Just add water

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September 20, 2010

Who needs an alarm clock when you can wake to the sound of a choir of monks?

NikolausKloster, a 600 year-old monastery in Germany has an atmosphere that I would describe as a charming castle mixed with a frat house. This special place was home to me and 23 others for a week as we learned about key issues of sustainability and attempted to tackle some of them.

This was the 2nd Sustainable Summer School and I was grateful to be sponsored as attendee by Designmatters, the social impact design department at my school, Art Center College of Design. “Summer” is a loose term however, because September in Duesseldorf can get quite cold as I discovered. The warmth of my company was tremendous; a point that illustrated the value of bio-diversity. Our culturally diverse group hailed from nine different countries and this added richness to the experience. All the workshop participants were either design students or practicing designers, but we were in the company of a philosopher, sociologist, artists, a C.E.O. and ecological researchers. The program was born out of collaboration between faculty from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and Ecosign, an ecologically focused design academy.

For the week we stayed in this sanctuary with little internet and poor cell reception; it was great. The brothers of the order made our food and much of it was grown on site. We left the countryside for one day to visit Cologne and hear expert speakers at Ecosign. Biologists and a sociologist presented two points of view on swarms and swarm intelligence. Their research was fascinating and their debate heated. Experiments illustrated the dynamic probability of humans to behave like a swarm. All this while psychological factors would indicate that this behavior would never be predictable when applied to humans. Another point communicated was that a group may be able to solve a problem that no one individual in the group is able to. Then it was up to our teams of designers to present the relevance we believed it had to design. Throughout the week I was elected to present as a native English speaker and because I was “the easiest to understand,” though there was a proper Brit on call. I suppose I have Hollywood to thank for that. A final speaker detailed the emergence of a new type of governance. A hybrid of human and automated control is what will make it possible to make decisions in between the macro and micro level. This addressed the inherent problems presented earlier in the day that come with top-down decision making and others which inhibit the success of decentralized coordination.

Back at the Monastery we split into groups for various workshops. Mine was led by the philosopher, Berndt, and sociologist, Davide, and we routinely found ourselves up till two in the morning working on our project and enjoying each other’s company. Though there were more presentations on issues of ecology, economics, and equity, Davide and Berndt discussed the origins and future directions of the urban environment. My understanding of the trend of urbanization is what motivated me to pick this group. From symbols in the ancient Polis to the proliferation of a global monoculture, we looked at the idea of the urban environment as a creative space.

Each afternoon a fitness expert from Wuppertal University came for comic relief. We had a great time laughing at each other attempting to do exotic dances or master some wild contraptions. In the evenings we hosted special guests who presented real world projects that address sustainability on two fronts. One presentation was given by a team of artists who undertook a seven year project in a run-down section of Hagen, a German city. A dark highway overpass was transformed into a gallery of paintings that attempted to tell the stories of women from around the world now living in Hagen with only color. Neon lighting adorns the paintings and gives light to the street below while forming the word “bridge” in the native languages of all those interviewed for the project. Another guest was Conrad Wagner, the founder of Mobility Systems and the first and most successful car sharing business. This was a really insightful presentation for me as he dove into new paradigms of mobility that could unfold in the future and gave new perspectives on our current scheme: “a traffic light is not democratic.” He must have enjoyed us as well because he stayed at the monastery for another day and a half, working with my group. As a member of Swiss government, he has decided to show our project to officials in his region and propose a small scale version of what we came up with.

Taking off from our focus on the urban creative environment, my group’s final proposal was for a guerilla movement to implant a mobile park or agora in a city. This would begin with suspenseful advertising we designed that promised a fruitful and rich city environment. This included shadows painted of trees that didn’t exist. We fell in love with the idea of invisible monuments and how art installations can affect change. Next, we would leave citizens with the ingredients to close the loop: beds of soil on wheels made from the simplest materials and some tools that provide instruction. In taking this movement on themselves, one of our chief goals of responsibility would be instilled. For some weeks of the year a street would be closed, traffic diverted and the garden pieces move in. The relationship between the center and periphery of the city would become dynamic and thus further social equity. By growing food and sharing it around the city, residents could “share meals” with complete strangers and gain respect for what can be grown in each season. As demand for the park grows it too would gain size and stay longer in areas as it moves through the city as a self-organizing swarm. The street would gradually return to the domain of the people and not the auto.

I thoroughly enjoyed the slower pace of life I experienced living in the monastery and, though I’m a transportation major, even the lack of cars. It was an incredibly valuable learning experience of which the best part was connecting with some great designers from around the world who are sure to integrate what they learned in Germany into their work. We’ll have to keep in touch through Facebook, which is coincidentally where we derived the name for our project. A virtual farm application called Farmville is what we poked fun at with the name of our project: “Swarmville” for the application of swarm behavior applied to something with tangible results. The tagline? “Swarmville, just add water.”