Category Archives: Design

Development with Fossil or Solar Energy?

The price of solar power has been rapidly decling over the past several decades (~ 7%/year decline in US$/watt or a cost halving every 10 years ).  This drop , combined with peristently high oil prices is producing some interesting dynamics. New Scientist has an interesting article on the rapid drop in the price of solar power in India.  Where many people and unconnected to the power grid, and for those that are the brittleness of the grid means that many people rely on generators:

Recent figures from market analysts Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF)show that the price of solar panels fell by almost 50 per cent in 2011. They are now just one-quarter of what they were in 2008. That makes them a cost-effective option for many people in developing countries. .. Now [India's] generators could be on their way out. In India, electricity from solar supplied to the grid has fallen to just 8.78 rupees per kilowatt-hour compared with 17 rupees for diesel. The drop has little to do with improvements in the notoriously poor efficiency of solar panels: industrial panels still only convery 15 to 18 per cent of the energy they receive into electricity. But they are now much cheaper to produce, so inefficiency is no longer a major sticking point. …The one thing stopping households buying a solar panel is the initial cost, says Amit Kumar, director of energy-environment technology development at The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India. Buying a solar panel is more expensive than buying a diesel generator, but according to Chase’s calculations solar becomes cheaper than diesel after seven years. The panels last 25 years. Even in India, solar electricity remains twice as expensive as electricity from coal, but that may soon change. While the price drop in 2011 was exceptional, analysts agree that solar will keep getting cheaper. Suntech’s in-house analysts predict that, by 2015, solar electricity will be as cheap as grid electricity in half of all countries. When that happens, expect to see solar panels wherever you go.

A similar article about the USA, was recently in the business magazine Fast Company.

Japan’s cascading disaster

It is too early for a resilience analysis of Japan’s cascading disaster, but here are some links.  First on the fast variables, and then on the slow.

1) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is posting their continuously updated report on situation at Update on the Japan Earthquake web page.

2) Christian Science Monitor Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis

3) In his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos reflects on China’s Nuclear Binge.  Rapid building combined with poor monitoring and corruption is not a good recipe for nuclear safety.  He writes about the a recent corruption case of Kang Rixin:

His was a $260 million corruption case connected to rigged bids in the construction of nuclear power plants. Keith Bradsher, in the Times, wrote, “While none of Mr. Kang’s decisions publicly documented would have created hazardous conditions at nuclear plants, the case is a worrisome sign that nuclear executives in China may not always put safety first in their decision-making.”

4)  Miller-Mcune writes Nuclear Disasters: Do Plans Trump Actions? about a new report from Union of Concerned Scientists which says that U.S. nuclear regulators are way too complacent about the possibility of a catastrophe.

5) On the STEPS centre‘s blog  Andy Stirling writes about Japan’s neglected nuclear lessons:

So the most serious lesson already emerging outside Japan is about the pressures, driven by established nuclear commitments, to obscure information; compromise objectivity; and suppress political choice about energy futures. We may live in hope that there will come a time when more comprehensive and dispassionate attention will be given to the full global potential of viable alternatives to nuclear power. Many of these are manifestly more resilient in the face of technical mishap, natural disaster or deliberate acts of violence. Distributed renewable energy infrastructures, for instance, offer a way to avoid huge regulation-enforced losses of electricity-generating capacity when a series of similar plants have to be closed due to safety failings in any one. They minimise the compounding economic impacts of the knock-on self-destruction of massively expensive capital equipment, some time after an initial shock. They do not threaten to exacerbate natural disaster with forced precautionary evacuations of large tracts of urban industrial areas. And there is no scenario at all – unlikely or otherwise – under which they can render significant areas of land effectively uninhabitable for decades, let alone commit large populations to the potential long-term (and untraceable) harm of elevated low doses of ionising radiation.

Resilience meets architecture and urban planning

by Matteo Giusti [contact: matteo.giusti [at]]
Does resilience thinking and architecture really mix? The answer is a clear “yes” if you ask urban planner Marco Miglioranzi, and Matteo Giusti, Master student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with the German based firm of architects N2M, they have developed two projects led by resilience concepts. Their first work, based on social-ecological systems, was preselected in the EuroPan10 competition. The second one, “A Resilient Social-Ecological Urbanity: A Case Study of Henna, Finland” with an emphasis on urban resilience, has been published by the German Academy for Urban and Regional Spatial Planning (DASL) and also featured by HOK –  a renowned global architectural firm.
The project proposes a wide range of theoretical solutions based on urban resilience which find practical application in Henna’s (Finland) urban area. Governance networks, social dynamics, metabolic flows and built environment are separately analyzed to ultimately restore, and maintain over time, the equilibrium between human demands and ecological lifecycles.
But the project also challenges current urban planning practices as it states the city’s  future requirements to be unknown. As a result, it identifies “the development-process as a dynamic flow instead of a static state”. Time scale for urban planning is therefore included within an evolving spatial design.
Diagram of the parametric cell structure: reversible space layer (upper left) and reversible building layer (right)The project description elaborates: “As a result, the planning is not static anymore. It is not a blueprint, not a collection of architectural elements to create an hypothetic Henna out of the current mindsets and needs, but a multitude of tools, methods, opportunities, options, to define a sustainable developing strategy to meet future’s demands. We keep an eye on time, its complexity and we humbly admit we cannot foresee future; we can only provide guiding principles from current scientific understanding to define a social ecological urbanity capable of sustainably moving on with unique identity.”
All these theoretical premises ends up in Henna’s planning. This includes an energetic smart grid based primarily on Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS); community-managed greenhouse areas to enhance food local self- reliance; low-diluted sewage system to reduce water consumption; efficient reuse of municipal solid waste to reach the Zero waste goal; and a problem solving centre to analyze ever-changing social ecological demands. Time is included in space, people in their natural environment, urban services in ecological processes. An harmonious cycle of growth and decays.

mammoth’s best architecture of the decade

mammoth suggests the the best architecture of the decade.  They write:

The end of a decade inspires a lot of list compiling; in that spirit, mammoth offers an alternative list of the best architecture of the decade, concocted without any claim to authority and surely missing some fascinating architecture. But we hope that at least it’s not boring, as this was an exciting decade for architecture, despite the crashing, the burning, and the erupting into flames.

They include many projects with an environmental dimension including: New York’s Fresh Kills, Orange County’s Groundwater replenishment system, and the Svalbard global seed bank.  They write about Orange County’s project:

you might say that the Groundwater Replenishment System is a small step towards a new way of thinking about urban hydrology: the city is a stillsuit for surviving the drought.  Intended to halt the traditional mass flush of urban effluent and wastewater into the ocean, Orange County’s latest addition to its wastewater infrastructure is “the world’s largest, most modern reclamation plant”, capable of turning “70 million gallons of treated sewage into drinking water every day”, according to the LA Times.

and about New York City’s Fresh Kills landfill conversion:

[Fresh Kills demonstrates] the ability of an office led by a landscape architect to produce a synthesis of ecological, urban, social, and infrastructural processes on a large scale within an extremely complicated urban system. This kind of work, of course, operates intentionally on long time scales, and so it is perhaps not surprising that even Corner, probably the best-known of the landscape architects who joined the first wave of landscape urbanists, has only completed one major landscape (at least as far as I’m aware), the rather disappointing High Line. … What is particularly exciting about Field Operations’s Fresh Kills for landscape architects is that this massive new park isn’t being built so much as it is being grown and cultivated, thereby realizing a firm reliance on the flow and flux of ecologies as not just inspiration for design, but as the tool of design

Resilience Engineering

Resilience philosophy is spreading into many areas. Resilience Engineering is a collection of research organizations and laboratories that at least since 2006 is trying to re-define technology, people and risks in the light of resilience thinking. This is how they write about themselves:

The network of participating organizations of the Resilience Engineering Network (R.E.N.)

The term Resilience Engineering represents a new way of thinking about safety. Whereas conventional risk management approaches are based on hindsight and emphasise error tabulation and calculation of failure probabilities, Resilience Engineering looks for ways to enhance the ability of organisations to create processes that are robust yet flexible, to monitor and revise risk models, and to use resources proactively in the face of disruptions or ongoing production and economic pressures. In Resilience Engineering failures do not stand for a breakdown or malfunctioning of normal system functions, but rather represent the converse of the adaptations necessary to cope with the real world complexity. Individuals and organisations must always adjust their performance to the current conditions; and because resources and time are finite it is inevitable that such adjustments are approximate. Success has been ascribed to the ability of groups, individuals, and organisations to anticipate the changing shape of risk before damage occurs; failure is simply the temporary or permanent absence of that.

I acknowledge Keith Tidball in notifying me of this organization.

Jamais Cascio on Resilience in Fast Company

Futurist Jamais Cascio seems to be thinking a lot about resilience.  He presents a good discussion of resilience in an article in the business magazine Fast Company Resilience in the Face of Crisis: Why the Future will be Flexible

What would a more resilient world look like? There’s no universal 
”resilience theory” just yet, but some of the principles employed by ecologists and designers thinking about 
resilient systems give us a hint.

Two factors stand out as core assumptions of a resilience approach: 
the future is inherently uncertain, so the system needs to be as 
flexible as possible; and failures happen, so the system needs to be 
able to identify failures early and not make things worse as a result. 
These may seem like common-sense notions, but today’s global systems 
work best when everything’s running smoothly and predictably. 
Resilient systems are optimized for rough roads with sudden turns.

Resilient flexibility means avoiding situations where components of a 
system are “too big to fail”–that is, where the failure of a single 
part can bring the whole thing crashing down. The alternative comes 
from the combination of diversity (lots of different parts), 
collaboration (able to work together), and decentralization (organized 
from the bottom-up). The result is a system that can more effectively 
respond to rapid changes in conditions, and including the unexpected 
loss of components.

A good comparison of the two models can be seen in the contrast 
between the current electricity grid (centralized, with limited diversity) 
and the “smart grid” model being debated (decentralized and highly 
diverse). Today’s power grid is brittle, and the combination of a few 
local failures can make large sections collapse; a smart grid has a 
wide variety of inputs, from wind farms to home solar to biofuel 
generators, and its network is designed to handle the churn of local 
power sources turning on and shutting off.

The recognition that failure happens is the other intrinsic part of a 
resilience approach. Mistakes, malice, pure coincidence–there’s no 
way to rule out all possible ways in which a given system can stumble. 
The goal, therefore, should be to make failures easy to spot through 
widespread adoption of transparency through a “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” embrace of 
openness, and to give the system enough redundancy and slack that it’s 
possible to absorb the failures that get through. If you know that you 
can’t rule out failure, you need to be able to “fail gracefully,” in 
the language of design.

The difference between brittle failure and graceful failure can be 
seen vividly in how different coastal areas deal with ocean surges (whether from 
storms or tsunamis). Levees, seawalls, and other “hard barriers” can 
be completely effective unless breached–but once breached, can (and 
often will) fail catastrophically. Regions relying on abundant coastal 
wetlands, mangrove forests, and similar “soft barriers,” conversely, 
are likely to see a bit of flooding, but the mass of the ocean surge 
will be absorbed and dissipated by the environment.

You don’t have to be trying to come up with a new global economic 
model to appreciate resilience. Increasingly, the concept is taking 
root in organizations of all types as a strategic guideline, and becoming part of the language of design 
for everything from software to cities. In some circles, it’s starting to replace 
”sustainability” as an environmental driver.

One reason why the idea of resilience resonates with those of us 
engaged in foresight work is that, as troubling as it may be to 
contemplate, the current massive economic downturn is likely to be 
neither the only nor the biggest crisis we face over the next few 
decades. The need to shift quickly away from fossil fuels (for both 
environmental and supply reasons) may be as big a shock as today’s 
”econalypse,” and could easily be compounded by accelerating problems 
caused by global warming. Demographic issues–aging populations, 
migrants and refugees, and changing regional ethnic make-ups–loom 
large around the world, notably in China. Pandemics, resource 
collapse, even radically disruptive technologies all have the 
potential to cause global shake-ups on the scale of what we see 
today… and we may see all of these, and more, over the next 20 to 30 

It’s going to be a bumpy ride–we should be ready.

Notes on desiging social-ecological systems

Pruned on the rehabilitation of degraded landscapes presents Pedreres de s’Hostal:

Pedreres de s’Hostal is a disused stone quarry on the island of Minorca, Spain. In 1994, the quarry saw its last stonecutters, and since then, the non-profit organization Líthica has been hard at work transforming this industrial landscape into a post-industrial heritage park.

Conservation Magazine’s Journal Watch reports on a recent paper Willis, S.G. et al. 2009. Assisted colonization in a changing climate: a test-study using two U.K. butterflies. Conservation Letters DOI:  10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00043.x, which describes a successful assisted colonization:

Based on climate models and a survey of suitable habitats, scientists introduced 500 to 600 individuals of two butterfly species to new sites in England, miles away from what were, in 1999 and 2000, the northern limits of their natural ranges. After monitoring for six years, they found that both introduced populations grew and expanded their turf from the point of release, similarly to newly colonized natural areas.

The butterflies’ success outside of their usual limits suggests that their naturally shifting distributions had been lagging behind the pace of climate warming, the researchers conclude. The results also bode well for the careful use of this sometimes controversial technique for other species threatened by climate change. After all, wildlife can only run so fast and for those species moving up mountains to escape the heat, there’s only so far they can go.

MacArthur Foundation granting $2 million to help ecosystems and human communities adapt to the effects of climate change. On Gristmill:

the IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund — will use it to establish a new Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network. Details on the network are still being hashed out, but it’s intended to be a resource for promoting best practices to conservation groups, governments, and others. It will aid projects such as creating protected corridors to help mountain-dwelling animals migrate to higher elevations and restoring natural barriers on coastlines, such as mangrove forests.

On Gristmill, futurist Jamais Cascio posts his recent reflections on geo-engineering in response to the detailed comparison between different geoengineering strategies a writes Geoengineering is risky but likely inevitable, so we better start thinking it through:

If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

If we don’t want to see geoengineering deployed, we have to get our carbon emissions down as rapidly and as widely as possible. If we don’t — if our best efforts aren’t enough against decades of carbon growth and temperature inertia — we will see efforts to do something, anything, to avoid global catastrophe.

On Worldchanging Alex Steffen argues that Geoengineering Megaprojects are Bad Planetary Management:

Many of us oppose geoengineering megaprojects, not because we are afraid of science or technology (indeed, most bright green environmentalists believe you can’t win this fight without much more science and technology), but because these kinds of megaprojects are bad planetary management.

It’s bad planetary management to take big chances with a high probability of “epic fail” outcomes (like emptying the sea of life through ocean acidification). It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time — unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history — we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.

Jamais and Alex debate their points a bit in the WorldChanging comments.

Pedestrians and Urban Life: lessons from Copenhagen

kennymaticChris Turner, author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, writes on WorldChanging Canada about Danish architect Jan Gehl who focuses on the role of pedestrians in urban life in Copenhagen, Melbourne & The Reconquest of the City:

Mr. Gehl’s core message remains so simple it sounds almost like a proverb. It goes like this: “Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.”

Urban sustainability rarely seems so straightforward, ensnarled as it is in thorny issues of land use and energy consumption, housing prices and unemployment rates, roads and transit lines, density and sprawl. In many of the world’s cities, however – North American cities in particular – there might be no single problem that encompasses them all as fully as the decision made after World War II to give top priority to the automobile in every urban quarter and under essentially every circumstance. And as Mr. Gehl’s clients are learning, there is no more economical or efficient way to begin sorting out this knot of problems than to simply restore people to their rightful place above cars in the urban hierarchy.

If the pedestrianization movement has a birthplace, it is Mr. Gehl’s hometown, the cozy Danish capital of Copenhagen. Regarded as recently as the 1950s as a dull provincial burgh, utterly overshadowed by dynamic metropolises like Paris and Rome, Copenhagen now routinely tops international quality of life rankings. …

Continue reading

Robotic Jellyfish

I’m not sure if their an art project or practical tool but these autonomous biomorphic Robot Jellyfish are interesting. From National Geographic:

Robot Jellyfish

Propelled by flexible, electrically driven tentacles, robotic jellyfish swim at the Hannover Fair.

Using a type of “swarm intelligence,” the Festo company’s so-called AquaJellies set their own courses and can come together or avoid each other as needed. The robots “talk” via light pulses underwater and via radio at the surface.

On Technium Kevin Kelly writes:

One one level, these autonomous robotic jelly fish illuminated the mechanism by which real jellyfish swim. … The parallels in their motions — clearly visible in the video — feel so organic that we immediately assign them life-like adjectives.

I think we are primed to find lifelikeness in machines. E.O. Wilson calls it our biophilia — our intense attraction to living things. As we design machines to approach the complexity of organisms and mimic their behavior (as these do), we will be very quick to include them in our love.

Continue reading