From Eds & Meds, to Farms and Watersheds

The skyline of Pittsburgh, once America’s Steel City, is now dominated by towers belonging to two local giants of ‘Eds & Meds’ – education, and healthcare. Does this mean the city has successfully grown itself a resilient new economy?
If architectural bravura was an indicator, the answer would be yes. The older tower [above] which looks like something out of Batman, is the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. The brutal black one [below] is the HQ of UPMC, an $8 billion healthcare colossus. The black tower, says its main tenant, is ‘tangible evidence of Pittsburgh’s transformation into an international center of medicine, technology and education’.
UPMC, which runs 20 hospitals in the Pittsburgh area, and has 48,000 workers, is by far the city’s largest employer. Across the US, only Boston has a higher proportion of health workers.
Their sheer size makes some people in the city nervous that Eds &Meds might be economic bubbles, and that their dizzy rates of growth – in prices, as much as in jobs – might be unsustainable.

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Rotterdam: where time is no longer money

Twelve-year-old childen in Rotterdam have never known a time when their city was not being rebuilt around them. And because they know no better, or at least no different, they are not much daunted by the huge scale of the projects underway – still less, by the consequences those projects are likely to have for the nature of their city.
I pondered these thoughts when fighting my way through the vast building site that was once Rotterdam Central Station -but will be, when finished, one day, a multi-modal, six-layered hub for high speed trains, buses, cars -and lots and lots of shoppers.
[I know my photo looks over-exposed – but I couldn’t help comparing the massive floodlights in the artist’s impression of the station-to-be, with the massive amount of free light available from the sun on that same spot].

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Why does Laura Bush’s friend want to poison our water?

Dr Martin Schuepbach from Dallas, Texas, has the following plan, concerning natural gas, for the Cevennes region of France, where I live [below]:


First, he will take millions of gallons of our clean mountain water. To this he will add a cocktail of up to up to 600 toxic chemicals including highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium.

He will then pump the noxious mixture deep into our ground.


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Off-grid water: the social dimension

Up to 1,500 litres of that water are needed to grow enough biofuels to move one car ten kilometres. 2,000 litres are needed a day to feed each one of us. It takes 140 litres of water to grow enough beans for a single cup of coffee.

It sounds, and is, unsustainable. Over-exploitation impacts heavily on the quality and quantity of remaining water, and on the ecosystems that depend on it. And it’s not just a problem for arid climate areas. Water stress is also increasing in large parts of the rainy north.

Two years ago, when Banny Banerjee and myself ran a design clinic on the theme of off-grid water at Stanford University, we focused on entrepreneurs in the Palo Alto region who were developing tools to help citizens manage water sustainably.

One such tool, the Rainwater Hog, had won lots of prizes, but its designer and producer, Sally Dominguez, wanted our advice on the best way to translate celebrity into sales.

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Utopia is here

Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, made in 1982, portrays a dystopian Los Angeles as it might be in 2019. In just eight years from now we are due to discover find out whether or not the film was an accurate prediction.

Do we have to wait that long? Many urban sites today already are at least as disturbing as those in the film.

Volker Sattel’s film about nuclear power [above], to be previewed in Berlin on 6 April, is filled with disturbing shots of a future gone wrong – only his images are not fiction.
Neither is this shot below from The Zone of Alienation – the exclusion area around Chernobyl. An area the size of Switzerland, it will be uninhabitable for the next 300 years.

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Does Bilbao need another Guggenheim?

The Basque city of Bilbao was a pioneer in Europe in the use of showcase cultural buildings as a trigger for urban regeneration. Just a generation ago the city’s waterfront was an industrial port. Today, in addition to the Guggenheim itself, its architectural landmarks include bridges by Santiago Calatrava and Daniel Buren, and an apartment block by Arata Isozaki.
But as with Japan, where the technique was invented [landmark structures were called ‘antenna buildings’ during their bubble economy of the 1980s] the global crisis finds Bilbao asking: now what do we do?

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Collapse of civilization tango

They say that the last days of Rome were culturally rich – and the same seems to be the case in our own times.
Choreographer Valerie Green and Dance Entropy, a New York City-based experimental dance troupe, will shortly premier a new work, Rise and Fall, that’s about collapsing civilizations, the raw ugliness of industrialization, and gross consumption.
The dance is inspired in part by John Michael Greer’s book The Long Descent whose cover, it must be admitted [above], has definite dance-like qualities.
[Greer is by no means a dramatizer. On the contrary, he is scornful of those ‘doomers’ who say that a sudden civilizational collapse is imminent. Greer’s argument is that said collapse is already well underway and is likely to become the new normal for for us all].
Rise and Fall, which sets out to develop ‘a non-traditional movement vocabulary’, charts a non-linear path through industrialization, modernization, terror, decline, population dissipation, and ‘the knowledge to begin again’.
If Rise and Fall sounds like a challenging work of dance, its music appears to be well-matched. It’s by a group called the Tone Casualties. A former record label, their most celebrated album was Wake Up Gods by the Macedonian band Kismet.
Under the slogan ‘INSANITY IS FREEDOM COMFORMITY IS DEATH’ Kismet’s music is described as ‘industrial-ethno-gothic for following Millennium’.
If you are in the NYC area, and in search of a family night out, see Rise and Fall on 31 March at Dixon Place Experimental Theatre at 7:30 pm, or on 8 and 17 April at the Green Space Studio.

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From bankster HQ to start-up central in Iceland

The Start-Up Kids is a documentary about young entrepreneurs who have founded web and media startups in the US and Europe. Made by two young Icelandic women, it contains interviews with tech-leaders of today and tomorrow.
The founders of Dropbox, Vimeo, Flickr, WordPress, Posterous and many others talk about how they started their company, and what their lives are like as an entrepreneur.
But what I most like about this project is the office of its producers [below]. They are working out of a former building in Reykjavik of the notorious and now defunct Glitner bank.
The building [below] once housed people who wrecked Iceland’s economy. It’s some kind of poetic justice that it has now been turned into one of Iceland’s seven incubators for – well, start-ups. The banksters’ former pad is now named after its neighbourhood Kvosin and is supported by the Iceland Innovation Centre.
I’m adding Kvosin to my collection of inspiring ways to re-use buildings formerly occupied by banksters – including the amazing Monumento project in Sao Paulo.

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Can thermal perception change behaviour?

A premise of Joseph Giacomin’s new book Thermal is that global warming is hard to ignore when you view the world through thermal eyes.
Hard, but not impossible, to ignore. We humans are skilful evaders of uncomfortable truths.
The premise of the author’s reseach group at Brunel University in the UK, Perception Enhancement Systems, is that leveraging our sensory systems through the use of advanced technology can enhance our understanding.
Our dilemma is this: although technologically-enhanced images can, potentially, enhance our understanding, human behaviour is more complicated. Misleading ‘gut instincts’, and personal associations and biases, can be more influential than perceived facts in influencing our energy habits.
It emerged at Garrison Institute’s climate, mind and behavior conference last year that enhanced perceptual tools are only part of the answer.
We also need to draw on knowledge emerging from behavioral and neuro-economics, and cognitive science research. Researchers in those domains – often in a businesss, not environmental context -are investigating ways to steer individual and group decision making.
As this writer has discovered, too, in exploring the relationship between metrics and aesthetics, it is not a simple matter of cause [an evocative image] and effect [changed behaviour].
This is not to diminish the affective power of some images in Thermal. There are *so* many things we do not see – for example, the contribution of chldren to global warming….
Besides, I also learned in the pages of Thermal pages that the average street light or home lamp emits less than three percent of the inputted energy in the form of light, with nearly all the rest ending up as heat.
Technical note [from the author’s website]: These 20×240 pixel JPEG images were shot using a 60 Hz thermal imaging camera; it is similar in appearance to a camcorder. Pseudocolour is used to indicate the variations in temperature – bright red-orange for the hottest temperature and dark blue for the coolest.

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