays for. Henshaw calculates that "less than one fifth of the true total is traceable, even when the most careful analytical efforts" are deployed. For every barrel of oil equivalent that's counted today - if they are counted at all - four times that number are consumed invisibly in and by the system-at-large.

Bottom line: Even as their replacement remains perpetually out-of-reach, our true demands for liquid fuel energy are much higher than previously thought. And the production of primary energy is peaking, right now, if it has not done so already.

This is not doomer speculation. In a report last year called Sustainable Energy Security , Lloyds of London, the epicentre of global risk management, warned that "an oil supply crunch is likely in the short-to-medium term”. Another capitalist hotspot, the World Economic Forum, described peak oil this year (2012) as one if its "Seeds of Dystopia". And the US Army, itself no doomer hotbed, stated in its most recent Joint Operating Environment Report that "by 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear...we simply aren't going to replace this with renewables”.

If that is the case - and who would argue with the finest minds in global finance, or with the most sophisticated military ever known? - then our energy-intensive global economy has entered the phase of decline. The point about peak oil is not that we’re going to run out of the stuff completely. The point is that "we will henceforth have to use a bit less oil every year in a world whose growth-based economies are wholly dependent to a bit more each year".

And that’s why Mr Monti incanted the word “growth” with such fervour.


Resource efficiency is not a lifestyle choice. We’ve splurged on energy for 200 years because we could. The growth-at-all-costs economy grew because it could. We drove two ton trucks to collect a pizza because we could.

Now that we can’t, the nature of our playing field is changing. John Michael Greer describes this process as 'catabolic collapse'; this is what happens when a society, by the time it realizes the scale of the changes that have to be made, has exhausted the material, financial and cultural resources needed to make them. In all probability, this long-form implosion is already under way.

For design, this means letting-go of the idea that our energy crisis is some kind of practical problem to be fixed. But the long descent of industrial society is not the only show in town. Rather than dream of a global switch to renewables that cannot and will not happen, the wiser course is to focus our creative efforts on low-energy replacements for today’s gas-guzzling support systems. Our focus should be services and infrastructures that require five per cent of the energy throughputs that we are accustomed to now. That's the energy regime we're likely to end up with, so why not work on that basis from now on?

Is five per cent impossible? On the contrary: For eighty per cent of the world's population, five per cent energy is their lived reality today. Their situation is usually described as poverty, or a lack of development, but there are numerous ways in which the South's five percent delivers the same value as our 100-per-cent-and-rising.

Healthcare is one example. In Cuba, where food, petrol and oil have been scarce for 50 years as a consequence of economic blockades, its citizens achieve the same level of health for only five per cent of the health care expenditure of Americans.

A key principle of Cuba's five per cent system is that health and wellbeing are not something ‘delivered’, like a pizza, by distant suppliers based in complex organizations and a dysfunctional market. In Cuba's version of a caring society, health is a quality of a social ecology. People who enjoy mutually supportive relationships tend to be healthier than people who have to pay for daily life necessities.

Another example of five per cent systems that work is food. In the industrial world, the ratio of energy inputs to the system, relative to calories ingested, is 12:1 the ratio of energy inputs to the system, relative to calories ingested, is 12:1 In subsistence economies, where food is grown and eaten on the spot, the ratio is closer to 1:1. This is not news to those involved; in the global South some 800 million people, who live precariously in cities, are involved in urban agriculture

] Sponge Design

Howard and Eugene Odum have explained how, in ecological terms, the city is as an organism that feeds on its surroundings. Could this be the task of design in the light of dark energy - to put the city on a strict diet of life-support systems, such as community health, or food, that rely on five per cent of the energy they use now?

At the level of big ideas, top-down design along these lines is much in demand. In 2010, for example, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, asked ten architects to project 20 years into the future and dream up "the world's most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis"

Later, an enormous exhibition, also in Paris, entitled The Fertile City: Towards An Urban Nature, explored nature in the city from multiple perspectives: historical, social, cultural, botanical, ecological. The most evocative proposal came from a team of Italian architects who proposed to enlarge the city and lay it out as a "porous sponge" wherein waterways are given pride of place

Turning our cities into sponges would certainly make it easier to grow food in them. Sponge-like cities would need less heating and airco. Energy would be saved by treating water on the spot, rather than in far-away treatment facilities. But nether Paris-as-a-sponge, nor Fertile Cities elsewhere, are plausible scenarios if they can only be realised by vast investments by the state. Remember that catabolic collapse of the old economy has started: vast resources will simply not be available in the five per cent energy future that awaits us.

Large changes can also be made by a multitide of small steps. One such sponge-designing step would be to multiply the ecological interventions into the built fabric that are already happening. The Blue-Green Corridor idea, for example imagines a network of components across an urban water or food catchment in which a variety of green spaces are linked with river corridors and associated tributaries. The concept incorporates aspects of sustainable urban drainage, river restoration and flood management.

Chicago's Eco-Boulevard proposal takes the blue-green corridor idea further. Their idea is to transform existing roadways, sidewalks and parks, which comprise more than a third of the land in the city, into a holistic, distributed, passive bio-system for recycling water. The Eco Boulevards project re-conceives the city as an ecological treatment system that make use of natural bioremediation processes to remove contaminants from storm-water and wastewater sources.


Blue-green corridors and eco-boulevards are much cheaper than the interstate highways and Hoover Dams that President Obama says he wants to build. The question nonetheless remains: in a five per cent energy future, how will we get such things built? and who will pay for them?

An alternative to federal mega projects is what one might call sweat equity infrastructure. This is where the metabolic energy of people is harnessed on a large scale to get the ‘green infrastructure' that we need, built. There are precedents, after all. Wonders of the world from ancient times, such as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, were built without fossil fuels. Their solution, it’s true, was to use tens of thousands of slaves- and this is not (yet) an acceptable approach today. The willing collaboration of groups of citizens is the more promising approach.

Green infra is not about building huge new structures. Turning our cities into sponges involves more dis-mantling of obstacles, or digging up hard surfaces. "Our problem is concrete" states Depave, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon. There are between 100 million and two billion on- and off-street parking spaces in US cities alone. These impervious surfaces prevent rainwater from entering the soil and instead divert it to nearby waterways.

So what to do? Depave promotes the removal of unnecessary pavement from urban areas to create community green spaces and mitigate stormwater runoff. Tod Littman, author of the Pavement Buster's Guide, writes that "road and parking pavement area can often be reduced significantly in ways that are cost effective and maintain adequate levels of accessibility".

Where new structures do need to be built, we can again learn a lot from the global south. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where many millions of people live in precarious economic conditions, housing has started to be improved by the rediscovery of an ancient architectural technique, the Nubian Vault (NV). The NV building process uses raw materials that are cheap, locally available, and ecologically sound. The procedure is easily learned. The major cost of the buildings is labour. And because much of of the work is done by the future occupants of the house, costs are kept low and money remains in the local economy.

The Arizona-based Watershed Management Group (WMG) is based on a similar model. The organization gets green infrastructure built that uses living, natural systems to provide environmental services. (These include the capturing, cleaning and infiltrating stormwater; creating wildlife habitat; shading and cooling streets and buildings; and calming traffic). Like La Voute Noubienne in Africa, WMG uses a barn-raising model to get the work done. Typically, 15 volunteers might transform someone's back garden from a sterile, black-plastic and rock-laden heat island into a runoff-capturing garden of native plants, organic mulch, and, in time, living soil. WMG programmes provide citizens with the skills and resources they need to manage the natural resources within their own watershed. Success of development is measured by the health of ecological systems, the prosperity of people, and the strength of communities. (WMG's excellent guidebook, Green Infrastructure for Southwestern Neighborhoods, is available online.

In France, artists and designers have been involved in similar ground-breaking projects at a local level for many years. In Lyon, for example, the designer Emanuel Louisgrand creates productive gardens on abandoned sites in different parts of the city. Understanding what makes each place unique, and then defining tools and infrastructures that can be adapted to it, is what makes this true sustainable design.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter, mobility, clothing - alternatives are being innovated. What they have in common is that they create value without destroying natural and human assets. In practical ways, these five per cent solutions re-connect city dwellers with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water, and energy sources on which all life depends.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:50 AM

February 10, 2012

A Reading List for Mr Monti

As an exercise, I thought I'd share with you (and Mr Monti) the best writers on my reading list - in the order I've read them, not in chronological order.




If you suspect, but cannot prove, that modern life simply does not add up, you'll love Tom Murphy's work. "My focus, as a physicist, is to understand whether the impossibility of indefinite physical growth (i.e. in energy, food, manufacturing) means that economic growth in general is also fated to end or reverse" explains this University of California professor. His writing is full of dry but stunning asides: "If you object that exponentials are unrealistic, then we’re in agreement. But such growth is the foundation of our current economic system, so we need to explore the consequences"; or, "The artificial world that must be envisioned to keep economic growth alive in the face of physical limits strikes me as preposterous and untenable" He remains perplexed by our collective blindness to a simple fact: It takes

energy to obtain energy - the very commodity that is in short supply. He concludes in a matter-of-fact way: "Global transportation means pushing through air or water over vast distances that will not shrink. Cooking means heating meal-sized portions of food and water. (and so on). Can all of these things be done more efficiently? Absolutely. Can (these efficiency gains) go on forever to maintain growth? No." These three texts go together:
Galactic Scale Energy
Can Economic Growth Last?
What Does Sustainability Mean?

Murphy recently posted the very handy
Alternative Energy Matrix (above) that ranks competing energy sources against a series of criteria.

Howard T. Odum was an American ecologist known for his pioneering work on ecosystem ecology, and for his provocative proposals for additional laws of thermodynamics, informed by his work on general systems theory. He explained human economics using ecology and energy fundamentals. His 1974 “Energy, Ecology, & Economics” helps explain why consumption and expanding technologies have limits; A Prosperous Way Down, (2001, with his wife Elisabeth), proposes solutions. Odum’s energy economics begins with an understanding that energy provides the foundation for all life processes - but that all energy is not equal. As energy is transformed through an ecosystem, quantity decreases as concentration increases. Odum coined the word “emergy” to account for the variations of energy quality.
Energy, Ecology, & Economics

Herman Daly, an American ecological economist, explains that "the reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about growth. We never expected that growth itself would begin to cost us more than it was worth, making us poorer, not richer. But it did". And the only solution our economists, bankers, and politicians have come up with is more of the same! Could we not, Daly asks, at least take a short time-out to discuss the idea of a a steady-state economy?
Steady-state Economy

"There are thermodynamic constraints to the system that we cannot dismiss - even though these limits may not appear in economics textbooks. The final result is collapse in one form or another. We cannot avoid it.". Ugo Bardi, who teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence (and who alerted me to the Monti speech) is a stoic scientist: "What is collapse, after all? A collapse is just a period in which things are changing faster than usual". As perhaps only an Italian would do, he compares our civilisational plight to crashing a car into a wall: "maybe you can't avoid it, but if you wear seat belts and you have an airbag you'll be much better off. Even more important is to see the wall as soon as possible and start braking". Hmmm
Peak Oil Thermodynamics and Stoic Philosophy
Peak Civilization: The Fall of the Roman Empire

"It has recently become fashionable to insist on an impending energy crisis". Energy & Equity was first published in Le Monde in early 1973. He continued: "This euphemistic term conceals a contradiction, and consecrates an illusion. It masks the contradiction implicit in the joint pursuit of equity and industrial growth. It safeguards the illusion that machine power can indefinitely take the place of man power".Yep, pretty much the whole story in a few lines.
Energy & Equity

Our economy is in danger of 'catabolic collapse' because it depends on perpetually growing throughputs of energy and resources that are simply not going to be available. Greer lately writes as if this process is well under way. He describes a "growing sense of apprehension that it *can* go on—that the troubles currently pressing in on the industrial world could just keep on getting worse, day after day, year after year, for decades to come, following the same gradual curve that the industrial world followed in the days of its growth, but in reverse". Sounds about right. And so? (This will be the conclusion to my talk).
A Theory of Catabolic Collapse

"One reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the true energy costs of their society". We are not the first. Diamond focuses on Easter Island, where the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants' survival prospects. Do today's financial elites worry at night about about energy? If Mr Monti is any guide then, no, they jolly well do not.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail orSucceed

This book is full of surprises, few of them pleasant. For example: turning off your phone charger for 24 hours saves as much energy as driving your car for...one second. MacKay was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Cambridge until, last year, he became Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change. The mind boggles at the thought of zero-attention-span pols being given this kind of reality-check: "How 'huge' are Britain's renewable resources, compared with its current (huge) energy consumption?" (not very much); How big do renewable energy facilities have to be, to make a significant contribution? (add one or two zeros to what's happening now); Which efficiency measures offer big savings, and which offer only 5 or 10%? (bye bye to pretty much all the politicians' pet green projects).
Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air

Lean Logic does not sugar-coat the challenges we face: an economy that destroys the very foundations upon which it depends; climate weirdness; ecological systems under stress; shocks to community and culture. Neither does the book suggest that there are easy or even any solutions to these dilemmas. But a positive spirit infuses its 800 pages : "Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small- scale solutions within a large-scale framework." The book's greatest strength, for this mesmerized reader, is the lightness with which it draws on knowledge from earlier periods of history, and from other cultures.
Lean Logic

Quite apart from the maths, or the thermodynamics, or the simple logic, "a lack of cash flow for investment in infrastructure will eventually bring the system down" says another dry doomer, Gail Tverberg, an actuary. She describes a political impossibility:" the need to make choices on which things we maintain: schools; or roads; or oil distribution pipelines; or a smart electric grid; or our housing stock". She sees no way that we can do them all. "Which roads do we turn from asphalt to gravel? Can we eliminate purchase of military jets? Do we stop building and upgrading schools and universities? Do we stop building new homes and office parks?"
Our Finite World

"Few issues are likely to be more important for the future of civilization". The issue? Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). EROI represents a simple ratio; the amount of energy obtained from any energy-producing activity divided by the energy used to make that amount of energy available for productive activities. A related term, Net Energy, refers to the remainder from subtracting energy input from energy output. Total Net Energy represents “productive energy”, the energy available for all the economic, social, cultural and other activities of daily life. "The quality of fuels available is at least as important in our assessment as is the quantity" Hall explains; "many of the contemporary changes in our economy are related directly to changing EROI as our premium fuels are increasingly depleted". As the realities of EROI make themselves felt, Hall, a professor of Environmental & Forest Biology, concludes, "Americans will need to acknowledge the reality of biophysical constraints if they are to adapt to the coming energy crisis. Discretionary spending will be increasingly abandoned as humans attempt to meet their basic needs for food, shelter and clothing
New Studies in EROI (Energy Return on Investment)"
See also: Hall, C.A.S.; Klitgaard; K. Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy. Springer: New York, NY, USA, 2011.

The efficiency and effectiveness of energy capture is a central organizing principle in ecology. Living organisms must capture energy and allocate it among a number of life-sustaining tasks (growth, reproduction, energy storage, defense, competition).The unprecedented expansion of the human population, the global economy, and per capita living standards of the last 200 years was powered by high EROI, high energy surplus fossil fuels.Energy return on investment (EROI) is the ratio of the energy extracted or delivered by a process to the energy used directly and indirectly in that process. Net energy is how much energy is left for productive purposes after the energy needed to find, concentrate and deliver its energy services are subtracted.
Energy Transitions Past and Future
Ten Principles of Net Energy

Most economic sectors use at least give times more energy than is visible, let alone paid for. This is because the standard measures of business energy use, such as Life Cycle Analysis, do not count the energy needs of the distributed and sub-contracted operating services businesses employ. "That uncounted business energy demand is often 80% of the total, an amount of “dark energy” hidden from view". The energy cost to the economy for delivering business products - including energy - is five times more than what was thought when the energy demand is added in of the support services that technology requires to operate and deliver products. Thyese support services include the energy demands of employees, management, design, advertising, maintenance, Insurance, rent and taxes, etc, System Energy Assessment (SEA), measures the combined impacts of these material supply chains and service supply chains, to assess businesses as whole self-managing net-energy systems.
System Energy Assessment (SEA), Defining a Standard Measure of EROI for Energy Businesses as Whole Systems

Posted by John Thackara at 07:48 AM

January 28, 2012

Evolving into the Ice Age

hilton evolve.png

This, I kid you not, is the "control" panel in my room at the Inn at Penn here in Philadelphia.

I'm sorry the pictures here are a bit blurred, but I'm not in tip top shape. What happened is that I woke up a 3am gasping for air - only to discover that that you can't open the window. You can stare at a curtain-rail-that-is-not-a-curtain-rail (below) - but doing that does not increase the supply of oxygen


Ok, I thought, so I can't have air - what about water? I strode purposefully to bathroom to turn on the


hilton bathroom panel.png

Now in pre-modern times, there would have been an on-off switch on the wall by the door. But these being Evolved times, I had to fumble around inside the (dark) bathroom in order to locate this second control panel. It's conveniently located just below groin height right next to the electrical socket; you turn on the light by sticking your finger onto one of the buttons....

I stared for some time at the menu of options. The first item on the menu is "Vanity". I have enough of that already, so I settled for item 4, "On".

They say that dehydration contributes to dementia, so my judgment may by now have been impaired. But I decided to go online and catch up on my mail.

Bad. Idea.

hilton connect kit.png

Now I'm not easily rattled, but by this time I needed coffee. So I decided to call room service using the iPad interface. (Yes, I know, the words "He" "Never" and "Learns" spring to mind). Anyway, instead of a cup-of-coffee icon I could press, this nightmare geezer appeared.

hilton ipad.png

He babbled on about my "Interactive Customer Experience" - or ICE, as it's called. "To begin your experience, touch the screen" he then said. Now I'm not sure that my forceful motoric action at this point was strictly-speaking a 'touch' - but it did the trick: My nemesis disappeared.

A rational response to this tech insanity would have been for me run naked down to reception and start screaming at the duty manager. What in fact happened was a kind of high-tech Stockholm Syndrome. I stared stare at "Evolve > Off" and wondered when it was, exactly, that *I* had gone mad.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:23 AM

January 16, 2012

Virtual Boring Agent


I've seen this Virtual Boarding Agent a couple of times now at Orly Airport in Paris. A It's a life-sized, life-like, two dimensional human figure that talks pleasantly about liquids and gels. It's spooky, clever, and very well executed - and most people seem to ignore it after a first casual glance.

I therefore feel sorry for its designers, and for the airport managers who deployed it. Billed without too much exaggeration as a "futuristic travel experience", it must have taken an age to develop, and cannot be cheap. But the traveling public appear to be so saturated with input that this mini-marvel barely grabs their attention.

Once, when my flight was delayed, and I spent half an hour watching the thing, I daydreamed that this could be the teleconferencing toy - sorry, tool - I've been looking for. I'm desperate to replace my shameful flying for work with virtual talks and workshop - but the transition is proving slower than I had hoped. It occurred to me that perhaps a holographic JT, plonked onto the podium at the allotted hour, might be an acceptable substitute.

Then, as I observed how underwhelmed were the Orly passers-by, my optimism waned. Tensator, who made the creature, seem also to have modest ambitions; they describe their fabricated life-form as a "next generation digital signage solution" and "a unique advertising and instructional platform to convey your brand messaging".

I've explored the subject of telepresence - and why, for the most part, it sucks - in numerous marvelous papers. I'm stuck. Even though the first videophone was launched with much kerfuffle back in 1964 (at the New York World's Fair) it seems that technology simply cannot and will not recreate what it is like to be in a meeting with people somewhere else. People seem to want to breathe the same air, and that's it.

And yet, and yet. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about kissing the picture of one's beloved. "When we kiss a photograph, we do not expect to conjure up a spectacular manifestation of the person in the picture represents—but the action is nonetheless satisfying.” So: who will be the first to invite me to give a talk - and be happy when I send a family snapshot to represent me?

Posted by John Thackara at 09:43 PM

November 20, 2011

How do you make a website for Transition?


"If we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it'll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time".

This month saw the launch of three new outputs from Transition Network. These are a new book,‘The Transition Companion’; an online directory of Transition Ingredients and Tools; and a set of Ingredients and Tools Cards.

As the Occupy movement, too, begins to explore the question, "How Do You Code A Movement?" this seemed like a good moment to catch up with Transition's web coordinator, Ed Mitchell, and ask him a question: How do you put all that experience into a website for others to share?

The short answer is: you don't.

In talking with Ed I learn to change my initial question. Contextual knowledge of the kind created by Transition groups exists among an ecology of actors and resources. It is lived, embodied, situated knowledge. Putting knowledge into an airless 'bank' is liable to kill it. I should better ask: what kind of web service, tools and approaches are needed to support the continuous flow of knowledge among communities when and where it is most needed?

The context is exciting, but challenging. Transition initiatives and groups have been multiplying at extraordinary speed. Among the 900 initiatives are officially designated Transition Towns (or cities, districts, villages - and even a forest) plus a larger number of communities that are 'mulling it over' as they consider the possibility of launching their own Transition Initiative formally.

To support this ecology of projects and groups, Transition Network has set up an international network of 95 Transition Trainers in 25 countries. They help provide training on a local basis. There are now also National Hub organizations in 12 countries that provide additional local support and networking.

Among the practical changes already achieved are Transition Lewes’s community-owned renewable solar energy company
and Transition Brixton’s local currency that recently introduced pay by text transactions with the participation of local businesses.

Given this explosion of activity, Ed's starting point is that the Transition web project is not about the delivery of pre-packaged content. "Transition Network is a support organization, not a political party HQ", he tells me. "Our approach is not to tell groups what to do, but to facilitate the effective sharing of ideas and resources between initiatives".

Technically, this has involved the development of what Ed calls a "Product Sharing Engine" (below):

How the PSE fits into a user's life.png

Ed's approach from the start has been that face-to-face is overwhelmingly the most important mode of communication for Transitioners. He is committed to cause Transitioners to "spend as little time in front of computer screens as possible".

Ed is therefore much more than a web developer or platform builder. His work spans network, community and event design, and facilitation. "Sharing community-based knowledge depends multiple elements in different combinations at different times", he explains; "there can be no one-size-fits-all solution".

Transition's work is inspired by one of Buckminster Fuller's insights - the system-scale rule. This is the idea that large-scale problems do not require large scale solutions - they require small scale solutions within a large-scale framework.

Transition Network's tiny staff engages with a grassroots movement in which many thousands of people are developing models, tools and methodologies in a variety of contexts. In this spirit, Rob Hopkins' new book is filled with ingredients, not with rules.


These ingredients are laid out in stages relating to the Transition process - from deciding to give Transition a go (‘Starting out’), to making localisation a reality on the ground (‘Building’).

Back in 2009, Ed was given a budget of £36,000 ($57,000) to work with. He first asked for suggestions on which web tools and processes would be resilient enough to support the changing needs of transition groups around the world. The result was a huge list. He quickly decided that "this will kill me if I try to implement them all. From the start, I wanted to avoid the trap of trying to build a huge platform that would never be finished".

Ed's approach is to augment the practical needs and requirements of Transitioners - not keep them stuck in front of screens all day. He admits to a "cordial hatred… of the way many social media managers talk casually about 'driving people to the site' or 'keeping people online. The idea that living online and tweeting and blogging all day is nonsense".

I ask Ed about the architecture of the Transition web service. "The Transition Network site is not in the middle" Ed explains; "there is no middle. Our idea is is to enable the widest distribution of project cases as possible, not to gather them all together in one place".

Transition Constellation.png

I ask Ed how he measures progress and assures quality. "We did look at such functions as voting, and star-rating widgets" he tells me, but "in the event, the ratings tools never worked properly. Our preferred approach is to enable a kind of distributed guided search in which human beings advise each other on which, in their direct experience, is the best source of help to turn to".

The Transition wiki states, "Here's how it all appears to be evolving...". I ask Ed how on earth he keeps up when things are moving so fast. "We can't control the situation" Ed replies, cheerfully. "I suppose we could employ reseachers to record all our information on Excel spreadsheets. But, well, we just don't". Ed does concede that Transition Network could probably use an historian, or a librarian.

Three years after Ed first inspired me with his non-techie vision of how the web could help Transition movement, a new Stories Project has just been launched. Twelve 'social reporters' around The United Kingdom will each produce one blog post every day on a subject set by a guest editor at the beginning of the week.

The aim, as Ed's colleague Charlotte du Cann explains it, is "to communicate the real-life issues and experiences of being in Transition…a new narrative for the ‘down curve’ of consumption and energy use". To show and record what is really happening in Transition towns across the country, in the neighbourhood, inside ourselves".

"We're not trying to convert users into viral marketing evangelists" Ed explains. "We're exploring a channel through which people can tell their own stories of the ins and outs of their lives, and to help connect communities as they struggle through an unknown present and uncharted future.

"We've built a website, but at every point we question the concept of centrally-controlled systems and authority" Ed concludes.

Screen shot 2011-11-20 at 19.04.16.png

"The aim has always been to see the website as a star in a Transition Constellation rather than a 'Hub' with spokes".

[Two previous articles on Transition by this writer are here and here

Posted by John Thackara at 11:34 AM

August 09, 2011

Water: the bad news and the good news


A new book by Alex Prud’homme called The Ripple Effect addresses the "vast and desperately serious subject" of water.

The author does not hold back: all the world’s water problems are here. The sewage, fertilizers, industrial chemicals, plastics, paint, drugs, and hand soap, among other contaminants, that find their way into the world’s rivers every day. Their affect on our drinking water - in ways that are probably deadly, but are hard to measure. The vast “dead zones” in our oceans where algae blooms block out nearly all other forms of life. The threats faced by New York City from failing sewer systems and hurricanes. How desert cities like Las Vegas are in danger of losing much of their water supply to drought.

And on it goes: Our water future, as seen through Prud’homme's lens, is grim indeed.

Bad news on this scale leaves me feeling powerless. I get doubly depressed when, after a litany of structural global problems, and being told that "water is the new oil", I am advised to "recycle leftover water from your drinking glass or canteen by pouring it on plants".

Yeah, great, that should turn things round.

Today, rather than rail once again against doomer porn and its partner, green consumerism, I remind you that there are positive developments on water issues.

WMG team.png

I've written before about the Watershed Management Group. They recently published a fabulous small book called Green Infrastructure for Southwestern Neighborhoods that explains the why, what, how and who of 'green infrastructure'. By this term they mean all manner of constructed features that use living, natural systems to provide environmental services. These mostly small features capture, clean and infiltrate stormwater; create wildlife habitat; shade and cool streets and buildings; calm traffic.

Someone has offered to match, dollar-for-dollar, any money WMG raises by the end of August up to $25k. I don't know these guys - but to me this sounds like a terrific cause. Save the money you'd have spent on The Ripple Effect and give it to WMG instead.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:46 AM

July 14, 2011

Life is a Picnic in The Fertile City


If you're in Paris before 24 July a spectacular exhibition called The Fertile City: Towards An Urban Nature is well worth a visit.

The show's OTT poster does not over-promise. The exhibition explores nature in the city from multiple perspectives: historical, social, cultural, botanical, ecological. Two narrative sequences overlap: an "immersion in the urban-vegetal world", and a series of transversal themes: the horizon, water, wind, sound...

A nature-artifice riff greets you at the door. In the opening room of a vast subterranean gallery, 2,000 real plants, including palm trees and giant ferns, are kept perky by overhead racks of gro-lights. These are so bright they can blinding to mammals, such as museum visitors, so the plants are only lit up properly at night when the museum is closed.

The Fertile City comes two years after proposals to make Paris "the world's most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis" were made by 12 famous architects in a big competition. My reaction then was although architects are adept when it comes to dreaming about possible futures, their interest tends to wane asked to get their their hands dirty, and feet wet, in the context where their dreams would be built.

The same caveat applies to The Fertile City. It's a brilliant and coherent spectacle - but the poster says it all: "Look At Me!" There is nothing here about the social and economic changes, the mud, the work - and the strife - that will be needed if our cities are to become fertile sponges in real life.

Filling up cities decoratively with plants and trees is not bad in itself. As New Scientist reports this week, urban areas might not be so bad for the environment as long as there are plenty of trees around. Cities, and not just rainforests, can provide ecosystem services.

But the Fertile City is only plausible as a scenario if one believes that vast sums of money will be available for contractors and landscape designers make it happen on our behalf.

Many of the show's luscious images feature rich-looking urbanites lolling around on a variety of green playgrounds. For them, life in the Fertile City is literally a picnic. Hmmm. Could be they'll be disappointed.

The Fertile City is like a still-life painting of an overflowing fruit bowl: decorative, but you can't eat it. It made me recall fondly the mess and conviviality of City Eco Lab in 2008. That was a much less polished and elegant affair but you *could* eat it - or at least, in Bernard Thevenon's amazing Cantine 80km.


Posted by John Thackara at 09:14 AM

June 16, 2011

Bad taps, good taps

Continuing our theme of systems thinking and the need for a new aesthetics - oh, what the heck, let's talk about taps.

I have encountered many wonderful things here in Mexico, but these taps are not among them.

Tap 1.png

After nearly a week, I still have no idea which I am supposed to turn them to achieve the desired effect - or any effect, come to that.

The tap below, on the other hand, is a revelation. Yoy learn to press the little lever *just so*, and get just the water you need, with no waste, no scalding, and no stress.

Thankyou Mr or Ms Mexican tap designer for this breakthrough.

Tap 2.png

Posted by John Thackara at 10:38 PM

May 31, 2011

Sweat equity infra


It's hard not to be impressed by the Millau Viaduct that's down the road from where I live in France. The tallest bridge in the world boasts an eight-span steel roadway, is supported supported by seven huge concrete pylons, and weighs 36,000 tonnes.

But consider this: The great pyramid in Egypt weighs 180 times more than the Millau viaduct - and what happened to the folk who built that?

Great Pyramid of Giza2.jpg

Sigiriya built [in what is now called Sri Lanka] in the fifth century, is equally impressive. Its system of man-made pools and water course incorporate incredibly sophisticated hydraulic technologies.


An interconnection of macro- and micro-hydraulics provided for domestic horticultural and agricultural needs, surface drainage and erosion control, ornamental and recreational water courses, and retaining structures and also cooling systems. Many of the fountains still are working.

The main difference between the old installations, and the Millau one, is that the pyramid and Sigiriya were built using mainly slave labour to shift an enormous mass of stone, while the French one is made of high performance materials whose manufacture consumed vast amounts of fossil-fuel derived energy.

The Millau Viaduct is a tourist attaction in the making. Future vistors will gawk at it and wonder: 'how *did* they build that? and, 'whatever *did* happen to that civilization?'.

In the absence of slave labour, and of cheap energy, neither the brilliant ancient infrastructures, nor the brilliant modern one, are models for the 'green infrastructure' that we need to build now.

A somewhat better model can be found right next to the Millau viaduct in the terraced landscapes of the Cévennes biosphere reserve. Centuries ago, local people learned how to make use of their steep mountain slopes, poor soil, and a climate that swings from drought to heavy rains. Generations of peasants worked hard to prevent streams developing by breaking up the slopes into terraces to stop precious soil being washed away.


But most people live in cities or in their attenuated suburbs, not in biosphere reserves. What does green infra mean for them?

A wonderful small book published in Arizona answers that question. 'Green Infrastructure for Southwestern Neighborhoods' edited by Lisa Shipek and Catlow Shipek,explains the why, what, how and who of green infrastructure - retrofittable everywhere

For the founders of the Watershed Management Group [WMG] green infrastructure (GI) refers to 'constructed features that use living, natural systems to provide environmental services, such as capturing, cleaning and infiltrating stormwater; creating wildlife habitat; shading and cooling streets and buildings; and calming traffic'.

The WMG manual is aimed community and neighborhood leaders - and for good reason: they are the ones who will mobilise the human resources to get this kind GI built.


Posted by John Thackara at 09:23 AM

May 30, 2011

From ecstasy to exergy: Running out of easy copper


Built in 1978 by German steel company Krupp, the giant Bagger 288 was designed for open mining trenching. It took more than five years and $100 million to design and manufacture. It can move more than 76,000 cubic meters (~2,700,000 cubic ft) of coal, rock, and earth in a day.

Why would anyone need to build such a monster? One reason is that since 1994 mining companies have had to dig up an extra 50 percent of ore to get the same ton of copper.

RoadTripSelections - 10.jpg

According to financier Jeremy Grantham, 'copper has an oil-like tendency for the quality of the resource to decline and the cost of production to rise'. Grantham is convinced that the reason copper prices have strengthened since 2010 is that increased global demand has interacted with an industry that is 'somewhat challenged to increase copper supply'.

The fact that this 150 percent effort has to be done using energy at two to four times its 1970s price, and the fact that declining ore quality and rising extraction costs are repeated across most important metals, prompted Grantham to predict that the Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever'

Strictly speaking, as John Michael Greer explained recently, we don’t face an energy crisis as fossil fuels and metals run short. What we face is an exergy crisis – a serious shortage of energy and raw materials in highly concentrated forms. That’s a problem, to put it mildly, because nearly every detail of daily life in a modern industrial society depends on using highly concentrated energy sources

If it is true, as Grantham and Greer insist, that days of abundant resources and falling prices are over forever, then the consequences for many so-called 'green technologies' will be devastating.

Copper cables are often used, for example, to allow power generated at solar energy farms and windmill farms to be connected to the electrical transmission grid which uallows this clean electricity to reach our homes. Wind farms, for example, can contain several hundred-thousand feet of copper.


In fact so-called 'clean energy' from wind and solar farms require significantly more copper per megawatt of capacity than conventional electricity generation. One industry insider estimated that wind energy is twelve times as copper-intensive as conventional power generation.

In a wind farm, copper is used in the generator to help turn wind power into electrical power, copper cables transport the electricity to where it needs to go, and finally copper is used as an electrical ground to protect wind turbines from lightning strikes.

As for solar farms: they require four to five times more cable than wind farms of equal power generation.

Electric and hybrid cars face the same supply constraints. Conventional automobiles contain 8kg to 33kg of copper [the electrical distribution system/wiring harness accounts for about half of the copper used]; hybrid electric cars contain an estimated 33 kg of copper.

New high-speed trains? They are real copper guzzlers. According to the Their electric traction engines use from three to four tons of copper - which can be more than double the copper content of traditional electric trains (source: International Copper Study Group ). Additionally, the overhead cables that supply the power to high-speed trains are made of pure copper or a copper alloy. One kilometer of cable uses 10 tons of copper.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:57 PM

May 09, 2011

Energy: A Sense Of Loss

Transmission and Distribution %22T&D%22 loss - image.jpg

Whenever electricity is transmitted from one place to another a certain amount is simply lost. In older grids, energy is wasted overcoming resistance in the lines themselves. In extremely high voltage lines, so-called corona discharge losses [as shown in the image above] can offset the lower resistance losses.

Whether system-wide electricity losses amount to three or 65 per cent across the system as a whole is a matter of heated debate. Corona discharge is just one of the arcane variables that are contested when optimistic energy scenarios are subject to the fabled 'closer inspection' of experts.

Such has been the fate of the World Wildlife Fund's Energy Report, which was published in February. It asserts that the world's energy needs could be met by wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and sustainable forms of bio-energy — and by 2050.

My immediate concern about the WWF scenario was it took "global energy needs" as a given, added up how much renewable energy would be required to meet them — and then ignored the true costs of deploying such an infrastructure.

These concerns have not diminished as experts have examined those costs in more detail. Ted Trainer, for example, an Australian energy analyst, calculates that the amount of solar thermal, wind and PV plant needed in the WWF plan would cost about 10% of 2050 world GDP -or 14 times the present fraction of world GDP that is invested in energy supply. How likely are those kinds of sums to be available?

Trainer also raises questions about electricity storage and a 'redundancy problem' in the WWF Report.

Without a satisfactory way of storing electricity in very large quantities, the intermittency of solar and wind energy sets severe limits on the proportion of total demand they can contribute. What are we to do when winter calms set in across the whole of Europe for a week? If the answer [as proposed by WWF] is draw on solar thermal farms in North Africa, it means having to build enough solar thermal plant to substitute for all the wind and PV plant, only to have much of it sit idle most of the time.

The WWF Report suggests that biomass would plug these potentially huge gaps. But Trainer questions whether any land at all should be used for biomass energy production. Such use depletes soils over time, and depends on large amounts of water. More worrying is the impact of biomass production on biodiversity. "The holocaust of extinction we are causing is due primarily to the taking of so much habitat by humans. We should be returning very large areas to natural state, not contemplating the taking of more".

If the costs of implementing the WWF Report would be unbearably high, what are the alternatives?

The answer is as simple as it is hard to embrace: use less. Using less energy, less resources, less stuff of every kind is 'the hallmark of any serious response to the predicament facing industrial civilization'.

Line loss, in that context, is just a detail.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:52 AM

April 08, 2011

Off-grid water: the social dimension


Up to 1,500 litres of that water are needed to grow enough biofuels to move one car ten kilometres. 2,000 litres are needed a day to feed each one of us. It takes 140 litres of water to grow enough beans for a single cup of coffee.

It sounds, and is, unsustainable. Over-exploitation impacts heavily on the quality and quantity of remaining water, and on the ecosystems that depend on it. And it's not just a problem for arid climate areas. Water stress is also increasing in large parts of the rainy north.

Two years ago, when Banny Banerjee and myself ran a design clinic on the theme of off-grid water at Stanford University, we focused on entrepreneurs in the Palo Alto region who were developing tools to help citizens manage water sustainably.

One such tool, the Rainwater Hog, had won lots of prizes, but its designer and producer, Sally Dominguez, wanted our advice on the best way to translate celebrity into sales.


Despite the fact that global water consumption is increasing at twice the rate of population growth, and has become a crisis issue in many countries, our design teams at the clinic were told that people in Southern California will pay better money to save their house from fires, than to save the planet.

We therefore ended up advising Saly Dominguez to re-brand her product offering as an on-site emergency water supply to be used in the case of bush fires.

That experience highlighted a key dilemma about water: if sustainable practice requires people to spend significant sums of money on green products, then even the well-off will probably balk. The 95 per cent of citizens who are not rich, will be excluded from the start.

Another dilemma: there's a bid difference between concocting design solutions in a studio, and implementing them - literally - on and in the ground.


] From hard to soft

Solutions to the the water crisis must also confront the fast-conveyance 'hard' drainage infrastructures - conceived of in Roman times - that we've built to eliminate unwanted, highly-polluted runoff and sewage.


Over centuries, we have designed and built rapid-transit conveyance piped systems to keep land relatively dry, provide a supply of portable water, and use water to carry away human waste for disposal.

To this day, many billions of dollars are spent annually on costly “hard” solutions like sewers and treatment plants. The results are urban landscapes in which rigid stream channelization, and a preference for impervious over porous surfaces, dominates.

Hard surfaces are usually bad for the water systems they obscure from our view. One measure of watershed health is the amount of man-made impervious surface area (ISA) covers it: roads, parking lots, buildings, driveways, sidewalks and other manmade surfaces.

China has more ISA in total than any other country, but the amount of paved surface per person is only quarter the area per person [67 m2] / 722 square feet] compared with the USA [297 / 3,200].

The total amount of ISA in the world looks tiny as a number - less than half of one percent - but most ISA is found in the primary drainage basins where the greatest damage to watersheds occurs.

Hard water systems have not just been integrated into buildings and streets. As Glen Daigger, president of the International Water Association, points out, a hard engineering paradigm is also embedded in our public regulations, our educational systems, our professional institutions.

It is not a small ask, after one thousand year's of such progress, to persuade elected officials, city managers, public health inspectors, designers and citizens, that ponds and vegetation, natural stream courses, buffers and floodplains, are now a sign of urban health. Says Daigger, 'it's a complete change to the functional purposes we want our infrastructure to accomplish'.

It's a hard ask, but a transition from strictly engineered systems to ecological systems like rain gardens, surface wetlands, restored ponds, and daylighted streams does seem to be happening. The entire water economy is beginning to focus on 'softer' approaches in which closed loop water supply systems are configured, in an integrated fashion, to recover and recycle water, and be net energy producers.

Water professionals now talk about urban landscape and drainage systems designed to mimic the natural hydrological cycle. They aspire to recharge aquifers with reclaimed rainwater, and to return the base and flood flows of streams to their pre-development levels.

The idea now is to integrate utility and land-use decisions to improve water- use efficiency, increase the capture and storage of rainwater, lower overall energy consumption, and reduce pollutant discharges - and to do all this whilst restoring natural ecosystems,.

Even the Dutch - the world's most accomplished water engineers - are learning to live with water rather than fight it.

dike relocation  in Nijmegen Waal River.jpg

For more than 1,000 years the natural river basins of the Rhine and Meuse rivers were controlled by engineering works.

Toine Smits, professor of Sustainable Management of Natural Resources at Nijmegen University, says that their new approach is work with the natural dynamics of the river basin whenever possible, and adapt land use accordingly. As a result flood plains are being given more space and restored.

A large water equipment industry tends to focuses on the development of technological improvements such as advances in membranes and other engineered components of urban systems.


But the new approach the the design of cities – and the water management, treatment and delivery systems that serve them – is not principally a technology problem.

'Water issues are complex and not subject to readily defined solutions because of the multiple and often competing values held by various stakeholders' Glen Daigger explains. For a city to become water-wise interaction with other infrastructure systems needs to be orchestrated: biowaste, biogas, heating and cooling, transport, fibre optic communication. The city's water behaviour must also be 'designed' in the larger context of surrounding land (agriculture and food production, energy, aquaculture, recreation).

Some new equipment is needed in this "new water paradigm" . Rain water tanks like the Hog mentioned above; large bladder storage systems, grey water plumbing; simple cleaning systems such as settling tanks, physical filters, reed beds, worm colonies; smart sensors for systems monitoring; new systems for maintenance.

] Green work

But equipment is just part of the solution - and with budgets at local and state level under extreme pressure, costly engineering solutions will remain hard to realize.

What's needed most is action on the ground - house by house, street by street.


This is where the idea of green jobs makes immediate sense. Many local economies in the US once depended on the Real Estate Industrial Complex; by 2006, had grown to 43% of all private sector US jobs. As that economy has collapsed, huge numbers of people have lost jobs building MacMansions and their support infrastructures.

Could those people help the new water paradigm become a reality?

Tucson, Arizona, is quickly distinguishing itself as one of the leading cities in the promotion of water conservation, specifically water harvesting practices. With only twelve inches of rainfall per year, residents are learning to make the most of their scarce water supply.

In the forefront of this movement, grassroots groups, non-profit organizations, businesses, and the city government are promoting water harvesting through educational programs, city policies, demonstration sites, technology innovations, and green job training.

One pioneering non-profit organization is the Watershed Management Group. The company started as a tiny seedling of an idea in the minds of five students graduating from the University of Arizona’s Watershed Management program. They noticed that much of the focus of environmental programs, such as water management, is directed at rural areas and protected parks and wilderness areas. This became their focus.


Through it's co-op programme, WMG helps homeowners harvest rainwater on their own properties at minimal cost. The way it works is that a homeowner joins the co-op, volunteers their time on other water harvesting projects, and accrues a set number of hours. When a volunteer accrues enough hours, they get to host a workshop at their own house and reap the benefits of the team’s labour.

Between six and 15 people are involved in a typical workshop, including at least one expert staff member. Having started four years ago, WMG expects to do up to 50 workshops this year.

Water harvesting practices are simple, low-tech practices that conserve water, improve water quality, reduce flooding and erosion, and promote revegetation. WMG now has 12 demonstration sites where citizens can see water harvesting practices in real-life contexts. implementation.

WMG is also now developing its own Watershed Technical Trainings in Green Infrastructure, Advanced Cistern Applications, Advanced Greywater Applications, and Small-scale Erosion Control and Riparian Restoration.

WMG's Water Harvesting Certification Program, for example, with its emphasis on integrated and sustainable design,teaches architects, landscapers, planners, entrepreneurs, educators, and community organizers how to retrofit residential and commercial sites with greywater systems, water harvesting earthworks, appropriate plants, and cisterns.

This intensive course blends both informational lectures and hands-on workshop practice. Theory covered in class is accompanied by 30 hours of field experience.

Right now WMG runs four courses a year but applications are starting to arrive from right across the US. WMG's director, Lisa Shipek [below] tells me that WMG has launched a series of Green Infrastructure webinars.


Green Infrastructure refers to constructed features that use living, natural systems to provide environmental services, such as capturing, cleaning, and infiltrating stormwater; creating wildlife habitat; shading and cooling buildings; and calming traffic.

The next WMG webinar on Community-Driven Green Infrastructure will take place on April 27, 2011 from 4:00 – 5:30 PM (PST)


The design and implementation of such practices varies widely among communities depending on geography, climate, existing urban infrastructure, and local policies. The goal of the webinar series is to share various approaches to green infrastructure with anyone interested in implementing similar strategies in their own communities.

It's not a matter of top-down versus bottom-up. We need both. But the co-op strategy of WMG is an important innovation because it answers the challenge of turning good ideas into work getting done.

Robin Murray, who is writing a book about next generation cooperation, says co-ops provide a structure that is open to collaborative volunteering. Programmes particularly suited to co-operative development - health, leisure, education and the many branches of care – can be greatly enhanced by a mix of paid labour and volunteers.

Meanwhile, back in California, interest in water harvesting seems to be growing. The Ecology Center, located in San Juan Capistrano, has launched a Community Water Challenge as a platform to support community participation in the implementation of watershed specific solutions.

Water solutions, practices and projects also feature prominently in a new d-i-y handbook from The Ecology Center called Backyard Skills.


The WMG webinar on Community-Driven Green Infrastructure will take place on April 27, 2011 from 4:00 – 5:30 PM (PST)

Posted by John Thackara at 07:27 AM

November 08, 2010

Of popes, pixels, and micropayments

Before Twittter, a serious connoisseur might study the Mona Lisa for 20 years before reaching a conclusion. Today, the average museum visitor looks at a work of art for 42 seconds.

Now 45 seconds is a long time compared to the 11 seconds that most shares are owned by high frequency trading machines. But for the Popes of culture and media, who met last week for the third Avignon Forum, this shallow cultural scanning is a reprehensible downside of 'culture for everyone' - theme of this year's gathering. (My report from last year's Forum is here).

The popes perked up when anthropologist Arjun Appadurai told them to think of culture as a "tool for managing uncertainty" and when Frederic Mitterand, the French minister of culture, described the digital age as a 'cognitive revolution…a new ecology of mind.'

French elites have good historical reasons to be nervous about revolting masses. As today's masses reflect on the heavy price they must now pay for their masters' gambling habit, culture as "a way of organizing people's understanding" has obvious attractions.

"What are the new channels for transmission?" a policy panjandrum asked - entranced, or so it sounded, by the prospect of hooking up citizens to Seresta-dispensing cultural drips.

As if on cue, a band called Playing For Change invited us to sing along sweetly to the words of Bob Marley:"Let's Get Together and Feel Alright".

] Follow the money

] Follow the money

A desire to use culture for social control is not unique to the digital age. The connection between culture and money goes back even further.

I was impressed at this point by the candor of the man from Ernst&Young. His slides featured the "ME Industries" - and I had I thought it was just me who believed that modern media foster mass narcissism.

Then I realized that ME was shorthand for Media and Entertainment industries, and that no disrespect was intended. On the contrary, the man from E&Y was on a serious quest: "Monetizing digital media and culture: creating value that consumers will buy"

Monetization, or its lack, was a sensitive issue for this gathering. Digital is proving a mixed blessing. It was not a surprise that the issue of piracy soon took central stage.

From the European Commisisoner down, a panoply of popes waxed righteous about the necessity for artists to be paid fairly for their creativity. Any crumbs left over from the cultural cake could be divided among the publishers, they added humbly - but the Rights of the Artist were paramount.

Mind you, those crumbs soon add up. Pope Philippe Dauman of Viacom, for example, was paid about $34 million in 2009.

Mr Dauman's 'compensation' is roughly 3,000 times more than what most of my artist friends are paid. It's fully 48,000 times more than is available to "Bottom of the Pyramid" types - among whose number, in my experience, the most vibrant culture and creativity is often to be found.

But pah! to the politics of envy. These vulgar details commanded little attention in Avignon. The popes and their cardinals spoke as one: copyright protection is a matter of principle, not profit.

] innovation

There was much talk of micropayments in Avignon, but not much about content innovation, until Joichi Ito took the stage.

Ito, a venture capitalist who is also chair of Creative Commons, observed that their huge size made it hard-to-impossible for media giants to be innovative. Change comes from the edge and, with the best will in the world, the "E-Suite" of a media giant is a long way from most edges.

Being "an internet company", Ito told us, is not about a choice of technology platforms. It's a philosophy. It's an attribute of companies that are collaborative, and that don't expect media products to emerge shiny and perfect from centralised (and very expensive) planning and marketing systems.

True internet companies innovate cheaply, Ito continued. In his experience as an investor, a talented team could often create a "minimum viable product", as the basis of a start-up, for $30,000. This amount, he jested, would barely buy a decent lunch for the Viacom Board.

] Into the non-linear social space

A man from Bain&Co predicted that more than 20 percent of book sales could be digital by 2015, and that these would capture up to 25 percent of the "overall value pool".

So everyone would be swimming in money? Not necessarily. Digital platforms change important relationships between retailers, publishers and authors - such as who gets how much.

A publisher who "merely transitions words from page to screen" is likely to be a loser, we were told. According to Bain&Co, new formats such as 'non-linear social' are where the opportunity lies.

I paid attention. "Non-linear social"? How do you do that?

One of the other consultants in Avignon tried to explain:"Media content bundles will not be products, but services." To be sellable, these services need to offer something that stand-alone, read-only digital products cannot: customized contextual links, live encounters with the author, extra video-bits; things like that.

One hopes the media giants are not pinning their hopes on interactive books. Fifteen years ago we were told TV would become interactive, and that never happened.

At this point we could have done with a reality-check from a working non-linear-social writer - such as Seth Godin or Cory Doctorow or Doug Rushkoff.

Another question raised, but not really answered, concerned mobility. Many of the promised new content services will be accessed via mobile devices. What will be the interesting ways for a writer to exploit that opportunity? (Hint: don't tell me it's to find a pizza within ten yards).

Micropayments offer a more tangible opportunity. They should make it easier for writers to sell content in chunks - much as Dickens and Balzac published their work. All you need to succeed is to be as talented as Dickens or Balzac.

] Unbundled

But suppose one does not want to be "bundled." Is there an alternative?

As I suggested to a group of young design critics recently, perhaps the function of a writer's output is to start conversations, and that the writer should consider speaking her words in a place rather than pressing 'send'. In Avignon-speak, this kind of service would be "non-delocatable".

Sitting in the Palace of the Popes, my thoughts wandered to the form and content of the confessional.

This tried-and-tested off-grid format uses inexpensive equipment. The confessional box and the rosary are often beautifully designed in natural materials. Its users are embodied. Its mode of operation and instructions are easy to follow.

Above all, the confession's value proposition is impossible to beat. The ME industries offer endless distraction - but little satisfaction. A low-tech, low-cost, person-to-person confession, in contrast, offers the client.... Absolution.

Could that be the lesson, for writers, of Avignon?

Posted by John Thackara at 01:53 PM

November 02, 2010

From Easter Island to Three Mile Island


You don't need to know how a combustion engine works to drive your car to work. Why should you need to know anything about the programming behind the pixels just to get around the web?

For Douglas Rushkoff, in his new book Program or be Programmed, the answer is that the web is different.

'It's both medium and content', he writes; the real question is, 'do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?'

Choose the former, Rushkoff contends, and you 'gain access to the control panel of civilization.'

I'm not so sure. Gain access to the control panel of Three Mile Island would be a better comparison.

Rushkoff believes that we are moving into 'an increasingly digital reality.' Therefore we must learn not just how to use programs, but how to make them.

But this progressive-sounding proposition is based on a dangerous assumption: that 'digital reality' is all encompassing, and is the only one on offer.


As Jarred Diamond explained in his book Collapse, one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the negative impact of their own actions.

On Easter Island, the focus of Diamond's book, the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants' survival prospects. And they didn't even notice they were doing so until it was too late.

This lesson applies equally to us, today. We are bewitched, as a culture, by just one element of the world around us: its digital overlay.

Thus bewitched, we waste astronomical amounts of energy and resources without even realizing it.

Thus bewitched, we are destroying the biosphere upon which all life, including our own, depends.

Think digitally, Rushkoff suggests, and we will be able to 'see beyond social conventions and power structures that have vexed us for centuries'.

I believe the opposite to be the case. Think digitally, and we will perceive only what the power structures want us to perceive.

Doug Rushkoff is a great writer, but he needs to get out of town more.

He needs to hug a tree.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:23 AM

October 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Trains

[First published at Design Observer]

Oslo Airport's mean-looking bullet train reaches the city centre in nineteen minutes. At 210 kph [130 mph] it is not the world's fastest - some of China'a new trains will soon reach nearly twice that speed - but Norway's is surely the most macho to look at.


Traveling on Oslo's mean-looking machine for nineteen minutes costs about 20 euros [$30). In India, by contrast, that same amount buys you a 3,500km train ride from Kashmir to Kerala.


True, the north-south India trip takes three nights and four days, and the cheap carriages can be crowded. But one is bound to ask: which country has the most advanced and resilient infrastructure?

My question is not rhetorical. Norway will decide next year whether or not to spend a big chunk of its oil revenue endowment on a nationwide extension of its high speed train [HST] network.

In the US, too, HST promoters argue that the country has fallen behind even underdeveloped countries in terms of infrastructure, and that building HSTs creates jobs and increases productivity.


At the Oslo Architecture Triennale last month, we discussed whether architects could influence this major infrastructure decision - or must they wait passively until there are stations and bridges to design?

My take is that 'high speed railways, yes or no?' is a second order question. First order questions concern the kind of society Norway [or California) aspires to become in the decades ahead.

In the case of HSTs, three first order questions stand out in particular: do the true system-wide costs of an HST network justify the investment? Is it sustainable to spend energy on the compression of space and time? And, is it really just empty space out there?


As I've written elsewhere modern mobility comes with a price – but the price tag is not visible, and we travelers don't pay it.

But the biosphere does pay - in the form of impacts and emissions that it absorbs from mobility, but which not measured and are not charged to travellers.

We know this to be true because it's happened before. The development of the US Interstate Highway System is a case in point. Its growth changed fundamental relationships between time, cost, and space. These, in turn, enabled forms of economic development that have proved devastating to the biosphere and to society.

It is probably true that HST would facilitate another wave of productivity-driven economic growth - but if that pattern of growth is ecocidal, is it the right path to follow?

At face value, the argument for a Norwegian HST network is strong. The route between Bergen in Western Norway and Oslo,for example, is one of the most trafficked short-distance routes in Europe. It takes two flights an hour in each direction to carry over five million passengers a year - and the country's population is just 4.7m.


The existing Oslo-Bergen train takes 6.5 hours, whereas an HST service would link the two cities in 2.5 hours

But when so-called True Cost Economics are applied to HST, the proposition that high-speed trains are environmentally far more friendly than cars and aircraft loses credibility.

When researchers at Martin Luther University studied the construction, use, and disposal of Germany's high-speed rail infrastructure, they found that forty-eight kilograms (about a hundred pounds) of solid primary resources is needed for one passenger to travel one hundred kilometres by Germany’s high-speed train

A December 2009 Swiss study of the Carbon Footprint of High-Speed railway infrastructure concluded that one passenger kilometer on Europe's high speed rail network is linked with 6.3 g CO2 from the traffic infrastructure alone.

Another research group, this one at UC Berkeley, has measured the vast amounts of environmentally-intensive materials that are needed to build an HST infrastructure. The Berkely team analysed hundreds of life-cycle processes - from construction equipment [for example, emissions from bulldozers, dump trucks, excavators, and frontloaders] to the supply chain effects of producing the the concrete and steel needed to construct hundreds of miles of track and stations.

These immense resource flows were also studied by the Swiss reseach consortium [they were working for the The International Union of Railways (UIC)]. Reporting at the end of 2009, the UIC group assesed more than 40 modules of the rail track system: tunnel, viaducts, bridges, the track itself, energy and signalization equipment.

Prices really soar when an HST requires bridges, tunnels and winding mountain routes to cover difficult terrain. On the flat run from Madrid to Seville the bridge-and-tunnel share is only 3.8 percent - but on the line between Wurzburg and Hanover the share is 37 percent.

In Norway, with its mountainous topography, the resource costs and carbon footprint of its tracks would surely be astronomical.


But an HST system is more than the sum of its tracks. Among the other resource-intensive system footprints, that necessarily accompany an HST line:

• space: land is a finite resource, but we consume it as if it were limitless - especially for mobility. Space has to be consumed in large quantities to provide the infrastructure for high speed travel - just as it does for new motorways and airports. John Whitelegg, a transport ecologist, found that in Switzerland the land allocation for ground transport is 113 m2 per person - compared to 20-25 m2 per person for all houses and gardens.

• energy supply: even if high-speed travel were not a climate change or social problem, high entropy transport systems depends on finite energy sources. Whether oil and gas are at a peak, or on a plateau, can be debated - but they are finite, and no commercially viable renewable alternative offers the same volume and performance. How resilient is that?

• first mile / last-mile: Before a passenger boards a train, she has to get to the station using other means of transportation - the so-called 'first mile' element. And HST stations are rarely the end-point of her trip; more infra is needed to complete the 'last mile'.

• infrastructure of stations and parking: Many HST stations are multi-modal hubs; these entail complex and energy-intensive walkways, doors, escalators, lifts and the like to connect with local public transport and parking lots. HST terminals and stations also contain shopping malls, restaurants and other service centers not linked with the core service of transporting passengers.

• security costs: enormous and growing material and human resources must be deployed to try and reduce the vulnerabilities of these complex systems to malfunctioning or attack.


Although time-savings provide the principal economic justification for HST schemes, the expansion of these networks does not, in the long run, give people more free time.

On the contrary: We spend the same amount of time travelling today as we did 50 years ago – but we use that time to travel longer distances.

The fundamental problem with the HST is not that it burns too much of the wrong kind of fuel. The problem is that - like the interstate highway systems that came before - it perpetuates patterns of land use, transport intensity, and the separation of functions in space and time, that render the whole way we live unsupportable.

Something similar happened in Norway before. When oil was first discovered in1969, it spawned a generation of sprawling development. The suburbanisation of Jæren swallowed numberless small, rural conglomerations. 'Oilville' now stretches more or less continuously from Stavanger in the north to Egersund in the south.


Are there new ways to think about the space-time geography of Norway - to re-imagine its wide spaces and long distances as assets rather than as obstacles to be overcome?

Space, like oil is a finite resource. Worldwide, space is at a premium.

Norway has lots of space; this makes her rich.

So why try to compress this valuable national resource? why try to make it smaller?

Maximum dispersal, after all, is the settlement pattern of the natural state of nature. As stone-age economist Marshall Sahlins has pointed out, minimising conflict over resources, goods and women, dispersal is the best protector of persons and possessions. [Stone age economics Marshall Sahlins, New York, de Gruyter 1972]

In Oslo, we discussed whether to think of Norway as a mosaic of semi-autonomous zones. Could so-called 'peripheral' cities be reconceived as new centres in their own right?

By re-examining what makes makes the regions of Norway distinctive, could new forms of value be discovered as the basis for establishing settlements?


Shortly after the Oslo Triennale ended, a Natural Capital Action Plan [NCAP] was endorsed n Tokyo by major players such as China, India, Brazil and several EU nations.

An International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems has developed a framework 'natural capital accounts' that place financial values on components of the natural world such as undeveloped land, woodland, rivers and marshes.

The new framework is based on a three year UN study of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). This found that the global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests, alone - - $2-5 trillion per year - than through the banking crisis. The figure comes from adding the value of the various services that forests perform, such as providing clean water and absorbing carbon dioxide.

Back in 2008, when I first wrote about TEEB it was hard to interest people in climate change economics.

But change is all about timing and tipping points. Although Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the dominant measure of economic performance for generations, the movement to measure progress in new ways - that that take account of natural resources and ecosystems - is rapidly gaining momentum.

TEEB places top-down question mark on the assumption that the word is full of empty space that we can fill, at will, with things like HSTs.

As we learn at ground level, too, that empty space is not empty after all, it flollows that many 'clean' transport or energy systems are not inherently clean at all, but only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuelled systemsthey are purported to replace.

Bruce Pavlik, for example, author of The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery has warned that, if we're not careful a rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to some 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 writes; "There's sun. There's wind. There's space. But the biologically rich but arid desert ecosystems are remarkably fragile".

Once topsoil and plant life have been disrupted for the placement of solar arrays, wind farms, power plants, transmission lines, and CO2 scrubbers, restoration would be cost-prohibitive, if not technically impossible - and in any case can take 100 years or more.

Pavlik cautions that widespread desert construction, even of projects aimed at environmental mitigation, "would devastate the very organisms and ecosystems best able to adjust to a warming world".

In the Nordic countries, too, I learned in Oslo, some pioneering designers are already sensitive to the hidden value in 'empty' land.


Knut Erik Dahl, for example, told me about a remarkable landscape study from 1988
by Peder Agger and Jesper Brandt titled The dynamics of small biotopes in Danish agricultural landscapes.

Hedges, roadside verges, drainage ditches, small brooks, bogs, marl pits, natural ponds, thickets, prehistoric barrows and other small uncultivated areas laying within and between the fields in the Danish terminology are named ‘small biotopes’ - the smallest unit to be studied in the landscape.

Inspired by the discovery of these often-tiny biotopes, Dahl and his colleagues launched a research programme to explore Appearing and Disappearing Landscapes:The Dynamics of Small Cultures.

One researcher, Alex Walls, explained that the goal is "to design with flows of regional water, plants, animals. We want to combine people, goods, buildings and information to create a new city that is part of nature".

The new thinking is that cities and city-regions need to re-conceive themselves as elements of a bioregion - as a specific form of Nature which embeds itself as much as possible in natural cycles, and in which human settlements co-exist with, and are wholly dependent on, natural systems as well as human communities.

One of our speakers in Oslo, Allen Berger [author of Drosscape] was one of the invited experts in the first Jæren research. He made the point that "systemic is systemic; once one begins researching a single system it inevitably bleeds into other systems that cross-pollinate and hybridize even more systems, until dynamic feedback occurs".

] Back to urban nature

Some enlightened cities, such as Toronto, have already started to put the interests of these natural assets ahead of traditional planning priorities such as transportation infrastructures. The practical way to achieve this re-ordering of priorities is to put foodsheds, and watersheds at the top of the agenda.

In design terms, this leads to a focus on "reactivating the existing" - adapting and enhancing what's already there rather than continue to accelerate capital and resource intensity

Alex Walls, in Norway, calls this approach “dirty” sustainability" – low cost, hands on solutions rather than high tech answers.

In policy-speak, this approach is about the creation of adaptive resilience in natural, human and technological ecologies. The focus, here, is on decentralized and low entropy solutions.

I asked, at the top, which country - Norway, or India - has the most advanced and resilient infrastructure?

jt indian train.png

My conclusion, which I guess is not well-hidden in the above, is that high-speed, high-entropy transportation systems take a country back to the past.They are not the way of the future.

This is not to deny that there are many ways in which use of existing infra, such as India's amazing train network - or, for that matter, the trip from Oslo to Stavanger - can be enhanced.

But I'll return to those in a later post.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:15 AM

August 09, 2010

Marketing, me, and the future of tv

(Summer re-run: first published September 2009)

A marketing whiz I know in New York asked me to do her a favour: answer some questions about the future of tv.

At least, that's what I thought she asked. But when, a couple of days later, a FedEx package arrived, it contained a tiny digital voice recorder and the instruction: "tell us your views about the future of the television" - ie, the product, not its content.

Although deprived of the opportunity to pontificate about the evils of reality television and Fox News, I nonetheless narrated the following into the little machine and FedExed it (at my friend's insistence) back.

For some reason, I never heard from her again.


"For me, big televisions are like gas-guzzling SUVs: fat, wasteful, and paid for with debt.

These fat objects don’t just waste energy – they’re toxic, too. The big old ones, the Cathode Ray Tube ones, were bad enough: each one contained as much as four pounds of lead.

But the new flat ones are also full of heavy metals. When improperly dismantled – which is most of the time – they release dioxins and poison the air and water systems.

Adding insult to injury, the biggest screens aren’t even used for anything useful. Most of them are used for push advertising.

Big public screens don’t just waste energy, contain toxins, and steal pubic space. They enable semiotic pollution, too.

The outdoor ad industry seems to be worried about an imminent backash: I saw one of their lawyers demanding “freedom of commercial speech”. Lucky for him he was on tv or I'd have reached for my pitchfork.

My first advice, Mr TV company, is to fess up now to the material and energy costs of the products you make - before someone else does it for you.

I'd publish detailed numbers about the environmental impact and energy use involved in manufacturing the boxes and network infrastructure, and running the networks.

In fact I'd look at the whole system. I'd publish numbers for transporting people and physical parts to maintain the system numbers for constructing and running all those offices and retail stores; numbers for running call centres. I'd come clean about all of it. The lot.

I'd publish the real numbers and then I’d say: “guess what: we’re not going to innovate the Prius of televisions".

I'd commit to zero waste, and closed loop processes from cradle to cradle. I'd announce that we would remain the owner of all our products from here on in - people would just lease them.

Being transparent about the facts, and taking full responsibility for the impact of your products on the biosphere, would kill your competitors stone dead.

This would buy you time to transform your business totally.

You and I both know that televisons can never be emission-free as products. So why not get out of hardware altogether? It's feasible. IBM make more money out of consulting than of selling machines these days.

My advice is to set your sights on a vast new market, and my ideal future experience: "being there, but not".

Sustainabiity demands that we all - and me especially - must radically reduce our flights. The biosphere simply cannot support the perpetually growing movement of goods and bodies around the world.

What stops peope like me moving less, and tele-communicating more, is simple: videoconferencing sucks.

But I can't get it our of my head that we pay theme park operators a dollar a minute to experience sophisticated simulations. And the computer games industry is now bigger than Hollywood.

The lesson I learn from them is that if you get the experience right, people will do it. Even me.

Getting the experience right is not a technology issue. It's not about brute bandwidth, or brute screen size.

In fact- and herein lies your salvation as a green business - the experience can best be improved by artful and indirect means using minimal amounts of tech - most of which already exists.

The secret is to think about icons, not about high-tech boxes.

In the Roman Cathollc tradition, icons are aids to devotion. In their business, icons are there to help people feel closer to God.

But why only God? Surely different kinds of icon might help us imagine another person to be close?

I'm not talking gold goblets representing my mother here. (Sorry, Mum). More prosaic objects can do the job.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a celebrated essay about "Kissing the picture of one's beloved". He said: "When we kiss a photograph, we do not expect to conjour up a spectacular manifestation of the person in the picture represents - but the action is nonetheless satisfying".

An icon. A photo. The hardware requirement here is very modest.

A professor called Andy Clarke wrote a book that I commend to you: "Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again". I learned from Prof Clarke that the biological brain is populated by a vast number of what he calls 'zombie processes' that seem to play a critical role in the ways we experience the world, and each other.

Another writer, the English philosopher, John Gray, puts it more starkly: "Being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures... but our child-like fascination with technology and digital communication blinds us to this fact".

Bottom line, Mr TV company: get out of hardware, and into embodied communication.


Posted by John Thackara at 10:24 AM

August 08, 2010

Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground


(Summer re-run: first published 5 February 2008)

Ever since learning about water mapping from Georg Bertsch and about watershed-based planning in Toronto from Chris Hardwick at Doors 9 on Juice last year, I've been aware that we talked a lot about energy but not enough about water.

This prompted me in a fit of guilt to buy a bunch of books about greywater harvesting; these now sit in a dispiriting and unread pile next to my bath.

Then, bingo: I found this wonderful book called Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground which I commend to you all.

Its essays, drawings, and photographs span a wondrous range of topics: off-grid water concepts; the politics of dams and water infrastructure; watersheds as a way of understanding and living in the world.

The essays explain the often destructive relationship between human settlements and nature, but these gloomy reflections are more than counter-balanced by stories about successful resistance to dams - including advanced plans to dismantle some of them - and practical ideas on how to restore wastersheds.

Dam Nation's editors are a reassuringly edgy and non-wet group of activists, tattooists and 'dishwasher deviants'. They've done a great job: the collection is extremely well-written. Buy two copies now: one for you, and one for an architect or urban planner who also needs to read it.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:55 PM

August 02, 2010

Could 'green' energy kill the desert?


(Summer re-run: first published 22 February 2009)

One of the more remarkale sights on my recent trip was this vast wind farm outside Palm Springs. Located on the San Gorgonio Mountain Pass in the San Bernadino Mountains, it contains more than 4000 separate wind turbines and provides enough electricity to power Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley.

But for critics, large scale wind power used to generate electricity is not inherently clean at all, but only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuels they are purported to replace.

Bruce Pavlik, in a piece for the LA Times warned that, if we're not careful, a rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to some 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 writes; "There's sun. There's wind. There's space. But the biologically rich but arid desert ecosystems are remarkably fragile".

Once topsoil and plant life have been disrupted for the placement of solar arrays, wind farms, power plants, transmission lines and CO2 scrubbers, restoration would be cost-prohibitive, if not technically impossible - and in any case can take 100 years or more.


Pavlik cautions that widespread desert construction, even of projects aimed at environmental mitigation, "would devastate the very organisms and ecosystems best able to adjust to a warming world".

As physical equipment, wind farms also use an awful lot of physical resources. The compartments at the top of each tower, that contain the generator, hub and gearbox, each weigh 15,000 kilos upwards (30,000 to 45,000 pounds).

Other components of a utility-scale wind farm include underground power transmission systems, control and maintenance facilities, and substations that connect farms with the utility power grid. That's a lot of embodied energy.

At the moment, more vast projects are moving ahead. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is processing more than 180 permit applications from private companies to build solar and wind projects in California deserts.

One such venture, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, scheduled to begin construction in a beautiful valley near the California-Nevada border in San Bernardino County, will occupy 3,400 acres - and that doesn't include the land needed for transmission lines.

Most projects are even larger, averaging 8,000 acres; some exceed 20,000 acres. According to the LA Times, the total public land under consideration for alternative energy production exceeds 1.45 million acres in California alone.

"We need to acknowledge the true costs of any energy development" Pavlik concludes. "When a dam is built, a river is lost. But people who turn on their tap and draw that water rarely think about the river that was destroyed to produce it.

"Similarly, if we choose to place our "ugly" industrial technologies in the wilderness, there will be less awareness of the damage, less incentive to conserve".

Posted by John Thackara at 04:39 PM

January 22, 2010

Have I cracked the the telepresence conundrum?


Last evening I particpated remotely from my home in France in a pre-event in Amsterdam of ElectroSmog International Festival for Sustainable Immobility.

I didn't use the fancy gadget in the photo above. My set-up yesterday was a bit, but not a lot, better-organized than the remote recording session (below) I did for a BBC radio programme last summer.


I said my bit to deBalie via skype, and followed the rest of proceedings, which were chaired by Eric Kluitenberg, on deBalie's livestreaming feed.

The deBalie session was not, I know, a major event in the greater context of events concerning sustainability, media, and design. But I'm proud, nonetheless: I have not yet set foot in an aeroplane in 2010, and this event was a meaningful first step: it followed a new year resolution radically to reduce my work-related travel.

I said my bit to deBalie via skype, and followed the rest of proceedings, which were chaired by Eric Kluitenberg, on deBalie's livestreaming feed.

The deBalie session was not, I know, a major event in the greater context of events concerning sustainability, media, and design. But I'm proud, nonetheless: I have not yet set foot in an aeroplane in 2010, and this event was a meaningful first step: it followed a new year resolution radically to reduce my work-related travel.

\In preparing for yesterday's modest exercise, I was amazed to discover that I have been writing about the substitution of telepresence for mobility for seventeen years. Writing, not doing, I know: By no means all my texts and talks are here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Although deBalie's streaming video feed was clear (thanks to their industrial-quality cameras; three-times normal bandwidth; something called an h264 video codec; and Gerbrand); and Eric was a clear and well-organized compere; but the experience was as unrelaxing, experientially, as always.

I spent half-a-day spent fidding with lights and backdrops at my end. I had to miss lunch in order to test skype. And I had to work hard, during the event itself, to keep track of what was happening in Amsterdam. An abruptly broken connection, internet-side, just as the final Q+A started, was an abrupt but unsurprising conclusion.

Content-wise, the session was a blast from the past - in good ways and bad.

A guy from IBM demo'd a hideous virtual "creative office" populated by avatars. The avatar representing the IBM-er in Belgium failed to speak or move for five minutes; its human owner had apparently left his desk to look for a beer. This was fair enough -a national beer strike in Belgium has only recently ended - but the jerky, implausible look-and-feel of IBM's virtual office was less enticing than the pre-Sims demo given by Will Wright at Doors of Perception back in 1998.

(It wasn't much better, either, than the time I did a video conference with Korea in which twelve corporate persons - not from IBM - sat in a row facing the camera. I was able scan the camera along the line, jerkily, from my end. But because my fellow videoconferencers were dressed in identical blue suits, white shirt and dark tie; and because most of them seemed to be called Mr Kim; I soon gave up).

(But last night's IBM demo *was* superior to the videoconference between a summer school in Lisbon, and the White House, that I experienced last summer. Then, the link was enabled by Cisco Systems' ultra high-end platform. We were all excited because our interviewee was said to have an office just down the hall from the Oval Office. We all assumed that communicating with the centre of world power on the world's fanciest videoconferencing platform would be fab. But the link, once opened, yielded sound and pictures worse then the ones sent back by the first lunar lander. After ten minutes of torture, someone in Lisbon put their hand up and said" "can't we use skype?" - so we we did).

But there were delights, last evening, too. Costas Bissas from DistanceLab told us, from a location somewhere in the wilds of Scotland, about a cow called Grace who has been fitted with a webcam.

Grace TV.jpg

It took me back to the time Bill Gaver and Tony Dunne attached web-enabled microphones to chickens in Peccioli.

I told Costas I would pay good money to see Grace charging a bunch of tourists, but he said that is not their business model.

As last night's discussion continued, I had an epiphany: it is not my job to keep track of all these tele-tools and platforms - still less, to set them up and make them work when I need them.

I thought back to the early years of the telephone: for decades after the telephone was first publicly deployed, one would pick up the receiver - and a room full of operators would make the connection for you.


This is what we need now. We need the equivalent of a roadie for telepresence events.


Rock stars don't have to fiddle about setting up amps and lighting and the stage before they perform - so why should I, or any other right thinking citizen who has a life to lead?

e-Roadies are the solution I have been searching for for seventeen years.

I haven't worked out where to find them, nor how to train them - still less, a business model to pay for them. But I am surely on the right track because E-Roadies are a *human* solution.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:35 AM | Comments (1)

July 01, 2009

New questions for the Internet of Things


For Gunter Pauli it's the sight of electronic devices that need batteries or electric wires in order to function. For me it's hard or paved surfaces. For Usman Haque, it's these pigs in a poke.

These curious obsessions reflect new questions being raised about the design of things.

My obsession first. After being mesmerised by his talk at the Transition Towns event in London, I read Stephan Harding's book Animate Earth. Animate Earth brings the world of rocks, atmosphere, water and living things vividly - and literally - to life. Harding blends science with intuition in such an extraordinary way that, before I had even finished his book, I found myself looking at tarmac surfaces and concrete runways as criminal artefacts.

As so often is the case, I find I'm jumping on a pre-existing bandwagon here. With the clarion cry "Free Your Soil", de-paving groups are springing up all over the built world.

For his part Gunter Pauli cannot look with equanimity at artefacts plugged into the mains. or that depend on batteries to function. This is because such devices, and the resource flows and power they depend on, are based on "life-unfriendly engineering and energy use" and cause "unnacceptable collateral damage" to the biosphere.

With those conditions in place, 99% of the stuff-making work that designers currently do is rendered inappropriate. But Pauli has alternative work for them to do. As an example of a better way to conceive and design products, Pauli told us at the Lift conference in Marseille about Humpback Heart Pacemakers. .The Humpack’s 2,000-pound heart pumps the equivalent of six bath tubs of oxygenated blood through a circulatory system 4,500 times as extensive as a human’s. This is achieved at very low rates of three to four beats a minute, and electrical stimulation is achieved through a mass of blubber that shields the whale’s heart from the cold. Nano-sized ‘wires’ allow electrical signals to stimulate heart beats even through masses of non-conductive blubber. Scientists believe the findings could be the key to allowing the human heart to work without a battery-powered pacemaker.

Pauli has written a new book called Nature's 100 Best together with Janine Benyus, that is packed with such examples.

This brings us neatly to Usman Haque and the Internet of Things. Janine Benyus was our keynote speaker when we discussed pervasive computing at Doors of Perception 7 in 2002. Then, as now, the European union was promoting the concept of pervasive computing hard; [these days the EU is accompanied by a critical chorus orchestrated by Rob Van Kranenburg ]

But at Doors 7 we wanted to know, "to what question, if any, is pervasive computing an answer?".

At the time, the one application that seemed to show promise for the sustainability agenda was environmental monitoring and control. But a fierce debate ensued about the efficacy of sprinkling technologcal devices across the planet like dust. Would this not be another futile example of man trying inappropriately to control nature with clunky - and possibly toxic - tools?

Seven years on, Usman and his colleagues are building a plaform called Pachube that enables people to connect, tag and share real time sensor data from objects, devices, buildings and environments around the world. The aim is to facilitate interaction between remote environments, both physical and virtual. Environmental control features prominently among the myriad third party applications being developed.

"Apart from enabling direct connections between any two environments" Usman explains,"it can also be used to facilitate many-to-many connections: just like a physical "patch bay" (or telephone switchboard) Pachube enables any participating project to "plug-in" to any other participating project in real time so that, for example, buildings, interactive installations or blogs can "talk" and "respond" to each other". There's a page of possible applications here.

In an interview with UgoTrade Usman used the image of the pigs (top) to explain how the “software” of space (sounds, smell, light, temperature, electromagnetic fields, etc.) rather than its hardware”(floors, walls, roof, etc.) can be shaped. In the picture the same piglets are in the same box - but on the right hand side the temperature has been increased. This small change, remotely activated, has dramatically changed the way its inhabitants relate to each other and how they relate to their space.

From this proposition, one can extrapolate ways to make existing spaces perform better in terms of energy and resource efficiency, and/or to reduce the number of new structures we need to build.

But an important condition has to be met. Connected environments of the kind that Pachube enables, and the Internet of Things as a whole, are not a step forwards if they guzzle matter and energy as pofligately as the internet of emails does.

In Gunter Pauli's language, we should only deploy it if we can demonstrate that there will be no "collateral damage". And that's a big "if".

It's not a question of technology versus nature. As Janine Benyus framed this can-we-use-it? issue at Doors 7: "I don’t think any technology is unnatural. We are biological, and we created technology, after all. As a biologist, the question for me is not whether our technology is natural, but how well adapted it is to life on earth over the long term. Our designs are not well adapted yet".

A second big "if" for the Internet of Thing concerns the degree to which digital monitoring tools may make us blind in ways that we do not intend - especially when they provide us with an artificial and hence misleading directness of perception.

Echoing the language of Stephan Harding, Patricia de Martelaere warned, also at Doors 7, of the danger that we become "separated and alienated from direct experience of the world." For the sake of enhanced control, she cautioned, "we seem to be prepared to make our entire world artificial. Simulated and quantifiable data are presented to us as “direct knowledge”, whereas the intimate and subjective access we have to the world is called illusive, unreliable and valueless"

De Maertelare cautioned against "wasting our lives by continuously watching images of world-processes, or processes of our own body, and desperately trying to interfere - like a man chasing his own shadow. Together with the disappearing computer, we will disappear ourselves".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:59 AM | Comments (1)

June 22, 2009

Do we need any more things?

Well, it's a question. All objects use resources, and have consequences. It's one of the topics i touched on during my lecture at the LIFT conference in Marseille last week.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:50 PM

June 06, 2009

Hackers help government to open up

Paul Jongsma draws my attention to an intriguing event on 13 June called HackdeOverheid (Hack the government). HackdeOverheid will focus on building prototypes or web platforms that demonstrate in practise how government services can be improved when they are based on open-ness. The idea is to harness the passion of eager developers, who already know what’s possible on the web, to the cause of open government. This event follows on from another recent workshop called Ambtenaren 2.0 (Civil Servants 2.0) which explored the the basic principles of open data with civil servants. Paul Jongsma knows as much about this stuff as anyone I know, bar none, so it should be a good event.

if you can't go to the Dutch event but are interested in this (large) subject check out, too:
Open Rights Group (ORG)
Rewired State
Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore

Posted by John Thackara at 08:34 AM | Comments (2)

May 08, 2009

After the High life?


I was taken on a sneak preview visit to The High Line in New York. It’s an elevated public park on a 1.5 mile elevated railway that runs along the West Side of Manhattan. Everyone is rightly proud that this historic rail structure has been saved from being razed by developers. 150 million dollars have been found to to create a “one-of-a-kind recreational amenity…a linear public place where you will see and be seen”. It’s a spectacular site, and the work is being beautifully done – but the project feels strangely out-of-date before it even opens. The High Line website features “before” images (above) of the site before restoration, with masses of weeds and greenery. The project now, that I visited (see below), features concrete walkways, high-design benches, and artful planting. What I missed, amidst the designerly order, was the sense of abundance it had when still abandoned. The good news is that Phases 2 and 3 of the project venture into vast unused railway yards – perfect sites for city farms.


Posted by John Thackara at 09:29 AM

May 02, 2009

Call from system: Chill !



Mobile phones tend to be personal devices and Intel plans to take that further - a lot further.

Researchers Margaret Morris and Farzin Guilak are developing “mobile therapy” – a system of just-in-time personal coaching, by the system, that is triggered by physiological indicators of stress.

Mobile Heart Health, as it’s called, uses body sensors to help people “tune in to early signs of stress, and modulate reactivity that could potentially damage their relationships”. Breathing visualizations and “cognitive reappraisal cues” appear on your cell phone when a wireless ECG detects deviations from your baseline heart rate variability.

The only flaws I can see in this otherwise elegant project are first, that'll I'll be tempted to use my handset as a club on someone when it starts flashing cognitive reappraisal cues at me like that.

And second, my heart will literally explode the first time a cellphone tells me to calm down.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:52 PM | Comments (1)

April 13, 2009

How they're playing the game

Roughly once a week, I admonish myself for spending too much time reading financial blogs. "Focus on the positive," I tell myself. "Raging at politicians and banksters is a waste of your life energy. Build an alternative reality to theirs. Go and plant a carrot".

So yesterday I went into the real world (well, Nice) and hung out with real people doing real projects. And I was much inspired. But on the train back, thanks once again to Illargi, I accidentally stumbled across this excellent piece by Justice Litle (sic) that explains how the people who caused the mess are now making billions gaming governments' solution to the mess.

"Tragedy is turning into farce as the real intent of the bank rescue plan becomes apparent", Litle begins.

"Imagine, for a moment, that I have a beat-up old mini-fridge in the back of my garage. It has a coolant leak, it’s a little moldy, and it smells like stale beer, but I’m pretty sure it still works.

"Meanwhile, you happen to be in possession of a rusty old lawn mower. The blade is caked beyond recognition with fossilized grass clippings, the gunk that passes for oil has never been changed, and the thing takes twenty or thirty pulls to start... but you, too, are fairly certain your lawn mower “works.”

"Now imagine that you and I make a deal. I will sell you my disgusting mini-fridge for the princely sum of a hundred thousand dollars. You, in turn, will sell me your ancient lawn mower for a hundred thousand dollars. I write a six-figure check out to you, and you write a six-figure check out to me.

"Nothing’s really happened, right? All we’ve done is swap two crap assets, neither one worth fifteen bucks in the real world, and furthermore swapped an identical large chunk of change ($100,000) between our respective bank accounts.

"But hold on! Did I mention that we both employ highly creative accountants?

"Here’s the good news about our little swap. Thanks to our exchange, I can record a massive profit on my books... to the tune of $99,900, or whatever sum is left over above and beyond the book-entry carrying cost for my fridge. And you can do the same with your lawn mower.

"In the real world, the only thing that happened is junk got swapped with junk. In fantasy-land accounting world, however, you and I both just conjured up fantastic profits out of thin air.

"And it gets even better... did I mention that the government has generously granted me a non-recourse loan in order to provide the funds with which to buy your $100,000 lawn mower?

"I didn’t actually have to move $100K out of my bank account and into yours, because $93,000 of it was covered by government loan. The same privilege was extended to you, of course".

JT here: I have to go and plan a carrot, but you can read the rest of Litle's piece here.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:32 AM

January 29, 2009

Are you, or do you know, a wind catcher expert?


A friend in Colombia has sent me this picture of the model of their proposed new house. She asks my advice on its wind-catching performance, how wide these have to be...etc.

Now I'm flattered to be thought to be an expert on such an incredibly sustainable thing as zero energy airco - but my practical knowledge is, well, zero. But I'm confident that among you, dear Readers, there is someone who really knows about this stuff?

So I'm going to quote the letter - and you can tell me who can help my friend.

"As you can see there is a bottom room which is partly embedded in the mountain (for coolness) and has a small window, this room will also have another window and a 2 doors one internal / one external but still will be quiet hot because its facing southwest (and we are a bit north of the equator) + its roof is a flat cement slab (of course with air space+ coconut filling between "plafond" and actual roof ///// This room is a recording studio this is why its square + has flat roof...we cant change this because of acoustics + also because we dont want to stick out of the mountain too much, so the idea is that this roof will be used as a terrace and have its own live roof of local vines to create shade ...(we cant do grass directly on the roof because we need to colect water).....Sooooo we are going to inject cool air into the studio - on the one hand we have air that will be passing through the water tank and coming into the studio and 2. we have this "wind catcher" we read about in internet - iranian very old system for injecting cool air and at diferent moments sucking out hot air....You can see it on the model on the right, looks like a chimney...Well it probably will be square and not round and taller too, made of red low fired brick covered with adobe plaster.and on the bootom there will be a small pool of water so air will come in over this pool and enter the room cool..............But really we are kind of inventing some of it because we don't have much info on how these "wind catchers " work, - we found very little info online, so it would be great if we could talk to someone or if someone could send us some additional info".

Posted by John Thackara at 09:37 AM | Comments (2)

September 28, 2008

London: burning, flooding, drying ....

Fifteen per cent of London is at high risk from flooding due to global warming - an area that includes 1.25 million people, almost half a million properties, more than 400 schools, 75 underground and railway stations, 10 hospitals, and an airport (London City ). According to the draft of The London climate change adaptation strategy, an estimated £160bn worth of assets is at stake.

This fascinating document expressly does not deal with the causes of climate change; it focuses on effects. "Even if all global greenhouse gas emissions could be stopped today", the report explains, "the immense inertia in Earth’s climate systems means that changes to our climate for the rest of this century are unavoidable. Preparing for these inevitable changes is not an alternative to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, but a parallel and complementary action.".

This is fair enough. Scientists expect warmer, wetter winters and hotter drier summers, coupled with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather and rising sea levels. London has no choice but to prepare for an increased risk of flooding, drought and heatwaves. (The image above plots so-called "urban heat islands").

This first draft Adaptation Strategy is measured and thorough; it's easy for the various actors, such government, house builders and so on, to understand what they have to start doing.

That said, the section on vulnerability of water supply contains an eccentric passage. The text states that "as water companies have a responsibility to provide water to their customers, the main group of people vulnerable to drought are those who would be financially affected by "non-essential use bans." These non-essential uses are helpfully listed: :
• manufacture and sale of hosepipes and related apparatus
• health and leisure clubs and hotels/clubs with private swimming pools
• car washing using hosepipes
• growing, sale, provision and maintenance of plants, including turf
• provision and maintenance of sport and recreation facilities dependent on
watering; manufacture, sale and maintenance of swimming pools owned by the
private sector
• manufacture and sale of ornamental ponds
• operation of mechanical vehicle washers
• washing of vehicles, boats, railway rolling stock and aircraft
• cleaning of building exteriors and industrial premises where a hosepipe is used
• manufacturers and sellers of paddling pools, hot tubs and water slides
• those who use hosepipes to clean patios, drives and hard standings
• those who depend on storage tanks for a mobile supply of water.

Tacked on at the end of this section are the words, "The environment is also vulnerable to drought”. (Extended drought periods will affect the ability of some species to survive, either through wetlands prematurely drying out, or through higher water temperatures and lower oxygen levels that are associated with low river flows. Low flows also reduce the dilution of any pollution entering the watercourse, so increasing the rate of eutrophication and stagnation).

Now call me a pedant, but is it not the case that "the environment" is the pre-condition for life on earth, including London? It might inconvenience John Travolta if washing aircraft on driveways were to be banned - but it's surely a no-brainer that these non-essential uses should be phased out once and for all. Besides, the opportunities for an improved quality of life as London prepares for change are enormous. Urban greening figures prominently in the Adaptation Strategy's proposals; so too does the need to deal with noise.

An immense amount of innovation will be needed to retrofit buildings and infrastructure with equipment to enable greater water and energy efficiency. Even more important than these hard actions will be soft ones - the design of services to help Londoners meet daily life needs in new ways.

I should declare an interest here: I'm drafting a response to this Adaptation Strategy draft for the UK Design Council. As soon as that's ready, I'll flag it up here.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:30 AM

September 08, 2008

Palin's poisonous pump and dead ducks

A diary piece at daily Kos investigates the environmental impacts of the so-called Palin Pipeline. It points out that the pipeline is not a conduit of natural gas to US consumers, but (as the map shows) to the tar sands of Alberta, Canada where it will be used to power the extraction of oil. Canada has the world’s second largest reserves of oil - 180 billion barrels - but 95 percent of these are embedded in its tar sands. According to desmogblog, the production of a barrel of oil from oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil - so Palin's pipeline will fuel a massive new source of emissions even before the extracted oil itself is used.

Its impact on water systems will be just as damaging: The water requirements for oil sands projects range from 2.5 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, and at least 90% of the fresh water used in oil sands works ends up in vast toxic lakes. The ones in Northern Alberta span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space as shown here:


These tailing lakes are so toxic that 'propane cannons' and floating scarecrows are used to keep ducks from landing in them. If the ducks land in them, they die.

The real story here is the imminent construction of the biggest eco-poisoning pump in history. But that's an abstract idea, so we'll probably have to use emotive images of dead birds.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:08 AM

April 21, 2008



This chilling image, which I saw first at Core 77, is a visualization of space-junk by the European Space Agency.
The images (there's a series) show all the satellites and human-made debris now orbiting space as a result of 51 years of launching devices since Sputnik - a total of 6,000 rocketloads. If you think this looks bad, imagine what a similar image would look like if it visualized all the matter used in the production of cars during the past 100 years or so - at roughly one thousand tonnes per vehicle.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:52 PM

March 31, 2008

Heathrow chaos: time to start digging?

The chaos at Heathrow's Terminal 5 is an excellent example of what happens when the logic of finance interacts with the logic of large complex systems. As Will Hutton wrote at the weekend, shareholders in British Airways (its sole tenant) and BAA (which runs the airport) demand perpetually growing dividends. Financial returns on this scale can only be achieved by cutting people out of the system: This is because big shiny buildings, although expensive, are capital costs that can be written off through time; people, on the other hand, appear in a company's accounts as recurrent costs that directly reduce profits.

Willy Walsh, the cost-cutting hard man put in to run BA, has duly cut people costs to the bone. As a result of his ministrations morale has crashed, many experienced midde managers took early retirement before T5 opened, and a recent survey reported that nearly 30 per cent of staff claim they had been bullied.

Thousands of MBA students, whose predecessors now run companies like BA and BAA, are being taught, as you read this, to regard people as cuttable costs and that technology exists to help them do the cutting. Once in post as junior Willy Washes, these WaffenMBAs are an easy mark for the IT industry: it peddles dysfunctional systems on the back of absurd promises that they will work without intensive participation by trained and motivated people. The tech industry grows, despite its long history of peddling porkies, because its cost-cutting clients are pre-programmed to believe the lies.

Moving bags, moving people, moving goods: Logistics are life-critical for us all. I was therefore alarmed to read in Supply Chain Standard about logistics in the supermarket industry. On checking the software descriptors of 14,000 product lines, one analyst found that information lines for every single item contained one or more errors. A standard description has 200 attributes, but industry customers typically add up to 1,500 extra items of information on their own account - so the possibility for error is mind-boggling.

All retailers - and all airport operators - rely totally on logistics technology. But according to the industry's own in-house magazine, many supermarkets admit to at least 35 percent data inaccuracy in their product files. Things sound even grimmer when you realise that millions of lines of dodgy data are being fed into patched-up legacy systems that few people understand - and are therefore hard to maintain. "It's little surprise", concludes the writer, that "retailers end up with little idea of what is in store, in transit, on order or at the warehouse". Supply Chain Standard January 2008 page 9 Penelope Ody

Now connect in your mind, as an exercise, the bags chaos at Heathrow with that thirty five per cent inaccuracy in the data used by supermarkets. Next, consider that supermarkets only have three days supply of food in stock at any one time...or so they think. I don't know about you, but I'm reminded that this is planting season at my home in France: I need to get back and start digging.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:55 PM

November 30, 2007

High entropy notions of quality

Last week I gave this talk at a seminar in Milan called Art For Business.

"On my way to this conference on art and business, two Erasmus University business school students (a Russian and a Dane) came to meet me in Amsterdam. They came from "Team Aesthetics" . We talked of Aesthetics, Innovation, Complexity, Meaning, Value. They asked me: "Is there a market at the intersection of aesthetics and business?"

Now there's a question. Meeting these young MBAs triggered me to give them a warning. When the economy is booming, aor expanding like a bubble, like now, the minds of business will indeed turn to higher things - such as aesthetics. But the second the going gets tough, these elevated concerns will go straight out of the window.

One day I will write the story of my Bubble Economy years in Japan. Suffice to say here that, in January 1991, I expected to be incredibly rich by Christmas. I had invented a form of consultrancy that I called "cultural engineering" and some huge projects with prestigious Japanese partners were ready to be signed.

By April 1991, I pretty much went bankrupt when the bubble ecomnomy bust and every last one of my exotic cultural projects was put on hold. They were never re-started. Aesthetics, I learned, is a fair weather market.

And it's going to get tough again. Unimaginably tough. Think of climate change. Resource depletion. Catabolic collapse. The global money system. Unsustainable food systems. Each of these is bad on its own. When they start to interact with each other....well....

Is there any point in even considering the connection between aesthetics and business at such a time?

The answer is yes. There is a connection, indeed a crucal one. There is a crucial aesthetic-cultural dimension to the transition to sustainability.

The ways we respond aesthetically to our environment now are horribly constrained. Urban man, industrial man (and woman) lack the visceral connectons to the biosphere that helped hunter gatherers survive.

Most of our inputs are mediated. We are blinded by a synthetic spectacle that envelops us all.

Modernity as a whole has been fuelled not just by cheap energy, but also by a cultural lust for speed, perfection, control.

We are bewitched, as a culture, by a high entropy concept of quality.

We would do well to remember the laws of thermodynamics. All order and control has an energy cost. It takes astronomical amounts of energy to acheve the pure, minimal, buildings, products, transport systems and infrastructures that we now aspire to and regard as emblematic of progress and quality.

We need new cultural-aesthetic ways of looking at - and acting in - the world. A new aesthetics of sustainability so that, when we look at things, we will think in totally new ways about whether a thing is "right".

Think of an airport, for example. What might it mean to be aesthetically triggered to be aware of the amount of energy embodied in the artefacts, structures and processes that surrounded us in such places?

This is where aesthetics comes in.

(to be continued....)



discussed your post with a friend today who mailed it to me...

first of all: most of us working on the intersection of management and aesthetics had their waterloo one time or the other (again)... mine was 2001/02.

looking forward i guess in general there are three possibilities we are facing here:

a) as suggested by german author thomas mann: absolutely no hope for people who cannot decide whether to be on the art or the business side of life... no hope at all... they are ridiculous figures (thomas mann "tonio kroeger" 1903)

b) in germany the sales of new automobiles in 2007 were as bad as never before since the reunification. - in-spite of an economical up-swing people seem to be waiting for new hybrids and for political security to make automotive investments.
... waiting for a new aesthetics, for a new order of things?... could be.
at least i'd like to believe that. - at least i'd like to believe that the next recession - so it will come - will not be one where people are looking back in despair but are looking forward for new things to take shape.

c) all that we are talking about - and especially the way we are talking about it - is completely irrelevant because the next wave is coming from places like china and india and will hit old europe in such a way that we cannot even describe it.
the way we discuss our problem-solving patterns and management styles is so hopelessly euro-centric and grounded in a culture that exactly brought us to the point we are now, that the next wave will come from a totally different direction, in a totally different way that our game and the rules of our game will change for us in an also culturally unforeseeable way. - in that case our discussions here are nice but utterly irrelevant.

make your bet.
the ball is still rolling.


||| | || ||||| | ||| | | | ||| | ||| |

...sachlichkeit is not a style.
it's an attitude.


Posted by John Thackara at 01:21 PM

November 09, 2006

The birth of the transistor

Join Joel Shurkin, author of the book Broken Genius, on a tour at the Science Museum in London. He'll be in conversation with the Curator of Computing and Information, Tilly Blyth. Their topic is the birth of the transistor; its marriage to the computer was one of the key moments of the information age. Monday 13 November, 3pm, Making the Modern World gallery, ground floor, Science Museum. Free entry. Check out also these events at the museum around the Game On history of computer games.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:22 AM

November 04, 2006

The power used by television

Decentralised energy - using waste heat, and encouraging individual home owners to generate electricity with solar panels and new boilers - could provide nearly 70 per cent of all Britain's electricity, and reduce emissions by as much as 60 per cent. The development of solar and and other micro generation technologies would, as a bonus, create thousands of jobs. But there's a snag. New generation televisions use far more power than the ones they replace. A friend of mine lives in a half-restored ruin up a mountain near us here in France. His water and power flows are all off-grid. But someone has given him an large Sony wide-screen plasma-screen tv which needs five times as much power to run as the cathode-ray tube model it replaces. He may need new, external power sources to run it. Can anyone from Philips or Sony tell me what your company plans to do about this?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:40 AM | Comments (1)

October 09, 2006

New voting computers crisis

The Dutch computerised voting system is completely open to fraud, and bad guys could find out, remotely, how you voted. So argue Rop Gonggrijp and colleagues of the “We do not trust voting computers” foundation in The Netherlands. Gonggrijp and co are some of smartest hackers around, so we are sure they are right. A technical paper by Gonggrijp's team details how they installed new software in Nedap ES3B voting computers. They established that anyone, when given brief access to the devices at any time before the election, could gain complete and virtually undetectable control over the election results. It also shows how radio emanations from an unmodified ES3B can be received at several meters distance and be used to tell who votes what. This is not a small crisis. 90% of the of votes cast in The Netherlands are cast on the Nedap/ Groenendaal ES3B voting computer - and it's due to be used in a national election next month. The same computer with very minor modifications is also being used in parts of Germany and France.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:51 AM

September 22, 2006

Fat, cities, and homeland insecurity

As I mentioned a while back, two geographers, Simon Marvin and Will Medd, have published a quease-inducing paper about fat in cities. In Metabolisms of Obecity: Fat across bodies, cities and sewers they write that the number of sewer blockages and overflows across cities in the United States is growing as restaurants and fast food chains pour cooking residue into drains. Local governments lack the resources to monitor grease disposal or to enforce the relevant regulations. Yuk.

I was intrigued to see that Marvin and Medd have invented something called Urban Vulnerability Studies to package - and presumably get funding for - this new line of work. This is clever: geography must sound boring to a homeland security (or whatever it's called in the UK) budget holder. But "urban vulnerability"? Ooh, that sounds serious. Better spend a ton of money on it.

Fat-clogged sewers are not the only threat facing modern cities. Hunger is another one. The British government appears to believe that growing food is an old-fashioned activity that is inconsistent with a shiny knowledge-based economy. Every where I go these days, local policymakers tell me with pride about some digital enterprise that has set up shop in the middle of a nearby field - often with a generous grant to help them do so. As a result, food security in the country as a whole is non-existent. Sixty million people will have a nasty surprise when systemic collapses in logistics systems, which are bound to happen, cut them off from anything to eat.

You can't eat game engines.

Doors 9, with its focus on energy and food, is crucial to the national and urban security of many places. We still need 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: john@doorsofperception.com

Posted by John Thackara at 07:47 AM

August 26, 2006

Dog days for the health service

After this I promise to stop obsessing about mad people running the world. But really. Today's Guardian reports that Richard Granger, architect of the world's biggest imploding IT project, compared the NHS project to a sled being pulled by huskies. "When one of the dogs goes lame, and begins to slow the others down, they are shot. They are then chopped up and fed to the other dogs".

The twisted macho mindset of some IT 'experts' is not uncommon in the health sector. One of the more extraordinary books I found during research for In the bubble was the 1,276-page Telemedicine Glossary. This hefty tome listed 13,500 organizations and projects involved with health telematics, plus six hundred telemedicine research projects with witty acronyms like KISS (Knowledge-Based Interactive Signal Monitoring System), CONQUEST (Clinical Oncology Network for Quality Standards of Treatment), CLIFF (Cluster Initiative for Flood and Fire Emergencies), and HUMAN (Health Through Telematics for Inmates) as titles. The last of these is about treating prisoners remotely.

But back to the NHS. “The disaster scenario (says the Guardian today) is that iSoft's problems will eventually trigger a domino collapse among other firms, halting the transformation of the NHS or postponing completion for yet more years.” This disaster is surely inevitable given the way it was set up. People close to the project, that I've talked to, were appalled from the beginning by its top-down architecture. And as usability expert Ann Light spotted more than two years ago, doctors and NHS IT workers had "no confidence in the ability of the national programme for IT to improve patient care because of the impossible timescales and lack of engagement of clinicians".

Posted by John Thackara at 10:46 AM

August 16, 2006

How to provide affordable housing

Ashoka Changemakers has teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to stage a competition, "How to Provide Affordable Housing". Judges from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and the International Housing Coalition, will review entries and select finalists. A public online vote will determine the winners, and Changemakers will convene a Change Summit in 2007 where winners and finalists will present their projects in person to foundation representatives and other potential investors.

Ashoka is sometimes criticised for being more concerned with individual innovators than with groups and communities. But they've been doing this kind of work for 20 years, and this experience shows in the intelligent design of the competition. It's not only about the design of cheap but clever buildings: To complete the entry form you have to answer questions about your project's "delivery model", "operational partnerships" and "scale-up strategy."

(Nomenclature note: Changemakers is not to be confused with the website (and forthcoming book) Worldchanging; and correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm fairly sure Habitat for Humanity is different from Architecture for Humanity).

Posted by John Thackara at 06:58 AM

August 12, 2006

Designing naked streets

When Paul Barter posted a link to a video of a chaotic looking Indian intersection, back in April, it provoked debate on the merits of traffic discipline versus chaos. A discussion ensued on issues about shared space or "naked streets" approaches to streets and the public realm. The video genre is growing fast: YouTube's GlobalSouth now has more than 60 short videos on transport in developing countries. "A striking number of the videos are of streets or intersections in countries like India, China or Vietnam" says Barter; "most of them show traffic that at first glance looks completely and utterly CRAZY, often with a mind-boggling diversity of road users doing anything and everything you could imagine. And the amazing thing is that it seems to work". The first person I know to speculate about control-free traffic planning was John Chris Jones; he first wrote about the idea in 1968.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:00 PM | Comments (1)

July 14, 2006

The $100k house

In this new book Karrie Jacobs travels America in a "quest for a house to call home in the modern world". It's not a conventional architecture book; rather, it's an account of a road trip Jacobs took in 2003 -- over 14,000 miles -- to meet with architects and builders who might be able to build a nice, modern house in her price range. It's not a picture book, although it is illustrated by artist Gary Panter. "I'm hoping the book will appeal to readers interested in architecture, design, real estate, and absurdly long drives" Jacobs tells me, "and also to a more general readership. I aspire to be the Rosanne Cash of architecture writing, a successful crossover act". For me, she has succeeded: the book is beautifully-written, poetic, and inspiring. For an instant spirits uplift, go and buy The $100k house.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:31 AM

June 13, 2006

Event design and quality time

If a client offers you a budget of $1500 per person to design a large event for thousands of people, do you refuse? I don’t think so.The environmental impact of large trade shows and conferences might be damaging - and the experience for those attending them may be impoverished – but the event design industry is flourishing.

That much was clear at last week’s Event Design Forum in New York. Although the first such gathering to be staged, the event sold out well in advance (making its organiser, Dan Hanover, a happy man). Hundreds of professionals from a wide range of design disciplines converged on the Puck Building to swap war stories about everything from storytelling to touch screens, holograms to hospitality.

This is not, I discovered, a shy and retiring industry. Its firms have names like Momentum, Impact, Velocity, Sparks. There was much talk of “killer ideas” and “creating impact”. Stories had to "engage a target”. Events had to become “bigger, bolder”.

My job was to be the “but wait a minute!” speaker at lunchtime. I duly ranted about the wastefulness of resources in set-piece events. I whined that people going to the Olympics emit 35,000 tons of carbon in a couple of weeks.

I complained about the point-to-mass thinking that lies behind so many set-piece spectacles. I also pouted that pre-packaged experiences are being made worse, not better, by push media and high-powered displays.

Confronted by such a red-blooded crowd, I thought my story would lead to me *being* the lunch. But a strange thing happened. A lot of people said they shared my concerns. As so often happens, designers as people are concerned about issues that are hard to raise in their working lives.

And these concerned designers wanted to know, “what else can we do?”. People I talked with in New York used words like treadmill and conveyor belt to describe their role as designers in this big bad industry. Which, they also pointed out, correctly, is no worse than most other industries.

So what are the alternatives to today’s mainstream of trade shows and events? I suggested, in New York, that we explore ways to deliver three kinds of quality in the meetings we design.

The first is quality time. We should design for both fast and slow speeds in the events we create, and thereby add social value to the experiences we have at them. We should design chunks of empty time into the trade show day - time that contais no content, at all. (This subject was explored in an event Doors organised in Europe for the High Speed Train Network )

The second quality is place. Why erect vast, noisy, short-life structures - at huge cost - when existing places can be so much more interesting? We should follow the lead taken by artists: they frequently squat abandoned buildings and bring them back to life through sheer creative activity. As an example of this, an event in Germany called ENTRY2006 will take place at Zollverein which used to be Europe’s largest coal washing facility.

The third quality is encounter. In Rajhastan, travelling storytellers go from village to village, unannounced, and simply start a performance when they arrive. No sets, no LEds. Although each story has a familiar plot - the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years - each event is unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who hold up pictorial symbols on sticks, the villagers interact with the story. They joke, interject, and sometimes argue with the storyteller. They are part of the performance. Hearing about these storytellers reminds how much we have lost of the un-mediated, impromptu interactions that once made daily life so vital.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:48 AM

September 23, 2005

Beyond the cranium

Where does the mind end and the world begin? Until recently, philosophers tended to think of the nervous system as a glorified a set of message cables that connect the body to the brain. But philosopher Teed Rockwell thinks that the boundary between mind and world is a flexible one. In his book Neither Brain nor Ghost Rockwell quotes developments in neuroscience as evidence that the mind is hormonal as well as neural; the borders of mental embodiment cannot neatly be drawn at the skull, or even at the skin. For Rockwell, mental phenomena emerge not merely from brain activity but from "a single unified system embracing the nervous system, body, and environment". At this point Rockwell, man of reason, seems to get nervous, because he describes as “vacuously mystical” the claim that “we are one with everything". To me this sounds like a logical conclusion, not a mystical one. But I'm not an expert in nonlinear neurodynamics, which Teed's book is apparently about. (I've only read extracts of the book, and I only heard about it because of my interest in architectural tourism).

Posted by John Thackara at 06:52 AM | Comments (2)

September 05, 2005

The Internet of Oz

What might the Internet be like in 2010? Darren Sharp, whom some of you met at Doors 8 in Delhi, is co-author of a hefty new Australian report called Smart Internet 2010. An executive summary is here. The 2010 Report provides, in narrative form, a range of expert opinion on future possibilities for Australia in Open Source and social network technologies, e-health, digital games, voice applications and mobiles. Old-paradigm language - lots of 'end users' and 'consumers' - permeates the introductory remarks of Senator Coonan; but she would not be the first politician to pay for a report and yet not read it. For the report itself draws on sound advice from wise souls such as Cory Doctorow and Howard Rheingold. It concludes that 'the Smart Internet of 2010 is likely to become the platform for personal connectedness'. My own take is that culture and institutions change far more slowly than most futurists would have us believe; the best way to find out what things will be like in 2010 is by going out the door and seeing what they're like now.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:11 PM

September 03, 2005

Infra is also social

Two of the most striking images from New Orleans feature helicopters. In one shot, a helicopter is dropping 15,000 bags of sand onto rushing waters that will obviously wash them away. In the second, the president projects a concerned gaze onto the diaster from a similar height. Engineering to control nature needs a social base and political consensus to be effective - and those are missing in New Orleans.
The creation of new land out of water, and keeping it dry, is a several centuries old tradition in the Netherlands. The famous Delta Works, the biggest Dutch public project ever, created giant pumping stations, dikes, and modern tidal protection systems, to keep the water from the sea and the rivers out. Behind these impressive achievements were the engineers and planners of Rijkswaterstaat (Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management). These were the true ‘makers' of Holland who the writer Den Doolaard called 'Water Wizards'. But these engineers have only been able to keep Holland dry because the Dutch sense of civic duty, solidarity and the commonweal: the need to take care of the dikes collectively is socially embedded, with the dike-warden as the key figure: he (I think they are all he) can order people to work in the dykes for the greater good of shared protection from the water. Without the tradition of the dike-warden, and his approach to managing the water by marshalling collective social effort, the Dutch 'polder model' of shared responsibility, consensus and a degree of skill at living together in a small space, would cease to work. Organisations like Future Water are doing fascinating work on the physical management of water, but the sobering lesson of the last days is that, if the social fabric goes, so too do the physical defences.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:34 PM

August 28, 2005

Bus tour of a wifi network

Only a month to go before the first Municipal Wireless Conference. Among the speakers lined up by organiser Esme Vos are Jonathan Baltuch, founder of a firm called MRI which creates economic development blueprints for municipalities; James Farstad, consultant to the city of Minneapolis' citywide wireless project; Greg Richardson of Civitium, a company that helps municipalities develop digital communities; and Sascha Meinrath, an internationally renowned expert on Community Wireless Networks (CWNs) and a leading figure in CTCNet, a network of more than 1000 organizations united in their commitment to improve the educational, economic, cultural and political life of their communities through technology. I particularly like the offer of a pre-conference reality bus tour of a wifi network. Few things sound as intangible to me as a wireless network, but MetroFi Network in Santa Clara is taking people on a behind-the-scenes look at the largest deployment in the U.S of a WiFi network. You get to check out some of their 200 second-generation WiFi nodes, visit one of MetroFi’s roof-top locations, peer at pole-top radios, and a watch a demo of MetroFi's proprietary "zero touch provisioning" of the customer's WiFi modem. (No, I don't know what that means; you tell me when you get back from the bus trip).

Posted by John Thackara at 06:51 AM

August 27, 2005

Socks that saw it all

The one application of Ambient Intelligence that sparks the imagination of young designers seems to be wearable computing. An American designer, Natalia Allen, reckons there's an emerging 'fashion tech industry', and a Canadian artist, Joanna Berzowska, is excited by the potential of what she calls 'soft computation': electronic textiles, responsive clothing as wearable technology, reactive materials and squishy interfaces. Berzowska's talk at next month's Wearable Technologies conference, in Wales, includes a description of 'memory rich garments'. As with most aspects of AmI, these sound like a mixed blessing: most of us surely possess garments that were present at occasions we'd rather they forgot.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:31 AM

August 26, 2005

X-ray ayes

What are the dark scenarios for Ambient Intelligence (AmI) ? Five threats are identified in a report from a powerful European consortium: Surveillance of users; spamming; identity theft; malicious attacks (on AmI systems); and a cultural condition they describe as 'digital divide'. The research consortium - whose members include the Fraunhofer Institute, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel - has been asked to investigate 'Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence' (hence its embarassing acronym, SWAMI). In a 200+ page interim report, the team reviews the state of the art in AmI. Their initial conclusion is that 'ambient intelligence technology violates most of currently existing privacy-protecting borders'. This is not just a matter of spooks recording email. Our psychological assumption that 'If I can not see you, then you can not see me' seems to dissolve in contexts where video cameras render walls and doors transparent. We quickly forget they are present, and adapt to a new normality.
Tucked away in the references is an impressive and, I think, important text by a philosopher, Ira Singer, called Privacy and Human Nature. Singer writes: 'Increasing manipulativeness, decreasing intimacy, and self-revelation in a dehumanizing context, all sound like substantial harms. But do these apparently trivial intrusions really do such damage?'. His conclusion: yes, they do. 'An accumulation of intrusions does ...moral and conceptual damage...even apparently trivial and 'harmless' violations of privacy depend on a reductive and unappealing picture of human nature, and promote the diminishment of human nature in accord with that picture'. The Swami report also acknowledges (page 181) that many of the application scenarios prepared by the AmI industry 'present people (children particularly) as passive consumers happily accepting increased dependability on AmI systems'. In this context I think Swami is wrong to name its fifth dark scenario 'digital divide'. If it is true that 'AmI visions are often extremely individualistic, not recognising people as members of a family or social groups' - then we face a a cultural and moral challenge, not an infrastructure access one. A better word would be anomie.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:51 AM

August 04, 2005

Life-or-death design issue in healthcare

In the UK's National Health Service, billions of euros (the published figure is two, the likely total is 15) are being spent in a new attempt to digitise and integrate patient medical records. Insiders tell me the latest project is doomed to fail, as did previous attempts, because turf-wars between professionals and managers in different parts of the country remain unresolved. A forthcoming Healthcare Communications Forum in the US steers well clear of treatment issues to concentrate on essentials: invoices for payment. 'Healthcare providers are spending fortunes producing bills and statements that baffle and frustrate most consumers' says the blurb for the seminar. The motto of the Forum's Platinum Sponsor, Art Plus Technology is: 'Financial Documents Are Fun. Financial Documents Are Exciting'. I have to agree with the second part. My daughter once spent 17 days in intensive care in St Vincent's Hospital, in New York City. When the time came to leave, the print-out of the invoice - single spaced, ten point type - was about 60 pages long. But I have to say that the total - being huge - was clearly visible, and no amount of information design would have rendered it more palatable or easy to pay. But the hospital took Amex, I was insured, and they saved my daughter's life. Who needs Good Design at a time like that?

Posted by John Thackara at 09:43 AM

July 21, 2005

Who's responsible for municipal infra?

The most important potential impact of wireless communications will be on the resource ecologies of cities. Connecting people, resources, and places to each other in new combinations, on a real-time basis, has the potential to reduce drastically the amount of hardware—from gadgets, to buildings—that we need to function effectively. The principle of 'use, not own' can apply to buildings, roads, vehicles, offices, equipment - and for that matter people. We don't have to own a thing (or a person) - just know where to find it (or him). This lighter urban ecology will arrive faster if wireless communication infrastructures are pervasive and, ideally, free. It's for this reason that Doors is supporting the first ever Municipal Wireless Conference (MW05SF). The event brings together a broad range of buyers, vendors, service providers, integrators, consultants, policy-makers, and other interested groups. The diversity of this group makes it hard to reach - so our main contribution (with your help) is to help spread the word to people who might like to attend the event, but would not otherwise hear about it.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:11 AM

July 10, 2005

Locative infra in practice

The service design and art worlds are filled with amazing proposals for the civic use of wireless communications. But most of these will remain hypothetical unless efforts succeed to make wireless freely available - rather than a costly privatised utility. Esme Vos, Amsterdam-based editor of municipalwirelerss.com, is organising the first Municipal WiFi Conference in San Francisco in September. Vos, who has been covering the municipal wireless arena for over two years now, is uniquely well-informed about what it takes to deploy muni wireless successfully. Vos is putting together sessions on: Successfully deploying a mesh network; Calculating return on Investment (how do you identify and quantify the benefits of a wireless network to residents, businesses and local government?); How to get political and public support for your wireless network; Common applications (Meter reading. Public safety. Small business development).

Posted by John Thackara at 08:32 AM

June 25, 2005

What the hack

This large hacker's festival (3,000 participated last time) happens every four years in The Netherlands. It started with "The Galactic Hacker Party", also known as the "International Conference on the Alternative use of Technology, Amsterdam". Themes this year: freedom of speech, government transparency, computer insecurity, privacy, open software, open standards & software patents and community networking. Plus independent media and networking in crisis areas and so called developing countries. One idea is to set set up a meshing experiment using thousands of laptops on the camp. It takes place "on a large event-campground in the south of The Netherlands" from 28 until 31 July 2005.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:46 AM

June 20, 2005

Wide-screen but narrow-minded

Philips boss Gerard Kleisterlee has a keen supporter in Tony Blair. Blair wants to channel far more of Europe's budget to high-tech companies like Philips, and is campaigning against the "anomaly" that the EU spends 40% of its budget on farmers, who make up just 4% of the European workforce, at a time when China and India are presenting such a high-tech challenge in science and research. But as today's Guardian points out, a lot farmers and some of their green supporters want more subsidy and protection, not less. And, besides, 70% of French farmers voted no in the referendum. What's going on? The Guardian reckons that "rural life is of social, psychological and aesthetic importance to a vastly larger proportion of the continent's population" than just the farmers. I reckon that's just half the story. Many progressive, iPod-toting, globally-inclined people voted "no" to the European constitution because they judged a "yes" to be an endorsement of monopolistic technology and science. The hunger for subsidy of high-tech Europe (which includes agribusiness, by the way) is as boundless as its cultural vision is bleak. The high-tech Europe toted by Blair and Peter Mandelson is one which equates Europe's future with the size of its technology effort.Their vision, like Philips', is wide-screen but narrow-minded.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:36 AM

June 18, 2005

A sentimental education for Philips

Philips has blamed “poor consumer sentiment” for limiting its plans for growth. Gerard Kleisterlee, Philips' CEO, told the Financial Times (16 June page 21) that “Europe is suffering from a weakened consumer retail environment”. Wrong, Mr K. Europe is not suffering, it is recovering from the false consciousness peddled by your company. You have been trying to foist the consumer electronic equivalent of SUVs onto us - but we don't need them, and will not buy them.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:34 PM | Comments (2)

April 15, 2005

Wireless Philly

Digital Cities Convention (May 2-4 in Philadelphia) is part of "a global thought-leadership series to accelerate the adoption of broadband wireless technologies for economic and social development worldwide". According to a piece in muniwireless.com, Philadelphia was chosen to launch the Convention in light of Wireless Philadelphia™, an ambitious initiative to strengthen the city's economy and transform its neighborhoods. The city's Chief Information Officer Diana Neff says the idea is to provide wireless Internet access for the purpose of helping citizens, businesses, schools, community organizations and visitors make effective use of the wireless Internet. About 40% of Philadelphia’s population still has no access to broadband - and won’t anytime soon: those neighborhoods are not attractive to present service operators given current wired-technology infrastructure costs.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:39 AM

April 05, 2005

Sorry, Stefan

I owe an apology to Stefan Magdalinski, from whitelabel.org, who was one of the star turns at Doors 8 (and has nice words to say about the event in his blog). In yesterday's emailed Doors Report, I managed to omit a "not" and thereby render a sentence about Stefan weird. I said, "he left the project when its P2P ambitions did turn into a sustainable business" - and, as Stefan points out, "noble and public spirited and insane though I am, I don't quit businesses that I founded at the point at which they become sustainable. We ran out of cash while trying to make it sustainable, I lost my job, and the assets got bought in a fire sale". A further clarification: I quoted Stefan saying that fewer than one percent of a website's visitors usually contribute or comment, and that people usually only start contributing after they have been visiting a site for three years. Whereas (he kindly explains) what he actually said was that (research from the BBC indicates that) typically novice users take three years of being *online* before making their first active contribution on any site. "A subtle but important difference" says Stefan; "Also, this doesn't apply to certain groups: those with a lot of puter experience, and kids aren't so reticent at all".

Posted by John Thackara at 01:42 PM

March 10, 2005


It's now ten days until Doors 8 and our cable has been down for 12 days. Thankyou, Wanadoo. Not. But enough of that company from hell. The good news is that the CKS team in Delhi is working brilliantly; some international people are already on their way to India; and others have actually started to think seriously about going. We are a just-in-time friendly outfit: by all means just turn up and register on the day - but if you do that, please note that for international delegates we only accept cash or euro traveller cheques on the door. Your own next step can be simple: a) come to Delhi; or b) if you really can't make it, tell one person you like and trust to come in your place - and offer to pay 50% of her or his costs.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:26 AM

March 08, 2005

A cure for the cable curse?

Ten days before Doors 7, our cable connection crashed and UPC were unable to fix it. Until, that is, I located the home phone number of UPC's European CEO; I called him during dinner to share my thoughts on the matter. By a happy coincidence, our cable connection was restored later that evening. Now, with less than two weeks to go before Doors 8, the same thing has happened. Our ADSL connection went down eight days ago - and remains down as I write. Friends and colleagues have spent much of last week and this telephoning a succession of persons at what is described with some exaggeration as the Wanadoo "help desk". This morning, a new voice said: "yes, now that you mention it, we have had major problems in Toulouse for some time". So that explains it. If you know the CEO of Wanadoo, take this advice: don't go near him/her during the next few weeks. I have wished really hard for this person to be visited by a plague of pustering sores and a painful parasitic infection.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:52 AM | Comments (1)

February 10, 2005

Life in a swarm

The theme of Doors 8 - 'Infra' - is indeed rather broad. Today we've posted a list of adjacent organisations and projects that we've learned about in developing the programme. Doors 8 is about collaborative innovation - not about charity, aid, or top-down development - so we have not listed that vast part of the NGO swarm. A priority in Delhi is to identify design challenges that are not already being tackled by someone else. The list of speakers begins that selection process - but the main work will be done, with you, at the event itself.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 AM

January 29, 2005

Distribute then socialise

A 30 million euro scheme in London will make high speed broadband connections available to 20,000 people in a comparatively deprived area.The scheme will be accompanied by local online services such as community information, message boards, and voting mechanisms to enable referendums.'This is the most ambitious experiment of its kind in the UK, and will offer tantalising glimpses of how communities might function and govern themselves in future" comments Will Davies, an e-policy wonk at London's Institute for Public Policy Research. Davies, who is currently working on 'Manifesto for a Digital Britain', cautions that the Shoreditch experiment 'will be as valuable for its failures as for its successes. Whenever digital exuberance has ushered in such a plan, optimism has turned to crushing pessimism once it becomes clear that the internet is not the answer to all our social prayers'. If the Shoreditch project does end up a disappointment, it will be because it was conceived as a point-to-mass distribution system for pre-cooked services:online educational courses and video on demand are mentioned as highlights. A better outcome would be that the free phone calls that are part of the project trigger unexpected bottom-up P2P applications. Of course, you don't need costly broadband to enable free phone calls - but the British government probably feels sorry for the hapless telcos who paid it so many billions for broadband licenses.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:25 PM

January 20, 2005

Time in design

A gorgeous 500 page gold brick of a book has arrived. Time In Design is based on a 24-hour conference by that name that took place last year in Rotterdam. But the conference proceedings (printed on gold paper) are just a start. The book ranges widely over what the editors call 'cultural lifespan extension - ways of designing and planning products so that their value is sustained and they can be lept in use for a longer time'. The secret of sustainability, the book proposes, is 'being prepared to let go, not to try and and define each and every property and quality of a product in advance'. Time In Design is edited by Ed van Hinte, designed by Thonik and Sander Boon, produced by the Eternally Yours Foundation, 2004, and published by 010 Publishers at euros 34.50 + postage. It's available from 010 or from: info@art-ants.nl or if you telephone +31 70 362 0577

Posted by John Thackara at 12:50 AM

January 01, 2005

Web collision space

In his new book 'Information Politics on the Web' Richard Rogers says that the Web can be a collision space for official and unofficial accounts of reality and, as such, an excellent arena for 'unsettling the official'. Tools developed by Rogers, such as the celebrated issue tracker, can be used in a new information politics involving competition between the official, the non-governmental, and the underground. For Jodi Dean, Rogers’ book is 'light-years ahead of other research', and Bruno Latour celebrates the fact that 'Finally, someone investigates the Web's ability to express, renew, and disrupt the age-old tools of political expression'. Rogers is Director of govcom.org in Amsterdam.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:54 AM

November 08, 2004

Towards a cyberinfrastructure for collaboration

"The socio-institutional elements of a new infrastructure supporting collaboration - that is to say, its supposedly 'softer' parts - are every bit as complicated as the hardware and computer software and, indeed, may prove much harder to devise and implement" says the economist Paul David in a draft paper from the Oxford Internet Institute. David's comment can also be applied to the issues of social innovation that we will discuss at Doors 8. If someone knows how to live well, who owns that knowledge? And how do we share that knowledge in an equitable way? Policy wonks may check out David's paper here.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:48 PM | Comments (1)

November 04, 2004

Advice, please, on those missing millions

The theme of Doors 8 is "Infra", which we interpret to span both hard and soft aspects of infrastructure in a networked society. Infra therefore includes people as well as systems. Now we keep reading that, in Europe alone, there's a shortage of 1.5 million information technology workers. A question arises: does this mean that, every day of the year, 1.5 million days of IT maintenance and development is not getting done? Has anyone studied what the effects are on our IT systems - and ourselves - if 548 million days of maintenance are missed each year?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:32 AM