John Thackara | Essays

Tweets From America [March 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.

Everyone tweeted madly during my talk at the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) conference in Vancouver. The Twitter-enabled crowd seemed split as to whether my dire warnings about peak protein and peak indium were the proper concern of interaction design. I remain split on whether or not this new communication medium addles the brain.

IxDA chair Greg Petroff tells me that in his neighbourhood, in San Francisco, near-strangers have started to meet for a socially-bonding beer every Friday. They assemble, twit-free, at the house whose owner has stuck a plastic flamingo in the lawn.

During my visit to Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI), students taking the Sustainable Business MBA tell me what they look for in an employer: “generous, empowering, optimistic, creative, trusting, respectful, transparent, restorative, purpose-driven, meaningful, compassionate, humble, healthy, diverse.” I have to explain that Doors has no vacancies - probably because we exemplify just those qualities.

BGI students spend four days each month together at IslandWood, a 225 acre “school in the woods” on an island off Seattle. The rest of the time the facility’s fabulous food, and LEED gold-rated buildings, are enjoyed by high school students who go there for outdoor classes in environmental stewardship. The subject is compulsory in all the state’s schools.

When not on their island, BGI students work remotely from home. They seem remarkably happy with the online tools they use. I’m hopeful that Sharepoint, Illuminate and The Channel can work for DoorsOfPerceptionU, too.

Social media are not just used by interaction designers with the attention span of gnats. I learn from Chris Allen, its architect, that Johnson and Johnson has a ”social media strategy”, too.

In Palo Alto, I learn from Tim Brown that Ideo undertook more than 20 substantial “social impact” projects in 2008 - and demand is increasing. Back in London, I meet local government officials who are enthusiastic about their experience on iTeam, a joint venture between Ideo and Forum for the Future: iTeam trains public sector managers in the use of design innovation to tackle climate change.

Reflecting on the iTeam experience, a local govenment officer states that “small is the new big”. Despite the hugeness of the climate change challenge, it’s usually best to begin with modest-scale projects. Smallness, however, is a challenge for the design industry: business model is based on a cost structure, and therefore day rates, that are not small.

A lively debate ensues in Palo Alto when I ask whether designers should hesitate before they deliver pre-cooked solutions to the developing world. I am told, robustly, that Ideo practises “empathic research”, and that empowering local knowledge is a priority in its social impact projects.

The words “social” and “sustainable” cover most of life on earth. How is one to choose which design projects to do? Banny Banerjee, new Director of Stanford’s Design For Change programme, tells me that the three criteria by which their projects are selected are: beneficial impact, scalablility, and urgency.

The joint workshop I run with Banny, on water issues, easily meets the urgency test: Obama’s new energy secretary, Steven Chu, has just stated that “we're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California”. Immediately following our workshop, a state-wide water state of emergency is declared.

Chu’s warning about “no more federal water” contains an irony: The Central Valley Irrigation Project, which enabled Caifornia’s agriculture to flourish, was authorised in 1935 as an infrastrucure project to beat the Great Depression. Eighty five years later, the state’s dependence on long-distance irrigation is a structural impediment to sustainable water and agriculture. Now Obama promises to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure – to beat the depression.

Our Stanford workshop focuses on entrepreneurs developing tools to help citizens manage water sustainably. Sally Dominguez, whose Rainwater Hog has won lots of prizes, wanted our advice on the best way to translate celebrity into sales. Our design experts conclude that people will pay better money to save their house, than to save the planet., and advise Sally to re-brand the system as an on-site emergency water supply.

Seven per cent of all US energy use is to process waste – thereby causing 30m million of tons of emissions. Charles Zhou mesmerises us with his story about the use of smart micro-organisms to optimize sludge digestion, and of microbial fuel cells to recover clean energy from wastewater. Ninety-nine percent of current wastewater treatment facilities do not recover any energy from wastewater. Zhou seems set to become the Bill Gates of sewage.

Southwards again, to Orange County. The Planning Center has asked me to run a workshop around the question “What would life in a sustainable world be like?” Participants from grassroots organizations present case studies in which they use existing resources in a creative, original way.

Jules Dervaes is a pioneer in urban edible gardens; he calls these “urban homesteads”,. Jules has launched a social networking site to help disseminate what they have learned, and to multiply the groups involved. His practical concern is that planners might make it illegal to keep chickens in urban areas.

California is spending more than $20bn on “green” school buildings. The state spends $65,000 per classroom seat for the building - versus $1 per child per year for garden upkeep and support. Mud Baron, who se job is to help L.A. schools develop gardens and nature projects, wanted our help to persuade planners and architects that "contact with nature" - not just buildings – is a crucual ingredient of "green" schools. We propose re-labeling school gardens as “outside classrooms” and thereby solve Mud’s resource problem at a stroke.

Another one of our case studies, Proyecto Jardin, is an inspiring example of a bario-based economy. Irene Pena tells us that this community garden for food and medicinal herbs must daily confront issues of land-use, group self-organisation, food coo-ps, seed storage, and green jobs – to name just a few.

Thanks to Claudia Hernández, I also know more than I did before about Hispanic Herbalism.

Project Hope provides scholing to some of Orange County’s 16,000 homeless children. The project began in 1989 when a teacher began educating local homeless children from the back of her car. A huge issue is mobility: the foundation spends $8,000/month moving students around. We ask whether churches, hospitals and universities, with their often under-used spatial and human resources, could be added to the empty strip mall spaces, and half-abandoned motels, that are on offer now.

Brian Biery explained the concept of “place-based philanthropy”, which is new to me. The Flintridge Foundation, of which he is programme director,, closed its Conservation, Theatre and Visual Arts programmes in order to focus all its efforts on the community where Flintridge's endowment was created, and where it is headquartered—Northwest Pasadena and Altadena.

Speaking of the need to change business models, one of my Planning Center hosts concedes in passing that “planners don’t want to live in planned communities”

I visit the Silver Lake den of Stephanie Smith, founder of the decade’s most timely website: wannastartacommune? “With the right tools you can start a commune and share resources, wherever you are. Connect more deeply, save time and money, and do right by the earth. What's not to like? Start a commune today”.

I’m invited to a meeting at LA’s new cathedral. An organisation called Progressive Christians Uniting has invited faith-based, community, and environmental organisations to discuss “building America’s green future.” Leaders of Inland Empire Concerned African-American Churches, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sit down next to non faith-based groups such as L.A. Bioneers, South Central Farmers - and Doors of Perception.

I am there to meet Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy and leader of a nationwide platform called Green For All. Jones has worked with Obama for 18 months on the development of the multi-billion dollar Economic Recovery Package that the new president just signed. Jones talks about the creation of “green pathways out of poverty, and greatly expanding the coalition to fight global warming” – but we are all keen to find out what the plan means in practice.

GreenForAll has launched a Clean Energy Corps. Five cities have joined together in a Green Collar Cities programme. And a Green For All Academy trains community organisers to be effective advocates for green collar jobs: Participants receive advanced media and messaging skills, economic and climate science training, and high level political tools and analysis.

On the campaign trail, Obama promised to create five million green collar jobs. The US press interprets this to mean wind farms creating jobs for sheet metal workers, machinists, and truck drivers; or the roofers, insulators, and building inspectors needed to increase the energy efficiency of buildings through retrofitting; or the civil engineers, electricians, and dispatchers needed to expand mass transit systems.

Several people round the table with Van Jones caution against interpreting “green jobs” only in terms of tech-based projects. Health care, social solidarity, and grassroot project coordination, should also be thought of green work, they sat, because these are affordable activities that will keep life bearable.

Throughout my trip I ask people what a “smart grid” is; everyone I meet tells me something different. At the Van Jones meeting, I suggest that a smart grid is best thought of as a social grid. Later, someone sends me this statement by Dr. Martin Luther King: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society”. He said that in April 1967.

On Venice Beach, I meet a big group of special needs students. They are filling plastic bags with trash picked up from the sand. Their teacher tells me that they come at least one a month, and are volunteers in a fast-growing movement called Heal The Bay.

Jobs | May 26