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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Water: the bad news and the good news

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A new book by Alex Prud’homme called The Ripple Effect addresses the “vast and desperately serious subject” of water.

The author does not hold back: all the world’s water problems are here. The sewage, fertilizers, industrial chemicals, plastics, paint, drugs, and hand soap, among other contaminants, that find their way into the world’s rivers every day. Their affect on our drinking water – in ways that are probably deadly, but are hard to measure. The vast “dead zones” in our oceans where algae blooms block out nearly all other forms of life. The threats faced by New York City from failing sewer systems and hurricanes. How desert cities like Las Vegas are in danger of losing much of their water supply to drought.

And on it goes: Our water future, as seen through Prud’homme’s lens, is grim indeed.

Bad news on this scale leaves me feeling powerless. I get doubly depressed when, after a litany of structural global problems, and being told that “water is the new oil”, I am advised to “recycle leftover water from your drinking glass or canteen by pouring it on plants”.

Yeah, great, that should turn things round.

Today, rather than rail once again against doomer porn and its partner, green consumerism, I remind you that there are positive developments on water issues.
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I’ve written before about the Watershed Management Group.

They recently published a fabulous small book called Green Infrastructure for Southwestern Neighborhoods that explains the why, what, how and who of ‘green infrastructure’.

By this term they mean all manner of constructed features that use living, natural systems to provide environmental services. These mostly small features capture, clean and infiltrate stormwater; create wildlife habitat; shade and cool streets and buildings; calm traffic.

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From Powerpoint to Permaculture

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When I arrived at Angsbacka, the site in Sweden of last weekend’s first Future Perfect festival, an alarming array of leaflets was on offer in the foyer : ‘Shamanic De-Armouring’; ‘How To UpGreat Your Life’ or ‘Reach The Temple of your Inner Beauty’; ‘The Journey to Bliss’; ‘A Cellular Dance of Oneness’.

My first reaction was: Beam me the hell back up, Scotty.

My second reaction was: to give the place a chance. There are many reasons to be sceptical about the alternative culture movement. It can reinforce the myth that we can consume our way out of environmental collapse. It implies that personal lifestyle choices can be an antidote to an industrial growth economy that destroys the basis of life on earth – including our own. For Lierre Keith, a founder of Deep Green Resistance, Angsbacka-style alternative culture encourages ‘a continuum that runs from the narcissistic to the sociopathic’ – and she poses a stark question: “Do we want to manage our emotional state, or save the planet? Are we sentimentalists, or are we warriors?’.
FuturePerfect was not a training camp for a new eco-warrior caste; too much hugging for that. But neither was it an infantile self-love fest. The atmosphere was adult, and more intentional than introspective. What emerged was an intriguing synthesis of mindfulness, and designfulness.
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Mindfulness, for the FP crowd, meant facing up honestly to how serious the challenges have become. Peak energy, climate weirdness and global food insecurity, someone said, are potential ingredients of a ‘global Somalia’. Hardly a happy-clappy sentiment. There was acceptance, too, that these challenges will not magically be ‘solved’ by technology – nor designed away – within the economy we have now.

Designfulness, at Future Perfect, meant a sober commitment to take practical actions that can be the seeds of the alternative economy we have to grow. Several discussions about money exemplified this commitment to reflective action. For most people ‘the economy’ is an abstract concept that is hard to grasp, and seems impossible to influence. A local money system, on the other hand, is a tool, and a service, that enables co-operation among people and groups. Local money is also a service design challenge that many people at FP could relate to.
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The process by which we design a new economy is as important as its components. Future Perfect’s creator, John Manoochehri, banned powerpoint presentations, for example. This sounds like a detail, but it meant that our conversations were face-to-face, not face-to-screen. Direct, embodied communication between people – rather than the abstract, mediated kind that dominates the sustainability discourse – helps dispel the illusion that we humans are separate from the rest  of the natural world.

That re-connection with the biosphere came literally to life in the stunning permaculture garden at the centre of the Angsbacka site. A six person cooperative called Flow Food provides a lot of the amazingly good food eaten at Angsbacka’s festivals. For the Flow Food group, no chemicals, no machines, no transport are practical and highly effective collaborative arrangements, not a utopian ideology.
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Can a permaculture garden in rural Sweden, and a ban on powerpoint, be more than a pleasing distraction? For Lierre Keith, at Deep Green Resistance, the ‘open-hearted state of wonder’ cultivated at sites such as Angsbacka is a pathetic response when a planet is being murdered. ‘Are we so ethically dumb that we need to be told that this is wrong?’, she asks.

It’s a harsh but necessary question. For me righteous rage, and direct action, will be no more effective than green consumerism in effecting the changes we need to see. Perhaps my mind was turned to mush by the Angsbacka vibe, but the lesson I draw from Future Perfect is that, yes, the ecocidal industrial economy needs to be stopped – but we are more likely to achieve that by replacing it, than by kicking it. And as a growing medium, Angsbacka was the right place for FuturePerfect to be.

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Ten Ways to Redesign Design Competitions

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The image above is a Piezzoelectric skin that could be attached to vertical surfaces on buildings.The skin would generate electricity as wind moved across its tiny hairs. Wind Skin, as the project is called, so enchanted jurors at last week’s EDF Sustainable Design Challenge that it was selected as one of six winners that will be exhibited at the London Olympics next year.
Wind Skin does not yet exist. But according to the three French students who designed the system – Jérémy Gaudibert, Antoine Giret and Marion Jestin – the technology is not far from being available. A quick check on Google by this juror unearthed 264,000 entries on piezoelectric energy harvesting – and the fact that a 412 page book onPiezoelectric Energy Harvesting was published in April.
That said, a host of other questions remained unanswered by the judging process. How far is the technology from being usable in this way? How does this technology compare with other emerging energy solutions? What would be the energy return be relative to the energy invested in its manufacture and use – its EROEI? What business model would enable it to be deployed? What could go wrong?
The fact that Windskin was such an evocative idea, and yet left these questions unresolved, crystallized a concern about design competitions: as most of them are conceived and run, they achieve only a fraction of their potential.

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Life is a Picnic in The Fertile City

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If you’re in Paris before 24 July a spectacular exhibition called The Fertile City: Towards An Urban Nature is well worth a visit.

The show’s OTT poster does not over-promise. The exhibition explores nature in the city from multiple perspectives: historical, social, cultural, botanical, ecological. Two narrative sequences overlap: an “immersion in the urban-vegetal world”, and a series of transversal themes: the horizon, water, wind, sound…

A nature-artifice riff greets you at the door. In the opening room of a vast subterranean gallery, 2,000 real plants, including palm trees and giant ferns, are kept perky by overhead racks of gro-lights. These are so bright they can blinding to mammals, such as museum visitors, so the plants are only lit up properly at night when the museum is closed.

The Fertile City comes two years after proposals to make Paris “the world’s most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis” were made by 12 famous architects in a big competition. My reaction then was although architects are adept when it comes to dreaming about possible futures, their interest tends to wane asked to get their their hands dirty, and feet wet, in the context where their dreams would be built.

The same caveat applies to The Fertile City. It’s a brilliant and coherent spectacle – but the poster says it all: “Look At Me!” There is nothing here about the social and economic changes, the mud, the work – and the strife – that will be needed if our cities are to become fertile sponges in real life.

Filling up cities decoratively with plants and trees is not bad in itself. As New Scientist reports this week, urban areas might not be so bad for the environment as long as there are plenty of trees around. Cities, and not just rainforests, can provide ecosystem services.

But the Fertile City is only plausible as a scenario if one believes that vast sums of money will be available for contractors and landscape designers make it happen on our behalf.

Many of the show’s luscious images feature rich-looking urbanites lolling around on a variety of green playgrounds. For them, life in the Fertile City is literally a picnic. Hmmm. Could be they’ll be disappointed.

The Fertile City is like a still-life painting of an overflowing fruit bowl: decorative, but you can’t eat it.

It made me recall fondly the mess and conviviality of City Eco Lab in 2008. That was a much less polished and elegant affair but you *could* eat it – or at least, in Bernard Thevenon’s amazing Cantine 80km.

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Edible Architecture

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Today seems to be the day when, once a year in this part of France, every spider in the region spins her best possible web at the same moment.

Early in the morning, when covered in dew, the whole landscape seems to be dotted with uncountable millions of these amazing structures.
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Now spider’s web, as you may well have heard from Janine Benyus, is made with an input of only dead flies and sunlight and yet is five times stronger than Kevlar – so this particular bio-building spree is amazing to contemplate.

Nobody seems to know why the spiders mount this phenomenal display. I did discover that the spider will sometimes eat some of its own web every day to regain some of the protein lost during the web’s construction.

This would be a splendid form of quality control in human architecture, too.

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Knife sharpening

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Last week I was taught how to sharpen our kitchen knives by a wood carver, Howard Raybould, who’s been honing his technique for 30 years. It’s the most useful skill I’ve acquired since learning how to ride a bike.
Howard arrived bearing: a wooden board; a clamp to attach the board to the table with; a damp cloth to put on the board; a small oilcan with paraffin oil in it [diluted]; a sharpening stone, 10 inches long, smoother on one side than the other; a metal file with a wooden handle [hard but fragile]; a tube of metal polish; a leather belt for polishing the knives; and a not very clean cleaning rag. The small
blackboard was for drawing pictures of knife edges on. We already had the steel.
Two hours later I had learned: a) the rudiments of how to sharpen knives; b) that it’s pointless running your finger across the blade to judge its sharpness; use your eyes; c) you use the steel towards the end not at the beginning; d) that the best angle to sharpen the knife is this one, and absolutely not that one – even though the two angles are very similar; and e) that it’s not possible to learn knife sharpening and write meaningful notes about the subject at the same time.
Now all I need is 30 years practice and I’ll be as good as Howard is now. And maybe by then I’ll be able to teach you.
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