This post carries on my summary of Clear Village’s Walled Kitchen Garden Project running in partnership with Imogen Heap’s composition of #heapsong3. Saturday morning we cleared the field; Saturday afternoon we started the collaborative design process.
Sunday morning brought the largest team to the site. The team hailed from many diverse locations. I travelled from Southern England, while others travelled from the other areas in England, United States, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus to join in the fun. Everyone worked around their own obligations with some people making a holiday of the workshop while others bounced around as they needed to. Martin greeted us on Sunday by mucking around on the guitar while other facilitators explained the project to the people joining in. With all the new faces, we hit “Rewind” on the design workshop, choosing to prototype an element of all of the designs.
Creativity gets unleashed with an incubation period. After the feedback session from Saturday, we could identify the strengths of each design to see if it was feasible. Saturday morning found us trying to prototype a reciprocating roof made of bamboo, a repetitive tripod structure, a free-standing triangular structure (affectionately dubbed “The Cheesecake”), and a central pole people’s pavilion that could serve as the entrance. My group was working on the central pole design.
I wanted the design to have some echoes of the local environment. Too many “new” structures stick out like a sore thumb because they lack continuance with other things around. On Saturday, we experimented with tripods made of fallen sycamore trees so we had two reasonably straight sycamore trunks with a fork. We brought one fork down from to the field for our prototyping. Continuance came from using the sycamore as the central part of the design. Our design called for putting the sycamore in the ground to anchor it. The trunk went straight up and down so I wanted it stable. No trees crashing down on my head, please.
Incidentally, the first thing we wound up prototyping was digging the hole. Our field was mostly a heavy clay soil. It had compacted considerably. Digging the holes proved rather fitfully difficult. We started working with the spades, but the soil was hard, the spades didn’t move the soil easily, and it was easier for us to go out rather than down. Then someone brought us the hole borer. The hole borer was sized almost ideally to our task. But the soil proved incredibly resilient. We would get the borer down 2 to 5 inches, it would get stuck, we’d pull it out, and then clean out the loose soil with hand spades or by hand. If nothing else, my team had the technical knowledge of working in the space.
When we got the central pole in, we placed the four bamboo rods that would be supporting the netting overhead. Our design called for four more holes to be dug to support bamboo poles that would give height to our pyramid (enabling people to walk around the structure). Since we purchased pre-cut bamboo, the bamboo itself served as a natural measuring stick. One 4-metre length of bamboo determined the side. We also had to figure out how to support the various angles coming together with lashing.
And other prototypes started to fill the field….
We learn so much about design when we actually try to build and install them. The “Cheesecake” team found some stability issues when they wanted to keep their structure free standing. The “Reciprocating Roof” team found that there’s actually a lot of knowledge required to make a roof self-support so they wound up pulling the plug on that feature. The “Tripod” team realised that they could get adequate support on two legs. And my “Centre Pole” team learned that digging holes is fitfully difficult.
When the gardeners could walk around the structures, they had a distinct preference for the openness of our centre pole structure. And as the stones were cast, the centre pole formed the base concept.
Tune into the blog tomorrow for our recording session with Imogen Heap.
In this post I discuss Saturday afternoon at the Walled Village project run in collaboration with Imogen Heap.
After spending our morning preparing the field, we took a different approach to the afternoon. Clear Village, the organization facilitating the open air lab in the Walled Garden, uses a participatory collaborative design process to ensure that various voices influence the shape and texture of projects. After all, Clear Village views itself as a catalyst organization for sustained community change. The project would fail without solidly involving the community in the project design.
My own work in engineering education has shown me that there is a lot of mystique around what it means to be a designer. When people come to see their daily activities as design activities, it can remove some of the underlying assumptions that to be a designer, one must have the right profession (such as architecture or engineering). Clear Village also finds the educational process important so a facilitator led a discussion around a design process. I particularly appreciated how the facilitator described a design process, acknowledging that a lot of people have created variations on the design process theme. For the most part, we also avoided making the process linear. And, like a lot of things, you really learn about design as you actually attempt to design something.
Because of the sheer number of people on site and everyone’s different interests, we divided first into a plants team and a structure team. Owing to some spontaneous tree clearing at the wall, some in the group had already hit the first point of structural inspiration to make tripod structures with the sycamores. We then divided the structure team further so more voices could express ideas. As an engineer with sketching experience, I found myself coordinating a team.
Personally, I often embrace a definition of engineering design as design under constraint as a useful tool for thinking. Our structure had to have potential to cover the entire field, allow people into the structure to tend to plants, and provide protection from birds (netting) and frost (horticultural fleece). We had 50 bamboo poles 4 metres in length as well as the earlier fallen sycamores. To allow for people to move around the structure easily, all teams worked with a human access height of 2 metres.
Putting numbers in created an interesting design dynamic. “Covering the field” meant either being designed to the field size (roughly 10×10 metres with a smaller area for actual planting) or designing for fractal expansion where a core would repeat itself. It was also a little strange to have the field size influencing design when we had actually never measured the field and worked from very rough estimates. To provide frost protection for the plants, the horticultural fleece actually has to be a lot closer to the ground than 2 meters, creating upper and lower structural concerns.
For our part, my team focused principally on designing to field size. All of the design teams wanted to avoid the standard rectilinear structures easily built with bamboo. We explored echoing the various polytunnels around the site in combination with various triangular structures. I’m also not the best orthogonal-view artist, so we struggled a bit to communicate how the five different structural components came together to cover the field.
Both the structure and the plants teams needed to work together. After all, the plants team couldn’t put plants in the ground until the structure established locations and shapes for the various beds. All three structural design teams shared their ideas, and a couple of members of the planting team proposed an idea based from their earlier tinkering with the sycamore tripods.
I thought the Clear Village facilitators did an excellent job at making sure the different designs could be discussed even as some teams lobbied hard for their design. Our discussion focused on the various merits of each design, identifying how various design ideas could come together. We ended the time with a weighted vote where people could vote with 3 stones to either strongly vote for one design or divide their preferences by putting stones on the various sketches.
My team’s sketch didn’t do so well. At the same time, all of the teams benefited from the thorough vetting of similarities and differences between designs. I felt good about getting stuck in with whatever design concept the next day. Something magical happens when you actually start to build up the design.
Then a whole new group of people joined in on Sunday, creating some different dynamics. In the next post, I’ll discuss Sunday morning and the surprises of prototyping.
[And as an author’s note, I will be pulling pictures into these blogs in the near future as more and more team members are getting their pictures posted online. Right now I’m focusing on writing.]
A couple of weeks ago, I learned that Imogen Heap was partnering with Clear Village to restore a walled garden in conjunction with Heapsong3. All of these announcements happened online, and here’s a blurb from Imogen’s site that tells you what we were expecting to happen.
In order to make the experience really rewarding and useful, Clear Village have thought it best to run an immersive program in which volunteers / participants / local residents can be involved in a learning and doing journey and become part of a team.
So in collaboration with the Borough’s Park managers, Clear-Village will be holding an open air lab for a maximum of 20 people over 6 days (22nd – 27th Sept inclusive) that will include presentations, exercises and creative get togethers. If you’re not a local, we have a hotel nearby that is pre-booked with 15 rooms at £55 per night (£65 if 2 in a room), including breakfast and transport to and from the garden (10 minute drive).
You can either come for the short period (22nd – 25th inclusive) or long period (up until 28th) when there’ll be art workshops also. We will feed and water you during the day and you’ll be forever welcome into the garden! You would have your evenings free from 5pm to enjoy nearby London (30 minute train from Gidea Park Station, Essex) or the local countryside.
You are then invited to ‘The Garden Party’ on the 8th Oct at The Round House (where we live), doubling up as the release of Heapsong3. It’s also Thomas’ birthday which he is ‘giving’ to the garden (friends and family bring cash not pressies!). If you’d like to come to the party but can’t be one of the 20 garden angels, you are welcome to come for £99 (all proceeds go toward further Walled Garden projects – places limited to 50 people).
For the 20 garden angels, your jobs could range from:
• Clearing the decks via bricklaying, carpentry, masonry, irrigation expertise, catering, revealing original footpaths, tilling the soil.
• Creating artwork from the debris of the clearing to be positioned around the park to raise local awareness to the ongoing project. (for those staying for the full 6 days)
We would be very happy also to have people with some knowledge of biodynamic agriculture, permaculture, architecture, community project management, drawing/live sketching etc.
I arrived on Saturday and worked through Tuesday. I found a team of folks preparing a large plot for planting because weeds had overrun the area. With spades, forks and hoes, we tried to bring this garden back to life. I chose to jump right in as other plots were roped off for safety reasons. The old greenhouses and poly-tunnels need a lot of skilled demolition. Our team focused principally on one overgrown plot.
Weeding fit my gardening skills nicely. Everything in the field needed to go. We also had a bit of a treasure hunt. The Friends of Bedfords Park had planted potatoes a few months back that were ready for harvesting. In particular, the raised beds were good places to find potatoes. Some stones tried to masquerade as potatoes, making the game that much more fun. Everyone on the team was really friendly, and conversations sprang up around a range of topics.
Because potatoes get planted in raised beds, we had to level the field. People worked with the forks and shovels to get the field roughly level. Other team members took to what we called “the penguin walk.” Treading the field requires you to take small steps using your heels to push down the soil. The ever-colourful Martin (also the parks director) showed us how to tread and recruited a team of people to “look really daft while doing it.” The three people closest to him got on the task right away while the rest of the team worked to prepare the far side of the field. Imogen came down to help and joined the penguin walkers while also joining right in with the team’s chatter.
At some point in the morning, a camera and mic boom showed up. [Weeding requires a lot of time looking down at the ground.] It was a bit strange to garden on camera but Clear Village and Imogen Heap commissioned a documentary about the Walled Garden project and the making of Heapsong3. Personally, I’m not really a taking pictures type of person, but many other folks on the team had really nice still cameras. After a point, I just got used to people taking action shots.
After the team had been working for a while, Lois brought in the winter vegetables and the salad crops we were planting. Martin facilitated a discussion about the difference between horticultural and permaculture techniques. Horticulture uses a rotational system of monocropping while permaculture inter-crops with symbiotic intentions. Certain plants do well when planted next to other plants as the various combinations offer natural protections from pests. The team knew that we’d be having to think carefully about how we wanted to plant the various plants.
By the end of the morning, we had the field nearly all turned over and ready for planting. I was quite impressed.
In the next post, I’ll discuss Saturday afternoon.
I’ll be honest. I’m a risk-taker. I like big crazy projects that seem to have global import. In that spirit, I decided to seek greater understanding of global poverty and international development through creative self-financing, a convenient change in US student loan policies for overseas institutions, a small grant through a private foundation, and a seemingly inane professional choice relative to completing my PhD. For me, helping engineers respond to global poverty required a deeper knowledge of why poverty persists in the world despite claims that the Industrial Revolution had potential to lead to progress for all. Yes, even Adam Smith pointed to the promises of industrialization when it comes to ending poverty. 250 years later, poverty seems more entrenched now than ever. Looking at places of “big promises” it doesn’t seem to matter where you start. The last big push to make poverty history came with the UN Millennial Declaration in 2000; but all forecasts say the goals are likely to remain unmet.
If I have learned anything about poverty in the last year, it is that poverty has more persistence than ever. Lots and lots (and lots and lots…) if people try to “do something” about poverty, but it seems that many blunders come from the well-intentioned. I never mean to fault the well-intentioned. But being well-intentioned still differs from being well-informed.
When an organization has been around a while, commentators can focus rather specifically on one stage of the project. Many people describing how the Grameen Bank works to alleviate poverty focus exclusively on Yunus’s model detailed in the first edition of Banker to the Poor. The Bank employs a very active learning cycle so various forms of financial services have been piloted and developed through Grameen Bank. Moreover, microfinance is a much wider category than the Grameen Bank. Microfinance could be regarded as “development’s silver bullet” in the 1990s with everyone pioneering different models simultaneously. Many people tried to replicate Yunus’s original Grameen model with some varying degrees of success; other more established corporate interests came in on the guise of “financial inclusion” for the poor and highly profitable banking services. The upside is that many mircofinance schemes have been explored and evaluated.
Today I came across a blog post advocating a collective investment model in microfinance. The idea would be to extend a loan to a group that had a business opportunity. Specifically, the following articulation of the plan in action caught my attention:
a person in the BOP forms a group of between ten to twenty people living below the poverty line. The group then goes through one week of training after applying for a loan from a microfinance institution or organization, starts a group investment and hopefully generates income.
It is truly a piece of innovative thinking. I cannot find any reference to the collective investment model in any of the journals I subscribe to. My collection is limited, so I turned to the library supporting my studies in development: collective investment appears nowhere. Google Scholar is temperamental with keywords so I started with “collective investment model” and found one reference in a law journal; scholastically “collective investment” blows up so I returned to a broader Google search to try to figure out where this idea comes from. While Wikipedia is surely not the best source, collective investment schemes have at least one clear history in developed countries where investors pool risk. I started digging around a bit because I cannot imagine how this model would be successful amongst the world’s poorest because the financial lives of the poor reflect incredibly dynamic and social arrangements. The idea of an financial institution enforcing a group repayment system without having some way of interacting at individual level just seems like an absolute nightmare.
Moreover, it is very easy to be looking for the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid apart from some key observations by C.K. Prahalad. Prahalad notes that businesses can be profitably while trying to eradicate poverty, but he also notes that the poor consistently pay premiums on services higher than expected. The poor already use these services. If a business can improve access to the service and while making it cheaper than the existing ad hoc options, then a business likely as a viable shot.
So while I can appreciate the suggestion that a group of poor persons might benefit from some access to venture capital, I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to start with a biogas facility. The Field Guide to Environmental Engineering for Development Workers has but one mention of biogas in a section on air quality:
Biogas emits less particulate matter and can be obtained from crop residues, manure, and even latrines. However, biogas systems are perceived as being more expensive to implement, and they require a level of coordination and technical experience that sometimes restricts them to larger projects (p 496).
Sustainable Wastewater Management in Developing Countries speaks reasonably highly of biogas systems while proposing that sanitation technologies get evaluated along 6 dimensions according to 10 guiding principles. The system articulated for wastewater processing of a hospital comes reasonably close to the population density of the slums, but this system does not use biogas generation.
Asking the poor to assume financial liability for a biogas facility just seems absurd, especially if the advocates for the Collective Investment Model want the poor to come up with the idea for a biogas facility. With considerable historic NGO practice, it might be a reasonable starting point to ask why the NGOs left the slum. I am not suggesting to leave the slum to its own devices, but it does make some reasonable sense to get the lay of the land.
To be completely clear, I think there is value in cooperative ownership and new models for technology. The poor often make their livelihoods, processing the waste in the rest of the world; expanding opportunities for scavengers might be completely fitting. As an engineer, I think considerable attention must be paid to the right design for the job. Within larger asset transfers to create new livelihoods for the poorest of the poor, I do not think people could go wrong in talking with BRAC. Acknowledging that there might be economic possibilities for a viable business does not mean that things unfold as planned.
International development creates funny and interesting policy spaces when you start to think about prevailing processes.
E.F. Schumacher is an author who has fallen out of fashion in development. In 1973, he wrote a book called Small is Beautiful which springboarded the appropriate technology movement. Largely I think people missed the big idea behind his thoughts and zoomed in on a particular (likely perceived to be easy) strand of his thinking. Appropriate technology became almost synonymous with non-governmental organisations trying to give away random agricultural implements. Yes, I am being deliberately uncharitable in my thoughts regarding the appropriate technology movement but I see Schumacher’s argument being picked up again by Yunus. Yunus argues for microcredit to spawn business enterprises, looking more at entrepreneurship as a route out of poverty.
But I have been watching the news to see what’s coming out of the United States as it relates to job creation, reading far too many books, and thinking big dissertation thoughts. One big idea contained in Small is Beautiful concerns the cost of job creation. It seems that capital level investment largely determines worker salaries… at least trying to read Schumacher’s analysis. I am not an economist nor do I play one on the internet… but this thought intrigues me.
Right now the main piece of “capital” at my disposal is my computer. Roughly, my computer costs $1200. The challenge for me is to leverage this capital to create some broader income earning strategy for myself. As a graduate student, I can roughly expect a salary around $12000, largely “earned” through putting my computer to work for me to make connections with knowledge spaces relevant to my field of study. But really, anyone with a computer could ostensibly put that computer “to work” in a way that generated a broader income.
The challenge then becomes creative positioning. If I try to save $1200 during one year, how could I reinvest that $1200 in a way that creates a broader stream of income? I could, for instance, broaden my life experiences by spending that $1200 on a perspective widening trip or an educational experience. Schumacher is rather big on honouring “the human substance” so spending that $1200 on personal wellbeing is in game. But this lump sum savings amount is 10% of my annual income.
Check it: when you look at Muhammed Yunus’s work, this regular small savings amount actually guides some of the principles behind microsavings. The idea behind microsavings seems to be that if the poor can save, then they can also invest in a business. Similarly, microcredit functions in a way to try to help people get towards microcapital.
My computer is a form of “microcapital” that actually seems to be doing rather well for me at the present moment. But I wonder if one of Schumacher’s critical observations was that this appropriately sized micro-capital (sized at 10% to 100% of a person’s income) really doesn’t exist very well among the world’s poor.
Paul Polak made a name for himself by mainly talking to farmers and identifying key capital gains that could improve their livelihoods at scale. His best known interventions are small-scale drip irrigation systems and treadle pumps. Many non-governmental organizations talk about the $25 treadle pump. WAIT. If someone is making less than a dollar a day, then that $25 treadle pump is right at that sweet spot of 10% of their annual income. The farmer who gets a pump (or a drip irrigation system) is in a prime place to actually utilise farming knowledge to make the technology work for her or him.
But there’s a question still about job creation. When I use my computer as a graduate student, I’m honestly not having a go related to my own entrepreneurial skill and talent. In a previous life, I had a gem of a boss who said, “Be careful with this machine. It is worth 5 graduate students.” Imagine Schumacher said that though. The capital investment from the machine gave 5 graduate students employment. When you put 5 of us in the mix at roughly $40,000 a year for related costs, then you have a machine investment of roughly $200,000. [I actually did try to cost a micro-CT scanner to see if that number has any bearing in reality, but I couldn’t easily find a website making the price of that particular technology visible. Whether that machine was fully utilised in employing 5 graduate students is an honest question.] The raw capital investment of an annual salary creates an opportunity to earn an annual salary.
What happens though when the technology cost needed to do a particular job far exceeds the available salaries in an area? Here I’m thinking of landless persons. What sorts of technology, scaled at roughly $300, have the potential to create an authentic fully realised job? Most of the landless generally rely on their body and skill set to create a job for themselves. But what if there were a way to transfer some sort of machine that would enable them to effectively stair-step to the next level?
As I have been working on my MA, it is hard for me not to think about asset transfers and social protection. I think the main “technology” at the annual income level is a cow. But what if there were more options? What if there were more options for the types of businesses that the poor tend to run that created opportunities for reinvestment at 10% of the annual income? Recognising that the body is the core asset of persons, what would it look like if the poor had options other than investing their 10% back into managing their medical expenses? What if non-governmental organisations (or a broader social movement or the private sector) thought about ways to improve access to durable material goods connected largely with a vision of a particular person?
After reading Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher this week, I think the book gets roundly misunderstood and misappropriated by various concerns. I read the book for its discussion around intermediate technology as Schumacher’s book established rhetorically the “appropriate technology” movement.What I found in the book is a much broader discussion about human concerns around production. His book is a rather scathing critique to advance an unpopular thesis: we have not solved the problem of production. For the clearest articulation as to where we have failed relative to production, I quote Schumacher:
To use the language of the economist, [the modern industrial system] lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.
Looking at Schumacher’s thesis positively, Small is Beautiful positions production within a broader metaphysical argument. Specifically, Schumacher longs to see an orientation towards technology that embodies both non-violence and permanence. He differentiates between mass production and production for the masses. The articulation of production for the masses is likely the predecessor to “Bottom of the Pyramid” style businesses. When you connect all three of Schumacher’s exhortations about tools and methods, the Bottom of the Pyramid connection becomes clear:
Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with man’s need for creativity
Schumacher’s articulation that technology needs to be of a human-size is an important realisation. His discussion around long-term feasibility studies offers some value over forecasting documents. “Does this strategy have long-term feasibility given a range of conflicting demands on the resource base?” differs considerably from the forecasting question of “What will happen in 10 years?”
The book runs into some challenges around scale. Schumacher understands and appreciates that population density is something to celebrate in as far as it enables cultures to flourish. However, he also suggests that city size should not exceed 500,000 persons. He argues for a vision that makes rural life sustainable, simultaneously acknowledging that some communities might be suffering from too much migration to justify revitalisation. He discusses at length the necessary tension around a human need for order and a human need for freedom. Both needs establish a space for structured flexible thinking. Schumacher owns and embraces the paradox, but I am not surprised to see how Schumacher’s adherents have really focused on small-scale technologies in rural areas after reading the book.
Given that Schumacher wrote in 1973, I’m impressed to see a discussion of the human substance. Current frameworks about human well-being have some interesting things to learn. Arguably, Schumacher concludes that meaningful work represents a core component of the human substance.
The book is dated in a few places, but I think that many people citing from this particular volume do so at the expense of the overarching argument. Schumacher acknowledges that accepting the triad nature of his argument is not necessary. While each place of his argument stands firm on its own, I would like to see an increased pick up on the tolerance margins of nature apart from raw ecological takeback
In another follow-up post about the role of the government, I came across this article reporting on the situation in Brazil. Brazil represents an emerging economy, where more and more people are participating in a broader economy.
Bolsa Familia is a celebrated conditional cash transfer programme. Essentially, in a conditional cast transfer programme, a poor family receives cash from the government to support the family in educating children and ensuring healthy paediatric development through vaccinations. The families served by programmes like Bolsa Familia are those families living in extreme poverty. Often times, these families live in areas where the money just does not flow. When you have the Amazon rainforest, isolated rural areas, and a large land mass, it should be fairly easy to see that money doesn’t move everywhere in the country. Additionally, Bolsa Familia is still trying to track down eligible participants for the initiative but runs into the problems of “geographical isolation, poor information or administrative shortcomings.”
However, it’s worth noting that in the planned expansiveness of the Bolsa Familia programme, we see the government making attempts to help money flow easier. Remember: the crux of the role of the government is to monitor money flows to make sure that it actually is flowing. The Bolsa Familia programme is next trying to add public services to the areas where families live and also has the goal of providing job opportunities, vocational training, and harness entrepreneurial creativity of the people living in these areas.
By keeping track of what’s going on at the bottom, the government can enable money to flow more smoothly through society.