You can’t grow food with an iphone app – –

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– – but Tana Sprague *can* sample the sounds of Caciocavallo cheese maturing. I was curious, when I first heard about it, as to the meaning of ‘’Rurality 2.0′ – the theme of the Interferenze festival in Italy last week. So now I know. It would miss the point to ask “why?” – and besides: this is my favourite summer picture so far.

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The big chill

Shopping for a snack in central London yesterday evening I counted an extraordinary 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer.
Marks and Spencer have made a laudable commitment to make all it UK and Irish operations carbon neutral within five years. “We’ll maximise our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort” pledges the firm in its Plan A.
In Plan A, M&S is committed to act on waste, raw materials, healthy eating, and fair trade. For example it has banned white veal and calves liver from its shelves, and is playing a leading role in an industry consortium called WRAP.
But M&S’s Plan A has a huge, glaring omission: refrigeration. More than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions – a factor due is large part to the open display cabinets of the kind I paced-out in Notting Hill yesterday.

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Could ‘green’ energy kill the desert?

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(Summer re-run: first published 22 February 2009)
One of the more remarkale sights on my recent trip was this vast wind farm outside Palm Springs. Located on the San Gorgonio Mountain Pass in the San Bernadino Mountains, it contains more than 4000 separate wind turbines and provides enough electricity to power Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley.
But for critics, large scale wind power used to generate electricity is not inherently clean at all, but only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuels they are purported to replace.

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The economics of attention

(Summer re-run: first published 8 October 2006)
In his review of Richard Lanham’s new book The Economics of Attention, Adrian Ellis says that “its core argument (is) that everyone is straining for distinction in a late capitalist global economy jammed with commodities and information, and that culture and creativity are what affords the producer the possibility of distinction.
(This) explains the universal prevalence of shock tactics in both art and advertising (and) offers insights into the changing role of the creative artist and the artist’s sensibility in contemporary society”.
I’m not so sure. Are attenion-seeking artists really a new phenomenon, economic or otherwise? After all, it’s 135 years since artist Emile Zola assured the world, “I am here to live out loud” – and few artists before him were shrinking violets.
Ellis goes on to attribute the phenomenal increase in the number of people describing themselves as artists, in the past half-century, to “the changing balance of power between the technical and the creative (and) the inexorable logic of The Economics of Attention”.
Surely traditional job market economics are a simpler explanation. As I’ve been telling everyone recently, a Dutch survey found that only two percent of those with a degree in art or design consider themselves to be unemployed.
The government should introduce compulsory art education for all – and thereby abolish unemployment at a stroke.

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Measuring what matters

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Totally lost amongst the financial news last week was discussion of a new report on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb).
According to this EU-commissioned study, the global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests than through the current banking crisis. The report puts the annual cost of forest loss at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion.
The figure comes from adding the value of the various services that forests perform, such as providing clean water and absorbing carbon dioxide.
According to Pavan Sukhdev, lead author of the report, “whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”
Strictly speaking, Mr Sukhdev, we are not “losing” natural capital, we are consuming it. And the superhuman efforts of politicians these days are all fixing the system so that we can carry on consuming a lot more.
As Illargiputs it today, “the intention of all these daily federal interventions is to keep the credit spigots open so Americans can go even deeper into debt to buy more stuff they can’t actually afford”. And he goes on to quote Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee: “We have to prop up consumption.”
Key to understanding Sukhdev’s conclusions is that as forests decline, nature stops providing services which it used to provide essentially for free. So the human economy either has to provide them instead, perhaps through building reservoirs, building facilities to sequester carbon dioxide, or farming foods that were once naturally available.
Or we have to do without them; either way, there is a financial cost.
So I have a proposal. Let’s pass a law compelling anyone in possession of an information screen describing the financial markets to split the screen, make the money chart half the size, and place it beside a real-time feed from a site opf ecosystem degradation.

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Fish systems and design

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A grim new film, The End of the Line, reveals the impact of overfishing on our oceans. It exposes the extent to which global stocks of fish are dwindling; features scientists who warn we could see the end of most seafood by 2048; and includes chefs and fishers who seem indiferent to the ecocidal consequences of their business practices. “We must act now to protect the sea from rampant overfishing” says Charles Clover, author of the book of the film.
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Must, must. Although important in raising awareness, the danger with films like The End of the Line (as with ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and Michael Pollan’s ‘Food, Inc’) is that they bombard us with so much bad news that positive and practical actions, that are also being taken, are obscured – and opportunities to help them develop are missed.

The End of the Line received far more publicity, for example, than the launch of FishChoice.com
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This free, non-profit web portal helps chefs and retail buyers procure sustainable seafood from suppliers accredited by leading ocean conservation organizations; FishChoice partners include the Marine Stewardship Council, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Blue Ocean Institute.

FishChoice.com is one of many business-to-business (B2B) innovations that begin to unlock an intractable problem: how to reconfigure food systems that lock their participants into ecocidal behaviour.

It’s not as if fishermen, wholesalers, food processing firms, retailers, chefs,and consumers, want to destroy the world’s fisheries; but the linear structure of the supply and communication chains they operate in prevents them from seeing, and responding appropriately to, the bigger picture.

For food systems to be resilient we need to reconfigure, radically, relationships between fishers and consumers; we need to measure what matters throughout the lifecycle of fish; turn supply chains into supply webs, or ecologies; and put in place new, transparent economic relationships between fishers and citizens.

This is easy to say – hard, in practice, to do. I received the Fish Choice press release on market day where I live in France, and I soon found myself at my regular independent fish stall. The friendly couple who run it told me what tasted best that day – but information about the fish on the table before me was otherwise minimal. Hand-written tags told me things like “Cod, North Atlantic” and a price per kilo. But I was given no idea where the fish came from, how or when it was caught, by whom, or what has happened to it since then.

In the language of system design, I was an “actor” at a “touch point” at the end of a “chain of custody” running from the fishing vessel to the dock, from the dock to a processor or wholesaler, and from there, in this case, to my fishmonger.
In the language of stating the obvious, I was buying blind.
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I do carry around a credit card sized consumer guide to buying fish (above) published by the World Wildlife Fund. It divides fish into “preferred”, “buy in moderation” and “avoid”. I use the leaflet in restaurants where one can consult it discreetly whilst reading the menu. But standing in front of my cheerful fishmonger, with a queue of people behind me, I did not. It’s too small and fiddly to read easily; the names of fish listed by the WWF do not always correspond with the words on the plastic tags; and above all, I was not at all sure I possessed the social tact to engage the friendly fishmonger in a non-confrontational way.

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The above mobile phone application has, it’s true, been designed to make fish consumers smarter. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new service brings Seafood Watch recommendations directly to your iPhone (in the US only so far). But although a step forward on the WWF leaflet, the iphone service is still based on a linear model: you receive information from a trusted supplier, which is good; but the service does not enable you confer with fellow citizens about it, still less with intermediaries further up the fish supply chain.

Seafood traceability is an essential element in sustainability. But most food systems are based on closed, proprietory networks in which access to information is controlled by powerful supermarkets and wholsesalers. In the UK, for example, five chains control 80 percent of food sales. They derive immense competitive advantage from their control over information flows – and handsome profits follow.

I don’t have a number for fishers, but I’m sure it’s similar to the coffee farmers who receive less than six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.

It’s not that large firms are filled with personally evil people. On the contrary, retail giants like Walmart, Carrefour and Elior (Europe’s third largest contract catering firm) are doing a lot to promote sustainable fishing. Walmart, for example, is committed to sell only MSC certified fish in its 3,700 US stories, and had achieved 50% of that target by January 2009; and in the UK, Waitrose supported the production of The End of the Line.

But however well-intentioned, these global players are not about to remove themselves as intermediaries in long global supply chains; neither are they ready to open up their information systems to independent scrutiny. Besides, the main problem is not a lack of information. A raft of eco labels has been launched, and Iceland, Sweden and Ireland run their their own ecolabel systems for fish. But the multiplicity of such schemes, many of which are based on contradictory criteria, makes it harder for consumers make informed choices about what they are buying.

Another problem is that global accreditation schemes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue ecolabel, do not take account of the energy impacts of the airfreight often used to move eco-labelled products around the world. A Danish researcher, Mikkel Thrane, who has proposed a ban on the air freight of MSC-labelled products, argues that “it doesn’t make sense to put a label on a product reflecting sustainability when non-carbon-friendly shipping methods are being used.”

The same argument applies to the huge amounts of energy used by retailers to display fish

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– for example, in brightly-lit chiller cabinets; or in the location of fish counters in out-of-town megastores that greatly amplify biosphere-damaging transport intensity.

Everything in a food system needs to be measured and accounted for – not just one element in the process. The biggest challenge is the impossibility of feedback and personal relationships in attenuated global systems. In a truly sustainable fish system, its actors will be connected in a web of relationships rather than in a one-way chain.

Technology can help here. Peer-to-peer networks, wikis, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping, mobile communications, platforms for knowledge-sharing – all these are potential components of distributed systems that connect citzens more directly with producers.

Food systems are social systems

But iphones are only part of the answer. Food systems are social systems, and technology on its own cannot orchestrate the multitude of actors and stakeholders involved. Practical, context-specific issues need to be dealt with, continuously – and it’s through these day-to-day negotiations that mutual trust develops.

Place-specific social enterprises for food, based on distributed models, are already emerging in cities of the South. In in such cities as Kinshasa or Dakar, in Africa, a “multi-actor ecosystem participation approach” (MEPA) has been developed that treats food supply as an ecosystem in which farmers, policy makers, environmentalists and regulatory bodies collaborate on the basis that the ecosystem itself is a shared responsibility. The interactions. Involved are complex and multi-directional, but geography and culture provides a shared space.

A more ecosystem-centric approach is also being pioneered in the North. In the fast-growing Transition Towns movement, for example, citizen groups are mapping foodsheds and watersheds as the basis for a more holisitc, regional approach to food security.

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These maps, and other web-based tools in development, are viewed by Transitioners as tools to enable face-to-face contact among each other, and with food producers and citizens – not as visually mesmerising ends in themselves.

An especially inspiring UK model is a restaurant-led initiative, Pisces Responsible Fish Restaurants, that “links good fishermen with chefs…the idea is to build a long term relationship with “your” fishermen”. The Pisces team therefore insists on getting out on individual boats, and sees for themselves how the fish are caught.
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This is a huge commitment of time and effort – and of trust on the part of the fishers. But for Pisces, it’s a worthwhile investment in the future. “Managing simply to avoid stock collapse is a miserably negative goal” they say; “despite all the problems, there remain an amazing diversity of fish just off the British coast – over 170 species in the North Sea alone. We want stocks to be built up so that they can support bigger catches, and better profits, while still leaving plenty for other species”.

The design lesson here is that there can be no one global “sustainable fish system”. The design task, instead, is to look for practical ways to help a multitude of different models – like MEPA in the South, or Pisces in the North – succeed, multiply, connect and adapt – in different ways in different contexts.

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Traditional knowledge: the dilemmas of sharing

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I learn from Kris de Decker’s excellent Low Tech Magazine that an International Traditional Knowledge World Bank (ITKI)has been launched.

It’s an ambitious effort to preserve, restore and promote the re-use of traditional skills and inventions from all over the world.

Someone has done a lot of work to set this project up. There are well-considered lists and taxonomies; the site is filled with enticing graphic icons; and when you dig down for case studies, it is clear that some of the people involved are expert on different aspects of traditional knowledge.

I fear, however, that this bears all the hallmarks of a well-intentioned project that will grind slowly to a halt – for three main reasons.

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Live longer! become a micro-philanthropist!

A Swedish study has found that ‘survival was 29 percent better in the donor group’. The study concerned kidney donors, it’s true – but we’re confident the principle also applies if you donate money to Doors of Perception and help us develop this site. A ‘donate’ button is on the left of your screen. What does your donation pay for? Well, apart from additions to the 700 texts already posted on this blog, and maintenance of our extensive archive of Doors of Perception conferences, there’s also our free monthly newsletter whose July-August issue is just out.

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Of apocalypse and forest gardens

Three hundred people came to South Devon in England for the fourth gathering of the Transition Network. They were a modest cross section of the many thousands of people now involved in 330 official Transition initiatives (up from 170 this time last year) and many more less formal groups around the world that are ‘mulling over’ their participation.
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Rob Hopkins’ reflection on the event is here. There are numerous blogs about the event here and short videos here and here and here.

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