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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Geeked-out gardening

The day after I celebrated his Kickstarter success with Tyler Caruso, co-founder of Seeing Green, which is about measuring the value of urban agriculture, I read a fascinating piece by Simon Kuper in the FT about the use of data to analyse every tiny aspect of a football match..
‘Largely unseen by public and media, data on players have begun driving clubs’ decisions’, Kuper writes, ‘particularly decisions about which players to buy and sell’. Chelsea’s performance director, for example, has amassed 32 million data points over 13,000 games. At other clubs, too, obscure statisticians in back-rooms will help shape this summer’s player transfer market. Just as baseball has turned into more of a science, Kuper concludes, soccer will too.
This prompted me to wonder: Could statistics and data-mining come to dominate food growing, too?
My curiosity was further piqued when I hard about a ‘computer that runs your garden’ also known as an Automated Garden Facility (AGF) also known as Garduino.
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The idea of Garduino, which is built on the Arduino platform, is to monitor the garden environment in real time and use that information to water plants when they’re thirsty, turn on supplemental lights when the sun’s not bright enough, and alert you when temperatures are uncomfortably chilly for plants. What’s up-and-running so far is a pilot application that measures the water status of a plant where the information is collected by an NSLU2 mini linux server.
Garduino is pretty cool, but I can’t help worrying that its ambitions are too narrowly-focused. It’s spec surely needs to include the thorny issue of Measuring What Matters [MWM tm].
The picture below, for example, is a close-up of my tomato beds here in France. What you see is a tomato plant, doing OK, and two other plants, also doing OK, that were formerly known as weeds.
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One problem with Garduino is that the conditions it measures and regulates are exactly the same for tomatoes, as they are for the ‘weeds’. To complicate matters further, some ‘weeds’ are more beneficial to the local ecosystem than others – or so one learns from permaculture. You need to know which ones bring which benefit, or not, in order to decide which ones to ‘weed’ – that is, kill – or not.
Although Garduino is resolutely bottom-up and open source, and stands in cultural opposition to the monopolistic and evil tendencies of agribusiness, I’m not sure how diferent it is, in kind, from Accenture’s 2004 Pickberry Vineyard project. Then, a wireless mesh of networked sensors was deployed over a 30-acre premium vineyard. Is Garduino not a child of the same control-seeking mentality?
The answer is probably yes and no. My intutition is that *some* Garduino-like platforms will be needed as we make the transition to resilient food systems in all their complexity and diversity. How much tech, and what kinds, and who will use and own and control them, need to be discussed as we go along. We’ll need evidence and data, not just arguments, to get the attention of wavering policy makers.
The last time we discussed appropriate technology widely was during the 1970s when we’d barely thought about, let alone deployed, the internet, sensors, wifi, or an internet of things. Today’s new times are like the 1970s, only different: It fels like a good moment to revisit and reframe the app-tech debate.

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Shoe Town to Brew Town

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When Jimmy Carbone, co-creator of The Good Beer Seal, was considering running for mayor of his old hometown in Haverhill, Massachusetts, he began to ponder possible new uses for industrial buildings that had fallen in to disuse. Could small resource-sharing breweries be a centerpiece of a regional economic development? To find out, he asked his peers in craft brewing, green building, engineering, and microbial science for advice. This intriguing discussion continues at an event at Brooklyn Brewery [pic above] on 19 July called Shoe Town to Brew Town.
The environmental impacts of brewing are significant. They are energy intensive operations and use lots of water. By the same token, many brewing ‘wastes’ have the potential to be re-used as raw materials in another product or process. Fermentation lends itself to the production of biogas or methane, for example; breweries could be a modest power centers for the local industrial ecology. The New Belgium Brewery in Colorado uses 40 percent less energy per barrel of output than the average American brewer because, from hops in to beer out, every stage of the firm’s brewing process has been designed for greater efficiency and the re-use of waste.
Brewing wastes can also enrich food chains. The mash leftover from fermenting process, which is microbially rich, can be fed to pigs, or fish [such as perch) or oysters and mussels. Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee, for example, is not a brewery but it does occupy a once abandoned warehouse in which one floor now houses aquaponic systems for growing Perch, and another floor is used to grow greens.
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‘Shoe Town to Brew Town’ is July 19, 7:30-10:00 PM Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Tickets are $40 per person [mainly because this is a benefit event for the Gaia Institute].

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The high-tech permaculture metabolic engine greenhouse

[Stop Press: Polydome has been shortlisted for the 2012 Buckminster Fukller Challenge]

A few years ago urban farming in developed cities was a fringe topic that few designers or architects thought much about. There were exceptions: we tried hard [but failed] to build a prototype of Natalie Jeremijenko’s Urban Space Station at Designs of the time in 2007. But the prevailing design view until recently was that food growing belonged as ar away from the city as possible.

Now, as the realization dawns that global food systems are neither resilient nor sustainable, small-scale urban plots are sprouting up everywhere – 2,000 new projects in London alone, by some accounts. In their wake a new phenomenon is evident: design-led proposals to optimise urban food production that combine elements of permaculture, technology, and a whole-systems approach.

One such project, proposed by Except Integrated Sustainability, is called Polydome. It offers, say its designers, “a revolutionary approach to greenhouse agriculture with the possibility of commercial scale, net-zero-impact food production” .
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Intrigued by the bold claims made for the project, I talked in Amsterdam with one of Except’s partners, Eva Gladek, to find out more.

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Kick-off!

This was a first for me: witnessing first-hand a Kickstarter project cross the line and go live.
The happy guy with the phone [in Claire Hartten’s garden in Brooklyn] is Tyler Caruso, joint founder [with Erik Facteau] of Seeing Green: The Value of Urban Agriculture.
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Their project is a year-long research effort to measure the stormwater management potential of two urban farms: Brooklyn Grange (a rooftop farm) & Added Value (raised beds) in NYC. Their aim is to create a model for future research, that can be replicated anywhere, to help validate and support urban farms.

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How to make systems thinking sexy

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[The following is based on the author’s keynote at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge awards in New York on 8 June. He was also on the 2010 jury of the Challenge.]
We will not transition successfully to a restorative economy until systems thinking becomes as natural, for millions of people, as riding a bike. That’s a big ask. How do we get from here, to there?
The Buckminster Fuller Challenge [BFC] is one of the more important projects to address this task – and serving on the jury was by far the hardest work I did last year.
Our task was easily enough stated: select “a bold, visionary, but tangible initiative that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems”. To that headline – a challenge on its own – was appended a daunting set of criteria for the assessment of each entry: Did it apply a whole systems approach to all facets of the design and development process? Is the project ecologically responsible? Is it feasible – not just in an ideal world, but using current technology and existing resources.? Can the project’s claims be verified by rigorous empirical testing? And, finally, is the project replicable? Can it scale and be adapted to a broad range of conditions?

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