Which transition for our societies? Creative landscape architects and Japanese gardeners needed!

In early February, I went to an Interdisciplinary Symposium in Belgium.  The overarching theme was ‘Which transition for our societies’ and it attracted international scientists, decision-makers and civil society members alike.

Nowadays ‘transition’ has become one of those catch-all concepts, in that it encompasses a range of seemingly divergent visions which share an underlying connection or theme.  The context of the symposium was broad enough to allow these polemics, and was focused on the questions: ‘Which paths are suitable to escape the grips of our systemic crisis? And what could be the resilient alternatives?

Innovative scientific perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches were encouraged to explore the different avenues.  As a result, I found myself sitting between an organic farmer and a climatologist.  They decoded transition using quite different tools – the lab and the field definitely conform to different rules.  Their entry points may have been different but it is important that these practical viewpoints are given space to meet and flow into a healthy debate.  The symposium’s purpose was for transition-related knowledge to emerge from this confluence. 

Of course, when it comes to exploring a new territory, applied disciplines – from farming to temperature forecasting – will find a map of the ‘bigger picture’ helpful.  Different but complementary overviews of what a post-transition society could look like were presented by some eminent keynote speakers.  They were the landscape architects in the room and submitted their plan to the audience on how to play with the art of possible, and get out of our systemic crisis.

None of them stuck closely to the Kuznets curve and believed the environmental crisis will be solved as we get wealthier. Certainly not Sunita Narain. Her speech opened the symposium and urged the Western world to stop relying on a blind faith in green technology.  Decoupling is not a panacea to triumph over societies’ evils. Through her eyes, the way ahead would rather be ‘frugal innovation’. In a nutshell: do more with less and be creative about it. ‘We need to reinvent the flush toilet together’ summarises her point of view well.  Through Jeremy Rifkin’s eyes, the Third Industrial Revolution kicked off with the Internet. It has fostered a new communication regime and, in a similar fashion, our energy system should adopt a distributed and collaborative approach.  And Tim Jackson argued that saving the green economy implies escaping the productivity trap, greening investment, re-conceiving enterprise as a service and fixing our monetary system.

Although a mapping exercise with landscape architects is necessary, a time comes when you put your boots on and start digging.  Small-scale experimentations of what the new system could look like are a good place to start.  Japanese gardeners are the masters of this art in that they create miniature idealised landscapes.  Today’s societal challenges require a similar approach: working on various social innovation niches and identifying those which can be connected and scaled-up to assemble society’s much needed new paradigm.

During the symposium’s thematic workshops, my attention was drawn to two noteworthy ’Japanese gardens’. One was conducted by GIRAF and identified which socio-technical systems underpin and potentially bias our agriculture towards a biotechnology-based and centralised system. They also investigated how agro-ecology and participatory approaches could overcome these locking mechanisms to build a resilient food system.  Another initiative by REScoops aimed to speed up local and citizen-led renewable energy projects across Europe.

These kinds of initiatives offer the space to experiment with new ways of thinking.  They explore the unknown and often don’t rely on any evidence-based theory.  They suggest the scope of research should be widened to allow the co-creation of processes where both landscape architects and Japanese gardeners have a role to play.  A new form of knowledge could be generated this way, one which is bottom-up rooted rather than top-down managed.

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