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Massive Change and the City
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In conjunction with the Massive Change exhibit that recently ended in Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the City of Chicago Department of the Environment organized a one-day symposium that brought together experts in urbanization, energy, evolution, information, wealth and politics. The symposium explored the impact of urban life around the world, and laid out visions for a sustainable urban future. Sustainable cities will be built from a mix of the disciplines these changemakers are armed with. We asked each of them the same question, and they gave us a really diverse, yet complementary set of answers.

What tool, model or idea do you see as being the key to bright green cities?

BruceMau.jpg Bruce Mau is the creative director of Bruce Mau Design, Inc. and a founder of the Institute without Boundaries.

It needs to be education. Education is the way to solve these kinds of problems because of the resistance of an installed adult population. If we design ways for kids to first of all engage with life itself, as E.O. Wilson suggests, to actually engage with living things and living systems and not be completely separate, and secondly to build ways for that to be a part of education in society, they start being green from the base instead of as an extra goal. That is a very different idea.

jimmy_wales.jpg Jimmy Wales is the founder and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit corporation that operates Wikipedia and other projects.

The thing that I see being critically important is understanding how the radical changes that we are seeing to our telecommunications infrastructure—the ability of billions of people to communicate—can and should impact our understanding of intellectual property away from a model of very long term, very draconian copyright protections to a model that is really more about sharing information, not locking it up. Understanding the deep impact that the information commons can and will have, as long as we don't get in the way of it. We see this in a lot of different areas from copyright terms that keep getting longer and longer to protect Disney, and the abuse of the patent system in areas like software, where it is easily demonstrable even to the big players in this business that software patents are not a tool to encourage innovation. They are a tool that heavily stifles innovation. We see Microsoft's great innovations, and I give them credit for this, were not built on the patent model at all. Now that they are the dominant player and trying to defend themselves and they are not very innovative anymore, they are patenting out to stop everybody else from coming into that market. For me, the big issue is that our old understanding of intellectual property law really has to change radically.

John_Todd.jpg John Todd is the founder of John Todd Ecological Design and the president of Ocean Arks International, which focuses on restoring municipal and industrial wastewater.

What is the scale that we organize at? Do we rebuild cities neighborhood by neighborhood, or do we find some watershed component to organize around? Do we use energy or transportation as the organizing principle, or is there some way that we can draft all of them together at the same point? The city has a lot of tools at its disposal to get at massive change, and this particular city [Chicago] has some very brilliant people that are beginning to set the agenda, including the mayor and his assistant, Cathy Hudzik, and the commissioner of the environment, Sadhu Johnston. These are people with guts and a mayor who will back them up, and that is pretty unusual. So it's possible that the power of the person can be brought to bear and somehow not conflict with the messiness of local politics. The question really is whether the sleepwalking is so powerful that people don't realize that we are at the end of an empire, and whatever evolves could be very different. It could be very beautiful, very wonderful. It is within our power to do that. There is a group of billionaires who are willing to put a lot of money behind the first one or two universities who step up to the plate and say, “We’re interested in becoming carbon neutral quickly and interested in engaging our cities in a dialogue that results in significant change and we are willing in engage our whole state.? Furthermore, and this is the kicker, “We're willing to reorganize how we educate people in the future towards this whole systems, high level of ecological literacy permeating it.? What I am most worried about is that the little things that we do collectively may be presented to us as much bigger than it really is. What I hope is that we have enough momentum so that if an economic collapse happens we will be able to create new forms of organization.

Sadhu_johnston.jpg Sadhu Johnston is the Commissioner of the City of Chicago Department of Environment.

I'd say design is the most important tool. We have the opportunity to change how we think about the way we design our urban systems. By using ecological design, for instance, we can now use green technology solutions to solve urban challenges. One example is how we look at stormwater. Most cities have traditionally looked at stormwater as a nuisance, something that we need to capture, pipe, pump, and treat. That takes money, energy, and infrastructure. Instead we can design our systems to treat stormwater as a resource. We can capture it and then either use it to offset what we pump out of the ground, or we can put it back into lakes, rivers or aquifers. Here in Chicago, we're doing a lot to use stormwater more wisely. One example is a tunnel that we're building to take all of the rainwater off of our convention center and put it directly back into Lake Michigan. That'll be 55 million gallons of water annually that we don't have to pay to pump and treat, instead we're recharging the lake. This one example demonstrates how we can design our systems to use and work with nature instead of fighting it, thereby saving money and improving the environment. This kind of thinking applied to everything that we do can have a tremendous impact on the environment, while improving our quality of life in Chicago.

hazel_henderson.jpg Hazel Henderson is an evolutionary economist, futurist, syndicated columnist and consultant on sustainable development.

Fix the malfunctioning economic source code that is lurking in the hard drives of all our institutions, and in a lot of people's heads. That has been a thirty-year crusade for me getting people to understand that economics is not a science. It is politics in disguise. What is encouraging is that the politics of money is now becoming visible all over the world, thanks to the Internet. I have been following barter groups, global exchange trading systems, and local currencies, and use them as a leading indicator of how dysfunctional central banks work. What is happening now is that people can see more and more clearly that we need to redesign money. We cannot leave economists in charge of money anymore because most of them work for financial organizations. The problem is to shift from economics to multidisciplinary systems models, and my first experience with that was being an advisor in the 70's to the Office of Technology Assessment, where my crusade was getting the economists out of the picture because we needed to have models and scorecards of different disciplines and different metrics rather than all of the economic ones, which are based on money. The extraordinary thing to me is that money is illusory. Money is not wealth, it is simply a tracking system. Now we can have pure information based exchanges, and people all over are getting this now. Whether it is Craigslist or ebay or, people are forming clubs and lending money to each other without needing banks. I see this as the greatest underlying paradigm shift of all. The last piece of the puzzle is to get people to understand that this global financial system is still making it hard for cities to operate.

daynabaumiester.jpg Dayna Baumeister is a biologist in the field of biomimicry, an educator and design consultant. She is the co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild.

Of course you know my answer, biomimicry! Taking us out of nature and consolidating in urban centers furthers the artificial divide between humans and nature, as if they are two separate things. It does not occur to us that we've been on this planet for a mere few seconds if you look at the age of the earth, yet we think that these big brains are all that it takes to figure out how to live. Nature has been around for 3.85 billion years, and that is exactly what we need to do, to ask nature how it does it. We need to ask the whale how to do it. How do you transport such a large biomass thousands of miles on just fractions of energy? We need to ask the gecko how to climb walls without glue. How does an ecosystem filter water? Can we mimic them? With six or seven billion of us, the only way we can live on this planet is to have a substantial proportion in the cities, but cities cannot function like the way they do today. We need to have cities themselves mimic ecosystems. Flow is everything. Ecosystems work because flow is fostered by the form of the system. The forms of our cities today do not foster flow. That is where redesign comes in. I think emergent systems like slums—if you aren't imposing hierarchical human hubris on top of that system—will evolve to become working, functional systems, but we have to create the conditions to allow natural evolution to occur as opposed to creating artificial constructs that hinder flow and the form and pattern that we need.

gunter_pauli.jpg Gunter Pauli is a sustainability educator and entrepreneur who founded and directs Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI).

The only model is nature. There is no other model. The only framework that we can use is to understand how physics, chemistry and biology are affected by flows. The model that we need to understand is determined by non-linear mathematics. Anyone who doesn't study non-linear mathematics is bound to become an unsustainable individual in whatever he tries to do. We have to go beyond the excitement of having a biodegradable plastic. When you are eating mushrooms, because you don’t want to eat meat because you are worried about the animal, you might be responsible for the destruction of the oak forest in China. I think the main model that we can learn from nature is that everything is so interconnected, so intertwined, there are so many feedback loops, there are so many variables. Nature never repeats itself. Nature always finds something new with a little adaptation here or there and moves on. We humans are always looking for a model that we can keep applying. We love to be copycats. Copycats are good for brain-dead people, but we are blessed with a brain that can find so many new interesting angles, and that is what we need. Our model is discomfort. Our model is to move people outside their comfort zones, not to go through crisis but to go through discomfort, and by going through discomfort to find new connections. The second model is to look for excitement, look for things that fascinate you. Respond to that innate response you get from yourself when you see something. People see a piece of art and it’s nothing. People see another piece of art and they get excited. Well, don't try to understand rationally why you get excited. Follow the flow, because these flows are energies, and that is what natural systems do as well.

maryczerwinski.jpg Mary Czerwinski is an expert in interruption science and human-computer interaction. She leads the Visualization and Interaction (VIBE) Research Group at Microsoft.

There is a group at Microsoft that is trying to work on this problem, going into cities like Bogota, Colombia and seeing what kind of technological solutions can be used there. What Microsoft has done on the product side has been to do a ton of ethnography where they go down and live with families in developing countries and really try to learn how they use technology and where the holes and gaps are in the technology. Then they come back to the product team. They share these stories with them. In fact, they blog them as they go, which is really nice. Then they try to develop solutions based on the user problems that they actually identified. There have been some product solutions that have been released. Really cheap computers running really simple versions of Windows have already been released and have been very successful. We have prototypes now in India where illiterate women living in shanties can hook up with employers as maids, so the user interface is completely text free. The tool behind all of this is the ethnography, and figuring out what people really need.

gregg_easterbrook.jpg Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute.

I think the worldwide flow of ideas will increase. The ability of smart thinking in one place to help other places is going to increase, but so is anxiety because the system will get progressively more unstable and hard to predict. Probably most of the time mostpeople are going to end up OK, but you are never going to know that in advance, and it is going to be a big factor in future sociology. One way out is when human population growth ends. We have lived in a period of dramatic population growth, most of which has gone surprisingly well considering what could have gone wrong. Long-term it seems like the globe is going to depopulate unless there is another advance in the length of the human lifespan. If there is a big advance in the human lifespan, there may never be a phase of depopulation. You need at least the rate of population growth to slow and to reach some more stable level of population. Then you might see the economy become less chaotic and wild. Chaos, wildness in economics seem to be our fate, at least in the near future. The economy in non-linear, and no one is in charge. There was a famous statement by a Soviet official during Glasnost in the 1970's. The Soviets were beginning to tour the United States and couldn't believe that the houses were real, that the workers actually had cars. The Soviet official who was in charge of bread production for Moscow was said to have asked the mayor of New York where the man was who was in charge of bread production for the city of New York. The mayor responded, "No one is in charge of bread production for the city of New York." The key thing about our Western economy is that nobody is in charge of it, no one giving orders, no one planning, and so far things have mainly been OK.

Biographical information provided by Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art
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Easterbrook's comment that "nobody is in charge of [the West's economy], no one giving orders, no one planning, and so far things have mainly been OK" reminds me why I don't read TNR or the Atlantic Monthly. You don't have to be a radical to think that the West's economy is mostly what's brought us the glory that is global warming, along with whatever problems may come with peak oil. Of course, those things shouldn't get in the way of center-right technocrats going around saying that things are mainly OK.

Posted by: Dave Cutler on 15 Jan 07

Is there a weblog or online resource that acts as a clearinghouse for these ideas? (re: comments on this discussion.)

These are great ideas; where can city councils, administrators, and various other ilk of elected officials go to find ideas that work when they are developing plans and legislature for their communities? How can cities interact to develop open source solutions to common problems?

I'm envisioning a site where someone can enter variables such as: I live in a desert city, with a population of X people, a certain type of established wastewater treatment facility, and etc. What kinds of stormwater capture procedures have worked in similar cities? Whom do I contact to discuss their experiences with these programs? Can I get some examples of proposals? And so on.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 16 Jan 07

Thanks, Chad and David. All brilliant people, with vital insights, yet it reads like an updated version of "The Blind Men and the Elephant". What is the overarching pattern connecting these ideas? How can each of these insights integrate with the others? At what scale does each of these ideas operate? How can they be woven together into a "Meta-Pattern" of sustainable cities? Most importantly, how can these ideas evolve into instructions, or as Hazel Henderson put it, into new "source code"?

We have the means, for the first time in history, to engage people through the Web to collaborate in developing this "source code". Such work surely begins with examples and discussions, as done so brilliantly by World Changing. As an outgrowth, I'd like to see the development of a distributed, online, wiki-style "Source Code" or "Pattern Language" of sustainability. We need to start articulating, explicitly and empirically, the policies or "instructions" for transforming our political economy. "Massive Change" is a verb, not a noun - an instruction, not a description.

If we begin with the premise that "there's nothing wrong with our systems that we can't fix with some reforms", we won't create Massive Change. Neither will we if our premise is "The System sucks, man - tear it down!" We don't have time for such nonsense. We need a fundamental transformation of our institutions and systems. We won't achieve that at any one scale or with any one grand scheme. Let's start coordinating all this brilliance to create a new cultural DNA.

Posted by: David Foley on 16 Jan 07

there is a message board website, that may be helpful to you

Posted by: Martin Walsh on 16 Jan 07

For urban oriented, integrative news and analysis, there's PLANETIZEN, the excellent combined journal, newsletter, and blog published by a highly humanistic collective of writers, scholars, and practitioners in urbanism, urbanology, and planning.

Posted by: Bob Jacobson on 17 Jan 07

I've sketched out some further thoughts on collaboration here. This ties into the three questions on Bruce Mau's site as well as some other recent discussion on Worldchanging.

It's probably not a wholly original line of thought; but it's something that could be explored further in discussion. (If anybody knows of an organisation developing this type of technology, please post a link.)

(Note that I checked with David before posting this link and am not trying to hijack the discussion; I just didn't want to post a gigantic comment here.)

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 18 Jan 07

I think these people need to get the view from 20,000 feet. We're heading for a brick wall and for the most part, it's true: nobody is in charge. Cheap and easy to get oil begat a population boom that is now unsustainable. I'm afraid the now unfolding climate change cannot be stopped. We are beginning the decline away from life as we know it. Everything will be affected and ultimately the population will decrease. Our way of life has been achieved by pushing Nature to the limits... an adjustment is in the works. The first signs are visible: Climate change and the push for the last of the fossil fuels... Oil, Coal and Gas. These will continue to dominate the media worldwide. I'm beginning to believe we should first cut way back on consumption before we invest in more infrastructure. Sadly, I also think it's going to take a cold slap in the face before we all realize what's at stake.

Posted by: Edgy on 19 Jan 07

My sense is that to encompass all or most of the views described we need to change our worldviews (the mental models which determine our perception of the way the world "is"). And when I say "we" I mean WE -- all of us; that is all of humanity (beginning with each of us and moving beyond our individual lives). For example, my understanding is that 1) people in the U.S. tend to view "the world" primarily as the U.S., Canada, and Mexico and 2) people in Europe tend to have a worldview that is more inclusive of the whole world. In my opinion, we all need to shift to a mental model of who "we" are that includes the living system of all life on earth. That is it is more than "We the people" (U.S.) or "We the peoples" (U.N.), but is "We the World." Without that worldview, our choices as we move into the future will be guided by malfunctioning compass.

Just as "we" needed to let go of the worldview that "the world is flat" in order for Columbus to set off across the ocean, we need a more inclusive worldview to move toward a "world that works for everyone."

Posted by: Bill Gellermann on 20 Jan 07

This expresses well what I tried to say in an earlier comment. It think it's key and fundamental:

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Jan 07



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