The excess CO2 we add to the atmosphere through our daily use of appliances is responsible for irreversible and harmful changes to ecosystems. Natural Fuse reflects this phenomenon at a tangible scale – a closed loop network of connected plants, which relies on the plants’ carbon sinking properties and users’ behaviour to function. Devices connected to the network can be operated through a selfless/selfish switch. The switch either limits usage to support the network (selfless) or permits draw-down on the network (selfish), thereby decreasing the energy available for others. If cooperation is inadequate then plants start to be killed, diminishing the network capacity.
Could you tell us a little bit about your professional background(s) and how you got interested in the circular economy?
Umbrellium: We are a team of architects, designers, tactical urbanists and creative technologists with years of proven experience in designing and deploying award-winning participatory platforms like Pachube.com (the world’s largest open Internet of Things data repository and community when it was acquired by LogMeIn Inc in 2011) and mass-participation urban spectacles like the Burble (which won London’s Design Museum Design of the Year Award in 2008).
Umbrellium work throughout the world with communities, organisations, urban developments and city councils to deliver projects using a proven methodology that gets people involved in design activities, decision-making and defining project goals. Our aim is for participants to develop a shared sense of technological enfranchisement and ownership in civic outcomes. When people act together, they are more effective.
What do you see as the key challenges in making Smart Cities an ecosystem responds and adapts with people rather than being driven by technology? How do you engage people?
Umbrellium: A major challenge in cities today is to connect the urban scale with the human scale by ensuring that networking technologies (with their potential for supporting both top-down and bottom-up processes) encourage citizen enfranchisement and creative diversity rather than disengagement and homogeneity. With so much attention on Big Data, Smart Cities and socio-technological disruption, we believe it’s vital to involve citizens directly in the design, prototyping and rollout of urban propositions so they have a vested interest in outcomes.
Our engagement methodology, partly covered in Notes on the Design of Participatory Systems, involves a deliberate phased approach that responds to hyper-local situations and communities. Through a series of iterative tactical engagement sessions we work with groups of people to define, design and prototype many parts of a project collaboratively. This enables us to test and refine objectives rapidly, while getting ever larger groups of people involved and invested.
How did Natural Fuse come about? How have people responded in the locations it has been shown?
Umbrellium: Umbrellium’s Usman Haque was originally commissioned by the Architectural League of New York for ‘Toward the Sentient City’ exhibition, at the Urban Center in New York City until November 7, 2009. It has also been part of ‘Silicon Dreams’. San Sebastián Spain, 2010, International Digital Arts Festival 09 Incheon Korea, 2010, ‘Try This At Home’, Sydney Australia, 2011 and as part of ’HOME/SICK’ at Dublin Science Gallery, Dublin.
At each city Natural Fuse has been amazingly successful, with all the units being rented for the duration of each exhibition. Once the units are in the people’s houses all participants take ownership over their plant and the others by becoming selfless, not wanting to act selfish and to kill some else plant. The display unit left at each exhibition, visitors feel no ownership of it and so it is constantly left in selfish mode.
How would you describe the different mindsets of circular thinking/design for the CE versus traditional linear thinking for the linear economy?
Umbrellium: As our world becomes increasingly influenced by data and networked technologies; as real time sensors stream from buildings, streets and mobile devices, informing us about what’s happening right now; and as our micro-decisions interact more and more with the micro-decisions of others, being meaningfully and consciously engaged with each other and the world around us might seem increasingly elusive.
The volume of data, and the variety of decisions that need to be made, can seem almost overwhelming. And so, introducing technological systems seems like an obvious answer.
Technologies like smart thermostats are supposed to help our homes decide, on our behalf, the right moment to switch on the heating. Automation systems driving our cars, or executing trades on the stockmarket, or managing our city infrastructures, or distinguishing criminals in crowds, or guiding our economies... All of these deal with masses of data, and complex interactions between all sorts of phenomena, much more quickly and, in a sense, more accurately than humans can.
But each of these technologies was designed. That means that somebody somewhere, some group of people, with their own perspectives and worldviews, made the most important decision of all – they decided, defined and designed the goals each of these systems should strive for.
Somebody somewhere decided on a definition for optimisation, or a definition of efficiency, or a definition of safety, of risk, of certainty. They decided how to evaluate progress towards a goal. They also decided precisely how goals would get encoded into algorithms – the set of rules used to derive solutions, or make decisions.
But goals are designed – they’re crafted, if you will – and crafting means that they reflect something about their designer, and the designer’s own worldview.
All too often the design of such technologies is done behind closed doors. Whether it’s driverless cars, or smart homes in smart cities, or curated news items in social media – other people, in companies driven by their own commercial requirements or organisations with their own unspoken objectives are making countless non-consensual decisions on our behalf.
We, the citizens, need to be involved collectively in helping shape the technologies that govern our lives. They are going to affect how and where we live, and what we do from minute to minute and so we all need to be part of the conversation. There is no single definition of “efficiency”, or “optimisation”, or “convenience”, or “comfort”. Or “terrorist” for that matter.
Technology is equally an outcome of, and a defining factor in the development of our social structures: it both affects and is affected by the societies we live in and the ones we want to create. The kinds of technology we hear about today are often good for doing things quickly, for controlling things or responding to large volumes of data. That means they are good if you have a clear definition of efficiency, and if you have decided that efficiency is what you’re after. In many cases that makes them good, unintentionally or not, for surveillance.
But the other thing that they are good at is bridging distance: connecting people and places and things and experiences and environments and neighbourhoods to each other in real-time. They’re good at shrinking the scale of the planet and making us more aware of how what we do relates to others, both human and non-human. They’re good at linking things that are far apart, or connecting people that don’t know each other. They’re good at helping us discover new perspectives.
So the goal, in Umbrellium’s work, is to use networked technologies, not to make things more efficient or to optimise, but to see things differently so that we can make decisions together. Not to make decisions better (whatever that means) but to make them collectively; not to remove inefficiency and complexity, or iron out wrinkles and seams, but to embrace that complexity and build value from the unpredictability, serendipity and creativity that you find in messy situations. I look for ways to deploy infrastructure that gets taken over and repurposed by other people, so they develop a shared sense of technological enfranchisement and ownership in civic outcomes.