Transition countries and transition towns

I went to Poznan, in Poland, to speak at a conference called World Innovation Days. In brushing up on the history of the Wielkopolska region [of which Poznan is the capital] I was reminded that Central and Eastern countries of Europe are still called “Transition Countries” – as in, transitioning from communist statehood to membership of a bright, shiny and high-tech European Union. To help them along, the EU wants transition countries to grasp the holy grail of Innovation, which is why EU money paid for most of this event.
Now in the EU, “innovation” is interpreted as high technology innovation – but, to their credit, the organisers in Poznan invited several speakers [including me] to talk about social innovation, too.
I devoted a fair bit of my piece to Transition Towns which, I told my hosts, are the most important development happening anywhere right now. I would like to report that everyone in Poznan said “Yes! We must link up with these fellow Transitioners” – but as this would entail a 180 degree policy about-turn, they didn’t. It will take a while yet.
The rest of my Letter from Poznan is here

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Do true cost economics spell finito for the Milan design scene?

Few artefacts embody so much mental, but also material energy, as a high design furniture from Milan. Will this sector be viable when the true social and environmental costs of industrial production start to be charged, rather than hidden?
Well maybe, and maybe not: my lecture is followed by a debate. Thursday 8 October, Design Library, via Savona 11, Milan. The event is for members of Design Library but we have a few tickets available: email roberto.boncio@designpartners.it

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Cities of Design

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At a conference in St Etienne next month ‘Cities of Design’ including Minneapolis, Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Seoul, Portland, Eindhoven and Dortmund will all be represented. Personally I think either that all cities should be design cities – or perhaps that none should if the word denotes, as is too often the case, narcissistic urbanism. But you be the judge: 30 November and 01 December, St Etienne. Info: camille.vilain@citedudesign.com

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Do you want to be exhibited in New Delhi? in three days from now?

Our good friends at Quicksand in Delhi (together with B.L.O.T. and Codesign) are curating an art event from start to finish in four days. It’s called “Pop Up Arthouse” and they invite creative people everywhere to submit works that will be shown at Mocha Arthouse, Vasant Kunj, in a few days from now. You don’t need to read more here: check it out now

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The Buckminster Fuller Challenge

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I’m extremely honoured to be on the jury for the next Buckminster Fuller Challenge. More importantly, there’s a $100,000 prize at stake – so do check it out. I quote the introduction: “There is a movement afoot–of highly motivated individuals all over the world seriously engaged in coming up with solutions to the mounting set of problems we face. These design pioneers and social innovators are not waiting for large scale institutions to deliver us to a sustainable future. They understand the critical role they play as the change agents for the future we all want to see. These are the people and projects we are excited to see submit an entry to the Challenge”.

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Classroom design competition – two winners announced

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Our friends at Architecture for Humanity ask that we spread the word that the winners of its 2009 challenge have been announced – and we are happy to do that.
The accompanying press release quotes a World Bank estimate that “ten million new classrooms are needed” to reach its targets on education and that, in addition, “tens of millions of crumbling classrooms – including many in the United States – are in desperate need of upgrading”.
“Meeting this demand for better learning environments will constitute the largest building project the world has ever undertaken” says the Bank.
This assertion, while no doubt welcome to architects and builders, is tendentious in the extreme. There is no evidence that throwing money at building projects makes a vast difference to the education that happens within them.
On the contrary: money for hard infrastructure is too often invested at the expense of money spent on teachers – or on simply getting out more.

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China’s clean little secret

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As an experiment this weekend, I went through all 192 stories tagged “China” on a major eco website. More than 90 per cent of its posts were about at least bad, and often terrible, environmental news and developments.
It’s not that these grim stories stories were untrue, or unimportant. It’s just that their aggregate impact is disabling. One feels overwhelmed, as with so many aspects of the ecological crisis.
The negative slant is amplified by the fact that most of us in blog land rely on news feeds from wire services. Even if they had the inclination to do so, wire services’ offices are so lightly-staffed that locally-based journalists simply don’t have time to go out into the field looking for positive developments.
As a second experiment, therefore, I decided not to write about the latest grim report about the impact of industrial agriculture on the ozone layer, headlined Nitrous Oxide Fingered As Monster Ozone Slayer”.
I wondered: is anything positive happening in China to offset this latest nightmare?

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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.

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.

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How much is a school garden worth?

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One in nine Americans already relies on federal food stamps to help buy groceries – a startling number that will grow as unemployment rises. At the same time, medical spending on obesity – a major cause of diabetes, stroke and heart attacks – reached $147 billion in 2008, an 87 percent increase in a decade.
So, how much must a school garden be worth, as a long-term investment?
California is spending $65,000 (45,000 euros) per classroom seat in a schools rebuilding programme – but only $1 per child per year for garden upkeep and support.
Mud Baron, whose job is to help 500 L.A. schools develop gardens and nature projects, has fought a lonely battle to persuade planners and architects that contact with nature – not just buildings – is a crucual ingredient of a “green” school.
When Mud explained his campaign to a Doors of Perception workshop at The Planning Center, in February, we came up with the idea of re-labeling school gardens as “outside classrooms”; this would have resolved Mud’s resource problem at a stroke.

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