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?

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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

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Man and Nature, Re-Connected

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There are times when you have to wonder whether ad industry persons totally, er, get it, on the matter of man’s disconnect with nature… and what to do about it.

This Aigle ad, which I tore out the Air France magazine, reads “For the re-introduction of man in nature”. Yeah, right. And go buy some Chantebelle welly boots while you think about it.

Mind you, when it comes to the eroticizing of biophilia, the art directors of Corriere probably win hands down….

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Turn-key food hives

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Hanging out with health system innovators in recent times I’ve been struck by two interesting things. The first is that the buzz in the investor community about health apps is palpable. To feed the hunger, a new incubator called Rock Health, positioning itself as “the seed accelerator for health startups”, promises to “power the next generation of the digital health ecosystem” and bring together “the brightest minds in technology and healthcare”.

All this would be great were were it not for the second thing I’ve learned: there’s almost no contact between the health apps crowd and the food system crowd. And this is weird.

The need for a whole systems approach is urgent. In the US, one in five children aged 6 to 11 is now obese. Each one of them risks heart disease and diabetes in later life. Industrialised food is one of the major causes of these childrens’ sickness. If more of them had access to better and affordable food, fewer people would get diabetes and heart disease – and many of the hot new diabetes-monitoring iPhone apps would not be needed.

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Design and Health: Flipping The Pyramid


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It’s easy for two people to look at the same information – such as this chart (above) about health costs – and perceive totally different things. What I see is an out-of-control Medical Industrial Complex that’s heading, Icarus-like, for collapse. What many designers see is a sea of opportunity – and boy do they want a piece of that action.

They are not alone. Many city-regions regions see the ‘health space’ as an opportunity for growth. In the Netherlands, for example, Groningen’s Healthy Ageing Campus is billed as a “research and entrepreneurship zone” that will focus on healthcare, food & health, medical technology, and pharma.

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In Eindhoven, too, a project called Brainport Health Innovation (BHI) will focus on “well-being for the elderly and chronically ill…while generating economic opportunities for the region”.

The pattern is Europe-wide: an organization called Healthclusternet is encouraging all the EU’s 27 member nations to develop “regional health systems and health innovation markets”. Read More »

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Compost Candidates

Colibris screen shot.png Something special is happening in France. A nationwide campaign will be launched next week by the Colibris movement for the 2012 Presidential Elections – but without a charismatic leader.

The campaign, instead, is for everyone to be a candidate – for a new kind of politics.

In their language and tone-of-voice Les Colibris are like the Transition Movement, but different. They are like Occupy Wall Street but different, too.

This is surely healthy. The movement for a global democracy is an ecology, not a single homogeneous movement. “We know that an election won’t change society” says the Colibris manifesto [colibris is the French for hummingbird]. “For a real transformation, things have to change at the bottom and involve everyone amongst us”.

Les Colibris, who call themselves a ‘Movement for the Earth and Humanity’, are not just about grassroots activity. They also highlight global issues that traditional politics is unable to engage with: climate change; the sixth massive extinction of species; the fact that nearly a blllion people on our planet are the victim of famine.

The idea is not to vote for a programme, or delegate power to a government, say the Colibris.

pierre-rabhi.jpgThe aim is to mobilize much wider participation in the radical social experiments that have emerged in recent years: low-impact housing, off-grid energy, seed sharing, community-supported agriculture.

Social transformation is already happening, say Les Colibris, but now it is the time to deepen and amplify that change.

The founder of les Colibris is a 73 year old Algerian-born farmer, philosopher and environmentalist called Pierre Rabhi. Without being a presidential candidate, this remarkable figure is having an extraordinary impact on the culture of this resolutely human-centered, nature-dominating country.
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Carrot City: Design’s New Shtick

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A splendid new book from Monacelli Press marks the coming of age of urban agriculture – at least for the design world. Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture is a timely reflection on design and urban food systems, and on the ways that agricultural issues are once again shaping urban spaces and buildings. Read More »

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Five per cent health: The risk of catabolic collapse and peak fat in modern health systems, what to do about them, and how design can help

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I was emboldened, upon arriving at the Mayo Clinic ‘s Centre for Innovation last week, to learn that people with deep domain knowledge do not make the best innovators.

I concluded that I was therefore well-qualified to warn one of the top academic medical centres in the world, each of whose 60,000 staff knows more about medicine than I do, about the risk of catabolic collapse in the US health system – and what to do about it.

The 20 minute video of my talk is here.

My core proposition at the Mayo event was that peak oil, and peak fat, are transforming the logic that currently shapes the global biomedical system.

Firstly, because coming energy famines will render one of the world’s most energy-intensive systems unsustainable.

And second, because until the medical system addresses the causes of illness with the same brilliance with which it addresses the effects, the population will continue to get sicker.

Energy intensity

The main Mayo Clinic building is a vast silver facility that shouts two things: authority, and energy intensity.

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If one Googles health, and energy efficiency, most results are about hospital buildings and attempts to render them ‘greener’. But hospital buildings are just one element within a distributed system that is both materially heavy and entropically complex.

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Iceland: eaten alive, or growing to live?

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“Who needs oil when you have rain?” The ad for Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national energy company, dominates this month’s Icelandair magazine. It sits alongside other ads that feature wild spaces, rugged outdoor clothing, and all-round natural purity. The message is not disguised: Iceland is blessed by massive amounts of clean energy.

The true picture on the ground, sad to say, is murkier. Landsvirkjun’s greener-than-green power stations may well employ geothermal and hydropower – ‘the rain’ – but their massive megawatts of output are not used to keep Icelanders warm. Most of their energy powers a global extractive industry – aluminium – that, seen as a whole, is one of the most dirty and wasteful in the global economy.

For a start, it takes huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy to mine bauxite at its point of origin, and the extraction process nearly always involves habitat destruction, soil erosion, acid mine drainage, watercourse pollution, loss of biodiversity, and the displacement of local people too powerless to resist.

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