Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Big Conversation

Recently, I came across a phenomenal podcast through Howard Silverman’s blog Solving For Pattern (which is also brilliant, by the way).

The podcast is called The Conversation and it’s built on a sweeping hypothesis:

There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas insatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis. During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversations and torn apart inherited ideas. Dethroning truths and combining old thoughts and creating new ideas, they have shaped the norms of future generations. Every era has its issues but do ours warrant the conversation? If they do, is it happening?

The podcast is a series of conversations with American thinkers, wrestling with big ideas about the future. The idea is that no single set of ideas will shape the future and that we need the cross-pollination and tension between all of these ideas to see the patterns of how the future might turn out.

The conversations are immensely inspiring and thought-provoking. Especially because the interviewer and conversation instigator Aengus Anderson makes a good effort to connect the thoughts and concepts from the different conversations. He and co-host Micah Saul curate each conversation with a brief preface and a conclusion, connecting the dots to draw the bigger picture along the way. It’s intellectually stimulating and very rewarding to listen to.

Just to illustrate the breadth of the conversation, here’s a few choice quotes to pique your curiosity. They are taken from three conversations that were released almost back-to-back in August last year:

Wes Jackson, author and researcher focusing on sustainable agriculture:

I think [this] is the most important moment [in human history] including our walk out of Africa. (..) See, as hunter/gatherers we didn’t have to worry about practicing restraint, so it’s been a trajectory of exploitation starting with agriculture. That’s why I think that if we don’t get sustainable agriculture first, it’s not going to happen. The restraint from the past, is what paradoxically has allowed civilization and the exploitation of all those resources. It’s what has given us the knowledge. Now the big question is: Can we start living within our means and retain the knowledge as TS Eliot put it “and in the end know our place for the first time”?

Joseph Tainter, author and researcher focusing on societal collapse:

People will not voluntarily refrain from consumption they can afford on the basis of abstractions about the future. If people don’t experience problems in their daily lives, they will simply continue spending whatever they can afford and consuming whatever they can afford. Economists tell us, and at this point I agree with them, that what changes people’s behavior is the price mechanism. That is what curtails people’s consumption.


In human evolution there was never selective pressure to think broadly in either time nor space, and so humans don’t. We’re simply not inclined to by nature. A few people do but they’re the rarity.

Robert Zubrin, aerospace engineer and advocate for manned exploration of Mars:

The discounting of material well-being is a cheap shot. It’s from people who don’t have to deal with the lack of material well-being.


To dismiss the need of other people to do alright, because “it’s just material stuff, and who needs that”  — that’s really being dismissive of vital concerns because they’re no longer of concern to you. This idea that people are vermin, consuming the world. This idea creates catastrophic policies.

Whereas the other point of view that humans are creators, and you can be a creator, and we are all part of the creative process of creating an ever-expanding horizon for humanity, in which all men can be brothers, whereas they can’t in this Hobbesian world.

I’m slowly working my way through the more than 40 different conversations that have been posted so far. And it’s just fascinating. Do give it a listen.

Small, open, local and connected

Ezio Manzini, a Italian design professor and expert on social innvoation (whatever that is) argues that we are moving towards a new model of organizing society, production and consumption. He uses the words small, open, local and connected to describe this new model.

He says:

It’s a way to imagine the way in which the social services are delivered in society and the way in which we can imagine economies that are at the same time rooted in a place and partially self-sufficient but connected to the others and open to the others. This is a very interesting relationship between being local, being related to a certain context and at the same time being open and connected, not provincial or one closed community that risks being against the others.

This is an idea that is clear and strong if you talk about the arena where people are dealing with networks, open source and peer to peer. But it can become a very general metaphor, and embed itself in some realities to become a powerful way to organize a sustainable society.

Manzini is applying these notions in practice in Nutrire Milano —  a network that works to redefine the food chain of the city and develop innovative and sustainable urban farming. In a way, it is rather similar to the Copenhagen Food Coop that I’m involved in.

He goes on to describe the challenges that the project faces:

We have to recognize that to promote the small and local perspective can also be very dangerous. In fact, it can bring people to jail themselves in closed communities. To isolate themselves. And moving from here, to create a fake identity of who is inside his/hers “gated community”, against all the others. That is what, unfortunately, today is happening in many places in the world.

Vice versa, what we have to search for is to be local and open, at the same time. To create permeable interfaces between communities and places. To cultivate diversity to permit, at the same time, the free flow of people and ideas.

All this, of course, is very difficult: to blend the local and the open could appear to be a quasi-oxymoron. But maybe, it is exactly from dealing with this kind of quasi-oxymoron that a sustainable society will find the ground to emerge. A society that is based on a multiplicity of interconnected communities and places will appear as a large ecology of people, animals, plants, places and products.

This is exactly the same challenge that we face with the food coop here in Copenhagen: To create and strengthen our local community, and at the same time be open and connect to other projects, share our experiences, learn from theirs, and help new projects get started.

It’s easy to be small and local. It’s easy to be open and connected. It’s even easy to be small, open and local or small, connected and open. But we have to find out how to be small, open, local and connected all at once.

One thing that is small, open, local and connected at the same time is an ecology, as Manzini says. And that is what we’re going to have to create. A fundamental characteristic of an ecology is that we can’t control it. Instead, we have to learn from how other eco-systems work, and adapt accordingly.

That is also what I the core of what I mean by the notion of organisational permaculture.