Slowdown Papers
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Slowdown Papers

Morning walk, Stockholm 6 April 2020

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

Can a post-traumatic urbanism help us make more resilient cities?

Last week saw the US ‘Green New Deal’ for transport launched, by the excellent Data for Progress initiative. It’s a fine piece of work, given the context of generally poor American public transit infrastructure. The work of Data for Progress is exemplary — see also their research on a co-benefits model for housing retrofit, which I’ve been extolling here in Sweden — and they’re intelligently locating their robust requests both within Green New Deal-mode (strategic) as well as bailout-mode (tactical).

Again, though, the US bailout ‘business-as-usual’ logic will struggle to point in the right direction for both the virus and the climate. In the early bailout bill negotiations, there was only $20 billion for public transit, whereas Boeing alone is asking for $60 billion.

Elsewhere, however, more advanced countries than the US are moving into completely different phases. Smaller cities like Utrecht are now moving to almost car-free mode, and amongst bigger cities like Barcelona, Oslo, and Amsterdam, Paris is increasingly the most advanced here.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s “15 minute city” strategy was partly crucial to her re-election, and though it’s not a new idea (Chengdu has a similar approach already in place), for Paris to push for it so thoroughly is impressive.

‘Le Paris du 1/4 heure’, or Paris as 15 minute city

This simple notion — that all your basic everyday needs, from education to commerce to healthcare to culture and so on, are located within 15 minutes walk or bike of your front door — requires a way of thinking, planning, designing, and acting that I was first introduced to in Sydney, almost 15 years ago, by Adrian Lahoud when we were both involved in University of Technology, Sydney (Adrian is now at the Royal College of Art).

AD Special Issue:Post‐Traumatic Urbanism

Lahoud’s concept of post-traumatic urbanism was based on research into cities like Beirut and Berlin, exploring the super-local infrastructures of everyday life, and the purposeful redundancy built into cities that cannot promise that a bridge, say, will be there from one day to the next. This means not just one large pharmacy or baker or police station, for example, but many small ones, a more dispersed distribution pattern mimicking what network designers would call ‘redundancy’ (if one goes down, there’s another within reach.) In the context of cities, that kind of effectiveness also generates community, health, diversity, and local economy.

This is counter to much of the efficiency logic of recent decades; witness the growth of super-hospitals, versus more distributed patterns of healthcare. This, despite exemplary work like Stroke Pathways demonstrating the folly of that centralised, efficiency-led thinking.

The smart city agenda, somehow still going despite everything, has always been easy to skewer for its efficiency mantra. Cities are not about efficiency, and never have been. The most meaningful urban experiences are generally the most inefficient. But this lack of efficiency is also why they are naturally resilient, if their design patterns follow the purposeful redundancy described above.

Our food systems have been made overly-efficient, via ‘just-in-time’ practices, as the unnecessary panic buying has quickly revealed (just as the Queensland floods did.)

“Think of efficiency as a high-performance engine. Under perfect conditions, it delivers maximum power and minimum waste. However, that very efficiency makes it less robust. Highly efficient systems have no slack, no redundancy, and therefore no resilience and no spare capacity.” — Helen Lewis, The Atlantic, 26 March 2020

A post-virus edition of post-traumatic urbanism will be a topic to revive imminently. And yet, well outside of such immediate urban trauma, I’ve used the concept on numerous urban development and city strategy projects, due partly to its simple, graspable common sense, as well as the broader forms of value it can generate. Some version of the idea underpins the recent contribution to the Mayor of London’s strategy for high streets, as well as current projects here in Sweden. It certainly informed the Non-Grid ‘network urbanism’ concepts which worked their way into strategies for major urban developments in Amsterdam and Melbourne.

Again, these are urban patterns we needed to reinforce and reiterate anyway; the virus may force us to move more quickly in that direction.

Cities remain fundamentally resilient, including dense cities. Assuming we move past social distancing, and even the present fear of touch of shared surfaces, we can bring back our sense of cities as threads and knots of social urban spaces, with all the tactility and texture that implies. Perhaps the virus will give us pause to consider how to ensure they are even more resilient, aligning the distributed network urbanism patterns of post-traumatic cities with the post-systems thinking, nature-based infrastructures touched on below. In the post-trauma redesign, if we motivate for it, we may be able head off the much greater urban trauma likely from the climate crisis.

Contrary to some positions that could emerge from a bacteria-centred redesign, this means the very opposite of the concentrated, centralised, securitised, privatised, overly-sanitised places that at least one strain of urban planning and development has been creating over the last few decades. The shorthand for that pattern would be malls, big box retail parks, and global-finance-theme parks like Hudson Yards and the like. This is not a resilient structure; it is not “the green reed which bends in the wind” but “the mighty oak which breaks in a storm”, if you like. Such ‘places’ are horribly exposed at times like this—and thus emptied fairly quickly, and valueless, a stranded asset.

Whereas, outside of their dwellings, many people are currently inhabiting the smaller pockets of space in and around their neighbourhoods: local parks, even just copses or patches of grass or playgrounds; the street corners (talking at a safe distance) of diverse, scaled-well high streets, that can actually speak to and articulate the local communities they sit in; the little knots of interaction that make up a genuine neighbourhood; “a labyrinth of small, intimate territories, a random constellation of stars”, as Aldo Van Eyck wrote about his distributed playground systems for healing the scars of post-WWII-traumatic Amsterdam.

A key text, particularly if we extend the idea to a social life beyond humans

If we built on these themes of open, distributed, decentralised, networked, small pieces loosely joined’, multiplied-many-times with massive diversity and purposeful redundancy, and pivoting around the social life of small urban spaces—organised into Baran webs rather than the Legrand star—we would likely find a far more resilient pattern for city life, and urban growth. If we then fundamentally reorient that around a hugely increased emphasis on biodiversity i.e. not just human-centred design, stretching from the street corners out to the distant fields of agriculture and landscape that support them, we solve for climate, health, social justice, and pandemic simultaneously. That extends the ideas of social life to include the many other natural elements that ‘socialise’ in our cities.

(These patterns, in pre-virus mode, were the essence of the plans and sketches my old team did for Amsterdam districts, which I’ll share in more detail one day.)

Spreads from a report documenting urban planning, design, and district development strategies for Amsterdam municipality, by Arup Digital Studio

I have no fear for the future of cities, as long as people are around. The story of humanity is an urban one, a slow 20,000 year drift towards a largely urban condition. A city does the same thing to individualism that a natural ecosystem does to a tree — thriving there is about living well with people who are not like you. Just as a tree revels in those multifarious interdependencies, so we do with cities.

As suggested above, this does not deny the value of the countryside — in fact, in the very near future, it implies reconciling ourselves to thinking of assemblages intrinsically comprising both, rather than simplistic binaries of town and country—just as we have to see that cities could be our most biodiverse, hyper-green and post-natural infrastructures. That is a different conception of city, perhaps reoriented around biodiversity, but city it is.

Even in the apocalyptic setting of Yoko Towada’s ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’, the city of Tokyo still exists, for the reasons cities have always existed:

“Though Tokyo was now impoverished, new shops still bubbled up from the depths to open up like flowers; just sitting on a park bench, you never got tired of watching the people go by. Walking around the city made the gears in your brain start turning. People had begun to realise that these simple pleasures were the most delicious part of the fruit we call everyday life, which is why even though the houses were small and food was scarce, they still wanted to live in Tokyo.” — Excerpt from ‘The Last Children of Tokyo’, by Yoko Towada (2018)

What does the Slowdown hint for the possible materials, systems, and infrastructures of cities?

Richard Florida quickly made a set of proposals for remaking cities after the virus, many of which are valid short-term tactical measures: masks for cinema-goers, wider streets for social distancing, that kind of thing.

Ultimately, though, they are reminiscent of someone stubbornly resisting the incoming tide rather than truly learning and adapting. As he is an economic traditionalist — “airports as key drivers of the urban economy”; people as things that “animate these economies and spaces” — Florida’s proposals do nothing to prevent viruses from happening with greater frequency, or genuinely address the climate crisis and health crises, or social justice. He suggests cities won’t “won’t pop back to normal”, but does nothing to suggest anything other than a “pop” backwards. He exhorts us to “get back up and running”; just this time, wearing masks.

Given the heightened drama of the situation, now may be a time to reflect on more radical moves. Not to plan, but just to explore. What are starting points for a more thorough rethinking of cities?

Allison Arieff wrote a wonderful piece, in the V&A catalogue for its Cars exhibition, about the city without cars, drawing from the usual contemporary emerging set of Oslo, Copenhagen, Berlin examples I described previously, but also from Wakanda, the fictional African nation depicted in the hugely successful film Black Panther.

The urban form in Wakanda; stills from the film ‘Black Panther’ (2018)

In her essay “There are no cars in Wakanda”, Arieff suggests a balance of culture and technology, equitable development and innovation, density and super-green-and-blue walkability, that even the most ambitious urban development projects might learn a lot from. Perhaps most importantly, it describes an alternative future told in different voices, vibrant colours thrillingly woven into the generally pale, male and stale tapestry of urbanism.

“Wakanda is the stuff of fiction — but it doesn’t have to be. The success of Black Panther revealed a hunger for experiencing other narratives; cities need to tell new and different stories, and that will occur only when more people get to tell them.” — Alison Arieff, ‘There are no cars in Wakanda’, (V&A, 2019)

Arieff points to Alissa Walker’s brilliant ‘Mansplaining the City’, which dwells on that staid tapestry, dominated by traditional voices and perspectives for decades. With the increased localism that the virus is inadvertently causing, and potentially a rediscovery of local ecosystems, materials, places and cultures accordingly, there is an opportunity to enrich this vision. What’s a Swedish Wakanda? A Chilean one? A Taiwanese one? The point is not to copy the visuals, but to build on the diverse local dialogues that could beginning to sprout again.

The film’s production designer Hannah Beachler feels that foregrounding those voices was key to the concept of Wakanda resonating with people.

“You know what’s keeping us together: the connectivity of people, not the connectivity of users. We’re not users; we’re people, but we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re users. So I took all of that, and I just chucked it out of Wakanda, because the people were the most important thing about it, and we’re forgetting it. And I think that’s why people responded to Wakanda on this massive level: people.” — Hannah Beachler

As we have seen, community-based resilience is the system dealing with the virus best, as it stands — how do we continue to genuinely support and develop community resilience on the other side of the curve?

Hannah Beachler’s words could have been written in the last few weeks, capturing some of the sensibility of the resistance to the virus: “The local connectivity of people, not the connectivity of users”.

With similarly eery prescience, Arieff opened her article in Cars by questioning autonomous vehicles and the city, which she phrased like this:

“What does the city look like, if everything is delivered directly to us? What does our community look like, if we never leave the house?”

It looks like this, right now, Allison! In many places, anyway. We’ve been forced into it in a more extreme way than is desirable, albeit in hugely varying ways from Lugano to Lagos to Los Angeles. Arieff’s questions about autonomous vehicles are rightly critical, as per my own views: hugely destructive if implemented carelessly or with individualising motives; hugely constructive if implemented with genuine ambition and vision for the city as a public good.

From “There are no cars in Wakanda”, Allison Arieff for V&A Cars exhibition (2019)

If it is the latter interpretation, the city is scrubbed clean of polluting vehicles, and with a hugely reduced volume of vehicles, period. There is more choice of mobility, but with fewer moving parts — and the city’s streets become a blank canvas on which to draw a future. We are inadvertently living some of that condition now — streets for people, super-local engagement — yet for all the wrong reasons. Nonetheless, the Slowdown means there is a chance to think about a World B that we might want to make happen — not an Amazonified, 1.5 million packages a day into Manhattan via Tesla Cybertrucks, but another green world altogether.

In this sense, perhaps the most inspirational, far-reaching set of ideas to begin to work with can be found in two books: Julia Watson’s repositioning of traditional environmental knowledge as TEK, describing how indigenous design works with nature as infrastructure, as nature-based technologies, in her book ‘Lo-TEK’ (2019); and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’ (2015), an extraordinary book which takes the matsutake mushroom as her starting point, from which she unfolds assemblages and ecologies, political economies and precarity, agriculture, music, Japanese and Finnish forests and more besides, effectively laying the groundwork for design for multi-species and ecosystems.

“Landscapes more generally are products of unintentional design, that is, the overlapping world-making activities of many agents, human, and not human. The design is clear in the landscape’s ecosystem. But none of the agents have planned this effect. Humans join others in making landscapes of unintentional design.”—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’ (2015)

Watson, working precisely as a landscape architect with nature-based technologies, intentional as designers can be, and Tsing, as an anthropologist comfortable with assemblages as open-ended gatherings, choosing not to settle or direct, provide two distinct counterpoints with which to start composing.

For those of us knee-deep in systems thinking and design, Tsing’s observations into assemblages will necessitate looking beyond systems at some point, given the latter’s allusion to cybernetics, and thus misleading notions of rational control and steering. Tega Brain’s essay The Environment is not a System’ is a good place to begin, in that respect:

“As a start, we should look to practices that explore the unforeseen consequences and possibilities of technologies, applying them to reveal the edges of systems, where they break down, what they leave out and how they might be repurposed. These are practices of eccentric engineering, practices that blend scientific and conceptual languages and that reveal technologies as products of ideology in performative and public ways” — Tega Brain, ‘The Environment is Not A System’ (2017)

Julia Watson’s ‘Lo-TEK’ (2019) and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’ (2015)
A young fisherman walks under the ancient tree root bridge at Mawlynnong village (The Atlantic). Photography by Amos Chapple

Working with nature-based technologies, but in the context of our contemporary towns and cities and the wider ecosystems and assemblages they sit within, would be a radical revisioning of how cities work, what urbanism is.

This suggests a post-traumatic urbanism need not be a dark vision at all; don’t think about ‘the sacrifice’ implied by Florida. Indeed, previous viruses and diseases have led to significant innovation in design. The 1918 influenza epidemic, and the widespread tuberculosis of the early 20th century, both influenced modernist architecture and design. We look at a building like Berthold Lubetkin’s Highpoint, the De La Warr Pavilion, Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House, or Alvar Aalto’s Paimo Sanatorium, yet forget that they were also designed responses to airborne attacks on the body.

Alvar Aalto’s Paimio sanatorium (1929), designed specifically for tuberculosis suffers yet influencing modernist architecture generally. How will our buildings, infrastructure and cities respond to the virus? (Photographs by Suvi Kesäläinen, from FinnishDesignStories)

If something as darkly squalid as tuberculosis can produce something as wonderfully bright as Aalto’s Paimio, or as inventive as its Cure Chair, how might architecture and design respond to COVID-19? Again, not literally — the materials, forms and systems will be different, but in essence.

WPA-era New York City Housing Authority poster

Materials are being tested against COVID-19, to identify which surfaces deal with the virus best. Expect a run on copper, which seems to get rid of Corona within 30 minutes or so, as well as increased interest in cardboard, which sees it off in a couple of hours, and can be used for buildings and beyond. Steel and plastic, those two mainstays of the products and structures around us, do not seem to move the virus on much at all, unfortunately. Early days, for this research, but expect some significant shifts.

This approach is protection rather than prevention, however, and we will need a more systemic response. Given the clear links between increased biodiversity and increased resilience to pandemics — both in terms of minimising their origins, and building health and resilience if they do emerge — do we need a deeper emphasis on the spaces and systems that generate truly biodiverse cities?

Spreads from Julia Watson’s ‘Lo-TEK’ (2019). The only gap, for me at least, in Watson’s wonderful book is in noting any projects from the north of the Northern hemisphere (a latitude that, for me, runs across the Nordics, Canada, top of the US. Approx. 40°N–70°N) or from Australia. These are the areas my work tends to end up in, for one thing, but I’d also be fascinated to hear about Sámi peoples’ TEK, for instance.

Without quite knowing it, or certainly how to articulate it, this balancing act of high-tech and Lo-TEK was the sensibility I was striving for in the ‘city of 2050’ narrative I was asked to write for Architectural Design journal in 2014. From the opening paragraph:

“The texture and colour of background noise is rich, varied. Birds can be heard clearly, as can wisps of conversations. An old coffee machine sputters and hisses. Music drifts from apartment windows. Much of the street is woven with lush foliage — clumps of grasses, small trees, creepers curving around fabricated mesh forms. These winding pathways are designed to handle stormwater as well as to breathe, and have thin rivulets of irrigation cut into them. Thickets of trees shade the street along one side. On the other, a slender curving structure floats above head height, its struts and lattice strewn with subtropical vines and flowers. It provides further shelter, protecting cyclists and walkers from the sometimes intense sun. On a hot day, which is most days around here in 2050, part of the structure emits a delicate, fine mist of cooling vapours that follows people as they pass through it, sensors tracking their movement such that the environmental conditioning is applied only where needed.” — The Street as Platform 2050

I’d devise a quite different cityscape now, but there are individual ingredients that remain interesting, not least the balance of nature-based technologies with the potential for biomimicry-inspired nanocellulose-based and biomaterial innovation, to enable new forms of architecture, product and space. I was hugely influenced by my visit to Olli Ikkala’s ‘Nanotalo’ at Aalto University at the time, and the potential of that innovation sticks with me, and now would provide a useful contrasting shade to Watson’s equally sophisticated yet alternative understanding of nature-based technologies.

Superflux’s Mitigation of Shock installation, particularly the Singapore edition ommisioned by Honor Harger, articulates some aspect of this, clearly not utopian but far from dystopian too. Superflux’s Anab Jain describes what they were trying to convey in her brilliant essay ‘Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics’:

“(Mitigation of Shock) is set in a future Singaporean HDB apartment that looks out onto the flooded city that has been transformed to mitigate the effects of climate change … Inspired by permaculture, we adopted the principles of circular farming, reuse of waste, companion planting and soil health to create a permanent, indoor agriculture system, in a situation where outdoor farming is not much of an option. The idea is to make the home more of a multi-species microcosm — rather than growing systems on the periphery, you live through and amongst them … Looking out (of the apartment window), one can see a different, very wet and humid Singapore, that despite rising sea levels and flooding, is thriving within a seemingly re-wilded landscape. Whilst extreme weather conditions, economic uncertainty and broken global supply chains have changed the world as we know it today — the sheer ingenuity of the inhabitants, their tools, artefacts, plants and new ways of living — tell a hopeful story of extreme adaptation taken to prosper in a post-climate change future.” — Anab Jain, Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics

Mitigation of Shock, Superflux, part of 2219: Futures Imagined, ArtScience Museum Singapore

Again, Anab’s sentence — “extreme weather conditions, economic uncertainty and broken global supply chains have changed the world as we know it today” — could be shortened somewhat now, by simply substituting the word “virus” in there; again, as the virus is a manifestation of these deeper fissures, as well as a producer of them.

Anab’s essay wonderfully roams around these more fundamental themes, using the work of their studio to give form to the ideas, ending in what she describes as of fledgling “field guide for the practice of a more-than-human politics” (below). Reading it just before the virus deeply changed the way I thought about what happened next.

From Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics by Anab Jain

Anab (and another old friend Anne Galloway, in Wellington, NZ) might call this a kind of multispecies-ism, or a ‘more than human-centred design. I’d got to a similar position, with a perhaps less-thrilling and narrower view of how cities and governments work, by looking beyond user-centred design, and into structures that were greater than individuals: the civic, the communal, the shared, the neighbourhood, the library, the street, the park. This was more akin to what Sarah Gold has developed as a society-centred design, which is another excellent framework.

Yet by not naming it, and simply drawing a yearning, gaping open-end of a simple triangle instead, I was trying to describe what Stuart Candy suggested as an ever-increasing ‘more of the world’-ness. That next stage for strategic design can clearly keep going to hit this truly systemic level — and the increased emphasis on biodiversity, nature-based infrastructures, indigenous practices, and multi-species-ism has really shaken my thinking in recent weeks and months, a vague nagging doubt suddenly made visceral and vivid by the virus. We have to take the anthro- out of anthropocene, and that means humans can no longer be the object of these more fundamental design philosophies and methodologies.

But how would the images and experiences in ‘Mitigation of Shock’ be extended with the radical indigenous nature-based technologies of Lo-TEK?

There’s a lovely detail in ‘Mitigation…’: Superflux’s Jon Arden carved ‘foraged’ Arduino circuit boards into arrowheads, as if moving from Internet of Things back to Indigenous Things, tying these trajectories together in a single object.

From ‘Mitigation of Shock’, from Calling from a More-Than-Human Politics by Anab Jain

But what movement could occur in the other direction? Perhaps the Lo-TEK of radical indigenism occupying the waterways in the middle distance of the view from the window, with networks of nature-based infrastructures transforming the city’s sewage into fish and vegetables and livelihood, producing bioenergy, biodiversity, and stormwater mitigation — just as the Bengalese Bheri Wastewater Aquaculture systems do, in the outskirts of Kolkata, a city three times larger than Singapore.

This city-scale nature-based infrastructure, the East Kolkata Wetlands, is one of the more extraordinary examples from Watson’s compendium of technologies in ‘Lo-TEK’, particularly when compared with more apparently contemporary approaches at sanitation in developing nations. For example, the Gates Foundation-funded Omniprocessor fecal sludge sewage plant, by Janicki Bioenergy, is one of the main outcomes of multi-million-dollar Gates Foundation-funded Toilet of the Future programme. A large Omniprocessor now sits outside Dakar, Senegal, and treats 14 tons of sewage per day, from which it produces thousands of litres of drinking water. This is a good thing.

Janicki Bioenergy Omniprocessor, Dakar, Senegal. Not bad.
Or this? East Kolkata Wetlands. Probably better.

Yet the East Kolkata Wetlands, with a capital cost of approximately zero dollars, handles 700 million tons of sewage per day. From this it produces 13,000 tonnes of fish per year, which is around 16% of the city’s fish, and around 16,000 tons of rice. The water and manure produce 156 tons of vegetables per day, as well as feedstock for other animals. It is home to rich biodiversity, in flora and fauna. Producing all this food so locally has the secondary benefit of huge savings — in carbon, fuel, time — in terms of food logistics. It also supports roughly 80,000 jobs, organised effectively into fishing cooperatives. The Wetlands also support numerous forms of natural water storage, groundwater recharge, increased sedimentation and flood protection.

14 tons versus 700 million tons? Let’s charitably say 80 jobs versus 80,000? Zero biodiversity versus rich biodiversity? And whilst the Wetlands secure Kolkata against storm surges and monsoon weather, I would not want to be standing next to an Omniprocessor in a bad storm over Dakar. Gates’s “hammers, nails” comment unfortunately hangs like a bed smell. To clarify, the Omniprocessor is a wonderful addition to Dakar; we should all be glad, and grateful to Gates, Janicki Bioenergy, and local actors, that it is there. It will scale sanitation in places that Wetlands cannot.

But the deeper question is political, in that we already have more profoundly interesting and effective solutions, that have been prototyped, iterated, and cared for over millennia, vividly and practically describing an entirely different understanding of ‘innovation’ and value.

The Wetlands take 125sqkm of land, so one could argue that the opportunity cost is enormous, in a growing metropolis of Kolkata. Then again, if the Wetlands were removed, the risk to the city would increase so enormously, that these things effectively cancel each other out.

Not that this makes a difference in ‘World A’. Recent satellite data shows a huge loss of the East Kolkata Wetlands, with property development eating up the nature-based infrastructure. Former state pollution control board law officer Biswajit Mukherjee told The Times of India, “It will be disastrous for the entire city if the wetland goes.” Whoever is in charge of signing those real estate approvals in Kolkata is in reality signing the city’s death warrant, just as much as Australian authorities have, when excising or ignoring indigenous land management practices in bushfire territory.

“Nature-based communities don’t have a voice because [modern] governance structures do not have a place for their voices. These ways of living with the land can disappear so quickly when they’re seen as primitive, not innovative.” — Julia Watson

East Kolkata Wetlands, in Julia Watson’s book ‘Lo-TEK’ (2019)

Thomas Keneally’s article from the bushfires, referenced earlier, notes how the destruction of ecosystems by the modern colonisation of Australia is quite out of step with Indigenous Australia’s history, which has been successful, systemically, over a far longer period.

“It speaks to how much human occupation, a tower of millennia, there has been in Australia, and of the contrast between its Indigenous stewards and the stewardship of us immigrant groups. It had taken us less than two and a half centuries to bring the 50m-year-surviving echidna, and the system sustaining it, to crisis.” — Thomas Keneally, ‘These fires have changed us’, The Guardian, 1 February 2020

As Watson points out, in a fascinating interview for the Time Sensitive podcast, bushfires at the scale we saw over Christmas would be unlikely to occur under the stewardship of Indigenous Australians. ‘Cool burns’ by aboriginal Australians use low-intensity fires to balance the various plants and trees growing in an areas, shaping and managing ecosystems via ‘pyrotechnology’, as described in this review of Watson’s book. (In fact, even the 27 million acre-size bushfires appeared to move around those areas where cultural burning practices had occurred.) Luke Pearson of IndigenousX says:

“Australia is home to the oldest living cultures on Earth — cultures that understood the health of the land, the water, the animals and the people are one and the same. We cannot take Australia back to its pre-invasion state, but we can move forward into the future embracing these same principles, and returning Indigenous people to our rightful role as guardians and caretakers.” — Luke Pearson, ‘Australia is built on lies, so why would we be surprised about lies about climate change?’, The Guardian, 9 January 2020

With the recent bushfires (actually ongoing), there is an emphasis on restoring in the right way, akin to the second curves emerging from the first. After the initial damage has been done, indigenous knowledge suggests the next wave is fundamentally important in terms of recovery, and that there is a relatively short window with which to do so.

“There’s all this canopy that’s been burnt away. We’ve got knowledge and techniques that can help heal that country in the future. It’s going to take some time. We’ve got probably two or three years before we can really be effective in some of that country because it needs to recover. But if we don’t get in there after that, then we miss our chance.” — Oliver Costello

Indigenous people are engaged in these battles in the north as much as the south. In Canada, the Wet’suwet’en people are fighting furiously against TransCanada-owned Coastal GasLink (CGL)’s $4 billion pipeline projects, which are designed to deliver fracked natural gas through the ancestral territory of the Wet’suwet’en, from the Dawson Creek area to a facility near Kitimat, British Columbia, before shipping to global markets. (Perhaps the virus changes things in that battle?) Fascinating work by McConnell Foundation and Dark Matter Labs suggests even the linguistic structure of indigenous peoples may open up more diverse ideas: “Words, in Anishinaabemowin, are 80% verb-based. They speak of relations, conjugations and acting together. They insist on how we relate to each other … (whereas) a noun-based language, like English, generates categorizations and classifications. This tends to objectify reality, induce dualism and freeze what is possible.”

And there’s a snowball‘s chance in a bushfire of this happening, but perhaps Traditional Ecological Knowledge would also help Trump with his ‘cure versus problem’ conundrum, by noting that prevention is also an option. As Watson says:

“We respond to disaster; we don’t think of preventative measures. And understanding ecosystems is about prevention and having a deep relationship with the land that you’re working with. It’s survival through symbiosis, not survival of the fittest.” — Julia Watson

In fact, well-meaning initiatives like Trillion Trees, if they ever happen, only make sense in the context of indigenous practices. As described in Drawdown, the work of Akira Miyawaki is particularly inspiring:

“(The method) calls for dozens of native tree species and other indigenous flora to be planted close together, often on degraded land devoid of organic matter. As these saplings grow, natural selection plays out and a richly biodiverse, resilient forest results. Miyawaki’s forests are completely self-sustaining after the first two years, when weeding and watering are required, and mature in just ten to twenty years — rather than the centuries nature requires to regrow a forest. In the same amount of space, they are one hundred times more biodiverse and thirty times denser than a conventional plantation, while sequestering more carbon. They provide beauty, habitat, food, and tsunami protection.”

But this approach can even moves beyond land management, despite the need for a new primacy of traditional understandings of ecosystems and technologies. As noted previously, even Taiwan’s digital strategy has also been repositioned somewhat around indigenous knowledge, further suggesting the value in this deliberate collision of hi-tech and Lo-TEK:

“One of the best ways [of shaping the digital agenda around people’s needs] that I’ve encountered so far is to tour around all the rural, indigenous and remote places, because these are the places where people look at emerging technologies — for example, self-driving vehicles — and apply them in a way that the designers in the lab would never think of … We shouldn’t forget about why the internet starts with an ‘inter’ — it’s because it allows different policies, different philosophies and different cultures to interconnect.” — Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang, ‘The wisdom of crowds: an interview with Taiwan’s unorthodox digital minister’, Global Government Forum, 18 December 2019

Such an approach generates fascinating questions, not least in the context of my work here in Sweden (Given IoT, microgrids, autonomous shuttles, remote satellite sensing, aquaponics, community platforms, local food cultures, indigenous afforestation, and snow, what is a Sámi street in Umeå?)

A ‘hammer-nails’ approach to complex problems is proving to be our downfall. We try everything to ensure that contemporary technologies are the answer (recall the Price Conundrum), ignoring the many other ways of framing and solving challenges, which may include contemporary technologies, but alongside nature-based infrastructures, new behaviours, different social, political, and economic models. It’s as if we want to hold everything else constant, with technology the only variable we‘re allowed to change. That is not good science, nor smart design, and is not going to work.

Those approaches — Watson’s Lo-TEK versus biomimicry, biomaterials, nanotech, and IoT, for example — are fundamentally different, deeply contrasting, effectively opposed, even. The organic modernism of Aalto’s architecture and design is not the organic material of East Kolkata Wetlands. Yet a city with both in would set up a wonderful city.

It is in the collision of such contrasting ideas — the agonistics of design philosophies, almost — that we can endlessly generate a diversity of responses, and thus build ongoing resilience. Notice how the trees seem to hug the bold edges of Aalto’s house or how his Finlandia Hall is immersed in the rocks and foliage. What is the potential for nature-based technologies to build a general natural resilience, and then to craft biomaterials to provide particular bespoke resilience? Imagine a city constructed by pulling on both of those threads, and then weaving them together.

Drawing from the disparate ingredients of Aalto’s Paimio and Watson’s radical indigenism (Artek x Lo-TEK), Beachler’s Wakanda and post-traumatic urbanism with non-grid distributed organisation and ownership, Pallasmaa’s six themes and Ostrom’s rules, Tsing’s assemblages and political economies, Ikkala’s nanotech and Jain’s multi-species politics and design, we have a far richer stew than Florida’s ‘Kings Cross in a hazmat suit’. We could have another green world.

It suggests a hugely increased emphasis on biodiversity, for super-green-and-blue cities embedded in regenerative landscapes, which builds resilience against pandemics, both resisting them within cities and preventing their emergence outside cities, with win:win co-benefits for the bigger crises of climate, health, and social justice to come. New forms of architecture, infrastructure, and organisation will emerge from this, relying on a rebalanced relationship between participatory cultures and corporate interest, public sector and private sector, and the reinvigorated institutions of trusted government. It emphasises shared resources and civic relationships, yet recognises individual diversity of choice. It suggests a hybrid of contemporary technologies such as nanocellulose, biomaterials, biomimicry, and machine learning, with the deeper, fundamental learning implicit within nature-based technologies and indigenous cultures. It implies the super-local, yet understands that everything is connected, excising ‘pretend boundaries’ between city and countryside, and using clean, super-fast connectivity, digital and physical, for global community-building and cultural exchange.

Starting with this set, or something like them, unlocks alternative futures for our cities after the curves. We can’t simply go back, despite what Richard Florida suggests, to the orthodoxies of recent urban development, but this time carrying protection. The only thing worse than being in Hudson Yards is being in Hudson Yards wearing a face mask.

The above set are only some of the second-order implications, and curated to reflect a particular set of patterns, clearly. Once again, I place continent-sized caveats on these lists, noting that they reflect the a perspective from the ‘over-developed’ world loosely described as West, or North. But they are derived from the earlier observations, and mapped onto the ‘ideas lying around’, as well as discussed with colleagues, in varying levels of detail at least.

There is no doubt an increasing desire from many (most?) for a return of ‘back to normal’ as soon as humanly possible. Yet alongside this, there is also no doubt a broad understanding that current — or previous, rather — models are fundamentally broken, and in many ways. But that some could be resolved.

Compared to the politics of the last four decades, the circuit-breaker patterns being described by the Slowdown include the following. Note that many are in marked contrast to our responses to the bushfires and floods of the climate crisis, and we should be asking “Why?” Is it simply that the West is being hit first, pervasively and concurrently? Either way, emblematic ideas to take forward could include:

  • resilient and diverse communities as essential foundations;
  • the value of trust in government and civic institutions;
  • recognising the agility and capability latent within the public sector;
  • and the enormous value of inefficiency and redundancy in systems;
  • an understanding that there are essential services and infrastructures that should lie outside of free market dynamics;
  • a facility with futures, complexity, and various forms of expertise;
  • an understanding that local ecosystems can be regenerated, and the value of reoriented around that biodiversity;
  • that a rich diversity and frequent distribution of resources, infrastructures, architectures, and aesthetics is more resilient;
  • an awareness of other, older forms of stewardship, management, and governance of shared resources, spaces, and communities,
  • alongside an active curation of contemporary and imminent technologies, and perspectives that recognise genuinely diverse cultural identities;
  • a renewing sense of slowness, amidst new questions of value.

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.

New: Batch two of the Slowdown Papers, late-April 2020. Start here:

13: From Lockdown to Slowdown

“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.

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The Slowdown Papers are a series of observations, reflections and loose extrapolations, based on the early impact of the Coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic, particularly on the way we make decisions about cities, systems, infrastructures, cultures, and technologies.

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