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Political Design, Climate Inequity, Urban Eco-Sustainable Networks and the Japanese Homeless: Some Recent Web Finds
Alex Steffen, 2 Apr 07
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Title: Is Design Political?

What it is: An outstanding essay by Jennie Winhall exploring the political decisions that lurk, often unnoticed, behind all design choices, and the ways in which more conscious design decisions can better reflect the values we want to see in the world.

Why it matters: Because design is powerful and predictive. When exploitation or waste or authoritarianism are woven into products and systems at the design stage it is very difficult to undue them through better use; conversely, things and systems can be designed so that those using them have an easier time living democratically, fairly and sustainably. The failure to apprehend this basic reality is a root cause of much suffering in the world. On the other hand, some of the most exciting worldchanging projects incorporate a new understanding of design to help make possible new ways of life.

Quote: "Design is a very powerful tool. It elevates the likelihood of certain kinds of choices and shapes certain kinds of behaviours. Most designers balk at the idea that design is a form of social engineering, but Hilary Cottam, director of RED at the UK Design Council, maintains that 'if you don't look at what any design is governing, then you are being governed by it.' She continues: 'The question for us is how do we find out what the effects of design are and make sure we're using those for social justice.' ... So yes, design is political. It's about values, power and preferences, about ideologies and consequences. And the good news is that there's a growing breed of designers who are political with a small p. They're not campaigning, but problem solving; they're not 'master-designers,' but democratic in approach. They're using their skills as designers to illustrate, create and demonstrate opportunities for social change. But the reason for their emergence is that the politics of design itself has changed."

Title: Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms

What it is: A sharp, well-reported story by Andy Revkin describing the emerging "climate divide" -- the large and growing gap between the ability of rich nations and poor to anticipate the effects of climate change and begin to make themselves more climate resilient.

Why it matters: The inequitable impacts of climate change are both undermining many efforts to address large problems (like global poverty and biodiversity loss) and becoming a major factor in international politics. Solving those problems and creating international agreements on other major issues will depend on understanding this issue and its implications.

Quote: "Two-thirds of the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that can persist in the air for centuries, has come in nearly equal proportions from the United States and Western European countries. Those and other wealthy nations are investing in windmill-powered plants that turn seawater to drinking water, in flood barriers and floatable homes, and in grains and soybeans genetically altered to flourish even in a drought.

"In contrast, Africa accounts for less than 3 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, yet its 840 million people face some of the biggest risks from drought and disrupted water supplies, according to new scientific assessments. As the oceans swell with water from melting ice sheets, it is the crowded river deltas in southern Asia and Egypt, along with small island nations, that are most at risk."

Title: Software in Your Language

What it is: A description and explanation of the importance of and related software localization efforts.

Why it matters: Because building a better world requires more widely distributing good tools -- redistributing the future, as we say here -- and widespread adoption of those tools demands tools that are accessible to people, wherever they live and whatever languages they speak.

Quote: "Beyond easing the learning curve and encouraging open source adoption, the translated software has a social and cultural impact as well. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life believing that your language was fine for social communication, but had to be abandoned for anything technical. Then twist the dial 180° to realize that all languages deserve equal respect and an equal opportunity to adapt, as vibrant living languages, to new situations. From the Khmer Software Initiative site: 'We believe that in order to enter a digital world without forfeiting its culture, a country must do it by using software in its own language. Software in a foreign language exacerbates the digital divide, makes basic computer training difficult and expensive, closes computer-using jobs to people with little economic resources, impoverishes local culture, and blocks computer-based government processes, as the local language script cannot be used in databases.'"

Title: Urban Eco-Sustainable Networks

What it is: A wonderful interview with Michael Singer, an artist/planner who has done amazing work taking unloved pieces of urban infrastructure and making them into green and vibrant spaces and systems.

Why it matters: Because reimagining infrastructure is vital to building sustainable cities (a theme we've explored frequently here on Worldchanging).

Quote: "The question was, How does architecture become the apparatus for natural systems? Within the atria, plantings eliminate the need for air-conditioning in that climate, which is similar to Washington, D.C. All the offices open onto gardens in one way or another with fresh air. The parking areas are bioswales with permeable paving allowing cleansing. There’s no need to mow the grass here, unless you need the mowed area for a play area. The idea was to plant the natural environment. It’s beautiful, the butterflies and birds come here. The outside systems of water-cleansing, storm water and gray water, is brought to this created wetland and pond, and then brought back into the building. It’s treated in the atria, which are very thickly growing for air-cleansing. It’s the lungs and the kidney of the building. And then the water is finally digested and cleansed through this feature in a second atrium; it drips down, you hear the sound, and the cistern collects it and sends it back to irrigate all of it and to reuse it."

Title: Homeless in Osaka: Reappropriate Public Space

What it is: A fascinating revelation of the practical aspects of homelessness in Japan.

Why it matters: Because understanding how people in a variety of circumstances different from our own actually live is not only good for keeping the BS level low, it also helps us understand how new solutions might be actually be applied on the ground in successful ways (whether shelter breakthroughs like
Shelter in a Cart Competition, innovative programs like street publications or new models for social service distribution like San Francisco's Project Connect).

Quote: "Especially in Osaka, these ‘campers’ not only organize themselves increasingly over the internet, they also engage in political activities to stand up for their rights and protest against the increasing park clearings by the municipality."

Title: Think small for water management, say scientists

What it is: A new study finding that broad adoption of already existing water-saving agricultural devices and practices -- things like rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation and green water management -- poor rural farmers could greatly increase their ability to grow food without increasing their water impacts.

Why it matters: Because food, water and the fate of small-time rural farmers are all big problems.

Quote: "Since smallholder farmers make up the majority of the world's rural poor, initiatives should focus on small-scale, individually managed water technologies — such as small pumps, water storage tanks and low-cost drip irrigation — especially in the semi-arid and arid tropics. These are affordable even for the poorest members of the community and can be implemented almost immediately, without the long delays of large projects."

Title: Incantations for Muggles

What it is: A transcript of Worldchanging ally danah boyd's call for technologists to learn from regular people what is needed in new technologies and what's worth doing with them.

Why it matters: Because danah is a damned insightful observer of social media as actually used by real people, and her warnings about what really works to bring people together (and what doesn't) should inform our efforts to use the web to make change.

Quote: "Many of you in the room are passionate about the techs you create. you dream of changing the world. Education, politics, civic engagement. We want the world to be a better place. ...This is all about architecture. Tech is architecture, code is too as Lessig says. We thru tech are shifting architecture in society. People are figuring out how to work around it. Do we keep being ostriches, or do we try to understand what people are doing?"

Title: MICRO WIND TURBINES: Small Size, Big Impact

What it is: A description of a new model of micro wind turbine, one which may not yet be ready for prime time (read the comments) but is an interesting approach.

Why it matters: Because micro renewables (technologies like micro hydro, small wind turbines, even human-powered electricity) promise to play an important, if initially small, part in the transition to a clean energy future. Plus, they're cool.

Quote: "The gear-like turbines can be linked to fit just about anywhere and a row of eight turbines costs just $150 for now (prices may decrease once the turbines are mass produced). ...According to tests, turbines arranged within a surface area of one square meter and a wind speed of 5 m/sec generate 131 kWh/yr."

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Remember that we are entering the "educational era", and we have many years before we get an "graduation". Rita

Posted by: Rita Glantz on 7 Apr 07



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