John Thackara | Essays

Gone Transitioning [June 2009]

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.


Fui So means "ability to rejuvenate" in Mandarin. I learned this from Wong Lai-yin, a Chinese participant in last week's Transition Towns event in London. Transition initiatives and groups are multiplying at extraordinary speed: 170 communities have been officially designated Transition Towns (or cities, districts, villages - and even a forest); and a further 600 communities are "mulling it over" as they consider the possibility of kicking off their own Transition Initiative. The Transition Towns WIKI opens with the statement, "Here's how it all appears to be evolving...". That statement helps explain why the movement is growing so fast: it's been designed to be scalable. Read more at:


How best should communities share knowledge when and where it is most needed? Wikipedia is a hard act to beat in terms of formal and recordable knowledge. But what about lived, embodied, situated knowledge? How do we share that? A few weeks before the London event, the Transition Towns web team asked for feedback on the "great diversity of web tools and processes currently in use and under development" and asked for input on "which of these will be resilient and adaptable enough to support the changing needs of transition groups around the world." That's a demanding brief: deploy common tools, processes and protocols to help rapidly-evolving and heterogeneous groups do their work. Ed Mitchell, one of the web team, told us in London that face face is overwhelmingly the most important mode of communication for Transitioners. Among key web development principles for the next period the most important is that "we don't want to force people to behave in a particular way." Mitchell presented a map of inter-connected functions and channels that will include guided search - with human beings to help never far away. "There is no such thing as a single Transition website, he explained, and tools will be selected that cause Transitioners to "spend as little time in front of computer screens as possible". As a description of how to use the web to facilitate change, this was the most insighful that I've heard in 15 years.

We moved the Doors conference from cosy Amsterdam to India, in 2002, because it seemed right to go to a new context and re-frame questions of sustainability there. The trouble is that long-haul flights produce 110 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometer; each of us flying to Doors 9 in Delhi therefore produced the best part of two tonnes of CO2 emissions. Our excuse, then, was that it was too late (when we learned about those numbers) to cancel the event. But that excuse will no longer wash. Doors' legacy business - bringing together hundreds of people from different parts of the world - has to change, and radically. So let's change it together. From 10 October to 11 November we will participate in a project in in Sao Paulo called Monumento. It combines the words monument, and moment. A 22-story abandoned office building (among litreally thousands in that city) is being turned into an "auto-construction laboratory" by two ex-architecture groups, Coloco and Exyzt. They are working with mixed local communities in an area of the city that's an office district by day, and home to multiple urban tribes by night. The hard aspects of the project involve re-purposing the building using local skills, and rescued materials and equipment, to create living and production spaces. The soft programme is described by Coloco's Pablo Georgieff as "a fusion of culture and social production". During the six-week season different aspects of what he calls "the art of meeting" will include food, theatre, storytelling, and live presentations of projects that explore new ways to organise daily life.
Monumento coincides with an international symposium on sustainable design in the city on 5 and 6 November. We are also in touch with DESIS-Brazil, a network on design for social innovation that connects universities in Brazil and connected with DESIS groups in China and with Ezio Manzini's group at Politecnico di Milano. We are also talking to the Sao Paulo designer Paula Dib who is developing a programme at another university there, FAAP. So here's the challenge: how to introduce service innovation projects to the mix in Sao Paulo, and exchange experiences with the Monumento participants, without organising an international convention. Send your thoughts to: john at doorsofperception dot com. We'll flesh out the idea in next month's newsletter.

Transition Towns is not exclusively bottom-up; its groups are encouraged to engage with local government entities where possible. But a magisterially top-down project in France accentuates the difference. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, asked 10 uber-architects to project 20 years into the future and dream up "the world's most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis". An illustrated report in English has just been published. As flagged last month, I especially like the metaphor of "Paris as a sponge" proposed by Bernardo Secchi and Paola Vigano. They state: "Porosity: relation of the empty to the full, of the unbuilt to the built, of vegetable to mineral, of accessible space to uncoupled space...porosity through a remodelling of the landscape, porosity through a multiplied transportation system, porosity to create a habitat revised and corrected for “sustainability”. And so on. These words accompany a rather horrible picture - which only goes to show that some architects can write better than they can....design?

Meanwhile in Norway 13 different government ministries (surely a world record) are working together on a new architecture policy. For Nina Berre, director at Norsk Form, who is helping to organise the process, Norwegian architects "excel at building harmonic structures in difficult terrain – and the end result is often poetic. Cottages grow out of rocky surfaces, as do roadside rest areas or public buildings, scattered across the landscape as if placed by an act of God". Norway is the same size as Germany but has fewer than five million inhabitants (to Germany's 80m); the country is not exactly short of water; and it has also stashed a huge pot of money from its (now declining) oil producing heyday. Confronted by this rather luxurious starting point, I suggested, in my talk, that Norway lead the world and base its architecture policy on a land ethic. Kjetil Thorsen, Norway's leading architect, then talked about a word he has coined,"byluftslov" that describes a Nordic model built around the concept of joint ownership, togetherness and shared responsibility for public space. My Norwegian is a bit rusty so I've asked Kjetil if his intriguing piece could be translated.

In March 2007 we organised Doors 9 in Delhi to explore the design agenda for food systems. Since then, interest in the subject has exploded and architects the world over are now photoshopping gardens onto every proposal. The next priority now is to get serious on strategy and implementation - to put food and water systems at the heart of city planning and design. A seminar in The Hague this month will launch Foodprint, a two year project to explore the possibilities of food production in the Dutch capital city. Speakers include Carolyn Steel (author 'Hungry City'); Wally Satzewich (Spinfarming); Rob Baan (Kopper Cress Micro Vegetables); Debra Solomon (Culiblog), Will Allen from Growingpower. I'll talk too. Friday June 26, 2009, The Hague.

Although I'm quoted as an expert on edible cities in this month's Icon magazine, I need to make confession now before someone else shops me: I have not yet tended one plant that has survived long enough to be eaten. I've planted lots of seeds; and have clocked many dirt-filled hours tending our allotment; but my fingers remain resolutely ink-stained rather than green. In self-defence (of my status as an expert) I do have first-hand experience that that growing food is harder than it looks on the pages of archjitecture magazines. And in the absence of permission to use Agent Orange on our alllotment, I recently learned how to build an eco-hump:

In Europe we extract 286 cubic kilometres of water every year; that's 5300 cubic metres per person. Where does it all go? Well, up to 1500 litres of water are needed to grow enough biofuels to move one car ten kilometres. 2000 litres are needed a day to feed each one of us. It takes And it takes 140 litres of water to grow enough beans for a single cup of coffee. It sounds, and is, unsustainable: Over-exploitation impacts heavily on the quality and quantity of remaining water, and on the ecosystems that depend on it. And it's not just a problem for southern Europe; water stress is also increasing in parts of the north. I could go on, but for more insight get hold of the International Water Association's excellent journal, Water21. The June issue contains a fascinating survey on the interconnectedness of water and energy.

"We have come to an era where society breaths technology. Screens are familiar to us, however we do not know the consequences that tie with their domination". So begins the LIFT conference blurb. My own take, which I'll talk about, is that new technology connects us to each other more, but leaves us *less* connected to the biosphere of which we are a co-dependent part. We need to use digital infra in ways that reverse this ecocidal divide. Keynote speakers include Euan Semple, Gunther Pauli, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (the French Digital Economy Minister), Usman Haque, Bruce Sterling, et moi. The event takes place in the Palais du Pharo, a gift to Napoleon perched on the cliff tops at the entrance of the Vieux Port. Marseille, 18-20 June 2009

A major new university is to be named after the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto University, which opens in 2010, is the result of a merger between the Helsinki School of Economics (Finland's top business school, with 4,000 students); the University of Art and Design (one of Europe's top design and art schools, with 2,000 students); and Helsinki University of Technology (the main technical university, including the country's principal architecture school, with 15,000 students). Four hundred people are already busy preparing the new university, but I was asked to speak at symposium in Helsinki called "Beyond Tomorrow" about what the new university should do, and be. The University has stated that it will will "make a positive contribution to Finnish society, technology, economy, art, art and design, and support the welfare of both humans and the environment". I proposed that Aalto University should stand for something more precise than this: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life. Read more at:

Wael Al-Saad is making plans to return to his Palestinian homeland after 17 years of secure living, studying, and working in Germany. He is convinced that there is enough land with high capacity (for instance for dryland permaculture) for innovative production methods in which they can invest resources, and become more productive. Read more at "What Does a New Start Look Like in Palestine? Returning Home to Create a Holistic Green Economy".

Respond! started as a simple idea. "What if we find out how many arts events in the UK in a single month are responding to the ever-increasing threats to the environment?" The Royal Society of Arts is taking a snapshot of activity all around the UK to build on the agenda of World Environment Day on 5 June. The RSA's excellent Arts & Ecology has the details.

Justin Buckley has launched a website called EyeOverFishing that makes visible the UK fisheries system. It shows how the fishing industry, EU and UK policy-makers, and consumers, damage the ocean ecosystem - and how each group can participate in its restoration. "It's not really a campaign, it's more of an educational resource that collects the various problems with the UK fisheries in one place, to make it easier for people to find ways of solving them" Justin tells me.

An alarm clock that you cannot hear, but still wakes you up. A shower curtain that sings along with you. Chewing gum that allows you to catch sounds that surround you and chew them into a new remixed soundscape. Sonic Interaction Design (SID) explores "ways in which sound can be used to convey information, meaning, and aesthetic and emotional qualities in interactive contexts". Karmen Franinovic is listening out for inspring examples for a sound and computing conference in Porto. 23-25 July, Porto, Portugal

Why is it that "design hotels" are such a total nightmare? At the K in Helsinki I had to press the remote eleven times to turn on CNN and throw 15 cushions onto the floor before I could get into bed. My tooothbrush fell in the loo twice because there was nowhere to put it. I would walk endlessly around the room pressing sliders, buttons and knobs trying, without success, to illuminate the room. No flat surfaces were available to put my laptop on. The control panel on the lift ("hissi" in Finnish) was so confusing that I had time to make new friends with fellow lost souls in its cabin as we went up and down. I prefer yurts.

Jobs | June 24