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John Thackara | Essays

Design for Resilience [July 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.

Last month's request prompted you to send me some terrific suggestions about mapping eco-system services; thanks in particular to Wendy Brawer and GreenMaps. My next request is for examples of projects in which under-16 school students do some kind of collective barn-raising event that has a connection with the sustainability of their school or town. We would need to adapt this activity to an indoor, two week-long activity in which a school group would add - something - every day.

The speed with which Transition Towns are multiplying is another sign that far more is happening beneath the radar of mainstream media and politics than above. The core activity of a Transition Town is Energy Descent Action Planning (EDAP), a process developed by Rob Hopkins, in which a community develops its own vision of their town 20 years in the future and then backcasts from then to now. Hopkins describes the capacity of a community to embark on an EDAP as "resilience" - a set of capabilities to which designers can certainly add a dimension or two.


"We've got to get out of this 'saving Africans' mindset" says singer Damon Albarn; "we're the ones that need to be saved". Actually Damon I think we probably need each other - but I do agree that there's a lot we can learn from Africa. I'm especially mesmerised by the rapid diffusion of airtime-based value exchange via mobile phones. Niti Bahn's has written about banking, airtime, transaction models, and informal economies:

Possibly driven over the edge by the above news from Africa, Australia's top treasury official is taking five weeks leave to look after endangered wombats. The BBC reports that Ken Henry, treasury secretary, has warned that hairy-nosed wombats are "on death row". Mr Henry will miss a central bank meeting, even though it (the bank) probably shares the wombats' predicament.

Cities, like people, are what they eat. The gargantuan effort necessary to feed them arguably has a greater social and physical impact on us and our planet than anything else we do - yet few of us are aware of the process. Carolyn Steel, an architecture professor, has written a wonderful book about the ways that we live in a world shaped by food - or, in the case or city design, have failed even to think about food systems. She puts it all into an historical and cultural context - but with a wonderfully light touch. The culpable insouciance of many policy makers today is eerily similar to the food policy that hastened the last days of Rome. "Food is about networks", Steel concludes, "things that, when connected together, add up to more than the sum of their parts". You need to be connected to the Hungry City network, so do buy the book.

If you're in or near London on Saturday, take your copy of Hungry City to Continuous Picnic. It's organized by Bohn & Viljoen Architects with a team of community gardeners, designers and food enthusiasts. The day kicks off in the morning with an "Inverted Market" to which anyone may take locally produced fruit and vegetables and have it included in a 150-metre long installation. (Which, I assume, one then eats). Saturday 5 July 2008

Also part of the part of the London Architecture Festival, my new mates at Exyzt have opened the Southwark Lido . Exyzt and Gaelle Gabillet are the scenographer-builders of City Eco Lab with me in St Etienne in November, so do go and say hello to them in Southwark.

Drew Hemment is looking for community activists and scientists who have undertaken innovative projects on sustainability in urban environments, and who are based in or near to Singapore, unless they are traveling there to attend ISEA2008 already on 30 July.

What does a pack of cigarettes cost a smoker, the smoker's family, and society? MIT Press has published a book about the private and social costs of smoking. The total social cost of smoking over a lifetime is put at $106,000 for a woman and $220,00 for a man - which is almost $40.00 per pack over a lifetime of smoking. But that $40 does not include the environmental impacts of growing the crop. Tobacco growing is responsible for damage to ancient forests, causes soil depletion through soil erosion and nutrient loss, and vast quantities of pesticides, fertilizer and herbicides are used; some crops require more than a dozen applications of pesticides during their three-month growing period. Nearly 600 million trees of forest are destroyed each year to provide wood to dry the stuff; in Tanzania, an estimated 65 pounds of wood is needed to dry one pound of tobacco. Water is a big issue, too: Pesticide runoff from tobacco plantations pollutes ground and surface waters. So what shall we say, after adding in these environmental costs: $100 per pack?

Is it possible to re-locate a city? This is the challenge set for City Move Interdesign, an international workshop in Gellivare, Sweden next year. The project will look at ways to create new spaces for people in a more humane and creative way when homes, workplaces, tourist attractions and meeting places have to be left behind or relocated.
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Homo sapiens is the only known species consciously to effect change to the Earth's geologic environment. We reshape the Earth, intensify erosion, modify rivers, change local climates, pollute water resources, soils and geologic media, and alter soils and the biosphere. We dig holes in it, remove parts of it, and bury highly toxic materials in it. Ernest Solomon drew my attention to this fascinating ournal about possible roles for the geoscience community in sustaining and preserving the Earth.

This website changes pixels on the screen into digital sand. This can be used as building material for "cosmic landscapes, Clemens-style sand paintings, mandalas and so on". It's a joint project by designers Johanna Lundberg and Jenna Sutela with the Flash programmer Timo Koro.

The UK government plans to spend more than three billion euros on innovation in public services that deal with chronic disease, youth crime, climate change, and teenage pregnancy. But how to spend that money well? A stern Matthew Horne, in a new report, argues that "experimentation without discipline does not lead to innovation at scale... the kind of innovation that transforms outcomes for people on a large scale does not come from letting 1,000 flowers bloom". Horne proposes a kind of House of Correction for social innovators - a mediation service that would help innovators to improve their problem definition, benchmarking, experience sharing, and brokering. Matthew probably has a point - it's just that me, I'm in the flower blooming business. The report, Honest Brokers, is free to download:

Britain's Local Government Association has published a list of 100 words that public bodies should try not to use if they want to communicate effectively with local people. Amazingly, the words concept, cultural, and creative do not appear in the blacklist - but its authors have promised to consider them for the next edition.

Cluster magazine ran an interview with me and Sunil Abraham for its special issue published this month at the World Congress of Architecture which opens later this month in Torino.

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Jobs | September 22