Food As A Commons

People go hungry not because of a shortage of production, but because the food available is too expensive, or they lack the land to grow it on. In California, the prototype of a combined social, political and technical  solution has been launched which promises to unlock the food system crisis.

Kiel & Dan per thru grill

“This could be it”. The speaker, Dan O‘Connell, is peering through a grill (above) into the cavernous interior of boarded-up corner shop in downtown Fresno, California. His fellow explorer, Kiel Schmidt, concurs: “It’ll take a bit of work, but we’ve got a bunch of people with skills lined up to help”.

For Schmidt and O’Connell, two founders of an organisation called The Food Commons, the building is on their shortlist for a retail store that will make fresh food available to some of Fresno’s 500,000 poorest citizens – for the first time. Within ten years, they plan to open a retail hub in each of the city’s food deserts – and this will be the first.

Our location certainly fits the bill of a food desert. We’ve driven for half an hour past miles of empty Read More »

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How We Meet Is As Important As Why

This is the text of my talk at the OuiShare Festival in Paris today. 


Did any of you wander around in a group last night – trying to agree on a place to eat?

Welcome to the sharing economy!

Sharing is hard! And that’s just about one meal.

Think about the food systems of a city;  the restoration of a river; the management of waste; or the care of older people.

As we change the way we govern our communities, our cities, and our ecosystems, a variety of different actors and stakeholders – formal and informal, big and small – need to work together – often, for the first time.

Working with people unlike ourselves is not an option. We have to engage with new partners and actors because Read More »

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Keep Your Stuff Alive

The Tending and Grooming Station (below) is a wondrous collection of combs, brushes and other obscure (to me) gadgets. They are used to primp and revive pre-loved sweaters and cardigans that have been disfigured by bobbles and pilling – those unattractive fuzz balls that appear when short fibers misbehave on woolen garments. 

#tendingandgrooming station

Every object has a dark side – and that’s especially true in fashion. Two-wash-two wear tea shirts have a devastating impact on watercourses, air quality, soil toxicity, and human and ecosystem health, in many parts of the world.

It is one thing to draw attention to the hidden costs of fashion – quite another to figure out what to do about them. Exhortations to “buy less, wash less” are little match, on their own, for a global system whose very survival depends on Read More »

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Cloud Commuting

A two-year project in Belgium proposes new relationships between people, goods, energy, equipment, spaces, and value. Its design objective: a networked mobility ecosystem 

Mobilotoop taxi-van

The signs on the small van describe the services it supports: Taxi; Pick-up; Delivery; Assistance; Vendor; Security; Rental.

Seven functions, one vehicle. As imagined in a project in Belgium called Mobilotoop the van, when coupled with a pay-per-use leasing framework, and radically distributed computing, becomes an element within an asset-light mobility ecosystem.

Mobilotoop asks, ‘how will we move in the city of the future?’  – and does not worry too much about the design of vehicles. ‘Cloud commuting’, in this context, is about accessing the means to move when they are needed (such as the micro-van, above) rather than owning a large heavy artefact (such as a Tesla) that will sit unused for 95 percent of the time.

The first cross-over project of Design Platform Vlaanderen, this two year research project focuses on potential connections between people, vehicles, places and services that – as a single ecosystem – generates new mobility solutions dynamically, and continuously.

Mobolotoop system

With a focus on connections that bring us not just faster but also closer to one another, Mobilotoop is about a system that enables new relationships between people, goods, energy, equipment, spaces, and value.


This may all sound abstract, but Mobilotoop is way of thinking whose time has come. Economics, more than green thinking on  its own, will drive the transformation from here on.

Until now, we’ve moved ourselves – and stuff – about the city in ridiculously wasteful ways. A snapshot from The Netherlands: of the 1,900 vans and trucks enter the small city of Breda each day, 90 percent of those deliveries could be done by bike, or e-bike. Once all system costs are included, a cargo cycle can be up to 98 percent cheaper per km than four-wheeled, motorised alternatives that now clog our roads.

Mobilotoop envisions a mobility culture in which every ride is an encounter, every traveller an entrepreneur.

Mobile media, flexible vehicle designs, and adaptive infrastructure, enable everyone to be a user and a supplier of mobility services. Every commuter can deliver a package on her way to work. Every walker might collect sensor data about the quality of the sidewalk surface, or the air. The electric motor on a pedelec might be used to drive a balcony hoist.


(above: the Mobilotoop exhibition)

In Mobilotoop’s imagination, radically adaptive use is not only about cash transactions. A borrowed vehicle properly used and returned – or a service well-executed – adds to your reputation as a sharer. This enhanced reputation gives you access to use credits, discounts on services, or the use of  other vehicles, equipment, and workplaces.

(Below: the Mobilotoop book)

mobilotoop book

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A ‘Wild Mirror’ For Desk-Bound Workers

A new scheme in England connects office workers with living systems by means of a ‘wild mirror’: each workspace is twinned with an equivalent area of ecosystem regeneration. 

The restoration of degraded ecosystems — or creating new ones — is gathering pace in different parts of the world.  According to Richard Coniff, China is planting 90 million acres of forest in a swath across its northern provinces. In North America, too: restoration projects costing $70 billion are under way to restore or re-create more than seven million acres of marsh, peatland, floodplain, mangrove, and other wetlands.

These large-scale, government-led efforts are conceived as green infrastructure by governments in response to such practical issues as flood control. This ecosystem regeneration is Read More »

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Change Labs: What Works?

On Friday 14 March I’m doing a talk and discussion in Dublin.


(Image: Richard Giblett)

To effect system-level change – in health, energy, food, or mobility – a first step is often to reframe the question. In health, for example, ninety-five percent of person-to-person care happens outside the bio-medical system – so how do you innovate there? Read More »

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Energy: Thriving On Five Percent?

In Sharing Energy In The City, EDF and the the French National Research Agency (ANR) have challenged designers to rethink the production, harvesting, distribution, use, exchange and consumption of energy in our everyday life. They asked me to submit this text as fuel for the discussion.

3D Electric powerlines over sunrise

The modern city has been shaped by the availability of cheap oil and resources, and plentiful credit. Massive resource and energy flows have been used to build skyscrapers, heat and cool buildings, move and treat water, feed people, and move them and their goods around.

This expansion of cities involved the stupendous use of energy. Tom Murphy, a physics professor, calculates that  U.S. energy use since 1650, including wood, biomass, fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, etc, has grown at a steady 2.9 percent. Those 360 years of more-or-less steady growth help explain Read More »

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Caloryville: The Two-Wheeled City

In China, ‘battery-bikes’ are outselling cars by four-to-one. Pedelec sales are soaring in Europe, too.  Is this the start of system-wide phase-shift in transportation?

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At a workshop in Delhi last year, during the UnBox Festival, I posed the following question to a group of 20  design, transport, and city development professionals: What new products, services or ingredients are needed to help a cycle commerce ecosystem flourish in India’s cities, towns and villages?

The answer was: a lot – and it’s not just about the bikes. We discussed the need for an online catalogue of products and business models to aid decision-support. We learned that micro-finance for independent vendors should be a priority. Traffic architectures, hygiene regulations, and disinterest of municipal authorities, were an obstacle. Opposition from place-based retailers was an issue. Topography, and climate, could not be ignored. As the to-do list grew, the scale of the challenge seemed ever more daunting.

But a strange this has happened. The obstacles we identified in Delhi seem less daunting today than a year ago. Something big is afoot. E-bikes in China are outselling cars four to one. Their sudden popularity has confounded planners who thought China was set to become the next automobile powerhouse.  In Europe, too, e-bike sales are escalating. Sales have been growing by 50% a year since 2008 with forecasts of at least three million sales in 2015.

I have the strong impression that a cloud of discrete but related developments is converging. Read More »

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Conflict and Design

An exhibition in Belgium poses a timely challenge: When confronted by such complex issues as an ageing population, resource depletion, migration, or growing impoverishment, how are we to balance the desire to do something positive, with the need to understand the back story before we intervene?

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The installation (shown above) consists of open books, in different languages, nailed to a wall. For the architect-artist Ola-Dele Kuku, the words displayed are a reminder that gaps and contradictions in our knowledge as designers can lead not just to imperfect work – they can make things worse. Read More »

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