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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From philanthrocapitalism to an eco-social economy

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This scary hand smashing through the wall to get you is the logo of last month’s Insead conference on social entrepreneurship; its slogan was “Reaching For Impact”.
I’ve written critically here before about the assumptions that underly “design for development” – so I won’t repeat the whole argument. And as I said here we are all emerging economies now. So let’s just say that I’m troubled about the term “design for social impact” when the desired impact is on someone else’s turf, not on the designer’s own.
The language of Nesta’s new “Re-boot Britain” programme also strikes me as off-key: a complex society in transition is not best imagined as a faulty machine.

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From permaculture punks to anaerobic digesters

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I came across a fascinating essay about permaculture and energy descent in Mexico that introduces me for the first time to the existence of so-called permaculture punks in Mexico City. Its author, Holger Hieronimi, has spent the last seven years developing a permaculture based homestead there- so he knows the difference between theory and practise. The picture above, which shows a stage in the construction of an anaerobic digester, is just one among a whole sequence of fascinating visual stories. I also never heard of bocashi composting, either, until today.

Posted in food systems & design | 1 Response

Metrics and Aesthetics (cont.)

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I can understand why Enrico Giovannini, Chief Statistician of the OECD, is so pleased with with his new visualzation tool, the OECD Factbook Explorer. Few people on the planet can be responsible for a larger volume of statistics than he is – or so aware that the more data proliferate, the harder it is to extract meaning from them.

The new tool has been developed by Mikael Jern and his group at the National Center for Visual Analytics at Linköping University in Sweden. Four large research funds are jointly supporting Sweden’s national focus on the creation of advanced and interactive visualisation tools for complex and multidimensional amounts of data.

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New questions for the Internet of Things

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For Gunter Pauli it’s the sight of electronic devices that need batteries or electric wires in order to function. For me it’s hard or paved surfaces. For Usman Haque, it’s these pigs in a poke.

These curious obsessions reflect new questions being raised about the design of things.

My obsession first. After being mesmerised by his talk at the Transition Towns event in London, I read Stephan Harding’s book Animate Earth. Animate Earth brings the world of rocks, atmosphere, water and living things vividly – and literally – to life. Harding blends science with intuition in such an extraordinary way that, before I had even finished his book, I found myself looking at tarmac surfaces and concrete runways as criminal artefacts.

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