Oil-Powered Thinking

Last week the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (which has a new director, Martin Roth) staged a conference about Design & Risk. (The videos are online here). Its keynote speaker, the eminent sociologist Ulrich Beck, was on the committee of experts that, last year, persuaded Germany to abandon nuclear power and go for renewables by 2020. I was asked to respond with a talk about “design in transition”. The following text is a reflection on issues raised at the V&A event.

Since Ulrich Beck published his book Risk Society in 1986, a powerful consulting industry has emerged to help global companies “manage” up to 500 different kinds of risk. How is it, then, that despite their efforts, the world is not, to put it mildly, a safer place? Read More »

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Blood Minerals and Cellphones

“Increasing pressure on electronics companies to ensure that their products do not contain illicit minerals from the killing fields in eastern Congo is beginning to have a significant impact. With bills on conflict minerals moving through Congress, the electronics industry has spent about $2 million per month lobbying Senate offices to relax the legislation”

The legislation in question was The Dodd-Frank Act, and it was signed into law on July 21, 2010. It included a little known ‘Section 1502’ that adds additional reporting requirements for companies’ SEC filings on the sources of certain ‘conflict minerals’.

That lobbying campaign from 2009 puts last week’s row about the This American Life, and its decision to withdraw the damning Apple episode, into a longer term context. Although its producer admitted that parts of then epsiode were ‘fabricated’, and said the show ‘should never have been put on air’, Read More »

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The Transition Companion

We can do this the hard way or the easy way. The easy way is that you skip this post and buy the book now.


The hard way is that your reviewer attempts to describe a 320 page book whose contents have been shaped by the infinitely varied experiences of self-organising initiatives around the world. In these, thousands of people have explored one question over a five year period: “How do we make our community more resilient in uncertain times?”.


One of the many virtues of this awesome and joysome book is Read More »

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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.

Read More »

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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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