Zürich Eco Lab

As the guest last week of Zurich University of the Arts I set the following task to a group of sixteen masters students: “Create the plan for a social harvest festival that will reconnect Zurich with its natural ecosystems and grassroots social innovators.”

The idea was to demonstrate, in practice, and at a city-wide scale, how to combine the low-energy design principles of permaculture, with the metabolic energy of social innovation.

Urban farms

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A first delightful discovery: there are no fewer than twelve working farms within Zurich city limits – and one of them has a thriving herd of buffaloes (from which comes Swiss mozzarella). Read More »

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Design In The Light of Dark Energy

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

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

Mr Monti is not the only politician promoting growth over common sense and the laws of physics. They’e all at it. President Obama, in his State of the Union message, stated soothingly that Read More »

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A Reading List for Mr Monti

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




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

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Beer and solidarity

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The photograph shows John Gorzynski and his vegetables before a hurricane devastated his family’s farm last Autumn. Nestled in a valley of the Catskills, Gorzynski Ornery Farm is where Read More »

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A Breakfast Thought

This is my breakfast on my flight back from India on Air France.

I count at least 20 separate items on the tray that are unlikely to be recycled.

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Virtual Boring Agent


Virtual Boarding Agent

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

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

Once, when my flight was delayed, Read More »

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A Reading List for Mr. Monti


This photograph? I think of it as the kind of retirement home this optimistic doomer will end up in. It's a real apartment block, in downtown Sao Paulo, which terrifying-sounding gang members and their families have squatted

When the new Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Mario Monti, gave his acceptance speech to the Italian Senate before Christmas, he used the word “growth” 28 times and the word “energy” – well, zero times. Why would this supposed technocrat neglect even to mention the biophysical basis of the world’s economy? Well, Mr Monti is better described as a theocrat, than a technocrat. His main job is to keep us all believing in the impossible: an economy that expands to infinity in a finite world. It’s important that we stay mesmerised: once we stop believing in his his make-believe world it will all come crashing down.

Perhaps that’s what happening now. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks immersed in a pile of texts on what actuaries, physicists, and mathematicians have to say about the relationship between the economy and energy. [My homework is for a talk I’m giving in Philly at the end of the month at a seminar about architecture and energy.] I haven’t finished the talk yet but I thought, as an exercise, that I’d share with you (and Mr Monti) the ten best writers of my reading list.  Read More »

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From Milk To Superfoods: Supping With The Devil?

I’d be surprised if many readers of this blog work for the fracking industry. Those charming people spend a lot on lobbying and public relations, sure – but their main aim in life is to remain obscure.

But food and drink? The branding, the packaging, the communications, the stores, the promotions, the trade shows, the hotels, the restaurants? Would I be wrong to guess that 75% of us have worked for a global food enterprise, directly or indirectly, at some point? I know I have: an industry talk here, a futures workshop there, a couple of healthcare events…

But two new publications this week have left me sick to the stomach. I just don’t think it’s defensible any more to turn a blind eye to the social and ecological crimes Big Food is committing, in other parts of the world, so that you and I can eat what we damn well feel like.

When it comes to the food business, I’ve been having my cake, and eating it, since 1995. That was when Vandana Shiva spoke at Doors of Perception 3 about the hidden but devastating ecological and social costs of global industrial agriculture. That was a wake-up call.

Food figured prominently in 2000, too, when we did Doors East in Ahmedabad. We learned, then, that for eighty million women in India, who own or look after one or two cows, milk is their only livelihood.

It should not have been a surprise last week, then, to read a grim report entitled The great milk robbery: How corporations are stealing livelihoods and a vital source of nutrition from the poor Read More »

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From Druids, to Biorefineries: Innovation In A Small Nation

How best do you help a resilient economy emerge in a region that has one foot in ancient ways and traditions – its other in the world of global universities and nuclear power?


Left: “The Hill Farmer” by Bedwyr Williams. Right: a nuke

North West Wales has the ingredients to be one of Europe’s most resilient regions. Its valuable assets include a lot of relatively undamaged land; clean air and biodiversity; abundant water; sea; low population density; and a deeply-rooted language and culture, supported by dense social networks – “a bit like the roots of a leek” as Dr Einir Young put it to me – in which land, mind and spirit continue, powerfully, to resonate.

Energy Island

A much contested proposal is that Anglesey, adjacent to Bangor, should be developed as an Energy Island. In a last throw of the dice for the thermo-industrial economy, Horizon Nuclear Power, which is part owned by the French EDF, wants to build “two or three” nuclear reactors on the island.

Anglesey was the breadbasket of Wales not so long ago, and is surely needed to serve that function again. The proposition that a 3.3GW nuclear plant might be included in a “mix” with food growing is not well aligned, to put it mildly, with a resilient economy.

Anglesey’s nukes are unlikely, on balance, to be built. Capital costs determine their economic viability and capital is in – well, let’s call it short supply. They nonetheless remain a looming elephant in the region’s room. (Curiously, the only discussions that crop up during my visit concern what to do about roosting bats displaced by site clearance – and the decision to build a third bridge off the island for people to escape if a nuke blows.).

Bridge to the future

Sitting between the Big of the nukes and the Small of the rest is Bangor University and its £37 million arts and innovation centre, Pontio.

Bangor University, Pontio

Read More »

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