July 11, 2011

Edible Architecture


Today seems to be the day when, once a year in this part of France, every spider in the region spins her best possible web at the same moment. Early in the morning, when covered in dew, the whole landscape seems to be dotted with uncountable millions of these amazing structures.


Now spider's web, as you may well have heard from Janine Benyus, is made with an input of only dead flies and sunlight and yet is five times stronger than Kevlar - so this particular bio-building spree is amazing to contemplate.

Nobody seems to know why the spiders mount this phenomenal display. I did discover that the spider will sometimes eat some of its own web every day to regain some of the protein lost during the web’s construction.

This would be a splendid form of quality control in human architecture, too.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:59 AM

February 12, 2011

UK design policy becomes multi-scalar


An interesting rebound effect of public spending cuts in the UK is that the UK Design Council and CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) are to merge. The move brings UK policy for design, architecture and public space together in a single organization.

The new entity will provide a one stop shop for design support and advice to industry, communities, central and local government.

Among services already provided by both the Design Council and CABE are expert advice to local councils, developers and communities on major proposed projects; promoting the value of good building and spatial design to businesses and communities; facilitating well-designed new homes and neighbourhoods; mentoring and advice to businesses, public services and university technology offices on the strategic use of design; and high profile design challenges that explore innovative solutions to health, security and sustainability issues.

The new organization, as an independent charitable organisation, will be financed through a combination of sources including grants from the government ministries dealing with Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

Posted by John Thackara at 09:26 AM

December 29, 2010

UnBox: Where next for design in India?


UnBox, a three day festival in Delhi, in February, brings together creative collectives from around India. One of these groups, Clay Futures, will brainstorm scenarios to do with sustainable, medicinal, and air filtering bentonite - hence the picture above.

Doors of Perception's role in UnBox is to pose a question: in an ideal design school, what values, skills and connections would inspire its teachers and students? We will weave this conversation into a number of UnBox events.

The idea of UnBox is to blend work and play across contexts and mediums. UnBox therefore involves workshops, debates, brainstorms, picnics, literary readings, and travel. And it's not just for designers: a key theme will be how to develop productive collaborations with activists, entrepreneurs, artists, builders, and other dreamers and doers.

The UnBox festival will happen in parallel with Technodrome, an arts and music festival, and Beat Repeat, a literary festival. Events among the three festivals will be coordinated as to allow for unBox festival goers to experience and draw inspiration from culture, technology, movement, and words.

Before the event itself, small multi-disciplinary groups will take field trips to sites dealing with organic food, urban sanitation, safe water, clean energy, livelihoods in Kumaon, and Old Delhi. Participants' rich media shot during the trips will be presented at the festival. You need to apply for these field trips by 10 January.

The festival, which runs February 24-27, involves picnics, literary readings, and art installations in an environment that will help us rethink and stretch design practice at the intersections of different disciplines. A conference each morning onference each morning is followed by a variety of afternoon activities. Among these:

- Lakshmi Murthy of Rajasthan’s Vikalp Design leads a workshop on the communication of complex health and life issues to non-literate and rural people.

- Aditi Ranjan, co-author of the spectacular book Handmade in India will explore issues to do with the documentation and dissemination of knowledge about crafts, traditions, techniques;

- Spoonge, an exploration of new experiences around food, and how chefs and designers can collaborate to create an experience that challenges culturally accepted norms;

- Make-a-thon, an all-day, all-night platform for hacking, tinkering, learning, creating, and playing. Already underway for example is I-Love- Small-Books for people who love hand-made books, comics and zines.

- a community-driven photographic event that will "bring photographers and viewers together in temporary encounters that leave no footprint"

Doors of Perception is a partner in UnBox with Quicksand; CoDesign; Basic Love of Things (BLOT); Blind Boys; MP Ranjan.

UnBox: A festival of action at the intersections, February 24-27, 2011, Alliance Francaise and Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi

Posted by John Thackara at 11:15 AM

December 19, 2010

The unwatched swatch?

If it is true that the world’s information base is doubling in size every 11 hours then a lot of eco-design information, that could be valuable for professionals, presumably goes un-noticed, and thus unused.

In the past month alone, for example, I've come across two paper-based design tools that would seem to have great potential - but lack effective publicity and distribution.

In Kortrijk, Belgium, I learned about Ecolizer.


The Public Waste Agency of Flanders [Ovam] has used something called the 'ReCiPe method' to collect and and synthesize a large amount of data on the environmental impact of materials and processes. Ovam decided to present the information as a physical swatch. As far as this non-expert can judge, Ecolizer contains high quality data. It was created in collaboration with the Flemish Institute for Technological Research [VITO]; Dutch institutions involved with ecodesign, who are also very thorough at this kind of thing, are also involved.

Why a swatch, and not a software programme? Ovam reason that since eco-design begins on the design table, the Ecolizer needs to be usable when designs are 'still at the drawing stage'.

Then, at the Design Research Society symposium in Birmingham last week, I met Bernhard Dusch, a doctoral student at the Institute of Engineering at Cambridge University. Bernard, too, is developing a tool to support sustainable design - a card swatch which replicates product life cycles when opened.


A series of indexes and marks make the strategies accessible in an intuitive, instant and playful way. There are illustrated examples on the back of each card. Dusch tells me that the Cambridge team is also developing a brainstorm tool for workshops based on the same knowledge base and content.

One can see, at a glance, that both swatches are the result of extensive and high quality research. But will they be used?

My first reaction was that these swatches have the potential to be a brilliant iPhone or iPad app. But the researchers are - well, researchers, not app developers, and not publishers. They would need new partners to make that happen. And besides, the argument that a physical artefact is more appropriate is persuasive. Are these ecodesign swatches therefore destined to remain obscure, and under-used?

One is reminded of the International International Traditional Knowledge World Bank (ITKI) that we wrote about in July.


This, too, is an ambitious effort to collect and promote information that all designers need to know about - in this case, the re-use of traditional skills and inventions from all over the world. ITKI, too, contains well-considered lists and taxonomies; its site is filled with enticing graphic icons; and when you dig down for case studies, it is clear that many of the people involved are expert on different aspects of traditional knowledge.

But the fact that the project is "located in a prestigious Renaissance villa in Florence" does not fill one with confidence that this information will soon be out there where it's needed. And at the time of writing, this amazing resource scores only 18,000 results when Googled - as compared to 1.2 million results for computer aided design.

Would a stronger push make a difference? After all, designers already have 1.2 million resources online to choose from. Is this a problem to be solved, or a predicament that we simply have to live with?

OVAM: Jan Verheye, jverheye@ovam.be
Bernhard Dusch can be contacted at: bd302@cam.ac.uk

Posted by John Thackara at 10:25 AM

December 06, 2010

Has Venice cracked the bottled water conundrum?

Italians are the leading consumers of bottled water in the world. They drink more than 40 gallons per person annually. Among many ecocidal by-products: until recently, discarded plastic bottles littered canals all over Venice, a world heritage site.

Appeals to civic duty came to naught. Exhortation and public education proved ineffective in persuading people to use tap water to reduce plastic waste. Then city oficials had a brainwave: as reported hereby the New York Times, they created a brand name for Venice’s tap water — Acqua Veritas — and distributed free branded carafes to city households.

Tap water is often referred to as “the mayor’s water” in Italy - so an early ad featured Venice’s then mayor, philosopher Massimo Cacciari, stating that “I, too, drink the mayor’s water" as he pours a glass.


Recently, by distributing discounted water carbonators, Venice enabled the The Mayor's Water to be sparkling, too. I can vouch that the sparkling variety is delicious: my source for this story, Venetian residents Philip Tabor and Gillian Crampton Smith, served a me a carafe just this past weekend.

mayor's water.png

[Modesty prevents me from claiming *all* the credit for this sublime scheme - but it cannot be denied that Venice's fizzy water campaign dates almost to the day to the publication in Italian of In The Bubble]

Another startling innovation from Venice is Shiro Alga Carta. As I learned at last weekend's fabulous sustainability festival in Treviso this paper is made from algae which would otherwise clog up the Venetian Lagoon. The algae, which are harvested annually, are used in partial substitution of pulp and are combined with FSC fibres.

Other aspects of green-ness in Italy are more - er - problematic. The latest cover of Corriera della Sera's weekend magazine, for example, is followed by pages of 'green' gadgets to buy for Christmas:

Corriere green.png

In Treviso. festival goers were too busy chatting in the streets to be distracted by Corriera's witless cover.


and here are my new best friends from Treviso:


Posted by John Thackara at 01:14 PM

November 28, 2010

Jellyfish Farm

Scientists warn that most natural seafood could disappear by 2048. The tragedy is that fishermen, wholesalers, food processing firms, retailers, chefs, and consumers, do not actively *want* to destroy the world’s fisheries. But they are prevented from seeing, and responding appropriately to, the bigger picture by the linear structure of supply and communication chains.

The thing is we now know how important it is to take whole systems into account when proposing designed solutions to these life-critical systems. But, as I wrote in an earlier post about fish systems and design some designers continue to propose wondrous solutions that fail to take whole system costs into account.

A good example of this was Studiomobile's concept for a vertical farming skyscraper in Dubai.


In this concept, seawater is used to cool and humidify greenhouses and to convert sufficient humidity back in to fresh water to irrigate the crops. This provides a fresh and humid climate for the crops that in these conditions "need very little water as they are not stressed by excessive transpiration."

As a technique, the use of seawater to cool and humidify greenhouses has the potential to make sense in regions where fresh water supplies are limited. Large tracts of the planet fall into this category. The trouble is that putting farms into skyscrapers - with or without seawater systems - is highly unlikely to make economic or environmental sense once the embodied energy costs of their construction and operation are factored in. Attention-grabbing design 'concepts' can do more harm than good if they distract attention from the true costs their implementation would entail.

In Dubai - desert-home of indoor ski-slopes and perpetual shopping - these considerations may not count for much. But in the rest of the world, designers really do need to adopt a whole systems approach if their proposals are to be sustainable in the real sense of the word.

I am more optimistic about Studiomobile's more recent prototype [below] for a Jellyfish Farm.


Presented at a recent edition of ArtVerona in Italy, their installation proposes a form of floating and vertical bio-desalination machine. "The object proposes a kind of neo-nature" say Studiomobile, in which "an autonomous living organism is put to practical daily use".

I don't know if anyone from Studiomobile will be there, but if you you are in or near Treviso this coming weekend, I'm speaking at the city's three day festival of sustainable design - and we can debate vertical farms face to face.

Disclaimer: I have not seen the installation in person - but something tells me they are not real jellyfish.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:45 PM

August 22, 2010

Silent tree hugging in Tenerife


(Summer re-run: first published 12 March 2009)

The criminal over-development of the Canary Islands – and the loss of biodiversity and social capital that followed - was financed by the same banks and speculators that our governments are now trying so desperately to save.

Given the desecration of these beautiful islands, the bankers who financed it all do not deserve to be saved. A more fitting fate would have them turned into biomass and returned as fertiliser to the land they have despoiled.


These uncharitable thoughts are prompted by my visit this week to the second Biennale of the Canary Islands Its theme is “Silencio” - but it took me a while to get into this spirit on arrival at Tenerife’s northern aiport: builders were cutting through marble using unmuffled saws, and a massively over-amplified PA system further jangled the nerves.

Away from the un-silent din of Arrivals, the scope of the biennial is impressive. A 200-page catalogue lists dozens of events to do with architecture, art and landscape design. Many excellent and charming projects have been developed as modest interventions.

But taken in total, the attitude (in writing) of the professionals is dispiriting. There are endless riffs of the kind, “the vertiginous pace of development/consumption” – but no self-criticism by designers that their profession has played an important role in all this this ecocidal development. (I do not exclude myself from the guilty, having flown in-and-out in too short a time).

The biennial aspires to chart a new design course for the islands - but one would pay more respectful attention to these proposals if they were preceded by the occasional *mea culpa*.

Just as films don’t get made without a script, urban development doesn’t happen without a “design vision” to inflame the lust of investors.

[ The Canary Islands are not unique in this. During the now-dead boom decades, many illustrious names in design were iimplicated in awful projects. One Dubai property developer teamed up with Giorgio Armani, for example, to build a US$43 billion luxury development on two islands - Bhudal and Bhuddo, off Karachi – that government officials described as being 'deserted'. But the livelihoods of 500,000 fishermen and their families - indigenous people who have been living on the islands for centuries – will be destroyed if the development goes ahead ].

A particular problem in the Canaria Biennial is one of language. Architects have the irritating habit of writing about development in a third-party, mock-dispassionate manner. The Canaria catalogue is filled with such phrases as “a series of infrastructures has arisen” or, “economic development brought about serious consequences” – as if designers had no connection with these outcomes.

It would have been far better to say, “Mr Planner X was responsible for this awful highway” or “Madame Architect Y created this terrible hotel”.

But back to the many pluses. An Ecoclimatic Atlas of the Canaries is just one among several mapping projects that begin to document biodiversity assets that, until now, have been trampled over by development. La Palma has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve, and a series of observatories is to be established to keep an aye on sensitive sites in real-time.

I especially warmed to the idea of a “touring ecomuseum” whose objective is to help people get out of their offices, universities and design studios – not to mention biennial art galleries - to experience endangered nature first-hand.

A exciting project called Proceder (transl: “proceed”) - whose founder Alfonso Ruiz hosted my visit to the biennial – explores the use of ecodesign in sustainable local develpment.

Proceder’s coordinator, Carlos Jimenez, told me about an event called Guia Campus - see pic below - in which ninety designers from a variety of disciplines spend a fortnight each year in a small village Santa Maria de Guia each year. During the event, they develop new ways to enhance the human and natural resources of the territory - designing with, not for, local citizens.


A moving story concludes the Biennial catalogue. It’s about an artist’s grandfather who, when he felt he was dying, went out into the garden and hugged each one of the trees there. He bids them farewell before returing to his bed in the house to die. Somehow I don’t see the next generation hugging the vast Calatrava auditorium when their turn comes to depart their beautiful island.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:37 PM

August 11, 2010

Innovating our way to oblivion

(Summer re-run: first published 16 June 2008)

Out-of-control buzzwords are like locusts: you can swat handfuls of them down with a bat, but more will come to take their place.

I've been swatting away for ages in this blog at all things Conceptual, Cultural, Clustered and (especially) Creative.

But now we're suffering a massive counter-attack by the word Innovation - 137 million uses of which are known to Google alone.

A good proportion of these mentions probably belong to the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in the UK.

Nesta's mission is to "make innovation flourish," and one way it does this is by using the world innovation in every second or third sentence of the emails it sends me.

Now Nesta is staffed by smart and well-connected people. And most of my clients think innovation is the very elixir of life itself. So I probably shouldn't say this. But I have to, because it's important:


My evidence for this statement is contained in a breathless announcement from Mintel, the market research company, that a "Record-Breaking Number of New Products Flood Global CPG Shelves" and that (the numbers are for 2006) "close to 182,000 new products were introduced globally, with key booming areas focusing on mind, body, and general good health".

Well over half of these of these innovations - 105,000, to be precise - were food and drink products.

This flood of innovations enable us to profit from such trends as "brainpower foods, age-defying treatments, increases in portion control, and "just for you" customised products”.

Now I may have misunderstood something here, but surely the Mintel numbers mean that more than half the innovations that reach the market all over the world - 300 innovations, every single day of the year - decrease the resource efficiency and hence sustainability of global food systems?

Good, so that's Innovation dealt with. Bring on the next killer word!

Posted by John Thackara at 04:51 PM

April 02, 2010

Requiem for a species


"It's too late to avert catastrophic change. Our politics and institutions are too dysfunctional to make elegant adaptations. We'd better prepare ourselves for surviving as best we can".

Clive Hamilton's new book Requiem for a Species is not for the faint-hearted. But my first reaction was to think: "So? what am I supposed to do with this information?".

There is an element of fire-and-brimstone in the early part of the book. Hamilton lambasts our "greed, materialism and alienation from Nature" before advising us to "abandon the accustomed view of the future as an improving version of the past."

But his larger purpose is more pragmatic than moralisitic: he wants to help us prepare psychologically and practically for the the reality of what climate weirdness will bring.

In particular, we need abandon the traditional idea of an orderly 'adaptation' to climate change, and move instead to a strategy of continuous transformation that can account for big and sometimes unexpected impacts.

The book even ends on a positive note: Hamilton anticipates that fresh values may emerge in the era of a hot Earth—moderation, humility and respect, reverence for the natural world.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:26 AM

February 22, 2009

Could 'green' energy kill the desert?


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 04:38 PM | Comments (1)

January 08, 2009

JT West: Experiencing Sustainability

Climate change, peak debt, peak energy: these are all stakes being driven into the body of business as usual.

The days of acting as if infinite growth were possible within a finite system are over.

Where does this leave (interaction) design?

To find out you need to attend my talk on "Experiencing Sustainability” at IxDA in Vancouver 5-8 February.

After Vancouver I'm paying a visit on Saturday 7th to Bainbridge Graduate Institute; it's a relatively new b-school and the only one I know of whose MBA programme is based explicitly on sustainability. Environmental and social responsibility are the basis of every course. (I first learned about Bainbridge from the three grad students who joined us at Doors 9 in Delhi last year).

On Monday 9 and Tuesday 10 I'm in-and-around Palo Alto. On Monday I'll be catching up with my friends at Ideo and on the Tuesday I'm hoping to do a half-day workshop with Banny Banerjee who runs the Stanford Joint Program in Design (it serves as a bridge between the d.school and the design program).

Then it's on to LA where, on Thursday 12 February, together with The Planning Center I'm running a Southern California Sustainable Daily Life workshop.

After that event I'm staying on for a week in Southern California with my daughter, Kate.

No, I don't expect you to find the above interesting. But I'm publishing my schedule here because my days of flitting over to the West Coast on a whim are over, and I don't want to appear impolite to anyone I won't see (or have not yet planned to) on this trip.

2009 is Year 2 of my take-10-percent-fewer-flights-every-year campaign. This will be my first long-haul flight in 17 months and I did, as promised, reduce the number of flights I took in 2008 by 30% compared to 2007.

My main ambition this trip is to find out what kinds of sustainability and design projects between North America, Europa and India are a) important to do; and b) can be undertaken remotely, with a minimum of air travel. If you have strong ideas on that matter, do get in touch.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 AM | Comments (1)

October 29, 2008

Unplugged - or unhinged?


I'm reading reading a moving and important book by Sharon Astyk called "Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front".

Uniquely among recent books on life after the Peaks - energy, protein, biodiversity etc - Astyk does not write to scare us all witless. She does not write about elaborate ways to fix The Economy. She does not even furnish a shopping list of green tools and equipment that we can all buy as evidence that we are Doing Something. (This latter prohibition is a particular disappointment to Kristi and me: we've been compiling a shopping list of high-end fruit dryers, choucroute kits, and grain grinders, that we were about to send to our friends before Christmas).

On the contrary, Astyk writes about the benefits that can come (and will come, for most of us) from being poor in material terms. She proffers practical advice on how best to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and generally how to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis.

This shocking approach clearly freaked out the the New York Times: they ran a patronising story in their Fashion and Style section about Astyk's work and life. The Times even dug up a so-called "mental health professional" - a Dr. Jack Hirschowitz - who was happy to pronounce Astyk's "compulsion to live green in the extreme" as a kind of disorder.

There is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the "compulsion toward living a green life" but Hirschowitz - a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for goodness sake - said that "certain carborexic behaviours might raise a red flag.

"The critical factor in determining whether something has reached the level of a disorder is if dysfunction is involved,” he said. “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work?".

Aaah: work. That would be the activity that makes tens of millions of people do depressed that they have to be medicated by people like Dr Hirschowitz just so they can carry on doing it?

And that would be the work whose trainees - ten per cent of all American school-age boys - are now doped up to the gills with psychoactive drugs by Dr H and his colleagues to make them pay attention?

Rather than fight The Economy, or try to fix it, Astyk seems to be suggesting that we simply ignore it - that we unplug. It's a very un-male, un-macho solution - which is why the book is subversive.

Astyk may have unplugged, but she's not the one who's unhinged.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:44 AM | Comments (2)

October 08, 2008

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the Hog

HOG houses SPARK3.jpg

Harvesting rainwater is key for any town or city determined to use its water sustainably. Rainwater HOG is a rain rescue and storage tank designed as a water-filled building block. It was conceived and developed by an Australian architect, Sally Dominguez, who had been designing drought-ready buildings but was frustrated by a lack of options for domestic scale urban rainwater catchment. HOG’s flat walls, and use of through-holes as bracing, allow water to flow in any direction. This enables HOG to store water horizontally and vertically. Because HOG modules are deliberately slim and compact, they are easy to retrofit into the tightest spaces. As Dominguez explains,"the problem with a drought is that when it rains, it often gathers in the wrong areas for it to be of use. As an architect I wanted to fit in rainwater storage without giving up valuable real estate". The product has taken off so fast in California that Dominguez has moved her family and the business to Marin County. Hog is on display at the Autodesk Design Gallery in San Francisco as one of the winners of the Spark design awards.

I can't judge whether the system can be used as it stands in a European context, but the potential market in London must be 35 million units on its own. It never rains but it shines, at least for this designer.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:28 AM

September 21, 2008

The true size of the hole? $70,000,000,000,000?

As in: "The unregulated and poorly reported credit default swaps may have actually passed $70 trillion last year, or about $5 trillion more than the GDP of the entire world". The story that includes this number is a really excellent analysis of why and how we got to this point: do read it.

By the way, if you are as confused as I am by the different ways the word "billion" is used in different contexts, you should find this explanation by Jim Loy helpful. I did.

Oh yes, and "there are fears that the West Nile virus could spread aggressively as mosquitoes breed in the stagnant water of swimming pools at bank-owned homes". In San Diego, pest control officers have seen a surge in calls to deal with bees and wasps which are nesting undisturbed in vacant houses.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:14 PM

September 19, 2008

Did this architect trigger global financial mayhem?


We don't know yet whether $85 billion dollars will be enough to save American International Group (AIG), the world’s biggest insurance firm (although some apparently insider commentators are not reassuring).

But could an architect have been responsible for starting the panic?

The Stern Review, when it was published two years ago, stated that failure to tackle climate change could cost the world - and by implication, its insurance companies, such as AIG - up to seven trillion dollars.

Many commentators at the time asked where this vast figure had come from. I think I know where from: The source is a slideshow that the architect Ed Mazria was showing at conferences around that time explaining what happens when climate change causes sea levels to rise.

While the rest of us were looking at Al Gore's pictures of baby polar bears on melting lumps of ice, the money guys were staring at the Mazria's maps: The red bits show where very very expensive sea-front real-estate is at risk of inundation.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:31 PM

Pass the phugoid bag


A terrific new word arrives just in time for the weekend: "phugoid".

I learned about phugoids from an airline pilot called Paul in his reply to John Michael Greer's piece on "the effluent society".

"As a pilot (writes Paul) I like to use flying analogies. An aircraft, if disturbed from straight-and-level flight, will execute a series of climbs and dives. If it's stable (sustainable economy) the amplitude of these 'phugoids', as they're called, will reduce until the airplane is flying straight and leve again. With an unstable aircraft (unsustainable economy), the phugoids will increase in amplitude until the airframe breaks up, or the aircraft impacts the ground during a descent.

"Only the intervention of the pilot can prevent an unstable aircraft from crashing. But the pilot has to understand the nature of the instability in order to apply the correct control inputs to stabilise the machine. Regretably, the theory of economics no longer matches the reality. Contemporary economic theory doesn't even acknowledge the existence (let alone the validity) of Peak Oil or rescource depletion".

Greer writes: “Nations have perished for many reasons, but curiously enough, financial collapse is not one of them – a reminder, if one is needed, that money is not wealth, but simply a tool for facilitating the exchange of that real wealth that consists of goods and services provided by people for people. The entire discipline of economics has consistently ignored the role of natural systems as a primary source of economic value.

"On a larger scale" (Greer continues) "it’s for these reasons that the three-hundred-year boomtime of industrialism looks normal to so many people today. Looked at with an eye tempered by the cycles of history and the principles of ecology, it takes on a very different shape; its similarity to a speculative bubble is hard to miss; its dependence on reckless, unsustainable exploitation of half a billion years of stored photosynthetic energy, in the form of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, becomes just as visible as the dependence of the late housing bubble on wild overestimates of how much future buyers would pay for homes".

Great stuff as always.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:00 PM

July 31, 2008

How dematerialisation adds value


Did you ever turn a packet of dried biscuits to dust trying to get them out of the packet? Me too. This brilliant solution from Bolletje, a venerable Dutch brand, adds value by de-materialising an aspect of the product. Go to the top of the class, Mr/Ms biscuit designer.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:59 AM | Comments (1)

May 10, 2008

Green fatigue league table


Posted by John Thackara at 07:45 AM

January 12, 2008

Drops in the bucket


Further to my note yesterday on the UK going nuclear, my attention was drawn to Charlie Hall's celebrated (in energy circles) balloon graph. As Kurt Cobb explains, "it is not always obvious to modern industrial people that it takes energy to get energy. The more energy we spend on finding, extracting, refining, and transporting energy resources, the less we have for all the other activities of society". Hall's graph challenges the notion that alternative energy sources will provide a smooth transition to a post-fossil fuel society, because scale and energy return remain such huge obstacles. Otherwise stated: look how tiny the drops of renewables are (bottom left) relative to the huge blobs of fossil fuel they have to supplant.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:34 AM

January 11, 2008

UK goes nuclear

Yesterday's announcement that Britain is to 'go nuclear' was a foregone conclusion, but is nonetheless a dispiriting reminder of the institutional inertia that stands between us and a radically lighter economy. As Polly Toynbee points out in The Guardian today, "no voice in cabinet queried this decision. Faced with persistent cabinet and industry lobbying, and professors bearing heavy statistics, MPs have simply caved in (under) the sheer grinding pressure of the nuclear industry, the engineering institutes and a host of powerful interests".

It's not that government ministers and parliamentarians are bad people. But, as Toynbee asks, "how are ordinary politicians (or journalists) to know which group of distinguished professors bearing statistics is right?" As an example of the problem, I spent two hours last evening trying to find out about the embergy (embodied energy) that the vast UK programme will entail. That's to say, what is the total impact not just of the energy output once the things are up and running, but also the extraction and processing costs of all the steel, concrete, new materials, nuts and bolts and electronics in the reactor pressure vessels, steam generators, and turbines, large pumps, control systems - not to mention the concrete and steel for the containment and other buildings, and distribution infrastructure? I found a small number of much-cited studies - and a lot of vitriolic disagreement about their veracity and meaning.

Now, imagine you are a new minister of energy. No, don't: in the UK the decision was in fact taken by the 'Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform'. You arrive in your new job. (The British minister had been in his job since June). You walk in the door to be confronted by hordes of civil servants and eminent professors whose careers, identity and self-esteem are predicated on a perpetually more energy-intensive economy. The media are screaming about an impending 'energy crunch'. What are you to do? Go home and Google "nuclear versus renewables" ? No. You sign on the dotted line, that's what you do.

This does not make the minister a bad person. He is trapped in an institutional framework that disallows him the time and context to think clearly. Besides, he is confronted by the wrong question. The real question is not whether nuclear is "bad" and renewables are "good;" it's whether the energy regime of our economy as a whole is sustainable.

And it ain't. We lack the net energy needed to keep the show going. As ever John Michael Greer puts it better than I can so I will use his words to explain. "Net energy", Greer explains, is a simple concept: "it takes energy to get energy. To calculate the net energy available from an energy resource, you add up the energy used to find, extract, process and deliver that resource and then subtract that amount from the amount of energy the resource contains. Uranium contains a very high concentration of energy, but the complex systems needed to mine, process, use, and clean up after it probably use more energy than the uranium itself contains. Once we no longer have the nearly free energy of fossil fuels concentrated for us by half a billion years of geology, concentrating energy beyond a certain fairly modest point will rapidly become a losing game in thermodynamic terms. At that point, insofar as progress is measured by the kind of technology that can cross deep space, progress will be over".

Posted by John Thackara at 06:39 AM | Comments (2)

January 02, 2008

No new lists!

My new year's resolution is to stop writing sustainability to-do lists. I'm supposed to be an expert, but it still gives me a headache trying to keep track of: the Triple Bottom Line; the Three Main Components (and Four System Conditions) of The Natural Step; the Five Capitals Model promoted by the Forum for the Future (along with its Twelve Features of a Sustainable Society); One Planet Living's Ten Guiding Principles; the Ten Principles for Sustainable City Governance at the heart of the Copenhagen Agenda; the World Wildlife Fund's Three Forms of Solidarity; Peter Senge's Four Basic Shifts; the Framework of Eight Doorways of the Sustainable Schools Network; and the ten Hannover Principles promulgated by Bill McDonough. I'm as guilty as the rest, having cobbled together Six Design Frameworks as the conclusion to my book, In the Bubble. There are doubtless other important to-do lists out there that I've missed. But can we please agree: enough already?

Posted by John Thackara at 01:17 PM

January 01, 2008

Of doomers and bottle fillers

In Sao Paulo before Christmas someone referred to me as a "doomer." I had not heard the word before, but was told that it describes sad, train-spotter-like people who can't stop talking about peak oil, climate change, the instability of financial markets, the impending food crisis, and what John Michael Greer calls the "catabolic collapse" of industrial civilisation. Now it's true that plenty of people out there are unhealthily thrilled by the prospect of apocalypse. Their number includes, or so we are told, George W Bush. But you don't have to be an End-Days nut to conclude that we are headed for what one might call, to put it mildly, a discontinuity. If you look under the hood, the life-support systems of industrial civilisation are coughing and spluttering alarmingly. Even mainstream politicians, who hate being associated with bad news, are promising rough times ahead. But I reject the label "doomer". The word implies that, faced with these scary prospects, we have to choose either to join a cult, or head for the hills with a truckload of guns and baked beans. As a bottle-half-full kind of guy, I'm headed for a third space - between despair and flight - where a lot of creative and collaborative work needs to be done, much of it involving design. This newsletter - and Doors of Perception projects - will focus on those kind of activities during 2008.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:32 AM | Comments (2)

October 03, 2007

Bottles half empty and bottles half-full

We made a list of recommended books for the Dott festival bookshop and published it (the list) in the October Doors Report. A long-list is online at Amazon. I am now receiving suggestions of books we should have added, so I'm adding the best-sounding additions (recommender in brackets) below:
1 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Jared Diamond
2 Heat - George Monbiot
3 An Inconvenient Truth - Al Gore
4 A Demon of Our Own Design - Richard Bookstaber
5 Six memos for the next millennium - Italo Calvino
6 Relational Aesthetics - Nicolas Bourriaud
7 Smart Mobs - Howard Rheingold
8 Worldchanging - Alex Steffen
9 Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes - Viljoen&Bohn
10 In The Bubble - John Thackara
11 A Geography of Time - Robert V. Levine
12 Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy - Luis Fernandez-Galiano
12 Powerdown - Richard Heinberg
13 Cradle to Cradle - William McDonough and Michael Braungart (Tammow Trantow)
14 The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization - Thomas Homer-Dixon (Andrew Curry)

My fellow list-a-holic Andrew Curry has now anotated this list.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:11 PM

May 14, 2007

Design Roads to a One Planet Economy: Art Center lecture

green buildings

How do European, American and Asian approaches to green design differ - and what we should learn from each other? Will technology save us, or is a social revolution more important? I'm giving a lecture on this topic at Art Center, in Pasadena, on 5 June - and I'm told there will be a lively debate. My talk accompanies an exhibition (curated by Gloria Gerace with the support of Vitra) called Open House: Architecture and Technology for Intelligent Living. The picture above for a Seoul Commune designed by Mass Studies, is one of the show's highlights. Before you make a joke about it, I will: The lecture takes place inside the Wind Tunnel. Windy or not, the event is free and is open to all, so do please come. Tuesday 5 June, 7.30pm, Art Center, California. For detrails phone +1.626.396.4254 or email leslie.marcus@artcenter.edu

Posted by John Thackara at 08:57 AM

April 10, 2007

Weighty words about losing weight

"We have to remember that industrial design equals mass production, and that every move, every decision, every curve we specify is multiplied—sometimes by the thousands and often by the millions. And that every one of those everys has a price. We think that we're in the artifact business, but we're not; we're in the consequence business." So begins Allan Chochinov excellent new "Manifesto for Sustainability in Design." Allan has managed to condense his clarion call into 1,000 words - but considering that Core 77 probably has more readers than any industrial design channel, on or offline, those 1,000 words will carry a lot of weight. Or, hopefully, even better, reduce it.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:53 PM

April 08, 2007

River-powered Christmas

It's Easter, and news is slow, so let's talk about Christmas. "We all love the look of our town in the festive season - but 100,000 watts of lights in the town isn't doing the environment any favours. For 2007 we will be hosting zero-carbon town illuminations, using a specially commissioned light installation for the town powered by turbines in the river". A fab idea from Fold Gallery.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:00 PM

February 19, 2007

The carbon footprint of virtual worlds, Hummers, and Brazilians

I hear from Nick "still in the US without air conditioning" Oakley that a Second Life avatar uses about as much energy as the average Brazilian. Lesson: even virtual worlds have a real carbon footprint. I told a similar story, this time about server farms, in my book. Upon discovering that we share a (probably unhealthy) interest in climate infoporn, Nick went on to tell me that the Hummer H3, with a fuel efficiency of about 9 mpg, uses less energy over its lifetime than a Prius.
It's Monday, we leave for India in a week for now, and things are rather busy - so I simply don't have time to reflect on what these important developments signify. So you do that - and let me know your conclusions in a week or so.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:50 AM | Comments (1)

November 06, 2006

Green electronics (cont.)

Greenpeace subjected some of the biggest names in electronics to their first global exam on their green credentials. Ranked on their use of toxic chemicals and electronic waste (e-waste) policies, only Dell and Nokia scraped a barely respectable score while Apple, Motorola and Lenovo flunked the test to finish bottom of the class. The Greenpeace scorecard highlights which of the major electronics companies is doing the most to remove the worst toxic chemicals from their products and which companies have good recycling programs for their products

Posted by John Thackara at 09:00 AM

October 24, 2006

Buy this book now!

Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century will be an indispensable overview of tools, models and ideas for building a better future. In next month's New York Review of Books, Bill McGibben writes that the book "is nothing less than The Whole Earth Catalog, that hippie bible, retooled for the iPod generation. There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plyboo (i.e., plywood made from fast-growing bamboo). There are many hundreds of how-to guides (how to etch your own circuit board, how to break in your hybrid car so as to maximize mileage, how to organize a "smart mob".

Like movies, the success of books is largely determined by the rate of sales in the first week or two. The amazing WorldChanging team ask for our help in giving their new book a good start. They do brilliant work and deserve our support. We should all buy a copy (or more) before November 1 and help drive up the early numbers.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:24 AM

August 21, 2006

Climate porn

‘Climate porn’is turning the public away from action on the environment. So argues the UK's Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). In a report called 'Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?', the think tank has accused the media, the British government and environmental groups of indulging in the promotion of 'climate porn' through promotion of 'alarmist apocalyptic climate change scenarios'. The alarmist language used to discuss climate change, says IPPR, 'offers a thrilling spectacle but ultimately distances the public from the problem'.

Having reviewed 600 articles and news stories, the report identifies ten different ways of talking about climate change. Two are dominant. The first, Alarmism, are variants on ‘we’re all going to die’. This pessimistic approach refers to climate change as awesome, terrible, immense and beyond human control, says the report. It excludes the possibility of real action. ‘The problem is just too big for us to take on’. Alarmism might even become secretly thrilling, say the authors – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’. It is seen in almost every form of discussion on the issue.

The second most common form of climate change discourse identified by IPPR emphasizes small actions. An approach along the lines, ‘I’m doing my bit for the planet – and maybe my pocket’ is dominant in campaign communications from government and green groups, states the report. This approach asks a large number of people to do a few small things to counter climate change. 'The language is one of ease and domesticity with references to kettles and cars, ovens and light switches'. But this approach to communication, say IPPR, 'is likely to beg the question:how can this really make a difference?'

The accumulation of small changes can, in fact, make a big difference. But the IPPR addresses a real issue. The tendency for ecological gloom-mongering to demotivate us, rather than change behaviour, has been a recurring theme in Doors conferences, too. Back in 1995 for example, at Doors 3, we criticised the promulgation of gruesome scenarios about the future of the planet and added: "Eco-gloom is bad enough, but adding guilt is a real turn-off. Being told that a vast, unfolding calamity is your fault almost guarantees that you'll go into denial".

Unfortunately, the IPPR report clatters off the rails way when it proposes solutions. It suggests that communications from government and green groups should 'treat climate-friendly activity as a brand that can be sold, making it feel natural to the large numbers of people who are currently unengaged with the problem'. According to Simon Retallack, the think-tank's head of climate change, “Climate-friendly behaviours need to be made to feel like ‘the kinds of things that people like us do’ to large groups of people'.

Are marketing and brand management an appropriate response to climate change? I suspect the opposite. The slightest hint of spin and branding will distance the public from the problem even more.

Bottom line: It's not just about language. The human contribution to climate change is based on the material reality of an insanely wasteful consumer culture. It will make no difference to that reality if politicians start spouting sunny eco-speak without changing fundamental drivers of consumerism such as cheap consumer credit, or tax breaks on freight transport.

The recourse to brand marketing in politics is getting weirder by the day. One of the authors of the IPPR report, Gill Ereaut, is principal of 'Linguistic Landscapes, a consultancy that combines techniques of linguistic and discourse analysis with commercial expertise to address marketing and communications and organisational problems'.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:10 AM

July 05, 2006

Fuel cells to Newcastle?

What would it mean, in practical design terms, to make one household carbon neutral? We'll discuss this at the next Dott 07 (Designs of the Time) Explorers Club meeting on 11 July. The event takes place at the Robert Stephenson Centre in Newcastle, UK. Many of the greenhouse gas emissions that come from residential households could be reduced if we made our houses more efficient, generated our own energy, switched suppliers, or simply switched off devices. But cumulative energy use is invisible, and alternative insulation and energy solutions are offered by multiple, fragmented suppliers and are therefore hard to procure. The evening will explore the design components of a whole systems approach to the challenge. Leading the discussion will be Chris Vanstone from RED at the Design Council, and Stephen Dormer from the Eaga Group. Tickets are free but you need to reserve by emailing Beckie Darlington beckie.darlington@dott07.com by the end of this week.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:24 AM

April 11, 2006

Green design goes A-List

Did we say that green design needs to be less sad and more glamorous? Brad Pitt, who has few reasons to be sad that we're aware of, narrates a six-part television series on ecologically friendly architecture, called Design-e², which launches in June on PBS in the US. The series challenges us to “live smarter, greener lives with the future in mind”. Mr Pitt seems intent on putting those words into action. He's reportedly planning a 20,000 square metre resort in Palm Springs that will boast a vast swimming pool area, a huge spa, and an outdoor cinema. It's impressive if Mr Pitt has figured out how to design a swimming pool in a desert that doesn't waste water; many others in the region are worried sick about energy and water issues. Autodesk, the world’s largest provider of design software, deserves credit for supporting the tv series; it opens a sustainability centre next month. It's not in Palm Springs, but a remarkably clean and serene-looking employee is featured on their website. She must have been to a Brad Pitt spa.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:34 AM

March 31, 2006

Low-carb clusters

As noted yesterday, it makes me nervous that so much money is pouring into biotech clusters; the sector has bubble-like features and is based on a absurd proposition: that technology will help us cheat death. New and renewable energy is a surer bet for a region's economic future. World leader in this market, by some accounts, is Switzerland. The country is ranked as the worldwide leader in preventing carbon dioxide emissions, and third in recycling efforts; some 18,000 people are employed in environmental protection technology firms. The country has committed to reduce per capita energy use by two thirds. (Each day a person in Switzerland consumes about 6000 Watts of energy for the production of food and other goods, for heating and cooling buildings, and for mobility. The country has a target of a "2000-Watt society" and is investing heavily in new energy concepts and technologies to achieve that). Canada, too, is making a bug push; in Ontario, an organisation called Earth and Environmental Technologies (ETech) supports a wide range of projects to do with sustainable agriculture, clean water technologies, sustainable energy, resource management, and sustainable Infrastructure. The North East of England, has made renewable and microgeneration technologies a strategic focus, too. But it would be an exaggeration to describe these technologies as 'solutions'. Still missing is a seamless and supplier-independent service that advises householders which, among the variety of different solutions, is appropriate, in what combination - and which fits them and looks after them. We'll be looking at this gap in a project within Dott.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:54 PM

March 30, 2006

Life after overshoot

What will life be like when our growing economy overshoots its carrying capacity, degrades its resource base, and collapses? A gripping description of this more-likely-than-not outcome is included in a British government report about Intelligent Infrastructure Futures. Andrew Curry and colleagues developed four contrasting scenarios of life in 2050, one of which is called Tribal Trading. “After a sharp and savage energy shock, the global economic system is severely damaged. Infrastructure is falling into disrepair. Long distance travel is a luxury few can enjoy. For most people, the world has shrunk to their own community. Cities have declined, and local food production and services have increased. Local transport is typically by bike and horse”. There are local conflicts over resources, and lawlessness is high. But less energy means there is more physical work to be done, so people are fitter. And it's not as if life becomes non-tech. Electricity is available from ‘microgrids’ – small community networks that integrate wind and solar power. And there’s still an internet: It’s based on wireless mesh networks whose servers are maintained by a new breed of scavenger-nerds who scour the old world’s electronic detritus for re-usable circuit boards and memory. Tribal Trading was regarded as the worst case of four scenarios developed by the report’s small army of technocrats. But Tribal Trading sounds preferable, to me, to the high-speed, perpetual motion, Always On scenario which is where we’re headed now.
If the report has a weakness, it is in describing as hypothetical futures, changes that are happening now. For example, it speculates that “perhaps in 50 years there could be a Department of Intelligent Infrastructure’ – but in FedEx and DHL, we have just such organisations today - they're just private. Another section refers to “growing resistance in 2040 to 24/7 working patterns”. But massive disaffection with that lifestyle is recorded in numerous happiness surveys of present times. It’s only because we need to service massive personal debts that we keep working – and the money system, too, is tottering. Although Tribal Trading is not inevitable - some combination of the four scenarios is the likely outcome - one footnote does state that “The overshoot scenario is the most likely. Our system is inherently structured for overshoot and collapse”. But maybe it won’t be so bad.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:33 AM | Comments (1)

January 12, 2006

Bottles half-full

Africans are twice as optimistic as Europeans. According to a survey of 52,000 people around the world by Gallup International (reported in The Economist of 17 January), African people come top when asked if they expect this year to be better than last year. Asked to explain the apparent anomaly – after all, Africa is “poor” - Meril James, from Gallup, is quoted as stating that “there is usually very little relationship between the survey’s optimism rankings, and reality”. Nigerians, for example, are “usually upbeat whether their lot gets better or not”. Hmm: I’m not sure about that. Results also depend on how you define a person’s “lot”, and on what aspects of “reality” you choose to measure. For example, I’m pretty sure that that levels of household debt are somewhat lower in Nigeria than they are in London - but that levels of social solidarity are much higher. I next year’s survey, I would like Gallup to add the question: “Do you look forward to being old in this community?”.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:49 AM

January 09, 2006

$65 billion fund for green design

Is advertising a source of harmful emissions? Industry forecasts anticipate that advertising spending will break through the $400 billion mark this year. That's $555 per person in the USA, (compared to $209 per head in France, $25 in Latin America and $8 in China). Those billions have just one purpose: to stimulate consumption - most of which will be environmentally damaging. I doubt that even one percent of this year's global ad spend will be used to create demand for environmentally positive goods, services or behaviour. One response would be to curb environmentally harmful marketing, much as we are trying to reduce carbon emissions. But curbs and limits are an unimaginative solution. Far better would be for adland and its clients to divert just ten percent of their budget - $10 per person, worldwide - to the redesign of products and services to make them sustainable.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:31 AM | Comments (1)

December 04, 2005

Heavy development

(Inez, South Korea) My campaign to lighten up the global economy,as a key aspect of the transition to sustainability, suffered two morale-sapping reality-checks this week. Firstly, UNCTAD announced that the weight of cargo carried on the world’s sea lanes rose 4.5 percent in 2004, and the capacity - aptly named deadweight - of all vessels now available is nearly 900 million tons. That’s the equivalent of 500 million SUVs floating around the planet on ships at any one time. The second reality check - although it feels somewhat unreal - is the Incheon Free Economic Zone (Inez) in South Korea. Yeongjongdo, the logistics centrepiece within the zone, is conceived as a new logistics hub between Northeastern Asian economies and Eurasia. Freight terminals covering 660,000 square meters have already been been built, with more to follow. Incheon International Airport itself has gobbled up 20,000 acres of land once support areas are included. On my trip into Seoul, a few days ago, I didn’t even notice, because it is so broad, the six-lane bridge, 14.6 kilometers long, that has just opened. Also impressive, if scary, is Songdo Intelligent City, the world’s largest privately-run urban development project. It is growing fast into an international business district that features knowledge-based information technology industrial complexes, including the Techno Park, digital entertainment cluster and bio-industry complexes. Less than ten percent of the 125 million square feet development is reserved for public space: the project is "focused on free trade and international business", not on livability.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:21 PM

November 13, 2005

Sustainability into the wee hours

I learned at the university of Cincinnati last week that 98 percent of all US households containing babies use some disposable diapers, and that an American child can run through 8,000 to 10,000 of these products before becoming fully toilet trained at age three or later. This is in contrast to a baby born in East Africa where poor families use zero disposables and and "dryness is accomplished by five or six months". The context for this discussion is that disposable nappies (as we call them in the UK) are not "disposable" at all. As a classic 1988 article by Carl Lehrburger and Rachel Snyder in Whole Earth Review explains, "we throw about 18 billion of them away each year into trash cans and bags, believing they've gone to some magic place where they will safely disappear - when the truth is, most of the plastic-lined "disposables" end up in landfills. There they sit, tightly wrapped bundles of urine and feces that partially and slowly decompose only over many decades. What started out as a marketer's dream of drier, happier, more comfortable babies has become a solid-waste nightmare of squandered material resources, skyrocketing economics, and a growing health hazard, set against the backdrop of dwindling landfill capacity in a country driven by consumption". Several people from Procter and Gamble, who were involved in our discussion in Cincinnati, acknowledged that this should be a live issue for their company as it gears up to market these products to billions more families in China and India. So we addressed the question: would it be possible to replace the manufacture of diapers with a service to help parents toilet train children much earlier? Strictly speaking, one is supposed to talk about "toilet learning" these days, but the key lesson seems to be that yes, such a change would be possible - especially if we learn from other cultures, such as the East African Digo, where parents use something called a "nurturing conditioning" approach to achive exactly this result. Insofar as western experts have studied different approaches (which is not very much) they "do not find any problems associated with earlier toilet training except that it took longer". And there's the rub: The main obstacle to the replacement of polluting diapers with a toilet learning support service, enabled by P&G, will be time. Nurturing conditioning, in plain English, means the constant presence and attention of a parent - and that time is what modernity has squeezed out of the equation.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:41 AM | Comments (1)

November 06, 2005

Future currents

One third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from residential households. Householders could reduce this by making their houses more efficient, generating their own energy, switching suppliers, or simply switching off. But power bills are confusing, energy use is invisible, and installations are tedious. The RED team at the Design Council in London, having experienced these frustrations first-hand at a house in London, concludes that people need design help to make these kinds of changes doable. Its Future Currents project proposes new products, services and policies to help householders save energy and reduce C02 emissions.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:16 PM

August 22, 2005

How tooths pollute

If you are worried about the cost of living, try this: The cost of the average cremation in Britain is expected to rise by up to £100 (160 euros) after a government announcement that it wants to halve the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere by crematoria. It seems we accumulate the highly poisonous metal in dental fillings. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that, without action, mercury emissions from crematoria could rise by two thirds by 2020. Body disposal already accounts for 16 per cent of mercury emissions in the UK. The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) gave warning that the furnacemen would inevitably pass on the extra cost to the bereaved. I learned about this from the Natural Death Centre newsletter.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:56 AM

July 19, 2005

War of the words

A couple of weeks ago I reacted harshly when Philips, purveyor of high-end goggleboxes and hairdryers, blamed 'poor consumer sentiment' for the company's disappointing results. Now, British economists are expressing 'fears for consumer confidence' following the July 7 bombings in London. 'Some people may feel that conspicuous consumption is not appropriate at a time of national tragedy said one economist in today's Guardian. An upbeat colleague anticipated that "the reaction of the UK consumer will, after an initial nervous reaction, be to carry on as normal'. Confident? Normal? It's a hot day, so I won't labour the point: Conspicuous consumption is not 'normal', it's a form of cultural madness. It's good news, not bad, if consumer sentiment is moving away from the mindless purchase of stuff we don't need.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:30 AM

June 28, 2005

Sustainable everyday at the Pompidou

The Sustainable Everyday project is a platform for knowledge collection and sharing among creative communities and innovative citizens.The website includes a catalogue of promising case studies,a lab of scenarios-in-progress, and information about a travelling exhibition. The latter has reached Paris, where it opens tomorrow at Centre Pompidou as part of a new exhibiiton called D-DAY. The show lasts until 17 October 17.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:58 AM

June 15, 2005

Chilling out

So who authored global warming? I have just read a heavy three-part story on the subject in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert called The Climate of Man. Kolbert writes that in the seventeen-eighties, carbon-dioxide levels stood at about the same level that they had been at two thousand years earlier, in the era of Julius Caesar, and two thousand years before that, at the time of Stonehenge, and two thousand years before that, at the founding of the first cities. But by the mid-nineteen-seventies, they had risen by as much as they did during the previous ten thousand years. In political terms, Kolbert concludes, "global warming might be thought of as the tragedy of the commons writ very, very large. It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing". Well, maybe. In my capacity as a bottle-half-full optimist, I reckon the cultural transformation necessary for a radical lighting of the economy is almost certainly under way. Whether it's enough change, and in time - well, it's too soon to say.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:38 AM

April 21, 2005

Kiss your lifestyle goodbye

"The end of oil is closer than you think. Oil production could peak next year. Just kiss your lifestyle goodbye". A rollicking doomsday story in today's Guardian, by John Vidal, revisits the so-called "peak oil" contoversy about whether a global peak to oil production is approaching. According to Vidal, "the US government knows that conventional oil is running out fast. ...world oil reserves are being depleted three times as fast as they are being discovered". The US government does not want to admit the reality of the situation, writes Vidal, but a group of ultra-conservative Swiss financiers has asked Colin Campbell, an author of the Peak Oil scenario, to tell them about the beginning of the end of the oil age. "The first half of the oil age now closes" Campbell is quoted as saying; "It lasted 150 years and saw the rapid expansion of industry, transport, trade, agriculture and financial capital, allowing the population to expand six-fold. The second half now dawns, and will be marked by the decline of oil and all that depends on it, including financial capital." Now we didn't discuss oil shocks at Doors 8 in Delhi, but we did hear Margrit Kennedy make a persuasive case that the world money system, too, is heading for collapse. (We've just re-posted a revised version of Professor Kennedy's presentation). Now I don't know if this is a reality check, or an unreality check, but on my office wall is a Guardian story from a few years back with the headline "Human life on the planet under threat"; the piece was run on page 13 of the paper under "International News".

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

January 27, 2005

For a food mile tachometer

Truck drivers already have to endure supervision by a tachometer which logs their speeds and driving times on behalf of myriad external authorities. Why not a tachometer for tomatoes, to monitor and make explicit food miles? Food distribution can be tremedously wasteful, but invisibly so. The concept of food dates back to a study called The well-travelled yogurt pot: lessons for new freight transport policies and regional production in which the movements of a number of milk carefully measured. All ingredients of the product were included, e.g. milk, jam, sugar and the packaging, the glass container, paper label, aluminium cover, cardboard box and cardboard sheets, glue, and foil. (The paper I've linked to is a pdf at the bottom of the list).

Posted by John Thackara at 11:09 PM

December 21, 2004

Flying fish fiasco

Freight transport is an important source of air pollution, CO2 emissions, and noise, as well as causing countless injuries and deaths by accidents. Freight transport is out of control in the sense that it has been growing faster than the economy, by 0.8% per annum, since 1985. Flying fresh salmon from Norway to Japan is an example of excellent logistics performance and crazily misplaced priorities that characterise this mobile economy. "A crazy case of flying fish" is described by two Danish researchers, Tina Petersen & Lise Drewes Nielse, in the latest issue of the excellent and always fascinating journal, World Transport Policy & Practice. Volume 10, Number 3 (2004) 12–18. PS: Back in a week from now.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:21 PM

December 04, 2004

Rocks to rubble

I know our focus in Doors 8 is supposed to be on social infrastructures, but interesting material on the hard kind keeps turning up, too. I found a report about rocks and rubble, for example, which describes a more sustainable system of resource management. The life cycle of construction minerals is complex and involves many players: quarries, industrial processors, manufacturers, transporters, construction companies and waste disposal operators. The 4sight project has used mass balance and other modelling tools to identify and assess the impacts associated with the various processes and operations in the life cycle of construction minerals. If you like the hard stuff read more here.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:45 PM

November 12, 2002

Is carbon-based energy yuppy crack?

This article was written for Tornado Insider, the European business magazine, for publication in its November 2002 edition.

On a recent visit to Telluride, in Colorado, I was terrified to see a huge black Humvee draw up at the gates of a kindergarten. At the time, American newspapers were full of stories about a gun-toting maniac who had attacked a school, so I flashed to the image of a re-run. My heart raced as out of the Humvee hopped … a blond-haired, seven-year-old girl. Fear turned to indignation: who the hell takes a 30 kilogram child to school in a 3.5 ton, eight feet wide vehicle that does eight miles to the gallon? The answer is: lots of people, in the US at least: civilian sales of the Humvee are booming. The lease price is an affordable $350 a month, and if you ask about fuel consumption on the Humvee website the charming answer comes back:” who cares!” And you wondered why the US government had to invade Iraq?

Carbon-based energy is to yuppies as cocaine is to crack heads. We don’t need it, but we are addicted to it. The carbon dioxide emissions of someone in the industrialised north average 8,467 kg per year. Experts state that, globally, our emissions of carbon dioxide must be reduced by at least 60%. On this basis Friends of the Earth propose a target of 1100 kg per person.

How might that happen? Any 'jump' to renewables will be the result of cultural, rather than technological, transformation. By this I do not mean ecological gloom mongering, which tends to be counter-productive. An over-supply of bad news leads to denial, not to change. During a recent visit to Hong Kong, the story broke about the discovery of an "Asian brown cloud". A team of international climatologists, led by Professor Paul Grutzen, whose work on the ozone hole won him the 1995 Nobel science prize, said that they had identified a10 million square mile, three kilometre thick, fluctuating haze of man-made pollutants that was spreading across the whole Asian continent and blocking out up to 15% of the sunlight. The cloud was described as a "dynamic soup" of vehicle and industrial pollutants, carbon monoxide, and minute soot particles or fly ash from the regular burning of forests and wood used for cooking in millions of rural homes.
This horrendous story only made page two of the local press and disappeared after a couple of days.

The academics were y reluctant to attribute individual weather phenomena to the cloud, even though it is clear the Asian climate has been disrupted in the past decade with a series of unseasonable and erratic rains, severe droughts, and fierce storms in Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and elsewhere. This year the monsoons in many parts of India and south east Asia have either not arrived or have been particularly severe.” The Asian cloud is man-made so it can be eliminated", said Klaus Toepfer, head of the UN environment programme." To do so needs better burning technologies and we need to have cleaner traffic, and sustainable energy". But Hong Kong shrugged, and went on with its business.

Many of the technology ingredients for a post-carbon energy regime are already in place: photovoltaic fuel cells, solar power, geothermal, wave energy, hydrogen, and the like. But these saplings will only grow into viable trees when some kind of eco-shock - to match the oil-shock of the 1970s - sweeps aside extraction industry vested interests and the institutions that support them. I thought this year's floods might do the trick, but from a US perspective, at least, it looks like George Bush's dog will have to drown before change happens.

Looked at from Europe, changes in attitudes towards energy issues are more evident. In Germany's general election, the remarkably strong showing of the Greens indicated that the environment had been a central concern. And this was not just a protest vote. The Greens first four years in government delivered a tax on fossil fuels, an agreement to phase out nuclear energy, a huge increase in wind power, and an enforceable commitment to a fall in carbon dioxide emissions. German commentators argued that a key factor in the Greens’ success was the summer’s extensive flooding in southern and eastern Germany.

The US boycott notwithstanding, ratification by EU countries of the Kyoto protocol on limiting green house gases, accompanied by ambitious government targets and tax incentives for renewable energy, are good news in the long run for sustainable energy ventures which otherwise still face a distorted market with strong subsidies for conventional energy.

In Germany, environmental goods and services are now a larger sector than the steel making which once epitomised the country’s industrial strength. The global market for environmental goods and services is estimated at $335 billion and is forecast to grow to $640 billion by 2010, according to the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry

Interviewed in The Guardian, Rolf Westenhagen, energy and private equity analyst with Sustainable Asset Management, described how he reviewed about 1,000 business plans in setting up Sam Private Equity Energy Fund (the Energy Fund), which focuses specifically on sustainable energy opportunities. “We noticed some particular characteristics of the European VC market. Compared to the US, where 50% of our deals still originate, there is a lot of technological know-how in European companies, but the business side is often less developed. Part of it may be that European companies face smaller home markets, so they anticipate slower growth rates than their US counterparts, but it is probably also a cultural issue. As a result, the average size of deals is smaller in Europe than in the US. On the other hand, the current regulatory environment, specifically for sustainable energy, is definitely more encouraging in most European countries than in the US.

Our physical state of affairs is easier to analyse than the psychological one. Whatever kind of economy we are in – old or new - almost everything we design and consume stimulates wasteful flows of matter and energy. We buy more hardware than ever - especially new devices, however pointless. We print more paper, especially now our personal computers and laser printers are networked. We package more goods, especially now they have to travel so far. And it’s not just the objects we buy that weigh us down. According to Paul Hawken, in Natural Capitalism, only six per cent of the vast material flows in the US economy actually end up in products. In most of the so-called advanced or developed economies, he writes, the overall ratio of waste to durable products is closer to a hundred to one. This waste is enabled, fuelled and accelerated by information technology. The promise was that digital communication would bring lightness and dematerialization. But as Paul Hawken discovered, the amount of wasted matter generated to make one laptop computer is close to four thousand times its weight on your lap. And that’s just the wasted stuff. George Gilder predicts in his book Telecosm that, by 2006, internet computing will use as much power as the entire US economy in 2001 – some three trillion kilowatt hours.

“What is happening is not by intention” says Hawken, “so we can put aside the theory that there are ‘bad’ people that we can get rid of to make everything OK.The fact is that the rate of loss is deeply embedded – a systemic problem inherent in assumptions that have only recently begun to be questioned”. In other words, it’s a design issue, not an ethics issue. We are using the earth’s resources faster than we replace them. Design can help reverse this trend by changing the processes behind products, as well as the resources used to make them and use them. In this sense sustainable design is a driver of innovation. In the UK and France, for example, many companies companies already do so. Many are acting defensively, to meet customer demands or in response to regulation. Others, such as Sweden, Germany and The Netherlands, are more proactive, aspiring first mover advantage’ in an inevitable trend. Design for sustainability has been integral to innovation in Swedish policy for 20 years now.

The Jump

Incremental change can only be a warm-up, like the ride down the ramp of a ski jump, prior to a jump from one energy-using paradigm to another. Optimistic experts believe that innovation processes now emerging will deliver a twenty-fold improvement in our matter and energy performance by 2040. Dutch scientist Leo Janssen, for example, thinks in terms of multiple, interacting cycles of change: “better treatment of today’s stuff and energy usage can be achieved within a five year time frame. Cleaning and improving existing plant takes ten years. Replacing old plant with new, cleaner equipment is a 25-year process. Introducing completely new categories of product and service are a 30-40 year process. Re-building basic infrastructures, for reorganised infrastructure for example, mobility systems, takes 50-100 years”.

It took from the beginning of human history to the year 1900 to build a world economy that produced $600 billion in output. Today, the world economy grows by that amount every two years. Once implanted in culture and the economy, principles of sustainability can deliver rapid transformation – for example, `minimising the waste of matter and energy' or `reducing the movement and distribution of goods', or `using more people and less matter'. Once we shift from covering up symptoms, to the re-design of the systems that deliver us necessities, the possibilities are immense.

One of Europe’s leading experts on service design, Ezio Manzini says of the passage from today’s systems of production and consumption, to sustainable ones, that it will be “like changing the engines of an aircraft while it is still in flight. We need to move beyond the implementation of clean processes and technologies towards systems whose utilisation of natural resources is reduced to 10 percent of present levels. He says. “It may appear a difficult task”, understates Manzini, “but consider this: during two centuries of innovation until now, we reduced the role of labour in production by even larger proportions than those required now for matter and energy. We have done it before”.

There are four scenarios for the transition to energy and resource sustainability. Scenario one describes a step-by-step improvement of present products, the so-called “end-of-pipe” approach. A second scenario involves the radical redesign of products and services based on existing concepts. In scenario three, we develop alternative products and systems. And in scenario four, we re-design of all our agricultural and industrial systems to meet the goal of a fully sustainable society.

Re-designing whole business according to a service-and-flow model is a good example. In this system, manufacturers – and the designers and users they work with – stop thinking of themselves as being in the product business. They become, instead, deliverers of service. These services are enabled, or carried, by long-lasting, upgradeable, durable, things. In this book I call these material things, which are currently known as products, equipment. Mobile phone handsets are equipment; so is an Airbus 330. In design, we need to think of equipment is fetishized end-in-themselves. That said, equipment is nonetheless made of stuff, so it has to be designed to be to be materially light as well as light in the ways it is used.

Wall Street, never one to step too soon out of line, sees eco as a tech issue – but a promising one nonetheless. In an interview about ‘eco-tech’ with the Wall Street Journal in August 2001, equity strategist Mark Howdle was confident that “concern over environmental factors will generate a long-term trend among corporations to throw money into technology that could alleviate such problems as air pollution and energy waste, allowing companies to turn a profit from the exercise”. Howdle said he expected a critical mass to be reached that allows eco-tech “to blossom from an assortment of small business making windmills into a stand-alone sector” Such firms are less than 0.1 percent of European market capitalization right now but according to several analysts the sector has the potential to grow to as much as three to five percent of the European market over the next few years. “We are using the earth’s resources faster than we replace them” reported the UK Design Council in 2002; “design can help reverse this trend by changing the processes behind products, as well as the resources used to make them and use them. In this sense sustainable design is a driver of innovation”.

The global market for environmental goods and services is estimated at $335 billion and is forecast to grow to $640 billion by 2010, according to the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry. In Germany, environmental goods and services are now a larger sector than the steel making which once epitomised the country’s industrial strength. Design for sustainability has been integral to innovation in Swedish policy for 20 years now.

From end-of-pipe to whole-of-life

Many big companies, which think more naturally about processes, have gone further towards a whole systems approach. Their environmental management policies stress the importance of metrics - measures of success - so that green strategies can be justified to shareholders and investors.

At the whole systems level, environmental management encompasses the whole business framework, and thinks in terms of product lifecycles. It is no longer considered eccentric to promote basic principles of sustainability that would have sounded wacky in boardrooms a few years ago - for example, `minimising the waste of matter and energy' or `reducing the movement and distribution of goods', or `using more people and less matter'. In Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken is blunt: we have to use less stuff, molecule; we have to use more people; we have to restore and improve, not just protect, the environment; and businesses have to make money. (> White House/Clinton story).

Our problems are invisible. Most of our collectively wasteful behaviours are hidden from view. As Jane Elder of the Sierra Clubs put it,” pollution never goes away, it just goes somewhere else”. Most of the loss and waste behind products we take for granted is hidden from view. Every product that enters our lives has what Paul Hawken calls a “hidden history” – an undocumented inventory of wasted or lost materials. Industry, says Hawken, “moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, wastes, pumps and disposes of billions of pounds of material in order to deliver the products we take for granted, but which are needed for roads and buildings and infrastructures”. Hawken goes on to list waste in the form of tailings, gangue, fly ash, slurry, sludge, slag, flue gases, construction debris, methane - and other wastes of the extractive and manufacturing processes. “The problem is not the limits of human nature”, says Hawken, “it is the limits of human perception, especially our perceptions of time and process. Copernicus took us out of the centre of the solar system; we now need to take ourselves our of the centre of the biosphere”.

Business is moving for self-interested reasons, which is fine. Delivering what consumers want is a powerful driver of innovation. Consumer demand for ‘green products’, services and infrastructures has grown strongly from the 1980s onwards. In his book Green Gold, business expert Curtis Moore describes these changes, as is the tip of an attitudinal iceberg. Moore found back in 1992 that nearly two out of three voters in Houston Texas, of all places, believe that “humanity is approaching the limit of the planet’s resources”. Respondents in numerous other polls since then say they are willing to pay more for environmentally sound products, but have difficulty finding them. Mintel, a market research company in the UK, found consumers willing to pay 13 per cent more for ‘green’ products.” The greenest of green consumers are also the richest”, according to Frances Cairncross of The Economist. Writing in her book Green Inc she quotes a ORI opinion poll that more than half of consumers earning over $18,000 a year are classified as “environmental activists”. Curtis Moore also quotes a Golin/Haris poll that 87 percent of respondents would boycott a company that is careless about the environment. Says Moore: “these results barely scratch the surface of a massive and compelling body of polling data that point to a commitment to environmental protection so deep and enduring that is it reconfigures global business”.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:06 PM