Pigs and cubic cities

If humans can live in skyscrapers, why not pigs and fish? When the Dutch architect Winy Maas first proposed that 600 metre-high skyscrapers, filled with pigs, could supply most of Europe�s pork needs, he was accused of proposing �concentration camps for animals�. But why should agriculture be restricted to the countryside, and organised horizontally? Would it not be efficient, and ecologically sounder, to move food production and consumption closer together? This is one proposal in 1,400 page book called KM3 by MVRDV. (Winy Maas is the M).
KM3 asks two questions: How much built space would be required in a world supporting ten times more people than it does today – 65 billion? And, how would such a city be organised? Maas and colleagues designed a hypothetical city that accomodates one million people and all their needs in the most compact possible form. For the purposes of the exercise, their city is autarchic: It has no neighbours, and must meet all its needs internally. As design inputs, the team assembled an extraordinary list of spatial reguirements – from the amount of volume needed for food production (20 percent) to the average volume of a psychiatric hospital (446 square metres).
Although startling in scope, KM3 is an extrapolation of existing trends. Among familar urban areas designed to be highly dense are Les Halles and La Defence in Paris, the Barbican in London, and Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam. These examples do not inspire joy at the prospect of a KM3 future. The French sites, in particular, are so ghastly that they feature endlessly in dystopian gangster and science fiction movies. But for Maas, these contemporary examples are imperfect not because they are dense, but because they lack “programmatic diversity”. They are monocultures. 3D cities will only work, Maas argues, if they contain a rich mix of acitivites: Not just work, or sleeping, but all forms of production, especially agricultural.
Hence the vertical pig cities scenario. What started as a design provocation has taken on a life of its own. Maas’ proposal has fed into an emerging proposal for a total reshaping of agriculture – at least in man-made Holland. A Dutch think tank, the Innovation Network for Rural Areas and Agricultural Systems, proposes the transfer of agricultural production to industrial areas near large populations of people. KM3, Excursions On capacities. MVRDV, 2006. Actar, Barcelona

Posted in food systems & design | 2 Responses

Human sciences and design

On January 13, Donald Norman will receive an honorary doctorate from the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering in Delft. On January 12 a symposium will take place on how the human sciences infuse design, with Donald Norman, Josephine Green, Henk Janssen (Indes) and Paul Hekkert (IO) as the speakers. Entrance to the symposium is free of charge, barticipants are requested to register by sending an e-mail to: experience@io.tudelft.nl.

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Active welfare in Helsinki

Emude, a consortium of design schools and research institutions – and Doors – has spent the last two years years looking at social innovation among creative communities in different parts of Europe. Having observed the emergence of what we call “active welfare” in many of these situations, we realise that new kinds of social infrastructure are needed to support it. A meeting in Helsinki, on Friday 10 February, probably at UIAH, will develop this idea. Details will be in our February newsletter and on this blog, but you might want to book your flight ahead of that to get a good price. Oh, and if you’re celebrtating the new year tonight, have a great evening. And see you in 2006.

Posted in social innovation | 1 Response

The diminishing spaces of childhood

A fascinating essay by Henry Jenkins explores the changing spaces of childhood. In the nineteenth century, children living on America’s farms enjoyed free range over a space which was ten square miles or more; boys of nine or 10 would go camping alone for days on end, returning when they were needed to do chores around the house. Henry did spend childhood time in wild woods, but these are now occupied by concrete, bricks, or asphalt. His son has grown up in apartment complexes and video games constitute his main playing spaces. (Thanks to Brenda Laurel for the lead).

Posted in place & bioregion | 2 Responses

In praise of poetry

Thanks to Europe’s most horrible company, Wanadon’t, our internet connection has again been down for days. So we have had to access our email by telephone. Your warmly-meant illustrated seasons greetings have taken literally hours to download. Next year, maybe think about sending us a poem?

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“Solidarity economics and design”

An edited podcast of my lecture last week at the Royal Society of Arts in London is available online.

Posted in development & design | 1 Response

Shops as museums

A typically excellent piece by Karrie Jacobs in next month’s Metropolis discusses “how hard it is to mount a really innovative contemporary industrial-design show these days. The problem–and it’s not specific to MoMA–is that the products one can find on the shelves of almost any store are likely to be as varied, sophisticated, and inventive as the objects a museum can pull together”.

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Schools as gated communities?

Having proclaimed the vital importance of education to the nation’s future, the British government is putting its money where its mouth is. It aims to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England over a 10-15 year period in a seventy billion pound programme called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the latest thinking on education into practice on a massive scale.
A lot of attention is being paid to the criteria which will determine how all these schools will be designed. On paper, head teachers and communities, and the architects and designers they work with, have some leeway to do things their own way. But their design space will be heavily circumscribed by public procurement procedures which determine how all this public money may be spent.
Traditional procurement policies would force local authorities to go with the lowest cost proposals for slightly better versions of the types of school that already exist. But there are positive signs that a broader definition of value for money, rather than just cost, will inform the BSF process. One powerful government agency, the Audit Commission, has stated that outputs such as the impact of new school projects on the local economy are as important as inputs, such as the money spent on them. And members of parliament, who are taking an active interest in the development of BSF procurement criteria, have involved expert organisations such as the Design Council to monitor and evaluate the first schools to be built.
A more worrying trend is the way technology and communication networks are procured as part of BSF.
Local education authorities are being encouraged to create a system-wide response, rather than one based on individual institutions. The idea is that by aggregating its resources, an authority may offer learners in its region a wider variety of courses and approaches than if every school determined its own offer.
The danger is that integrating groups of institutions into a single system will have the opposite effect – reduced flexibility and diversity – because of the way technology and communication networks are procured.
An initial two billion pounds has been allocated to information and communication technology (ICT) in BSF. Microsoft, for one, is making a big push to position itself as a preferred supplier. Based on the innocuous-sounding proposition that “ICT should be available to a schools as an industrial strength utility”, Microsoft has persuaded Kent Council Council to make its Learning Gateway platform a key part of its ICT infrastructure for multi-school systems.
”The best way to achieve industrial strength reliability is for the local education partnership to procure a full managed service from an expert partner” says the company. It’s best that a single supplier “will design, suppply, install and support a comprehensive ICT infrastructure and platform for learning”.
For me, Microsoft’s offer is incompatible with an educational vision, repeated in dozens of policy pronouncements, in which “the unit of organisation is the learner – not the system”.
Microsoft’s technology-based product, Learning Gateway, contains proprietory software products used within a closed system. It turns schools into the ICT equivalent of gated communities.
Forty years ago, Ivan Illich proposed that we should use existing technologies and spaces – the telephone, local radio, town hall meetings – to create learning webs through which learners would connect with their peers and with new contexts in which to learn.
“We can provide the learner with new links to the world,” said Illich, “instead of continuing to funnel all education through the teacher.”
Three decades later Tom Bentley of Demos made a similar point in Learning Beyond the Classroom: “We should think of learning as an ecology of people and groups, projects, tools, and infrastructures. We need to reconceptualize education as an open, living system whose intelligence is distributed and shared among all its participants”.
An open, living system. Not a closed, proprietory one of the kind being pushed relentlessly by technology companies like Microsoft and Oracle.
The trick they play is to scare customers such as local authorities or schools – who have lot of other things to think about – with the incredible complexity and cost of ICT systems. Then they say, “Leave the whole thing to us; we’ll provide you with a turn-key solution and look after the whole thing for you”.
Technology is an important enabler of educational ecosystems – but in simple and relatively uncomplicated ways.
As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid write in The Social Life of Information: “Learning at all levels relies ultimately on personal interaction and, in particular, on a range of implicit and peripheral forms of communication that technology is still very far from being able to handle”.
Yes, technology facilitates new kinds of interaction between teachers, students, and the external world. But as Sunil Abraham argued so cogently at Doors 8 this year, this kind of connectivity does not need to be complicated, or expensive. And it certainly does not need to be delivered within a closed system.
We already have an “industrial strength utility” – it’s called the internet. If Britain’s new schools are not based on open systems, this multi-billion-pound “once in a lifetime” opportunity will be needlessly constrained. Open information systems should be be a non-negotiable condition of BSF funding.

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Semiotic pollution

My attention was drawn by offbrand to an article by Owen Gibson in The Guardian entitled ‘Shoppers eye view of ads that pass us by’. Owen used a recently developed set of spectacles, connected to a video camera and recording device, to monitor the quantity of marketing messages to which the modern consumer is exposed. “To cut to the chase” says offbrand, “Owen saw 250 adverts during a 90 minute journey through central London – for more than 100 brands in over 70 different media – and this is before you factor in any spam texts or emails that might have fallen into his inbox during this period. And the number of adverts he could recall, unprompted? One”. This is excellent ammo for my periodic rants about the semiotic pollution (a term coined by Ezio Manzini) perpetrated by the morons of adland. Until now, I’ve been quoting a rather old study by Absolut Vodka, in NYC, which discovered that Manhattanites are exposed to 250 messages in a morning.
What I also want to know is this: what are the physiological consequences of the large, high intensity LED screens of the kind that gave me a headache in Kings Cross Station in London this morning? I’m collecting evidence that push media in public spaces are bad for our bodies as well as what’s left of our minds.

Posted in art & perception | 2 Responses