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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Man and Nature, Re-Connected

Screen shot 2011-11-05 at 15.27.25.png

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….

Corriere green cover.png

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Turn-key food hives


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.

Read More »

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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.

Screen shot 2011-10-26 at 21.21.55.png

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


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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