City Eco Lab: Exyzt’s buildings as events

Shown below, Exyzt’s hang-out that they built for themselves at City Eco Lab. Not very Design – but the coolest corner in the shed.
Exyzt next project, which is called Monumento that they’re about to do in Brazil with Coloco, is to re-purpose this 24 story skyscraper in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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Land and re-localisation

With allotment waiting lists in the UK massively over-subscribed, and people right across the country keen to grow their own fruit and vegetables, a new project called Landshare aims to make British land more productive and fresh local produce more accessible to all.
Within days of registration being opened, thousands of landowners and would-be gardeners have signed up. A website, hosted by a television network, Channel 4, enables people to find land where they can grow their own; offer land in return for produce; identify land suitable for planting; and build a growing community.
“The sort of land could be a garden share, a yard behind a company, a slice of a farmer’s field, or a flat roof capable of taking the weight of a few pots” say the producers. “We don’t limit the variety or size of plot, nor who should get involved. The scheme is for individuals, families, businesses and organisations”.
Landshare is not just about private gardens. Many organisations have large and under-used banks of land – utility companies, property developers, supermarkets, government bodies, charities – and churches.
Among 140 different religious groups in the UK, say Landshare, the Church of England on its own is one of the country’s biggest landowners. Extraordinarily no-one, including the Church itself, knows exactly how much land it owns. “It is likely to be over 250,000 acres but could be considerably more” say the Landshare team.
It seems as if Landshare has been inspired in part by a project called Garden Share in Totnes, home of the Transition Towns movement. The Totnes service, too, matches enthusiastic growers with local garden owners who want to see their gardens used more productively.
The Totnes project was always conceived as a long-term community initiative with people gardening the land year after year if possible. “Every person who grows more of their own food is taking an important step towards greater local food resilience” say the Totnes team.
How well and how fast might the Landshare project scale up nationwide?
One of the key lessons we learned in the Move Me project, in Dott 07, was the importance of building trust between participants. Move Me was a ride-share service, and no parent would countenance sending a child to school in a car driven by a stranger.
Websites that match people wanting to go cheaply from A-F, with drivers of vehicles with empty seats, appeal to a limited demographic of, for the most part, sturdy able-bodied students. For everyone else, a precondition for being ‘matched’ is learning to trust people during face to face encounters.
Parents and staff in a school community (where Move Me was based) already know each other. How different is sharing a garden, or the field behind a church? We shall see.
Meanwhile, back in the global economy, re-localisation proceeds at an impressive pace. The Baltic Dry Index (below) provides an assessment of the price of moving raw materials by sea – such as 1.000,000 metric tons of rice from Bangkok to Tokyo. Demand in the market right now is heading vertically towards zero.

Posted in city & bioregion | 1 Response

“Presidents are only presidents”

Our election night here in France was febrile. As I listened to the results (and finished Sharon Astyk’s book during the dull bits on the box) a tremendous storm raged outside and the power went down several times. That has has not happened here in seven years. All very Macbeth-like.
I don’t suppose you need more punditry right now – but if you can’t get enough, World Changing has just published a bunch of answers to this question: “In 100 words or less, what should the next president do in his first 100 days to address the planet’s most pressing problems?”
Answers from the likes of Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, Bruce Sterling, Cameron Sinclair, Howard Rheingold, Pierre Omidyar, Mathis Wackernagel, Jacqueline Novogratz, Paul Hawken, Robert Neuwirth (et moi) are here.
“There ain’t no cure, and I’m not sure he knows”. Illargi’s take is darker than the generally can-do comments of the the World Changing group. “Whatever hope a new administration may evoke in the hearts and minds of Americans and people across the globe”, Illargi writes, “one thing still stands…millions upon millions of jobs will be lost in the US alone within the next 12 months. Obama’s task will not, because it can not, be to lead his nation back into prosperous times”.
If prosperity means returning to a world of perpetual, inequitable, resource-intensive growth, then for me at least it’s not a desirable destination.
A better word than Prosperous, for me, would be Prepared.
That’s why my advice to the President would be to tell the truth about the likely consequences of peak energy, food and water and the like. This truth will confront people with the need to prepare for hard times, yes – but also to regenerate, and mend.
He should ask each U.S. region to map its ecosystems and human resources; identify any gaps; and then hold Transition Meetings to draw up Living Economy Action Plans.
In other words, he should delegate the whole thing to the people and re-cast the President’s role as Co-ordinator in Chief.
“I am a firm believer in the people”, said Abraham Lincoln; “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
Or as Sharon Astyk puts it in her pre-election comment: “Presidents are only Presidents – the people, well, that’s something else”
So much, so portentous, I know. I’m off to buy candles – and then to eat rosti for lunch with our friend up the hill.

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City Eco Lab – the encounters

Like all that soil? One of the key ideas in City Eco Lab is to make eco-systems, earth and water the basis of re-imagining the city – not “the economy”.
The lower photograph shows jonggi, or earthen jars, used in Korea to store condiments and kimchi pickles. The image introduces a statement about food storage that Debra Solomon has published at by way of a preview of her participation in City Eco Lab, at the Cité du Design Biënale in Saint-Étienne which runs from 15-30 November. (The full November Doors of Perception Report is here).
(Together with chef Paul Freestone, Debra will be pickling, sauerchocrouting and making delicious kimchi as one part of her installation in the food area of the event).
I love this image because it answers, for me at least, a central question posed by City Eco Lab (which is, after all, the main event in a national design biennial). If a sustainable life is to be less about stuff, and more about people – with few new buildings and products being made – what is there left for designers and artists to do?
A big part of the answer is to seek out daily life solutions that already exist – such as the collaborative, low-energy food storage solution shown in the photograph – and then to adapt and improve them for new contexts.
We can discuss that further if you make it to the event – or via this blog.
For now, here is a summary of the encounters and presentations that will run in City Eco Lab during its two-week run. This list will evolve day-by-day and announcements posted on the City Eco Lab blog. (The blog will come properly to life life just before the opening).
Avinash Kumar on the story behind, a media installation made by a team in Delhi that brings the bike-based commerce of the streets of India alive – in St Etienne. (Saturday 15/11)
New economic models, complementary currencies, local economy trading schemes, alternative trade networks, community supported agriculture: Bethany Koby & Ellie Thornhill talk about their shop-within-a-shop for eco-software. They are followed later that day by special guest Alex Steffen, editor of Worldchanging. (Sunday 16/11)
Allan Chochinov, editor in chief of, gives a keynote on “design imperatives”. Later, a worskhop on design and energy wil discuss: can design help us choose among the growing number of green energy offers ? (Tuesday 18/11)
Clare Brass + Flora Bowden from SEED Foundation talk about neighbourhood-level composting services. Later there’s a design clinic : Design for mobiliy, or de-motorisation? There follows a special keynote by Ezio Manzini on “design strategies for the small, local, open and connected”. Oh yes, and the French edition of In The Bubble is launched at 18h. (Wednesday 19/11)
A sustainable world will be densely networked – but not by closed, proprietary neworks. Juha Huuskonen (Pixelache, Piksel, Pixelvärk, Afropixel, Pikslaverk, PixelAzo) and Jean-Noel Montagne (CrasLabs, Paris) discuss how self organisation and technological autarchy will be crucial in the coming years. (Thursday 20/11)
Emanual Louisgrand talks about l’Ilot d’Amaranthes – his gardens on brownfield sites in Lyon. Later, a design clinic on Food and the City features Matthieu Benoît-Gonin (Jardinethic) ; Debra Solomon, (; and François Jégou ( (Friday 21/11)
Doors of Perception lunchtime discussion. If you are serious about hoping to do a similar event in your own region to City Eco Lab (or Dott 07), Doors cannot fund it, but we can help with the strategy and process. (Saturday 22/11)
Design clinic for and with local companies.(Monday 24/11)
How to find, document and enable eco-materials – and human savoir faire (Tuesday 25/11)
Re-connecting a city with its natural systems, including projects for St Etienne’s River Furan. Plus a design clinic on sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS). (Wednesday 26/11)
Pirjo Haikola from the Why Factory (NL) a research institute on the future city founded by Winy Maas and MVRDV, shows how maps are used in rethinking, researching, reshaping and enhancing images of future urban life. (Thursday 27/11)
Citizens and designers involved in one of St Etienne’s “eco quartiers” (eco neighbourhoods) will discuss what functions make a place eco – or not – and how to measure their performance. (Thursday 27/11)
The City Eco Lab restaurant serves food sourced within a 80km radius – the maximum distance food may travel in France without being refrigerated (Friday 28/11).

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Unplugged – or unhinged?

I’m reading reading a moving and important book by Sharon Astyk called “Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front”.
Uniquely among recent books on life after the Peaks – energy, protein, biodiversity etc – Astyk does not write to scare us all witless. She does not write about elaborate ways to fix The Economy. She does not even furnish a shopping list of green tools and equipment that we can all buy as evidence that we are Doing Something. (This latter prohibition is a particular disappointment to Kristi and me: we’ve been compiling a shopping list of high-end fruit dryers, choucroute kits, and grain grinders, that we were about to send to our friends before Christmas).
On the contrary, Astyk writes about the benefits that can come (and will come, for most of us) from being poor in material terms. She proffers practical advice on how best to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and generally how to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis.
This shocking approach clearly freaked out the the New York Times: they ran a patronising story in their Fashion and Style section about Astyk’s work and life. The Times even dug up a so-called “mental health professional” – a Dr. Jack Hirschowitz – who was happy to pronounce Astyk’s “compulsion to live green in the extreme” as a kind of disorder.
There is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the “compulsion toward living a green life” but Hirschowitz – a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for goodness sake – said that “certain carborexic behaviours might raise a red flag.
“The critical factor in determining whether something has reached the level of a disorder is if dysfunction is involved,” he said. “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work?”.
Aaah: work. That would be the activity that makes tens of millions of people do depressed that they have to be medicated by people like Dr Hirschowitz just so they can carry on doing it?
And that would be the work whose trainees – ten per cent of all American school-age boys – are now doped up to the gills with psychoactive drugs by Dr H and his colleagues to make them pay attention?
Rather than fight The Economy, or try to fix it, Astyk seems to be suggesting that we simply ignore it – that we unplug. It’s a very un-male, un-macho solution – which is why the book is subversive.
Astyk may have unplugged, but she’s not the one who’s unhinged.

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Moths to the flame

I was mesmerised by last night’s tv ad for Westfield, a vast 150,000 square metre shopping mall that opens in West London next weekend. The ad features attractive and horny young people who turn into fairies. Fair enough, but they then start taking off and fly across the city’s rooftops in ever-denser swarms. Their destination is the burning light of…..”a new and innovative shopping experience”.
Please reassure me that I did not imagine the whole thing. Go, check out their ad . Is it, or is it not, a film about moths to the flame ?

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It’s mad, but it’s not complicated

I imagine you’re having the same experience that I am? All around me, people are figuring out that the money situation may be mad, but it’s not complicated.
As the Big Dipper of financial bloggers, Ilargi, writes today, for example: “Stocks are plummeting once more all around the world, and if you think that trend will stop anytime soon, then you haven’t been paying attention. As long as there is maybe $1 of real money for every $25 dollars (or $100, or $200) of funny virtual money, stocks have a long way left to fall. Especially since what little real money is left tends to stay away from the crap tables. And that is what the exchanges – or make that the entire economy – have become”.
Illargi wonders, surely wisely, whether we properly understand what this means. “The funny money will disappear, no matter how hard its creators – the banks and governments operating in our societies – try to prevent that from happening. Nobody with assets that have some real value left will be willing to risk them in trades with what they know to be largely worthless counterparties. The only players staying at the table are the ones who are already broke. The only money left is the funny sort”.
This sounds depressing until you realise that you don’t need funny money to be active in the world. On the contrary, as countless social innovators already understand, the Law of Locality describes a near-infinity of opportunities to improve practical aspects of daily life. True, these opportunities exist outside the formal economy – but that’s more a problem for the formal economy than it is for human beings. Acting locally corresponds to laws of nature that don’t admit to action at a distance.

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Alternate Reality Game?

I saw this poster outside St Etienne station. It portrays The Mongoose who is “an infamous hitman hired to carry out assassinations and other evil deeds…the cruel and cold-blooded murderer carries out his orders with eagerness and glee.” It says it’s a game, and that it’s is powered by “Unreal Engine”.
Now is it me, or…..

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So what exactly, I wondered, is the Baltic Dry Index? And is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that it is plunging downwards at the fastest rate since records began etc etc?
These turn out to be two good questions.
The Baltic Dry Index (BDI), I discover, measures the freight rates of raw materials around the world. It’s therefore an important measure of material and energy intensity in the global economy.
We hardly ever see bulk carriers like the monster above, or this one below
– still less think about them. And yet we should: Shipping’s CO2 emissions, and energy intensity, are in the same order of magnitude as those of road and rail – which move much smaller cargoes over much shorter distances.
These high levels of resource intensity place a big question mark over the long term viability of bulk trade in food and raw materials.
A briefing by Global Dashboard recently commented on the shipping industry’s own numbers including the graphs below.
“One of the bits of data posted ” says GD, “compares the CO2 emissions from moving a ton of cargo 1 kilometre with the emissions that would result from moving it instead by rail, road or air. For shipping, the figure is 12.97 grammes of CO2 – as opposed to 17 grammes for rail, 50 for road and 552 for air.
“Presumably, the shipping companies involved think this constitutes a good argument in shipping’s favour. But in fact, the surprise is that shipping’s emissions are so high relative to the other three transport modes, rather than so low”.
This brings us to the Baltic Dry Index and its impressively plunging graphs….
BDI rates have plunged 50 percent this year – in large part, apparently, because iron ore demand from China is plummeting.
Do we want the Baltic Dry Index to recover and shoot upwards again?
If the Berge Stahl stays dockside, and empty, it’s good for the planet – but bad for the global economy in its present form.

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