They are passing out free blankets in New York City—25,000 in a city where a million people are still without power, shivering as the temperatures drop and forecasters talk about a possible nor’easter. It sounds Dickensian, but the scope of the disaster grows more daunting by the day. It’s hard to help so many suddenly thrust into such need.
Still, people—lot of people—are trying to help in any way that can:
• tapping fireplugs and trekking up dozens of flights of highrise stairs to deliver jugs of water to the elderly
• organizing a bagel / water / supply runs via Twitter from Brooklyn to Manhattan
• rallying “Hurricane Hackers” to whip up some insti-apps for humanitarian response
• stringing up extension cords outfitted with power strips so pedestrians can recharge cell phones, delivering free pizzas, offering free medical and vet services
The first of what will likely be many star-studded televised fundraisers has already aired (quick—who remembers Bono, Jay-Z and Rihanna belting out Haiti Mon Amour / “We’re not going to leave you stranded” less than two years ago?)
The images of uprooted trees morph all too easily into a metaphor for cities, neighborhoods and families. The death toll doesn’t come close to telling the story of lives shredded and futures left up in the air.
Upon entering the main office area of the volunteer center, a little girl rushed up to whoever she thought knew anything about anything. (Most people don’t. To my surprise, it was pure chaos.) She wanted insulin for her mother, who wasn’t able to come down 16 flights of stairs in darkness. There was none to give out. She took the last of the ice packs and was told that it will help keep whatever insulin left in the house cold (and I suppose longer lasting).
How life-scarringly frightening for that little girl. And how potentially deadly for her mother, and so many others whose manageable chronic conditions require a reliable supply of medicines.
The past few years have been filled with record-breaking storms, droughts, fires, floods, earthquakes (some of which may have been triggered from the weight of flood-waters). Calamities now come super-sized.
But it is one thing for a tornado to wipe out Joplin, Missouri, a small city in Midwestern flyover territory, and quite another for a massive, for-the-record-books hurricane to deal a body blow to the media-saturated Eastern Seaboard.
If there is any good-ish news, it is that Sandy blew away any political need to tip-toe around the climate change debate. The spin-doctors have been literally out-spun.
A few months after Hurricane Katrina, I was invited to be part of massive humanitarian response exercise organized under the auspices of the US Navy called “Strong Angel III” (SA3). It brought together roughly 800 people from 200 organizations: a mix of Silicon Valley and Seattle-based techs, academics, DARPA researchers and military personnel.
Basically, it was a weeklong hackathon, set against converging disaster scenarios unfolding in real time. The deafening roar of planes taking off and landing at the nearby San Diego airport added to the ”life during wartime” reality at headquarters, an acoustically challenged, abandoned, open cavern of a structure.
SA3 helped kickstart everything from crisismapping and crowdsourced disaster database design, to better communications software for first responder coordination. The site was strewn with disaster tech, from inflatable, portable satellite dishes to Buckminster Fuller-inspired foam-core yurts. My job was to figure out what was happening and write daily missives for the organizers. The techs brought their gear. I brought my notepad.
It was a front row seat to something truly amazing—something that actually made a difference, not only in terms of disaster tech innovation, but also in deepening connections across disciplines and institutions. SA3 veterans have gone on to pioneer local capacity-building innovation labs in developing countries (InSTEDD), crunch big data to improve disaster forecasting (UN Global Pulse) and develop ever whiz-bang-ier (if platform preferential) mapping tools (Google).
All of this, of course, is great, but the disasters are still outpacing the tech. The only way to get ahead of this deadly curve is rethinking the metrics of good design and innovation.
DON’T MESS WITH MOTHER NATURE: SHE ALWAYS BATS LAST
I first heard the axiom, “Nature Bats Last,” while filming a television documentary on coyotes. For more than a century, livestock ranchers in the West have waged war on coyotes, slaughtering them by the millions, using everything from poison-laced land mines to aerial shooting sprees. But not only are there more coyotes than ever, they have expanded their range and have also adapted to life in the big city, from Los Angeles to Chicago.
It turns out that left alone, only a pack’s alpha and sometimes beta pairs mate. But when the pack structure is destroyed, everybody mates, mates at a younger age and has larger litters. Wily critters, indeed.
Yet when wolves were added back into the picture—as was done in Yellowstone—the coyote population dials back in a hurry and stays at reduced numbers.
The point goes beyond nature’s brilliance at finding balance, to systems thinking, or rather ecosystems thinking.
From micro to macro, this is how the system works. We couldn’t live without our gut fauna, for example, but those populations have to be in balance, too.
The only choice is whether to work within the rules or to be slapped down by those rules when we try to defy them (see fossil fueled business-as-usual).
SUSTAINABILITY, RESILIENCE AND DESIGN
In the wake of Sandy, a simmering debate about whether the focus should be on sustainable solutions or resilient ones has spilled over onto the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. It is a rather ridiculous either / or option.
It is true that the greenest, LEED-est building in the world is bound to topple if located in a flood zone, but to conflate sustainable technologies and poor site planning is silly. Likewise, resilience, the meme du jour, depends on circumstance, which can be inconveniently—and sometimes literally—fluid. My brain fogs wading through Harvard Business Review case studies on resilient companies. The bottom line is that it always depends: What works for one company at a certain point in time may not work for another. As Barack Obama noted, the era for horses and muskets in the military has passed.
Nor does the “the science of resilience” take into consideration the resilience of problems, e.g., the feedback loops ignited by GHGs altering the atmosphere, or, for that matter, coyotes. Resilience is neutral, a characteristic informed by perspective.
Far more useful and to the point would be the development of a set of guiding design principles for navigating an increasingly erratic, dangerous world.
Years ago, covering energy stories for BusinessWeek, I interviewed Amory Lovins, chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute. Although our conversation focused on distributed power generation, it quickly became obvious that the notable characteristics—small, modular, flexible, adaptable, scalable, interchangeable and cheap—offer an edge in efficiency and durability almost no matter what the issue. From energy distribution to food distribution, or data bundles to cells, or architecture to public health campaigns, these are good metrics both to direct and judge innovation.
LEMONADE FROM LEMONS: LEARNING FROM THE MASTER
Nature doesn’t “bounce back” as the resilience pundits would have it, but bounces onward. Change is an integral part of the equation, with recycling, upcycling and endless cycling the means of transformation. Poisonous outputs become productive feedstocks. There is no garbage, only opportunity.
Survival of the fittest turns out to be collaborative affair, full of shrewd symbiotic horse-trading: energy for shelter, nitrogen for nutrients, protection for honeydew.
So we find ourselves at what optimists call a teachable moment. Fortunately, we have a great teacher. If “Nature bats last,” why not play on her team, or at least follow her playbook?
In the last decade, biomimicry—looking to nature for design inspiration—has gone from the fringe to the mainstream in large part to Janine Benyus’ tireless efforts. This is not exactly Nature as a cheat sheet, but once you get into the biomimicry zone, nothing seems impossible. If a leaf can turn sunlight into energy, why can’t we? (see Daniel Nocera).
Marry biomimicry and 3D printing technologies and suddenly the possibility of creating major structures—buildings and bridges—modeled on the latticework design of bones, light and strong, seems feasible. Construction materials might even be found on site, just as paper wasps turn leaves into sturdy hives with some water and enzymes.
Weave in ecosystems thinking and things start to get even more interesting. Growing Power, MacArthur genius Will Allen’s urban farm in Milwaukee, is all about connecting inputs and outputs, from worm castings to waste heat. Meanwhile, ZERI (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives), led by Gunter Pauli is bursting with ideas for viable “Blue Economy” businesses.
This is not about social innovation and trying to do good. The goodness and efficiencies are baked in.
But there is a need for incubators and accelerators to help these news businesses root. Perhaps a Strong Angel 3-style event could help, bringing together people across disciplines, working on energy, construction, urban planning, transportation, manufacturing—united by a similarity of vision and approach.
We need Media Lab-style, STEAM-filled, biomimicry-inspired genius solutions guided by the design metrics: small, modular, flexible, adaptable, scalable, interchangeable and cheap. Put some physicists, designers, writers and makers in a really nice room and mix.
THE GOOD NEWS: NO SHORTAGE OF IDEAS and TOOLS
A couple of months ago, a post by Tim O’Reilly flashed by in a G+ newsfeeed about a Kickstarter project for a tabletop unit to produce microsolar. Nevermind that the feedstock issue still needs to be addressed…Wow! There are so many good ideas out there—if only fraction could be adopted as fast as the iPhone. Imagine microsolar panels as common as small batteries. Not only would it be good news for iPhones, but the less we need to collectively sip from the grid, the better.
Another personal favorite is biochar, a modern riff on terra preta, that not only enhances soil fertility and water retention, but also absorbs atmospheric carbon. James Lovelock loves the stuff.
Or imagine 3D printing technologies used to create replacement parts for New York’s sea water-eroded subway system; and designing cheaper, modular transport options.
The waters are rising. The storms have gathered. If we are going to have a 21st century that isn’t all about recovery and salvage, then we need designers inspired by nature to help lead the way.
— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews
• Hot Topics: On Weather, Preppers and the Promise of a “Blue Economy” / J. A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Dot to Dot
• Bouncing Onward: Climate, Consequences, Crops, Memes & Resilience / J. A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Dot to Dot
• Gunter Pauli / TEDxFlanders
• Janine Benyus / Biomimicry 3.8 video page / (TED talks and more)
• MIT Media Lab: Mediated Matter Group / website
• Revolution in Art & Design using 3D Printing | Objet for Neri Oxman