Urban Metabolism

Before going to New York in 2012, I read a book I'd bought several years earlier: "The anatomy of a city" by Kate Ascher. I think the reason I bought the book in the first place was not that it is about New York, but for the various infographics it contains. My fascination for that kind of representation begun when I was introduced to the works of Edward Tufte, when studying computational linguistics in the middle of the 1980s.
From New England 2012
Maybe the reading primed me into becoming extra interested when I met a researcher from Chalmers at MIT, after I and my colleague continued our trip going from New York to Boston via Connecticut and Cape Cod. The researcher was visiting the Urban Metabolism group and had also discovered the SENSable Living Lab at MIT.

According to Wikipedia, the "urban metabolism" metaphor has been used by scientists for quite some time now, although it has been become more popular with the increasing interest in sustainable development especially when it comes to sustainability reporting, urban greenhouse gas accounting, mathematical modelling for policy analysis and urban design.

The importance of considering urban metabolism was clearly demonstrated when the hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the US in October later that year. According to Wikipedia, the damages were severe: the East River overflowed its banks, flooding large sections of Lower Manhattan. Battery Park had a water surge of 13.88 ft, seven subway tunnels under the East River were flooded and over 10 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage were released by the storm, 94% of which went into waters in and around New York and New Jersey. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that the destruction caused by the storm was the worst disaster in the 108-year history of the New York City subway system.

One of the persons working hard on improving the metabolism of New York is Michael Sorkin, a professor of Urbanism. I saw an interview with him in the TV programme "From Metropolis to Naturopolis" where he talks about new roles for landscape architects. Parks can no longer only be recreational spots, but need to have more functions, for example, helping the city to become waterproof.
From New England 2012
One example of this is the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is a functional park and a high performing landscape. It's part of a big project called PlaNY 2030 aiming at becoming a sustainability and resiliency blueprint for New York City. Together with a vast number of collaborators they have made significant progress in just a few years such as the cleanest air in 50 years, 865,000 trees and five million square feet of reflective rooftop, building codes upgraded to prepare for floods, wind, and extreme weather, and 19% reduction in carbon emissions since 2005.

Another example is the Fresh Kills, a former landfill (once the largest landfill, as well as human-made structure, in the world) now slowly being turned into a public park through a public-private partnership. The new park is designed by James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architecture firm also responsible for the design of the High Line in Manhattan.

However, these grand scale projects have also been criticized. In contrast to these expensive projects, local community gardens add to the metabolism often without any monetary support at all and sometimes even as illegal acts of guerrilla gardering.

Sorkin has also written numerous books and articles, for example one about to what extent New York could be come self-reliant, or subject to autarky. He's been looking into food production, and concluded that self-sufficiency is probably not reasonable because of the amount of energy that would imply, even if more people became vegetarians. I like that, because in my opinion the sustainable city is dependent on a good relation to the sustainable countryside.

The urban metabolism concept has been criticised as misleading, for example by Dr. Nancy Golubiewsk:

"The UM analogy needs to be relinquished to make progress in urban sustainability research: the nineteenth century device should give way to twenty-first century science. Using the analogy limits the potential to link socio-economic and ecologic models and reinforces the linear input–output approach of resource flow through the city. It fails to capture the more complex and sophisticated understanding of the urban ecosystem emerging in urban ecological theory.

... Clinging to the analogy has resulted in holding on to outdated ideas such as the superorganism and climax succession, which results in missing opportunities to explore the complexity of interconnection and thus manipulates the possibilities for transdisciplinary research.

As a result, it does matter whether “urban metabolism” is used—and abused—because researchers try to connect ecology and economics within this organismal framework rather than an ecosystem one. Ceasing to use the analogy would clarify research priorities, such as homeorhesis, resilience, and feedbacks (rather than homeostasis, stability, and input–output). Ecosystem ecology can thus be merged with established methodologies of material and energy flow analysis in order to transcend disciplines. ... The issue is not just a matter of semantics, but rather an important conceptual platform upon which to base interdisciplinary, ultimately transdisciplinary, urban research."

Instead of only focusing on the metabolism, maybe Plato's concept of the Tripartite soul in the treatise The Republic can be of use where the heart, mind and gut work together to form a just body/city?


Tempting Violet

Agnes Branting was a real entrepreneur, creating a whole new market. She became the CEO of Handarbetets Vänner in 1891 and the year after she embarked on a journey to Berlin that had a huge impact on her, the organisation and the churches in Sweden. There she visited an exhibition for religious art and several textile studios.

In 1904 she started the textile company Licium, aiming at developing and producing religious textile for Swedish protestant churches. Until her death in 1930, more than 1600 textile items were produced. The name of the company was cleverly chosen, since it refers to a special knot used in weaving, joining new threads to the old abb.

However, I think the most impressive innovation was that she (re)introduced the five liturgical colours: red, white, black, green and violet/blue. Thereby she also created a market, where of course every church needed textile material not only in one colour, but in five.

In 2004, I had the opportunity to see the exhibition "Textil konst för själen" (Textile Art for the Soul) at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, and I was impressed by the beautiful chasubles made by the artists at Licium.

My favourite colour (not only in the liturgical context) is violet. Apparently, this is the colour for reflection and penance. A good fit, I suppose. It's also the colour for the lent period, that starts now!

From Christmas 2014


Love Triangle

Can you fall in love with someone by staring into his/her eyes for four minutes? According to Mandy Len Catron who wrote an article in New York Times about it, you can. She applied a model from a study focusing on making two people develop a strong interpersonal closeness by Dr Aron and his team. This involves a very precise procedure where you ask each other 36 questions in a special sequence, and at the end stare into each others' eyes for about four minutes. The first question is "Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?" and the second last one is "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing?" to give you an indication of the escalation in intensity.

I can understand why this works, because I have participated in such self-disclosure and relationship-building tasks myself, although in another context. The same kind of rigorous method with an interview protocol and with questions that make you feel good about yourself and interested in the other is namely exactly the foundation for Appreciative Inquiry session.

By being asked questions about when you did something that you are proud of and when things went really well, you connect with positive memories. By telling these things to the person doing the interview you also connect to each other, and you actually create a new common and positive memory. This can be reinforced by asking strength-based follow-up questions. Developing all these positive thoughts and feelings, opens up your mind. This makes it easier to come up with really good ideas concerning what your wish for the future and what you can contribute in order to make it happen. If you have the good fortune of having a really skilled person doing the interview, he or she will also add an enthusiastic summary of your interview making you feel really special and smart. This in turn makes you want to engage and co-create something good, not only for yourself but for everybody in the group or organisation. However, it is really important to design good questions and to follow the instructions. Just smalltalk doesn't have the same kind of impact.

This has been studied in the field of Positive Psychology, for example by Barbara Fredrickson. She has developed the broad-and-build-theory that suggests that positive emotions lead to novel, expansive, or exploratory behavior, and that, over time, these actions lead to meaningful, long-term resources such as knowledge and social relationships.

Aron's work is based on Robert Sternberg's Triangular theory of love. At the corners we find intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimate love felt between two people means that they each feel a sense of high regard for each other ("warm" love). They wish to make each other happy, share with each other, be in communication with each other, help when one is in need. Passionate love is based on drive ("hot love). Couples in passionate love feel physically attracted to each other. Committed love ("cold" love) is for lovers who are committed to being together for a long period of time.

The three components interact with each other and with the actions they produce so as to form seven different kinds of love experiences: non-love, liking/friendship, infatuated love, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love, and consummate love. The last kind of what is often associated  with the “perfect couple" and where intimacy, passion and commitment is balanced. It is placed in the middle of the triangle, making some sense of the conceptual metaphor of falling in love.  Sternberg stresses the importance of translating the components of love into action. "Without expression," he warns, "even the greatest of loves can die.
So, how do you keep the music playing? According to John Harvey and Julia Omarzu at University of Iowa you need to stick to five rules when you are minding a close relationship (if you don't want to read the book, you can glance at the article): First, you have to do things that makes you know each other better. This implies self-disclosure, telling stories about dreams and hopes, listening and observing. Second, you need to believe that the other is not behaving badly on purpose, but stick to a positive explanatory model and a constructive focus. Thirdly, you need to accept and respect each other based on what you know about each others' strengths and weaknesses. Fourthly, you have to actively engage in creating and maintaining the relation, to be reciprocal in thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Lastly, you need to plan and create strategies for getting closer, to discover what works.

However, what do you do when you don't even have a person to do a strength-based love-inducing interview with? Well, I suppose you can always try the Invisible Boyfriend (at least if you live in North America). It would be really interesting to see what would happen if a customer started to ask the 36 questions, since apparently the service includes getting text-messages from a real person.


Impact Metaphors

In May 2005, the UK funding agency ESRC held a symposium on assessing the non-academic impact of research. In the report from the event, Approaches to assessing the non-academic impact of social science research, metaphors used to describe the research impact process are discussed:

The metaphors of hierarchies and networks provide two different ways of viewing the research impact process, but increasingly networks are considered to reflect best the process by which impact occurs. However, there is a difference between defining networks as channels of dissemination and seeing them as arenas within which knowledge is shared and developed. The latter reflects current understandings about communities of practice, which emphasise the importance of situated knowledge: knowledge is not an object that can be disconnected from the community within which it develops. Once we move towards models of knowledge co-production, the idea of research impact cannot be captured by phrases such as knowledge transfer. At the very least we need to think in terms of knowledge translation, knowledge mediation or knowledge interaction. Similarly, impact is no longer a uni-dimensional concept – the impact of research on policy and practice – but instead reciprocal impacts need to be considered.

This reminded me of a set of metaphors introduced by Svante Beckman, University of Linköping, when debating the role of universities in society in the 1980-ies. According to him, the role of the university needs to be seen from various stakeholders' perspective. 

Students view the university as an arena for their education, career and life project. This makes the university a marketplace, where demand sets the limit for supply and access. Industry and the public sector see the university as a factory, producing a high-quality workforce and results that can be commercialised. The academic researchers consider the university as a sanctuary or oasis where they can pursue their own life projects, their own research and teaching. Some think the university is like a temple, where the education provides a ticket to much sought after professions with a high status in society.

I'm involved in a project right now focusing on measuring impact of research on society. Maybe we should aim for a new metaphor to capture that impact can be created in many ways, takes place in an integrated way without start or end, and that the impact can be of different kinds. Something in line with Indra's Net perhaps.