Unplugged, but not alone

tumblr_lalqbdY95k1qdxm5ao1_500.jpg
I was snooty in suggesting, in my comment on Doug Rushkoff’s new book, that he should get out of the city more.
But if I’m an armchair tree-hugger, Stephanie Smith is the real thing.
Two months ago, this former architect abandoned her Los Angeles life for a new one in her shack in Joshua Tree, Southern California. The story of what happened next is reported in her Unplugged diary.
Smith’s homesteader cabin sits on a five acre parcel “across the road from the house she just gave back to the bank”.
One reason I’m gripped by Unplugged Diary is that my daughter Kate and I visited the area a couple of years back. It was a three hour drive from downtown LA – and we made the whole trip using these directions, made for us by Stephanie, which I keep proudly on my office wall here in France:
unplugged-directions.png
That trip was also memorable because I was fined $350 by a huge and terrifying local cop for overtaking a school bus on this otherwise empty road to Stephanie’s shack:
tumblr_l838vhnqso1qdxm5ao1_500.jpg

Posted in city & bioregion | Leave a comment

Design steps to heaven

lucerne_cultural_centre_lge.jpg
I recently visted Luzern, in Switzerland, for a workshop at thethe oldest art and design school in Switzerland, Hochschule Luzern.
My host, Andy Polaine had asked me to set students in the first semester of the MA Design a challenge.
The task I gave them was as follows: find a neglected asset somewhere in Luzern, and design a service to increase its value to the city.
As the workshop began, I assumed that some groups of students would focus on the city’s new cultural centre [photo above]. Designed by Jean Novel, the building had taken twenty years to conceive and plan. With an overhanging roof 35m 100 feet) above the ground, the building had cost the city 130 million euros to build.
This was an iconic building with a capital “I”. I thought it must surely have potential as the focus of some new kind of civic activity.
But then a strange thing happened. When I asked the students what they thought of their new centre, they pronounced it to be “quite nice” – and hastened on to tell me stories about other features of the city that they had found more engaging to work with.
The first joint winner was called ‘Straight way to heaven’.
bouldering.png
The team had identified a church as their neglected asset,and proposed to increase its value as a meeting place by opening it up to bouldering in the city.
The group did not expect the church authorities to be thrilled by their idea, but our jury found their service communication to be so engaging that they were made joint winners.
heaven1.png
The second winning project in Luzern, Graveyard Alive, was especially enchanting. The group had discovered that the city’s Friedhof Cemetary contained a lot of as-yet-unused space.
1506814914_52ff83559c_b.jpg
They came up with a sublime closed-loop service concept: offer people the opportunity to donate their bodies, once buried, as nutrients to save endangered plants and cultivate biodiversity.
graveyardalive1.png
The group had already talked with workers in the graveyard [in favour] and identified a leading Swiss seed bank ProSpecieRara to provide the seeds.
The next step is to sign up the first customers….
Bouldering in the City/Straight Way to Heaven was the work of: Christoph Gabathuler, Myriam Gämperli, Erika Frankhauser Schürch and Antonio Russo
Graveyard Alive was the work of: Nadine Bucher, Anete Melece and Dominik Büeler

Posted in most read, social innovation & design | Leave a comment

Leave nothing but footsteps

kalakbook04.jpg
Three years ago German photographer Thomas Kalak published a book called Thailand – Same same, but different!.
Featuring all manner of bamboo scaffolding, knotted aerial lines, hand painted signs, or converted plastic bags, the book celebrated the Thais’ exceptionally gifted art of improvisation.
The strange objects and arrangements reminded Kalak of art world “ready-mades” from the beginning of the 20th century.
They reminded me that salvage society is not a future prospect that will happen when peak-everything hits home. Untold millions of people subsist on the detritus of industrial society right now.
Now Kalak has published a new book,Weltstücke: World Trip Goodies
Cover_Collage_01.jpg
‘Weltstücke’ features rare, bizarre, and exceptional souvenirs collected by the photographer during his ceasless travels.
WS_Mexico.jpg
‘Take nothing but memories’ Kalack concludes, and ‘and leave nothing but footsteps’.

Posted in mobility & design | Leave a comment

From Easter Island to Three Mile Island

Program-web.jpg
You don’t need to know how a combustion engine works to drive your car to work. Why should you need to know anything about the programming behind the pixels just to get around the web?
For Douglas Rushkoff, in his new book Program or be Programmed, the answer is that the web is different.
‘It’s both medium and content’, he writes; the real question is, ‘do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?’
Choose the former, Rushkoff contends, and you ‘gain access to the control panel of civilization.’
I’m not so sure. Gain access to the control panel of Three Mile Island would be a better comparison.
Rushkoff believes that we are moving into ‘an increasingly digital reality.’ Therefore we must learn not just how to use programs, but how to make them.
But this progressive-sounding proposition is based on a dangerous assumption: that ‘digital reality’ is all encompassing, and is the only one on offer.
Really?
As Jarred Diamond explained in his book Collapse, one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the negative impact of their own actions.
On Easter Island, the focus of Diamond’s book, the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants’ survival prospects. And they didn’t even notice they were doing so until it was too late.
This lesson applies equally to us, today. We are bewitched, as a culture, by just one element of the world around us: its digital overlay.
Thus bewitched, we waste astronomical amounts of energy and resources without even realizing it.
Thus bewitched, we are destroying the biosphere upon which all life, including our own, depends.
Think digitally, Rushkoff suggests, and we will be able to ‘see beyond social conventions and power structures that have vexed us for centuries’.
I believe the opposite to be the case. Think digitally, and we will perceive only what the power structures want us to perceive.
Doug Rushkoff is a great writer, but he needs to get out of town more.
He needs to hug a tree.

Posted in [no topic] | Leave a comment

A lesson from Cornwall

40311_large.jpg
Shortly after my visit to Oslo I received this question from Andrea Siodmok: “what from Cornwall should the world know about?”.
The director of Dott Cornwall is preparing an exhibit to celebrate the achievements of this fascinating region in south west England, and wanted me to contribute a suggestion.
Andrea did not specify that the thing from Cornwall should be man-made, so I nominated the golden hair lichen.
I’ve always loved lichen. I found this one in Cornwall’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and chose it as a beautiful asset that already exists in the county.
The stated ambition of Cornwall, in the the far south west of England, is to become a “green peninsular”. It’s an evocative concept, but,as I wrote here, people there interpret the word “green” in different ways.
My interpretation is that lichens are among the beautiful things with which the world’s ’empty’ spaces – of the kind we discussed in Norway – are filled.
Lichen are an under-appreciated example of how a restorative economy can replace the extractive one we have now. Gunther Pauli reminded recently me that mining – which played a big part in Cornwall’s economy – is one of humanity’s most brutal interventions.
Armed with dynamite, and consuming massive amounts of water and energy, we extract minute concentrations of minerals from the depths of the earth.
Lichens, in contrast, are capable of extracting specific inorganic molecules like magnesium from rocks and trees – but they require zero fossil-based energy to do what they do – and leave their environment better than they found it.
The most entrancing scenario for me is the idea of replacing mining with lichen. I don’t know how this might happen, but I’m convinced that lichens, including this charming one from Cornwall, have much to teach us.

Posted in transition & design | Leave a comment

A Tale of Two Trains

Oslo Airport’s mean-looking bullet train reaches the city centre in nineteen minutes. At 210 kph [130 mph] it is not the world’s fastest – some of China’a new trains will soon reach nearly twice that speed – but Norway’s is surely the most macho to look at.

OsloHST.JPG
Traveling on Oslo’s mean-looking machine for nineteen minutes costs about 20 euros [$30). In India, by contrast, that same amount buys you a 3,500km train ride from Kashmir to Kerala.

20081223124635_india_train.jpg
True, the north-south India trip takes three nights and four days, and the cheap carriages can be crowded. But one is bound to ask: which country has the most advanced and resilient infrastructure?
My question is not rhetorical. Norway will decide next year whether or not to spend a big chunk of its oil revenue endowment on a nationwide extension of its high speed train [HST] network.

Read More »

Posted in mobility & design, most read | Leave a comment

Next-generation biennials

man.jpg
I just got back from Oslo where their Architecture Triennial has opened. I participated in its main conference, Man Made Tomorrow and will report on that event soon. But ahead of the conference, Bjarne Ringstad, curator of the Triennial, asked me to reflect on how the role of such set-piece events might evolve to match the new challenges design is facing.

Here is what I sent him:

“We are facing an array of ‘wicked problems’ that are simultaneously complex, uncertain and urgent. We have to learn how to adapt to unpredictable and possibly catastrophic disruptions to climate, financial systems, and resource flows.

A single-vision, top down approach to design and planning simply does not work in the face of so much uncertainty.

The new watchword is ‘adaptive resilience’ – a condition in which society, its experts, and its citizens, must learn how to adapt to change continuously.

In this situation, the design focus needs to evolve from the delivery of of large-scale hard-wired solutions, towards a focus on resource ecologies, land-use, and time-use.

The primary design activity, in this context, is more a conversation than the production of a blueprint.
Biennials and triennials are important ways to start these new conversations. They can bring new groups of people together to imagine sustainable alternatives to the way we do things now – and then identify design actions, some of them small, that would bring these alternatives closer.

To start these conversations the content of a design biennial and the kinds of people participating, needs to change.

Rather than focus on design objects or on urban ‘visions’, the focus needs to be on how, in practical ways, we will re-design the systems, institutions and processes that shape our daily lives.

Sustainable development requires a system discontinuity in the way we produce, consume and socially interact. A biennial should represent – not resist – that discontinuity.

Read More »

Posted in learning & design | Leave a comment

From philanthrocapitalism to an eco-social economy

ReachingforImpact.jpg
(Summer re-run: first published July 2009)
This scary hand smashing through the wall to get you is the logo of last month’s Insead conference on social entrepreneurship. Its slogan was “Reaching For Impact”.
I’ve written critically here before about the assumptions that underly “design for development” – so I won’t repeat the whole argument.
And as I said here we are all emerging economies now.
So let’s just say that I’m troubled about the term “design for social impact” when the desired impact is on someone else’s turf, not on the designer’s own.
The language of Nesta’s new “Re-boot Britain” programme also strikes me as off-key. A complex society in transition is not best imagined as a faulty machine.
But both social impact, and rebooting, are thin-blooded when compared to the concept of “philanthrocapitalism” that’s celebrated in a new book.

Read More »

Posted in learning & design | Leave a comment

Unplugged – or unhinged?

2947454683_5f298e89ca.jpg
(Summer re-run)
I’m reading reading a moving and important book by Sharon Astyk called “Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front”.
Uniquely among recent books on life after the Peaks – energy, protein, biodiversity etc – Astyk does not write to scare us all witless.
She does not write about elaborate ways to fix The Economy. She does not even furnish a shopping list of green tools and equipment that we can all buy as evidence that we are Doing Something.
(This latter prohibition is a particular disappointment to Kristi and me: we’ve been compiling a shopping list of high-end fruit dryers, choucroute kits, and grain grinders, that we were about to send to our friends before Christmas).
On the contrary, Astyk writes about the benefits that can come (and will come, for most of us) from being poor in material terms.
She proffers practical advice on how best to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and generally how to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis.
This shocking approach clearly freaked out the the New York Times: they ran a patronising story in their Fashion and Style section about Astyk’s work and life.
The Times even dug up a so-called “mental health professional” – a Dr. Jack Hirschowitz – who was happy to describe Astyk’s “compulsion to live green in the extreme” as a kind of disorder.

Read More »

Posted in learning & design | Leave a comment