John Thackara | Essays

In Halifax With Antigonishts [November 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.

Four Days in Halifax — The Antigonish Movement — Citizen Assemblies — Doomer Trades — Ecological Stewardship — Spacing — Lifeboat Workshops — The Hub — The Hots — Urban Forests — Power Without Energy — Smart Grids as Social Grids — The New Economics — Design and the Green Economy — Melons We Can Believe In

I went to Nova Scotia for "Four Days in Halifax" - a time-compressed mini-festival whose aim was to help the city get its hands muddy in a green economy. One quickly felt the influence of Moses Coady, a key figure in the cooperative movement in Atlantic Canada and founder of the Antigonish Movement during the 30s and 40s. Coady, who helped small, resource-based communities, was a pioneer of what today is called asset-based community development. It's an approach which advocates the use of skills and resources that are already present within the community, rather than relying on help from outside. Until the global crisis, this philosophy was thought to be most relevant in developing countries - but we are all emerging economies now. Many of Coady's innovations in adult education, co-operatives, and microfinance could surely be dusted off and re-purposed for Halifax today.

Our starting point in Four Days was that many elements of a resilient Halifax already exist in embryonic form - but not all of them are visible in their own backyard. The most important preparation work was to identify these local assets. Peter Wuensch and Rachel Derrah from Breakhouse, a Halifax a design firm that's headed strongly into social innovation, and Joanne Macrae and Sera Thompson from The Hub Halifax, duly rounded up some inspiring people and projects.

Our next step was to figure out what practical steps might help these projects improve and multiply. First off, we kick-started five "social innovation charrette" teams from Nova Scotia College of Art + Design (NSCAD). Next, we did a Dragon's Lair event in which social enterprise start-ups pitched their case for investment to local entrepreneurs; the pitchers included a car-share start-up, and a chef with a roof-top herb garden. The next evening, a local team staged a mini TEDx conference. This was followed by a Four Days workshop for politicians, officials and business people. Friday night there was a Pecha Kucha in which, inter alia, the design student teams reported back. The final event was a street party where we exchanged stories about who we'd met and what steps needed to be taken next.

One of the TEDx speakers was Peter McLeod. Inspired by Canada's first Citizens' Assemblies, Peter is out to "reinvent public consultation" and develop a new provincial-municipal approach to collaborative decision-making. His group is developing Citizens' Reference Panels whose work can vary from a weekend-long learning process that produces new understanding and strategic direction - to a year-long process that can reach difficult decisions with popular support and produce a clear mandate for public action.

Peak-oil doomers are fond of publishing lists of the skills that will have value when industrial civilization has collapsed: blacksmithing, hat-making, baby-delivering, that kind of thing. The effect of such lists is to increase the anxiety of those - such as this writer - who are stronger, to put it mildly, on theory than on practice. So I was thrilled by our visit in Halifax to Nova Scotia Community College [NSCC]. This remarkable organization trains 25,000 students a year in a wide array of life-critical skills: cooking, energy sustainability engineering, ecotourism, truck repair, refrigeration, funeral directing. NSCC offers 'journeyman diplomas' to those who successfully complete an extensive combination of technical training, essential skills education, and practical experience in a designated trade. But the most inspiring thing of all about NSCC is its guiding ethos. NSCC's President, Joan McArthur-Blair, told us that a commitment to ecological stewardship is "not an option, but an obligation, for every student, teacher and business partner that works with NSCC". This is remarkable. NSCC is a major teaching and training institution, heavily linked to industry - and yet sustaining, regenerating, and preserving the earth's ecosystems are the institution's non-negotiable bedrock.

McArthur-Blair took us on a tour of NSCC's new building, the Centre for the Built Environment. Opening in 2010, this $26m building is unlike unlike any other trades and technology building I've seen. [My first job was as a publisher's rep visiting 50 technical colleges a year all over the UK and Ireland]. The NSCC facility is a live test-bed for green technologies - and for the skills needed to deploy them. The facility pays equal attention to ecological remediation and restoration, land conservation, and biomimicry, as models for energy- and eco-efficiency. The building has been designed so that five different rooftop photovoltaic panels systems at any one time can be compared in real-time. Other features include planted rooftops and two huge interior biowalls, planted from floor-to-ceiling with plants that act as natural air filters. 50,000 cubic yards (38,000 cubic metres) of industrial debris have been re-used to create vegetated berms, a bio swale, a retention pond, a one million litre rock-lined sedimentation pond, landscaped areas, and gathering spaces.

Spacing is an excellent new-paradigm magazine and multi-city blog (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Atlantic (including Halifax). The blogs feature daily dispatches from the streets of these places; they with architecture, urban planning, public transit, transportation infrastructure - just about anything that involves the public realm of our cities.

On a visit to Halifax's fabulous farmers market, I met a permarculture pioneer and teacher called Alex de Nicola. Alex has just launched a programme of 'Lifeboat Workshops' which focus on natural building. Participants build a cob oven & wall and, in Alex's words, "apply a lot of earth plaster". Among other workshops are making veggie ferments and growing great garlic.

The Hub Halifax proved a fabulous base from which to run Four Days. The availability of a well-located space supported by expert and welcoming hosts brings a region's social ecology literally to life: our residency coincided with an International Herb Symposium and a B2B Expo, at the World Trade Centre, which had a particular focus on sustainable business practices.

Something in the Nova Scotia air causes weird buzzwords to breed like crazy. When I expressed an interest in facilitation skills and training, I soon received information about groups with names like "Emergent Futures", "Courage Group", "Genuine Contact" "Integral Visions", someone (or something) called "Marquis Bureau"..... and my favourite, "Holistic Organizational Tranformation Inc" which I have nicknamed The Hots.

As the effects of climate change and urban heat island continue to escalate, urban forests can provide essential cooling, shading, pollution sequestration, and protection from droughts and floods. The city of Toronto has set itself a target of 35% canopy coverage the City by 2050, but coverage in Toronto currently stands at 17%, and it has been estimated that it will actually decline to 10% over the next several years as aging trees deteriorate and die. So the need to plant trees has never been more urgent. An organisation called GreenHere GreenHere works with community stakeholders on a fascinating array of tree stewardship and urban forestation projects. I specially like the sound of their tree stewardship workshops where citizens can learn about everything from mulching, the planting bean-yielding climbing vines, to making seed bombs for 'guerilla gardening' of abandoned spaces. GreenHere also trains trainers.

I was much impressed by GoodWork ,"Canada's green job site". It connects passionate, green-minded people with opportunities to contribute and be employed. Facing reality head-on, the site advises, "rather than compete for existing, or non-existent, jobs, why not create your own?" There's a ton of useful information on conservation jobs, stewardship jobs, volunteers, barter, work exchange and other ways to do good work without having a job.


Tessa van der Zouwen asks this pertinent question: "Of the total energy usage in the US in 2007, seven per cent was renewable energy of which just one per cent came from solar power. Compare this to the fact that in one hour, the sun provides more than enough energy to supply the earth's energy needs for one year; and in one day, it provides more energy than the world's population could consume in 27 years. So if we have a plentiful, universal source of energy – why aren't we totally solar powered?" Writing in Material Connexion's newsletter, van der Zouwen says one explanation is "our, to-date, clumsy and inefficient (compared to nature at least) methods for harnessing that power". Solar cells have taken many years to improve their efficiency range from a mere six per cent in 1954 to 30 per cent by 2007. The article goes on to describe innovations in the shape of new materials and device structures that are "putting the means for energy generation in the hands of consumers rather than 'big energy'".

Echoing van der Zouwen's pointed question about who should best control new energy systems, a special issue of the Innovations says a "new institutional structure" is needed if emerging solutions are to be deployed effectively. Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, joint editor of the special issue, proposes the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for energy to coordinate assistance from advanced industrialized countries to developing countries. Another contributor, Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka and of Get America Working, writes that "it makes no sense to subsidize the use of machines by keeping energy prices low while penalizing the use of labor through payroll taxes". He urges structural changes in the economy "to favour people, not things".

Measuring success solely in terms of money blinds us to those aspects of wealth that are not measurable in that way. And the way money is created, bearing interest - so that debts have to be paid back in a way that demands unsupportable infinite growth - is a built in driver of unsustainability in the economic system. What are we to do about an economic system that destroys the biosphere for economic reasons? What would a politics based on wellbeing be like? David Boyle and Andrew Simms, authors of an excellent new book, The New Economics, propose a new approachthat turns our assumptions about wealth and poverty upside down: Real wealth, they explain, can be measured by increased well-being and environmental sustainability rather than just having and consuming more things. The book is entertaining, eye-opening and very clearly written: do read it.

As urban or peri-rural agriculture becomes more important for our food security, the fate of un-built urban spaces becomes important. The Stalker Group, based in Rome, continuously monitors areas around the city's margins and forgotten urban spaces. Two weeks back they staged an "urban action" to defend left over agricultural spaces, 'agro romano', not yet been subsumed by speculative housing development.

Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told the US Congress last week that Japan's debt path was out of control. Simon warned of "a real risk that Japan could end up in a major default". This febrile situation added energy to the International Design Symposium held to mark Musashino Art University's 80th anniversary. I gave a new version of my ever-evolving talk about design and the green economy:

Jobs | May 26