John Thackara | Essays

Food Journeys [November 2005]

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.

A project called Beyond Green will use oranges as a vehicle to explore the complex relationships that make up the world's food systems. It is about how our food travels to our ever growing cities, the enormous environmental effects this has, and alternative suggestions for local food production. A virtual demonstration for "the right to know where your food comes from" is online, and we are all invited to plant our own demonstrator. Beyond Green will also be shown in different musuems in the US.

One third of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions come from residential households. Householders could reduce this by making their houses more efficient, generating their own energy, switching suppliers, or simply switching off. But power bills are confusing, energy use is invisible, and installations are tedious. The RED team at the Design Council in London, having experienced these frustrations first-hand at a house in London, concludes that people need design help to make these kinds of changes doable. Its Future Currents project proposes new products, services and policies to help householders save energy and reduce C02 emissions.

A beautiful but sinister wolf's eye accompanies the website for this week's, symposium, in Delft, on "Design and the Growth of Knowledge". See you there.

A new documentary called Contested Streets explores the rich diversity of New York City street life before the introduction of automobiles. The film shows shows how New York might escape from gridlock by following the example of other modern cities that have reclaimed their streets as vibrant public spaces. There is footage of reclaimed streets in London, Paris and Copenhagen, and interviews with New York notables. If you're in New York, there's a preview on Wednesday, 17 November, 7-9pm, at the New 42nd Street Studios. Or check out the five minute trailer at:

"Ignoring it is bad. Very bad". The recent pronouncements of consultants are indistinguishable from third-rate slasher movies. That was Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, on "disruption", but I've heard similar blood-curdling proclamations from McKinsey and Accenture in recent months. The suits are like petty hoodlums running a protection racket: Their aim is to scare companies into paying them millions of dollars for protection. My advice to companies and governments is this: don't pay these guys another dime. The greatest disruption of all is a cultural and attitudinal transformation that's growing right now, under the consultants' radar. This transformation places more value on biodiversity, social cohesion and local culture than on the vacuous promises of brands and tech.

"We are in a brawl with no rules". "Incrementalism is out. Destruction is in". Tom Peters' contribution to the slasher-business-book genre is a book about design. Ever since Peters invented the business blockbuster with In Search of Excellence, in 1982, some in the design industry have hoped that a Tom Peters of design would also emerge. Well, their wish has come true - and the result is a mixed blessing. Peters writes that the book is about "re-imagining what's essential" - but the word sustainability does not appear once. He's not blind to the subject: in a small box on page 133 he states that "I believe that this Green Thing is very real - and very potent. One part of this effort is the introduction of an absolutely stunning new logo".

Bruce Sterling has a new book out about the future of created objects. Shaping Things proposes that we will soon encounter "a new kind of thing" which he calls a "spime" that is user-alterable, baroquely multi-featured, and programmable. Bruce's book is the latest in a series called Mediawork, directed by Peter Lunenfeld, that also features Rhythm Science by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) - a title that which "takes sampling and mixing in music as a metaphor for contemporary existence". The series is inspired in part by the 1960s collaboration between Marshall McLuhan and designer Quentin Fiore; their collaboration resulted such "marvelous little mind bombs" asThe Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. Each Mediawork title is accompanied an online "WebTake". For Shaping Things this writer contributed a text, and Schoenerwissen/OfCD have made a textual filter for "meaning making enabled by databases".

Another place to find out about the next generation of interactive products is "DeSForM", an inaugural conference about design and the semantics of form and motion. The conference, which takes place in one of Newcastle's striking new cultural edifices, the Baltic, focuses on "the use of motion to demonstrate the functional state of interactive products, and to create empathy with their users". Speakers include nanotechnoilogy expert Dr Raymond Oliver, and Colin Burns, former CEO of IDEO Europe. Friday 11 November 2005, The Baltic, Gateshead, UK.

Britain's unhealthy obsession with education appears to be stressing out the obsessees - the country's youngest children. Children, who start at nursery as young as eleven months old, experience high levels of stress in the first weeks after separating from their mothers. Many are still showing "chronic mild stress" five months after their first day in the new environment. In Switzerland, children don't go to school until they are seven years old - and yet the country scores third in OECD world rankings for educational attainment. Read more at:

We like to say that Doors of Perception features who will be who more than who is who already. So we're delighted that Indian artist Ashok Sukumaran, a featured presenters at Doors 8 in Delhi earlier this year, has won the main prize of the UNESCO Digital Arts Award. Sukamaran's "poetic yet pragmatic" project, Switch, was selected out of 242 project proposals by an international jury.

Next January, Benetton will make available to the goverment of the province of Chubut in Patagonia aproximately 7,500 hectares of land to be used for the needs of the indigenous populations. It is the end of a process that has seen as protagonists, a family and groups of Mapuche activists, the Argentinean government and Nobel Prize winner Pérez Esquivel as well as Benetton itself - represented mainly by Luciano Benetton. All sorts of interesting issues are raised, and there's a chat space on the site.

The brainchild of George Beylerian, New York-based Material Connexion has grown into the largest global resource for designers looking for of new materials. By categorising materials according to base composition, rather than current use, the service gives designers a better understanding of their future potential use. A new book from the team identifies key trends and looks to the future.

The Peter Dormer Lecture, an important event in the applied arts world, is held each year in memory of the pioneering writer on design, architecture and the crafts who died in 1996.This year's lecture will be given by Dr Alan Powers, Chairman of Pollock's Toy Museum in central London, whose most recent book is Modern: The Modern Movement in Britain. Monday 5 December 2005, Royal College Of Art, London. Email: [email protected]

The World Summit of the Information Society in Tunis is where policy makers try to coordinate actions and standards in an amazingly broad range of activities and "concrete actions" to do with information technology and development. One way to sample the mix without drowing in information is to dip into The Golden Book: it's free, downloadable, and covers case studies from Benin to Samoa. The summit itself runs from15 to 19 November 2005, in Tunis.

A conference on the "Physics of Socio-Economic Systems" is being prepared by our friends at the Condensed Matter Division of the European Physical Society. Dresden, 26-31 March 2006

My in-tray is groaning under the weight of books, pamhlets and reports on all things Creative. Creativity is one of those Good Things (like Community) that is being rendered tedious by too much analysis by economists and policy makers. A welcome exception is this online report of a workshop on design principles for tools to support creative thinking. It's by some wise US researchers - among them, Ben Shneiderman, Mitch Resnick and Ted Selker.

An intriguing experiment is underway to create a market for software as art. Steven Sacks, founder of Bitforms gallery in New York, is selling software in editions of 5000 at $125 each (although the recommended 60" plasma screens will add to the price if you don't already have one). The ten Bitform artists, who use custom code to create screen-based experiences, include celebrated names such as Casey Reas and Golan Levin. Sacks is adamant that software art is "not a screen saver, not a DVD, not a slide show". Indeed, he locates one piece, Torus, "in a universe situated halfway between the second and third dimensions". By a strange coincidence, this hybrid universe is just up the road from where I write: the creators of Torus, Kristine Malden and Frederic Durieu of Le Ciel Est Bleu, are neighbours of ours.

The nuclear lobby is trying to portray nuclear power as the inevitable solution to Britain's future power needs. But their campaign has been dealt a potentially lethal blow by a schoolboy called Peter Ash. The young inventor attached a generator to his hamster's exercise wheel and connected it to his phone charger - thereby meeeting the most important power need of a whole generation in an environmentally friendly way. More at:

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