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2007's Best: Sustainable Development
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

My early look at The Open Architecture Network and the Future of Design, about Cameron's work turning Architecture for Humanity into a design amplifier

Some demographers call it the largest migration in human history: the movement of hundreds of millions of poor rural people to the emerging megacities where they believe they can build themselves a better future. Overall, the urbanization of the planet is a good thing, helping people struggle out of absolute poverty, increasing access to essential services like health care and education, and raising the status of (and opportunities available to) young women (and thus helping to bring down birth rates and stabilize population growth). But the sheer magnitude of urban growth -- by some estimates, two-thirds of the cityscapes that will exist by mid-century have not even been built yet -- presents dire challenges as well. Already, over a billion people make their homes in urban squatter settlements: how do we build communities to house the two billion more who are expected to live in slums by the middle of the century?

"By the middle of the century, one in three people on the planet will be living in inadequate, often illegal housing," says Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. "I mean, think about that! The formal architectural profession does not have anything like the capacity to meet people's needs on that scale. Worse, many of the people working in this space are unaware of each other's work. There's a vast replication of effort, not only the same successes, but the same failures. We need millions of solutions, and we need to share them all across the world."

But how do help billions of people share millions of solutions in a useful manner? Cameron thinks he has the answer: The Open Architecture Network. [Full disclosure: Cameron contributes to this site, and edited the refugee section of our book. We've also worked together on disaster relief, and I consider him a close friend.]

The Open Architecture Network is a collaborative database which Architecture for Humanity hopes will make it easy for architects, designers and engineers from around the world to freely share their work, evaluate and modify existing solutions, and collaborate around new approaches. Think of it as the Wikipedia of humanitarian design, the first big step towards open source design.


Anil Gupta and the Honey Bee Network

When we were in Delhi a few weeks ago, we listened to a talk by Professor Anil Gupta, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedebad, and founded the Honey Bee Network -- an organization which collects and disseminates traditional knowledge and helps facilitate and spread grassroots innovation throughout India and elsewhere. We've been aware of Honey Bee's existence for a while (they began in 1990) but watching Professor Gupta's presentation offered a much clearer picture of the brilliance and sheer number of local inventions emerging in every pocket of the network's growing honeycomb.

...So how does Honey Bee link the rural innovations that have for so long remained "isolated and unconnected"? It's not too far off from the process of the actual honey bee...while the later stages of the network involve plenty of modern technology, it all begins outdoors and on foot, when Professor Gupta and a collection of allies traverse the Indian countryside visiting villages and talking to "barefoot inventors" about their homegrown products, then cross-pollinating the ideas. Once found and linked, those solutions can be distributed and commercialized for use elsewhere with careful attention to protecting and recognizing the work of the originator.



Incremental Infrastructure

" [T]he idea is to build essential facilities -- telephone networks, power grids, roads -- in small pieces using private investment, instead of relying on large, centrally planned, government-run projects.The rise of mobile phone networks linking more than 100 million Africans across the continent and the blossoming of cybercafes from Cape Town to Dakar are evidence that incremental infrastructure is already transforming the continent. But Africa needs go beyond telephones and computers. Many nations lack roads, electric power, schools, hospitals, clean water. If the lessons learned from building telephone and Internet systems can be applied to other types of African infrastructure, African entrepreneurs could find themselves wiring villages, paving roads, and perhaps even building airports -- building the new Africa while turning a profit in the process."

Conceptually, this idea is sort of the crossing of two themes we frequently discuss here, mixing the power of leapfrogging technologies with the transformational abilities of the better sort of microcredit programs. As such, it is immediately interesting, and offers obvious potential not only for development, but, with the proper tweaks, sustainable development. After all, there's no reason why infrastructure acquired in an incremental manner ought not to be green, efficient, sustainable (indeed, in some cases, like energy, the green alternatives already strongly out-compete the old polluting infrastructures, especially when they're being assembled in a distributed fashion -- think of solar energy in Africa, for instance).


Solar Cookers? Good, bad, or what? Erica's Solar Cooking: An Experiment With Mixed Results ("My first experiment with solar cooking was, to put it mildly, an abysmal failure; the aluminum visor, which was supposed to concentrate the sun's rays on the top of the pot, blew over almost immediately, shading the food from the sun and leaving it barely warm after four hours on the third-story roof of my office.") and Sarah's Challenges and Advancements in Solar Cooking

We recently got a note from someone who runs a volunteer agency in rural Kenya. She was writing about the benefits of solar cookers for villagers, and wondering why such a simple and potentially transformative existing technology has not been taken up more widely in place of traditional wood-fired cooking. We published a piece a few years ago about solar cooking, at which time several readers piped up pointing out that while the benefits of this tool for human health and the environment are great, there are serious cultural and social factors inhibiting its adoption; namely, that removing the need for women to collect fuel and tend fire can upset gender roles, and that solar cooking may alter the taste of food, which is fundamentally disruptive to familiar experience.

The email sparked a little internal conversation which seemed worth opening again here, since there are likely a number of you out there with experience designing, distributing or using solar cookers. As Ethan Zuckerman said in our recent exchange: "Solar ovens are a good example of a long-standing debate over appropriate technology. Does it make more sense to try to convince people to change their behavior - i.e., the kind of food they eat and the way they like to cook - to have a major cost savings and environmental impact? Or should we figure out how people like to behave and try to make those processes more efficient and less costly?"


Cameron's passionate Case for Sustainable Reconstruction In Pisco

As we speak the usual suspects of international disaster response and recovery are busy on the ground. Typically, when the media turns its gaze from one pressing story to the next, funding dries up; by the time affected towns and cities enter the reconstruction phase three to four months after the initial diaster, there are only funds available to build the same unstable housing as before. Is this good enough? Are there models for building a sustainable and safer future for Pisco? Or is this only reserved for First World post-disaster reconstruction?

Of course the solutions are available and in the places where you'd expect them most: those prone to natural disasters. From the stabilized earthen block homes of Auroville, India, to the sandbag shelters by Cal Earth (used after the Kasmir Earthquake), and even in Peru with earthquake-resistant homes designed by Estrategia and Practical Action. After the 1976 Guatemala earthquake, Fred Cuny created Housing Pictographs for rebuilding efforts.

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Comments

Its hard to choose between helping people in poverty and enviromental issuse .My feeling is that we have to choose enviromental as if we choose poverty our power needs will increase with more people have access to create more poloution


Posted by: Matthew Sawyer on 1 Jan 08

Its hard to choose between helping people in poverty and enviromental issuse .My feeling is that we have to choose enviromental as if we choose poverty our power needs will increase with more people have access to create more poloution


Posted by: Matthew Sawyer on 1 Jan 08

The Open Architecture Network should collaborate with The World Overpopulation Awareness Organization, or one of the many other groups that seek to educate the world about the detrimental effects we have on the environment, to help prevent the need for overbuilding in decades to come.


Posted by: Joyce on 3 Jan 08

The Open Architecture Network should collaborate with The World Overpopulation Awareness Organization, or one of the many other groups that seek to educate the world about the detrimental effects we have on the environment, to help prevent the need for overbuilding in decades to come.


Posted by: Joyce on 3 Jan 08



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