Surviving Progress



When I first started at Right Angle, I was graciously invited to participate in the Future Laboratory’s Networking evening. The Future Laboratory are an exciting and innovative consultancy and trends forecasting agency based in London but have successfully been working in Australia for the past 2/3 years. This year they presented a trend briefing hosted at Carriageworks and a luxury forum at the Golden Age Cinema, which is a great venue for anything really, I highly recommend it.

The Networking Event is a really interesting one: 6 people prepare a topic of conversation and move around the room where groups of people are seated around tables. This year, it took place at the Paramount Coffee Project, which worked well. It’s not my favourite cafe, I find it very quite contrived and overly concerned with image, rather than a relaxing place to have a coffee and a good lunch. It’s basically a hipster hang out but in a great setting designed by Fox Johnston. Their salads are small and are the only food that is not fried on the menu, they don’t serve soy milk or decaf (which excludes me from their patrons), and they have recently copped criticism for naming their dessert after diabetes. It’s one of those ironic things that only true hipsters would do. You can’t say they’re not trying!

Apart from the service and the questionable menu items, it proved itself a grand venue for the Networking Event. To be honest, the briefing was minimal and there was no opportunity for an ‘on-screen’ presentation so I decided I was going to keep it simple. I had been working at Arup on projects where the digital world intersects with the physical world and inevitably came across Cedric Price as one of the founding thinkers around the impact of technology on the built environment. His ‘Fun Palace’ was a temple of ‘flexible’ space, a term that has become the baseline in contemporary architecture when one doesn’t know what to design a space for. Even though the Fun Palace was the child of cheap alcohol and non-conformist architecture, it actually informed my question for my audience on the Networking Event, which I shamelessly stole from Cedric: “Technology is the answer, what is the question?”

I think Cedric Price put his finger early on on our insatiable appetite for progress in the 20th Century. And for good reason: the 20th Century was the century when many things that had never even been thought of became possible thanks to technology such as a landing on the moon, transistor technology, mobile phones, etc… Having said that and notwithstanding the transformative power of such technology, the question is: what problems are we trying to solve with technology? Do we have to have a problem to solve to seek a technological answer to it? Is this faith in technology blind? Is technology synonymous with progress for us?

As you would expect, the answers were varied and each conversation was different. Some people longed for the tangible side of writing with pen and paper, others questioned the limits of what apps can do, how much it can augment or significantly alter a real life experience. But for me, this line of questioning really opened up the possibility that we have entered what Ronald Wright calls, in his latest book A Short History of Progress, a ‘progress trap’ meaning that we are innovating for the sake of innovating, for the sake of perfecting a certain skills or pushing a mechanism or material to its limit, not to actually solve a problem that needs solving.

I recently watched ‘Surviving Progress‘, the documentary version of Wright’s book directed by Martin Scorcese (thank you very much!) and was truck by the strength of his argument. I won’t go through the details of the argument, but the reality is that there is a possibility that global civilisation itself is actually a progress trap: we’ve worked so hard to connect ourselves to one another, person to person and government to government, that now our global civilisation has no resilience in it. When one part fails, the ripples are felt through the whole system. The Global Financial Crisis is one of the many examples of how this manifests itself within a matter of seconds, the whole world over. In the past, when the Roman Empire came to its knees, there were other civilisations that would endure its fall relatively unscathed. At no point in the past have all civilisations been so inextricably tied to one another to the extent that they are today.

Not only is this interdependency problematic economically, it is also problematic from a cultural point of view, especially as consumer culture becomes universal. We keep producing more and more to take advantage of the higher spend of the rising global middle class. Whereas the human outcomes of better socio economic status are undeniably positive, the environmental ones are not. The documentary gave insights into how, according to David Suzuki and others such as Gunter Pauli, the value of nature is not factored into the economy. The model by which we decide what is a scarce resource and therefore has value to trade, doesn’t factor in ecosystem services such as seasons, pollenisation by bumblebees, or the breakdown of organic matter in the putrefaction process into minerals. These are all considered externalities.

In an attempt to bring these back into the fundamental equation of the economy, Arup developed this clumsy equation that they called the ‘Ecological Age.’ I say clumsy because they tried to communicate the idea that we can’t keep increasing the material wealth of an evergrowing population and not irrevocably damage the planet in the process through an equation. I guess an equation speaks a thousand words? I should have paid more attention in maths class then! To be fair, the research behind it is robust and comprehensive, just quite poorly communicate for us non-engineering simple souls.

The equation plots on the one hand how much CO2 can be emitted in exchange for a fair level of human development (as measured by the Human Development Index which is a UNDP endorsed metric that measures key aspects of human development such as life expectancy, level of education and standard of living). It goes something like this:

(Co2 – 80%) + 1.44GHA/Per Capita + Human Development Index = 2050: The Ecological Age

Needless to say, it’s not really self-explanatory. And neither is Arup really leading the charge with this. They are part of a large group of vocal advocates for what has come to be known as ‘One Planet Living.’ The documentary even included an interview with this guy living in New York City with no net impact to the planet. The project is perhaps predictably called the ‘No Impact Project.’ I find the idea of no impact living really interesting to think about. I am a creature of comfort, I like my imported wine and my fancy shoes. But I, like many others, hate the impact my purchasing choices can have on amazing resources like the Amazon Forest or, closer to home, the Indonesian Rainforest. It is a reality that does sit uncomfortably with me and I often check in with that when tempted by a new piece of quasi-disposable clothing that I will only wear a handful of times, or cheap IKEA furniture. I think of what the real cost of those choices are. A few years back when living in New York, I really got into vintage and second hand clothing and still have most of those pieces with me today.

Making a statement about sustainability in your lifestyle choices. What a wild idea. Something hippies would do, right? Well some cultures are more poised than others to be comfortable with that proposition. Whilst at Arup working with Dan on Low2No, it was clear that this project, an urban regeneration project in the heart of Helsinki, was to become a place where statements about sustainable lifestyles would be made on a daily basis, with incentives and mechanisms to actively help people reduce their impact on the environment. I know we’re a far cry for that now in Australia, especially in Tony Abbott’s Australia (ugh), but I’d like to think that there is hope there. That this concept of wanting more just for the sake of wanting more will pass, that another financial crisis might act as the Great Reset we all need to calm down and live with less. I know I certainly could do with a little less.







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