Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

Bottle Half-Full Edition [February 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.

Yes, things could be better. Climate change, resource depletion, peak debt, peak protein, and peak energy are all stakes being driven into the body of business-as-usual. But this is a bottle-half-full kind of newsletter: the first half is about the positive actions Doors of Perception is starting this year; the second half is about the fun things some of our friends are also up to.


In The Bubble (the book of this newsletter) has just been published in French, Italian and Portuguese (in Brazil). Please help the book in two ways: buy-and-send copies to all your French, Italian and Portuguese-speaking friends; and tell everyone you know, who speaks those languages, that these editions are now available. Pix of the covers and all the details are here:


What contribution can interaction designers make in the transition to sustainability? New products and services need to be developed according to tough new principles: low-carbon, zero waste, resource-efficient. What will using these new solutions be like? How do we scale up promising new ideas? The title of my talk at IxDA in Vancouver on 6 February is “Experiencing Sustainability”.


On Tuesday 10 February, Banny Banerjee and myself are running a project clinic about the design of sustainable water systems. It’s at Stanford University’s Design for Change Center. Featured projects include Agilewaves’ Resource Monitor, a web-based system that monitors electric, gas and water usage in real-time, while automatically calculating carbon footprint; Rainwater Hog, the celebrated modular water tank system; and a project called Cascade that revamps the wastewater treatment process without needing revolutionary changes to the current infrastructure. There may be a couple of places fee: contact Jean Hsu, Executive Coordinator, Stanford Design for Change Center. Jshsu at stanford dot edu


Two days later we’re doing another projects clinic. It explores practical examples of small-scale innovation that can be models for broader systemic, sustainable solutions to diverse community challenges. The idea is to find out how design might help existing grassroots projects improve and scale up. Jules Dervaes, a pioneer in urban edible gardens, seeks our input on ways to enhance his new social networking site, Mud Baron, who develops gardens and nature projects with schools all over the region, needs our help to persuade planners and architects to design active contact with nature - not just LEED-compliant structures - into "green" schools. Also presenting are Proyecto Jardin, a community garden for food and medicinal herbs; MIKA Community Development Corporation; and Project Hope, a group that provides elementary education for homeless and transient students; they are looking for help to reduce the heavy costs of moving students to and from its school. Thursday 14 February, Newport Beach, Los Angeles. Presented by The Planning Center, with Kati Rubinyi. You need to request an invitation.


The above two workshops in California are small-scale versions of the model we developed for Dott 07 in the UK, and for City Eco Lab in St Etienne last November. Of the 85,000 visitors at the French event, a majority were from the Rhone Alps region of France. For us, this was the perfect result: it meant that the event engaged mainly with people who were likely to adopt and improve some of the projects on show. These projects involved: productive urban gardens; low energy food storage; communal composting solutions; re-discovery of hidden rivers; neighbourhood energy dashboards; de-motorised courier services; and a wide variety of software tools to help people share resources.


The UK’s Design Council is talking to potential partners about a new Designs of the time (Dott) event …somewhere in the UK. Doors of Perception, you may recall, led on programme content for Dott 07, a year of community projects and events, in North East England, that explored what life in a sustainable region could be like – and how design could help us get there. An announcement on a next Dott is expected in the Spring.

Our friends have been busy, too:


The Royal Society of Arts has launched a timely and well-written Arts and Ecology blog. Early posts have covered “How literature tackles climate change”; “Doomsday art: is it bad for you?”; “Tantalum Memorial: an analogue response to Congo's coltan war”; and a look back at The Whole Earth Catalogue “35 years before Google came along”. Michaela Crimmin, head of the RSA Arts and Ecology Centre, explains that "artists have always had a powerful relationship with the natural environment. Equally, artists continually question and re-examine society's notions of progress. We need their unique perspective on the enormous challenges ahead - on the relationship between environmental issues, and not least climate change, and people."


Climate change is upon us and the oil is running out. Is mankind’s darkest hour really approaching? If so, a growing army of local heroes is determined to turn it into our finest. ‘Transition initiatives,’ begun in Britain, aim to empower people to tackle effects of climate change and decline of oil.


President Obama has made wired and wireless broadband a major element in his infastructure programme. A conference called Freedom To Connect (F2C) will identify areas where cities and regions can use Wi-Fi networks - not just to deliver public Internet access, but to improve municipal and county services. F2C “is shaped by universal connectivity and the plunging capital requirements of information production, which, in turn, are changing many of our fundamental economic and social assumptions”. March 30-31, 2009 Washington, DC


A day for thinkers, supporters, sponsors, doers, geeks, dreamers - and everybody else to come and share, promote, highlight, progress and evolve issues related to ICT, social networking and technology in Africa.Organised by Mark Simkins (GeeKyoto) and Edward Scotcher.


We were told the future would be about mechanization, computerization, 1984-like nightmares or robots. What did and did not happen? What can we learn from the predictions that never materialized to better look at the future? The Lift conference gathers international entrepreneurs, artists, managers, researchers, investors, CEOs, designers and ethnologists. 25-27 February, Geneva.


Margrit Kennedy writes with news that she has launched a website called Money Network Alliance. It describes the contribution of complementary currencies to regional development, particularly in overcoming economic problems, social polarities, unemployment and environmental degradation.


The end is near, but don’t despair: at Vooruit’s the game is up! festival, artists and experts from different disciplines will launch proposals to save the world and put the threat in perspective. Expect well-aimed happenings, bold statements, bizarre turns, sophisticated utopias and biodegradable references. 4 - 14 March, Ghent, Belgium.


nova_akademija, on the campus of the University of Split, uses renewable resources that are widely available in Croatia but which so far have not been widely exploited. With its photovoltaic systems, thermal solar systems and wind generators, the new academy will produce its own electricity; any ensuing surplus will be sent into the grid.


Usman Haque has launched a terrific project called Pachube. It’s a service for sharing and monitoring real time sensor data between remote buildings, devices, and environments, both physical and virtual. The idea is to facilitate remote interaction, open source home automation, sensor logging, environmental data visualisation etc.


Casey Reas, Ben Fry and a global networkof collaborators have released the 1.0 version of Processing. Seven years in the making, Processing is a programming language that enables software literacy within the visual arts. It’s used by everyone from children in their first exploraton of computer programming, to professional artists, designers, architects, engineers, and scientists. R.E.M., Radiohead, and Modest Mouse have used Processing in their music videos; Nature, the New York Times, Seed, and Communications have commissioned information graphics using Processing; the artist group HeHe used Processing to produce their award-winning Nuage Vert installation; and the University of Washington used Processing to create a visualization of a coastal marine ecosystem

SPIN-Gardening: How to Grow Productively on Under an Acre is the first in an online learning series that shows how to fit food production into everyday life, part-time or full-time; working alone or with family and friends,“We can’t all go back to the land, and most of us don’t want to,” says co-author Roxanne Christensen; “but many of us share a sense that food production should once again take a prominent place in family and civic life. the SPIN-Gardening website is a self-serve, self-directed online learning series for self-farmers.”


In Ladakh, a remote region of the Himalayas, Kitchen Budapest, a next-generation media lab based in Budapest, have created a high-tech installation based on prayer-wheels in the Csoma sanctuary. Csoma’s wheel is the first “new media treasure” of the Himalayas.


A friend in Colombia has sent us a picture of the model of their proposed new house. She asks our advice on its wind-catching performance, how wide these have to be...etc. Is this you?


What do Hungry City, The Long Descent, The Transition Handbook, Resource Conflicts and Global Security, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Depletion and Abundance, Re-inventing Collapse, Living in the Cracks, and Liquid Gold have in common? They all feature in the “must read” list we gave visitors to City Eco Lab. The full list is here:


to tell everyone you know, who speaks those languages, that French, Portuguese and Italian editions of In The Bubble are now available.

Jobs | September 22