July 23, 2011

Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future and How To Survive It.


I have just received a quite extraordinary 736 page book called Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future and How To Survive It by the English ecologist David Fleming. The publisher describes it as a "community of essays". In my words it's half encyclopedia, half commonplace book, half a secular bible, half survival guide, half ... yes, that's a lot of halves, but I hope you get the picture. I have never encountered a book that is so hard to characacterise yet so hard, despite its weight, to put down.

The editors of Lean Logic, who have completed the project following Fleming's untimely death last year, say it's about "cooperative self-reliance in the face of great uncertainty". Well, yes. But today I have also read entries on nanotechnlogy, carnival, casuistry, multiculturalism, and the 'new domestication' - and I still have more than 1,000 entries to read. Waiting for me ahead are entries on road pricing, the vernacular, trust, resilience, the marshes of Iraq...

Lean Logic does not sugar-coat the challenges we face: an economy that destroys the very foundations upon which it depends; climate weirdness; ecological systems under stress; shocks to community and culture. Neither does the book suggest that there are easy solutions to these dilemmas. As Fleming has said, "large scale problems do not require large-scale solutions - they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.

This is not a book to read from start to finish - although entry Number 1, on Abstraction, is engaging enough. Fleming defines abstraction as "Displacement of the particular - people, places, purpose - by general principle". Within a few lines Fleming introduces someone I never heard of, Alexander Herzen [1812-1870], as one of the first writers to "make the case for local detail, for pragmatic decision-making, for near-at-hand, for 'presence'. Fleming goes on to quote such other "scourges of abstraction" as Oliver Goldsmith, Montaigne, Joseph Conrad, and Matthew Arnold. And that's all on page one.

Among the incredibly useful passages I've already discovered are: a long text about 'resilience' and its multiple meanings; a clear account of Energy Decent Action Plans; an explanation of Harmonic Order; a comparative guide to barter through the ages; and a section on Lean Health.

Fleming was a co-founder of the UK Green Party, chair of the Soil Association, and active from its early days in the Transition Towns movement. He was one of the first people in the world to understand the implications for industrial civilzation of peak oil, and a good deal of the book is about energy in its many meanings. Fleming was the inventor - and advocate for more than a decade - of Tradeable Energy Quotas or TEQs. This energy rationing scheme is designed to share out fairly a nation's shrinking - as it must and will - energy/carbon budget, while allowing maximum freedom of choice over energy use.

But Lean Logic is neither a policy manifesto nor a dry technical guide. It's an incredibly nourishing cultural and scientific treasure trove. Its pages span ethics, science, culture, art, and history. The book's greatest strength, for this mesmerized reader, is the lightness with which it draws on knowledge from earlier periods of history, and from other cultures.

Lean Logic has been printed in a hardback first edition of just 500 copies, so get your order in quick.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:08 PM

June 27, 2011

Knife sharpening


Last week I was taught how to sharpen our kitchen knives by a wood carver, Howard Raybould, who's been honing his technique for 30 years. It's the most useful skill I've acquired since learning how to ride a bike.

Howard arrived bearing: a wooden board; a clamp to attach the board to the table with; a damp cloth to put on the board; a small oilcan with paraffin oil in it [diluted]; a sharpening stone, 10 inches long, smoother on one side than the other; a metal file with a wooden handle [hard but fragile]; a tube of metal polish; a leather belt for polishing the knives; and a not very clean cleaning rag. The small
blackboard was for drawing pictures of knife edges on. We already had the steel.

Two hours later I had learned: a) the rudiments of how to sharpen knives; b) that it's pointless running your finger across the blade to judge its sharpness; use your eyes; c) you use the steel towards the end not at the beginning; d) that the best angle to sharpen the knife is this one, and absolutely not that one - even though the two angles are very similar; and e) that it's not possible to learn knife sharpening and write meaningful notes about the subject at the same time.

Now all I need is 30 years practice and I'll be as good as Howard is now. And maybe by then I'll be able to teach you.


Posted by John Thackara at 02:36 PM

May 05, 2011

Open: a survival issue

Afbeelding 8.png

[A new book from the Dutch publisher Bis, Open Design Now, includes essays, cases and visuals on various issues of Open Design. The book contains practical guidelines for designers, design educators and policy makers to get started with Open Design. It also includes a preface, contributed by me, that is reproduced here].

In 1909, Peter Kropotkin was asked whether it was possible to learn a trade so difficult as gardening is, from books. "Yes, it is possible" he replied, "but a necessary condition of success, in work on the land, is communicativeness - continual friendly intercourse with your neighbours".

Although a book can offer good general advice, Kropotkin explained, every acre of land is unique. Each plot is shaped by the soil, its topography and biodiversity, the wind and water systems of the locality, and so on. "Growing in these unique circumstances can only be learned by local residents over many seasons" the aristocratic anarchist concluded; "the knowledge which has developed in a given locality, that is necessary for survival, is the result of collective experience."

The biosphere, our only home, is itself a kind of garden - and we have not looked after it well. On the contrary we have damaged many of the food and water systems that keep us alive, and wasted vast amounts of non-renewable resources. One of the main reasons we've damaged our own life-support system is that we under-value the kinds of socially-created knowledge Kropotkin wrote about. Ongoing attempts to privatize nature, and the over-specialization of knowledge in our universities, continue to render us blind to the consequences of our own actions.

Open-ness, in short, is more than a commercial and cultural issue. It's a survival issue. Systemic challenges such as climate change, or resource depletion - so-called 'wicked problems' - cannot be solved using the same techniques that caused them in the first place. Open research, open governance, and open design are a precondition for the continuous, collaborative, social mode of enquiry and action that are needed.

For centuries, the pursuit of knowledge was undertaken in open and collaborative processes. Science, for example, developed as a result of peer review in an open and connected global community. Software, too, has flourished as a result of social creativity in what Yochai Benckler has named 'commons-based peer production'.

These approaches stand in stark contrast to the legacy industrial economy - from cars, to power stations - which depends on a command-and-control business model and miitant copyright protection. The internet may have made it easier, technically, to share ideas and knowledge - but an immense global army of rights owners and attendant lawyers works tirelessly to protect this closed system of production.

The open design experiments you will read about in this book - such as the 400 fab labs now in operation - are nodes within an alternative industrial system that is now emerging. These are the "small, open, local and connected" experiments that, for the environmental designer Ezio Manzini, are defining features of a sustainable economy.

Open design is more than just a new way to create products. As a process, and as a culture, open design also changes relationships among the people who make, use and look after things. Unlike proprietary or branded products, open solutions tend to be easy to maintain and repair locally. They are the opposite of the short-life, use-and-discard, two-wash-two-wear model of mainstream consumer products. As you will read in the book, "nobody with a MakerBot will ever have to buy shower curtain rings again".

Another open source manifesto states, "Don’t judge an object for what it is, but imagine what it could become." This clarion call is welcome - but it does not promise an easy ride for open design. Our world is littered with the unintended outcomes of design actions - and open design is unlikely to be an exception. For example, ninety percent of the resources taken out of the ground today become waste within three months - and it's not axiomatic that open design will improve that situation. On the contrary, it's logically possible that a network of fablabs could fab the open source equivalent of a a gas-guzzling SUV. The long-term value of open design will depend on the questions it is asked to address.

An important priority for open source design, therefore, is to develop decision-making processes to identify and prioritise those questions. What, in other words, should open designers design? All our design actions, from here on, need to take account of natural, industrial and cultural systems - and the interactions between them - as the context for our ceative efforts. We need to consider the sustainability of material and energy flows in all the systems and artifacts we design.

In reading the texts that follow in this book, I am confident that these caveats will be embraced by the smart and fascinating pioneers of open design who are doing such fascinating work. Crowds may be wise - but they still need designers.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:17 PM

November 02, 2010

A lesson from Cornwall


Shortly after my visit to Oslo I received this question from Andrea Siodmok: "what from Cornwall should the world know about?".

The director of Dott Cornwall is preparing an exhibit to celebrate the achievements of this fascinating region in south west England, and wanted me to contribute a suggestion.

Andrea did not specify that the thing from Cornwall should be man-made, so I nominated the golden hair lichen.

I've always loved lichen. I found this one in Cornwall’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and chose it as a beautiful asset that already exists in the county.

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

My interpretation is that lichens are among the beautiful things with which the world's 'empty' spaces - of the kind we discussed in Norway - are filled.

Lichen are an under-appreciated example of how a restorative economy can replace the extractive one we have now. Gunther Pauli reminded recently me that mining - which played a big part in Cornwall's economy - is one of humanity's most brutal interventions.

Armed with dynamite, and consuming massive amounts of water and energy, we extract minute concentrations of minerals from the depths of the earth.

Lichens, in contrast, are capable of extracting specific inorganic molecules like magnesium from rocks and trees - but they require zero fossil-based energy to do what they do - and leave their environment better than they found it.

The most entrancing scenario for me is the idea of replacing mining with lichen. I don't know how this might happen, but I'm convinced that lichens, including this charming one from Cornwall, have much to teach us.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:10 AM

August 12, 2010

Salvage design


(Summer re-run: first published 26 July 2008)

Bamboo scaffolding, knotted aerial lines, hand painted signs or converted plastic bags: German photographer Thomas Kalak has published a book called “Thailand - Same same, but different!” that celebrates the Thais’ exceptionally gifted art of improvisation.

The strange objects and arrangements remind Kalak of art world “ready-mades” from the beginning of the 20th century.

They remind *me* that salvage society is not a future prospect that will happen when peak-everything hits home: untold millions of people subsist on the detritus of industrial society right now.

You can order the book here.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:50 PM

January 22, 2010

20. Bubble-glazing


Here is a late addition - number 20 - to our story of last week: 19 reasons to be cheerful after Copenhagen.
Instructions: cut-to-fit; spray with water; bubbles face inwards. Done.
(thx Miranda, for the new word)

Posted by Kristi at 07:41 AM

December 19, 2009

19 reasons to be cheerful after Copenhagen (+1)

The outcome of Copenhagen is depressing if you only look at what happened at the official summit, and persist in the belief that those guys are "world leaders". They are not: they are followers, guardians of a dying regime. So don't look at them. Hundreds of thousand of groups are already busy, in countless ways, preparing their communities for the changes and shocks to come. Elements of an alternative global framework have started to emerge. Several hundred of these groups helped draft a 'People’s Declaration' from Klimaforum09 entitled System change – not climate change. It's a much better read.

Meanwhile, I thought it would be both festive and restorative to share with you the following 19 highlights of our 2009 re-localisation efforts at Doors HQ here in France.

1) KvR developed a killer grape syrup recipe (= off-grid sugar)



2) Off-grid shoe polish (= keeping up appearances as the consequences of peak oil unfold)


3) We take delivery of Excalibur ( = yes, the SUV of fruit-drying machines)


4) Scrubbies for cleaning pots, baths etc ( = upcycled from plastic bags, in part penance for (3))


5) Post-peak-oil fire lighters (upcycled from an unpleasant vat of goo; these turn out to be more expensive than supermarket fire lighters so will not be repeated)



6) Almond milk (= source emits no methane; but not ideal for cappuccinos)



7) Facial scrub - almond, lavender, tea-tree (= only tested on humans)


8) Sambal (= off-grid heat source)


9) Home-made (by Yuka) willow basket containing mussel shells that are crushed and then fed to chickens (= low transport-intensity animal feed)


10) Our first chickens (there used to be one more but a dog called Sarah, who we rescued from the dog pound, to be a friend for Dora, ate it (the chicken) so we sent Sarah back to the slammer). The bottom-right chicken is a designer-one with fancy leg feathers; the others, being street-chix, give her a hard time.


11) The chickens earn their keep (= meaningful work in local economy)



12) We learned how construct a bio-intensive, multi-layered, four-year-cycle planting bed under the instruction of a noted agro-ecologist, Robert Morez [= knowledge from different parts of Africa, combined and adapted for a different context]


13) Cherries from market [top] and our own red berries [below] ( = reasons to be cheerful while planet burns)


red berries harvest.jpg

14) Our first saurkraut being compressed in brown pot (= zero-energy food storage)


15) The curtain was three euros in our street market (= saves heat whilst watching Grand Designs)


16) We learn how to prepare a duck (= collaborative dis-intermediation of food chain)


17) JT starts podcasting career, slowly; This was for BBC Radio 4, really. (= reduced travel emissions once minor technical glitches are resolved).


18) Dora has last of her six showers per year; yes, we heard too, the ecological footprint of a large dog is the same as driving a V8 SUV 10,000km - but we offset that against the fact that she is our role-model for low-water-use hygiene concept


19) Wood cave (= FRC-certified wood and thus off-grid to a degree; although yes, it was chopped by a large diesel-powered machine at the yard and delivered in a truck...)


20) Bubble-glazing. Instructions: cut-to-fit; spray with water; bubbles face inwards. Done.


Posted by John Thackara at 12:06 PM

December 15, 2009

Designing an associative life

Government departments or ministries responsible for sustainability, or "the environment", are too often constrained by small budgets and modest influence. Their very existence allows traditional departments - "industry", "economic affairs", "finance" or "transport" - to carry on their ecocidal ways as normal.

A similar problem persists in business where Corporate Social Responsibility has long been treated as a sideline to the real action.

A growing number of individuals in government or industry silos want to work collaboratively with their peers in other silos - but they are often stymied by a system that imprisons them.

So what to do?


Rather than rage against the iniquities of politicians, a new French organization called La 27e Region (The 27th Region) has set out to help regional governments change by running collaborative projects that enable them to experience a new approach to social innovation in practice.

In recent months, for example, seven multi-disciplinary teams have conducted three month residences, in different regions of France, on topics ranging from health centres, or the working lives of elected officials, to "augmented citizenship" and the role of school canteens in tackling childhood obesity.

Last week, in order to stimulate wider conversations in regional government, La 27e Region cleverly organised a kind of "off Broadway" social design event in Marseille (see pic above) - the day before 3,000 elected politicians and officials gathered in the city for France's annual Congress of the Regions (of which there are 26).

La 27e Region's director, Stephane Vincent, invited me to join this creative back-casting day. It brought together elected officials, designers and and social innovators to "imagine an aspect of life in a sustainable region in ten or 20 years from now - and describe the steps that were needed to get there".

Although countries like the UK and the US are thought to be short on social capital, there are more than 500,000 associations in France. "La Vie Associative" - an associative life - is taken seriously here. Our workshop in Marseille was further proof for me that these grassroots entities are an extraordinarily valuable asset.

For my workshop, on regional food systems, we were joined by the Association for the Maintenance of Sustainable Agriculture (AMAP)


More than 800 of these enhanced community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes are loosely connected in a national network. More than 5,000 of what AMAP calls "consom'acteurs" (consumer-actors) are involved in the Marseille region alone.

We chose to focus on two different kinds of food hub: school cantines, and community resource centres.


It may sound like taking coals to Newcastle, but school food is as pressing an issue in France as elsewhere. High school restaurants serve hundreds of millions of meals a year across France's regions, and yet "eighteen per cent of French children are overweight and four per cent of them obese. If nothing is done to reverse the trend, France could reach the level of the United States by about 2020

The country has been moved, too, by a harrowing short film called "Our children will accuse us" by Jean-Paul Jaud

Our second exercise was the specification of an "agro-ecological atelier" or community resource centre.

Different AMAP groups have been mapping and evaluating a wide variety of food resources for several years: market gardens, abattoirs, markets, distribution and storage points.



AMAPs understand the importance of connecting and linking these in a smart way. Elements, nodes, and relationships are common parlance in AMAP design practice.

In recent times, a special concern for AMAPs has been the identification of under-used spaces that could be used more flexibly and effectively. They have explored new forms of resource-sharing ("mutualization") and the "hybridizing" the integrated use of spaces and services.

Fair and transparent pricing among all elements of the food ecology is a key aspect of AMAP thinking.

Their policy in this respect parallels GoodGuide's Transparency Manifesto: "We start from a simple premise: People have the right to know what they’re putting in, on, and around their bodies.There are three simple things everyone should know about their food but don’t: Where did it come from? How was it made? What’s in it?"

The business people in our group felt that full transparency would be a step too far for the big supermarkets in France.

For now, maybe. But during City Eco Labin St Etienne last year, Casino, one of France's largest supermarket firms, was an enthusiastic participant in public discussions of new business models for food.

There are good reasons to involve supermarkets as partners in new food systems. They have huge amounts of real-estate available to be re-purposed. And their distribution and logistics networks - while mis-directed, right now, to the unsustainable import of food from across the globe - are nonetheless super-optimised and ready to be re-purposed.


An intriguing scenario of our group was to re-purpose the supermarket's logistics systems to local and/or sustainable applications.

This scenario is explored in a video by one of la 27e region's close collaborators, Fing

The Fing video describes a supermarket site that has recaptured the warmth and conviality of food markets. It has become a co-operative space that enables multiple kinds of food system revitalisation: distribution, storage, preparation, amateur cooking societies, social systems for sharing the use of productive land.

As I stated above, a growing number of people in industry are ready to contemplate radically different scenarios for the future of their businesses. Rather than proceed as if we must re-build everything from scratch, the time is right to invite the big players, too, to the Dance of the Big and the Small.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:28 AM

Territorial development books


It has always been a point of pride at Doors of Perception events to curate the bookstore as carefully as we curate the speakers. We do this because when a conference theme cuts across disciplines - as ours do - no single bookseller is likely to know which are the best supporting titles on sustainability *and* design *and* culture *and* business; we select them collaboratively.

So it was a special insider's pleasure to encounter a display of books at La 27e Region's event in Marseille (see story above) on all aspects of territorial development.

The word territorial has no direct English equivalent: in French (and also in Italian) it describes a synthesis of the soil, the land, the earth, biodiversity, culture, law, philosophy and sustainable development. Among my scores were a book on Citizen participation and public action: cases from Dakar, Rabat, Cotonou, jerusalem and Sanaa. and another called "The Intelligence of the Other". by Michel Sauquet which proposes an "ecology of different kinds of knowledge"; this, in English, would probably be called something less enchanting like 'intercultural awareness'. I'm putting the online bookseller links here because I could not find any other references that show the books.

If you're minded to buy these, please go to (I'm roughly translating again) the Territorial Development Bookshop.

If you're thinking - "what use is this to me, it's all in French!" - then I agree with you and apologise. But I also have a question: does anyone know who we might approach for funding to pay for an editorial service that would make French books, events, people and projects available to an English readership? We can make a start with one editorial post.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:24 AM

October 11, 2009

Transition countries and transition towns

I went to Poznan, in Poland, to speak at a conference called World Innovation Days. In brushing up on the history of the Wielkopolska region [of which Poznan is the capital] I was reminded that Central and Eastern countries of Europe are still called "Transition Countries" - as in, transitioning from communist statehood to membership of a bright, shiny and high-tech European Union. To help them along, the EU wants transition countries to grasp the holy grail of Innovation, which is why EU money paid for most of this event.

Now in the EU, "innovation" is interpreted as high technology innovation - but, to their credit, the organisers in Poznan invited several speakers [including me] to talk about social innovation, too.

I devoted a fair bit of my piece to Transition Towns which, I told my hosts, are the most important development happening anywhere right now. I would like to report that everyone in Poznan said "Yes! We must link up with these fellow Transitioners" - but as this would entail a 180 degree policy about-turn, they didn't. It will take a while yet.
The rest of my Letter from Poznan is here

Posted by John Thackara at 10:26 PM

June 02, 2009

In transition

Fui So means "ability to rejuvenate" in Mandarin. I learned this from Wong Lai-yin, a Chinese participant in last week's Transition Towns event in London.





Transition initiatives and groups are multiplying at extraordinary speed: 170 communities have been officially designated Transition Towns (or cities, districts, villages - and even a forest); and a further 600 communities are "mulling it over" as they consider the possibility of kicking off their own Transition Initiative.

The atmosphere in London was remarkable. A powerful positive energy suffused the 400 focused participants. But the mood was practical and collaborative, not at all apocalyptic.

The transition model (I'm quoting their site) “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye". These were 400 no-longer-scared people getting on with preparations for what is to come.

Transition events address the question: "for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how are we going to rebuild resilience in response to peak oil, and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?”

The core activity of a Transition Town is Energy Descent Action Planning (EDAP). Rob Hopkins , who developed the process and founded the movement, describes the capacity of a community to embark on an EDAP as "resilience."

As a word, resilience (or "Fui So") is powerfully more positive and motivating than "sustainability".

Many of the sessions were run on open space lines: anyone could suggest a topic and lead a discussion - and anyone else was free to join in, or not, as they wished.

The Transition WIKI opens with the statement, "Here's how it all appears to be evolving...". That statement helps explain why the movement is growing so fast: The founders don't know what each group is doing, and they don't need to. The whole thing has been designed to be emergent and scalable.

The fact that this was a middle class and mostly white group of people worried several people in the crowd. There were calls for more diversity and inclusivity.

I'm sanguine about this. The roots of the movement are what they are - but the model seems to me to be infinitely adaptable. Besides, thousands of other models are emerging out there, too.

On the Friday evening a 15 minute talk by Stephan Harding convinced me, finally, that Earth is Animate.

Then on Saturday morning, a presentation of the Transition web strategy was the best thing I've heard in 15 years. (More on this shortly).

I'd say: join one, or start one, now.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:52 PM

May 31, 2009

One mound at a time

I've been on the road most of this month talking and meeting and transitioning (see above) like mad - but not actually dong anything practical. So yesterday I spent the day up in the mountains helping to construct a bio-intensive, multi-layered planting bed under the instruction of a noted agro-ecologist called Robert Morez.

The technique involves layering all sorts of bio-material to create a mound that will supply nutrients to plants, and retain water effectively, for three to four years. The mound is a synthesis of Robert's scientific work over decades combined with his practical experience working in Burkina-Faso, Togo, Benin, Maroc and Tunisia.











Posted by John Thackara at 09:55 AM | Comments (1)

March 25, 2009

What Tools for Transition Towns?

This morning I received an interesting email from Transition Towns. "We recognise that out in transition land there's a great diversity of web tools and processes currently in use and under development" the mail begins; "some of these will be resilient and adaptable enough to support the changing needs of transition groups around the world".

I am then asked to I fill in an online survey to help the Transition web team to "map out this sometimes alien terrain for community groups, and introduce common tools, processes and protocols to make it easier for us all to do our work"

Now I love surveys, and a tools survey like this one seems to be an excellent step. But, as we learned doing the "Tools for Sharing Shed" at City Eco Lab last year, knowing about the availability of tools, and figuring out how to use them well, are two different things.

["Cabane a Outils" at City Eco Lab]

Two key questions arose in St Etienne: who will procure, deploy and maintain these tools? and, how and where will they do so?

When I read the Transition Towns email, my first reaction was that they should be talking to the web team at WiserEarth. This amazing site seems to me to be a two-years-ahead, all-in-one-place example of an adjacent (to Transition Towns) movement that is on top of this Web 2.0 stuff.

The challenge for Transition Towns - and for us all, really - is to deploy social networking tools in such a way that we don't all get flooded and overwhelmed. Hardly a day passes without a new eco-everything site being launched.

Today, for example, I was told about a new UK-based site called Ecomotion.


Ecomotion is supported by such excellent organisations as the Soil Association and Triodos Bank, and all the stories it links to are important. But its home page, for me, is incredibly frantic and busy. "Collaborate...Innovate....Activate!" it commands, amidst a blizzard of clickable images and boxes.

My first reaction, on seeing Ecomotion, was to think: "Leave me alone! I need to be calm. I want to think about, and do, one thing at a time".

My second reaction was that I must be in the wrong demographic - too-linear, too old-web-paradigm, a constraint on innovation.

But lo! Literally one minute after thinking these "I'm past it" thoughts, I received a comment on the story below from a student called Natalya at Parsons School of Design in New York.

Natalya, who is my new hero, writes that "the decreasing costs of production provided by the Internet is exponentially increasing the amount of all types of information available, as well as widening the spectrum of people that can produce it. Our ability to navigate and make sense of these piles of data and opposing viewpoints will determine much of our economic and social futures".

"I can see these information challenges consistently represented in the work of my peers", she continues. " Some are using networked Internet resources to broaden the scope of their projects. Others are becoming increasingly mired in their personal interests, magnified by the virtual realm, and producing "design for design's sake" with little relevance. Operating in a rapidly changing, globalized economic environment, designers must embed their work in this worldly context, or risk irrelevance or worse".

I first read read Natalya's email to mean, "it's OK to hate Twitter". But then, another epiphany: I was alerted by a twitter message, no less, to a project in Birmingham, England, that strikes me as a simple and brilliant answer the"how do we use these tools" question.

Paradise Place, as it's called, organises social media surgeries at which volunteer bloggers show voluntary and community groups in the city how to make best use of social media. "No boring speeches, no jargon", they promise.

Absolutely spot on. Every Transition Town needs its own Paradise Place.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:22 AM | Comments (3)

March 12, 2009

Silent tree hugging in Tenerife


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 09:01 PM

October 07, 2008

Feeling peaky

I have this image of the 19-strong Emergency Economy Committee sitting down in Number 10 Downing Street in London (as they did yesterday, for the first time) to discuss the money crisis. The economy war-room is lined with screens on which red graphs plunge downwards. The Prime Minister calls the meeting to order: "Any suggestions?" Before any of the 19 hand-picked experts, the finest financial minds in the land, can speak, a functionary bursts into the room bearing a clipboard. "Prime Minister, we really must deal with the peak oil crisis, right now". The Prime Minister opens his mouth to reply, but before he can speak another functionary comes in waving another print-out: "Peak phosphorous, peak phosphorous, it's going to run out and there'll be no bread and we're all going to starve" the functionary babbles. At this point the Prime MInister stands up and stamps his foot: "I don't want to hear any more bad news. Someone give me some good news". At this point a small nerdy guy comes in and says, "Prime Minister, we really need you to co-ordinate emergency international action on the peak indium crisis". "Where the hell is Indium" cries Brown. "It's not a place, Prime Minister, it's a rare metal" stammers the nerd."It's essential to the production of liquid displays but it's going to run out and when that happens the world will run out of computer displays". "You mean, like the displays in this room?" asks Brown. "I'm afraid so, yes, Prime Minister". "Excellent" cries Brown, and claps the nerd on the back. "I'm appointing you Minister for Clear Thinking. "I want you to buy up all the indium in the world and pour it down that hole where we keep all the nuclear waste".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:57 AM

August 04, 2008

Alternative trade networks and the coffee system


Every day 1.5 billion cups of coffee are drunk somewhere in the world – quite a few of them in this house - but few of us in the North know much about the 25 million families that grow and produce this valuable bean.

After reading a new book called Confronting The Coffee Crisis I feel better informed not just about the negative aspects of the story - but also motivated to explore practically the potential of emerging alternative trade networks to change the bigger picture in profound ways.

In a system that can involve as many as eight transactions to bring the coffee to market, coffee farmers receive less than two percent of the price of a cup of coffee sold in a coffee bar or roughly six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.

So far, so outrageous. Less well-known are the damaging effects of these unequal power relations embedded in global coffee networks: threatened livelihoods, greater poverty, malnutrition, deforestation, and out-migration. A “bigger, faster, cheaper” mentality has created a dynamic that exploits the most vulnerable at the bottom of the supply chain.

The intensification in production that started with the green revolution is based on the use of external inputs like chemical pesticides and ferttilizers, and machines and large scale irrigation to boost production. This technology generates economic concentration, social exclusion, the rtise of expensive ‘patented’ seeds, and the depreciation of natural capital via compacted, eroded and degraded soils, the loss of biodiversity, the pollution of groundwater.

Awareness in the North of these problems fuelled the rise of fair trade systems - but their proliferation has now become a problem on its own. It's easy to be overwhelmed buy a choice of options that can include “organic”, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Utz certified, shade-grown, Bird Friendly, and so on.

Producers have a host of new practical problems to deal with. When Fair Trade adopted a certification-based model, they introduced more coffee-industry actors into what is now a billion dollar global market. At least 200 certifying agencies now audit farmsteads and post-harvest processing, storage, and transport across a global span.

Certification has enhanced the livlihood of certified coffee farmers – but the financial and bureaucratic costs are substantial. Certification services are arrayed along a transnational “chain of custody” and documented by an audit trail. Producers feel the effects as they are asked to jump through more and more hoops in order to access high value markets.

Although certified markets create consumer awareness of the inequities of coffee production, they often operate within the traditional coffee commodity systems which continue to be controlled mainly by large scale roasters and retailers.

The saddest development documented in the book is that Fair Trade is losing its social-movement identity in a bewildering welter of competing labels, brand names, product logos, and other marketing messages. "Direct producer-consumer solidarity ties are giving way to an individualistic consumer politics of choice as the FT labeling system becomes institutionalized," say the authors.

But the book ends on a positive note, and emphasizes that it's not a simple matter of ‘traditonal’ vs ‘modern’ farming. Interactions between local livelihoods and global actors do not automatically have to be negative

Traditional 'shade-tree' coffee systems, with their diverse shade tree species and multiple use strategies, are sophisticated examples of the application of ecological knowledge and can serve as the basis of sustainable agroecosystems of the future.

The potential is there, but the challenges are significant. Scaling up traditional-progressive systems confronts the a daunting array of quality hurdles. The most fascinating section of the book for me is the following quotation from the the Mexican agronomist Eduardo Martinez Torres, as he explains that quality control only begins with the growing:

“Next comes choosing the right time for harvesting; harvesting only mature berries; not allowing harvested berries to heat up; sorting berries on intake; making sure the beans don’t crack during the depulping process; double sorting after depulping; making sure fermentation lasts the right length of time, ie between 24 and 48 hours, depending on the altitude and average temperature; thoroughly washing the berries; grading; properly drying, preferably both in the sun, as well as in the drier to avoid mildewing; the drying temperature should be moderate. The temperature should never be turned up to speed the process and save time, since an uneven drying process can significantly damage bean quality. When drying is done on patios, layers should not be too thick and beans should be constantly stirred. Never mix together beans of different grade of quality, beans at different stages of dryness, or beans from different altitudes. Selection, patience and care are the operative words during processing, since all these things make for the best bean quality and, consequently, the best price for the product”.

Hmm: so coffee is a complex business. But the book is filled with examples of growers groups that have been able to achieve remarkable progress by pooling expertise and resources that deliver a lot of the value currently added (if at all) by layers of intermediaries.

Of particular importance are alternative trade networks and the nascent Community Agroecology Network (CAN). Alternative trade networks emerging in the coffee system are based on lessons learned from farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and attempts in other markets to connect producers and consumers in more direct relationships that are socially just and ecologically restorative, and promote mutual learning and positive change.

Alternative trade networks redistribute value through the network against the logic of bulk commodity production, reconvene trust between food producers and consumers during the direct exchange of goods.

In Agua Buena, Costa Rica, the farmers’ cooperative has developed the capacity to ship roasted coffee directly to North American consumers’ doors. Coffee delivery depends on the postal service, and direct exchange is difficulty; however email and Internet chatrooms facilitate these interactions.

Two other projects also deal with alternative trade networks. The first, Feral Trade, created by the artist Kate Rich, has been trading goods along social networks since 2003; their first transaction was the import of 30kg of coffee direct from El Salvador to a cultural centre in Bristol, UK. The import was negotiated using only social contacts, and was conducted via email, bank transfer and SMS.

Then there is the Fair Tracing project whose aim is to to support ethical trade by implementing Tracking and Tracing Technologies in supply chains to provide consumers and producers with enhanced information. The idea is to It will give producers a better overview of the value chain and price structures along it, and to empower consumers to trace a product’s origin and value chain.

I'm hoping to involve the Community Agroecology Network (CAN) and Fair Tracing in City Eco Lab, this November, to see what knowledge and expertise might be shared between them and organisations like AMAP in France. Watch this space.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:15 PM

July 26, 2008

Salvage design


Bamboo scaffolding, knotted aerial lines, hand painted signs or converted plastic bags: German photographer Thomas Kalak has published a book called “Thailand - Same same, but different!” that celebrates the Thais’ exceptionally gifted art of improvisation. The strange objects and arrangements remind Kalak of art world “ready-mades” from the beginning of the 20th century. They remind me that salvage society is not a future prospect that will happen when peak-everything hits home: untold millions of people subsist on the detritus of industrial society right now. You can order the book here.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:14 AM

June 05, 2008


I am reading with nervous enjoyment a semi-samizdat French magazine called La Decroissance (De-Growth). An offshoot of the French equivalent of Adbusters, La Decroissance fills a big gap: critical discussion of the politics and economics of environmentalism. The issue I'm reading includes a sharp critique of the myth of 'transhumanism' and a mocking review of a right-on new book by Veolia's head of sustainable development. The reason I'm nervous is that the paper describes as an "ecotartuffe" a leading Le Monde columnist, Eric le Boucher, who has become prominent as "a grand inquisitor of productivist society". Now a tartuffe is defined in my dictionary as a "religious poseur" and I know there are those who think I'm one of those, too. Tant pis: if my turn comes I'll take it on the chin. The academic wing of La Decroissance held its first conference last month, in Paris, and there are some english pages online. "De-growth" is a ghastly buzzword but the subject is important and if you can read a bit of French the paper is much livelier.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:59 AM

February 05, 2008

Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground

Ever since learning about water mapping from Georg Bertsch and about watershed-based planning in Toronto from Chris Hardwick at Doors 9 on Juice last year, I've been aware that we talked a lot about energy but not enough about water. This prompted me in a fit of guilt to buy a bunch of books about greywater harvesting; these now sit in a dispiriting and unread pile next to my bath. Then, bingo: I found this wonderful book called Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground which I commend to you all. Its essays, drawings, and photographs span a wondrous range of topics: off-grid water concepts; the politics of dams and water infrastructure; watersheds as a way of understanding and living in the world. The essays explain the often destructive relationship between human settlements and nature, but these gloomy reflections are more than counter-balanced by stories about successful resistance to dams - including advanced plans to dismantle some of them - and practical ideas on how to restore wastersheds. Damn Nation's editors are a reassuringly edgy and non-wet group of activists, tattooists and 'dishwasher deviants'. They've done a great job: the collection is extremely well-written. Buy two copies now: one for you, and one for an architect or urban planner who also needs to read it.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:11 AM | Comments (1)

January 02, 2008

Tools for survival

Imagine that you have the attention and presence of 80,000 designers and architects. Which five tools, business models, platforms, or applications, would you badly want them to learn about - and use? Tools for Survival is such an opportunity. The event and encounter, which Doors is directing for the St Etienne Design Biennial, takes place in November. We have a 5,000 square metre (50,000 square feet) shed to fill with tools and people - and hope you will help us do so. My idea is to arrange the whole space as a kind of caravanserai of informal stalls. Each stall, or carpet, will feature a tool, and people discussing its use. Live projects, in which communities from the region explore ways to use these tools, will run throughout the event. But Tools for Survival is not about green consumerism: Its focus is on platforms, models, base tools and system components - not discrete end-of-pipe products. A tool, in this context, can be a product, system. model, book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is ready to be used now (or will be available for use soon). Each tool will probably entail a degree of social and collaborative use. The main zones will be grouped around the themes of food, water, energy, shelter, mobility, monitoring, and designing. The look-and-feel of the event will be more Bladerunner than Little House on the Prarie. That's because most people will stlll live in cities, not in cutesy little homesteads, as the going gets....different. Right now, please just note the dates: the Biennial opens on 12 November and runs for two weeks. Over the coming period we will organise partnerships with other organizations, including a network of design schools. And we'll soon start a blog/wiki as a public domain place to assemble and select your suggested tools.

COMMENT from Andrew Otwell (http://www.heyotwell.com/)

"Be careful not to turn this into just a trade show, though. The appearance of endless choice between models, gadgets, material, or whatever is going to be overwhelming. Would it be possible to reduce this down to "five tools, business models, platforms, or applications" as you say at the beginning? I think it would be great if everyone could walk out of the event understanding Five Great Tools and how to apply them in various contexts.
"The mechanical age was founded, in a sense, upon the "simple machines": the pulley, lever, wheel, screw, inclined plane, and wedge. What is the set of "simple machines" of the next age?"

Posted by John Thackara at 11:35 PM