Bangkok Cable Ways

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On of the reasons we underestimate the sheer physical mass of our power and information networks is that they’re hidden from view. But not in Bangkok. The German photographer Thomas Kalak has spent ten years decade capturing images like these.They feature in an exhibiton at Munster Art Museum from 19 March to 3 July.
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UK design policy becomes multi-scalar

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An interesting rebound effect of public spending cuts in the UK is that the UK Design Council and CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) are to merge. The move brings UK policy for design, architecture and public space together in a single organization.
The new entity will provide a one stop shop for design support and advice to industry, communities, central and local government.
Among services already provided by both the Design Council and CABE are expert advice to local councils, developers and communities on major proposed projects; promoting the value of good building and spatial design to businesses and communities; facilitating well-designed new homes and neighbourhoods; mentoring and advice to businesses, public services and university technology offices on the strategic use of design; and high profile design challenges that explore innovative solutions to health, security and sustainability issues.
The new organization, as an independent charitable organisation, will be financed through a combination of sources including grants from the government ministries dealing with Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

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Ultra Modern

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I dislike the word ‘glocal’. It’s an ugly word used by high altitude thinkers to add zest to another word – local – that they find tedious on its own.
I also dislike the word ‘creative’. It tends to be used by uncreative people to describe people like themselves. Its bastard child, ‘cultural creative’, is twice as bad because …well, you fill in the gaps.
Now a new word has come along to bug me: ‘Sustainism’. It adorns a new book that celebrates the glocal and the creative. Not a good start.
The word sustainism has been invented by two design eminences from The Netherlands, Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers. They’ve created the new word as a “replacement for modernism”.
Sustainism as a new cultural era is described in two ways. The first is a series of quotes and aphorisms, two or three to a page. Familiar words flutter across the folios: connected, local, digital, ecology, community, interface, collaboration, crossover, social, and so on.
The book’s second channel, if we may call it that, is a confetti of colourful logos [including the ones above]. These intersperse the aphorisms. The effect is visually pleasing – the book reminds me of an illustrated diary I had as a child – but I reached the end feeling I had read a contents list, but not the content itself.
The idea, say its author-designers, is that Sustainism’s “graphically dynamic aphorisms, quotes and symbols” capture the zeitgeist of our culture and “name the new age”.
I’m not so sure. The word sustain – whether attached to an -ism, or an -abiity – speaks too much, to me anyway, of bailing out a leaking boat as it drifts towards a waterfall. It’s got to be done, but it’s not a joyful prospect.
Sustainism is rather like a butterfly collection. Many of its specimens are renowned, and some of them are beautiful – but they are also – how to put this delicately? – lifeless.
Sustainism, in consequence, achieves the opposite of its ambition. It’s a very Modern book.
Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers is published by Distributed Art Publishers.

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Renewable energy: salvation, or snake oil?

[First published at Design Observer]
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Unsettling patches of metallic eczema have started appearing on former vineyards where I live in the south of France. They turn out to be solar farms, the first spores of a clean energy revolution that will soon cover the land. People tell me I should be pleased, but I feel foreboding.
The Energy Report, published today by the World Wildlife Fund, is not reassuring. 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. All we need is the guts to go for it.
Jim Leape, director general of WWF International, says the report is a ‘spur to global action’. He wants governments, stymied in their search for an effective response to climate change, to ‘move boldly to bring the renewable energy economy into reality’.
The Energy Report has been prepared by WWF together with renewable energy consultancy Ecofys, and AMO, the consulting arm of Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm OMA. It builds on two earlier large-scale energy projects: Zeekracht, the 2008 plan for a ring of offshore wind farms in the North Sea; and Roadmap 2050, launched last year, which advocates the decarbonization of European electrical power.
‘A global energy supply based on renewables must be addressed at a global scale’ says Reinier de Graaf, AMO’s director. ‘It’s so ambitious that it requires a new way of looking at the world in order to be understood’. To help us perceive ‘a world without borders in which all continents have equal access to sustainable energy’, AMO has created visualizations that bring the new realities to energy geopolitics in sharp focus.
The image below makes the transfer of energy from South to North look especially clean and easy.
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At first sight, the WWF report makes sense: There’s a lot of wind in Northern Europe; there’s a lot of sun in the South. Why not capture energy where it is not needed, in undeveloped countries, and transmit it to where people could use it, in the North? Much as we do with oil and gas today.
At the heart of The Energy Report is the concept of a global scale ‘smart’ electricity grid that would balance periods of low wind or sun in some areas by harvesting the wind or sun in others. This would reduce the need for back-up power systems and storage.
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In the benign vision outlined by the WWF efficient cables (HVDC) will run over very large distances — for example, between North Africa and Europe. These smarter grids, says WWF, can be consumer-friendly, save energy, reduce costs and increase reliability.
Behind the scenes, however, major energy players do not appear to regard locally-produced power as an important part of the big picture. Energy “harvested” on a huge scale, in predominantly poor countries, is at the heart of their plans.
The World Bank, for example, is planning a grid to link the eastern Arab states with Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, the western outposts of the Arab world, and the Maghreb region of north Africa and the Western Sahara.
Another mega-plan, the European Union’s Roadmap 2050, plans to create priority corridors’ in southwestern Europe ‘to make best use of Northern African renewable energy sources’.
These supergrids look neat and hygienic on AMO’s maps, but their implementation begs a host of questions. Among these is the process by which decisions are being made. The Energy Report states blandly that ‘the grid will allow power to be transferred from one part of the continent to another’ — but allowed by whom, and in whose interests?
For ENTSO-E, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, keen to ensure security of supply for 525 million energy-hungry Europeans, the biggest obstacle is ‘permitting procedures and authorization processes’. It promises that its next ten year plan, to be launched next year, will take ‘a more top-down approach’.
The Energy Report also makes wind and sun energy sound clean and weightless when their impact on the real world is far less benign.
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For one thing, they need a lot of land. Fossil fuels are concentrated, and buried underground. To achieve the same quantities of energy, renewables have to be spread over much wider areas: They need land for the equipment to capture the wind and the sun, land for power transmission infrastructure, land for access roads and buildings. It all adds up.
Bruce Pavlik, in a piece for the LA Times, warns that a rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to fragile California ecosystems. Topsoil and plant life that have evolved over millenia are disrupted or destroyed by the placement of solar arrays, wind farms, power plants, and transmission lines.
‘We need to acknowledge the true costs of any energy development’ warns Pavlik. ‘When a dam is built, a river is lost – but people who turn on their tap and draw that water rarely think about the river that was destroyed to produce it. If we place industrial technologies in what city people regard as wilderness, there will be less awareness of the damage, less incentive to conserve’.
Despite such warnings, vast projects are in the pipeline. According to the LA Times, the total public land under consideration for alternative energy production exceeds 1.45 million acres in California alone.
In India, negative impacts of green energy are already starting to be felt. A wind farm project under way in Pune has destroyed protected forests and threatens farmland in the area. Bombay’s High Court, responding to a public interest petition, ordered a halt on tree felling — but blasting and other destructive activities continue. At another wind power project in Andhra Lake 300,000 trees were felled by an Indo-German enterprise called Enercon to construct an access road along the hills; the consortium had permission to cut 26,000. Many rare plants and shrubs, found only in the western Ghats, have been destroyed because of dumping of rubble from blasted rocks.
Environmental activists allege the project was authorized on the basis of false promises that ‘there is no wildlife in the area’.
In Ontario, Canada, crown land is being opened up to to renewable energy developers at low rates. These wild paces may be rebranded as ‘wind parks’ to divert opposition from community groups. As National Wind Watch reports, the majority of these renewable energy projects are controlled by multinationals, not by home-grown idealists as some might imagine.
Renewables are also not as clean and light as they look in the photographs – only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuels they are purported to replace. As equipment, wind farms use an awful lot of physical resources. The neat white compartments at the top of each tower each contain a generator, hub and gearbox that weigh upwards of 15,000 kilos (33,000 pounds). Other components of a utility-scale wind farm include underground power transmission systems in concrete culverts; high-tech control and maintenance facilities; and substations to connect farms with power grids. There’s a lot of embodied energy in a single solar panel or wind turbine.
The Energy Report promises middle-class lifestyles for all, powered by renewable energy. For that to be achieved, vast numbers of these turbines would be needed. The journal Energy Policy estimates that four million 5 MW wind turbines would be needed to supply 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — not to mention 1.7 billion roof-mounted solar PV systems, 90,000 large solar power plants, plus a smattering of geothermal, wave and tidal power plants.
Four million turbines? We could probably add a zero, or two, to that number. In his book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air David Mackay, a professor at Cambridge University, reckons that the net energy contribution of one wind turbine is equal to the energy footprint of about 100 British people. According to MacKay’s rough calculations, the maximum plausible production from on-shore windmills across the United Kingdom would be (on average) about one fifth of today’s total energy consumption.
Chuck Burr, a southern Oregon farmer and writer, provides an additional reality check.. Cited by John Michael Greer, Burr uses hard numbers – a study of his own solar-powered home – to demonstrate that high-tech renewables cannot be a long-term solution. Burr is adamant: the photovoltaic system that powers his home will not generate enough electricity to maintain his modest lifestyle. If the energy used to manufacture transport and install the solar equipment is added in, the result is actually a net energy loss, concludes Burr.
“Every alternative energy solution is manufactured with fossil fuels. Think of the cables, the transformers, the pylons, the concrete they are mounted on. Renewable power is not renewable once these fossil fuel inputs are factored in.”
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[The photo above, from Burr’s farm, shows the inverters and breaker box required in additional to the solar arrays themselves].
Whether the number of turbines required is in the millions, or tens or hundreds of millions, their manufacture will in any case be constrained by the availability of rare earth materials. One of these, neodymium, is not just used in the manufacture of the magnets used in wind turbines – it is also needed for electric cars. Pressure on supplies is already acute.
A report from Earth Policy is confident that any supply bottleneck could be overcome “if mining were increased by a factor of five” – but, like many of the promises in The Energy Report, there would be a hidden price to pay for that: A five-fold production increase in rare earth mining would have horrific consequences on the ground where it takes place.
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[Above picture] “Hidden out of sight behind smoke-shrouded factory complexes in the city of Baotou, and patrolled by platoons of security guards, lies a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy”
‘Every step of the rare earth mining process is disastrous for the environment’ states Jamie Choi, an expert on toxics for Greenpeace China. Ores are extracted by pumping acid into the ground; they are processed using more acid and chemicals; finally, they are dumped into tailing lakes that are often very poorly constructed and maintained. Throughout this process, large amounts of highly toxic acids, heavy metals and other chemicals are emitted into the air that people breathe, and which leak into surface and ground water that villagers rely on this for irrigation of their crops and for drinking water.
For their part, fishermen, too are worried by offshore wind power. Wind turbines could one day straddle thousands of miles of rich fishing grounds in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, for example, if federal plans to accelerate growth in the offshore wind industry are realized. “Looking at the gridded map, it seems like they are going to take the whole Nantucket Lightship area away from us and about 80 percent of the Great South Channel area,” said Paul Wessecker, the owner of three local scallop vessels. “These are some of the most lucrative fishing grounds that we have.”
The optimistic projections of The Energy Report ignore another inconvenient reality: cost. Infrastructures on the scale it recommends would require massive inputs of investment in the form of fossil-fuel based energy, materials, knowledge, and labor. Even in a booming world economy, such resources would be hard to find; in the global crisis we are experiencing now, it is hard to see where even a fraction of the needed costs would be found.
At its heart, The Energy Report suffers from an existential flaw: It takes ‘global energy needs’ as a given, adds up how much renewable energy would be needed to meet them – and then ignores the true costs of deploying such an infrastructure. Apart from a vague commitment to ‘efficiency measures’, the report fails totally to question the energy-intensive way-of-life that a spoiled 20 percent of us across the industrial world take for granted – from fresh strawberries at Christmas, to holidays in Mauritius.
The Energy Report does not lie outright. We could, theoretically, generate the vast quantities of renewable that it promises. But at what cost? David MacKay calculates that we could deploy renewables that would deliver nearly as much energy as we use today – but only “if we threw all economic, social, and environmental constraints to the wind”.
That is what makes The Energy Report so dangerous. For the World Bank, construction and energy companies, and short-termist politicians, the report provides cover for profitable projects – and happy voters. Beguiled by the promise of “green jobs”, and the painless continuation of lifestyle-as-usual, many of us would be inclined to turn a blind eye to the environmental devastation, land-grabs, and undemocratic planning procedures, that would follow.
For Rem Koolhaas and AMO, The Energy Report is a natural progression. Ecosystems and natural justice have never been a priority for the de facto house architect of globalizaton. As for Ecofys, the report’s other partner, it’s a technology company with no pretensions to be competent on social or environmental issues.
But The Energy Report is a tragedy for the WWF.
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Its imprimatur provides cover for a Big Tech, growth-is-good, business-as-usual energy strategy that will not work. Worse, the WWF plan would divert resources from a more pressing priority: the creation of truly sustainable ways to organize daily life.
The biggest losers of all, if The Energy Report were to be implemented, would be people in so-called undeveloped societies, mainly in the south, who live without the vast energy throughputs we’ve become addicted to in the North. They should be our models, not our victims.

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If it’s not the destination, and it’s not the journey…

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A study by Transportation Alternatives found that up to 45 percent of traffic in an area of Brooklyn was caused by cars circling the streets looking for parking. And in 2006, UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup calculated that, within a year, vehicles searching for parking in a small business district in LA consumed 47,000 gallons of gas and produced 730 tons of carbon dioxide.
Faced by such shocking numbers, the default reaction of some people has been to look to technology for an answer. Let’s invent a system, they resolve, that enables drivers find open parking spaces without delay. A team at Rutgers University, for example, uses ultrasonic sensors, GPS receivers and cellular networks to find empty parking spaces; they relay this information to drivers using Internet maps and navigation systems.
To optimise the search process, the Rutgers team placed ultrasonic sensors on the passenger-side door of three cars and used them to collect data on empty parking spaces over a period of two months during daily commutes through Highland Park, New Jersey. From this, the engineers developed an algorithm that used these ultrasound readings to reveal the number of available parking spaces with 95 percent accuracy. By combining this informnaton with GPS data, they were able produce maps of occupied and unoccupied spaces that were 90 percent accurate.
Enough, already!
While technically impressive, this is an absurdly over-complicated answer to the wrong question. In January 2011 alone, 4,474,00 cars were produced. We’re adding 50 million cars a year to the 600,000,000 that are already here – and for 95 percent of the time, those 600,000,000 cars sit idle, wasting space.
Systems that help people locate not-yet-wasted parking places are a technological form of spatial cancer.
Small outbreaks of low-tech sanity do exist – like this one brought to you by the team at Tucson velo:
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What Kind of Design Institutes for India?

A decision by the Indian government set up four new National Institutes of Design [NIDs] in the country has sparked a lively debate about the kinds of design they should teach.

An influential group of design thought-leaders has launched a campaign called VisionFirst that calls for a “rigorous co-creation process to bring clarity to the models of design education that India should seek”.

VisionFirst applauds the new institutes as “a significant step towards leveraging design to enhance the country’s ability to innovate, and in using design to enhance the quality of life in the country”. But the group also expresses concern that the new institutes “will be a lost opportunity if we follow a predetermined route and end up replicating expired, limited and ineffective models of design”.

The VisionFirst group includes Uday Dandavate, co-founder of SonicRim; Ashish Deshpande, founder of Elephant Design; S Sundar, president of the Association of Indian Designers; the writer and blogger M P Ranjan; and the educator Jogi Panghaal, India Associate of Doors of Perception.

In a pamphlet launched yesterday VisonFirst propose a “nationwide and rigorous co-creation process” to stimulate fresh inquiry and bring clarity to the models of design education that India should seek.

This “grand open, global conversation about design education in India” could unfold on the internet and in print media, says the group; it could conclude with a international conference to share the insights and emerging directions in design education from around the world.

“To remain competitive in the global marketplace” argues VisionPlus, “industry must respond to new sets of challenges. Users are seeking more than usefulness and usability. They are looking for emotional connectedness, commitment to green values, transparency, and fair use of labour”.

The Indian government has published a Request for Proposal that invites consulting organizations to bid for finalisation of the model for setting up campuses for four new NIDs. This approach, warns VisonPlus “may exclude new and innovative ways to imagine new institutions”. The group is concerned that India’s government may “commit to building infrastructure for a pre-supposed form of a school, both in building and content that is actually in desperate need for re-imagination”.

Sam Pitroda, Advisor to the Prime Minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations, and recent chair of India’s Knowledge Commission, has told VisionFirst that he supports the creation of 40 innovation clusters indifferent parts of India to serve different sectors of the economy, and sees a need to have a 100 NID’s in India.

The debate in India coincides with the launch by Doors of Perception of a new project called Xskool.. [Declaration of interest: This writer is director of Doors of Perception].

The idea of Xskool is to set up a training platform that will help the next generation of design teachers and leaders “make a fundamental transition to a new kind of design – one that creates social value without destroying natural and human assets”.

More on Xskool shortly.

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The service ecology of a city

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Milan has approved a new Territorial Government Plan (Piano di Governo del Territorio] in which public services, and the way they are planned, are at the centre of the whole project.
Since 2008, Id-lab has worked alongside the City Administration to change the way Milan thinks about urban development. Each of the city’s 88 existing quarters, with its own characteristics and identity, is treated as a core element in the new approach. An ongoing conversation with citizens has elicited an understanding of which services are considered important for daily life – such as schools, kindergartens, libraries, health and social services.
From these 88 Environmental Atlase an understanding emerges of where service provision is failing. The new Plan does not fix which services will be activated in the future, nor where they will be placed. On the contrary, the idea is to enable a cyclical decision making process in which the identification of needs and action priorities is continuous. Unlike in traditional planning, the city never arrives at the moment in which its plan is finished. On the contrary: every six months a new process of reconnaissance, of “listening”, begins which updates the collective understanding of new needs and wants.
IdLab’s vision is that these dynamic service ecology maps will act as a trigger that encourages entrepreneurs to develop new services when these emerging needs, at an ultra-local level, become evident. The map below, for example, identifies areas within each neighbourhood that lack close connection to a public transport route; one idea is that these gaps are spotted by minivan operators who move in to close the connection and remove the necessity for people to use private cars.
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The same goes for maps which plot areas of the city where planting and food growing might be reintroduced. The role of the city here is not t grow food, but to highlight spatial opporunities and, down the line, to remove planning and regulatory blockages.
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A related project, Nutrire Milano [Feeding Milan] is also exploring the relationships between food systems, service innovation, and sustainable urban development. A project of the Slow Food Movement with Milan Polytechnic, Nutrire Milano also uses maps to highlight where there are gaps or blockages in the ways food is produced and distributed.
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Afghan culture museum

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A lifetime ago, during a six month journey in Afghanistan, I passed the spectacular site of Bamiyan, shown in this photograph, on my way into the Hindu Kush. This was long before the three enormous statues of Buddha, carved into the sides of cliffs, were destroyed by the Taliban on the grounds that they were an affront to Islam.
A two-day visit did not make this hippy-tourist an expert – but the impact of that site has lived with me ever since. The statues could only have been created by one of humanity’s most ancient civilizations – and yet that cultural and social legacy is hardly ever mentioned in contemporary media coverage of the country.
It is welcome news, therefore, that a project to create a virtual museum of Afghan culture has been launched in Paris by an independent producer, Pascale Bastide. The celebrated and visionary architect Yona Friedman has agreed to to design and “build” a virtual structure that will enable access to Afghan collections which are now physically scattered in many museums and private collections around the world. Every art object will have its own geographic, ethnological, and historic information; a panoramic table will situates these objects in the larger context of European, Mideastern, and Asian civilizations. There will be also a special pavilion offered to Afghan people to deposit their own archives.
“My fundamental idea about architecture is that we are overbuilding” comments Friedman; “earth is over occupied. A museum, from this point of view, doesn’t need to have a building”. Rather than attempt to fill the cavity left after the demolition of the giant statues with a new buillding, his idea is to use that space as a kind of grid, or promenade, to present the online exhibits.
Another collaborator in the project, Michael Barry, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, states that “several moments of mankind’s fate and creativity were sealed on what is today Afghan soil – and the world needs to see that”.

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Plan B “best architecture book of the year” in The Netherlands

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Totally thrilling news has reached me from the Netherlands: my book Plan B: Ontwerpen in een Complexe Wereld [Plan B: Designing In A Complex World] has been selected by the influential magazine de Architect as their best architecture book of the year. I would like to share this good fortune with you, too: if you forgot to send any of your Dutch-speaking friends a present this year send them Plan B as the perfect New Year’s gift. It will make my publishers, SUN, happy too.

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