Make sense, not stuff: A three step plan to connect design schools with the green economy

[I was asked to write a text about the green economy by Cumulus, the international network of design schools. It will published at their forthcoming conference in London (27-30 May). This is a preview].
What would architects design, if they did not design buildings? What would designers design, if they did not design products, or posters?
My question is not a rhetorical one. On the contrary, I believe design schools are in danger of being marginalised by events. The world is changing around them fast – and they are not. Or not fast enough. I agree with Al Gore that the world has reached a tipping point in its responses to climate change, resource depletion, and economic crisis: Changes we have all talked about for years are starting to be implemented.
But design schools are finding it hard to move on from the old paradigm of design-for-production, and design for individual expression.
Read the rest of the text here: Download file

Posted in learning & institutions, most read | 3 Responses

London “nine meals away from anarchy”

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In 2007 Lord Cameron of Dillington, first head of the UK Countryside Agency, famously remarked that Britain was ‘nine meals away from anarchy.’ Britain’s food supply is so totally dependent on oil – 95 per cent of the food eaten there is oil-dependent – that if the oil supply to Britain were suddenly to be cut off it would take just three full days before law and order broke down. “We rely on a particularly vulnerable system. Britain needs to invest seriously in agriculture infrastructure if we are to avoid food crisis” said the noble Lord at the time.
I’m not sure that much action has so far followed these remarks, but an exhibition opening in London next month explores what those investments might be. The show looks at different ways that cities might be transformed from consumers of food to generators of agricultural products, and at how food production can be incorporated into the urban environment at both industrial and domestic levels.
A highlight of the London show is a photographic and filmic record of the Dott 07 Urban Farming project in Middlesbrough. Good to see London following so promptly – only three or four years behind the northern town. In Middlesbrough itself, since Dott 07 itself ended, the town’s Council is expanding the Urban Farming programme. The Bohm and Viljoen map (below), created for Dott 07, that plots sites of productive potential, is a reference point for a raft of new initiatives. The Council recently won a £4 million (4.3 million euro) grant to run a “cocktail” (their word) of food and health projects, and the plan is to make the Town Meal an annual event to showcase the results of this new work.
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LONDON YIELDS : Urban Agriculture is curated by Jackson Hunt and opens on Wednesday, 8 April, 6.30 – 9pm at The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, off Tottenham Court Road in central London.

Posted in food systems & design | Leave a comment

Now just add one more column…

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They’ve installed this impressive new departures board at Paris CDG airport. It lists a good number of the more than one thousand departures from there each day. Now, what it needs next is a right hand column that shows, for every flight, the forcings per passenger of climate through CO2, NOx, and contrail formation. With that extra column in place, I can’t help thinking the board would soon start getting smaller again.

Posted in mobility & design | Leave a comment

What Tools for Transition Towns?

This morning I received an interesting email from Transition Towns. “We recognise that out in transition land there’s a great diversity of web tools and processes currently in use and under development” the mail begins; “some of these will be resilient and adaptable enough to support the changing needs of transition groups around the world”.
I am then asked to I fill in an online survey to help the Transition web team to “map out this sometimes alien terrain for community groups, and introduce common tools, processes and protocols to make it easier for us all to do our work”
Now I love surveys, and a tools survey like this one seems to be an excellent step. But, as we learned doing the “Tools for Sharing Shed” at City Eco Lab last year, knowing about the availability of tools, and figuring out how to use them well, are two different things.
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[“Cabane a Outils” at City Eco Lab]
Two key questions arose in St Etienne: who will procure, deploy and maintain these tools? and, how and where will they do so?
When I read the Transition Towns email, my first reaction was that they should be talking to the web team at WiserEarth. This amazing site seems to me to be a two-years-ahead, all-in-one-place example of an adjacent (to Transition Towns) movement that is on top of this Web 2.0 stuff.
The challenge for Transition Towns – and for us all, really – is to deploy social networking tools in such a way that we don’t all get flooded and overwhelmed. Hardly a day passes without a new eco-everything site being launched.
Today, for example, I was told about a new UK-based site called Ecomotion.
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[Ecomotion]
Ecomotion is supported by such excellent organisations as the Soil Association and Triodos Bank, and all the stories it links to are important. But its home page, for me, is incredibly frantic and busy. “Collaborate…Innovate….Activate!” it commands, amidst a blizzard of clickable images and boxes.
My first reaction, on seeing Ecomotion, was to think: “Leave me alone! I need to be calm. I want to think about, and do, one thing at a time”.
My second reaction was that I must be in the wrong demographic – too-linear, too old-web-paradigm, a constraint on innovation.
But lo! Literally one minute after thinking these “I’m past it” thoughts, I received a comment on the story below from a student called Natalya at Parsons School of Design in New York.
Natalya, who is my new hero, writes that “the decreasing costs of production provided by the Internet is exponentially increasing the amount of all types of information available, as well as widening the spectrum of people that can produce it. Our ability to navigate and make sense of these piles of data and opposing viewpoints will determine much of our economic and social futures”.
“I can see these information challenges consistently represented in the work of my peers”, she continues. ” Some are using networked Internet resources to broaden the scope of their projects. Others are becoming increasingly mired in their personal interests, magnified by the virtual realm, and producing “design for design’s sake” with little relevance. Operating in a rapidly changing, globalized economic environment, designers must embed their work in this worldly context, or risk irrelevance or worse”.
I first read read Natalya’s email to mean, “it’s OK to hate Twitter”. But then, another epiphany: I was alerted by a twitter message, no less, to a project in Birmingham, England, that strikes me as a simple and brilliant answer the”how do we use these tools” question.
Paradise Place, as it’s called, organises social media surgeries at which volunteer bloggers show voluntary and community groups in the city how to make best use of social media. “No boring speeches, no jargon”, they promise.
Absolutely spot on. Every Transition Town needs its own Paradise Place.

Posted in transition and resilience | 3 Responses

Look at the big numbers, not at the small numbers

I’m waiting eagerly for my copy of a new book to arrive, recommended to me by Patrick Beeker: Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. Its author, David McKay, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge University, has responded to an urgent global challenge: how to make sense of the conflicting claims and information bandied about on all matters eco.
I ordered the book having read this one short piece on the book’s website: “Leaving mobile phone chargers plugged in is often held up as an example of a behavioural eco-crime. The truth is that the amount of energy saved by switching off a phone charger is exactly the same as the energy used by driving an average car for *one second*”.
Sometimes, it’s true, people use numbers to cloud issues intentionally. This week’s manufactured outrage about AIG bonuses seems to be a case in point. Leo Kolivakis wants us to follow the big money, not the small money. “Here’s the problem with all the hoopla over the $135 million in AIG bonuses: This sum is only less than 0.1 per cent – one thousandth – of the $183 BILLION that the U.S. Treasury gave to AIG as a “pass-through” to its counterparties. This sum is over a thousand times the magnitude of the bonuses on which public attention is conveniently being focused by Wall Street promoters”.
Now, next time you read about the necessity to bail out the car industry, think about that phone charger…

Posted in metrics & data | 3 Responses

It’s Saturday, we’re busy here…

…so I’m simply going to post this chart, which I’ve been sitting on for ages, without further explanation or analysis. Why don’t *you* tell *me* what it means, or what global dilemma it may help resolve? Refer to global warming, the financial crisis, peak indium, or any other grim peak that you see fit to choose. I will invite the most insightful commenter to lunch.
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Well?
btw I got it here.

Posted in art & perception | Leave a comment

Dreaming of a Paris as a sponge

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Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, asked 10 architects to project 20 years into the future and dream up “the world’s most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis”.
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[Project for a bigger and greener Paris by French architect Roland Castro]
Architects are usually only too happy to “dream”. The problems start when you ask them to get their their hands dirty and feet wet in the context where their dreams would be built.
But a good outcome of competitions like this one can be a unifying concept that, while not buildable as such, has the effect of delineating a shared space in which citizens and experts to explore further.
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Antoine Grumbach, for example (above) proposes to extend the city all the way to the Channel port of Le Havre via Rouen along the Seine, maximising the green possibilities of the river. This idea comes closest to answering a key aspect of the brief: to end the isolation of central Paris, with its two million inhabitants, which is currently cut off from the six million living in suburbs just outside its ring road, “le périphérique”.
Christophe de Portzamparc proposes to build four economic “buds” in an “archipelago” around the capital and to transfer a huge European train station to Aubervilliers, north of Paris, modelled on London’s St Pancras.
Yves Liot imagines 20 sustainable towns of 500,000 within the Paris area; he would also double the number of forests and bring fields to Paris’ outskirts so that urban dwellers could cultivate their own fruit and vegetables.
Richard Rogers, working with the London School of Economics “and French sociologists” (the mind boggles) proposes to unite communities isolated by transport routes by covering up railway lines that dissect the city and placing huge green spaces and networks above them.
For me, a better approach would be to turn the peripherique itself into a garden, and thereby avoid the implausible and costly scenario of building “green spaces and networks above them”. Such an approach has already started in New York where citizen groups are preserving and reusing the High Line – a 1.5 mile, elevated railway that runs along the West Side of Manhattan.
But back to Paris. The Italian architects Bernardo Secchi and Paola Vigano, working with LIN, propose to enlarge the city and laying it out as a “porous sponge”, where waterways are given pride of place.
As a metaphor, “sponge” strikes me as the strongest one to emerge from the whole competition. But to be candid, I would not allow give architects – even landscape ones – the job of implementation. There’s a gigantic difference between a city that looks green, and one that is green.
MVRDV, declining to go down the “let’s photoshop some greneery onto an aerial photo of Paris” route, has done a lot of hard-nosed number crunching to determine the volumes of space needed for different activities in a future Paris.
One applauds their lack of sentimentality – but I can’t help thinking that the Dutch team’s visual metaphor of a massive mainframe computer landing on Paris is unlikley to win them the popular vote.
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MVRDV
An exhibition of all the plans opens in Paris on April 29. If someone will send me the link to the exhibition I’ll put it here.

Posted in place & bioregion | 1 Response

Collaborative Services: Social Innovation and Design for Sustainability

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“What is a sustainable lifestyle? What will our daily lives become if we agree to change some of our routines? How do we reduce our environmental impact without lowering our living standards?” A new book, edited by Francois Jegou and Ezio Manzini (with a chapter by me in it) attempts to answer some of these questions. Collaborative Services: Social Innovation and Design for Sustainability suggests a variety of scenarios: Car-sharing on demand, micro-leasing system for tools between neighbours, shared sewing studio, home restaurant, delivery service between users who exchange goods… The scenarios looks at how these kinds of daily life activities could be performed by structured services that rely on a greater collaboration of individuals amongst themselves.

Posted in social innovation | Leave a comment

Mr Green Collar Jobs goes to the White House

Van Jones, the founder of Green For All who I met last month in Los Angeles has been appointed Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the Obama White House.
Working with the Council on Environmental Quality, Jones will help to shape the new Administration’s energy and climate initiatives with a specific interest in improvements and opportunities for vulnerable communities.
Green aspects of Obama’s recovery package will put billions of dollars on the table to repair the economy and restore its environment. Jones’ job, in his words, is to “ensure those dollars travel the long way from the signing ceremony, through various levels of government, to get to communities across America. There are a thousand ways that folks from disadvantaged communities could be left out and left behind”.
I’m not aware of anyone in Europe who explicitly connects green innovation with work for disadvantaged communities to the extent that Jones has done. Proof that the organisation he founded, Green For All, is more inclusive than many environmental groups is that has grown in just 14 months to become a national organization with 32 staff members, a multi-million dollar annual budget, and an online network of 70,000 people.
I was concerned, when I first heard Jones refer to “green collar jobs”, that his idea was retrain an army of unemployed auto workers to retrofit expensive solar panels to poor peoples’ roofs. But the Green For All site lists a lot of urban food and community development activities as well. And as Jones himself cautions,”the green economy cannot be built with solar sweat shops and Wal-Mart wind farms”.
Green For All’s most notable achievement was to secure $500 million from the federal government to support green job training programs across the country. These funds were an important part of President Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act ”To be successful, the green justice forces need to be able to work from the bottom-up and the top-down” Jones states today. “Now we will be much better able to – on both fronts”.
Jones is succeeded as CEO of Green for All by Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins.

Posted in social innovation | 1 Response