By Maja Kuzmanovic
On behalf of all of FoAM, I'd like to welcome you to the Luminous Green Symposium. I hope you enjoyed the picnic and the various lunch-time activities around the Groenhoven estate. I hope you have met and had a chance to talk to some of the people who participated in the 'Open Space' gathering last weekend. If you haven't yet, make sure you have a chat to them before you leave, as there are many interesting threads that were started during our retreat, that can benefit from your input.
Today, the picnic began the second part of Luminous Green, a gathering of people from disparate fields, cultures and disciplines, with a common interest - making their practices ethically and environmentally more sustainable, more luminous, and much, much greener. During this symposium, we wanted to give everyone an opportunity to step out of your daily routines, to recharge, relax and enjoy the company of old and new friends, while also allowing yourselves to be stimulated and inspired by people whose work and life reflect the aims of Luminous Green.
After today, a smaller group of artist, designers and engineers will continue the discussions, attempting to translate some of them in practical, hands-on experiments. If you live in or around Brussels, we invite you to come and join us again in the FoAM studio for Open Lab on Saturday, the 5th of May at 5PM, where you can experience some of the sketches and prototypes first hand.
For now, I hope that you will enjoy the rest of the day and that you will be able to find new inspirations, contacts and knowledge to take back home and share them with your friends and colleagues.
Before we start the afternoon's sessions, I'd like to say a few words about the why and how of Luminous Green, to give you a bit broader context of today's activities. We (by we I mean FoAM) organised Luminous Green to allow us to reflect on the relevance & importance of creative practices, such as art and design, for the current environmental debates. These debates, as we all know have come from the peripheries into prominence during the past decade due to accelerated ecological and social instabilities.
Most of these discussions are now revolving around mitigating the effects of climate change through economic, political and social measures. With Luminous Green, we'd like to broaden the topic - it is not just about carbon emissions and global warming, but about preparing for- and adapting to a life in turbulent social, economic and environmental conditions.
There are at least three important things that our sector can bring to these discussions: an integrated approach to unwieldy problems, experience with participatory processes that can bring forth unexpected outcomes and the ability to design beautiful things.
Integrated approach to complex issues
In our humble opinion, it is not possible to tackle any one of these currently critical issues in isolation - they all form part of the same larger problem - the fact that we have created an existentially unstable and fragile system. This problem can only be tackled if we 'attack' it from multiple perspectives, simultaneously and systematically, using integrated, holistic approaches - To paraphrase Einstein: “We cannot solve a problem using the same kind of thinking that caused it” What we need are not simple, incremental fixes to just the most urgent issues, but fundamental behavioural and cultural changes, across the board - through all social structures and economic strata. We should ditch the anthropocentric view that humans are the masters of the universe and begin to see ourselves as entangled, connected and interdependent with the rest of the world. Then, if all goes well, we should end up with a fairer, cleaner, more open environment for all.
This is perhaps, an ideal picture that Luminous Green strives to. However, on a daily basis, there are many issues that require our immediate attention. Problems that are of a complex and interconnected nature, such as providing conditions for a dignified life for everyone in a global society; sharing and distribution of food, fuel and other natural resources; ensuring a physical, social and psychological well-being; restoring and nourishing an ecological balance, etc. These challenges cannot be solved using statistical and analytical methods alone. They require creative leaps, heuristic trial and error, as well as solid public experiments to ensure the feasibility and durability of the solutions.
One of the defining differences between the environmental movements in the 70s and today is that we now understand that prescribing universal solutions and telling people what to do, doesn't work. What we are looking for today are ways in which everyone can become an active participant in the debate. There are as many approaches as there are problems and people should be willing to actively think and participate in designing these solutions. Everyone's help is needed - from people in academia, to professional experts, to enthusiastic do-it-yourselvers. A lot of information is out there and the access to it is becoming easier. However, we still need to be able to cut through the jungle of nonsense, to get to the information required to build knowledge that is relevant in our own lives and environments - and for that everyone needs to become an active participant. Rather than “The Solution”, what we should be looking for are ecologies of solutions - interdependent and robust, nourished by local conditions, with strong trans-local ties that can evolve through collaboration and trust.
Design beautiful things
Buckminster Fuller once said: “When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Even though the issue of aesthetics rarely pops up in environmental debates, it is something that should be put on the agenda - and it is something that we should put on the agenda. We are able to make things that people want to surround themselves with, so if we “solve a problem” with particular designs, people will not feel punished by making use of them - more likely, they will want to immerse and envelop themselves in these designs, or - even better - become a part of the community who makes them, not only because they are good for the environment, but because they make them feel good, proud and comfortable. If we can design things that are both green and make people happy, it will be much easier to convince people that living a green lifestyle is a good thing.
So we know what the creative sector can bring to the environmental debates. Now it is up to us to clarify what we do, how we do it and why this is relevant for a hard-core environmentalist, or a big cigar-smoking industrialist to take time to listen to us. It is time for us to become proactive and truly be the engaged avant-garde that many claim to be. From the position of respected discussion partners, we can work together with other sectors to design our way out of the current mess. We don't expect everyone to agree with each other, but a respectful questioning of each other's practices is a healthy thing to do - it heals arrogance, isolationism and xenophobia.
With this symposium, we made a first attempt to bring people from the creative sector together with policy makers, grass-roots activists and business leaders. We wanted to try and connect people with a wide range of political and social views, to see whether it is possible to initiate a productive dialogue. I'm very glad to see the wide range of fields that we have here today - from the cultural proletariat, to independent educators, to Flemish MPs, people from the World Economic Forum, the European Commission and the Guild for Reality Integrators and Generators.
Luminous Green is not about further polarising opposites, but finding a common ground (in agreeing that our weather has become more turbulent lately, for example) and beginning a dialogue from there (and perhaps solving some of our differences in the process). Luminous Green is not a purist gathering of environmentalists, nor is it a glitzy, self-congratulatory, green-gold business event. It is an edge habitat - like a coastline where the marine and land-based eco-systems meet - a fertile and diverse, but often contradictory space of inconsistencies, an entangled, but productive chaos, designed as such to provoke discussions and questions that rarely get raised, because our realities rarely mix. We hope that this gathering will reflect the process of Luminous Green, which has happened until today - a collection of little successes, of great people with good intentions and glimpses of possible futures.
How did we do it?
We have tried to make Luminous Green an event with a soft ecological footprint and a strong cultural handprint. The strength of the handprint depends on all of us here today. As for the footprint, well… All I can say is that we tried quite hard, but came up against obstacles in many directions. We wanted to organise an event that would be as sustainable as possible in every aspect, rather making it carbon neutral by simply offsetting.
For example, we wanted you all to sit on the greenest, healthiest, most ethically trackable furniture. In the process, we learned that most designs that are being praised for fulfilling all these requirements exist only as prototypes, or 2-3 showroom pieces. We managed to get 31 chairs from Felt in Antwerp that are made with recycled materials, in good working conditions, designed to minimise transport loads etc. For the rest - we improvised.
Transport makes another great story. We wanted to offer you eco-shuttles, running on renewable fuel - any fuel - bio-diesel, hydrogen, solar powered electric busses. There was nothing available in Belgium - not to transport so many people. Several public transport places do have hybrid busses, but the regulations prohibited them leaving Brussels, or entering Brussels. We are very happy that Lexus Belgium has lent us two of their hybrid cars for the day, but try as much as we could, we couldn't find a way to squeeze fifty people in each one.
I will end my examples with something that is a thorn in my eye… The fact that we are using a data projector. We tried thinking of different ways to present visual material that our speakers wanted to use - printed booklets, e-paper readers, o-led screens on each table, but the calculations amounted to nothing - either it would have been prohibitively expensive, or it would have used irrational amounts of energy. So we finally agreed to use an energy efficient projector, with a minimum amount of lumen, so excuse us if the images and text are slightly unclear in daylight.
So in the process, we concluded that there is indeed much work to do for us all. Public awareness is rapidly rising, but the readily available alternatives, especially for people who don't have large pockets (the majority of the population) are lagging behind. This is why we are committed to turn the most promising conclusions of Luminous Green into tangible projects, as well as connect existing initiatives to achieve a stronger impact.
Where are we…
Looking at it from a more positive angle, there are many things here that can be made into examples of a sustainable practice. Our picnic bags are hand-made from recycled newspapers by the designers and crafts people of the Barefoot college. The handouts are printed with vegetable inks on recycled paper. You are eating organic, wholesome foods and breathing fresh air, hosted by people who have succeeded in creating a stimulating and inspiring meeting place in their own home. We have been here several times since February, and each time we came through the gates, we felt ourselves relax. While the meetings with our hosts were always clear and effective, they were also very warm and friendly, so organising this symposium felt more like a casual family affair. We would like to thank Mabel and Hendrik for their hospitality and collaboration, without which, none of this would have been possible.
With this introduction, we have started the afternoon of talks and debates. Here's what we are planning to do in the coming hours. We will have three sessions, each with two speakers. After their presentations, we will have a short room-wide Q&A session. As we would like everyone to have a say, during the breaks each table will continue the discussion in a smaller group, facilitated by a discussion leader, or principal invigorator - Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Andrea Polli, Matthias Gmachl, Steven Pickles, Kristina Andersen, Tapio Makela, Andrew Morrisson, Maggie Buxton, Jennifer Leonard, Margo Dekoster and Joey Berzowska. We will pool the summaries of the discussions and have every principal invigorator present a short conclusion after all sessions - time permitting, before dinner, if not, as 'toasts' during dinner.
Our buffet dinner is designed by the Food and Wine Academy (FAWA), whom we challenged to cook up a feast, based on “cuisine vegetale”. Aside from the ideological issues, according to some of the top French chefs, being able to make a banquet focused on vegetables, shows the skill and sensibility of the chefs in blending subtle flavours of fresh ingredients, without relying on the overpowering taste-stimulants in fish or meat. In the mean time, help yourself to the fruits, coffee, tea and freshly pressed juices.
We will begin the 'Talks and Debates' with the session on 'Change'. During this session, we should think about the changes that are needed on a human (or local) and ecological (or global) scale. We can think about what this group of people, with our wide reaching networks, can do to begin changing things on a scale able to have substantial impact on the current environmental and social threats.
What instruments are readily available to each of us? Which people can we inspire to change? What makes sense to change and what should be held on to? What are the broader philosophical and cultural changes that need to happen? How do we begin thinking about long term, fundamental change, rather than short-term emergency management? Or on an even higher level, what are the 'transformative' questions that we should be asking ourselves?
We have two speakers who will inspire our discussions with examples of positive change, on different scales and in different contexts. So without delaying things further, I'd like to briefly introduce our first speaker - Jennifer Leonard.
I hope you will indulge me in introducing the speakers through personal anecdotes. You can read their bios in the handout, but the reason why they are here is because they have touched us, not just on a professional level, but on a personal and emotional level. This is also one of the crucial premises of Luminous Green - sustainability cannot be achieved through work only - the inspiring and committed connections between people are equally important.
Jennifer is a designer, writer and all-round inspiring and inspired person. We read Massive Change, a book that she wrote together with Bruce Mau, several years ago. At the same time, I was reading the catalogue of “Flood”, an exhibition preparing for new Rotterdam architecture designed to withstand continuous flooding, as well as scientific articles about the 6th mass extinction and the speculations about the future belonging to the vermin - rats, bugs and aggressive micro-organisms. While aware of the doomsday scenarios, we preferred the view of Massive Change - which says that - yes we have messed up a lot of things, but if we are able to start thinking and designing on an ecological scale, we should be able to instigate massive, positive change in the world. Several years have passed since I read the book, and I was wondering what the authors thought about the changes in the world Anno 2007 and beyond.
In the middle of preparing the programme for this symposium, I went to New Delhi, for the DOP9: Juice conference on “Food, Fuel and Meaning”, where I finally met Jennifer in person. Even though we didn't get a chance to talk much, we both had a feeling that we should do something together. A few weeks later - here she is. We are extremely happy to have Jennifer here with us, and even more curious about what she'll tell us today.
I've read articles about the Barefoot College on Worldchanging and other sites focusing eco-technology and education. But, it wasn't until I met Bunker Roy, the founder and director of the Barefoot College that I was completely fascinated by the place. We met during a great session on 'Local solutions for mitigating climate change' organised by Randall Krantz of the World Economic Forum, who is with us today as well. Bunker was talking about a programme in which they train semi-literate people (mainly women) from Asia, Africa and South America to become solar engineers in six months. He talked about multicultural groups of women who don't necessarily share a common language, yet who learn to make, install and maintain solar power plants, so they can electrify their remote, off-the-grid villages.
I decided that I had to see this for myself. As I was going to be in India, I was invited to visit the college. So, I went on an adventure during the Holi Party in Rajasthan, got covered in fluorescent pink paint and finally arrived at the Barefoot college, where Mr Vasu welcomed me, even though he was recovering from hospital treatment. I spent some amazing hours with the coordinators of several Barefoot programmes - from education, to water harvesting, handicrafts to solar engineering. The warmth and hospitality of Mr Vasu and other people in the team, together with the thoughtful and beautiful work that they are doing gave me much hope for the world. Their solutions are particularly local, and as such maybe not readily transferable to situations in which most of us live, but their principles and philosophies should be something for everyone to strive toward.
Before I give the floor to Mr Vasu, I would just like to note again that the beautiful bags in which you received your lunch and programmes are unique pieces, hand-made by the Barefoot designers. So please don't throw them away, but use them as a reminder of a wonderful place and its even more wonderful people. Mr Vasu, we are very honoured to welcome you to Belgium and to hear about the Barefoot college from one of its core members.
The second session of this afternoon focuses on communication - peer-to-peer, one to many and many to one. What are the challenges that we face when we communicate about sustainability and related issues? How do we avoid these issues falling to the whims of fashion? What can industries learn from the campaigners and vice versa?
I think we all agree that good communication strategies are crucial for raising awareness, as well as furthering our inquiries. We could also agree that transparency is needed to ensure fairer economies; and that participation and sharing are a good thing. What we can think about today, is how to establish open communication channels between everyone involved, in order to multiply the positive effects of our actions and avoid stumbling over the same mistakes again and again. What protocols and technologies are needed for this? What are the benefits of mixing broadcasting and 'home-casting'? What kind of education is needed to provide access to the tools to be able to communicate, locally and trans-locally?
Our two speakers in this session will offer two approaches to communication - Mike from the centre, and Marko from the periphery. Top-down and bottom-up, we'll hear views on this issue from the point of view of the industry specialising in communication, as well as from the perspective of a grass-roots initiative.
Let's start with the big guys first.
About a year ago I was invited by Edvin Jurin, the head of the Croatian Association of Communication Agencies, to present FoAM's work with mixed reality technologies at their annual conference FESTO. I thought that I should present something more relevant, something not so often discussed in Croatian advertising - ecological and ethical communication. So I prepared a talk, filled with questions, expecting to challenge the audience to think about how their profession relates to issues of sustainability. While I was waiting to test my presentation, I happened to see parts of Mike Longhurst's slides. He was basically giving answers to my questions… Similar to the Barefoot college, albeit in a different context, it gave me hope that the leaders of the advertising industry can care about integrating ecological thinking in the core of corporate affairs. Mike admitted that there is still a long way to go, but his words made it clear what the issues and opportunities are. It convinced me that we should see some strategic parts of the advertising industry as allies, rather than enemies.
A few weeks ago, I read an article about the city of Sao Paulo, in Brazil banning billboards from the streets, to promote more sustainable communication and reduce visual pollution. While some agencies protested (predicting an increase in street crime for example), others found it an interesting challenge. Mike's work treats the complex issues surrounding ecological and ethical communication with a similar vigour, and even though it isn't an easily solved problem, if done well, is has the power to reach and impact on both individual people (usually referred to as 'consumers' in business parlance) and large industries. I'm very happy to be able to introduce to you such an accomplished veteran in the fight for more sustainable communication, who can offer us a glimpse into the ways in which the advertising industry deals with this issue.
Our next speaker is Marko Peljhan. The first project on which we collaborated with Marko was a project linking the International Space Station with my hometown Pula in Croatia, also a birthplace of Herman Potocnik Noordung, a pioneer in the design of earth-orbiting satellites and space stations. It is a pleasure for me that Marko, who has always had his eyes turned toward the skies - from parabolic flights, military satellites and sounds from space - has agreed to speak about such down-to-earth topics as power generation and earth-to-earth communications. As a part of the International Polar year, Marko has been working on an intriguing project, I-TASC, which brings artists to the Arctic and Antarctica, attempting to build a self-sustaining art and science laboratory, build open communication systems and learn to survive in extreme environments. This adventure has been preceded by his work with Makrolab, a mobile laboratory for art and science collaborations, which has been setup in harsh environments in outback Australia, the highlands of Scotland, an abandoned military island in Croatia and in the extreme art world of Dokumenta in Kassel. Marko is not just doing these things for himself and his team, he is a globe-trotting educator - from Ljubljana to Santa Barbara to Singapore and this week Brussels as well. In the days following this symposium, he will lead a workshop in which we will get to try to build some of the systems that he and his collaborators developed in their mobile labs.
I've always known Marko as a tech-art visionary and I'm very glad that we are able to hear him speak about his approach to communication and development - at the poles, in space, or in our backyards.
The last session of today is a session on 'Matter'. It is about our relationship to physical substance - both organic and inorganic, as well as the connections between the physical world and digital information. One of the questions of this session is whether integrating physical and digital realities can make our materials, objects and built environments more responsive, adaptable to changing environmental conditions and socio-economic pressures. A simple example is using digital technologies to visualise, or sonify our consumption patterns. However, it can go much further than this and our speakers will expand on some of the more 'futuristic' views on what mixing realities can bring about.
Before delving into sci-fi scenarios, there is a lot of work to be done on our relationship with physical matter alone. In a well balanced ecosystem, every individual takes what they need and replenishes resources with what they don't use. There is no waste in nature, and relatively speaking no scarcity. What we have done is separated the industrial society from the rest of the planetary ecosystems. Unfortunately, this separation is not complete - we are still sucking valuable resources out of the earth, but not replenishing them enough to sustain an ecosystem able to sustain us. I'm not advocating that we become breatharians, or return to a no-tech pre-industrial, or even pre-agricultural society - quite the opposite - I'd like to think that there are technological and design solutions that will help us out of the current situation into a luminous future. But before these become feasible, we need to change the way we relate to production, distribution and consumption of goods and non-renewable material resources. Today, we can discuss the issues of durables and consumables, of the logo-sphere and the bio-sphere, of the range of sustainable materials and structures that we can wear, sit on and live in.
Our two speakers will tell us about the different relationships between design and matter that extend through our layered skins - our body, our clothing, interiors and exteriors. Their focus will be on materials, as with the emergence of personal fabrication, designers are increasingly focusing on designing materials and processes, while the final assembly of products are becoming the responsibility of the users/consumers/players themselves.
We will first hear from Carole.
I met Carole at the wedding of Rachel Wingfield and Matthias Gmachl, the two Bazaaris from Loop.ph who you may have met today. Our first conversation was about the advantages and disadvantages of bamboo vs. metal for constructing geodesic domes, through which Rachel was making her way towards the 'altar'. As all good wedding guests do, we complimented her on her dress - she bought an antique wedding dress from Ebay, parts of which she recycled, restoring the disintegrating lace and refitting it to a more contemporary silhouette. We got chatting about materials, traditional crafts and recycling, which lead to Carole's involvement in FoAM's Active Materials workshop.
Our conversations continued along the lines of old crafts, new technologies and ecological sustainability - topics with which she designs the course on Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins in London. The beauty of Carole's thoughts lie in her holistic views, encompassing not just design and technology, but also behavioural, cultural and social changes as well. Which is something that (in my humble opinion) we need in future designers of all flavours. Please welcome Carole Collet.
Last but definitely not least speaker of today - Joey Berzowska.
There are many personal vignettes that I could share about Joey, but I'll just say that we met about ten years ago at a party at MIT, just after I swallowed a carefully disguised ping-pong ball sized lump of wasabi, when I turned around with my eyes watering, there was Joey offering me a large glass of a clear liquid, which I assumed was water. It was vodka. Our encounters continued to offer similar surprises, both in social terms, but more importantly for this event conceptual connections. Joey is an embodiment of the fusion between artist, designer, technologist and a scientist. Her ideas about soft and wearable computation have stirred many minds and hearts in the engineering world on all continents. We last collaborated with Joey in 2005, when she lead the Active Materials workshop, together with Rachel Wingfield. She amazed everyone by giving a crash-course in electronics, moving from hard to soft circuitry in the space of an afternoon. This was just a glimpse of what she is doing with her students in XS Labs in Montreal - on a visit last year, we entered in a tiny lab, stuffed with experiments with shape memory alloys, thermochromic displays and electronic paper. Dresses that light up when someone gropes you and whisper when someone breathes down your neck. It was like stepping into the wardrobe of Alice in Wonderland…
So to end the day, we wanted to treat you to Her Joeyiness and her visions of a playful futuristic fashion, powered by the bodies of its wearers.
After hearing very eloquent summaries of the afternoon's debates (see: symposium summaries, delivered by our discussion leaders, there is not much left for me to say tonight. So to conclude this Symposium, I'd like to say just a few brief words. Firstly, I'd like to thank you all for your wonderfully active participation. This has been an intense, chaotic, but very inspiring day for us and we hope you have enjoyed yourself, learned something and met a lot of interesting people as well. Secondly, I would like our contact to become a lasting one. If you are interested in getting involved in any of the activities that we discussed this afternoon, please let us know!
Finally I would like to express my infinite gratitude to all the people who made this event possible - people doing the production, communication, design and everything else that needed to be done! (See luminous green credits)
Thank you all, and please continue to be luminous - illuminated, electrified and radiant, and live an environmentally, ethically and aesthetically green life and always remember Gandhi's words -
“You must be the change that you wish to see”