Design for social impact

I was critical, at the time it was announced, of a plan by the Rockerfeller Foundation to convene a meeting about Design for Development. Their starting point was “to bring together the world’s best designers with people and organizations that work on the world’s most important and complex problems” – an objective that struck me as being too designer-centric, and too uncritical of the notion of “development”.
A report of the meeting (at the Foundation’s gorgeous-looking Bellagio Center) has now been published – and I have to say that my misgivings persist. The project has acquired a macho new title – “Design for Social Impact” – and there are repeated references to “the social sector” as if society, in all its complexity, is best understood as a market for design services. (The language used here reminds me of time I heard a senior person from Cisco talk about “the sustainability space”.) It is also assumed throughout the report that ‘the social sector’ contains only NGOs – whereas, for a lot of critics, NGOs are as much a part of the development problem as they will be part of any solution.
Most uncomfortable of all, for me, is that nowhere in the report can I find one single mention of the lessons design might learn from other cultures.
I’m going on about this because an eminent participant told me the meeting would “influence how hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money are spent.” It’s fine for designers to discuss these things, but candidly I don’t think a single dollar should be spent helping designers make a “social impact” on places and cultures they know very little about.

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London: burning, flooding, drying ….

Fifteen per cent of London is at high risk from flooding due to global warming – an area that includes 1.25 million people, almost half a million properties, more than 400 schools, 75 underground and railway stations, 10 hospitals, and an airport (London City ). According to the draft of The London climate change adaptation strategy, an estimated £160bn worth of assets is at stake.
This fascinating document expressly does not deal with the causes of climate change; it focuses on effects. “Even if all global greenhouse gas emissions could be stopped today”, the report explains, “the immense inertia in Earth’s climate systems means that changes to our climate for the rest of this century are unavoidable. Preparing for these inevitable changes is not an alternative to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, but a parallel and complementary action.”.
This is fair enough. Scientists expect warmer, wetter winters and hotter drier summers, coupled with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather and rising sea levels. London has no choice but to prepare for an increased risk of flooding, drought and heatwaves. (The image above plots so-called “urban heat islands”).
This first draft Adaptation Strategy is measured and thorough; it’s easy for the various actors, such government, house builders and so on, to understand what they have to start doing.
That said, the section on vulnerability of water supply contains an eccentric passage. The text states that “as water companies have a responsibility to provide water to their customers, the main group of people vulnerable to drought are those who would be financially affected by “non-essential use bans.” These non-essential uses are helpfully listed: :
• manufacture and sale of hosepipes and related apparatus
• health and leisure clubs and hotels/clubs with private swimming pools
• car washing using hosepipes
• growing, sale, provision and maintenance of plants, including turf
• provision and maintenance of sport and recreation facilities dependent on
watering; manufacture, sale and maintenance of swimming pools owned by the
private sector
• manufacture and sale of ornamental ponds
• operation of mechanical vehicle washers
• washing of vehicles, boats, railway rolling stock and aircraft
• cleaning of building exteriors and industrial premises where a hosepipe is used
• manufacturers and sellers of paddling pools, hot tubs and water slides
• those who use hosepipes to clean patios, drives and hard standings
• those who depend on storage tanks for a mobile supply of water.
Tacked on at the end of this section are the words, “The environment is also vulnerable to drought”. (Extended drought periods will affect the ability of some species to survive, either through wetlands prematurely drying out, or through higher water temperatures and lower oxygen levels that are associated with low river flows. Low flows also reduce the dilution of any pollution entering the watercourse, so increasing the rate of eutrophication and stagnation).
Now call me a pedant, but is it not the case that “the environment” is the pre-condition for life on earth, including London? It might inconvenience John Travolta if washing aircraft on driveways were to be banned – but it’s surely a no-brainer that these non-essential uses should be phased out once and for all. Besides, the opportunities for an improved quality of life as London prepares for change are enormous. Urban greening figures prominently in the Adaptation Strategy’s proposals; so too does the need to deal with noise.
An immense amount of innovation will be needed to retrofit buildings and infrastructure with equipment to enable greater water and energy efficiency. Even more important than these hard actions will be soft ones – the design of services to help Londoners meet daily life needs in new ways.
I should declare an interest here: I’m drafting a response to this Adaptation Strategy draft for the UK Design Council. As soon as that’s ready, I’ll flag it up here.

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Tribal currencies


[Source: ]

According to Illargi over at Automatic Earth, although today’s contested $700 billion+ plan will probably get the go-ahead, it does not even begin to address the true scale of the global problem.”Far more money than that will be needed to keep the present financial structure standing”, he writes, adding surreally – but plausibly – that “the global shadow banking system, the source of perhaps $800 trillion in outstanding derivatives, with $62 trillion in credit default swaps alone, is shaking on its foundations, and will inevitably tumble.”

(and, added today, 30/09: “$700 billion is just one tenth of one percent of the estimated $700 trillion in outstanding derivatives. It’s like owing $100, and offering a dime as full and final payment”.

Reading blogs like Automatic Earth is both necessary and enlightening. But it’s also a bit like watching one of those reality car chase programmes in which you wait, guiltily, for the felon – or in this case, the global financial system – to crash.
A healthier response, surely, is to get out of the house and look for positive things to do. As I’ve often mentioned here, there’s an awful lot of activity out there below the radar, and we would do well to check that out rather than spend out whole time watching disaster blogvision.

A good example is the speed with which a lot of people are deploying so-called complementary currencies. The rate of growth is well shown on the chart above, which I found at a fascinating database called .

For a concise analysis of why we need complementary currencies so badly, read the Open Money Manifesto. And whilst you’re at it, do re-read Margrit Kennedy’s paper to Doors of Perception 8 in Delhi. That one lecture (it was in Delhi in Spring 2005) was when most of the readers of this blog, including its writer, first realised that the money system was going to run off the rails in the major way that’s happening now.

For my part, I plan to become an active user of complementary currencies starting on 7 October. I’m giving a talk that day at the University of Brighton – and I hope to be paid my speaking fee in Lewes Pounds.

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The true size of the hole? $70,000,000,000,000?

As in: “The unregulated and poorly reported credit default swaps may have actually passed $70 trillion last year, or about $5 trillion more than the GDP of the entire world”. The story that includes this number is a really excellent analysis of why and how we got to this point: do read it.
By the way, if you are as confused as I am by the different ways the word “billion” is used in different contexts, you should find this explanation by Jim Loy helpful. I did.
Oh yes, and “there are fears that the West Nile virus could spread aggressively as mosquitoes breed in the stagnant water of swimming pools at bank-owned homes”. In San Diego, pest control officers have seen a surge in calls to deal with bees and wasps which are nesting undisturbed in vacant houses.

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Did this architect trigger global financial mayhem?

We don’t know yet whether $85 billion dollars will be enough to save American International Group (AIG), the world’s biggest insurance firm (although some apparently insider commentators are not reassuring).
But could an architect have been responsible for starting the panic?
The Stern Review, when it was published two years ago, stated that failure to tackle climate change could cost the world – and by implication, its insurance companies, such as AIG – up to seven trillion dollars.
Many commentators at the time asked where this vast figure had come from. I think I know where from: The source is a slideshow that the architect Ed Mazria was showing at conferences around that time explaining what happens when climate change causes sea levels to rise.
While the rest of us were looking at Al Gore’s pictures of baby polar bears on melting lumps of ice, the money guys were staring at the Mazria’s maps: The red bits show where very very expensive sea-front real-estate is at risk of inundation.

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Pass the phugoid bag

A terrific new word arrives just in time for the weekend: “phugoid”.
I learned about phugoids from an airline pilot called Paul in his reply to John Michael Greer’s piece on “the effluent society”.
“As a pilot (writes Paul) I like to use flying analogies. An aircraft, if disturbed from straight-and-level flight, will execute a series of climbs and dives. If it’s stable (sustainable economy) the amplitude of these ‘phugoids’, as they’re called, will reduce until the airplane is flying straight and leve again. With an unstable aircraft (unsustainable economy), the phugoids will increase in amplitude until the airframe breaks up, or the aircraft impacts the ground during a descent.
“Only the intervention of the pilot can prevent an unstable aircraft from crashing. But the pilot has to understand the nature of the instability in order to apply the correct control inputs to stabilise the machine. Regretably, the theory of economics no longer matches the reality. Contemporary economic theory doesn’t even acknowledge the existence (let alone the validity) of Peak Oil or rescource depletion”.
Greer writes: “Nations have perished for many reasons, but curiously enough, financial collapse is not one of them – a reminder, if one is needed, that money is not wealth, but simply a tool for facilitating the exchange of that real wealth that consists of goods and services provided by people for people. The entire discipline of economics has consistently ignored the role of natural systems as a primary source of economic value.
“On a larger scale” (Greer continues) “it’s for these reasons that the three-hundred-year boomtime of industrialism looks normal to so many people today. Looked at with an eye tempered by the cycles of history and the principles of ecology, it takes on a very different shape; its similarity to a speculative bubble is hard to miss; its dependence on reckless, unsustainable exploitation of half a billion years of stored photosynthetic energy, in the form of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, becomes just as visible as the dependence of the late housing bubble on wild overestimates of how much future buyers would pay for homes”.
Great stuff as always.

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Work/Life balance

In January, as I do every year, I resolved to balance work and life in a more mature way. It’s now September 16th, and….well, we’re not quite there yet.

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Beyond the building

I would like to think that the theme of this year’s Architecture Biennial in Venice – “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building” – was inspired by my book Beyond The Object. But as it was published back in 1987, I’m not going to demand a credit – except here.
Exhibitors responded to the “beyond building” theme in two divergent ways. The big-name star architects (or “i Big”, as they’re called in Italian), who clustered in the 300-metre long Corderie dell’Arsenale, appear to have been assimilated into an abstract world of money and pure form. Among huge shiny objects, curiously dated images of all things “network” were projected onto vast screens. There were “Do Not Touch The Exhibit” notices, too – but one didn’t really want to. On balance,i Big served a joyless meal.
A much higher-energy spread was presented by Emiliano Gandolfi in his survey of experimental architecture in the big Italia building. The 40-plus groups present were ‘street’ in all senses of the word. Installations by IDLab and Aether actually made me smile – and how often does that happen at an architecure show?
For me, the project that best captured what’s happening was the Polish “Hotel Polonia: The Afterlife of Buildings” (see pic above). Six shiny new buildings were first photographed by Nicolas Grospierre, and then Kobas Laksa worked on them visually to answer the question, “What will the future hold for these buildings once a dramatic reversal of social and economic relations occurs?”. If you ask me – or look at the blogs – “a dramatic reversal of social and economic relations” is happening right now – so I’d love to see Laksa visualize, say, the Lloyds of London (insurance) building in 2020…
Speaking of which, The Stern Review, released two years ago, stated that failure to tackle climate change could cost the world – and by implication, its insurance companies – up to 7 trillion dollars.. Today, “fears are growing over the financial health of American International Group (AIG), the world’s biggest insurance firm”.
John, I love what you write. Not piffle, obviously. I love your focussed catholicity, and your real concern that things are not in a good way. I really feel for your attempt to situate a radical critique in the mainstream of operations, and to couch it in digestible, manageable concepts and language.
I don’t agree with the way you understand entropy in relation to sustainability, however! At least not by the following para:
“What would architects design, if they did not design buildings?” My question is
not a rhetorical one. The inputs and outputs of industrial society are wildy out
of balance – and that includes its buildings and infrastructure. We have reached
the end of a brief era in which we could burn cheap fossil fuel, and despoil
ecosystems, mindless of the consequences. We need to re-imagine the built world
not as a landscape of frozen objects, but as a complex of interacting ecologies:
energy, water, mobility, food. Our life-sustaining ecologies, especially, need
to be nurtured, not swept away, built over, or diverted. The need for new
buildings will be rare. Sometimes the design choice will be to do nothing”
Assume we have nothing on the planet, no fossil fuels, nothing. All toys taken away. This is your implication. What have we got? We have one and a half energy sources: solar, and tide (moon gravity). We have knowledge. The most efficient energy system every devised, all things considered, is the leaf: and we can create lots of those. And the mind, well it just keeps on trucking. I just don’t believe that even with that uber-minimalist eco-design set – sun and the mind – we cannot create and sustain magnificent societies.
What’s worrying to me in what you write is uncertainty over whether you think that, post-oil-toys, we will have to be farmers and craftspeople (à la Kunstler), or you think we need to just need to find ways to stay innovative and ‘modern’ in the post-oil-toy age. My scientific view is that entropy is not merely a function of the universe winding down, such that post oil we have less ‘low entropy’ to burn – i.e. just the sun – and this means we will need to live ‘simpler’ lives, because all the oil-based stuff we have now will be kaput.
Entropy is, in fact, it is a complex function of energy AND knowledge. We have energy BUT we also have the mind. This is the point Georgescu-Roegen makes in ‘The Entropy Law and The Economic Process’: entropy is an instrumental-anthropomorphic concept, and theories of it, including statistical, have not been able to rid it of its anthropic ghost. If this were not so, we would not be able to find ‘new’ uses for what we previously considered waste or otherwise functionless/valueless. Who would have thought that so much power and value would be carried in a vehicle as simple as a glass rod (i.e. fibre optics fibre)? Who would have thought that something as simple as reflection would power the intformation revolution (i.e. internal reflections down fibre optics)? Okay, so to deliver information down glass, we had to discover lasers: but who would have thought pulsing light into a ruby crystal would have it come out all straight and neat? The point is: the richness of the world that leads to value and welfare is not inherently reliant on high-energy-intensity. It’s also reliant on intelligence and information intensity. So I think it’s crude and misleading to imply that when oil runs out, climate and resource snafus kick in, etc, we won’t have anything to do as designers.
You of all people will know why nature has evolved fractal forms. It’s not because they’re nice. Self-repeating forms bla bla is just language and bandied about. Fractal – which stands for fractional dimension – is a phenomenon nature evolved to break as far as possible the link between volume (of biomass) and surface area (for light absorption): and thus to optimise radically the prospects of survival. Trees (and lungs) are elegant (inside-out, in the case of trees) Menger sponges, which have freaky ratios of volume to surface area: within given volume, leaf surface area (2D) reaches for infinity, while biomass volume (3D) hunkers down low. Trees look 3D, but they are really desperate to be resource-conserving 2D objects – they just take advantage of a 3D world to get more 2D action going. Their dimensionality is thus ‘fractal’ between 2 and 3.
In short, strict entropy constraints gave us nature as we know it: and I don’t see nature tending towards blobby, cautious sloths trying to conserve their energy, which is how I read the implication of your “sometimes the design choice will be to do nothing”. Fractional dimensionality is just one of many lessons for human design in the future, we haven’t even begun to implement it. And this, of course, is an architectural strategy (surface area to volume, being one of their concerns). Architects will be very very busy in the low entropy world you allude to.

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From facades to flows: book launch in Venice

A short final reminder that the Italian edition of In The Bubble will be launched at the Architecture Biennale in Venice this coming Saturday (13 September). The book moment on Saturday follows my lecture at the Dutch Pavilion in the Gardini which is scheduled for 15h-16h. My talk is part of week long exploration and debate on the capacities and capabilities of architecture – beyond building. My brief is to discuss “what would radical ecology imply for architecture?” The Netherlands contribution is organised by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in collaboration with STEALTH.unlimited

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