Venice: from Gated Lagoon to Bioregion

Computer rendering by Christian Kerrigan.

Rachel Armstrong, who develops synthetic biology applications for the built environment, believes it could be possible to grow an artificial limestone reef underneath Venice using ‘metabolic materials’ – photosensitive protocells, engineered to be light averse. Her idea is to stop the city sinking into the soft mud on which its foundations are built – and to do so in a way that respects its non-human inhabitants.

Armstrong’s approach sounds like science fiction – but it’s informed by the ways living systems actually survive in hostile environments. When algae, shellfish and bacteria search for new territories and nutrients, for example, they sculpt the materials of their surroundings. Armstrong describes these as Read More »

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From Autobahn to Bioregion

[Above: for CRIT, Mumbai may look a mess – but the city enjoys ‘high transactional capacities’]

The big Audi that collected us from Istanbul airport contained nearly as many electronic control units (ECUs) as the new Airbus A380. The Audi, and similar high-end cars, will soon run on 200 million lines or more of software code. As a comparison, the avionics and onboard support systems of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner run on fewer than seven million lines.

That makes modern cars highly intelligent, right? Well maybe, and maybe not. Suppose the owner of such a two ton vehicle drives a mile down the Read More »

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Transition Dogville

In Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville (below) there is almost no set. Buildings in the town are represented by a series of white outlines on the floor. Dogville was a to-the-limit exercise in what von Trier calls ‘pure cinema’ – a commitment to use only real locations, and no special effects or background music, when making a film.

I was reminded of Dogville during a this year’s Transition Conference in London. There were talks and workshops, of course, but our main task was Read More »

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How To Manage a Constellation

The map below is of the Baltic Sea. Over the last hundred years its ecosystems have been poisoned almost to death by outputs from a multitude of industries and farming activities in the nine countries that surround it. These deadly flows are shown on the  complicated chart below: Read More »

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Old Growth

[Photography courtesy of  Marc AdamusHere follows the talk I gave last week at the Global Design Forum in London.  

“Last week I went a restored paper mill in a tiny village in the middle of Sweden. I was there (*) to meet a bunch of people who’ve been given a uniquely challenging task: make the bedroom and bathroom products sold globally by a famous home furnishing giant – – sustainable.

When I say that their task is “challenging”, think of it this way.  Read More »

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Bill Moggridge

Devastating news reaches me that Bill Moggridge has died.

Many readers here will know that Bill Moggridge had been director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, since 2010, and this was the latest chapter in an illustrious and history-changing career. The Museum has just posted a fine tribute to Bill’s life and work here. Read More »

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Top Down Nature

A huge urban master plan in southen France gets serious about nature as a project. In Bordeaux 55,000 (above) the city of Bordeaux (CUB) has invited five multidisciplinary teams to develop projects, during a a six month “competitive dialogue”, that will explore ‘how best to transform 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) into natural areas’. Read More »

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What Is, Or Is Not, A ‘Green Job’ ?


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Why Bill Gates Needs To Listen To More Gamelan Music

Ritual as Feedback in Bali 

The unique social and ecological nature of regional watersheds was the focus of a mesmerising presentation by Stephen Lansing at last month’s poptech conference in Iceland. His key point: Bali’s subak water management system is a “coupled social-ecological system”.

Balinese farmers have been growing rice in terraces since at least the eleventh century. Because the island’s volcanic rock is rich in mineral nutrients, water running off mountains fills the rice paddies to create a kind of aquarium.This system has enabled farmers to grow two crops of rice a year year for centuries. They do this using a unique form of cooperative agriculture that enables farming to flourish despite water scarcity and the constant threat of disease and pests.

Rice planting and water allocation is coordinated by subaks; these bring together all of the farmers who share water from a single source – such as a spring, or an irrigation canal. The subaks adjust cropping patterns cooperatively in order to achieve fallow periods over sufficiently large areas to minimize dispersal of pests.

Irrigation, in this context, is not just a matter of delivering water to a plant’s roots. The rice terraces are hydrologically connected to each other, so the farmers have had to solve a complex coordination problem: who gets to use how much water, when, and how. A complex, ‘pulsed’ artificial ecosystem has evolved over generations in which the allocation of water is adjudicated by a priest in a water temple. The arrangement is a dynamic one; cooperation is continuous among hundreds of farmers whose relationships span entire watersheds.

“There is a complex adaptive systems explanation for water temples” Lansing explains, “but also a complex cultural one”. (Lansing has been studying irrigated rice agriculture in Bali for 40 years, but is also is associated with the Santa Fe Institute where his interests include ‘ecological anthropology’).”The temples are more than just a kind of mathematical device”, he explains; “a great deal of attention is devoted to symbolic ritual activities such as food offerings, prayers to deities, and elaborate pilgrimages.

Read More »

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