Green noise: expert meeting

The biggest challenge we face in City Eco Lab (see below) is the explosion of public events, media channels, reports, platforms, trade shows, and government initiatives, at all levels, to do with sustainability. Paul Hawken’s WiserEarth web portal, alone, alone lists over 100,000 non-profit projects and organisations. In the UK, the Transition Towns movement is growing virally. Across Europe, thousands of other initiatives are bubbling away beneath the radar of mainstream media and education. This explosion of energy and diversity is great, but does beg the question: are any more new initiatives needed? if so, what kind? and who will pay for them? Doors of Perception will host a discussion among city managers, policy makers and design producers during the design biennial in St Etienne. If you think might want to join this meeting, plan to be there for Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 November.

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City Eco Lab – Preview -70 days to go

This two-week-long market of sustainability projects opens in 70 days from now in St Etienne, France. We have set out to design a scalable, reproducable event, at the level of a city-region, that will materially accelerate its transition to sustainability. As with Dott07 in North East England, citizen co-design of projects are at the core of the City Eco Lab experiment.
In the food zone, projects to do with production, distribution, storage, and composting will surround the biennial’s best restaurant, Cantine 80km. (It’s called that because 80km is the limit beyond which transported food has to be refrigerated). The Cantine will feature Green Maps to help visitors identify and contact suppliers directly. Nearby, Debra Solomon will present the Lucky Mi snack wagon from the Netherlands, including its high-performance sprout-growing module. Also in the food zone, visitors will be able to pickle vegetables using locally-sourced pots, and babies will make bread. Francois Jegou will present scenarios for enhancing AMAP, the French network of of community-supported agriculture systems; and we’ll see how AMAPs compare with the new spin-farming idea from the USA – and alternative trade networks for coffee.
Casino, a big supermarket chain, will present its state-of-the-art green labeling scheme. St Etienne’s architecture school will launch Soupe de Ville which is based on ingredients grown within city limits (some by the architects themselves). Visitors will also be able to compare small, medium and large-scale composting solutions: these include the beautiful pots of the Daily Dump system from Bangalore; London’s SEED foundation proposal for a neighbourhood green waste service in which the celebrated Rocket composter accelerator is used by a new social enterprise; and a high-tech, industrial-scale system in Clermont Ferrand.
City Eco Lab’s mobility zone will be mainly about bicycles, and especially their potential use to de-motorise the distribution of 7,000 items of freight about the city each day. Prototypes of new bike-based services will be presented by Les Cousiers Verts and by La Poste. Plans for a city-wide car share system conceived for poorer people, will be shown – and compared with Dott07’s Move Me project presented by David Townson.
The central area of City Eco Lab will ask: what exactly is an “eco quartier” (neighbourhood)? Live projects on show will deal with energy, water and mobility. A team led by Justine Ultsch at St Etienne’s city hall will explore ways to re-open Le Furan, the city’s built-over river. Tools to capture and clean rainwater will be on show, next to a description of Melbourne’s extraordinary plan to turn that whole city into a water catchment, and Rotterdam’s vision of itself as a water city. A unique array of dry toilets will be on show, together with proposals from an Australian designer, Dena Fam, of ways designers can make them physically and culturally more attractive. A community-wide energy dashboard will be demonstrated by Magalie Restalo. Half way through the event a town hall meeting, convened by the Maison du Quartier,wil discuss what to do, and how, with the ideas and scenarios emerging from the City Eco Lab marketplace.
Continuing the water theme, plans to remove 60 dams from the Rhone will be presented by the World Wildlife Fund’s Martin Arnoud. Designers Hugo Bont and Olivier Peyricot will demonstrate their proposal for large scale urban fish farming. The artist gardener Emanuel Louisgrand will recreate elements of his stunning l’îlot d’Amaranthes gardens from Lyon.
Next to the Eco-Quartier zone will be the “Germoir” (Nursery) co-designed by the rural design collective Pomme_Z. Here, school students from the region will work on live projects to reduce their schools’ environmental footprint. Five schools are involved in this Defi Eco Design, which is based on Dott07’s Eco Design Challenge for schools in the UK. Defi Eco Design is the trial for a larger programme that it’s hoped will be launched in 2009.
In addition to these daily-life zones of City Eco Lab, a large Cabane a Outils (Tool Shed) will contain some of the resources citizens will need to start their own projects. The Tool Shed will feature books and films 9in English and French); a database of environmentally high-performance materials; a selection of software platforms; templates for new economic models; a map of skills available within a 100km radius of the event; and a range of environmental monitoring instruments and off-grid media tools.
City Eco Lab will also feature a Club des Explorateurs (Explorers Club) in which a wide varietry of groups will meet to discuss practical ways to enhance or scale up their projects. Companies, community groups and grassroots projects from across the Rhone-Alps region will participate – often together with international visitors. The Explorers Club will be located next to to a Salle des Cartes in which a wide variety of resource maps will be presented by a team from The Why Factory led by Winy Maas and colleagues from TU Delft in The Netherlands. 15-30 November, St Etienne, France.

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Liminal space

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Next week the team at St Etienne City of Design returns from its vacation ready for a massive final push towards 15 November. That’s the date when when their biennial opens, and Doors of Perception has to fill its 5,000 square metre shed with a heaving throng of eco projects. Our event, City Eco Lab, is going to be amazing, and fab – but one is nonetheless envious of the artist Richard Serra who has filled his much bigger space in Paris with a few large objects.

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Alternative trade networks and the coffee system

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Every day 1.5 billion cups of coffee are drunk somewhere in the world – quite a few of them in this house – but few of us in the North know much about the 25 million families that grow and produce this valuable bean.
After reading a new book called Confronting The Coffee Crisis I feel better informed not just about the negative aspects of the story – but also motivated to explore practically the potential of emerging alternative trade networks to change the bigger picture in profound ways.
In a system that can involve as many as eight transactions to bring the coffee to market, coffee farmers receive less than two percent of the price of a cup of coffee sold in a coffee bar or roughly six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.
So far, so outrageous. Less well-known are the damaging effects of these unequal power relations embedded in global coffee networks: threatened livelihoods, greater poverty, malnutrition, deforestation, and out-migration. A “bigger, faster, cheaper” mentality has created a dynamic that exploits the most vulnerable at the bottom of the supply chain.
The intensification in production that started with the green revolution is based on the use of external inputs like chemical pesticides and ferttilizers, and machines and large scale irrigation to boost production. This technology generates economic concentration, social exclusion, the rtise of expensive ‘patented’ seeds, and the depreciation of natural capital via compacted, eroded and degraded soils, the loss of biodiversity, the pollution of groundwater.
Awareness in the North of these problems fuelled the rise of fair trade systems – but their proliferation has now become a problem on its own. It’s easy to be overwhelmed buy a choice of options that can include “organic”, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Utz certified, shade-grown, Bird Friendly, and so on.
Producers have a host of new practical problems to deal with. When Fair Trade adopted a certification-based model, they introduced more coffee-industry actors into what is now a billion dollar global market. At least 200 certifying agencies now audit farmsteads and post-harvest processing, storage, and transport across a global span.
Certification has enhanced the livlihood of certified coffee farmers – but the financial and bureaucratic costs are substantial. Certification services are arrayed along a transnational “chain of custody” and documented by an audit trail. Producers feel the effects as they are asked to jump through more and more hoops in order to access high value markets.
Although certified markets create consumer awareness of the inequities of coffee production, they often operate within the traditional coffee commodity systems which continue to be controlled mainly by large scale roasters and retailers.
The saddest development documented in the book is that Fair Trade is losing its social-movement identity in a bewildering welter of competing labels, brand names, product logos, and other marketing messages. “Direct producer-consumer solidarity ties are giving way to an individualistic consumer politics of choice as the FT labeling system becomes institutionalized,” say the authors.
But the book ends on a positive note, and emphasizes that it’s not a simple matter of ‘traditonal’ vs ‘modern’ farming. Interactions between local livelihoods and global actors do not automatically have to be negative
Traditional ‘shade-tree’ coffee systems, with their diverse shade tree species and multiple use strategies, are sophisticated examples of the application of ecological knowledge and can serve as the basis of sustainable agroecosystems of the future.
The potential is there, but the challenges are significant. Scaling up traditional-progressive systems confronts the a daunting array of quality hurdles. The most fascinating section of the book for me is the following quotation from the the Mexican agronomist Eduardo Martinez Torres, as he explains that quality control only begins with the growing:
“Next comes choosing the right time for harvesting; harvesting only mature berries; not allowing harvested berries to heat up; sorting berries on intake; making sure the beans don’t crack during the depulping process; double sorting after depulping; making sure fermentation lasts the right length of time, ie between 24 and 48 hours, depending on the altitude and average temperature; thoroughly washing the berries; grading; properly drying, preferably both in the sun, as well as in the drier to avoid mildewing; the drying temperature should be moderate. The temperature should never be turned up to speed the process and save time, since an uneven drying process can significantly damage bean quality. When drying is done on patios, layers should not be too thick and beans should be constantly stirred. Never mix together beans of different grade of quality, beans at different stages of dryness, or beans from different altitudes. Selection, patience and care are the operative words during processing, since all these things make for the best bean quality and, consequently, the best price for the product”.
Hmm: so coffee is a complex business. But the book is filled with examples of growers groups that have been able to achieve remarkable progress by pooling expertise and resources that deliver a lot of the value currently added (if at all) by layers of intermediaries.
Of particular importance are alternative trade networks and the nascent Community Agroecology Network (CAN). Alternative trade networks emerging in the coffee system are based on lessons learned from farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and attempts in other markets to connect producers and consumers in more direct relationships that are socially just and ecologically restorative, and promote mutual learning and positive change.
Alternative trade networks redistribute value through the network against the logic of bulk commodity production, reconvene trust between food producers and consumers during the direct exchange of goods.
In Agua Buena, Costa Rica, the farmers’ cooperative has developed the capacity to ship roasted coffee directly to North American consumers’ doors. Coffee delivery depends on the postal service, and direct exchange is difficulty; however email and Internet chatrooms facilitate these interactions.
Two other projects also deal with alternative trade networks. The first, Feral Trade, created by the artist Kate Rich, has been trading goods along social networks since 2003; their first transaction was the import of 30kg of coffee direct from El Salvador to a cultural centre in Bristol, UK. The import was negotiated using only social contacts, and was conducted via email, bank transfer and SMS.
Then there is the Fair Tracing project whose aim is to to support ethical trade by implementing Tracking and Tracing Technologies in supply chains to provide consumers and producers with enhanced information. The idea is to It will give producers a better overview of the value chain and price structures along it, and to empower consumers to trace a product’s origin and value chain.
I’m hoping to involve the Community Agroecology Network (CAN) and Fair Tracing in City Eco Lab, this November, to see what knowledge and expertise might be shared between them and organisations like AMAP in France. Watch this space.

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How dematerialisation adds value

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Did you ever turn a packet of dried biscuits to dust trying to get them out of the packet? Me too. This brilliant solution from Bolletje, a venerable Dutch brand, adds value by de-materialising an aspect of the product. Go to the top of the class, Mr/Ms biscuit designer.

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Nill by mouth

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I just wasted (sorry, invested) half an hour of a busy day scrolling through a collection of digital dashboards. The one above is made for a hedge fund; it looks to me like a virus – but then I am probably prejudiced. The dashboard below is about car door supply chains: I can imagine here adding embergy values.
Sad people like me who like dashboards are, I know, the digital equivalent of trainspotters. But what the heck: it’s a low-energy vice, right? Keep on sending them in.
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Be heard, call a fjell!

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Is this the next-generation telephony solution I’ve been looking for as an alternative to physical travel? Its creators, Unsworn Industries (Magnus Torstensson and Erik Sandelin) have created a sublime piece of communications landscape art, or something along those lines. Saturday 2 August is the grand opening of Telemegaphone Dale, a seven-metres tall loudspeaker sculpture on top of the Bergskletten mountain overlooking the idyllic Dalsfjord in Western Norway. You’ll be able to dial the Telemegaphone’s phone number and your voice will be projected out across the fjord, the valley and the village of Dale. Your call will go through directly, and a bright light at the top of the pole will be lit as your voice rings out across the valley. The phone number for Telemegaphone Dale will be published here during the opening on 2 August. (The installation will be open for calls day and night until 6 September 2008).
Hint: my birthday is on 6 August….

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Michel Waisvisz

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Very sad news reaches us that Michel Waisvisz has died peacefully in his home after fighting the mean cells in his body for the last eight months. Michel was known around the world as a musician, visionary and the source of an enormous energy as Director of STEIM for 27 year; many readers of this blog will remember Michel’s extraordinary presentation at Doors 6 on ‘Lightness’. He was also the source of enormous behind-the-scenes support for our work. He will be remembered with respect and love by many many people.

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Design per un futuro sostenible

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To cap three days of high-energy conversation at Changing The Change in Torino at the weekend – it’s already been very well reviewed and signposted by Mark Vanderbeeken at Core 77 – and here by David Stairs – my dynamic editor at Allemandi, Pier Paolo Peruccio, handed me the first copy of In The Bubble in Italian. The Italian edition has evolved substantially from the MIT Press one; it’s shorter (154 pages) but also contains three new chapters – on Alimentazione (Food), Presenza (Presence) and Development (Sviluppo). This edition also sports a cover photograph by Andreas Gursky which I’m thrilled about because he’s one of my all-time favourite photographers.
Please tell every Italian-speaker you know – and five who you don’t – to buy two copies each; the cover price is 15 euros.
Other editions in the pipeline, mostly due for the autumn of this year, are a Chinese complex character edition (Commonwealth in Taiwan), a Japanese one from Sibaccess, France (Editions Cite du Design) and Brazil (Virgila in Brazil). The India and Asia edition was published last year. We’re still looking for a German publisher.
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