Soft design and the “nudge unit”

A few weeks ago in Britain’s Ministry of Nudges, Katrin Bennhold explored the work of the United Kingdom’s new(ish) Behavioral Insights Team, for the NYT Sunday Business section. The team was started-up by Prime Minister David Cameron after reading ‘Nudge‘ by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

Two key concepts:

1) The idea of behavioral economics as a form of soft design. The article touches on the idea of shaping “choice architecture“. Perhaps simply another way of saying that “everything needs to actually be ‘architected’…“.

2) The group started off almost as a “guerilla operation” similar in spirit to the off talked about guerilla urbanism. The goal is “evidence-based policy-making“, wherein the scientific method results in an iterative process. Social design, devised and refined via small-bore, research/trials.

China’s “Go global” strategy

A heavy load carrier moored at the terminal of the Chinese shipping company Cosco, carrying five cranes for the expansion of the terminal in Piraeus, Greece (credit: Alkis Konstantinidis/European Pressphoto Agency)

The above image was published along with an editorial essay by Heriberto Araújo and Juan Pablo Cardenal (authors of “China’s Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking The World in Beijing’s Image.”) in a recent Sunday NYT. The piece titled China’s Economic Empire articulates against, the growing soft power, enabled by economic development, in Beijing’s relationship with other developing countries. The authors see this as “a game-changing force in both the developed and developing world, one that threatens to obliterate the competitive edge of Western firms, kill jobs in Europe and America and blunt criticism of human rights abuses in China“.

Martha Schwartz on the softer side of sustainability

It goes beyond just the performative perspective and soft doesn’t mean just temporary or flexible:

She suggests that “the urban landscape is not only about technical or science-based systems. The urban landscape is greatly shaped and organized and enables what people think, feel, and do. To design in the city, there must be a recognition of ALL the systems, the natural and the people systems that must be accounted for…Longevity in the urban environment can only be achieved if people value it.

McLeod Tailings, Geraldton, Canada- Martha Schwartz Partners

The she goes on to make a strong argument for the notion of a built landscape, of seeing land(s)cape as a “built artifact“. A nature that can be shaped and that can be ecological and sustainable (using her expanded notion), but yet not look like we expect. For instance a rural wilderness that is unnatural (see her McLeod Tailings project) or a wilderness within the urban jungle (see her Rio Shopping Center project).

Schwartz contends “A built landscape is not required to look or mimic nature. If we are creating it, like any other cultural art form, it can be what we wish it to be…But to most in the U.S., a landscape must represent nature or the process of nature.

More in an interview with Martha from ASLA’s the DIRT

(soft) design of The Agile City

Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern has a review of, The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change by James S. Russell, architecture columnist for Bloomberg News, over at The DIRT.

Apparently Russell’s book centers on the idea that the key to solving the challenges of global climate change, lie not in a focus on new forms/technologies of energy generation and the like, but through an efficiency model. Efficiency earned by changes in consumption patterns, primarily through a change in development patterns and the like.

From the post we read

The agile city would evolve out of innovative policies that “deploy regulations straightforwardly, balancing them with incentives. Rules will reward performance (energy, water, and emissions saved) rather than prescribing what lightbulbs we’ll use and what cars we’ll drive.” These regulations will also boost well-being and produce economic values that gross domestic product (GDP) fails to measure, like increased real estate values from repaired natural systems and health care costs saved from reduced rates of cancer.
..Russell believes the U.S. can craft the policies and develop a growth machine that supports these endeavors with fairly straightforward regulatory measures, but they will require a significant shift in cultural attitudes.

I would argue that such an approach could be facilitated by and viewed as a form of Social Design using feedback loops

Such an approach also makes me think of a book, I recently picked up at a thrift store, with the intriguing title Soft Energy Paths: Towards a Durable Peace by Armory Lovins. Although I haven’t but glanced through the book yet, I imagine the argument is much along the lines of what he outlined in multiple appearances on the Charlie Rose show. Namely, that huge energy savings can be found through efficiency and that more granular, scalable and soft energy paths should be pursued as opposed to the hard infrastructures of centralized power generation.

As Lovins explained the most profound difference between the soft and hard paths — the difference that ultimately distinguishes them — is their different socio-political impact. Both paths entail social change, “but the kinds of social change for a hard path are apt to be less pleasant, less plausible, less compatible with social diversity and freedom of choice, and less consistent with traditional values than are the social changes which could make a soft path work”.

Also, see this TED video of Alex Steffen discussing why he thinks if we view climate change as a problem of  “clean energy generation” we are setting ourselves up for a problem.

Reading the Missouri River as a complex, hybridized infra-natural system

Mammoth has been doing a summer long, series of posts on floods (both national; international) and flood control (man-made;natural responses) explored through the lens of the infrastructural landscape. All of the posts are excellent and thought-provoking but I wanted to respond to two  in particular: six dams and six reservoirs and dredging fort peck.

Chiefly, because they allow me an opportunity to refer to a fascinating book I read earlier this year, River Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999, it was written by Ur-American traveler writer, William Least Heat-Moon. The book chronicles the author’s successful attempt to cross the USA from East to West traveling solely (almost completely), by river boat or canoe alone.

I had previously published a short post, Discovering the Garrison Dam inspired by my ongoing reading of Heat-Moon’s book. At that time I wrote the following:

Suffice to say, the tale (particularly the part from whence the above passage is excerpted, regarding the author’s time on the Missouri during his cross country, East to West, only by river navigation) is deeply fascinating for what it says about America, rivers and a sense of nature and place. It especially makes me think about my time in the Midwest and of the fact that my father’s land of birth is up North, near the Missouri headwaters.

Meanwhile, Mammoth has argued for viewing the current flooding, occurring along the Mississippi and Missouri for instance, as “not natural disasters, but infra-natural disasters” . 

What exactly does this mean? As Mammoth described it, the infra-natural disaster is a complex hybridized entity “rather than merely natural disaster; nature may have provided the floodwaters, but the specific velocity and volume of floodwater was produced by the configuration of infrastructural systems, and the confluence of physical and legal infrastructures controlled where disaster appeared.]

Heat-Moon has much to say about this hybrid state of the American waterways. The waters are to him: historic, mythic yet vibrant, urban-rural, wild and natural but also controlled and man-made…

Mammoth’s six dams and six reservoirs focuses on the six reservoirs of the Upper Missouri — Fort Peck Lake, Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe, Lake Francis Case, and Lewis and Clarke Lake. Heat-Moon was about two thirds of the way through his cross-continental adventure by the time he reached the Upper Missouri. What is interesting about this section of the book though is that he describes  the flip-side of the condition Mammoth has documented this summer. While Mammoth highlights the flooded conditions of this stretch of the Missouri and the fact that the Army Corp is having to discharge high volumes of water from the six reservoirs, during Heat-Moon’s visit the Army Corps was “releasing minimal water” (pg. 303) as a result of the high water levels further downstream and the chances of Heat-Moon reaching Garrison Dam are described as “aught to naught“.

Heat-Moon describes the way the contemporary river has been changed by the Corps from the river of “ten thousand channels, chutes, islands, towheads, meanders, marshes, backwaters, slackwaters, sloughs, sandbars, and wrenchingly tight bends into a ildly curving conduit” (pg. 211) All of this was done for the purpose of ensuring navigational usage of the river. Resulting in what some groups would argue is a market skewing , un-needed high-rate of industry subsidization. Industry groups would counter however, that barging is used chiefly for high volume, bulk commodities. Barging, therefore earns the support of many environmental groups because it is highly efficient, in terms of energy usage and carbon reduction.

Heat-Moons’ thoughts on the equation though, are clear. He writes “Channelizing destroyed thousands of acres of natural habitats, removed spaces that formerly absorbed high waters to lessen the impact of floods, and forced Americans to pay millions of dollars to benefit a few companies and bottom farmers and people who should never have built houses and businesses in the altered floodplain in the first place.” (pg. 211)

The passage I quoted in my earlier post perfectly illustrates the immensity/scale of our conceit. Garrison Dam is just one node with an enormous infra-natural project, which has resulted in the current complex, hybridized system that exists today.

More than two miles long and 219 feet high, it is one of the largest (eds note: the fifth largest per Wikipedia) earthern structures in the world, a thing so massive, from the river at least, it didn’t look big, any more than, say, North Dakota looks big from a highway; it was just simply everywhere.  (pg. 307)

While awe-inspiring in scale and ego, the folly of such attempts are made clear.  But the river’s hybrid condition is not the fault of dams alone. All manner of industries benefit from subsidies at the river(s) expense. Heat-Moon again does not hide his sympathies. Besides the six dams and their reservoirs how patterns of land use on river adjacent lands have also  totally, the riverine ecologies that once existed. Exclusively, for the good of man. His travels bring Heat-Moon to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge , where due to the antiquated Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the “foul stench of cattle manure made us hurry our snack” (pg. 253). Aside from this more aesthetic condition a host of other ills result from the $500 million subsidy to corporate cattle operations. One reads, “Considered against declining species-birds, plants, animals-the need for more meat in this nation is ludicrous; considered against the soil erosion and siltation that cattle create, the consumption of more beef is stupid; considered against the fecal pollution of our waters, the sale of more franchise burgers is criminal.” His solution? “Windmills and pumps should water stock, not natural waterways.”  (pg. 353-354)

Finally, in a recent Sunday Edition of the NYT, an article discussed the possibilities of a new and different era wherein Americans’ relationship with (the) river(s) could change, for the better. In After Floods, Debate Over Missouri River Rolls On we read:

Asked about the continued emphasis on navigation despite the sparse traffic, Jody Farhat, the chief of water management for the Missouri River Basin for the Army Corps of Engineers, said: “The primary reason is it’s because it’s the law. The Corps of Engineers does what Congress tells us to do.”

This passage makes clear the Corps is just serving it’s mandated purpose. Design-as-intended. As mammoth has elsewhere noted, this “success” points to the fact that the Corps may be one of the most pre-eminent organizations of practicing landscape designers. Particularly, in terms of scale and ambition. What the above passage and Heat-Moon’s contempt for the Taylor Grazing Act  both suggest is that re-shaping the landscape, either by re-orienting the Corps mission or landscape management practices of the BLM, through the legislative, rule-making process, could hold the key to the beginning of a re-engagement with the river(s). It could be argued that this sort of affective, political design, is a great example of “going soft“. Dealing not with the hard (current) infrastructural realities (a la dam-busting). Rather, reshaping those realities, via “soft power and soft politics“. Such a trajectory could be extremely meaningful. Moreover, emphasizing the fluid, time-tested processes of natures’ design as opposed to the hard infrastructure of dams and control structures, is the easiest way to develop, ecologically balanced design.

For as a young Corpsmen said to Heat-Moon.

It was just imbecilic to think we could dam off one of the biggest rivers on the planet in fifteen different places and not upset balances…I’m not really an enviro, but if I were, I wouldn’t be running scared. Green thought has the whole natural system on its side-thats about three billion years of trial and error posed against a couple thousand years of human engineering.”  (pg. 259)

“Gainesville’s Urban Now” a photo-essay

I have been trying to get this up on the old blog for awhile. However, it has taken forever. I presented Gainesville’s_Urban_Now at Pecha Kucha Gainesville Vol 2 held back in early fall of 2010 at Volta Coffee and Tea. The raw, original presentation is viewable below via Slideshare.

However, since I didn’t get a recording (either video or audio of the presentation and didn’t feel like recording a narrated slideshow) I want to post each slide below. Then I will insert the text passage which I used as my “speakers notes”.

Perhaps I will at some later date include some additional post presentation commentary. Project, status, plans into action or in even new examples.

Basically, I am going to be talking about some things going on, what could be happening and some challenges. Also, some PR for stuff other locals are already doing. What I believe = Regionalism-Localism-knowing a place and being a participant…

Is the Era of the big project over? No more new developments? Post-recession, post-crisis, the new normal? At the same time we have seen renewed interest in green cities, food systems, and urban metabolic cycles. Perhaps, because of all this, soft infrastructures or approaches are being explored. Soft as in temp vs permanent, responsive vs static, again feedback loops

The answer has been mostly real estate developers, government (state, local, CRA) or institutional [University of Florida, Shands Teaching Hospital etc). Often tax financed, or tax exempt, relatively expensive, big. Or you have galleries, lofts, the creatives or students. Like some of these projects: The Palms, University Lofts, Innovation Hub Phase II.

Jefferson at 2nd Avenue apartments in background. Abuts an historic church, which they have had to preserve/keep intact but now with new context. Also, features of one Gainesville’s few instances of the use of a sidewalkshed. First that I know of.

In terms of institutional development, UF/Shands have in the tens of LEED certified buildings. So there’s that. Otherside, is its tax exempt, top down, big. From this image looks like cafe culture/consumption. What about production?

Old community hospital, gone. One local op-ed suggested turning now cleared land into, at least temporarily, a green space. A new local community gathering space or ‘hub’.  Instead Shands/UF wants to build Innovation Hub for startups, spinoffs. Within walking distance of campus and downtown. Innovation (productive) vs healthcare (service)?

Hospital land is huge site. Will be developed in stages, for now this. Beginning with about 10 acres out of 40. Office park/estate. Nice enough visually but where are the people, street-life? Only for post-industrial innovators? A hub for business of community?

Another local actor is CRA. Local, government/tax funded urban redevelopment. Mostly for physical blight, infrastructure etc. Visible corridors, districts. For instance this new multi-usage corridor. Is redevelopment the same as gentrification? Upside is with CRA there is per name “community” involvement, at least.

Re: gentrification, this sort of new securitized, cleaned up (of homeless, note the benches) improved community park. Now with a dog park. Downtown, and ready for business. Here again, a top down, hard approach.

Soft infrastructure? User-generated, urban activism, entrepreneurial. Soft as in an organizational structure. Or an infrastructure that is social, non-physical? Based on networks, relationships or maybe flows? In legal terms a cooperative community based vs hierarchical, structure? What about productive and green cities?

A local CSA with the help of a soon to be nearby Co-op. Downtown or at least adjacent. A productive-literally-downtown. Just started an urban farming branch of their main farm. Using volunteers, for teaching and demonstrations. Visible, civic statement. What can you do with an acre? Alot…

It’s mainly about building connections. Getting people together. Work days. You can do it. Hack-tivism? Lots of empty lots. Reuse or remediation. If only visually. An edible landscape. Like the local guys at the Farmers Market, who will do your lawn. But scaled up to the lot.

What if soft equals temporary? This spot is a main corridor, downtown. Highly visible vacancy. Already examples of temp use. Corner of 13th + University where old commercial site used for football game parking. There again stalled project, market dependent, tax incentivitized. Or the way people who pay a fee can sell parking for game day. De-centralized, “resilient”, built in capacity..

Came across this while walking downtown. In a local gallery window. Anybody know this guy? I tried to email. What about taking this beyond a poster? Turning it into a temporary beer garden? A “pop up’ cafe? No money needed just a space? A place for public gatherings? Or maybe no physical cafe just a legalized space to drink in public downtown?

Some opportunities some challenges depending on how things are developed. AGH, Cabot/Koppers Superfund site, new downtown district and Depot Park. These all involve large scale land parcels. Remediation, new parks, new downtown development districts.

Did you know Gainesville had a Superfund site? It has been identified as such since roughly mid, late 80s. Long-standing concerns, overdue studies, inevitable lawsuits. The tension is between containment and remediation/restoration. Adjacent to schools, residential neighborhoods and large scale, of around 140 acres. Does containment lock in a certain development trajectory?

Cade Musuem of Innovation. Private, DIY (Gatorade money). Pushing creative agenda. Tourism and yet also local agenda. School programs would be key. Is there a downside to private initiatives?

The city plans a central park, downtown on remediated land. This is where Cade museum will be. Plus, public green space and some ecological infrastructures (green storm water and other living systems). Plus, GRU is relocating service support to new site, which will open about 16 acres. CRA wants to reconnect to city grid and tie in with rail to trail.

Top example is a farm being developed in post-Katrina, NOLA for Vietnamese-American community. Urban agriculture and social/ethnic development. Soft infrastructure of storm-water and canals. Or hactivism of small projects/groups. DIY, ecological benefits and could be self-funded. How could we apply these here?

Do something. Whether it is educating yourself, volunteering or even voting. Join a citizen advisory board. Read the local paper. Talk to people. Watch the public access channel and it’s broadcasts of public meetings. I started by picking up trash (and still do) along my commute.

C-Lab interviews Nicholas de Monchaux Part 1

Via sevensixfive I discovered this interview by C-Lab. In which Jeffrey Inaba, Justin Fowler and Leah Whitman-Salkin discuss simulation, space architecture, utopia, and HUD with Nicholas de Monchaux , author of the forthcoming book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.

Early on Nicholas says;

Simulation as a tool in design, one that helps master the realities of ecologies, landscapes, and cities, is one of the major intellectual legacies of the space race.

Later on Jeffrey Inaba asks Nicholas to “restate the hard-soft thesis as it applies not only to the suit but also the shortcomings of larger systems thinking?…It seems like what you’re saying in the article and in the book is that a faith in the rigor of scientific hard systems was a way of thinking that potentially had shortcomings compared to ones that thought about scientific systems or ones that were analogous to ecosystems—a hybrid of determinable, objective facts and unpredictable activity.

In response Nicholas explains that “A fascination with technology, with coding, and parametric operations is often cloaked or garbed in preconceptions about how codes and forms operate in nature: we “evolve” solutions; we create “morphogenetic systems.” Against this tendency, we can read the space race as more accurate proto-parametric systems design. For the creation of ICBM in the 1950s, a range of characters like the Air Force’s Bernhard Schriver, or Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge of what became TRW, invented the first modern process in which objects were created by systems versus by a designer. So instead of blueprints you had a series of systems relationships operating on each other



On “strategic infrastructures” …

Via BBC News here and here, I read that a long list of key facilities around the world that the US describes as vital to its national security has been released by Wikileaks. Interestingly the list is a) not limited to sites within the continental USA or b) sites of explicitly military nature. Rather it is a global directory of facilities that are seen as being of vital importance to Washington.

On perusing the cables more closely over at Wikileaks it is clear the concern is more for what could be considered soft targets or even soft infrastructures. The goal as stated is to identify “Critical Foreign Dependencies” that are connected and vital to systems. The word system is key here, because it doesn’t refer simply to traditional infrastructure such as ports (although those are included) but also larger networked systems of the globalized economy and telecommunications. Specifically referencing the USA Patriot Act of 2001 (42 U.S.C. 5195(e)) critical infrastructures are defined as “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States the incapacitation or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.

Additionally, note that although they (at the time) did not seek information on the less tangible effects of any crisis disrupting such infrastructures the State Department acknowledges the soft (or second order effects) that could result from such disruption. Whether it be loss public confidence or economic chaos.

Consider then the recent call for submissions for Bracket [goes soft], which notes “In an era of declared crises—economic, ecological and climatic amongst others– the notion of soft systems has gained increasing traction as a counterpoint to permanent, static and hard systems.” Are the above two ideas complementary? Could the sorts of projective and critical approaches to soft systems that Bracket seeks to provide a platform for, serve as a counterpoint to the list of CFDs? I think it is important to note here that designers aren’t the only one’s interested in systems. What could soft mean in such a context? Is a soft system a soft target? Could one harden a soft target by introducing soft systems? Thus injecting resiliency, by grafting soft onto soft?

Finally, I will note this BBC News article which further expands on the idea of soft infrastructures. Although the notion of ecosystem service(s) isn’t new, it has traditionally focused on quantifying the more literal and ecological ways in which ecosystems provide services (cleansing watersheds, producing oxygen, impacting local climates). However, the author of the BBC piece discusses some examples of other less tangible benefits: such as a US study that is regularly cited which suggests, patients that have a view of nature through hospital windows recover better after surgery. Or quotes a Ms Lipscombe whom argues the calming influence of trees has even been known to slow down driving speeds as drivers tend to go more slowly when something is in their peripheral vision.

Are these sorts of factors a soft infrastructure? Or perhaps the soft product of an infrastructure? If so then maybe one key, is to explicitly discuss or list all these sorts of infrastructural affects and typologies. Thus helping to expand our understanding of critical connections and systems, or strategic infrastructures.