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” .
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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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.
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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Sweat equity infra

It’s hard not to be impressed by the Millau Viaduct that’s down the road from where I live in France.

The tallest bridge in the world boasts an eight-span steel roadway, is supported supported by seven huge concrete pylons, and weighs 36,000 tonnes.

But consider this: The great pyramid in Egypt weighs 180 times more than the Millau viaduct – and what happened to the folk who built that?
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Sigiriya built [in what is now called Sri Lanka] in the fifth century, is equally impressive. Its system of man-made pools and water course incorporate incredibly sophisticated hydraulic technologies.

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From ecstasy to exergy: Running out of easy copper

Built in 1978 by German steel company Krupp, the giant Bagger 288 was designed for open mining trenching. It took more than five years and $100 million to design and manufacture. It can move more than 76,000 cubic meters (~2,700,000 cubic ft) of coal, rock, and earth in a day.

Why would anyone need to build such a monster?

One reason is that since 1994 mining companies have had to dig up an extra 50 percent of ore to get the same ton of copper.
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According to financier Jeremy Grantham, ‘copper has an oil-like tendency for the quality of the resource to decline and the cost of production to rise’.

Grantham is convinced that the reason copper prices have strengthened since 2010 is that increased global demand has interacted with an industry that is ‘somewhat challenged to increase copper supply’.

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xskool: breathing the same air

Last weekend the first xskool class took place at West Lexham in England.
As previously reported, xskool at this moment is more a question, than a project: Does the world need a professional development program to support designers, architects and their teachers making the transition to a new kind of design?
The class of West Lexham soon decided that this initial question [posed by me] was too worthy and portentous. We converged, instead, on the idea that “X” means: this place, this moment, these people. Breathing the same air. Only here, only now.
Our group also embraced the idea of no curriculum, no standardised process, no teachers, and no certificates.
It was also liberating to realise that there’s no special virtue to being unique in the world. If a thousand experiences similar to xskool happened last weekend – well, lucky them.
The question nonetheless arises: was last weekend’s positive energy, attention, and mindfulness a happy fluke? Or could one reproduce the conditions that nurtured them? Otherwise stated: in which ways might xskool be an intentional part of ‘the change we wish to see in the world’ ?

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Energy: A Sense Of Loss

Transmission and Distribution %22T&D%22 loss - image.jpg
Whenever electricity is transmitted from one place to another a certain amount is simply lost. In older grids, energy is wasted overcoming resistance in the lines themselves. In extremely high voltage lines, so-called corona discharge losses [as shown in the image above] can offset the lower resistance losses.
Whether system-wide electricity losses amount to three or 65 per cent across the system as a whole is a matter of heated debate. Corona discharge is just one of the arcane variables that are contested when optimistic energy scenarios are subject to the fabled ‘closer inspection’ of experts.
Such has been the fate of the World Wildlife Fund’s Energy Report, which was published in February. 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.

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Open: a survival issue

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[A new book from the Dutch publisher Bis, Open Design Now, includes essays, cases and visuals on various issues of Open Design. The book contains practical guidelines for designers, design educators and policy makers to get started with Open Design. It also includes a preface, contributed by me, that is reproduced here].

In 1909, Peter Kropotkin was asked whether it was possible to learn a trade so difficult as gardening is, from books. “Yes, it is possible” he replied, “but a necessary condition of success, in work on the land, is communicativeness – continual friendly intercourse with your neighbours”.

Although a book can offer good general advice, Kropotkin explained, every acre of land is unique. Each plot is shaped by the soil, its topography and biodiversity, the wind and water systems of the locality, and so on.

“Growing in these unique circumstances can only be learned by local residents over many seasons” the aristocratic anarchist concluded; “the knowledge which has developed in a given locality, that is necessary for survival, is the result of collective experience.”

The biosphere, our only home, is itself a kind of garden – and we have not looked after it well.

On the contrary we have damaged many of the food and water systems that keep us alive, and wasted vast amounts of non-renewable resources.

One of the main reasons we’ve damaged our own life-support system is that we under-value the kinds of socially-created knowledge Kropotkin wrote about. Ongoing attempts to privatize nature, and the over-specialization of knowledge in our universities, continue to render us blind to the consequences of our own actions.

Open-ness, in short, is more than a commercial and cultural issue. It’s a survival issue.

Systemic challenges such as climate change, or resource depletion – so-called ‘wicked problems’ – cannot be solved using the same techniques that caused them in the first place.

Open research, open governance, and open design are a precondition for the continuous, collaborative, social mode of enquiry and action that are needed.

For centuries, the pursuit of knowledge was undertaken in open and collaborative processes. Science, for example, developed as a result of peer review in an open and connected global community. Software, too, has flourished as a result of social creativity in what Yochai Benckler has named ‘commons-based peer production’.

These approaches stand in stark contrast to the legacy industrial economy – from cars, to power stations – which depends on a command-and-control business model and miitant copyright protection.

The internet may have made it easier, technically, to share ideas and knowledge – but an immense global army of rights owners and attendant lawyers works tirelessly to protect this closed system of production.

The open design experiments you will read about in this book – such as the 400 fab labs now in operation – are nodes within an alternative industrial system that is now emerging. These are the “small, open, local and connected” experiments that, for the environmental designer Ezio Manzini, are defining features of a sustainable economy.

Open design is more than just a new way to create products.

As a process, and as a culture, open design also changes relationships among the people who make, use and look after things.

Unlike proprietary or branded products, open solutions tend to be easy to maintain and repair locally. They are the opposite of the short-life, use-and-discard, two-wash-two-wear model of mainstream consumer products. As you will read in the book, “nobody with a MakerBot will ever have to buy shower curtain rings again”.

Another open source manifesto states, “Don’t judge an object for what it is, but imagine what it could become.” This clarion call is welcome – but it does not promise an easy ride for open design.

Our world is littered with the unintended outcomes of design actions – and open design is unlikely to be an exception.

For example, ninety percent of the resources taken out of the ground today become waste within three months – and it’s not axiomatic that open design will improve that situation.

On the contrary, it’s logically possible that a network of fablabs could fab the open source equivalent of a a gas-guzzling SUV.

The long-term value of open design will depend on the questions it is asked to address.

An important priority for open source design, therefore, is to develop decision-making processes to identify and prioritise those questions. What, in other words, should open designers design? All our design actions, from here on, need to take account of natural, industrial and cultural systems – and the interactions between them – as the context for our ceative efforts.

We need to consider the sustainability of material and energy flows in all the systems and artifacts we design.

In reading the texts that follow in this book, I am confident that these caveats will be embraced by the smart and fascinating pioneers of open design who are doing such fascinating work. Crowds may be wise – but they still need designers.

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A smooth journey

Two images have preoccupied me in recent days.
The first one [below] was taken in a lounge at Paris airport. I remember being struck by the intense design effort that had been made to create a controlled and insulated environment. On the tv screen were images of the popular revolt that is unfolding, bloodily, in Yemen. But the sound was off, and the effect was to dampen any awareness we global travellers might have of the outside world – such as those guys fighting for freedom on the Arab street.
The second image that’s bugged me is this new shot of Unit 3 at Fukushima.
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Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve been under the impression that the situation in Fukushima, although dramatic, is qualitatively less serious than Chernobyl. I’ve read reports [sometimes whilst sitting in lounges like the one in Paris] that the Japanese plants have a more modern design, and that those long-distance shots of smoke coming from the buildings were ‘more of a leak than an explosion.’
Then I saw this photograph: Does that look like a ‘leak’ to you?

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