John Thackara | Essays

Requiem For A Species – And For Lunch [April 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.

Requiem for a Species — Eating Meat — Transition Towns — Blue Economy — Think Less, Feel More — Dott in Cornwall — Do Futures Have A Future? — Service Designing Higher Education — Calling All Tadpoles — Social innovator Website — Timelab — Breizh Entropy Congress — Clothes Swapping — Celebrity Jelly Makers — Mart Guixe's Mead Factory — Avoiding Cognitive Capture

We added a donate button to the Doors of Perception website. to the left of these words. Don't switch off! Your contribution will help us add new features to the site: 1. A series of profiles - called Life's Work - about what people do in the emerging green economy - from dam removing, to compost collecting; 2. A survey of where to study, or just be, if you can't stand the thought of d-school or b-school; 3. A catalogue of resource sharing tools. Each and every contribution means the world to us.

"It's too late to avert catastrophic change. Our politics and institutions are too dysfunctional to make elegant adaptations. We'd better prepare ourselves for surviving as best we can". Clive Hamilton's new book Requiem for a Species is not for the faint-hearted - but my first reaction was to think: "So? what am I supposed to do with this information?". There is an element of fire-and-brimstone in the early part of the book - Hamilton lambasts our "greed, materialism and alienation from Nature" before advising usto "abandon the accustomed view of the future as an improving version of the past." But Hamilton's larger purpose is more pragmatic than moralisitic: he wants to help us prepare psychologically and practically for the the reality of what climate weirdness will bring. In particular, we need abandon the traditional idea of orderly 'adaptation' to climate change, and move instead a strategy of continuous transformation that can account for big and sometimes unexpected impacts. The book even ends on a positive note: Hamilton anticipates that fresh values may emerge in the era of a hot Earth—moderation, humility and respect, reverence for the natural world.
http://tiny.cc/d53g2 http://www.earthscan.co.uk/RequiemforaSpecies/tabid/102325/Default.aspx

If Requiem for a Species is shocking at an existential level, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals hits you at the level of lunch. It's no less gruelling for that. Among the in-your-face statements that pepper the text: "When we eat factory farmed meat we live literally on tortured meat..and put it into the mouths of our children". The author is especially appalled by the wastefulness of modern food systems. It takes up to twenty-six calories fed to an animal to produce just one calorie of edible flesh - and yet animal protein costs less today than at any time in history. This is because meat producers don't pay 'external' costs such farm subsidies, catastrophic environmental impact, and human disease. Those costs fall on the biosphere. Then there's the shit. Farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much shit as do human beings, roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than municipal sewage... and yet there is almost no waste treatment infrastructure for farmed animals. For Foer, these horrors and biocrimes are only possible because we are disconnected from the fact that animal foods involve killing animals. The ways we buy meat and fish at restaurants and supermarkets, pre-cooked in pieces, widens the disconnect. But as the secrecy surrounding the factory farm breaks down "we can no longer plead ignorance - only indifference" Foer writes. "Those alive today are will fairly be asked: what did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?" The website contains links to excellent organizations one can do something with.

Clive Hamilton regards the "enforced optimism" of some green campaigns as a "means of disengaging from a reality" - but he nonetheless anticipates a cultural shift away from denial and self-pity towards a resilience and resourcefulness. For me, that shift is already well under way, big-time, in the Transition Towns movement. You can decide for yourself at their new website. "A website is just a website" says Ed Mitchell, leader of the 'transition technologists' team that built it; "our goal has been to support the exchange of reliable community-owned information without making people spend hours in front of screens". (Face-to-face is the most important mode of communication for Transitioners). Functionally, the new site is wonderfully clear and easy to use; and the content is of course inspiring. My only reservation concerns the homepage illustration: it reinforces the myth that Transitioning happens only in cute country towns. A Bladerunnerish look-and-feel, in parts of the site, would reassure the growing number of city-based initiatives that the site is for them, too.
http://tiny.cc/d53g2 http://www.transitionnetwork.org/news/2010-03-17/transition-network-launches-new-website

The stated ambition of Cornwall, in the the far south west of England, is to become a "green peninsular". It's an evocative concept, but there are different interpretations of the word "green". For example, although Cornwall aspires to become a "knowledge economy" it is more of a playground economy at the moment: Many of the 500,000 people who live in the county rely on five million tourists each year visitors who come to holiday, consume - and then leave again. New uses are also being considered for the relics of Cornwall's clay mining economy - but plans for the development of offices, shops, marinas and eco-towns bring with them another dilemma: increased transport intensity. Despite the fact that 27 percent of Cornwall's carbon emissions come from the transport sector (compared to 15 percent for the nearby city of Bristol), new roads, and airport expansion, figure prominently in its regeneration strategy. But there's a parallel Cornish reality to these big-ticket investments: Grassroots projects are thriving. The region is filled with groups restoring ecosystems; teaching each other environmental stewardship; recycling buildings and equipment; cultivating fungi; swapping and banking seeds; composting; growing medicinal plants; planting fruit and nut tree nurseries. The question facing last week's DottCornwall seminar on 'emerging design practice' was a tough one: where can designers make the best difference? Read more at:
http://tiny.cc/d53g2 http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2010/04/design_and_the_1.php

"A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less — even though they are still polluting?" Gunther Pauli is scornful of the "do less bad" school of environmentalism. "It's an approach which sees billions of dollars invested in less toxic and longer lasting batteries - even though the 'less toxic batteries' still rely on mining, smelting and toxic chemistry, are not recycled, and are dumped into the environment to toxify our ecosystems and pose long term health hazards". Pauli's alternative is to build a new economy on te base one hundred of the best nature-inspired technologies. The central principle of what he calls The Blue Economy is the idea of cascading nutrients and energy - the way ecosystems do. "A cascade is a waterfall. It requires no power, it flows with the force of gravity. It transports nutrients between biological kingdoms - absorbed minerals feed microorganisms, microorganisms feed plants, plants feed other species, with the waste of one being nourishment for another". Cascading energy and nutrients leads to sustainability, says Pauli, by reducing or eliminating inputs such as energy, and eliminating waste and its cost - not just as pollution but also as an inefficient use of materials. In ecosystems there is no waste because the by products of one process are inputs to another process.
http://tiny.cc/xm95o http://www.paradigm-pubs.com/catalog/detail/BluEco

“People do not resist change; they resist having change imposed on them.” Inspired by this line from Fritjof Capra, and mindful that thirty years of campaigning have not yielded adequate results, the World Wildlife Fund is exploring new approaches to its work. Its Natural Change project explores how experiences of the natural world can inspire people to live more sustainably. Participants experience personal transformation and reflection through nature-based workshops. The programme is inspired by the work of eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, whose website proclaims: "Welcome to all Beings."

If the field of futures were invented today, what would be its intellectual foundations? And how would its ideas and insights be put into practice? Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, an alumnus of the Institute For The Future in California, concludes that futures practice is ill-prepared to deal with problems that are complex, contingent, uncertain and urgent. He believes the discipline could use social software to make futures research more perceptive, and insights from behavioral economics and neuroscience to make it more persuasive. My own take on the the futures business is not that it lacks persuasive power, but that it values value the next, at the expense of the here and now.

"You will need to do a lot more than just plug a sensor into a tree and get it to tweet!" Usman Haque and Natalie Jeremijenko - remarkable designer-artist-engineers both - are on the look out for truly innovative projects that "push the boundaries of environmental analysis and action" Such projects should address "the relationship between all sorts of systems, human and non-human alike, technological and cultural." $5000 will be awarded to the best project; it will be featured as part of the Out of the Garage, Into the World program at the 01SJ Biennial (see below). "Remember that sensors and actuators are not necessarily bits of technology: a human, a tadpole and a houseplant can all be considered sensors and actuators too".
http://tiny.cc/atdlr http://community.pachube.com/pachube_xclinic_zero1

Frustrated that an army of politicians, bureaucrats, auditors, managers and administrators has failed to offer an innovative vision for higher education, Andrew Polaine (founder of the esteemed new media agency AntiRom, and a professor at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts) has decided to take the initiative. He's launched a project called "Creative Waves COTEN – Service Designing Education" to explore two questions: How might we we re-imagine the structure and experience of higher education using service design techniques? and, can service design be used in a purely online, collaborative environment? Andrew is convinced that service design can make a difference due to its focus on the entire ecology of a service. Andrew invites you to apply your most innovative thinking to the problem. I've agreed to take part in order to learn more about this stuff for my own and Doors of Perception's work.
http://tiny.cc/atdlr http://www.creativewaves-coten.com/project/


"The future is not just about what’s next. As artists, designers, engineers, architects, marketers, corporations and citizens we have the tools to (re)build the world, conceptually and actually, virtually and physically, poorly and better, aesthetically and pragmatically, in both large and small ways". Under the theme “Build Your Own World,” the 2010 01SJ Biennial in San Jose will feature hundreds of artworks, performances, events, and artist talks, which not only imagine the future of the world but begin to build it.16-19 September, San Jose California

Twenty For Harper Road is a creative project space operating out of a disused travel agent in Southwark, London. Anisha Jogani is curating an event on 17 April called "'3 meals away from anarchy.' An aroma-dining experience will accompany a round table discussion about the connections between art, politics, science, and food. Celebrity jelly mongers Bompass & Parr will be there, along with a bunch of other bloggers, artists, architects, chefs and farmer/producers.

The Sustainability in Design: Now! conference is to share the latest knowledge and experiences in product, service and system design, and to promote sustainable systems thinking in design education, research and practice. "The objective is the creation of a new ethos, within the design community, that will enable all possible synergies and fruitful processes of knowledge and know-how osmosis and cross-fertilisation". Bangalore, India, 29 of September – 1October 2010

It's about how information design can make public space, private space, work environments, public transport and sports environments more accessible and enjoyable for visually impaired people. Space-x wants barrier-free design to have aesthetic quality, too. Vienna, October 25-26, 2010

Joel Mulligan writes with news that Velo-city Global, "the premier international conference about cycling policy, planning, design, and marketing", will take place in Copenhagen between 22-25 June. Among the keynote speakers are Enrique Peñalosa who, as Mayor of Bototá, Colombia in the years 1998-2001, initiated the construction of over 300 kilometers of bike lanes crisscrossing Bogotá from the suburbs to the city center increasing the use of bicycles five times. Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, will talk about her ambitious strategy to make New York City more green and accessible to cyclists. A third keynoter is John Whitelegg; one of the best writers anywhere on sustainable transportation issues, he draws on deep experience of third world cities such as Calcutta, and emphasizes the relationship between sustainability and human health, and on the interaction between human rights and environmental quality.

In what ways might mobile technology contribute to democracy, culture, art, environment, peace, education, health and the Third Sector? One place to find out is at Mobilefest in September. Even if you choose not to go to Brazil, they have compiled this useful list of tags: 3g, mobile applications, interactive architecture, electronic art, mobile activism, bluetooth, cyber culture, live cinema, mociology, culture, democracy, inclusion design, ecology, education, d-i-y, gprs, gps, LBS, innovation, mobile and wireless games, lbs, locative, geotagging, electronic music, mobile music, m-health,_m-payment, m-gov, mobile narrative, peace, interactive net performances with mobile and wireless devices, interchange, video production and distribution, augmented reality, open wireless, mesh, social nets, rfid, expanded classroom, health, sms, mobile streaming, wearable technolgies, tendencies, third-sector, citizen video, video call, TV on mobile, wi-fi, wi-max, zigbee, etc.14-19 September, Sao Paulo.

This event wins our opaque conference title of the month award. If you like the title, you won't want to miss the session on "Folded Polysemy in the works of Rybczynski and Robbe-Grillet". But the theme is good: "why openness matters". This inter-disciplinary event is all about free creations and culture: Free hardware, Free devices, Free software, Free radio, Free science, Free society, Free individuals, Free art". April 15-17 2010, Rennes, France.

The Pikslaverk festival is is pretty cerebral, too. It's about "software art that places poetic, conceptual and/or aesthetic concerns above utility". Should they be seen as artworks or does emphasis on utility in programs like Pure Data and Processing that are made by artists disqualify them as artworks? May 17-21, Reykjavik.

I've agreed to give a talk at the School of Visual Arts MFA Design Criticism Conference on Friday April 30 in New York. It’s a debutante event for students completing a two-year graduate program that trains them to research, analyze, and evaluate design and its social and environmental implications. The students’ thesis topics range from the design of personal memorial objects, to the use of smell as a communicative tool in design and architecture; and from physical wordplay in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, to the applications and implications of car sharing. No pressure, then.


Nabeel Hamdi, author of the excellent books Small Change and Housing Without Houses, has now written an engaging guide to "placemaking...the complexities faced by practitioners when working to improve the communities, lives and livelihoods of people the world over". The book shows how these complexities are a context for, rather than a barrier to, creative work. Hamdi critiques the 'single vision, top down approach' to design and planning, and advocates "a new paradigm of professionalism whose goals are to be providing, enabling, adapting and sustaining".

Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) has launched a new website, the Social Innovator. The result of a two year collaboration with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), the site maps the many methods being used to - er - socially innovate? I'm associated with the Young Foundation, and am very happy to be so - but I must admit to being confused about the relationship between the Young Foundation, the Social innovation Exchange, and Social Innovator. Whatever: the new site looks great and contains invaluable content.

Meanwhile the Social Entrepreneurship Policy Group (SEPG) has published Leading Social Change: A Social Entrepreneur's Manifesto. SEPG, which was established by the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), includes among its members Ashoka, Changemakers, Community Action Network (CAN), SSE, Training for Life, and UnLtd, the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs. And no, since you ask, I don't know what the relationship is, if any, between SIX, YF, SI, SEPG, CAN, SSE, Tf, FSE, NESTA, UnLtd, etc. Some would call it brand drift; others, healthy diversity.

"In a small, densely populated, highly connected planet, people’s intelligence, sensitivity and creativity are the most abundant resources. These social resources, if and when catalysed, become powerful drivers for sustainable changes". Ezio Manzini and his network (which includes Doors of Perception) have seized on the opportunity to explore how design can help the process: they have set up DESIS as a network of schools of design and other institutions, companies and non-profit organizations, that are interested in promoting and supporting design for social innovation and sustainability.

Timelab is "a new workplace for art, technology and society". It consists consists of a fabLab, an artists-in-residence programme, and all sorts of social research and get-togethers when artists, experts and other interested parties meet, exchange ideas about the social relevance of technology Every month there is the international network meeting of Dorkbot, “people doing strange things with electricity”, where makers explain the technical aspects of their creations or research to a group of interested people. In addition to the numerous get-togethers there is an annual summer camp; its 2010 edition runs from June 20 to 30.

The Belgian Province of Limburg, under pressure to evolve towards a knowledge economy, asked Experientia to help them to define a future design centre. The result is called the Transformation Factory, and the new centre will be located at C-Mine, a former coal mining site that will be transformed into a hub for creative institutions and innovative companies. Its core activities will be experience prototyping, mentoring and hosting a creative incubator; it's targeted at small and medium sized companies, government and semi-public organisations, schools and universities and professional designers. Check out the project at Experientia's sparkling new website.

Clothes swapping has probably existed as long as we’ve been wearing clothes. However, having a larger group of people swap and restyle old clothes together is a fresh approach. in Graz, Austria, RE.create - an informal network of young creative people - organized 80 hours of sorting 1,300 pieces of clothes, bags, shoes and accessories. "We worked until our hands bled from being scratched by the clothes hangers". A ten-day youth exchange is planned for later in the year. The site and movies are terrific.

The Catalan artist and ex-designer Marti Guixe Guixe has the art institution La Panera a centre for the production of mead. He also explores the reinvention of tradition, and the taming of nature, in "Camp Fire Building" - a nine metre high structure "for the renewal of socialising spaces, the creation of visual milestones and contemporary symbolic references."

The proceedings of the Forum d'Avignon - whose theme was "Cultural Strategies for a New World" - are now available. There are voxpops with the French cultural elite on a train (click on the intro video); there is me pontificating in the palace of the popes (click on the 21 November videos). But the most talked-about clip concerns the campaign of Michelin-starred chef Christien Etienne to rehabilitate topinambour -the jerusalem artichoke. Click on the chef for that. http://tiny.cc/atdlr

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