John Thackara | Essays

Mapping Ecosystem Services [June 2008]

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.

City Eco Lab, the "nomadic market of projects" that we are producing in November for the Cite du Design biennial, will put live projects from the St Etienne region side-by-side with best-practice projects from other parts of the world. Will you help by telling us about the best benchmark projects we might consider inviting to sit next to a St Etienne one?
Question 1: we plan to map the resources of the St Etienne region, with a focus on ecosystem services and biodiversity, and human skills; where, in your experience, have maps of this kind been done really well?
Question 2: a big part of City Eco Lab will be about food distribution projects and systems; we'd like to know who is leading the way in bicycle-based courier services - from the point of view of the service, and of equipment;
Question 3: we plan to run a "eco design clinic" for small businesses throughout City Eco Lab's 15-day run; we'd like to know, who is doing really fantastic work helping small companies change, especially if the model being used might easily be transfered to our event?

The drinks industry depends on ecosystems to supply fresh water; agribusiness relies on grasslands for insect pollinators, nutrient cycling, and erosion control; the insurance industry benefits from the fact that coastal marshes reduce the damage caused by hurricanes and that wetlands absorb water from floods. Though our wellbeing is totally dependent upon these "ecosystem services" they are predominantly public goods with no markets and no prices; so they often are not detected by our current economic compass. As a result, due to the pressures coming from population growth, changing diets, urbanisation and also climate change, biodiversity is declining, our ecosystems are being continuously degraded and we, in turn, are suffering the consequences. Some economists, and some global companies, are finally beginning to measure the value of ecosystem services; this could be an important step towards looking after them better (and/or, of course, attempting to privatise them). An important report published last week, Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), begins to develop a yardstick that is more effective than GDP for assessing the performance of an economy. And the World Resources Institute has developed the Corporate Ecosystem Services Review to help managers take more explicit account of their company’s dependence and impact on ecosystems.
http://idw-online.de/pages/en/news?id=262707 http://www.wri.org/stories/2008/03/companies-respond-ecosystem-degradation

“These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others”. Groucho Marx could also have been talking about environmental standards. Any supermarket these days contains hundreds of labels and displays that make claims about the environmental attributes of different products. Organic, Fairtrade, FSC Certified, "sustainable". This blizzard of assertions is confusing – in some cases, one suspects, intentionally so. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali 85 per cent of respondents agreed that "some companies are advertising products and services with environmental claims that could be considered false, unsubstantiated or unethical". Greenwashing Index allows users to post, rate and comment on "green" advertisements; but how, otherwise, are we are to decide which issues are most important, and which labels we are supposed to trust? Read more at:

These overlapping standards and measurement systems make it hard to define when "sustainable design" is truly sustainable. In the UK, new regulations will place specific eco-design obligations on designers across the product lifecycle. Undaunted, an event in London called Setting Standards for Sustainable Design will communicate good practice in environmentally conscious design, and indentify priorities for development. Design Council, 10 June 2008

Developing economies are being transformed by the phenomenon whereby soft infrastructure - such as, especially, mobile phone networks - is installed despite the absence of hard infrastructure - such as roads, or national power grids. The Centre for Knowledge Societies in Bangalore has published Emerging Economy Report about the phenomenon. It's a crucial element of what Ezio Manzini calls the "leapfrog hypothesis;" this is when developing countries jump over the environmentally most damaging stages of industrial development. The CKS report contains a rich variety of descriptions of daily economic life in India, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Brazil. The report argues strongly for the importance of the informal economy: the majority of urban retail is conducted outside the corporate sector in developing countries - and favelas contain very few chiller cabinets. Read more at:

Mobile technology is transforming the way advocacy, development, and relief organizations accomplish their institutional missions. The UN and Vodafone have published a report called Wireless Technology for Social Change.

Mobile networks may be soft - but that does not make them light. The phone in your pocket contains a tiny quantity of gold, for example, whose extraction required 200 pounds of earth to be moved. A Forum for the Future report called Earth Calling lists the processes most responsible for the environmental impacts of the sector: extracting the raw materials that are used in phones and network equipment; manufacturing phone components; running the networks; managing phones and network equipment at end-of-life; using, and particularly charging, phones; rolling out network infrastructure; transporting people and physical parts to maintain the system; constructing and managing offices, retail stores and call centres. And that's not counting the impactful behaviours that mobile phones enable or cause, such as spontaneous trips, or sudden purchases.

The event designers of City Eco Lab, in November, will be Gaelle Gabillet and the architecture collective EXYZT. In London, Exyzt and filmmaker Sara Muzio have created the Southwark Lido. Following in the tradition of Roman baths and Turkish hammams, it provides a setting for social gathering, ritual cleansing and uninhibited political discussion among residents of Southwark and visitors to London Festival of Architecture.

How might more food be grown in London? A conference will provide a review of the urban agriculture movement internationally and closer to home - including a presentation by Ian Collingwood who led the Middlesbrough Urban Farming project in Dott 07 (whose senior producer was David Barrie). Also talking is Fritz Haeg, author of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn. The event will look at urban agriculture through the lens both of food security, open space, education and health. http://www.sustainweb.org/page.php?id=433

Scattered House is an architectural experiment that deals with issues of ubiquitous connectivity, family diasporas, design-by-occupant, and public control technology. What you experience is an installation assembled from inexpensive electronic toys and gadgets.We are all invited to visit the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London and contribute toys and gadgets that will become part of the amalgamated whole. Architects and interaction designers Adam Somlai-Fischer and Usman Haque, authors of the online manual "Low Tech Sensors and Actuators", will be on hand to advise and assist in this process.

For Torino Geodesign, which has opened in Turin, fifty designers worked with local communities and companies to realise prototypes. The resulting exhibition promises "atmospheres, installations, working prototypes, non-working prototypes, old masters, young ambitions, radio, research, experiments of all kinds, video, images, until arriving at the cognitive collapse of the visitor". It's open until June 13. Then in July the main conference of Torino Geodesign, Changing The Change, features Marco Susani, who these days has the grand title of Vice President, Global Digital Experience Design, Motorola; and Geetha Narayanan Founder Director of Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, India.

Governments, public sector agencies, and businesses all spend a ton of cash trying to connect with members of the public. They use focus groups, hold meetings, conduct extensive polling , spam citizens with online surveys, and talk endlessly about social software. Their efforts either achieve unusable results, or they ignore them anyway, or both. In Toronto, Peter MacLeod has started a new company, MASS LBP, that takes a new approach. "We like to talk about 'creating a seat at the table, a hand at the wheel and a turn at the mic' says Peter, who argues that better, more durable decisions are made when decisions become shared with the people they affect.

How do you measure the benefit of socially directed design? A methodology for evaluating social benefits called Social Return on Investment (SROI) has been developed to help social enterprises put a monetary value on the future social benefits of their activities. It allows discussion of how (and where) they create social value with their stakeholders in a more compelling way than saying 'invest in us - we're a good thing'.

Elizabeth Resnick is writing a book about the notion of the "designer citizen" and the inclusion of social responsibility within design curriculums. She would like to connect with design educators in the UK, Europe, Australia and Asia, who are engaged in similar teaching and project work, who might wish their projects to be included in the book. [email protected]

Are you in the market for a collection of 250,000 out-of-date public transport timetables? Robert Forsythe has amassed a treasure trove of transport and travel publicity ephemera dating back to 1838. The collection has a strong focus on UK nationalised railway from 1948, but it also covers coastal and cross channel ferries, waterways, de-regulated buses, and "certain elements of 19th century interest and all sorts of surprises, like Garden Festival transport". If you are running a museum of timetables, this is a one-off opportunity. Don't be late.

"Space Time Play" is an incredibly useful book about "the future of ludic space" based on 500 pages of examples and reflections. The book includes milestone video and computer games, and virtual metropolises and digitally-overlaid real world spaces. It's staggering how many different ways people have devised to blend video games, locative technology, cinema genres, and real world situations. My conclusion, after reading "Space Time Play", is that a second edition is needed. The 'real' world contexts here are mostly Bladerunner-urban; most people in the book probably imagine that our futures will be overwhelmingly urban. I I don't buy this widespread assumption at all: in an age of unreliable food and water systems cities will become inhospitable. The next edition of this book should be about locative media used in camping and foraging.

The U.S. military relies so heavily on more than 500 mobile battery-dependent devices that soldiers must often carry 20 to 35 pounds of batteries on a mission. Batteries are needed to power night vision equipment for vehicle drivers, radios, weapon scopes, lasers, mine detectors, sensors, GPS, meteorological systems and various forms of Illumination. NATO forces are spending $57,000 per soldier per year in Iraq and Afghanistan for batteries alone - and 75 per cent of the capacity of those batteries is wasted as soldiers discard partially used batteries after every patrol. A company called M2E promises that its power produts offer "grid-free operational life and lower weight, improve the soldier’s load factor and provide mission extension opportunities".

Bruce Schneier started his annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest to create fear. Not just any fear, but "a fear that you can alleviate through the sale of your new product idea. The idea is find a risk or create one: It can be a terrorism risk, a criminal risk, a natural-disaster risk, a common household risk -- whatever. The weirder the better. Then, you create a product that everyone simply has to buy to protect him- or herself from that risk, and finally, you write a catalog ad for that product.

"New media" were an important component of the early Doors of Perception conferences - but can they still be called new? Maybe they never were: Contributors to a new book called Media Art Histories trace the evolution of digital art from thirteenth century Islamic mechanical devices, and eighteenth century phantasmagoria, magic lanterns, and other multimedia illusions, to 1960s Kinetic and Op Art. They also consider the blurry divide between art products and consumer products, and between art images and science images. Media Art Histories is edited Oliver Grau and published by MIT Press. http://www.mediaarthistory.org/pub/mediaarthistories.html

Tom Erickson has published a collection of 51 short, personal essays and reflections on the story-so-far of human computer interaction. Each text reflects on a piece of work - book, paper, demo - that's at least 10 years old. Tom tells me he thinks of it as "bedtime stories for HCI geeks".


Jobs | June 14