Can technology save nature? Jan Wyllie watches the worlds of ecology and information collide at a conference in Amsterdam.
On matter: a meeting between the info and eco communities" on a bright November weekend in Amsterdam was the latest of the Doors of Perception conferences orchestrated so artfully by the Netherlands Institute of Design. Last year's subject was "@Home or how computer networking and multimedia technologies will affect people's experience and conceptions of home". This year, the question was how these technologies can be exploited in solving the so-called Factor 20 problem.
Factor 20 states that humankind must satisfy its needs at only 20 per cent of current resource exploitation levels. The time frame to effect the transition is 30 to 50 years before disease and devastation make living in the thin blue line of Earth's biosphere virtually unbearable - as it is already in many places.
Despite this somewhat brutal perspective, there was no hint of apocalyptic doom saying. Indeed there was a concerted effort not to apportion moral blame, and to go beyond being optimistic or pessimistic towards acting in practical ways to get out of what looks like a very tight spot. Beyond providing a first common forum for info and eco thinkers, the aim of the conference was to show designers what the issues are, because designers will play a key part in determining whether products, services and infrastructures can meet the Factor 20 conditions.
The other key players will be the rest of humanity in evolving global, regional and local marketplaces - which is where the surprises begin.
According to a Dutch government-sponsored survey carried out and presented by trend-spotter Lidewij Edelkoort, we are running into a "totally hedonistic" society where people demand more free time in an environment in which air and water purity and healthy living are considered to be premium values. For the new Dutch, beauty is considered as important as functionality. Seasonal cycles and local availability are expected to set buying patterns.
Kapila Vatsyayan, academic director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, questioned Western commercial thinking's technological determinism. "Love cannot be engineered," she said. It is, she argued, "great arrogance to believe it possible for man to organise the universe" instead of interacting with it through the medium of myth and symbol. Cultures, she said, are "not the exotica of tourism" to be destroyed in the name of commercial expediency.
Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy warned against the extreme danger of what she called the "monoculture", spread by global television and GATT, which she saw as threatening both the cultural and environmental diversity on which humankind's future evolutionary potential rests. Asked about the environmental cost if all Indians were to adopt Western lifestyles, she responded that the vast majority of poor want to live "a very prudent life". Consumers on the top layer of Indian society, connected to the global marketplace, are making the lives of the majority of the poor worse.
Larry Keely of the Doblin Group, Chicago, said that the non-linear or discontinuous nature of change makes reliable prediction impossible. He cited IBM's belief in the 1940s that the total market for computers would be for about five machines. According to Keely, what makes the difference is "critical innovation" which is as unpredictable as it can be profitable. He talked of the growing number of incidental environmental improvements or "collateral benefits". Electricity companies in the US are giving customers 35 per cent reductions for turning over control of their thermostats to a centralised company run system. The developing futures market in pollution permits creates an incentive to overcomply. Another incidentally benign effect that Keely attributed to market forces is the tendency for the market value of recycled materials to increase as people learn how to use them. The example he gave in this case is the growing popularity of eco-fleece (a textile made out of recycled plastic) for use in fashionable coats.
The philosopher Manuel de Landa spoke of a new generation of more controllable composite materials, affording designers much wider creative choice. According to de Landa, materials science is going through a revolution inspired by nonlinear dynamics, making it possible to envisage the generation of "totally different material structures".
Paola Antonelli, associate curator of the department of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, told how commercial designers are being given a new wave of military knowledge about materials, through agencies such as the US Government Technology Transfer Center.
Designers were asked by different speakers to design "from cradle to cradle", to dematerialise (atoms to bits), to borrow from natural cycles, to use fast growing natural fibres such as hemp, and above all else to consider the "big picture".
The problem is that the big picture is now understood to be so big and so complex that the individual human intelligence quite literally cannot comprehend it, let alone control or manage it; which is why a whole morning's session was devoted to the subject of collective intelligence.
Pierre Levy, Parisian author, philosopher and lecturer on hypermedia, argued that an intelligent collective requires an object to act as "a catalyst of reflective intelligence" analogous to the ball in football which removes the need for hierarchical direction by creating purpose-driven teams. Cyberspace, said Levy, is awaiting the birth of an object defining values beyond the current dominant objects of money and science. The only organising object he could see which would evoke the "immensity of what is at stake" is the "big blue ball" itself.
The greatest significance of Doors of Perception may turn out to be its attempt to develop collective intelligence over computer networks, as an iterative, recursive process of learning. This process started before the conference. It is ongoing and open to all who wish to learn or contribute. The door to participation in the new info-eco dialogue can be found at http://www.design-inst.nl/DOME/workshops/DOMEWorkshops.html.
Jan Wyllie is managing director of Trend Monitor. A 10-page analysis of Doors of Perception 3 is available at Pounds 15 from Trend Monitor, 3 Tower Street, Portsmouth P01 2JR. Tel +44 1705 864714, fax +44 1705 828009, email email@example.com