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Feedback from the ‘Pushing and Doing’ Group Discussion

ds21 Conference at the ICA

London, November, 2005

Bill Dunster’s summary:

Firstly, we debated the interface between reality (realpolitik) – i.e. what do we really have at this site, and the low / zero carbon waste utopia that we discussed yesterday. The idea was to discuss the tools for a transition, because there’s no point in just assuming we can go from one to the other. How you get there is what is really exciting and important. So this is on the basis that anyone can dream but it’s very hard to make things happen.

We started by saying how could we compete with the private sector to secure the land, and unless this was achieved, a community land trust system, as was described today, couldn’t really get going, even though it’s a very good idea. So we have to compete, we have to out-perform. And we have to work within the values of the societies that we find ourselves in. We have to retain utopian values that make the process worth starting with. We have to meet both sets of criteria, not adopt one or the other, and that’s doubly difficult, that’s the real challenges that we find ourselves in.

So, we have to find the cash, or some other alternative. We can’t just rely on political hand-outs, government grants, etc. All that is naïve because we would run out of it, then we’d have to find further ways to compete in the current, aggressive market. How do we achieve financial value, and how do we ascribe financial value to the utopian values? If we don’t succeed in doing that, nothing will happen. We have to sell the life-styles as stories. We have to persuade people to adopt this new life-style as something that is genuinely better – i.e. as a product they want. So we have to create this aspirational value and show a cash benefit to it. If we don’t succeed in doing that, nothing will change. We are living in desperate times that call for desperate measures. So what were the tools we came up with?

1) Mobilising Apathy

A good start is working from apathy – moving into properties that have been vacant and unused over a long period. If you can swap people who don’t seem to care about anything in particular with people who really do care, it can be like, say, a hot wire through butter.

2) Direct Action

Second idea is guerilla warfare, direct action and squatting. Why pay for the land? Why not just move in, find something that has been abandoned – we noticed that the Wharf had lots of empty buildings. We set in place a motivated group of people who will colonise it, fight in the courts, and be allowed to stay because they have done a good thing. And at the end of the day, the local community will appreciate what they have done. That is possible.

3) Demonstrating Financial Viability

Thirdly, proving that the enhanced quality of life adds financial value, and one example would be… people can’t leave their kids playing in the streets anymore. Having somewhere secure for them to play, will automatically add value. Local schools were discussed as well. So, very ordinary things that aren’t provided anymore can substantially add to this. And that can lure people who aren’t “utopian” to this because of the sheer practical value.

4) Encouraging People to Take Ownership

So, we could work by pre-selling the community context, and assembling a virtual utopian collective, possibly on the web, possibly using some of the innovative video diaries that we heard of earlier. But getting enough people to go far, or fast enough to build a powerhouse before even the site had been identified would be a useful tool. It would be a very useful financial and political collective.

5) Changing Things Before Natural Forces Take Control

Our fifth notion was social engineering (this includes a bracket apologising for our ‘eco-fashism’). We can’t just wait for climate change and natural disasters to break the current markets. We need people to adopt practical measures because they are forced to. Or we can try to persuade them before financial and social breakdown happens and before the current market deteriorates and collapses. The general consensus in our group was that we’re running out of time, and that we’ve probably only got somewhere between 10 and 20 years to get our acts together before a low-carbon society is inflicted on us by necessity.

6) Fincancial Incentives

Sixth, we can encourage the local markets to become more benign – i.e. by campaigning within the local planning committees. Carbon trading for planning gains is a useful part of this – i.e. to be allowed to build more, in return for using more carbon reducing technologies.

7) Do not Attempt to Punish the Wealthy

Seventh, stepping into somebody else’s decline, reverting urban abandonment, and finding out what the reasons are for abandonment, which neatly moves into leaving areas of high land value – in other words, leaving the rich to be rich.

8) Reward the Poor

Eighth, by moving into places where there is environmental degradation, where nobody really wants to live, we can then turn these into fertile utopian zones.

9) Encourage a Mixture of Building Solutions

Ninth, we can support those communities who don’t always aim to create new buildings, because we probably need a combination of both, especially if you want to move towards the larger, more utopian concepts that ds21 has been discussing. So you need a mixture of two.

10) Turn Eco-solutions into Desirable Memes

We need to support individual leaders and champions. The kind of individual who, say, had a very ordinary terraced house in an unremarkable place, but transformed it into a zero carbon zone. This moves onto the concept of ZED quarters, where you can put signs onto parking metres, like Lambeth Council, which had signs on parking metres for nuclear free zones in the 70s. That’s an idea like a virus that spreads and slowly contaminates the host urban landscapes.

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