When Shelter Doesn’t Have To Have a Concrete Roof

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Studios Kabako, a dance company from Africa, is the winner of this year’s 2014 Curry Stone Design Prize, an important international award. Using dance, theater, and music ,Studios Kabako help local communities envision positive alternatives in a city that has known devastating armed conflict over many years. The company has pioneered a form of development that is based on social creativity rather than real estate plays.

Based in Kinsangani, the Congolese performance and theater studio was founded by Faustin Linyekula in 2001 to address social memory, fear, and hope in the aftermath of civil war. During a decade of urban interventions and cultural activities, the studio has enabled a flourishing an ecosystem of dance activities. Studios Kabako are pioneers of a new way to practice ‘rebuilding’ that ‘s based far more on human energy than on pouring concrete.

“Many world regions face terrible fratricidal wars” explained Emiliano Gandolfi, director of the Curry Stone Prize. “We must learn to envisage an alternative to the culture of destruction”. Faustin Linyekula’s work demonstrates the remarkable results that can happen when the transformative power of art is applied to the ways we practically create a sustainable future.

When Linyekula founded the studio young Congolese people, especially, were living without hope -  too preoccupied by daily survival to imagine an alternative. As recounted by the renowned theater and opera director, Peter Sellars,“Faustin is training a generation of kids to challenge everything about their surroundings. He has created an energy among youth in Kisangani that insists on moving forward. His work is never self-pitying, there’s always this alertness, this awakeness, that has the spirit of challenge in it. It refuses to say ‘Oh, poor Africa.’ It says, ‘OK, pull your life together. Lift your own game’.”

As a platform, Studios Kabako is light and mobile. Although the studio maintains studios in the city centre, it takes its work to the rural fringes and to vacant areas of Kisangani in the form mobile performances. Studio Kabako is currently working on plans for more facilities within the city that combine environmentally friendly technologies, communal living systems and new educational models, all of which are unprecedented in this region.

“Culture is one of the most powerful means of providing a shelter for a community. That shelter doesn’t have to be a concrete roof.” Synthetized Suad Amiry, founder of RIWAQ, winner of the CSDP award in 2012, and member of this year’s jury.

(The author, John Thackara, was also a member of the jury).

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Housing Without Building: News From Doors of Perception

CONTENTS

Housing without building
On regarding the pain of the planet – a reader
Forthcoming events

HOUSING WITHOUT BUILDING

The family of swallows that spent the summer in the eaves behind my office here in France have headed south for the winter. Soon, as Christmas beckons, they’ll reach their destinations: Botswana, Namibia or South Africa. After just two months gorging on insects, they’ll begin the epic journey back. The strongest among them will make it back in just five weeks, traveling 200 miles a day.

And I thought my air travel was profligate.

As an artefact, the swallows’ nest is not exactly the Taj Mahal. It’s a ramshackle structure, made of mud pellets and straw, stuck crookedly to the wall. But it seems to suit them well – or rather, the surrounding habitat does. Their physical abode is a safe enough place to park their young – but it’s not a gated community. What brings the swallows back every year is not their house but the surrounding environment as whole: open air for easy flight; fresh water from the river; flying insects to feed their ravenous young. I have come to envy how lightly they manage to live. We humans burn through billions of tons of resources, to support our our own structures and lifestyles. Swallows throw their nests together from found materials.

Preoccupied by swallows, I posed the following question last month to a meeting of Nordic Housing Association managers: Do we really need to build more boxes? Is it beyond our creativity to provide our fellow humans with shelter and sustenance without covering more of the world in concrete?

To be candid, I did not expect an easy ride from this group of experts. They have a ton of financial, legal and political issues to deal with in managing 2.4 million housing units across the Nordic countries. At the event, I was surprised: Many of these professionals shared my concern at the baleful influence of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. Manufacturing boxes may be good for GDP and construction firms, some agreed, but we can surely meet the social need for shelter in ways that that improve the habitat, not wreck it.

We discussed a variety of life-enhacing ways to inhabit the city:  the re-use of empty buildings; the potential of food hubs to improve a community’s health; the need for a micro-brewery in every neighbourhood; the benefits of pollinator pathways through built-up areas; the potential of de-paving to improve a town’s porosity to rain; how citizen action is improving the health of rivers, creeks and watersheds; how to de-motorise the movement of freight through towns and cities.

This metabolic concept of development was in stark contrast to a newsletter I received this morning. It announced that “60% of the area projected to be urban in 2030 has not yet been built”. This passive-submissive acceptance of unchecked urbanisation has become tiresome. Sure, yes, urbanisation will devour the biosphere if no alternatives are on offer – but that’s not the case. There are thousands of ways to improve life – and not just human life – in the cities we already have. Let’s draw a line in the (de-paved) sand and agree that the real-estate model of ‘development’ is over.

ON REGARDING THE PAIN OF THE PLANET – A READER

Why is it that shocking stories and images fail to change things? Are there different ways of knowing the world, than merely looking? I’ve posted a list here of the writers who have helped this writer understand this overarching dilemma. Susan Sontag’s conclusion stays with me: “People don’t become inured to what they are shown — if that’s the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling”.

WILD LEARNING

“Our ancestors’ children didn’t go to school:  School surrounded them. Nature was a living teacher”. Under the umbrella title of Wild Learning, I’ve also posted a rough-and-ready list of of the nature-based education, biodiversity initiatives, and edible school gardens that are trying in diverse ways to reconnect children – and the rest of us – with the living systems of which we are a part.

FORTHCOMING TALKS & EVENTS

Oslo, 15 October System Oriented Design

Dundee, 22 October Sustaining Rural Scotland

Glasgow, 23 October, Making A Difference

Amsterdam, 20 November, Pakhuis de Zwijger, De energieke samenleving

New Delhi, 12-14 December: UnBox Festival. For this year’s UnBox I’ll be joining Mansi Gupta in a workshop to develop the plan for a Lab, situated at the heart of India’s largest leather-producing region, that will combine clean forms of leather making with direct connections between between producers and customers. I’ll also re-visit the subject of cycle commerce and my modest proposal for the de-motorisation of Delhi.

DOORS OF PERCEPTION TALKS AND XSKOOLS
My talks and Xskool workshops – which you can read more about here and here – explore opportunities where social and ecological systems meet: food systems, housing, sustainable infrastructure, mobility, the care economy. What are the key social-ecological systems in this place? how night one design in them? and, how does one get started?

CONTACT

Contact me (John Thackara, Doors of Perception) by:
Email: john@doorsofperception.com
Blog doorsofperception.com
Twitter @johnthackara
LinkedIn www.linkedin.com

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What Does This Soil Taste Like? How Does This Forest Think?

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AUTUMN NEWSLETTER
Xskool on Grinda
UnBox in India

Forthcoming events

XSKOOL ON GRINDA

Fifty designers, artists and architects spent a week at our Xskool on Grinda last month to explore two questions: What does this food system taste like? and, How does this forest think?

One team invented the Soil Tasting Ceremony shown above. They made infusions from ten different berries on the island and displayed them next to soil samples taken from each plant’s location; the soils were displayed in wine glasses. We were then invited to compare the tastes of the teas and soils in silence. It was a powerful moment. (There are more images here).

Ahead of the event I thought soil health would be hard to sell to a cerebral group of (mostly) grad students. Today’s designers think far more about connecting with each other, I assumed, than about connecting with the soil. Why would they? Fewer than half of us ever see or touch the stuff.

My concern that living soil would not engage designers proved unfounded. It was like pushing at an open door. Xskoolers went scrabbling around the forest of Grinda like so many voles. They found ways to catch the taste of the forest and put it in a pot. They made cookies with forest berries and bartered these with tourists. They created tactile pathways so we could we feel the forest through our feet. A Latvian designer made pine cone syrup and gave it to Teacher, who was mightily pleased.

This positive energy was welcome, but unexpected. In searching for an explanation I came across a wonderful book called Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh.“We yearn for connection with one another, and with the soul” McIntosh writes, “but we forget that, like the earthworm, we too are an organism of the soil. We too need grounding”.

Resilience and systems thinking, I concluded from McIntosh’s book, will never be transformational in the absence of systems feeling. But how? Asking researchers to empathise with earthworms feels like a big ask. For every designer learning how to think like a forest by tasting one, as we did on Grinda, thousands more spend most of their time in studios, online, or within the rarefied walls of the research economy.

Perhaps my search for a ‘solution’ to the ecoliteracy ‘problem’ is old-fashioned. In a post-Xskool reflection, Helen Silvander wrote: “If we truly want people to value nature and food from a sustainable point of view, maybe we should allow them to fight for it a bit. Instead of simplifying, maybe we should de-organise. Instead of widening the path, maybe we should explore what happens when we erase it, and let time be the currency of payment”.

Here is the Xskool Facebook page.  I also gave this year’s Xskoolers a Food Systems ReaderXskool  was a partnership between Doors of Perception, Konstfack, and FuturePerfect Festival. This event builds on a series of experimental Xskool encounters over the last three years including Xskool Grinda 2013.

UNBOX FESTIVAL

For this year’s UnBox Festival in New Delhi (12-14 December) I’ll be joining Mansi Gupta for a workshop to develop the programme of the Kanpur Design Innovation Lab. The project embodies, in Mansi’s words, “a new story about the leather industry and the people who work in it”. The Lab, situated at the heart of India’s largest leather-producing region, will develop products and services that combine clean forms of leather making with direct connections between between producers and customers. If I have any say in the matter, I’ll also be re-visiting the subject of cycle commerce  and my modest proposal for the de-motorisation of Delhi. 

MY TALKS THIS AUTUMN

Reyjkjavik, 11 September, Nordic Housing Association
Reyjkjavik, 12 September, Iceland Academy of Arts, MA Design Workshop (Tel +354 552 4000)
Eindhoven, 15 September, Plaza Futura at Club Natlab
Växjö, Sweden, 24 September, Linnaeus University
Oslo 15 October System Oriented Design Conference
Dundee, 22 October Chiasma, Sustaining Rural Scotland
Buenos Aires, 28 October, International Design Festival
Amsterdam, 20 November, Pakhuis de Zwijger, De energieke samenleving

CONTACT

Contact me by email at  john (at) doorsofperception (dot) com
Blog  doorsofperception.com
Twitter @johnthackara  https://twitter.com/johnthackara
LinkedIn  http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=139933&trk=tab_pro

 

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Reading Small Signals

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MID-YEAR NEWSLETTER
Reading Small Signals
Talks and Xskools
Forthcoming Events

READING SMALL SIGNALS

We’ve invested huge resources over the ages to keep the man-made world, and nature, separate - but there are signs everywhere that those those priorities are changing. Working through the consequences of that is a challenge for us all.

Many signals of change are small on their own but, taken together, tell a new story. There’s the new scheme in England, called Hummingtree, that connects office-bound workers with living systems by means of a ‘wild mirror’; each workspace is twinned with an equivalent patch of forest that’s being regenerated. In gritty Oakland, I learned that urban forests, living walls, and green roofs are being used to filter air, water and soil in and around its ports. I also saw the ad for a ‘wildflower farm apprentice’ to help a social enterprise trade wildflower seeds; that kind of work didn’t exist a few years ago. Neither did de-paving, food co-ops, river restoration, edible forestry, or pollinator pathways – but examples like these are cropping up all over. At multiple scales, this combination of social and ecolgical innovation adds up to living concepts of infrastructure.

The how is as important as the why. Back in England there’s the small farm that has 8000 landlords. Shares in the farm cannot be traded on the open market, but this shared ownership model enables the community to share responsibility – with the farmer – for growing food. This approach would be a great addition to a project I visited in California called The Food Commons. Launched at the epicentre of global agribusiness, this inspiring prototype combines social, political and technical innovation.

Other signals of change are so scattered that they can go unnoticed. In China, so-called ‘battery-bikes’ are outselling cars by four-to-one – but this story is missing from Western media. In The Two-Wheeled City I argue that a system-wide phase-shift in transportation is gathering pace. In Belgium, a project called Mobilotoop, about cloud commuting, is further evidence of an asset-light mobility ecosystem in which networks are used to share equipment and infrastructure. (I describe other ingredients to help a cycle commerce ecosystem flourish in Cycle Commerce: The Red Blood Cells of a Smart City).

Some signals of change point in contradictory directions. In Ethiopia, an inspiring social enterprise called Sole Rebels -  the world’s first Fair Trade shoe brand - employs and trains highly marginalized people; uses organic and bio-based materials; and obtains its leather from free-range cattle herders. But Sole Rebels must compete with a vast new project called Shoe City, also in Ethiopia, whose 200,000 guest workers are paid ten times less than workers on China.

Two recent texts of mine - A Whole New Cloth: Politics and the Fashion System, and Keep Your Stuff Alive - explore this core dilemma for fashion: despite more than 400 eco labels, an incremental ‘do less harm’ approach has addressed the symptoms, but not the principal cause, of our difficulties – a perpetual growth economy.

Some brightly flashing signals divert our attention from more important developments. Last December’s G8 Dementia Summit, for example, grumpeted the fact that one hundred million pounds will now be spent in a race to identify a cure or a ‘disease-modifying therapy’ for dementia. In The Dementia Care Economy I argue that the likely outcome will be the creation of a Dementia Industrial Complex – and the mass production of un-met expectations. Recent personal experience has reinforced my strong belief that the presence of human beings – not labour-saving technology – should be the priority.

The most promising innovations in the ways we care for each other – from child care, to dementia support – involve collaborative service networks. These empower family members and volunteers to work in equal and reciprocal relationship with professionals. In a conversation with Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P network, I learned that the rise of social co-operatives represents a new frontier in the shifting boundaries of public, private, and commercial spheres. In global law and governance, too, the concept of Buen Vivir or “good living” manifests a political concept of citizenship that includes all life, not just human life.

Although, taken together, these signals tell a new story about where we’re headed, the story remains stubbornly obscure. In The Desert Of The Real - my contribution to the Puma Sustainable Design Lecture series – I argue that we need to cultivate greater perceptual diversity, and new ways of knowing, if we’re to meet our ecological responsibility towards future generations.

DOORS OF PERCEPTION TALKS AND WORKSHOPS

My talks and Xskool workshops – which you can read more about here and here - explore the above questions in unique contexts: What are the key social-ecological systems in this place? how night one design in them? and, how does one get started?

FORTHCOMING EVENTS

Among forthcoming highlights are the Doors of Perception Summer Xskool in Sweden (14-18 August) on how to design a leave-things-better food system; the Future Perfect Festival itself (14-18 August); the Shambala Festival in England (21-14 August); my keynote about social innovation and housing for the Nordic HousingAssociation in Reykjavik (September 11); and a talk about design that connects living systems and human systems at the System Oriented Design conference in Oslo, on 15 October.

Whenever possible, especially on longer trips.I do more than a single talk or workshop. With that in mind, I’ll be in Buenos Aires on 30 October for their International Design Festival, and in Delhi (28-30 November) for the UnBox Festival. Please contact me if you’d like to propose an event for your group around those dates. 

CONTACT

Contact me (John Thackara, Doors of Perception) by email at  john (at) doorsofperception (dot) com
Blog  doorsofperception.com
Twitter @johnthackara  https://twitter.com/johnthackara
LinkedIn  http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=139933&trk=tab_pro

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When Tech In Care Is Evil

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I spent the last two weeks in-and-around a care home in England that looks after people with dementia and terminal illness, and their families – including, this time, mine.

In four wings, each with 12 residents, 24/7 care is provided by teams of trained professionals who work 12 hour shifts. During the day, for each wing, three carers and a qualified nurse work continuously within yards of the residents; at night, cover is provided by a carer and a nurse.

Their hour-by-hour duties include helping people eat and drink;  changing clothes and bed linen; helping people shower and clean; cutting finger and toe nails; helping people use toilets, bed pans, sanitation pads, and commodes; filling in forms; attending staff training sessions.

A lot of the time – a lot – carers sit and talk with the residents, reassure them, read books or magazines together, or simply hold their hands, or hug them.

Twice a day, it’s true, one of the nurses would tour each wing to give medicines to the residents; a few residents needed more intensive medical attention. But I reckon that ninety five per cent of this demanding, time-consuming and emotionally-draining work involved caring – not doctoring, and not ‘curing’.

In my family’s case, we saw a doctor twice during those weeks. The first was when a non-resident General Practitioner (family doctor) popped in for ten minutes, did not sit down, nor look any of us in the eye. He waved a Do Not Resuscitate form around like an election pamphlet, and then left. The second doctor, another GP, came later, at the end – as some regulation or other prescribed –  to pronounce my family member officially dead. He performed this service with grace and tact.

These discordant intrusions by doctors did not matter. Those final hours were peaceful, even beautiful, thanks to the quiet, attentive and  loving care of the people who surrounded us in the home.

A few hours later, when I turned on the television for the first time in weeks, it was to see the UK prime minister, in London, addressing a room full of people clad in smart suits and name badges.

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Speaking in forceful, Churchillian, style, Mr Cameron declared that “we must fight dementia” and announced a £100 million global research project to find a cure. “I know some people will say that it’s not possible”, said Mr Cameron, “but I will not be defeatist. With a big global push we can beat this”.

As I wrote back in December, after the G8 Summit on dementia, the likely outcome of this so-called “race to identify a cure” for dementia will be the creation of a Dementia Industrial Complex. It will  run by-and-for the glossily-clad experts in Mr Cameron’s audience – and it will do literally nothing to support the low-paid care workers that supported my family and thousands of others like it  in recent weeks.

Neither patients nor carers are even represented – not at all – on the much trumpeted World Dementia Council that was set up after the G8 Summit.

It’s dispiriting, but not surprising, to witness politicians parroting the false promises of the Tech lobby. But it’s a tragedy to see that an organisation that once represented carers has jumped onto the same bandwagon.

With its Dementia Friendly Technology Charter, the Alzheimer’s Society has given its imprimateur to the implausible notion that technology – rather than the presence of human beings – is the best way to enable people with dementia to live independently.

It’s doubly depressing that the Society asked a for-profit tech company, Tunstall Heathcare, to write its ‘charter’. Write its own orders would be more accurate. It is Tunstall ‘s corporate mission that, when it comes to dementia care , we can and should, “buy” peace of mind. “Just press the button” promises Tunstall, “and one of our operators will be on the line.” 

And then?

I know I’m emotional right now, but I’ve reflected on this a lot over several years and believe it has to be said: The notion that technology can substitute for the presence and care of human beings in care is not just misguided. It’s evil.

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Food As A Commons

People go hungry not because of a shortage of production, but because the food available is too expensive, or they lack the land to grow it on. In California, the prototype of a combined social, political and technical  solution has been launched which promises to unlock the food system crisis.

Kiel & Dan per thru grill

“This could be it”. The speaker, Dan O‘Connell, is peering through a grill (above) into the cavernous interior of boarded-up corner shop in downtown Fresno, California. His fellow explorer, Kiel Schmidt, concurs: “It’ll take a bit of work, but we’ve got a bunch of people with skills lined up to help”.

For Schmidt and O’Connell, two founders of an organisation called The Food Commons, the building is on their shortlist for a retail store that will make fresh food available to some of Fresno’s 500,000 poorest citizens – for the first time. Within ten years, they plan to open a retail hub in each of the city’s food deserts – and this will be the first.

Our location certainly fits the bill of a food desert. We’ve driven for half an hour past miles of empty Read More »

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How We Meet Is As Important As Why

This is the text of my talk at the OuiShare Festival in Paris today. 

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Did any of you wander around in a group last night – trying to agree on a place to eat?

Welcome to the sharing economy!

Sharing is hard! And that’s just about one meal.

Think about the food systems of a city;  the restoration of a river; the management of waste; or the care of older people.

As we change the way we govern our communities, our cities, and our ecosystems, a variety of different actors and stakeholders – formal and informal, big and small – need to work together – often, for the first time.

Working with people unlike ourselves is not an option. We have to engage with new partners and actors because Read More »

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Keep Your Stuff Alive

The Tending and Grooming Station (below) is a wondrous collection of combs, brushes and other obscure (to me) gadgets. They are used to primp and revive pre-loved sweaters and cardigans that have been disfigured by bobbles and pilling – those unattractive fuzz balls that appear when short fibers misbehave on woolen garments. 

#tendingandgrooming station

Every object has a dark side – and that’s especially true in fashion. Two-wash-two wear tea shirts have a devastating impact on watercourses, air quality, soil toxicity, and human and ecosystem health, in many parts of the world.

It is one thing to draw attention to the hidden costs of fashion – quite another to figure out what to do about them. Exhortations to “buy less, wash less” are little match, on their own, for a global system whose very survival depends on Read More »

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Talk in Oakland on 16 April

I’m doing a talk in Oakland – followed by a conversation with David McConville  - on 16 April, 7-9pm. 

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We badly need change. Change labs are springing up around the world. Mission accomplished?

Not so fast. Although building prototypes is exciting, and launching a start-up is a buzz, transforming a system is something else again. Are we confusing frantic activity with the achievement of meaningful Read More »

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