Creative Agency and the Space Race of the 21st Century: towards a Museum of Natural Futures

Creative Agency and the Space Race of the 21st Century: towards a Museum of Natural Futures

Reimagining and redesigning our relationship to natural systems to improve human and environmental health, increase biodiversity, build soil, and improve air and water quality is the Space Race of the 21st Century; i.e. the most complex systems design challenge we face, and one that current and emerging interactive technologies provide the opportunity to address. This assertion is intended to reframe the discourse of contemporary environmentalism in terms of creative agency; a human capacity that transcends market and regulatory incentives; that transcends but can exploit deep learning, big data, maker movements, quantified self, citizen science, the internet of things; and is disambiguated from the activities described as “sustainable”.

The second CALL, and the most critical assertion, is that we can (and MuST?) design infrastructure to IMPROVE human and environmental health, and specifically data, energy, distribution, food, waste systems and the built environment.

Natalie Jeremijenko presents Radical Design For Environmental Health at TEDxSydney 2016 

Three examples of infrastructure that increases human and environmental health:

  • (1) ELEVATORxPITCH upgrades vertical transportation by extending the shaft and traveling beyond the building envelope to create both a cultural venue that produces views (a ride!), and transforms this electric vehicle infrastructure into a building’s power plant. Through the additional free-fall, regenerative breaking and systems integration (including frictional advantage of the bands vs the cables of next gen elevators) we tip the balance to generating energy. Further, we combine sensor-actuated vent control, so that in the event of a fire the shaft is isolated and propagation is prevented. And by upgrading the firecode—to encourage novel design rather than compliance within the framework of known and existing solutions—we create cross-seasonal passive air circulation that makes HVAC systems obsolete. Typically, approximately 40% of the energy use in cities is building related and most of this attributed to HVAC. In aggregate, the significance of re-pitching the sky-line-defining technology in cities, facilitates increased density, the defining characteristic of cities and their single most important contribution to environmental performance, while significantly transforming energy infrastructure.


  • (2) the example of the Pier2Pier project from the Cuban Mussel Crisis Collaboratory, is an integrated system for pier structures that exploits buoyancy and tension (i.e. ropes and buoys), versus the conventional mass and rigidity (concrete pylons, seawalls and rigid platforms). This paradigm shift in coastal engineering provides approximately 10x increase in performance (strength) for greater than 100x less cost per square meter of pier. In addition, we avoid the catastrophic failure modes of conventional piers, boardwalks and similar structures that become battering rams in extreme climate events. For instance Brisbane’s Riverwalk peeled off in the recent floods and dragged much else with it before washing out to sea; Far Rockaway’s Boardwalks lifted off their piles by the storm surge and became the most destructive force on surrounding buildings. They were subsequently re-placed (reloading the gun). The Pier2Pier also creates infrastructure for mussels—the only aquaculture systems known to improve rather than degrade water quality. Furthermore the mussel cultivation ropes incorporate “bioscilators” for wave energy conversioni. Additionally, the main surface structure is a rigid inflated ETFE pillow that act as an artificial clouds. The transparency of this facilitates full solar throughput to drive photosynthesis, facilitating the coupled and cascading biogeochemical processes unlike the dark ‘wet-deserts’ under conventional over-water structure that block any sunlight. In addition, the captured heat energy drives the hydrological cycle within the pillow structure, and condensate is collected to create a passive desalination via the steady sunlight driven distillation function.


  • (3) The TREExCLOUD data infrastructure is a third example in which cloud data storage service offered by the TREExOFFICE (a co-working space that is owned, operated and IN the canopy of a treelandlord). This is powered by pyrolytic and anaerobic waste-2-energy system and is indexed to the Leaf Area Index (LAI). To increase storage capacity we increase LAI. We use LAI because leaves directly impact human (and environmental) health by improving urban air quality and therefore provides a meaningful metric to couple into the expanding demand for data storage. To achieve this LAI increase we increase canopy complexity through plant communities (vs single trees); integrate vegetation into vertical urban surfaces and signage; develop several micro-ecosystem based afforestation initiatives (vs the tranditional monoculture used in urban and rural forestry systems), and participatory initiatives (such as xPET) that involve wide-scale community involvement. The energy to run the TREExCLOUD data storage system is generated from the ligno-cellulosic (paper and packaging) waste and food waste: the two largest of urban waste streams. These pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion processes also have the co-benefit of producing Biochar and anaerobic digest respectively, which when worked into the soil in combination builds soil fertility and microbial diversity, providing long term (approximately 5000years) carbon sequestration. Perhaps most critically, however, in urban environments, Biochar can immobilize heavy metals with potential to reduce/prevent the body burden of neurotoxicants including lead (Pb) and mercury (Hg), so that the energy generation system also provides the material for a systematic urban soil remediation – that will reduce the body burden of these contaminants, particularly in children.


These three examples illustrate that the way to redesign our urban infrastructure (UIs) is thru Mutualistic Systems design (MUSTs) and Natural Systems Engineering (with an “i” added for independent action, for a NiSE! Acronym). I have developed these terms to describe a generalizable theory from many distinct public experiments (XPERIMENTS) in mutualistic systems couplings designed to improve human and environmental health. These XPERIMENTS have occurred primarily in non-STEM cultural spaces—art museums, galleries, university exhibitions, public municipal spaces, and on college campuses where creative agency is privileged (but perhaps this has also limited serious technical evaluation). Each XPERIMENT uses participatory, open research, convivial learning and interactive systems to raise standards of evidence in the design of social and environmental transformation, and invites diverse and non-traditional (human) participants (and other intelligent creatures) into the development of radical systems transformation and infrastructure innovation.