Hipsters Have the Right Idea

October 26th, 2010 — 10:02pm by Matthew Williams

Lagos, Nigeria. Getting around here seems to be the adventure of the day, as Lagos is quickly becoming overwhelmed by a growing population that is producing an astonishing amount of traffic congestion.

The US Bureau of Consular Affairs gives a harrowing description of traveling within Nigeria, stating that “excessive speed, unpredictable driving habits, the lack of basic maintenance and safety equipment on many vehicles, and the absence of any official vehicle inspection for roadworthiness” are hazards to be aware of. They also mention that “gridlock is common in urban areas. Chronic fuel shortages have led to long lines at service stations, which disrupt or block traffic for extended periods.

With the population growth quickly overwhelming the resources of Lagos’ infrastructure, the solution does not appear to lie in the expansion of roadways, but in a restructuring of transportation methods, especially by exploiting the simplicity of the bicycle. However, these ideas of change are met with fierce resistance from a population easily influenced by the Western notions of opulence, the mascot for which could be the ownership of a car. In recent polls, 62% of the Nigerian population sees bicycling as a technology “that will take the country back to the stone age.” A select few however, really understand the value that the bicycle can bring to Lagos, especially in the form of the fixed gear, or track bicycle, that in recent years has garnered a widespread reputation in major American, European and some Asian metropolii as THE way to bike.  One blogger describes the fixed gear as the answer since “with the lack of parts and skilled labour in Lagos a fixie would be the perfect bike to ride there.”

So, considering the simplicity of the fixie, and the modern reputation still being built around the greatness of the machine within super-cool bike scenes, it seems there lies an answer to fit both the desires and needs of the congestion weary, image seeking Lagosians. The fixed gear (as well as any bicycle) provides not only a method of transportation that, if supported, could drastically change the nature of the congestion problem in Lagos, and be flexible enough to grow along with the population.

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A Boom in Hair Booms

October 26th, 2010 — 7:28pm by Crafty Designer

Alpaca fiber to the rescue! (Sort of.)

Alpaca fiber has played a role in helping to clean up the Gulf oil disaster; at least it had good intentions.   Natural materials such as human hair (from salons), pet shavings, wool, feathers, and alpaca fiber were stuffed into nylon stockings and used to make booms that absorb oil.   Even though BP did not use these booms in the long run, as they were not the right form for floating in the ocean, the idea still is a valid one.  It just needs a different form in the future, or can still be used on coastlines or in uses where it is not expected to float.  There have been innovations such as the Ottimat, an absorbent pad which is made of human hair.  This is a great innovation, but the ground level support from individuals to create homemade booms is still a triumph for community involvement to relieve a disaster.

A mountain of hair booms in Fort Walton, FL. Click image for more photos from Matter of Trust.org.

Now, back to the alpacas.  A typical alpaca shearing is split up into different sections.  Firsts, or prime, are the best, seconds can be worked with, and often the thirds are not useable for typical applications.  These fibers can definitely be used as absorbents for oil.   However, in the case of the gulf disaster, even high quality alpaca fiber from Glen Ridge Farm in Rhode Island was donated to the effort.

Not only for disaster relief, hair booms can be used to collect oil runoff after storms in city gutters.  The ecological public charity, Matter of Trust, points out:

“It’s a little silly to drill for oil to make oil-based synthetic booms to soak up oily run-off from streets after storms. Especially when there is so much recycled material available.”


Synthetic absorbent products, many of which could be substituted with natural fibers.

The natural absorbent capabilities of animal fibers can be seen in this Youtube video from Matter of Trust.

We need to keep taking advantage of waste products that can solve our problems. Currently Matter of Trust has plenty of material donated, but they are always looking for more and better end uses for these materials.

Average people can take part in this effort, but the most good will come out of it when larger entities get on board. Cities could convert waste absorption practices to natural methods. If there are many defined needs, such as in the construction industry, aquatic maintainance, etc. there will be a direct use for this natural fiber refuse from salons, farms, and groomers. This waste would naturally decompose on its own, so it is no problem. Rather it is the solution to lessen our dependence on synthetics.

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What is an Authentic Antique?

October 25th, 2010 — 11:12pm by Jason Lee Starin

“A piece of furniture, tableware or the like, made at a much earlier period than the present.”

Another definition:

Antique: a collectible object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its considerable age.

Wikipedia says, “objects at least 100 years old.” Considerable age is then at least 100 years old.

Thats fine.  I can accept that definition based on time, but this definition has little to do with the authenticity of an object.  A basis which can be seen as misleading in the antique world.  If time, and time alone, defines an object as antique, how does origin or more specifically, provenance, factor into this discussion?

Authentic: of undisputed origin; genuine.

Origin: the beginning of something’s existence.

Provenance: referring to the specific place, or sometimes the race or people, from which something is derived or by whom it was invented or constructed.

If location and process are truer definitions of authenticity, then the porcelain wares of Jingdezhen, China could be recognized as the finest examples of the authentic object, regardless of the time they have been created.

Jingdezhen, a province of Jiangxi China, as it’s slogan signs state, the “Harmonious Porcelain Metropolis”, has been a provenance of fine porcelain pottery for over 2000 years.  This is due to one of it’s major industrial mining materials kaolinite.  A mineral that is used mostly in porcelain manufacturing.  The name kaolinite – later kaolin, is derived from Chinese: Gaoling or Kao-ling (“High Hill”) which is in the city of Jingdezhen.

As a process, forcing the petrification of clay into stone to make ceramic pots, the porcelain artisans of Jingdezhen, also pioneered high-fire kiln techniques.  Firing a kiln at a higher temperature, reveals the beautiful qualities intrinsic to porcelain such as translucency, referring to them as objects of purity.

If the age of a pot is the only defining aspect of an objects value, then what does that say about the actual material and labor that makes a pot?  As these two things are based in physical reality, don’t they read as more viable conditions of what an object really is?  Could not skill, something learned that has been passed down from generation to generation, be a more viable quality of which to measure authenticity in terms of age?  Traditional skill, as exercised and recorded in the making of a certain type of object – as something taught and studied, is the quintessential definition of developed time, is it not?

Contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an artist who, as he states, is not a ceramicist, but rather, does ceramics, challenges this notion of authenticity in his art works.  His porcelain work, some of which are high-end purposefully made counterfeits of Ming and Qing dynasty blue-and-white pottery, are made and created in Jingdezhen folowing a tradition that has been established for centuries.  What defines them as counterfeits is the fact that they are made in the present.

Ai Weiwei creates and fires in Jingdezhen at a ceramic studio he has dubbed Lao Wei Tang, run by a gentleman also called Weiwei.  Liu Weiwei, or as Ai refers to him, “Old Wei”, runs a kiln that makes only two types of work.  Ai’s ceramic work and counterfeits of Ming and Qing pottery for sale at auction houses in Beijing.  According to Philip Tanari in his essay about Ai Weiwei’s ceramic work, Postures in Clay: The Vessels of Ai Weiwei, “the only reason the entire art of traditional Chinese ceramics has been kept alive is the healthy market that exists for counterfeit replicas of classical works.”

Here in lies the problem of authenticity of the porcelain wares made in current Jingdezhen China.  There is a need of sustaining a particular culture that is met by continuing the manufacture of objects that defined China’s past identity.  As objects, these contemporary porcelain pots are deemed fake as they are not made in the time frame which defined the particular culture and society of China’s past.  What is being held onto by the outside world, is what the object symbolizes.  A cultural identity that transcends time, as formalized though the beauty of the porcelain pot, is still being considered, created, and cherished with each contemporary replica skillfully produced in the city of Jingdezhen.

Ai Weiwei, Blue-and-White Moonflask, 1996; replica in style of Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign era (1736–95); porcelain, glaze and cobalt brushwork, 20 7/8" x 14 1/2" x 3". Courtesy private collection, USA. Photo by: Jake Stangel

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Colors of Coimbatore

October 25th, 2010 — 11:03pm by Leslie Vigeant

India has a culture that is rich with traditions, festivals, and colors. Its images are saturated, and its history dense. When speaking about India Mark Twain said, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most astrictive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”

Well Mr. Twain…well said.

Through out the semester I have been studying and researching the industrial city of Coimbatore. Coimbatore is the 3rd largest city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Shown right.  “According to ancient manuscripts, Coimbatore’s history can be traced to the Irula tribal chief Kovan and his clan who were it’s earliest settlers and the founders of “Kovanpatti” a part of Kongunadu.Over time this became Coimbatore, which is also known at Kovai.

Coimbatore is most known for its booming textiles industry, which is embedded deeply in the cities roots. “Cotton cultivation and production is recorded from second millennium BC and the earliest urban civilization of the subcontinent… As Indian textiles established themselves as an increasingly significant trade commodity, prized from China to Mesopotamia for their brilliance of colour, unparalleled colour fastness, fineness of weave and rich variety of designs, the weaving of various fibres also received further impetus.”

In Coimbatore, there are currently more than 30,000 textile mills.   It is one of the top 10 fastest growing cities in India. According to Coimbatore city’s website, Coimbatore, is the hub of textile spinning and weaving mills. this has gotten it known as Manchester of South India. Do to the growing needs of the textile  market, Many textile mills has upgraded their textile machinery and increased their capacity.

Despite the 2 percent rise in Indian cotton prices, “India is now seen exporting about eight million bales of cotton, mostly to Pakistan and China, in the year to September 2011, up from earlier estimates of about 3 million bales, trade officials said.

Indian culture is steeped with exquisite and extravagant traditions and festivals Holi – the festival of colors – is undoubtedly the most beautiful and magical Hindu festival to research. “It’s an occasion that brings in unadulterated joy and mirth, fun and play, music and dance, and, of course, lots of bright colors

Holi is an ancient festival of India that occurs during the last months of winter. It celebrates colors, rituals, the spring, and the full moon. “Holi helps to bring the society together and strengthen the secular fabricof India.  It also hits a sweet spot with cannabis lovers, as there is a widespread participation of “bhang” -spiced cannabis mixed into a delicious looking milk beverage.

“Also, the tradition of the Holi is that even the enemies turn friends on Holi and forget any feeling of hardship that may be present. Besides, on this day people do not differentiate between the rich and poor and everybody celebrate the festival together with a spirit of bonhomie and brotherhood.

In the evening people visit friends and relatives and exchange gifts, sweets and greetings. This helps in revatalising relationships and strengthening emotional bonds between people.

“In earlier times when festival celebrations were not so much commercialized Holi colors were prepared from the flowers of trees that blossomed during spring, such as the Indian Coral Tree (parijat) and the Flame of the Forest (Kesu), both of which have bright red flowers. These and several other blossoms provided the raw material from which the brilliant shades of Holi colours were made. Most of these trees also had medicinal properties and Holi colors prepared from them were actually beneficial to the skin.”

“Over the years, with the disappearance of trees in urban areas and greater stress for higher profits these natural colours came to be replaced by industrial dyes manufactured through chemical processes.” As you would assume these chemical’s do not have the same healing or beneficial effects. This is a cautionary chart from the Holifestival.org. Also on their website is a list of body friendly colors that they suggest people use during the celebrations.

Another, less colorful festival is the Saraswatu Puja Festival.

“Saraswati Puja is the ritual worship of the goddess Saraswati. The festival is celebrated in the month of January-February in India. Saraswati is considered the goddess of knowledge and learning. Saraswati literally means ‘the flowing one’. The color yellow is given special importance on this day. On this day, Saraswati is dressed in yellow garments and worshipped. People prefer to wear yellow clothes on this holy day. Sweets of yellowish color are distributed among relatives and friends. The youngest girl of the family wears a yellow saree as a custom.”

AMONG THE MANY FESTIVALS IS ALSO THE TAMIL FESTIVAL.  “As Coimbatore gears up for the World Classical Tamil Conference, the city sports a colourful mood with murals depicting Tamil culture on the roadside walls.” One such illustration can be seen on the left . Tamil is a language native to India, and this region as well as surrounding places such as Sri Lanka.

From festivals to rituals, Indian culture is truly invested in the effects and meanings of color. The Hindu concept of Chakras is an example of how colors are used to connect and illustrate one’s self and center with colors. Starting in the 11th Century, the number of major chakras has shifted as the concept has spread, generally landing at 6 or 7 as a standard number.

Beyond chakras, certain colors take on other roles in Coimbatore’s society. Red is an example of one such color.

“In Indian tradition, the color red signifies purity, joy and celebration. Indian culture considers red the color of happiness and prosperity and believes red attracts good luck. For these reasons, Indian brides traditionally wear red at their weddings. The combination of gold and red represents wealth and good fortune.

Another color is Saffron. Kashmiri saffron, shown to right is a highly sought after color. These are bundles of the flowers dried stigma. This highly effective, and expensive strand of colorant is not found outside of India.

Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition don saffron robes.

Furthermore, the top stripe on the Indian Flag is a color which is officially called deep saffron.

Originally, only natural and herbal colors were used for pigment production. Saffron, cadmium red, bond black, and indian yellow are examples of this. However, limited recourses, a growing market, and consumer needs and desires for more saturated and longer lasting colors has driven the market towards synthetic color production. Many of these pigments, paints and dyes can have physical effects on the users including poisoning, sickness, blindness and death. yikes!

Such side effects put users such as artists, crafters, fabric dyers, make-up wearers, and artificially colored food eaters…so basically everyone at risk. As a result of the knowledge of this information, many green, eco friendly, or user friendly products are popping up. One group of scientists in Coimbatore are researching this very topic.

According to the Department of Agricultural Microbiology, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, “There is worldwide interest in process development for the production of pigments from natural sources due to a serious safety problem with many artificial synthetic colorants, which have widely been used in foodstuff, cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturing processes.  Many fungi have been reported to produce non-carotenoid pigments but only a few of those have been explored as possible food colorants

The group recently published an article on cotton dyeing methods in “Fibers and Polymers” titled: “Dyeing of cotton yarn with five water soluble fungal pigments obtained from five fungi”. According to the abstract, The present study aimed to assess the potentiality of water soluble fungal pigments for dyeing on cotton yarn.

The chemists use the five fungi to create color and had the most luck with red and yellow. Two colors that are difficult to have good saturation levels of. These Coimbatorians could be on to a good design solution and alternative to synthetic processes.

Researching and seeing India via a computer screen is not the best way to know a place. But, it does serve its purpose. There is so much to learn and know that can only be obtained through experience. Needless to say, I would love to go to Coimbatore and experience it first hand. Especially during the Holi the festival of colors.

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Toxic T-Shirts

October 25th, 2010 — 10:37pm by Leslie Vigeant

Almost everyone buys their clothes, most know what kind of fabric they are wearing, some notice where it was manufactured, and even fewer take the time to acknowledge the process that went into making them. In the Unites States, with the exception of boutique stores and artisan clothing, most of our clothes have been manufactured over seas, shipped to the USA, and folded neatly on store shelves with no residue of its production. However, how is it possible that a shirt which has been woven, dyed, labored over, stitched, and then shipped half way across the globe can cost $7.99 at a department store? What is the true cost of that shirt, and who is paying for it?

Coimbatore, India is a city filled with textile mills and production. But where there is production there is waste. These mills, although good for the economy of the city, cause many problems in terms of pollution. To name a few they cause air pollution, noise pollution, and water pollution. According to a recent research paper by Prakash Nelliyat on the socio-economics of textile industries in India, “Recently, many of the South Asian countries are experiencing severe environmental problems due to their rapid industrialization. This phenomenon is very common where the polluting industries like textile dyeing, leather tanning, paper and pulp processing, sugar manufacturing, etc. thrive as clusters.”  Thus a place like Coimbatore, which houses some 25,000 textile mills is suffering because of its growth.

Many people and groups, such as the TAMILNADU POLLUTION CONTROL BOARD, which is a citizen’s charter of the Department of Environment and Forests, are taking action. Since most of the ground and water pollutants are coming out of small industries which are not heavily regulated, the TNPCB operates to measure new industries on sustainable matters. “TNPCB is taking effective steps for safe disposal of hazardous wastes and has completed the inventory of hazardous waste generating units and also identified sites for disposal of hazardous wastes. TNPCB is creating environmental awareness in the State through the Environmental Training Institute, Environmental Awareness Cell, Environmental Awareness Programme, Environmental Pavilion constructed at the Periyar Science and Technology Centre (Chennai), NGO Cell, Publishing of New Letters/Pamphlets on environmental issues etc.”  Below is a chart that states their monitoring periods according to the toxicity of the dye colors.

The local Coimbatore universities are also interested in raising awareness and finding a solution to this problem. At the Mettupalayan Forest College, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, researchers propose using eco friendly dyes that will increase both the quality of the surrounding waters, and, as a ramification, the price for consumers. “The main problem identified so far is the large discharge of inorganic salts while the formation of organochlorine compounds cannot be excluded in view of the use of hypochlorite for bleaching of the cotton. The use of more environment friendly production processes would increase the prize in the consumer countries with no more than 10-20%.” These percentages are minimal when compared to the non potable waters that are being directed into Coimbatore, and surrounding town Tirupur.

As the problems become more and more apparent, the concept of designing solutions spreads. In 2007, Indian clothing designer Anita Dongre launched “Grassroot” an eco friendly clothing collection that uses sustainable cloth and non toxic dyes. She has continued this line, and just come out with a 2011 series. Before this “Grassroots”, the idea of sustainable fashion had not yet hit the Indian market. Now, following the trends of the times, and needs of the people, eco friendly clothing is becoming more and more popular.

Despite the raise in monetary costs, people, (myself included) need to be aware of the socioeconomic effects our decisions have, and be willing to compensate. As the people of Coimbatore raise the bar on their environmental standards of textile production, we too can, and will, share the costs.

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Government Give-A-Way: Free New House & Land

October 25th, 2010 — 8:53pm by Mo Morales

Farmhouse of the type offered by the Village Development Program of Belarus

How would you like to live in a new, three-bedroom, two-story home with a yard large enough to subsist-farm as well as a barn/utility building and acreage to grow a production crop?  Sound good?  Did I mention it was free?

This is the allure of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s Village Development Program which began in 2005.  Responding to the increasing flight of younger adults from villages to the cities, Lukashenko ordered an expensive and controversial government program to reverse the flow of labor from the villages.  According to statistics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the Belarussian population living in villages was 56% in 1970 but has atrophied to 25% in 2010.

Though not a problem limited to Europe, without exception, all central and eastern European countries have experienced similar declines in rural populations.  According to LSE, “Rural out-migration leaves behind the retired, those on sick pensions, those whose only work is on their household plot, and those whose education stopped after primary school. There is a common impression that moving away for education or work is a first, permanent step taken by younger people who are turning their back on village life.”(link here)

So what’s the problem with moving to the city for education and work opportunities?  Chiefly, the problem is a catastrophic reduction in foodstuffs.  If everyone leaves the countryside, there are no farmers to feed the nation.  To entice younger adults back to the farming life, President Lukashenko has spent 21 billion US dollars building houses and improving infrastructure in 1,481 villages officially designated as Agritowns.

Not just 24,472+ houses, the plan has created thousands of miles of roads; hundreds of clinics, gymnasiums, cultural centers, craft centers, retail shops and schools; and technology assistance supported by applied research programs focused on animal husbandry, food cultivation, and land-use techniques.  Impressive in its breadth and intensity, the state is also investing in agriecotourism by enticing Westerners to experience the village life as a form of total-immersion entertainment.  The intent behind the urgent action is to create food, and lots of it.  Lukeshenko wants to not only feed his country, but use food exports to buttress the GNP as Belarus is a country of little natural resources besides forests and farmland.

This government initiative was originally designed as a five-year experiment.  Now entering its final year of funding, how has it fared?  Initial government reports herald the material expenditures as expressed in terms of numbers of structures completed (i.e. 24K+ homes, 199 clinics, 412 kindergardens, 14 craft centers etc.).  Although approximately 2,000 houses remain unoccupied, it can be inferred that 22,000 families have been placed in the Agritowns and are enjoying the fruits of significantly improved infrastructure.  One eye-opener, is that the measures of success have proven to be difficult to design, implement, and validate and are now the focus of an intense activity by the National Academy of Science.

So why do 2,000 free houses remain empty?  One chief complaint of those who have moved into the homes is that they were forced into them.  There is a pervasive sentiment among the citizenry that receiving one of these free homes is no less than the kiss of death.  Thus, the government has had to resort to lawfully forcing people into the villages.  In such cases, a refusal to relocate is a criminal act.

Still, what are the reasons for the dissatisfaction?  When polled for their opinion, recipients of the hand-outs complain of land too small to sustain the family (and shed-sized “barns” so small they only fit a cow on the diagonal); those relocated after completing advanced degrees tend to feel they are the smartest people in the village and lack intellectual stimulation; and that the villages are “Labyrinths” with an easy way in and no way out due to lack of economic opportunities.  Though most are able to provide their own food and dairy, the problem is undoubtedly the lack of means to sustain the family economically.  Further, for the land areas that might be workable to produce surplus crop yields, the methods are inefficient and the markets anemic.

With no meaningful industry in many of these agritowns, there are no jobs that earn real money.  Though entrepreneurial endeavors are encouraged by the communist-turned-free market economy, few people have the basic knowledge necessary to start a business and if they do, are often exasperated by the lack of government cooperation and the extremely high business taxes that castrate most start-ups.  Whereas the future well-being of the country is dependent on more food production, the well-being of the village is dependent on industry to create income opportunities.  Until people can make money, an undeniable necessity in the global market economy, there will be difficulty attracting young urban-lust families back to the village way of life.

However, one design opportunity the Belarussian officials might consider is a targeted information campaign.  If the young urban families receive the message that market forces in the urban centers will continue to drive-up the prices of food to the point where it is impossible for the average family to generate enough money to buy food, and that the value of farm-produced food will thus skyrocket, the highest quality of life might soon be found at the front of this inevitability and a move to the village could prove to be VERY lucrative.

If all or even most countries will have to deal with the approaching problem of diminishing food supplies, Belarus is leading other countries in thinking about how to provide for its people in such a future.  I can say one thing with certainty: I’m glad I have my Belarus visa stamped!  However, as with everything, nothing is perfect.  To move to south-eastern Belarus where my wife is from, even if to accept a free government farm, is to move to the place where some 60% of the fall-out from Chernobyl landed.

Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor fallout map - 1986

But hey, its a small world.  And fallout doesn’t recognize international borders…

Tracking air-borne radiation from Chernobyl - days 1,2 & 3.

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Plastic Predicament

October 25th, 2010 — 7:36am by Rachel Cox

Plastic bags have been called the “flower of Africa” because of their ubiquitous presence as discarded items throughout the landscape. Similar to other African countries, the litter created by plastic bags is considered one of Mali’s worst ecological problems, polluting waterways, harming animals and harboring disease. The annual flooding of the Niger River that flows through Mali benefits the surrounding agricultural region, but leaves behind stagnant water in all the plastic refuse – bags in particular – which creates breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes.

Plastic bags litter Nairobi, a scene also common in Mali and throughout Africa

In 2007, the Aga Khan Foundation began a social development project in Mopti, a port city on the Niger River, to recycle plastic bags into street paving blocks. Mopti, apparently, needed a major cleanup and economic revitalization. The recycling program engaged local residents of Mopti to collect discarded plastic bags and bring them to a workshop, where the plastic was melted down, mixed with sand to create a paste, and poured into a mold for a paving block. These “stones” were used to pave several of the city streets. France 24 reported that, a year later, the project had helped transform Mopti to a clean city where business was booming and tourism increasing. Watch their report on “Mopti’s ‘ecological’ pavestones”:

The downside to the Aga Khan recycling project, however, is evident in the above video: the process releases toxic fumes that endanger the workers, and the protective masks they wear seem inadequate. Enter: Mali Health Organizing Project (MHOP) and engineers from Brown University. Earlier this year, they reported an attempt at designing a healthier and more sustainable method to recycle Mali’s plastic bags into paving blocks. They describe it as “a parabolic solar collector to collect the sun’s energy and melt these bags using that energy.”

MHOP's Transforming Trash prototype uses solar energy and controlled heat to melt plastic bags for recycling

The solar-powered plastic recycler looks like a well-intentioned design solution to Mali’s plastic problem, but it’s still a solution from afar and doesn’t address the heart of the problem – the production and consumption of plastic bags. Some African countries have banned the use of certain types of plastic bags (targeting especially the thinnest bags that can’t be reused), and Nigerian scientists are currently working to create biodegradable bags for widespread commercial production and use. Even more effective might be to address waste management efforts and changing consumer habits and behaviors.

Mali has developed some homegrown solutions to the pervasiveness of plastic, in the form of industrially produced household goods of recycled plastic:

Recycled plastic goods on a street in Bamako, Mali

Recycled plastic kettles used by many Malians for daily ablutions

Malian artisans also recycle plastic to make wares such as baskets, prayer mats, jewelry, toys, etc. According to the Made in Africa website, “above all, it is manual craftsmen who work with recycled materials. Leftovers from local industry are collected and used as raw materials in their respective production activities.” As in many other parts of the world, the daily industry of some Malians includes collecting and sorting trash, either exchanging it for cash at factories and workshops where it will be recycled, or repurposing it themselves to create utilitarian and aesthetic objects.

Malian baskets made of recycled plastic bags

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Mali’s Genius Loci Exported to the World

October 25th, 2010 — 7:20am by Rachel Cox

Mali: Genius Loci Exported to the World

Presentation text (link to PDF):
Mali’s Materials & Exports

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The Real Cost of Gold.

October 24th, 2010 — 10:06pm by Julie Pointer

Small-scale gold mining in Suriname goes back as far as the early 1700s, when the first five ounces of gold dust were exported to the Netherlands. However, the industry did not really pick up as a viable means of making a living until over a century later, when developments to support the industry began to take root. Then in the 1970s and 80s, a veritable gold rush took place, as minimal regulations on mining allowed for necessary funds to support the guerrilla activity of political upheaval, and isolated rainforest communities needed a way to import food, supplies and equipment.

The gold industry—particularly small-scale mining, which is understood to be “characterized by a labor force that is not formally trained in mining and uses rudimentary techniques for prospecting, extracting, and processing of gold”—is good for the economy, and provides much-needed work opportunities for the Surinamese people. Some living in the Maroon communities and the large numbers of Brazilian immigrants benefit, at least monetarily speaking, from the entire mining service economy. This includes not just the miners themselves but also the “women who sell food and cigarettes in the mining area, the owners of small stores, cooks, carpenters, sex workers, and transport providers, among others.”  The industry supports the economies of several small forest villages that have few other options for creating income.

Despite certain economic advantages, gold mining is severely problematic for almost every other sector of life in Surinamese communities, as it has adverse physical, health, and environmental effects for all those connected to the mining industry and beyond.  Small-scale mining causes serious land degradation by creating swamps, open craters, and major pollution through the use of oil and toxic substances. Large amounts of standing water create fertile beds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, and a severely lacking public health system allows for frequent malaria transmission.

In addition, the mining system creates significant amounts of water pollution, forcing villagers to travel long distances to source clean drinking water. This also significantly reduces the availability of fish, which generally serve as the only means for protein. Furthermore, small-scale miners use a technique that involves mercury, meaning that about 10 to 20,000 kilograms of mercury are released into Suriname’s air and ecosystem on an annual basis. Because the majority of workers are young men, the sex industry is rampant in mining areas, leading to widespread sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.

There are also socioeconomic issues that come along with the instability of the mining industry. With very little regulation and control in place, incomes are variable and unreliable, and rampant crime and violence lead to both chaos and insecurity.

The active players in this debacle are:

+The wider gold industry

+Surinamese economy

+The miners themselves

+Miners’ families + communities

+Indigenous peoples and Maroons that are not involved in mining

+Natural environment + ecosystems

So is the trade-off worth it?

While the financial benefits associated with mining disappear soon after mining activities have ceased, the negative environmental, health, and social implications remain long after miners have left the area.  How do we weigh the cost-benefits of a system that provides financial resources, but simultaneously manages to destroy and deplete so many paramount factors of life? Overall, it seems as though gold-mining in Suriname is not sustainably life-giving, unless the industry makes some radical changes in its behavior.

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Bamboo Housing

October 21st, 2010 — 1:30am by Anne Crumpacker

Bamboo Housing

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