Tag Archives: design

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Credit Where It’s Due

Last year, I wrote a series of posts about mobile devices focused on repairability, decentralization, design, and user experience. One of my main complaints was how mobile devices had gone from a Cambrian explosion of form factors in the early 2000s to a monoculture of iPhone clones in the 2010s.

While I have plenty of issues with the business practices of tech giants, I would like to take a moment to give some credit to some companies actually experimenting again with form factor. A lot of this is likely due to the coming decline of smartphone and computer sales, but it’s nice to see some variety again.

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The Microsoft Surface Neo

Dual screen Windows machines can trace a lineage back to the Toshiba Libretto W100 of 2010 and the Microsoft Courier concept before it. Various other half-baked attempts at dual screen laptops have peppered computing history, but it seems like a concerted effort from Microsoft’s Windows 10X will attempt to alleviate all the previous kludgy issues of dual screen computing. As someone who was devastated when the Courier was cancelled, I’m intrigued to see how well they pull it off. The Surface Neo and Lenovo Fold are two of the upcoming folio-esque devices that will use Windows 10X for true “notebook” computing.

Android efforts in the dual screen space date back to the Kyocera Echo from 2011, but the device didn’t really live up to most expectations, much like the aforementioned Libretto. Folding screens are coming to market in devices like the Samsung Fold and new dual screen devices like the Microsoft Surface Duo are experimenting with the phone/tablet hybrid form factor again. As with the Windows 10X system, I’m interested to see what comes of these new devices, but it is hard not to see them as a modest evolution over previous efforts. I suspect a lot will come down to what software engineers are able to do with the new capabilities of the hardware. If we just get wider versions of existing apps, it won’t be much to write home about.

A more exciting development, in my opinion, was Amazon unveiling two devices last fall that hearken back to the visions of wearable computing first pioneered by the MIT Media Lab and Steve Mann among many others. I talked briefly about personal area networks (PANs) last year, but basically, they decentralize the parts of your computing experience into several different devices, instead of a single glass slate. The capabilities of mobile hardware have progressed so much in the last 20 years that newer PANs should be nothing if not exciting.

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The Amazon Echo Frames are a more subtle way to interact with technology

Echo Frames may look like a Google Glass copycat at first, but they eschew the creepy camera and bulky screen in favor of glasses with a built-in Alexa voice assistant. Voice computing is an exciting area of research right now, and is particularly beneficial for the blind. The Echo Loop is a ring that performs voice assistant functions while living on your finger. I’m glad to see some experimentation with computing devices that don’t rely on screens for data input and output. It seems like a less distracting way to interact with our computers, but only time will tell.

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The MojoVision XR contact lens prototype

If you were disappointed by the lack of a screen in the Echo Lens, then maybe the Mojo Lens will be more to your liking. It looks like this will be the first “smart” contact lens, giving you an augmented view of the world without requiring some bulky hardware affixed to your head. While it isn’t as close to production as the previous examples, it does offer an interesting interpretation of bringing the magic back to computing.

Are you excited about one of these form factors? Is there a type of device you haven’t seen represented in the real world that would make your life better? Let us know below!

 

 

New Year, New Spool

While 3D printing has the potential to decentralize product design and manufacturing, nothing is without it’s drawbacks. One of the biggest for 3D printing is the inherent waste of filament packaging. Filament typically comes vacuum-sealed on a plastic spool with a tiny silica gel packet. The plastic film and silica gel are there to prevent water uptake which can have a negative impact on filament performance, and the spool is there to provide the filament with structure and an easy way to keep the long strand of plastic from tangling.

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My 3D printer with one of its new Master Spools mounted on top

The problem comes when you reach the end of the spool. What are you supposed to do with an empty spool? People on Thingiverse and the other 3D printer file repositories have come up with an impressive number of solutions to reusing these empty spools, but at some point, enough is enough. Luckily, makers are an inventive bunch, and RichRap came up with a solution called the Master Spool.

By making the spool a reusable part of the 3D printing process, filament is cheaper to ship with a reduced weight and carbon footprint. Since it’s an open standard, any filament manufacturer can jump onboard and offer their filament as Maker Spool refills. Master Spool is still new enough that only a few manufacturers are supporting it so far, but the speed of adoptions makes me think this will become the new normal for 3D printer filaments.

I ordered my Master Spools from Filastruder, and so far, I’m really impressed by the quality of the filament and how simple it was to put the Master Spool together. Two bolts and cutting three zip ties is all it takes to free yourself from an unending pile of empty filament spools.

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The empty Master Spool

This system isn’t entirely without waste, but it’s a big improvement over what came before. The plastic film can probably be recycled with other plastic bags in your area (usually at grocery stores), but I’m not sure what to do with the zip ties other than throw them in the trash. I keep the silica gel and put it in with my filament to try keeping it dry, but if I were a manufacturer, I’d spend the little bit extra and spring for the reusable silica gel packets with color indicator to reduce waste even more.

I think this is still a win for making 3D printing more sustainable. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

Recycling Rant – Mixed Materials

I know that recycling shouldn’t be our first line of defense to handle our waste streams, but it is something that can help divert materials from the landfill once they already have been created. But you wanna know what really grinds my gears? Mixed material food packaging. Sure, China’s National Sword cut a great big hole through US recycling efforts, but we can still recycle #1 and #2 plastics in most municipalities, and #5 if there’s a Whole Foods somewhere in your area.

If we want to encourage recycling though, we need it to be easy. People are busy, making their waste stream pretty low on their priority list. So, why on Earth would you make a dairy container out of #5 plastic and put a #2 lid on it? You took the time to make sure the two plastics looked identical for cohesive branding, but the only visual difference to the consumer is if they look at the little recycle triangle on BOTH parts of the package. Is this easy? NO! Store bought icing is even worse with its #5 or #2 body and #4 lid. Where the heck am I supposed to recycle a #4 that isn’t a plastic film like a bread bag?

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Photo by Anas Jawed on Pexels.com

As engineers, I know we want to find the optimal solution for every component of a design, but for single-use containers, end-of-life needs to be high on that priority list. I’m not a food packaging engineer, but my hierarchy of design would go something like safety/preservation of food, taste impact, mechanical stability, and end-of-life. I’ll grant you that you can’t package in something that will impact taste or safety, but is that #2 lid really making enough of a difference in your product that it’s worth confusing people so you get #2 and #5 plastics mixed up in each other waste streams?

If you ARE a food packaging engineer, I’m begging you to please consider end of life when designing your products. We are on a finite planet, and because plastic is such a useful material, I would really love it if we could easily reclaim it for future use. Whether it’s particularly safe for contact with food or whether we really need so much of it is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. For today, please think through your material choices and try to find ways to make recycling easier.

Moving toward a zero waste, solarpunk, circular economy is high on my wish list for the world, and there’s plenty of research that shows that unless you make something easier than the alternative, people just don’t have the bandwidth. The onus is on the designer, not the consumer for this. We can do better – please do!

Is there anything you’ve run across that was packaged ridiculously? Let us know below!

A Better Way to Pay

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As Adam Flynn said back in 2014, solarpunk takes infrastructure as a form of resistance. One of the biggest pieces of infrastructure that people interact with on a daily basis is payment systems. Payments aren’t as visible roads, or as tangible as housing, but decentralized, democratic payments are an important part of ensuring a brighter future.

We’re at a turning point for money. Since the middle ages, money has been controlled by the nation-state through fiat currency. The first experiments with digital-first money started in the 1980s, and we have seen an explosion in the availability of cryptocurrencies since the Bitcoin whitepaper was released in 2009. While Bitcoin hasn’t lived up to its original goal of being a replacement for fiat currency, it did revolt against the idea that only the state can create money.

Nation-states are now looking into developing crypto-fiat hybrids, and large corporate actors like Facebook are developing their own cryptocurrencies as well. The additional pressure of countries considering bans on cryptocurrencies that shield user identities makes me feel that governments see the danger that a truly decentralized monetary system would pose to their monopoly on power.

Brett Scott at Roar wrote about gentrification of payments from centralized issuers, “Put bluntly, digital payment facilitates a vast new frontier of financial surveillance and control, while also exposing users to new risks not present in the cash infrastructure.” He points out that the current trend for countries to emphasize digital (fiat) money over cash puts people’s finances increasingly into the hands of a small number of banks and state actors.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

Photo by Worldspectrum on Pexels.com

I’ve previously touched on the subject of designing appropriate incentives into a monetary system, but for now I’m going to focus on how true digital cash could work. Bitcoin is the opposite of private since every transaction ever made with Bitcoin is recorded to its public ledger. Privacy coins allow for transactions to remain private by being recorded to the blockchain with the details obfuscated to all but those who performed the transaction. This has major benefits, particularly for the fungibility of a currency, which is a fancy way of saying that every unit of the money is created equal. For completely public blockchains like Bitcoin, certain Bitcoins may become “stained” due to their use in criminal activities in the past, meaning they may become harder to trade or spend than a “clean” Bitcoin. There is no such distinction between the status of a specific unit of Monero, for instance, since its past is unknown. The MimbleWimble protocol is a new blockchain which greatly simplifies the privacy aspects of a blockchain resulting in less power and data consumption.

The problem with most cryptocurrencies right now, however, is that they typically use what is called Proof of Work to verify transactions on the chain. Proof of Work burns large amounts of energy in an effort to “prove” the validity of the blockchain. Various other schemes have been developed to secure blockchain networks including Proof of Stake, Delegated Proof of Stake, and Proof of Cooperation. Proof of Cooperation was developed for FairCoin to enable a less energy-intensive verification method for blockchains. I think that a Proof of Cooperation-based MimbleWimble coin could provide the privacy and lower energy consumption that would be desirable for digital cash.

business bank chip credit card

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

This digital cash would restore the peer-to-peer nature of cash and avoid the data-mining perils of current digital payment companies like Visa or PayPal. It is still dependent on computing technology to work, which makes me feel like it would be less inclusive than actual cash. In an increasingly digital-first world, however, thoughtfully-designed cryptocurrencies will be more inclusive than the options designed by corporations or governments. For more on the subject of post-capitalist money, check out In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism by Jerome Roos.

Money is often considered a taboo subject, but feel free to let us know your thoughts below. How do you think a separation of money and state could be liberating?

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

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When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!

The Upcycle — A Review

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The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? Let us know below!