Urban farming: the new dot com?

In September a new event called Agriculture 2.0 will introduce a select group of alternative agriculture entrepreneurs to investors. SPIN-Farming LLC, together with NewSeed Advisors will co-host Agriculture 2.0 in New York.
Roxanne Christensen, co-author of the SPIN-Farming online learning series, says a wave of innovators is developing profitable models for sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture. These new entrepreneurs are developing breakthrough technologies, approaches and business models that, she says, “can help create a post-industrial food system that is less resource intensive, more locally-based, and easier to monitor and control”.
When I first wrote about SPIN-Farming here last July, I was intrigued by the idea of a franchise-ready sustainable farming system that could be deployed quickly and on a wide scale. (That is the concept behind SPIN Farming; it stands for S-mall P-lot IN-tensive).

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Posted in food systems & design | 5 Responses

Dodo and chips

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Before my recent visit to Helsinki, I was told by one of its members, Päivi Raivio, that I needed to know about an environmental organisation there called Dodo. And so it transpired that I was taken in conditions of some secrecy to this guerilla potato planting event. Given the generous volume of soil the team had amassed, Helsinki’s eco-warriors will soon be enjoying a bumper crop.

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Hackers help government to open up

Paul Jongsma draws my attention to an intriguing event on 13 June called HackdeOverheid (Hack the government). HackdeOverheid will focus on building prototypes or web platforms that demonstrate in practise how government services can be improved when they are based on open-ness. The idea is to harness the passion of eager developers, who already know what’s possible on the web, to the cause of open government. This event follows on from another recent workshop called Ambtenaren 2.0 (Civil Servants 2.0) which explored the the basic principles of open data with civil servants. Paul Jongsma knows as much about this stuff as anyone I know, bar none, so it should be a good event.
if you can’t go to the Dutch event but are interested in this (large) subject check out, too:
Mydex
Open Rights Group (ORG)
Rewired State
Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore

Posted in infrastructure & design | 2 Responses

In transition

Fui So means “ability to rejuvenate” in Mandarin. I learned this from Wong Lai-yin, a Chinese participant in last week’s Transition Towns event in London.
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Transition initiatives and groups are multiplying at extraordinary speed: 170 communities have been officially designated Transition Towns (or cities, districts, villages – and even a forest); and a further 600 communities are “mulling it over” as they consider the possibility of kicking off their own Transition Initiative.
The atmosphere in London was remarkable. A powerful positive energy suffused the 400 focused participants. But the mood was practical and collaborative, not at all apocalyptic.
The transition model (I’m quoting their site) “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye”. These were 400 no-longer-scared people getting on with preparations for what is to come.
Transition events address the question: “for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how are we going to rebuild resilience in response to peak oil, and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?”
The core activity of a Transition Town is Energy Descent Action Planning (EDAP). Rob Hopkins , who developed the process and founded the movement, describes the capacity of a community to embark on an EDAP as “resilience.”
As a word, resilience (or “Fui So”) is powerfully more positive and motivating than “sustainability”.
Many of the sessions were run on open space lines: anyone could suggest a topic and lead a discussion – and anyone else was free to join in, or not, as they wished.
The Transition WIKI opens with the statement, “Here’s how it all appears to be evolving…”. That statement helps explain why the movement is growing so fast: The founders don’t know what each group is doing, and they don’t need to. The whole thing has been designed to be emergent and scalable.
The fact that this was a middle class and mostly white group of people worried several people in the crowd. There were calls for more diversity and inclusivity.

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One mound at a time

I’ve been on the road most of this month talking and meeting and transitioning (see above) like mad – but not actually dong anything practical. So yesterday I spent the day up in the mountains helping to construct a bio-intensive, multi-layered planting bed under the instruction of a noted agro-ecologist called Robert Morez.
The technique involves layering all sorts of bio-material to create a mound that will supply nutrients to plants, and retain water effectively, for three to four years. The mound is a synthesis of Robert’s scientific work over decades combined with his practical experience working in Burkina-Faso, Togo, Benin, Maroc and Tunisia.
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What should Aalto University do, and be?

A major new university is to be named after the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto University which opens in 2010, is the result of a merger between the Helsinki School of Economics (Finland’s top business school, with 4,000 students); the University of Art and Design (one of Europe’s top design and art schools, with 2,000 students); and Helsinki University of Technology (the main technical university, including the country’s principal architecture school, with 15,000 students).]
Four hundred people are already busy preparing the new university, but I was asked to speak at symposium in Helsinki called “Beyond Tomorrow” about what the new university should do, and be.
Here is what I said.
The University has stated that it will will “make a positive contribution to Finnish society, technology, economy, art, art and design, and support the welfare of both humans and the environment”.
I propose that Aalto University should stand for something more precise than this: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life.

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Posted in learning & institutions | 4 Responses

The Landfill Designers (Programme for BBC Radio 4, 2009)

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The term ‘planned obsolescence’ was coined in the 1950s but has never been more relevant. Our desire to possess the latest style can mean more in landfill, and more children in China and India sifting through toxic waste. But some argue that a fast turnover in products stimulates innovation in new technologies and reusable materials. So, are scientists and designers deliberately planning for failure? John Thackara was commissioned by All Out Productions to help write and be the presenter of The Landfill Designers, a thirty minute documentary for BBC Radio 4.

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Doctors with iPhones

I’ve been back from New York a week and I’m still mesmerised by the story of Hello Health. Tamara Giltsoff, a service designer, introduced me to this wondrous new outfit who are making it easy again to see the doctor.
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The Hello Health website tells the story better than I can, so I’ll quote it direct: “Once upon a time, going to your doctor was simple. You knew his first name, or perhaps just called him ‘Doc’. He lived just down the street and made house calls. And if you were sick, you would see him that day, because, well, you were sick.

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Posted in care & health, social innovation | 1 Response

After the High life?

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I was taken on a sneak preview visit to The High Line in New York. It’s an elevated public park on a 1.5 mile elevated railway that runs along the West Side of Manhattan. Everyone is rightly proud that this historic rail structure has been saved from being razed by developers. 150 million dollars have been found to to create a “one-of-a-kind recreational amenity…a linear public place where you will see and be seen”. It’s a spectacular site, and the work is being beautifully done – but the project feels strangely out-of-date before it even opens. The High Line website features “before” images (above) of the site before restoration, with masses of weeds and greenery. The project now, that I visited (see below), features concrete walkways, high-design benches, and artful planting. What I missed, amidst the designerly order, was the sense of abundance it had when still abandoned. The good news is that Phases 2 and 3 of the project venture into vast unused railway yards – perfect sites for city farms.
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