Probortunities: A Way Out of the Crisis

(This article was originally oublished in the March 2009 issue of HLI, Horticulture and Landscape Ireland)


The economic bubble has burst, bringing an avalanche of crises with it. We have peaked not just the global oil reserves, but most reserves of industrial metals, clean water, soil fertility and biodiversity. Innovation and critical thinking, as well as leadership have slipped from our cultural vocabulary after decades of self centred gorging within that bubble economy. To come through this will challenge all of our individual and collective abilities.  But, I believe we have three or four fairly “easy” (or at least obvious) avenues to explore, building upon a combination of the strengths and orientation of our sector, and the needs of our time.

Rummaging through our collective toolbox of skills, perceptions and material resources, one of the first things to surface is design. Design is both process and product closely related to strategy and vision, both of which are desperately needed to find a way forward and out of the mess. We need to look at our options and needs through the lens of design, open to new possibilities and start thinking outside the box. If we rigorously apply the process, make it second nature, we will open new directions.

Looking on in exasperation as leadership flounders in the face of a global meltdown, I am thinking of ways to repackage my strategic and design insights to provide support and training for leaders. If we took this up as a challenge to our industry, I foresee localised teams of design consultants coming on to boards and committees at many levels, facilitating the development of sustainability visions and plans to achieve them  I would be delighted to talk with any other design strategists who get my point and are ready for action.

We already work with living organisms and systems in our everyday activity. We understand (even if not always practicing) cycling and conservation of materials, how to grow, the factors of biological productivity. General awareness of all things green has exploded, and despite the recession, there is a genuine desire to maintain the momentum already set in green design, green building, green holidays and more. Climate change, food security, tight budgets: these only serve to underscore the urgency of shifting onto a greener and more sustainable footing.

Technology development and funding have been increasing steadily in the pursuit of more sustainable options, and at the forefront of this trend is “living technologies”: solutions based upon the natural functioning of living organisms and systems to clean our air, water and soils, to produce energy, to insulate our homes and more. The single economic sector still growing, even now, is “green technologies”, or “clean tech”. With a renewed push to bring down carbon and save energy, clean tech continues to interest investors, and will certainly provide the bones of a new economy. The EU recently committed us to significant reductions in CO2 over the coming decades. Pundits have warned the cost will be in the billions of euros (never mind the cost of non-action becoming incalculable). What seems to slip from the discussion is that every euro spent goes into someone else’s pocket. They represent jobs at a time they are desperately needed. We are already members of a crack team engaged in carbon sequestration for millennia. This is what plants do so well, and we are among those best positioned to fine-tune our activities to fit the (re)newed agenda of slowing climate change.

Energy audits, energy efficiency, food miles, urban flooding, water conservation…all topping the list of current agenda, and all within our remit. Living roofs and living facades on buildings are big business elsewhere in Europe and the world, as they directly support such agenda. Constructed wetlands, rainwater harvesting, and “biochar” are other green tech solutions which fit well with our sector.

As fuel costs and the need to reduce emissions conspire to make local food production the most economic option, once again we will be needed to redesign community green spaces, from front gardens to local parks as active components of a local food security strategy. And we know our plants the way nobody else does. We can develop specialty nurseries providing the wealth of edible perennials and woody stock which can be grown in Ireland.

Our sector holds many of the tools required for this transition; many of the skills can be updated, reshaped, properly positioned and better presented to assume our rightful place within a wider and diverse team.

We need to convene a national conference on Living Technologies and developing the green sector. Let me know if you’d like to help.

Erik is founder and CEO of TEPUI, a design consortium specializing in living technologies.

Erik (with Sinead FInn) produced the planning brief for incorporation of green roofs into Dublin's city development plan, is sustainable technologies consultant to the Qatar Foundation's Design Zone project, and teaches Ireland's first Masters level course in Sustainable Design and Innovation. He is a plant explorer, new crops researcher and sometimes orchid breeder.


Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.
— Jonh Steinbeck

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