City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Morning walk, Granö 28 July 2020

Revisiting EF Schumacher’s intermediate technologies framework from ‘Small is beautiful’ (1973); Susan Leigh Star’s boring invisible infrastructure; Jeremy Till’s ‘interconnected living agents’

The various spaces and infrastructures described in these Papers try to sidestep the growth versus de-growth debate, instead pursuing an alternate form of renewable growth—a slow growth, a dynamic characterised by garden or forest, perhaps, both literally and metaphorically. This kind of slow growth is predicated on care and engagement, on multiple forms of value, concerning circular processes, collective work and outcomes, resilience and longevity, and an understanding that local systems are part of global systems.

These dynamics are productive, but generative rather than extractive, and renewable resources. Equally, there is significant machinery in Jeyifous’s visions, just as the buildings that sit at the core of the cooperative or collective housing models of Kalkebreit, Nightingale, and La Borda are produced via industrial processes, rather than by hand (although there clearly is meaningful ‘sweat equity’ in these projects too). And so there is industry, economy.

The directions that align these various dynamics involve forms of civic gain, public life, and environmental replenishment, rather than individualised, extractive Acceleration dynamics. And as EF Schumacher described in Small is Beautiful, another book from the early 1970s whose time may have come (again), an industry and its technologies can have markedly different dynamics.

Small is Beautiful, EF Schumacher (1973)

Intermediate technologies

As I’ve outlined in essays like The Battle for the Infrastructure of Everyday Life, A Cloud Atlas for Eindhoven, and believing in society over unicorns, Non-Grid, and many others, the possibility of ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ is not simply in the patterning of cities, or building elements, but also super-local energy, water, and waste systems, mobility systems owned at community scale, whether an autonomous shuttle or cargo bike, decision-making systems framed at different nested scales, and so on.

In this sense, there may be much to draw from a reinvention of Schumacher’s notion of ‘intermediate technologies’. Conceptually, he frames these as the middle ground between those of an indigenous technology in a “developing country” (sic) — a £1 technology, symbolically — and the expensive technologies of “developed country” (sic also) — say, a £1000 technology.

Schumacher suggested the possibility of ‘intermediate or appropriate’ technologies; notionally the £100 technology in his frame, which falls neatly into this ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ framework. Equally, this framing suggests such a technology could be super-local yet connected to economies around it, self-sustaining and low impact, and importantly, in his words, with “methods and equipment should be such as to leave ample room for human creativity”. This means it can usefully rely on engagement, care, adaptation, repair, and meaningful maintenance. There is a positive dependency here.

Schumacher goes on to imagine “a technology with a human face”, a breakthrough idea at the time. His criteria for devising such technology were:

  • cheap enough to that they are accessible to virtually everyone;
  • suitable for small-scale application; and,
  • compatible with man’s need for creativity.

This pattern can be found precisely in the adaptive, retrofit models under a small pieces, loosely joined non-grid’ model: microgrids, co-op housing, cargo bikes and autonomous shuttles, local sensors, Van Eyck’s playgrounds, De Monchaux’s and Watson’s nature-based infrastructures.

The key difference with 1973, other than 1973 being in the midst of the Acceleration, is in our possibility to combine ‘more-than-human’ design with the ‘small pieces’ patterns of code, and under conditions of the Slowdown. These new convergences opens up different infrastructures of everyday life, and thus new landscapes. With the Slowdown beginning to enable us to concentrate on social, cultural, and environmental progress, we now have this moment to rethink more advanced different relationships of nature, species, technologies, and infrastructure.

At core, is this chance to reframe what we think of as human and nonhuman life, technology and nature. ‘Nature’, which Raymond Williams suggested was the most complex word in the English language, is often seen in opposition to ‘technology’, which is perhaps the second most complex word.

Indeed, in 1973, Schumacher’s otherwise thorough and insightful excoriation of contemporary technology makes exactly this mistake. He wrote, “In the subtle system of nature, technology, and in particular the super-technology of the modern world, acts like a foreign body, and there are now numerous signs of rejection.” The examples provided earlier, concerning radical indigenism and Lo-TEK, suggest another way of seeing, entwining nature and technology together as if one body, foregrounding the politics inherent in such everyday infrastructures.

“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.” — EF Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, 1973

Boring invisible powerful

In Susan Leigh Star’s classic ethnographic studies of infrastructure, she writes, “good infrastructure is by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work.” Star’s work revels in how “exquisitely boring” it is, focusing on such clearly back-stage elements. Yet she also describes how problematic understanding and discussing such invisible ‘work-to-be-done’ can be, in the context of equally invisible disenfranchised “non-people” (a problem we might now extend to other species.) She also recognises the problem in foregrounding, and in particular quantifying, the value of such work (“Make it explicit, and it will become a target for surveillance.”) In the end, she notes the need to “walk a delicate line between visibility and invisibility.”

That the East Kolkata Wetlands can be rendered invisible, in terms of not being valuable infrastructure, is perhaps partly why they can be so easily threatened, despite both saving and generating millions of dollars per year for Kolkata, and performing many more unquantifiable forms of value-creation. That this knowledge remains invisible or unacceptable to power systems, or conceptions of what technology is, was described in Lo-TEK by Dhrabajyoti Ghosh as a kind of ‘cognitive apartheid’.

To repair such relationships, these forms of knowledge must be fully accepted, and lent the status that we tend to bestow onto ‘infrastructure’ and ‘technology’. Yet equally, learning from Star, in doing so, the value of these alternate systems and cultures must not be reduced to the simply quantifiable measures that infrastructure tends to be valued with.

This more delicate “line between visibility and invisibility”, between the tacit and the explicit, is trodden in the cultural layers; just as the word ‘care’ cannot simply be reduced to maintenance. Derek Jarman’s gardens are therapy, art, performance, and politics, rather than simply flower or herb production. Leonora Ditzler describes her prospective pixel farming infrastructure as “eco-feminist robots” rather than simply agricultural machinery. Are Jeyifous’s vibrant verdant urban landscapes invisible? Is De Monchaux’s absorptive garden stormwater network boring? Is Eva Mari Garoutte’s ‘radical indigenism’, extended by Julia Watson into nature-based technologies, simply about stormwater capture, rice production, or fishing — or does the notion not also shake our most fundamental belief systems?

These examples suggest a form of infrastructural performance; yet they are clearly doing more than this. And it is in that essentially unquantifiable concept of ‘more’ that culture and care reside. One cannot even say that the value in the unquantifiable is greater than the quantifiable, any more than one can say that an orange is better than a song. To compare them would be a category error.

So while such infrastructures of everyday life can, in the classic simplification of design discussed earlier, delicately counterpoint form and function, design must also now reorient around care and culture. This would foreground the value in the unquantifiable suggested above, yet without trying to capture the value, by attempting to quantify it. You can capture a butterfly by pinning it under glass, but it doesn’t do much for the butterfly. By emphasising care and culture within design, we open up new approaches that positively depend on engagement, participation, adaptation, repair, and meaningful maintenance—all of which are dynamics that previous modes tended to ‘value-engineer’ out—and suggest a rebalancing of human and nonhuman recognising their fundamental interconnectedness.

A binary opposition of nature and technology, human and nonhuman, has no place in contemporary design. In a new essay, Jeremy Till extends the much-vaunted sense of empathy that design often clings to in its ‘value proposition’, well beyond an empathy for mere human realities, and ultimately beyond simplistic, atomistic ideas of user, contractor, client, site boundary, and even system:

“Creative work never emerges from a social vacuum; it is always located in relation to others both human (users, viewers, participants, citizens, audiences) and non-human (biosystems, sites, climatic conditions). This in turn asks that the creative act is imbued with empathy, because without that empathetic engagement the creative work becomes an abstraction removed from the worldly conditions in which it will eventually be located. This empathy extends beyond the human to the non-human, meaning we should see the world, nature, atmospheres, animals, geology, as interconnected living agents, and so treat them all with equivalent empathy.” — ‘Architecture after Architecture’, by Jeremy Till, in Architects After Architecture: Alternative Pathways for Practice, Routledge (2020)

This relational empathy between “interconnected living agents” provides a clue to the possible landscapes of the Slowdown, and the forms of design appropriate for their realisation. The subjects of this relational empathy are entirely everyday spaces and experiences: visible and invisible, human and non-human, ordinary and extraordinary. Different ways of seeing and acting, embodied in the examples described here, could unlock a fundamental repositioning within our various cultures of decision-making, habitation, and design. This rebalancing places human and nonhuman on at least an even keel, and in doing so, we have a chance for a repositioning of our broader values.

As Owain Jones and Paul Cloke write, in an essay largely concerning what they call ‘tree-places’:

“Non-human agencies not only co-constitute the contexts of life, but they also frequently reconstitute the fabrics of day-to-day life and the places and spaces in which it is lived.” (emphasis added)

Next: 35. Small, unfinished, adaptive everyday landscapes
Previous: 33. Mood-worlds of the Slowdown
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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