Connecting the “what is?” with the “what if?”

“The future will be all about cities” – say people who live in cities. Our xskools, in contrast, are about reconnecting with rural communities and looking, together, for ways ways to unlock value. Check out our updated xskool page.

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Is Peak Car Headed for Seneca’s Cliff?

This text follows my recent keynote at Seoul Smart Mobility International Conference. The author thanks 
Seoul Design Foundation and @Seoul_gov  for their invitation. I also thank XuanZheng Wang, professor, China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), for alerting me to the @Mobike developments.

Two hundred people per second now climb onto a dockless bike somewhere in China; the blue dots (above) denote transactions in Shanghai.

Considering that dockless bike sharing platforms were only launched two years ago, in 2015, this growth rate is remarkable.

The biggest company, Mobike, already operates more than seven million bikes across over 160 cities globally – and a merger with its biggest rival, Ofo, is in the offing.

For its US launch Mobike (above) has teamed up with AT&T for its networks. Qualcomm will make the GPS-enabled smart tags attached to each bike. And iPhone maker Foxconn will manufacture the actual bikes.


Negative side effects have accompanied this explosive growth, of course; entrances to subway stations, for example, have been blocked by piles of carelessly dumped bikes (above) .

Beijing and  Shanghai have banned the addition of more bikes until their users learn, or are compelled, to use designated parking areas. Wayward user behaviour may well be just a blip; penalties (and inventives) cxan easily be added to dockless bike software. 

When sharing platforms enable new relationships between people, goods, equipment, and spaces, the notion of mobility as a discrete economic sector no longer makes sense.

News that Ikea is buying Task Rabbit is further confirmation of this convergence

The bigger story now unfolding (above) seems to be one of system transformation – a peak-car tipping point – that’s been slowly ‘brewing’ for a very long time.

(I don’t believe the concept of  “Personal Era” is a timely one – but I’ll come to that in my next post).

For the physicist Ugo Bardi, the decline of a complex system can be faster than its growth – an insight he attributes to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who wrote:  “Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid”.


This could surely be true for a global mobility ecosystem based the private car.

After 100 years of spectacular growth, the Mobility Industrial Complex now confronts three potholes in the road ahead that could each on its own,  prove fatal.

The first is energy. Americans now use as much energy on one month as their grandparents did in their entire lifetime – and that rate of increase is accelerating with the advent of  ‘cloud commuting’ and ‘smart mobility’.  The Stack now runs on about seventeen terrawatts a day.

(The chart above is from The Cloud Begins With Coal, by Mark P. Mills)

The second un-driver of mobility is cost. It now costs 91c to travel one kilometre to travel in your own car,  but less than half that (30c/km) if you share. In some Chinese cities, where dockless bike systems are marketed like an app, you can use one for free.

The third pothole awaiting modern mobility – and it’s a big one – is complexity.

There are more lines of code in a high-end Audi than in a Boeing dreamliner – a costly feature will feel more like a bug if the coming software apocalypse turns out to be real.


“Sustainable smart mobility”, in this context, is turning out to be different in degree, but not in kind, from traditional transport and infrastructure planning. It tweaks the means, but not the ends.

Because neither the ‘need’ for perpetually growing mobility is questioned – let alone its biophysical possibility – the road on the downside of Seneca’s Cliff will be a bumpy one if a new story

In part 2 (to follow:) Smart Mobility at the Service of Civic Ecology

ADDENDUM
This writer has learned the hard way that people read things when they are ready to read them – not when they are written. In the hope that the time is now right, the articles below may, now, be useful.

From Bike Chain to Blockchain: Three Questions About Cooperation Platforms and Mobility (2015)

Until now, transportation has been planned to ‘save’ time. In this age of energy transition, would a better criterion not be, how to save calories? Who should own mobility sharing platforms: private companies? cities? us? What kind of ecosystem is needed to support the sharing platforms we want? 


Cycle Commerce: the Red Blood Cells of a Smart City (2015)

India’s many millions of bicycle and rickshaw vendors embody the entrepreneurship, sustainable mobility, social innovation, and thriving local economies, that a sustainable city needs.
As an ecosystem, they’re also part of the metabolism that makes a city smart. That said, cycle commerce is a challenge for a city’s managers. Many different actors are involved in bicycle commerce – often with differing or downright conflicting agendas. Managing this kind of urban constellation is hard.

Cloud Commuting (2014)
A two-year project in Belgium proposes new relationships between people, goods, energy, equipment, spaces, and value. Its design objective: a networked mobility ecosystem. Mobilotoop asks, ‘how will we move in the city of the future?’  – and does not worry too much about the design of vehicles. ‘Cloud commuting’, in this context, is about accessing the means to move when they are needed (such as the micro-van, above) rather than owning a large heavy artefact (such as a Tesla) that will sit unused for 95 percent of the time.

Caloryville: The Two-Wheeled City (2014)
Something big is afoot. E-bikes in China are outselling cars four to one. Their sudden popularity has confounded planners who thought China was set to become the next automobile powerhouse.  In Europe, too, e-bike sales are escalating. Sales have been growing by 50% a year since 2008 with forecasts of at least three million sales in 2015.


Cycle commerce as an ecosystem (2013)

At a workshop in Delhi, Arjun Mehta and myself posed the following question to a group of 20 professionals from diverse backgrounds: What new products, services or ingredients are needed to help a cycle commerce ecosystem flourish in India’s cities, towns and villages?

Green Tourism: Why It Failed And How It Can Succeed (2013)

Packaged mass tours account for 80 percent of journeys to so-called developing countries – but destination regions receive five percent or less of the amount paid by the traveller. For local people on the ground, the injustice is absurd: if I were to pay e1,200 for a week long trek in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, just e50 would go to the cook and the mule driver who do the work. The mule, who works hardest, gets zilch. Can green travel be reformed?

From Autobahn to Bioregion (2012)
A few years ago, Audi’s in-house future watchers noticed an unsettling trend in visions for the future of cities : an increasing number of these visions did not contain cars. Urban future scenarios seemed to be converging around car-free solutions to problems posed by debilitating gridlock, lack of space, and air pollution.Wondering what this trend meant for a car company such as itself, the company launched its Urban Future Initiative to establish a dialogue.

The Gram Junkies (2011)

Gram junkies are those fanatical hikers and climbers who fret about every gram of weight that might be carried — in everything from titanium cook pans to toothbrush covers. Excess weight is not just an objective performance issue for these guys; they take it personally. In the matter of mobility and modern transportation, we all need to become gram junkies. We need to obsess not about speed, or about exotic power sources, but about the weight of every step taken, every vehicle used, every infrastructure investment contemplated. 
http://designobserver.com/feature/the-gram-junkies-in-transportation-design-the-key-issue-is-not-speed-but-weight/24178

Is an environmentally neutral car possible? (2010)

The future of the car has been electric for what? Five years now? Ten? The answer is 110 years, for it was back in 1899 that La Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied) became the first vehicle to go over 100 km/h (62 mph) at Achères, near Paris.Since then, as we produced hundreds of millions non-electric cars — and despoiled the biosphere in the process — all manner of non-petrol cars, including electric ones, have come and gone.

A tale of two trains October (2010)

The fundamental problem with high-speed train systems is not that they burn too much of the wrong kind of fuel. The problem is that – like the interstate highway systems that came before – they perpetuate patterns of land use, transport intensity, and the separation of functions in space and time, that render the whole way we live unsupportable.



From my car to scalar (2006)

To a car company, replacing the chrome wing mirror on an SUV with a carbon fibre one is a step towards sustainable transportation. To a radical ecologist, all motorised movement is unsustainable. So when is transportation sustainable, and when is it not?


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From Gut to Gaia: The Internet of Things and Earth Repair

The following text appears in the inaugural edition of Ding, a new magazine about the Internet and things, published by the Mozilla Foundation. Ding will be launched at MozFest in London on 27-29 October.

On a recent visit to @IAAC in Barcelona, I was charmed by their Smart Citizen platform that enables citizens to monitor levels of air or noise pollution around their home or business.

The system connects data, people and knowledge based on their location; the device’s low power consumption allows it to be placed on balconies and windowsills where power is provided by a solar panel or battery.

Smart Citizen is just one among a growing array of devices that can sense everything from the health of a tomato in Brazil, to bacteria in the stomach of a cow in Perthshire – remotely. 

Low-cost sensing technologies allow citizens to assess the state of distant environments directly. We can also measure oil contamination in our local river with a smartphone. Thousands of people are monitoring the air they breathe using Air Quality Eggs.

This innovation is intriguing, but leaves a difficult question unanswered: Under what circumstances will possession of this data contribute to the system transformation that we so urgently need?

Read More »

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john chris jones at 90

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I’m reposting the piece below to celebrate the 9oth birthday (on 7 October) of john chris jones. For jones, writing and living are still intertwined in a sublime but grounded way.

I’ve been re-reading “the internet and everyone” by john chris jones.

I’ve been astonished once again by the sensibility of an artist-writer-designer whose philosophy – indeed his whole life – first inspired me when I was a young magazine editor more than 30 years ago.

Like another muse of mine, Ivan Illich, John Chris Jones was decades ahead of his time. The time is ripe now for a wider readership.

He wrote about cities without traffic signals in the 1950s – sixty years before today’s avant garde urban design experiments.

In the 1960s, Jones was an advocate of what today is called ‘design thinking’; (then, it was called design methods).

He advocated user-centered design well before the term was widely used. He began by designing aeroplanes – but soon felt compelled to make industrial products more human. This quest fuelled his search for design processes that would shape, rather than serve, industrial systems.

As a kind of industrial gamekeeper turned poacher, Jones went on to warn about the potential dangers of the digital revolution unleashed by Claude Shannon.

Computers were so damned good at the manipulation of symbols, he cautioned, that there would be immense pressure on scientists to reduce all human knowledge and experience to abstract form.

Technology-driven innovation, Jones foresaw, would under-value the knowledge and experience that human beings have by virtue of having bodies, interacting with the physical world, and being trained into a culture.

Read More »

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Back To The Land 2.0
 – A Design Agenda For Bioregions

What’s needed is a new story in which care for the places where we live is a practical focus for solidarity. In that spirit, a series of xskool workshops called Back To The Land 2.0 brought local actors together, in diverse locations, to flesh out this new story of place with live examples. The text below (it’s about 4,000 words, a 20 minute read) is about the lessons we have  learned so far. It builds on the course we helped run at Schumacher College a year ago and in June. (Illustration above: Terre de Liens)

1. Why we need a new story

We are cognitively impaired by a metabolic rift between our culture and the earth. Paved surfaces, and pervasive media, shield us from direct experience of the damage our actions inflict on soils, oceans, air, and forests. A unique epoch of energy and resource abundance added zest to a story of growth, and progress and development, that put the interests of ‘the economy’ above all other concerns

The comforting narrative of perpetual growth has now hit biophysical and financial constraints – and we all feel it. Only 15% of the global population feel that the system is working and ecoanxiety—the feeling of impending environmental doom—afflicts populations on a global scale.

This is why post-truth’ politics should be described as pre-truth politics. In this time between stories, populists have picked up on our justified anxiety – but divert our attention from the root but invisible causes of our predicament. It’s easier to blame a Muslim, than entropy.

But a new picture is now emerging in myriad projects around the world. Read More »

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of Druids, Biorefineries, Adventure Sport, Ecomuseums, Code Clubs…

I’ve been invited by Pontio Innovation to make a return visit to North West Wales and continue our exploration of Innovation In Small Nation. On Tuesday 6 June I’m doing a public talk, too: here is the announcement.

Pic Bruce Adams

BACK TO THE LAND 2.0
Tuesday 6 June, 18:30h Main Lecture Theatre, Level 5, Pontio, Bangor, Gwynedd.

Are innovations in adventure sport a signal of transformation in the global health and wellness industry? If the health of people, and the places where we live, are connected, what kinds of business can help them thrive together?

With its own unique assets, North West Wales has the potential to lead the world as a living laboratory for innovation where adventure sport, tourism, and wellness meet. To realise this potential, and turn ideas into new livelihoods and enterprise, the region’s assets need to be combined and connected in new ways.

But how? For John Thackara, hybrid approaches to innovation are needed that are centred on people and place,  tech enabled, and design-led. Opportunities include include food system platforms; fibersheds and grainsheds; biodiversity and river recovery; social and High Nature Value farming; land-based learning and ecomuseums; code clubs and the maker movement; ecological restoration; civic ecology; biorefining.

 

 

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Earth Repair In Your Bioregion: Short Course at @SchumacherColl

Ecological Restoration by Design  26-30 June @SchumacherColl

In the leave things better economy now emerging, ecological restoration can add new kinds of value to planning and design. But how?

This short course, which I am leading together with Lisa Maria Enzenhofer, will introduce you to a constellation of real-world ecological restoration projects, framed by their bioregion, in urban, peri-urban and rural contexts: regenerative agriculture; civic ecology; green infrastructure; river recovery; wetlands restoration; blue-green corridors; pollinator pathways; urban forests; and the use of plants to restore polluted soil and to create micro climates.

We will explore ecological restoration at multiple scales of geography and time – from micro-environments in former factories, to Ecological Restoration Camps at the scale of the bioregion.

The week includes encounters with project pioneers in South Devon involved in sustainable horticulture, the creation of a Bioregional Learning Centre, and the Deep Time Walk. 

Participants will also complete a design exercise in which lessons learned during the week are applied to a context of their own.

We want this course to be multi-disciplinary. We invite not only designers, architects and planners, but also geographers, ecologists, economists, and others. 

The course is for you if you want  to understand the principles of ecological restoration; read a territory through an ecosystem lens; and engage, on however small a scale, in your own context.

 

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Interview: Signals of Transformation and How to Read Them

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I was interviewed about How To Thrive by Sarah Dorkenwald for a new book, Visionen Gestalten, which will be published next week. The original English transcript is below. The German text is HERE.

SD: What is your vision of the next economy about?

JT: My book is for people who fear that there no escape from an economy that devours nature in the name of endless growth. I argue that another world is not just possible – it is already happening: a world in we value all of life, not just human life; a word in which progress is measured by Read More »

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Making as Reconnecting: Crafts In The Next Economy

The following is an edited version of my keynote talk, delivered by video to the Craft Reveals conference at the Chiang Mai Vocational School in December 2016. The conference was hosted (and my talk commissioned) by the British Council Thailand.

craftreveals

Around the world, a new economy is being shaped by a “leave things better” story about the meaning of progress and development. In a million projects, people are growing food, restoring soils and rivers, designing homes, generating energy,  journeying, caring for each other, and learning, in new ways.

These activities are incredibly diverse, but a green thread connects them: Read More »

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