Energy: A Sense Of Loss

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Whenever electricity is transmitted from one place to another a certain amount is simply lost. In older grids, energy is wasted overcoming resistance in the lines themselves. In extremely high voltage lines, so-called corona discharge losses [as shown in the image above] can offset the lower resistance losses.
Whether system-wide electricity losses amount to three or 65 per cent across the system as a whole is a matter of heated debate. Corona discharge is just one of the arcane variables that are contested when optimistic energy scenarios are subject to the fabled ‘closer inspection’ of experts.
Such has been the fate of the World Wildlife Fund’s Energy Report, which was published in February. It asserts that the world’s energy needs could be met by wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and sustainable forms of bio-energy — and by 2050.

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Open: a survival issue

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[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.

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A smooth journey

Two images have preoccupied me in recent days.
The first one [below] was taken in a lounge at Paris airport. I remember being struck by the intense design effort that had been made to create a controlled and insulated environment. On the tv screen were images of the popular revolt that is unfolding, bloodily, in Yemen. But the sound was off, and the effect was to dampen any awareness we global travellers might have of the outside world – such as those guys fighting for freedom on the Arab street.
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The second image that’s bugged me is this new shot of Unit 3 at Fukushima.
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Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve been under the impression that the situation in Fukushima, although dramatic, is qualitatively less serious than Chernobyl. I’ve read reports [sometimes whilst sitting in lounges like the one in Paris] that the Japanese plants have a more modern design, and that those long-distance shots of smoke coming from the buildings were ‘more of a leak than an explosion.’
Then I saw this photograph: Does that look like a ‘leak’ to you?

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Do eco learning journeys need a travel agent?

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I’ve written and spoken quite a lot in recent times about the changes designs institutions need to make. Sometimes, I was even asked to do so.
Examples include a talk I did in Delhi earlier this year, What kind Of Design Institutes for India?; and a paper for Cumulus, the design schools network, called ‘Make Sense Not Stuff: A three step plan to connect design schools with the green economy’.
I’m also having encounters [that I write about on this site and here] with a growing number of inspirational projects.
Wherever I go, I usually meet one or two people who are ready and eager to make a fundamental transition to a new kind of design. But only one or two.
At the edges, where I often hang out, things are moving faster than at any time I can remember. But the mainstream remains stubbornly wedded to business as usual.
So I have a question: Does the world need a professional development programme for mid-career designers, architects and design professors? Do they – you – need organized help to acquire the ideas, skills and connections needed to help your organization, or community, change course more determinedly than is happening now?

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From Eds & Meds, to Farms and Watersheds

The skyline of Pittsburgh, once America’s Steel City, is now dominated by towers belonging to two local giants of ‘Eds & Meds’ – education, and healthcare. Does this mean the city has successfully grown itself a resilient new economy?
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If architectural bravura was an indicator, the answer would be yes. The older tower [above] which looks like something out of Batman, is the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. The brutal black one [below] is the HQ of UPMC, an $8 billion healthcare colossus. The black tower, says its main tenant, is ‘tangible evidence of Pittsburgh’s transformation into an international center of medicine, technology and education’.
UPMC, which runs 20 hospitals in the Pittsburgh area, and has 48,000 workers, is by far the city’s largest employer. Across the US, only Boston has a higher proportion of health workers.
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Their sheer size makes some people in the city nervous that Eds &Meds might be economic bubbles, and that their dizzy rates of growth – in prices, as much as in jobs – might be unsustainable.

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Rotterdam: where time is no longer money

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Twelve-year-old childen in Rotterdam have never known a time when their city was not being rebuilt around them. And because they know no better, or at least no different, they are not much daunted by the huge scale of the projects underway – still less, by the consequences those projects are likely to have for the nature of their city.
I pondered these thoughts when fighting my way through the vast building site that was once Rotterdam Central Station -but will be, when finished, one day, a multi-modal, six-layered hub for high speed trains, buses, cars -and lots and lots of shoppers.
[I know my photo looks over-exposed – but I couldn’t help comparing the massive floodlights in the artist’s impression of the station-to-be, with the massive amount of free light available from the sun on that same spot].

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Why does Laura Bush’s friend want to poison our water?

Dr Martin Schuepbach from Dallas, Texas, has the following plan, concerning natural gas, for the Cevennes region of France, where I live [below]:

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First, he will take millions of gallons of our clean mountain water. To this he will add a cocktail of up to up to 600 toxic chemicals including highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium.

He will then pump the noxious mixture deep into our ground.

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Off-grid water: the social dimension

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Up to 1,500 litres of that water are needed to grow enough biofuels to move one car ten kilometres. 2,000 litres are needed a day to feed each one of us. It takes 140 litres of water to grow enough beans for a single cup of coffee.

It sounds, and is, unsustainable. Over-exploitation impacts heavily on the quality and quantity of remaining water, and on the ecosystems that depend on it. And it’s not just a problem for arid climate areas. Water stress is also increasing in large parts of the rainy north.

Two years ago, when Banny Banerjee and myself ran a design clinic on the theme of off-grid water at Stanford University, we focused on entrepreneurs in the Palo Alto region who were developing tools to help citizens manage water sustainably.

One such tool, the Rainwater Hog, had won lots of prizes, but its designer and producer, Sally Dominguez, wanted our advice on the best way to translate celebrity into sales.

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Utopia is here

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Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, made in 1982, portrays a dystopian Los Angeles as it might be in 2019. In just eight years from now we are due to discover find out whether or not the film was an accurate prediction.

Do we have to wait that long? Many urban sites today already are at least as disturbing as those in the film.

Volker Sattel’s film about nuclear power [above], to be previewed in Berlin on 6 April, is filled with disturbing shots of a future gone wrong – only his images are not fiction.
Neither is this shot below from The Zone of Alienation – the exclusion area around Chernobyl. An area the size of Switzerland, it will be uninhabitable for the next 300 years.
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