April 24, 2007

How to live well - but lighter

Picture 1.png

For three years now Doors has been involved in a Europe-wide project called EMUDE (it stands for "Emerging User Demands for Sustainable Solutions". That's European research for you!). A network of design schools, acting as 'antennas', has collected examples of social innovation in a wide variety of contexts. Many of these seem to be more resource-efficient than conventional ways of organising daily life. The photograph above, for example, is community-supported agriculture in practice. Town dwellers don't just buy direct from local producers; they also help with the planting and harvesting.

Yes, such examples are on the edge of the known world for many urbanites. Our propositon is that these fringe examples may be the harbinger of wider scale social transformation to come. You may judge for yourself how representative these signs are in Creative Communities, the book of Emude, that has just been published. Edited by Anna Meroni and a team at Milan Polytechnic, Creative Communities is available to download. (It's a heavy file, but worth the wait).

Most of the people and institutions involved in EMUDE are also connected informally to an ongoing project called Sustainable Everyday. François Jégou was the co-producer with Ezio Manzini of an exhibition by the same name that has featured twice at Doors events in India.

The picture that emerges is of a ‘multi-local city…a city in the shape of a network of places endowed with totally new characteristics” - in particular, a tendency towards new models of sustainable urban living: "solidarity purchase groups", "community based agriculture", "urban vegetable gardens" and so on.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:23 AM | Comments (0)

April 15, 2007

How the rich get ... greener

I was looking for some data about the environmental impact of aviation and came across some good news! A website for us super-rich green folk called Helium lists luxury travel and real estate companies that promote eco-friendly travel. "You can spend over a $1,000 per night and sleep comfortably in the knowledge that you're not trashing the environment" says Helium. The picture, for example, shows the ultra-luxury fly-fishing destination Papoose Creek where they "plant ten new trees for every guest that visits". We can fly there in the G4 (common people would call it a Gulfstream 400 ) with an easy conscience, too. With the help of TerraPass, Helium calculated the cost to offset carbon dioxide emissions when flying in a private jet. "We were surprised to find it costs less than 1% of the flying cost per hour to fly carbon neutral. We reviewed ten popular jets in four categories and found the cost to fly carbon neutral ranges from $7 to $60 an hour — a minuscule amount when flying private costs $2,000 to $13,000 an hour. For less than $10,000, you can offset 200 hours in a Falcon 2000, a 10-seat jet that costs more than $25 million".

Posted by John Thackara at 06:54 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2007

An angel called Pradsa

Are you shaping the tools or techniques that help other people shape their world? There is no job description for what you do. You mix dedication to social change, confidence with people and organisations, and technical knowledge or skills. You are part of a growing number of committed
people using innovation and ICT to help others work on social and political issues. PRADSA (Practical Design for Social Action) is running a series of workshops around the UK to share best practice amongst people with your hybrid interests and skills.If you are working, however informally, in this area please contact Catherine, by email at:

Posted by John Thackara at 07:56 PM | Comments (0)

November 16, 2006

Recombinant innovation

"As 18-month-old Alexander Barham was wheeled into intensive care, his survival depended on the expertise of the medical specialists all around him and, in no small part, on the split-second precision of the Ferrari Formula One motor racing team". A gripping story in the Telegraph describes how a major restructuring of the patient handover procedure resulted from the input of the F1 pit technicians. Surgeons at a London childrens hospital became aware of the similarities between the handover disciplines from theatre to intensive care and what they saw in the pit of a Formula One racing team. Their complex and life-critical process involves coupling a bewilderment of tubes to drug supply, ventilation and monitoring equipment above the young patient's head. The story describes how Ferrari's race technical director Nigel Stepney helped the hospital team improve the procedure. Stepney comments in the story: "It takes a long time to establish a (pit) team. We have twenty-odd people working together for four to six years to get a routine which lasts little more than four seconds. They work round the clock, every day, with ever-changing personnel, so what they need is a formula to work to."

I heard about this story from Lynne Maher, who leads the Innovation Practice programme at the National Health Service Institute for Innovation and Improvement. We share a fascination with the transfer of solutions from one context to another. Many designers these days are inspired by biomimicry to avoid re-inventing wheels that nature has already invented. But the transfer of practical knowledge from one man-made domain to another remains an under-exploited source of innovation for designers. Projects like Anil Gupta's Honeybee Network inspired us at the first Doors East back in 2000, but there's a lot more creative scavenging to be done out there. If you have your own favourite example, please share it with us.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:57 AM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2006

The "social purpose space"

Having just read Heat (see below) I arrived in a sober mood in Beijing for what people said was the first social innovation conference.

Gerard Lemos, in his welcome, reminded us of our moral duty to be optimistic. Thereafter, forty five lectures made for a gruelling programme, but things do look brighter at the event's conclusion.

The Beijing conference confirmed that although we have a lot to do, we are not starting from scratch. Social innovation is all around us. There is vast opportunity for us to amplify, improve and accelerate a transition to new ways of living which is already under way.

Several Chinese speakers combined remarkable candour about their own situation with a disinclination to cast blame at the West. One referred to his country's irresponsible exploitation of resources for short-term benefits.

He was too polite to add that countries like the UK have contributed 15% of total emissions now present in the atmosphere. The main way we have 'improved' is by outsourcing a lot of pollution to countries like China. The resource efficiency per head of citizens in the West is in any case dreadful. According to the New Scientist (quoted by Matt Prescott ) the ecological footprint of the average American has increased in the last ten years by the same amount as the entire footprint of the average Chinese citizen.

It makes one cringe to recall the sanctimonious complaints about development in China and India still made by some Western environmentalists.

But back to the plus side. The social purpose space that we discussed in Beijing is a huge business opportunity. Health, care, learning - and climate reduction - already represent 30 per cent of most economies.

Redesigning them to be equitable, and sustainable, seems a daunting task. But how how fast will things move, pondered Ezio Manzini, when a billion entrepreneurial Chinese with mobile phones turn their attention to this market?

This is not a hypothetical development. Senior Chinese policy makers told us that they are looking to develop a “fundamental transformation of our economic growth model”. Others talked of a "campaign for a new countryside".

Geoff Mulgan, joint organiser of the conference, and co-author of Social Silicon Valleys, agreed that profound transformations are under way. "Transformations in concepts, theory and language are leading to new new social models, and new ways to create value", he said.

Some of these new models are combinations of elements drawn from different times and cultures. The Open University, for example, drew on experiments in 1950s Russia, and ideas about distance learning developed years later in the US.

Today, too, we need to scavenge widely in other cultures and eras.

My own contribution was to argue that social innovation and technology innovation are not discrete domains. We need to reframe social innovation as the driver of technology innovation, not as an alternative.

This can be a win:win realignment. A lot of technology innovation is driven by imaginary futures. These wished-for futures are often culturally impoverished; many predictions made for technology are wildly optimistic; and many of the unexpected rebound effects of technology-push can be devastating.

Social innovation, by contrast, is driven by practical, step-by-step responses to real and present needs. Reality checks (does this work?) are a real-time feature of the social innovation process.

Huge savings will be made saved when proposals for technology research are passed first first through a filter of social need.

I also explained what we hope to achieve with Designs of the time (Dott 07). In the context of China, Dott 07 has a teeny footprint. The North East of England is one of 250 regions in Europe, and these sit beside more than 500 cities in China which have populations of a million or more.

But we live in age of tipping points. It was evident in Beijing that many of our fellow regions and cities are asking the same question - “how do we want to live?” - and taking actions to answer it.

There is enormous potential to share and adapt new approaches to issues we all face, such as resource allocation. We can help each other figure out how to design services and infrastructures that will be delivered by multiple partners. And new business models are bound to emerge from new and unexpected quarters.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:38 AM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2006

Creative class fights back

Two steps forward, one step back. In 2003 I gave a lecture called The Post-Spectacular City at a conference in Amsterdam. I argued that today’s “creative class”, having optimised the society of the spectacle, will be remembered for leaving behind narcissistic but meaningless cities. The talk was later included in a book called Creativity and the City that was published by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi). So, did my devastating critique change the course of urban design and development? Well, not exactly. A new show celebrating The Spectacular City has just opened at....the NAi.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:34 PM | Comments (0)