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John Thackara

Who Will Control Global Urine Flows? [March 2010]


This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

THIS MONTH’S HIGHLIGHTS
Food and finance — Food and "poor washing" — Who will control global urine flows? — Energy follows its bliss — Defence spending and culture spending — Our doomsday machine economy — How to tell a design story — The art of mediated presence — Book events in the Netherlands — Simultaneity in Vienna — Connected community design in Glasgow — Microbanker on a bike — Green map iphone app — Fashion Futures — Sex and Drugs book offer — Ludicrous architecture — Film about game design — technology for development — Doors of Perception Portfolio

FIVE COMPLICATED ISSUES AND A SIMPLE VIDEO

FOOD AND FINANCE (COMPLEX ISSUE 1)
Which country do you suppose receives the largest amount of food aid right now? Haiti, after its terrible earthquake? Somalia perhaps, or Zimbabwe, in sub-Saharan Africa? The answer is: the United States. The cost of its food stamps programme will top $60 billion during 2010. The number of US citizens receiving food stamps has reached 35 million and the program is growing at 20,000 people a day. The cost of feeding poor US citizens is five times the $12 billion it would cost to address malnutrition for 90 percent of the world's most malnourished children - except that this smaller number is not being spent. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports that less than two percent of development and emergency aid actually addresses malnutrition. What is one to make of, or do about, these grim and perplexing numbers? A first step would be the read the latest issue of the Food Ethics Council journal; it's all about food and finance.
http://tiny.cc/YiAH3
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/us/03foodstamps.html?hp
http://tiny.cc/br35e
http://www.doctorswithoutbordersdonations.org/publications/reports/2009/MSF-Malnutrition-How-Much-is-Being-Spent.pdf
http://tiny.cc/O2T2g
http://www.foodethicscouncil.org/system/files/fec%205-1%201-3_0.pdf

FOOD AND "POOR WASHING" (COMPLEX ISSUE 2)
Proponents of genetically engineered crops insist that they will increase yields to end hunger, reduce costs, and improve the livelihoods of farmers and poor people. It's less frequently mentioned that these crops will be grown from seeds owned and controlled by private companies. Hence the term "poor washing," in which the interests of poor people are cited in support for a new green revolution, especially in Africa. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), for example, states that its aims are "to achieve a food secure and prosperous Africa through the promotion of rapid, sustainable agricultural growth based on smallholder farmers". It all sounds well-meaning and innocuous, but critics charge that AGRA and the Gates Foundation (AGRA is the Gates Foundation biggest grantee, with over $262 million committed) are glossing over the forced displacement of populations, and privatisation of food, that this new green revolution entails. "AGRA and its biggest benefactor speak about 'land mobility' - but this means moving farmers off their farms so the land can be used for large scale mechanized agriculture…there is no mention of where these people will go and live, and how they will be reemployed." Read more here:
The Future Control of Food edited by Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte. http://www.earthscan.co.uk/?tabid=310
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa: http://www.agra-alliance.org/
Voices from Africa: African farmers and environmentalists speak out against a new green revolution in Africa, edited by Anuradha Mittal with Melissa Moore http://tiny.cc/OEabi
http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/voicesfromafrica/pdfs/voicesfromafrica_full.pdf
Greenwashing and poor washing: http://tiny.cc/RAYTR http://crossedcrocodiles.wordpress.com/2009/04/06/agra-monsanto-gates-green-washing-poor-washing/

WHO WILL CONTROL WORLD URINE FLOWS? (COMPLEX ISSUE 3)
The complexity, interdependence, and monopoly control of food systems is one reason they are not resilient: disruption to one element disrupts the whole. The same goes for sewage systems. The sanitary revolution tranformed public health, but there are increasing doubts about the long term sustainability of large-scale, centralised, water-based sanitation. The highly inflexible nature of existing sanitation systems, burdened with over a century of capital infrastructure investment, and assets that require 30-50 years to pay back, make centralised sanitation both economically unsustainable and institutionally rigid. Large-scale sewage systems also waste a valuable resource: phosphorous. Phosphorus is an important element for many essential processes in the body. In combination with calcium it's necessary for the formation of bones and teeth. But mining phosphorus for food fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. Urine is a potential source of the mineral. So far, there is no indication that Bill Gates wants to monopolise world supplies of urine: this may be because it's complicated to do so. To capture, value, and reuse urine requires a multi-dimensional transformation in how we think about and treat sewage. Technologies, regulations, business models - and especially attitudes and behaviour - all have to change. Dena Fam, a design researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney, is involved in some facinating projects to 'close the phosphorus' loop locally. "Sewage is a resource, not a waste product," Fam explains, "Yet conventional sanitation systems struggle to capture, recycle and reuse sewage constituents in sustainable ways." Fam and her colleagues will pilot urine diversion, recovery and reuse at UTS with the aim of illuminating the interdependent factors that determine successful uptake and potential scale-up of radical sustainable urban sanitation. Read more at:
'The challenge of system change - analysis of Sydney's sewer system' in Design Philosophy Papers 3/2009
http://tiny.cc/1aYMx
http://www.isf.uts.edu.au/publications/fametal2009challengesystemchange.pdf

ENERGY FOLLOWS ITS BLISS (COMPLEX ISSUE NUMBER 4)
"Industrial civilization is a complicated thing" understates John Michael Greer in his blog this week,"and its decline and fall bids fair to be more complicated still. But both rest on the refreshingly simple foundations of physical law." Greer uses the behaviour of a cup of coffee to explain why projects to replace for fossil fuels using sunlight, or any other readily available renewable energy source, or nuclear, are doomed to fail. "People don't realize," adds Greer, "that when a plane full of tourists flies from LA to Cairo so they can visit the Great Pyramid, that one flight uses as much energy as it took to build the Great Pyramid." He's right, I didn't realize that. There's so much to realize these days.
http://tiny.cc/VN1W9
http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2010/02/energy-follows-its-bliss.html

DEFENCE SPENDING VS CULTURE SPENDING (COMPLEX ISSUE NUMBER 5)
A few weeks back I was talking to Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a partner in the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, when we were drowned out by the roar of a Eurofighter passing overhead. "One of those costs the same as a medium-sized opera house," Kjetl observed drily. Kjetl's throwaway comment prompted me to start looking for numbers comparing military versus cultural spending on a country-by-country basis. In round numbers, Germany appears to spend 25,000 euros per person on defence, versus about 100 euros per head on culture. I have to assume that the gap in the US and UK, were the numbers to be available, would be a good deal wider. Time to despair? Not necessarily. Read more at:
http://tiny.cc/O15cN
http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2010/03/culture_cuts.php

WHY OUR GDP-CHASING ECONOMY IS A DOOMSDAY MACHINE (THIS ONE IS EASY)
This one's easy: watch this New Economics Foundation video.
http://tiny.cc/MSywB

DOORS OF PERCEPTION STUFF

HOW TO TELL A DESIGN STORY
I spent a terrific day in Falmouth, England last week with 60 about-to-graduate design students. They are preparing to present their work at an important exhibition, and I was one of the guests invited to act as a friendly critic of their plans. I pleaded: don't plaster your exhibiton space with 60 portfolios, because visitors, dazed by hundreds of portfolios elsewhere in the show, will blank out. Over the years I have often seen years of work by design researchers wasted, or at least ignored, because they did not communicate well. If you're about to graduate, here are a couple of stories about such near-disasters, followed by 15 tips for design research presentations.
http://tiny.cc/ay7W5
http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2002/11/does_your_desig.php

THE ART OF MEDIATED PRESENCE
ICT developers have been working on videocommunication since 1946 — but the experience still sucks. If massive amounts of bandwidth are not the answer, are there more artful ways to enhance remote communication? Preparations for the ElectroSmog International Festival for Sustainable Immobility in Amsterdam (and the internet) are gathering pace. Doors of Perception has agreed to co-host a session on Friday 19 at deBalie, in the afternoon (13h-15h). Our focus will be on practical design and artistic steps that could be taken right now. Our panel will includes Martin Butler, a dancer and choreographer; an Alternate Reality Game designer; and Caroline Nevejan. a founder alumnus of Doors who recently completed a PhD on expert on witnessed presence.
http://www.electrosmogfestival.net/news/

DID YOU SEE ME?
The performing arts conjour up the presence of someone who is not there using words, lighting, orchestration, and choreography. They've done so for centuries. Technology-mediated presence confronts similar design challanges to the performing arts: how to set a context, how to induce attribution, how to show the unsaid, and more. Caroline Nevejan is guest editing a special issue of the journal AI and Society on the theme Witnessed Presence, and invites papers from engineering, social science, philosophy, architecture, psychology, art & design, performance arts, IT.
http://tiny.cc/njjsT
http://www.xs4all.nl/~nevejan/index.php5
http://www.being-here.net/

ME, AND MY EVER-EVOLVING BOOK, IN NEDERLAND
Rule one in book publishing (where I worked for ten years) is: promote your own book, because nobody else will do so with as much commitment. In that spirit, please note that my new book, Plan B, is now out in Dutch. I use the word "new" here in a contemporary, post-linear sense. Although Plan B is based on In the Bubble: Designing In A Complex World, which was published by MIT Press, this latest version is much changed: I reduced the original English text by half, to 45,000 words, and then added five new chapters on: Sustainability; Metrics; Food; Development; and Telepresence. This prompted my publisher, SUN, to go with the title of the Brazilian edition, Plan B. I'll talk about its content (and hopefully debate with you) at the following three events:
Wednesday 17 March: 17h (time to be confirmed) Lecture/debate with Marcus Fairs, Design Academy Eindhoven;
Thursday 18 March: Book presentation at Nederlaands Architectuurinstituut (NAi) early evening;
Friday 19 March: Electrosmog at deBalie 13h; Plan B presentation at de Balie 16h.
http://tiny.cc/e0aWC
http://www.sunarchitecture.nl/publicity/news.html#4b8d06ea28d495.26988266
or just buy the book at:
http://tiny.cc/XnxqI
http://www.sunarchitecture.nl/catalogue/categori/sun-statements/plan_b_9789085067870.html

OTHER NEWS AND EVENTS

SIMULTANEITY IN VIENNA (CONFERENCE 19 MARCH)
"Gone is the time where can just focus on technology, or political change, or personal change. The challenge of the times require tackling all aspects of change simultaneously." Thailand-based Michel Bauwens, founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation, always has something wise and interesting to say. His keynote talk at the Lift conference in Vienna on 19 March is about "an integrative approach to enabling open infrastructures (and) value-driven social practices…we need to change ourselves, as well as our ability to cooperate in groups."
http://tiny.cc/n0ZaZ
http://liftconference.com/lift-at-home/events/2010/03/lift-austria/program

GREEN GORILAZ (CONNECTED COMMUNITY DESIGN)
Congratulations to Ian Grout, their professor, and a team of students from the Glasgow School of Art : they are this year's overall national winners for ‘Sustain our Nation’ – a competition run by the Audi Design Foundation that challenged young designers to create design-led social enterprises. Glasgow's winning project, Green Gorillaz, sets out to to create a connected community within the Wyndford estate of North West Glasgow.
http://tiny.cc/TmDoD
http://getgoglasgow1.org/getgoglasgow/Welcome.html

BANKERS ON BIKES (MICROFINANCE VIDEO)
Andrew Hinton has made a short film about a banker opening up access to money to rural communities. Two-thirds of India’s one-billion-plus population live in the nation’s 600,000 villages, and South Indian bank manager J S Parthiban set out to to improve their economic circumstances. He encouraged beggars to open bank accounts in New Delhi, and pioneered micro-loans to villagers in his home state of Tamil Nadu. "Microfinance is not without its detractors" says Hinton, "but Parthibhan is a man operating with a real sense of conviction and purpose." Hinton's film was one of the winners of the BRITDOC/Co-operative Competition "It's Good To Know."
http://www.vimeo.com/8758822

THINK GLOBAL, MAP LOCAL (GREEN MAP IPHONE APP)
Green Map System proposes a new way to answer the question: "What's Green Nearby?" A mobile version of Open Green Map enables you to interact with the world from "a unique perspective that is ideal for any internet-enabled phone". What’s Green Nearby?™ provides an array of green living resources, arranged with those nearest you first.
http://www.greenmap.org/

FASHION FUTURES (RESEARCH PROGRAMME LAUNCHED)
The stated aim of Fashion Futures, a joint project between Forum for the Future and Levi Strauss & Co, is to "put the global fashion industry on the path to a sustainable future." Fashion Futures 2025 describes four scenarios of what the world could be like in 2025, and asks: How will the industry react to shortages of cotton and other raw materials? How could the fashion workforce be affected by shifting supply chains and technological development? How might technology influence fashion and change the way it is produced and sold? As the project evolves, all materials will be available to download and use free of charge.
http://tiny.cc/2802v
http://www.forumforthefuture.org/projects/fashion-futures

SEX AND DRUGS AND ROCK AND ROLL (NOW AVAILABLE)
Ted Polhemus is an insightful and entertaining ethnographer of popular culture. Ted's latest chronicle, "sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, protest, architecture, design, streetstyle 1947-2022" ranges from ‘Sweet Sixteen’ to Grey Power, Playboy to Punk, the rise and fall of suburbia, and beyond. Ted wants to put his new text out there before it is incarnated in physical form, so If you want a free digital copy email ted.polhemus@dsl.pipex.com. If you are a book publisher, or exhibition or tv producer, and you don't know Ted's work, you are missing out:
http://tiny.cc/JJVnh
http://www.tedpolhemus.com/main_homepage461.html

LUDICROUS ARCHITECTURE (LANGUAGE POLICE CAUTION NEW BOOK)
A new book poses an intriguing question: what connects the design of a board game, an athletic competition in a stadium, a videogame, an Alternate Reality Game, a location-based mobile game, or any combination thereof? Sadly, the author of Toward a Ludic Architecture dampens my interest by telling me that his main question is "How are play and games architected?" - because architected is not a word. I am further dispirited to read that the author is available for "conceptual design consultancy". Insofar as "conceptual design" has any meaning, which is not very much, it means that the designer is divorced from the real world. But Ian Borden, a heavyweight architecture professor, says the book is "indispensable reading for anyone interested in the joyful qualities of cities and architecture” - so you be the judge.
http://tiny.cc/YAom3
http://www.etc.cmu.edu/etcpress/content/toward-ludic-architecture

PLAYMAKERS (FILAM ABOUT DESIGN AND GAME PLAY)
I often think that we should all just play more rather than write books or make films about the subject. But I'm on weak ground here: we once organised a big Doors of Perception conference on the subject. This must be why NESTA, thinkpublic and Hide&Seek have invited me (and by extension, you) you to the London Premiere of playmakers. This 35 minute documentary is the culmination of a six month project in which film maker Ivo Gormley followed the progress of designers Alex Fleetwood and Holly Gramazio as they developed a new game. Following the screening Gormely, Gramazio and Fleetwood will be in a discussion chaired by Margaret Robertson.
http://playmakerspremiere.eventbrite.com/
http://tiny.cc/jy6pm http://museum.doorsofperception.com/doors5/doors5index.html

GOOD INTENTIONS, AWFUL LANGUAGE (TECHNOLOGY FOR DEVELOPMENT)
The aim of Kopernik, a new non-profit venture, is to "provide life-changing technology to the poor." I do not doubt that Kopernik is well-intentioned - but I'm afraid that anyone who talks about "the poor" risks losing my vote. As with "the elderly" or "the disabled," this use of language dehumanises the people it refers to. Whatever: Kopernik makes technology designed for the developing world accessible through the Internet by harnessing the power of individual donations. Products in the scheme include the life straw for water purification, the solar powered lamp, and self-adjusting eye glasses. “By providing individuals with a way to donate directly towards the purchase of the products, we're creating a more efficient supply chain from manufacturer to recipient without getting bogged down in the inefficiencies of large agencies that have historically acted as the go-between."
http://www.thekopernik.org/

WHAT DO YOU GUYS DO? (DOORS OF PERCEPTION PORTFOLIO)
Bulb-planting has started early at Doors HQ: We've posted summary descriptions of the last ten years' Doors of Perception projects - the idea being that we plan to do more projects like these ones, only better. All City Eco Lab posts are now in one stack; [City Eco Lab never had its own website]; so too are all posts on new economic metrics. We've started a new category on transition and resilience; here we reflect on our encounters with the Transition movement and the ways it is building resilience in communities around the world. Read more at:
http://tiny.cc/IdxhW
http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/doors_of_perception_portfolio/

"CONFIDENT, CONNECTED, OPEN TO CHANGE"
According to a new Pew Center study 'Millennials' - teens and twenty-somethings who are making the passage into adulthood - are "confident, self-expressive, upbeat , and open to change." Isn't this marvelous news. If you know any Millenials — perhaps one lives in your house — please suggest that they need to subscribe to Doors of Perception Report.





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