John Thackara | Essays

Letter From Poznan [October 2009]

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I went to Poznan, in Poland, to speak at a conference called World Innovation Days. In brushing up on the history of the Wielkopolska region [of which Poznan is the capital] I was reminded that Central and Eastern countries of Europe are still called "Transition Countries" - as in, transitioning from communist statehood to membership of a bright, shiny and high-tech European Union. To help them along, the EU wants transition countries to grasp the holy grail of Innovation, which is why EU money paid for most of this event. Now in the EU, "innovation" is interpreted as high technology innovation - but, to their credit, the organisers in Poznan invited several speakers [including me] to talk about social innovation, too. I devoted a fair bit of my piece to Transition Towns which, I told my hosts, are the most important development happening anywhere right now. I would like to report that everyone in Poznan said "Yes! We must link up with these fellow Transtioners" - but as this would entail a 180 degree policy about-turn, they didn't. It will take a while yet.

Polish agriculture is becoming a cheap resource for globalised food "value chains" that are are based on high energy inputs, growing transport intensity, and ever more complex forms of food processing. These latter refinements are lauded as the fruits of innovation. But a grim reality lies behind this glossy image. An animal welfare blogger, Tom Garrett, visited what look to me (on his blog) like concentration camps for pigs. The rows of hog sheds are owned by Poldanor, a Danish producer, which describes its sheds blandly as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs); in central Pomorskie alone, Poldanor slaughters 300,000 pigs each year. Funding for Poldanor's massive expansion in Poland came from interest free loans advanced by the Danish Investment Fund for Central and Eastern Europe (IO), supervised by the Danish Foreign Ministry. Garrett, sceptical that the huge scale of investment he saw was within the capacity of the owners of record, a Danish farming cooperative with 160 members, discovered that sitting members of the Danish government, along with prominent politicians, were among Poldanor investors. Sadly for them, these upstanding citizens have not had the quiet and profitable ride they no doubt wished for: Civic committees opposed to factory farming have been established in many Polish villages; roads have been blocked to protest farmers who have signed contracts with agribusiness incomers; animal welfare activists are fighting to inform the public about the terrible conditions within CAFOs; and Denmark's SiG trade union described Poldanor's "takeover of slaughterhouses in Eastern Poland by the Danish Crown (as) the outsourcing of Danish jobs", and called for a boycott of 'Danish' pork products.

Another massive pork producer, Smithfield, financed its acquisition of industrial pig farms in Poland using $100m dollars in loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other banks. Anna Roggenbuck, of Green Federation Gaja, says that the role of the EBRD is especially important, since the Bank is supposed to follow an environmental mandate rather than, as in this case, fund ecocidal agricultural practices and industrialised cruelty to pigs. For more on this, check out CEE Bankwatch Network; its mission is "to prevent environmentally and socially harmful impacts of international development finance, and to promote alternative solutions and public participation".


Denouncing dastardly Danes, and the EU, is therapeutic, but will not of itself change the bigger picture. Poland has 33,000 food processing companies, for example. Anyone wishing to be taken seriously has to address the question: what are they to do, if not what they do now? Polish agriculture, with its 1.6 million small farms, vast tracts of land, numeous watersheds, and rich biodiversity, can be a model of diverse agro-ecology for the rest of the world - but how? For its small=scale system to survive, there's a need radically to reconfigure relationships between food growers and consumers. Transparent economic relationships need to replace attenuated private supply chains. Change this radical sounds, and is, hard. But there are numerous new models and schemes that might be seeded in Poland. In my talk I gave, as examples of adpatable models, Fair Tracing and California's FarmLink. The latter is a social venture that supports the development, expansion, and succession of local farms and sustainable land use; FarmLink provides microfinance for projects between $1,000 and $100,000. The EU's scandalous $100m soft loan to Smithfield could, on its own, have been used to support tens of thousands of small farmers in Poland.

Luckily, I had talked with Geoff Mulgan at the Young Foundation in London on my way to Poland. He told me not to waste my breath warning politicians about agribusiness or food security; they don't think these issues, or the sustainability angle, are important. Tell people about the health impacts of industrialised food instead, he counselled. This is because the on-costs of obesity, in terms of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, really do alarm policy makers. By some estimates 20 per cent of the already out-of-control health expenditures in the US can be traced back to diet - especially, poor people eating over-processed food. So, for my talk in Poznan, I showed them a chart on which Polish chldren come third in a global league table of childhood obesity - behind US and British children.

A grim new film, The End of the Line, reveals the impact of overfishing on our oceans. It exposes the extent to which global stocks of fish are dwindling; features scientists who warn we could see the end of most seafood by 2048; and includes chefs and fishers who seem indifferent to the ecocidal consequences of their business practices. "We must act now to protect the sea from rampant overfishing” says Charles Clover, author of the book of the film. Must, must. The difficulty with films like The End of the Line - as with 'An Inconvenient Truth', Michael Pollan’s 'Food, Inc' - and my own story about pigs, above - is that so much bad news obscures positive developments. The End of the Line received far more publicity, for example, than the launch of FishChoice.com FishChoice.com is one of many business-to-business (B2B) innovations that begin to unlock an intractable problem: how to reconfigure food systems that lock their participants into ecocidal behaviour.
Read more at: http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2009/08/post_50.php

Plug-in electric cars are very popular with politicians and car companies: they embody the myth that we can all carry driving around in private vehicles as normal, and the planet gets saved. It's a dangerous con: the true costs of electric cars - from the heavy metals in their batteries, to the coal-generated power needed to run them - mean that their viability as a long-term alternative to unsustainable mobility is an illusion. My other unsolicited proposal in Poznan, therefore, was that Poland should develop inter-city coach travel as a Product Service System [PSS]. Buses are by far the most envronmentally friendly form of public transport: they produce 29g of CO2 for every passenger kilometre travelled, compared with 52g for trains and 170g per passenger km for cars and airplanes. There's a huge opportunity here for Poland to take a global lead. Car, road, and aviation industries have a death grip around the necks of policy makers in most countries, so bus travel is not developed. Poland already makes a lot of buses; what's needed next is an integrated combination of vehicles, enhancements to existing infastructure, informatics - plus web 3.0 platforms and social innovation to enable bus-to-home car sharing.

Whether it be agro-ecological food systems, or inter-city bus travel as a PSS, the individual components are available. The missing element is an entity that will coordinate the actors and components of a Product Service System. It occurs to me that Europe contains a growing number of regional design centres, innovation centres, enterprise observatories, cluster support offices and the like. Policy makers could usefully change their brief and tell them to focus on sustainable, multi-actor food and moblity systems, instead of often-purposeless high tech.

If design centres don't seize this opportunity, could design schools? Poznan's Academy of Fine Arts is in a project called DEEDS whose aim is to speed up the diffusion of sustainable development practice in Europe's design schools. Bogumila Jung, the Academy's Dean, told me that they focus on experiential learning in which students engage with real-life situations. These experiences help designers develop the holistic thinking needed if they are to be useful when working among complex, multi-layered and interconnected systems.

I was thrilled to receive an email from Claire Alleaume, Skate Champion of France, no less. As well as being an ultra-modern form of de-carbonised mobility, skateboarding is also Claire's job: she works for a communication agency that works with architects, urban planners, and street furniture designers on new ways to integrate urban sports like skateboarding, rollerblading and bmxing. Anyway, Claire asks, "Is there anything I can read which could help me reflect on this issue, make the right choices, and concretely act with councils so as to work in the right direction?". My sad reply to Claire was that I know more about urban composting than bmxing - but what about you, dear readers? Please suggest *the* best book or site for Claire that will help her develop these activities in cities. Send your suggestions please to: john at doorsofperception dot com - and I'll pass them along.

One reason Berlin's mayor calls the city "poor but sexy" is the city's art scene. Anna Krenz inspired us in Poznan with a talk on how her tiny 20 square metre shop-front and art space, Galerie Zero, has generated social and cultural energy in the Kreusberg area of Berlin. Krenz and her partner, Jacek Slaski, have produced 100 pioneering art shows, installations and events over a six year period. I calculate that these 100 events cost less than building the men's toilets in a Frank Gehry-type art museum. The importance of projects like Galerie Zero is not just that they cost less than fancy museum buildings; their activities, being created in and by a community, also create a lot of the social capital that policy makers are so keen to foster. Urban planners and policy makers should all get hold of of their new book: Zero, Berlin, 2003-2009.

A TGV-full of of political and business leaders travelled from Paris to St Etienne for the opening of Cite du design. Sixty four million euros ($93m) has been invested in the conversion of a former armaments manufacturing complex into a new design centre and design school. Everyone from the Minister of Culture (a big deal in France) to St Etienne's Mayor turned up to celebrate this ambitious project. They all agreed that design is a key ingredient in urban design, high tech innovation, and regional development. One suspects that that they all had different ideas about what those words mean, but that probably doesn't matter. At a conference in St Etienne next month called "Cities of Design" the design-minded cities of Minneapolis, Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Seoul, Portland, Eindhoven and Dortmund will all be represented. 30 November and 01 December, St Etienne.
Info: [email protected]

Cite du design is a broad church. Whilst hordes of courtiers flocked around the Minister like starlings at sunset, copies of a subversive new book, by Ernesto Oroza, were being distributed by Cite's publications team. Rikimbili - "a study of technological disobedience and other forms of re-invention" - describes how Cubans have adapted and recycled industrial objects during fifty years of US sanctions. The book's title, Rikimbili, is named after a two-wheeled vehicle that started its life as a bicycle. The book is subversive because, for me anyway, it describes the kind of design we'll be doing in the coming age of scarcity industrialism (a phrase of John Michael Greer). Design shows filled with shiny objects, by contrast, are best perceived as historical events about a pardigm that has passed. Write direct to obtain your copy of Rikimbili to: emilie.chabert at citedudesign dot com.

I was at a most interesting conference in Plymouth, Making Futures, about the crafts in the context of sustainability. We discussed the prospects for people who can make things in an era of scarcity industrialism. I was especially impressed by an organisation called Ethical Metalsmiths. Its founder, Susan Kinglsey, told us that 20 tonnes of waste, among them river-poisoning sulphides, and mercury, are needed to produce one gold ring. A significant amount of gold (40%) is supplied by an estimated estimated twelve million artisan (ie, by hand) miners around the world. Many mining operations bring about environmental degradation, involve child labor, and lead to the exploitation and further impoverishment of these workers and communities. Kinglsey described a horror phenomenon called Acid Mine Drainage as a "perpetual pollution machine".


Few artefacts embody so much mental, but also material energy, as a high design furniture from Milan. Will this sector be viable when the true social and environmental costs of industrial production start to be charged, rather than hidden? Well maybe, and maybe not: my lecture is followed by a debate. Thursday 8 October, Design Library, via Savona 11, Milan. Tel +39 02 894 21225

The poster asks, ""How can the benefits of design be extended beyond the worlds wealthy to everyone?" This question begs many questions, as will be evident in this discussion chaired by Alastair Fuad-Luke, author of Design Activism. Speakers include Guy Robinson, Director of industrial design consultancy Sprout, Ann Thorpe, researcher and author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, and me. 15-17h, 10 October, Bargehouse, London.

This Global Emergency Teach-in for ecological literacy in design education will be "a massive social learning project" based on the example of a similar teach-in, held in 2007 at the New York Academy of Science, that reached a quarter million people from 47 countries. Any university or college can participate in this new Teach-in by hosting a viewing of the event. If you're in the London area, you need to obtain tickets for the Teach-in at the V&A.

This event is in France and will be in French so here's the blurb in French (I'm in a round table there on 14 October): Quelle sera la forme de la ville de demain? Comment construire plus vite des logements à la fois moins chers et plus économes en énergie ? Comment concilier la qualité de vie et une forme d'habitat plus dense et plus durable ? La voiture sera-t-elle encore la reine des villes dans 50 ans ? L'éco-cité idéale existe-t-elle ? Autant de questions à l'ordre du jour de "Caen Les Rencontres, Première", qui feront de Caen une vaste agora citoyenne sur l’urbanisme, l’architecture et le développement durable durant tout le mois d'octobre. Autour de l'exposition "voisins - voisines", et sous la présidence de François Barré, les Caennaises et les Caennais sont invités à échanger avec les plus grands architectes-urbanistes lors de quatre journées de conférences, de débats et de convivialité.

Why do modern Britons work harder than medieval peasants? Why are Malawi villagers paying the mortgages of Surbiton stockbrokers? And why did China pay for the Iraq war? A new approach to economics – deriving as much from Ruskin and Schumacher as from Keynes or Smith – has begun to emerge. Skeptical about money as a measure of success, this new economics turns our assumptions about wealth and poverty upside down. It shows us that real wealth can be measured by increased well-being and environmental sustainability rather than just having and consuming more things. This new book by David Boyle and Andrew Simms is published on 14 October.

Are you full of aspirations about what e-enabled government could do for us in Europe but also a little frustrated by official conferences and Ministerial pronouncements? Then perhaps this is the chance you've been waiting for. The first popular European e-government conference, which takes place in Malmö, Sweden 19-20 November 2009, "aims to offer a memorable creative statement of what Europeans really want from e-enabled government". It is particularly aimed at European digital-rights organisations, consumer advocates, and those with a political, academic, artistic or design interest in e-government. No presentation will last longer than eight minutes.

If you're in or near Halifax Nova Scotia during 21-24 October, we're part of an event called 4 Days Halifax that will explore the ways design can help this lively region in its transition to sustainability. I told the organisers, Peter Wuensch and Rachel Derrah, to think of Doors of Perception as a "Hubble Telescope turned backwards" - the idea being that it often takes an outsider to help grassroots people and groups, who are the acorns of a sustainable future, become better known or visible in their own backyard. 21-24 October, Halifax.

I did an interview with Design21, a social design network:

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