Making Friends has been accepted for a tech-focused London conference on ethnography and business. This poster is a mash-up of real-time research, storytelling, and prank. Making Friends tests the boundaries of inter-species friendship while risking rejection and misunderstanding.
Takahashi Yusuke, a database expert with a Keio PhD, and I created a poster for the URBIO conference last month introducing a mobile app for city residents to monitor and promote urban wildlife.
In brief, our mobile app entitled UBITS (Urban Biodiversity Identification and Tracking System) allows school children, bird watchers, gardeners, hobbyists, and amateur naturalists use their mobile phones to capture images, sounds and locations of birds, butterflies, bees, insects, trees, and other plant life; query multiple databases to identify wildlife and plant species; participate in collaborative mapping of urban species by location, frequency and time of year; and increase habitat for urban biodiversity.
The project is at concept stage, and it would be great to find a start-up, corporation or university that can fund a working prototype and launch this application for iPhone or Android. Participatory science that promotes increased habitat provides an excellent branding opportunity, educational tool, and new way to bring nature to the city.
UPDATE: I posted a revised article, “Sensing Four Seasons at a Tokyo Office Building,” on Huffington Post on July 30, 2010.
Some friends and I visited Pasona’s new office last week. They are a large Japanese staffing farm that had a highly publicized basement farm in their old Otemachi headquarters. This year they moved nearby to Yaesu in their own newly built, nine story headquarters between Tokyo Station and Nihonbashi. Pasona has unveiled a much more elaborately landscaped interior and exterior.
The image above is my favorite because it highlights the interface between the futuristic farm, dependent on a variety of grow lights including LEDs, and the urban environment outside. I am certain that the indoor vegetables will give them the most attention again, but actually I believe the exterior landscaping is more inspiring and impactful.
Below is a brief tour of interior and exterior. After the photo tour, I will suggest some metrics for judging the success of this very visible corporate monument to urban nature.
Glowing all the way across the wide downtown street even in daylight, a spectacular rice paddy with dozens of strong lights occupies the main lobby entrance of the building. The entrance doors are flanked on the outside by beautiful apple trees in giant rusted steel planters.
Almost the entire first floor of the building is devoted to the spectacle of vegetables planting, growing, and ripening under powerful grow lights: rice, tomatoes, melons, corn, eggplants, herbs, and lettuce. A large cafe features wood posts hung at angles and supporting canvas bags with soil and corn. One wall has a series of metal cases with purple lights and tiny fans that have a very “next century” feel.
There is also a room with racks and racks of lettuce, and a field of giant sunflowers. And everywhere vegetables and seedlings are arranged in attractive vignettes. Elsewhere, tomatos hang from the cut-outs in the ceiling. (Click to enlarge the photos below).
What I think works are the following:
- Pasona demonstrates its commitment to bringing nature into the city by devoting so much valuable space and employing great landscapers and designers.
- Pasona packages its vision in a combination of high design and new technology that is visually stunning, unique and in many ways hopeful.
- It is interesting how the cafe and second story meeting spaces are divided and enhanced by greenery. The constant changing as plants plants grow and get replaced, and juxtaposing informal meeting spaces with living plants is a welcome change from most office interiors.
But I also have to point out where the vision falls short.
- It largely fails as a public gathering place. The giant lobby rice paddy is at once open free to the public and oddly devoid of people, except for a few curious first time visitors. The strange color, strong heat, and loud sound of the lights seems to repel people. In fact, the employees use a side entrance, and bypass the lobby. There is no sense that employees or neighbors will use most of this space, except for suited young people using the cafe and second floor meeting rooms.
- The intensity of the lighting and sheer quantity beg the question of energy expenditure. Pasona must address how sustainable this idea of indoor agriculture is, and whether they see energy production or usage changing in the future of urban farming.
- There is no sense of season or natural habitat. It is understandable that birds and wildlife are not permitted inside, but their absence makes the interior seem sterile. Why is the corn ripening in May?
While the indoor farm will generate the most attention for Pasona, I think that the exterior landscaping is more impressive and ultimately more interesting for urban habitat creation and the integration of nature with work space. Two thirds of the building front and at least one side have been carefully planted on handsome screened balconies to produce four seasons of color. Included are citrus trees, wisteria vines, Japanese maple, blueberries, and flowering vines like clematis. Although the plants are small now, it is easy to imagine the exterior becoming a unique vertical forest and colorful garden over the next years.
The exterior vertical landscaping has 200 species of plants, and many trees that lose their leaves in the winter. The idea is that the plant mass will reduce carbon emissions, summer shade will keep the building cooler, and winter bare branches will allow more direct light during the cold season. While the public is not invited to the upper floors, it appears that the exterior plants are all on balconies that are either accessible or viewable from inside the offices. Click below to see posters that explain the exterior landscape and the designers who worked on this project, and how the exterior garden appears from the sidewalk below.
I am looking forward to watching the exterior of the building grow into its potential. And I am eager to hear how the office workers feel about the outdoor plants that are so close to their interior work spaces.
I’ll end this post with a dandelion weed I spotted on the edge of the rice field. It is this type of unplanned feature that makes natural landscapes so enchanting.
My friend and fellow anthropologist John McCreery of Word Works told me about a project created by technology corporation NEC called Big Globe. The idea is that Tokyo residents who are interested in farming can participate in planting a small plot in suburban Saitama, and then watch via webcam as their vegetables grow with the aid of a caretaker. They are invited to visit during the growing season and at harvest, but have no responsibility to take care of the plants themselves.
I wonder if the webcam truly connects city people with farming. Big Globe seems like a mixed reality in-between the virtual Farmville, wildly popular on Facebook, and actually growing plants. I realize that many people in the city do not have much land, but as I have documented on this blog, it doesn’t take much space to grow a single plant or even hundreds.
Has anyone tried out Big Globe, or heard about it before? What do you think the role of technology can be in connecting city people with farming and nature more generally?
New York’s PSFK is organizing an “ideas salon,” sponsored by Nissan, about “pure living” and how it is manifested in design, technology, urban living and transportation. It’s tomorrow evening at Claska in Meguro, and unfortunately sold out.
Speakers include Peter Rojas – Technology Guru, Founder at gdgt, Engadget and Gizmodo, Marc Alt – Green Visionary, Founder at Marc Alt + Partners, Mark Dytham – Creative Catalyst, Partner at Klein Dytham architecture, and Founder of Pecha Kucha, Rie Azuma – Lifestyle Architect, Azuma Architecture, Danny Choo – Japan Sub-Culture Authority, Mirai Inc., dannychoo.com, Hiromi Matsubara – Green Media Activist, Co-founder, Greenz.jp, and Piers Fawkes – Trends Expert, Founder at PSFK (moderator).
(Disclosure: Piers treated me to a lovely breakfast this morning in Shibuya).
Tokyo Green Space examines the ecological and human benefit of reimagining cities with a focus on people and natural environments. I was interested to read a provocative article recently in Business Week entitles: “Cities: A Smart Alternative to Cars.”
The author Alex Steffen of Worldchanging argues that rebuilding cities into walkable places through in-fill and zoning changes might be more realistic and faster than the typical 16 year cycle to replace 90% of the United States automobile fleet. His definition of a new urban city is one in which daily driving is not a necessity and many people can live without private car ownership.
It is interesting that confronted with climate change, some hope that technological change will allow Americans to live as we have for the past thirty years with no change: zero emissions vehicles allowing for the same transportation patterns, and new building materials to permit the same massive housing structures. It’s analogous to finding a pharmaceutical cure for the effects of obesity without changing the foods we eat or the energy we exert.
The costs are staggering: transportation accounts for 25% of United States carbon, and 20% of that from personal transportation. There is also the environmental burden of manufacturing and disposal. I was surprised to learn that Americans spend more than 19% of household income on personal transportation, second only to housing.
Perhaps hardest for Americans to grasp is that denser, walkable cities can improve lifestyle compared to McMansions and suburbs. Well design buildings, smart infrastructure, and the community created through walking and biking could be a huge improvement to quality of life. Tokyo certainly exhibits many of the advantages of compact, transit-oriented cities where almost all daily activities are accessed by foot, transit and bike.
In addition to environmental and economic benefits, compact cities create more human interaction and community, improved public health from daily walking, and an opportunity to use public space currently devoted to vehicles for urban plants and wildlife.
(Note: I found this article on Allison Arieff twitter feed: http://twitter.com/aarieff)
With the Copenhagen international climate conference approaching in December, the reaction of business leaders to climate change is becoming increasingly dynamic.
Recently California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, PG&E, resigned its membership in the United States Chamber of Commerce in protest of their positions on climate change and cap-and-trade proposals. Its spokesperson referred to its “disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort” scientific findings about global climate change. Other members such as Nike and Johnson & Johnson have tried to distance themselves from the Chamber’s environmental statements and activities.
In Japan, the nation’s most prominent business association, Keidanren, strongly supported the Liberal Democrat Party and their recent low carbon emissions targets. There seems to be considerable conflict with the current Democratic Party Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s ambitious goals of a 25% reduction in emissions, including technology transfers to developing countries.
I recently learned that there is a second business council in Japan called Keizai Doyukua (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), headed by the CEO of Ricoh, that is closer to the new prime minister and more open to the new global business opportunities that environmental regulation will bring. It is interesting to note which corporate executives Hatoyama recently appointed to the Government Revitalization Unit, a key committee on eliminating government waste: Kyocera Corp. Honorary Chairman Kazuo Inamori and Kikkoman Corp. Chairman Yuzaburo Mogi.
Janine Benyus gave a TED Global talk this summer about how biomimicry provides sustainable innovation inspired by nature. Benyus main claim is that “we are part of a brilliant planet and surrounded by genius.”
Examples she cites are JR West’s examination of the kingfisher to solve the problem of trains creating pressure and sonic booms when going through tunnels. Sharklet Technology applied the pattern of Galapagos sharks that repels bacteria to design anti-bacterial washes. Calera uses knowledge of coral reefs to sequester carbon in cement.
Here’s a video of her TED Global talk from 2009. Her 1997 book is Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature.
Her video from the 2005 TED conference is below.
I recently had the chance to meet Professor Mori Yuichi of Mebiol, an agriculture technology company in Kanagawa. This research professor at Waseda University started Mebiol in 1995 exploring first medical and then agriculture uses for hydrogels. I was intrigued by his Hymec system for indoor farming and Skygel for rooftop gardens.
Hymec looks like a plastic sheet allows for no-soil and low-soil farming, with the water and fertilizer separate from the plants roots. The roots remain dry while drawing water and nutrients from below the membrane, and oxygen from the air. Lettuce and other leaf vegetables can be grown with no soil, tomatoes with a thin layer of soil. Compared to other indoor farming techniques, Hymec uses less water, less fertilizer, less insecticides and less energy because the barrier prevents contamination from bacteria common to traditional hydroponics. Benefits include the ability to plant smaller seedlings (called “plug seedlings”), greater plant density, and more nutritious and sweeter vegetables, with tomatoes producing more Gaba and Lycopene.
I was intrigued by what Professor Mori calls “mobile farming.” In his words, “Hymec releases farming from the earth by a water-proof sheet” and allows farming in cities, factories, deserts, indoors, and even in waste incinerators. Some applications are the Kyoto Brighton Hotel, where tomators are grown on a concrete floor in a bamboo greenhouse, and a test farm in Dubai, where Hymec makes possible low-water farming with reduced air conditioning, and replaces costly and carbon-heavy vegetable imports from Europe.
Another Mebiol product is Skygel, mixed with soil and used for roof and slope planting. In this case, the hydrogel increases water retention, lowers run-off, and decreases the need for irrigation. Mixing Skygel and soil allows for a lighter load, ideal for roof gardens. The roof garden at Mebiol’s office (in top photo, with founder Professor Mori), is only 10 cm thick, and the plants can survive for up to 10 days without water in the Japanese summer heat.
Below is a diagram explaining Hymec.
As I wrote earlier, the Democratic Party of Japan, which recently won a landslide election, is calling for major environmental changes, including significantly greater carbon emission targets than the outgoing LDP party. This week I learned that, on the premise of reviving the struggling Japanese countryside, the DPJ has also promised to reduce the gasoline tax and highway tolls. These pro-automobile ideas will not help with emissions targets.
Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, is strongly opposed to the more ambitious emission goals. By calculating the difference in today’s prices between fossil fuels and renewable energy, numbers have been created to alarm the public about costs to consumers and businesses. A particularly Japanese explanation I heard from one Japanese corporate spokesperson was articulated as concern for the finances of business customers.
This organized resistance to change strikes me as short-sighted. According to a Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs chart based on International Energy Agency data, Japan is already the world’s most energy efficient nation (calculated as energy supply per unit of GDP): three times more efficient than the global rate, twice as efficient as the US, almost twice more than the European Union, and more than seven times India and China.
In the United States, Obama has called for 25% of electric energy to come from renewable sources by 2025. The DPJ’s solar subsidies and carbon taxes will spur adoption of solar energy, benefiting Sharp and Kyocera. In a world of climate change and peak oil, investing now in renewable energy seems vital for Japan’s energy security and global technology exports.
If the focus is strictly on carbon emissions, and not renewable energy, Japan risks further dependence on nuclear energy. Already 26% of electric power in 2007, nuclear power produces dangerous waste, all the more so in a small island nation prone to earthquakes. This makes news that nuclear industry and international energy leaders are seeking to increase operating rates. From the Japan Times,
I read Richard Florida’s 2008 Who’s YOUR City? book, a “self-help” book about the central importance of where we live and the outsized opportunities in the world’s leading mega-cities. Drawing from Jane Jacobs and a wealth of statistics, Florida analyzes how the world has become “spiky” with concentrations of innovation and economic activity in mega-regions. Despite globalization and technology, place has become ever more important for individual happiness and economic growth.
For individuals, Florida argues that the choice of where to live is the biggest factor in our lives, happiness and communities. And for urban leaders, his writing and consulting describes how to become a magnet for the creative class and economic growth by promoting the arts, tolerance, talent and technology.
Tokyo is the largest mega-region, with 55 million people, and appears to far exceed all other mega-regions in the innovation map below. There are many other interesting maps on his website, although heavily focused on the United States and Canada.
Since Florida is increasingly focused on sustainable urban living, it would be interesting if he can correlate urban plant and biodiversity levels with human happiness and economic activity. Somehow I imagine this is a topic he will be investigating soon.
Innovative government projects include Tokyo’s Suginami ward office building. In 2008 the municipal government in 2008 planted the world’s tallest “green curtain” to reduce carbon dioxide, lower energy costs, and demonstrate new green technology.
The green curtain covers the south wall of the main city offices, with support from a net nearly 29 meters in height, and a wall of vegetation consisting of fast-growing vines such as loofah, cucumber, gourd and morning glory. The vines are growing in small containers, with a moisture sensor that makes watering very efficient. During summer and fall, the offices are cooler by 4 degrees celsius.
This Tokyo ward-level project is an amazing demonstration of vertical urban gardening, but unfortunately little information is available online in English about this project.
UPDATE: There’s a fantastic 2010 blog about a Suginami resident creating a small green curtain. Wonderful photos document the progress, lots of information about plant types, and participation of 4 year old child. Very cool!