Japan’s evolutionary boost: emergent human systems respond to the geologic
06.30.2011, 7:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“hot face” and “cool face”, part of the “super cool biz” campaign setsuden/節電 ( energy-saving efforts) underway in Japan design by yuroom

For a country in the throes of both recovery and ongoing devastation, any adaptation to a markedly different lifestyle—fueled by spirited innovation—suggests nothing short of the heroic. And yet, the beginnings of more engagedparticipatory, and “sustainable” human systems seem to be taking shape in Japan.  Fueled by people who are ready to try something else, cultural shifts are being made in anticipation of “the next.”  These range from the macro to the micro, including the massive Sunrise Program, with its plans to install solar panels on all buildings possible by 2030; Microsoft Japan’s simple proposal that individuals and businesses save 350,000 kilowatts of energy this summer by adjusting their computer’s monitor brightness; the Japanese company Kyocera installing foliage curtains at 19 office and manufacturing sites, and the government’s “Super Cool Biz” campaign encouraging Japanese business workers to wear cooler clothing to work this summer to cut down on the need for air conditioning. There’s a sense that such changes signal a cultural sea change. Japan’s Environmental Minister, Ryu Matsumoto, recently claimed:

  “This is not just about surviving this summer, but this is a big turning point for changing the way Japanese live and our lifestyle.” 

And Hajime Matsumoto, organizer of a protest in Japan against nuclear power that resulted in a much higher than expected turnout, declared:

“Who would have thought so many people would turn up? I think that Japan is on the cusp of something new.” 

Changes are underway. Designers and engineers are reassessing how to prepare for future geologic events. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan and other recent geologic events around the world make it clear that we humans can’t be, and simply aren’t, prepared for every possible scenario that might take place at convergences of the human and the geologic.  Still, in an attempt to better the chances of navigating such convergences with less catastrophic outcomes, designers and engineers are rethinking some of their fundamental assumptions.

Tokyo from the Mori Art Museum, FOP 2008

For example, NHK recently reported:

“Japan’s land ministry will change its policy on tsunami preparedness in the wake of the March 11th disaster. The ministry now prioritizes so-called “hardware” such as embankments, but will shift to an approach that combines physical measures with “software” such as setting up more secure escape routes. The decision comes after the March 11th tsunami overwhelmed coastal embankments. Experts say the national policy of prioritizing embankments was insufficient, and that better evacuation routes should be established. At the heart of the new policy is the land ministry’s goal of developing disaster-resistant cities on the premise that hardware alone cannot stop a tsunami.” (emphasis added)

In the past, governments, corporations, and institutions have looked to companies such as Weidlinger Associates to better their chances of incurring less damage when the unimaginable occurs. Weidlinger is renowned for building structures (“hardware”) that attempt to deflect and withstand incredible amounts of energy and, “offer[ing] special services in vulnerability assessment; risk analysis; forensic, earthquake, wind, and blast engineering; soil/structure interaction; and sustainability.”

Yet even before last March, there was growing interest in what “software” or “soft systems” might contribute to infrastructural preparation. Last September, for example, a publication platform entitled  [bracket] announced a call for submissions for a special issue entitled bracket [goes soft].  [bracket] claimed that “the notion of soft systems has gained increasing traction as a counterpoint to permanent, static and hard systems.”  The special issue aimed to “investigate physical and virtual soft systems, as they pertain to infrastructure, ecologies, landscapes, environments, and networks,” and “question the use and role of responsive, indeterminate, flexible, and immaterial systems in design.”  (See accepted selections to the call.)

After the events in Japan, the sense that hardware alone isn’t and never has been enough, has only deepened.  The idea that soft systems might, as [bracket] put it, “have the ability to deal with imprecision and uncertainty, with the aim of achieving more malleable, robust solutions,” seems like a hunch worthy of testing out.

In response to the recent 82 acre landslide triggered by the slide-prone soil left behind by Lake Champlain’s Pleistocene precursor, Geoff Manaugh asked:  “what happens to architecture when solid earth becomes more like the ocean?”  A followup question might be, “if we can’t build ourselves into safety through architecture and infrastructure, might we design soft systems that enable humans to assemble with, rather than resist, geologic forces –even as the earth moves?”

In contexts of earthquakes, tsunamis and massive landslides, “hard systems” can’t function as sole “solutions.”  FOP can’t help but think that something essential is missing in any approach that relies on infrastructure alone to meet dynamic earth forces.  All human-designed infrastructures, no matter how mightily built, have limits that earth forces can–and will eventually–supersede.  A more nimble approach would be to design built systems to function in concert with “human systems” that are ready to move quickly and responsively in relation to monumental forces when they arrive. Engineers, architects and designers would then assume the task of configuring the structures they build in relation to human systems.  For example, the tsunami wall as rigid structure does not provide more safety than a soft system, such as one in which humans who live nearby know the limits of the wall as well as the quickest tsunamis evacuation route.

Humans who act swiftly and knowledgeably in the face of geologic events, rather than relying on infrastructure alone to protect them or deflect life-threatening forces, create a new kind of vitally responsive “soft” system that includes, but does not rely solely, on “hard systems.”  The Japanese land ministry said it has learned that “hardware alone cannot stop a tsunami.” Might the next realizations be that nothing can actually “stop” a tsunami?  And humans must invent multiple systems (including the dispersion of knowledge) that recognize the magnitude of tsunamis and attempt to move in relation to their force?

human assemblages in Shibuya, FOP 2008

The present moment is filled with unanswerable questions and incredibly high risks: the likelihood that a major quake will occur in the next decade beneath greater Tokyo, home to 13.1 million people, has doubled since the March.  Nevertheless, this moment stands charged with the potential to manifest new, responsive human systems.  Japan, a culture known for its conformist tendencies, is also known for its innovation, powerful use of media, and resilience in the face of disaster.  Despite irrevocable failures of preparation, communication, and handling of events related to the triple disaster, major cultural shifts are reshaping what it means to be Japanese and what it will mean to live in Japan from here forward.

geologic map of Japan

Refusing to deny the reality that another earthquake or tsunami is possible, and breaking silences enforced by cultural pressure, many Japanese now admit that existing infrastructures (especially nuclear) are perilously unprepared for the next geologic event. We sense these shifts are evidence that Japanese people have gained crucial insights by simply taking the time to pause and consider what the past three months have been like for those most directly affected.  The desire for change in Japan likely stems, at least in part, from taking to heart such painfully honest comments as those of the 39-year-old man who said he fears radiation because it cannot be seen, or the farmer near Fukushima who said “he is relieved that his cows can survive in a different place but he is angry that he could have continued dairy farming if it had not been for the nuclear accident.”

Despite the fact that infrastructural change can’t be implemented as quickly as everyone wants, change has begun.  And it seems to have been ushered in by Japanese people demanding they be given more agency as an informed population, and imagining or offering themselves as actants in new “soft systems.”  During the recovery process, FOP will be paying close attention to emergent human systems in Japan and how they assemble with “hard” systems that are both necessary and in need of rethinking.

Perhaps Japan’s emergent human systems are the beginning of a much larger global shift.  Perhaps they signal the potential for–if not the actual arrival of–a next chapter of human evolution.  If the world’s third largest economy actually manages to adapt to the reality of having 25% less energy this summer —might it be a signal that humans are now capable of scaling themselves and their lifestyles in relation to the limits of geologic material and force?

setsuden poster and the clovis point via wikicommons

If so, Japan’s newly designed energy efficient pancake makers may equal prehistoric humans’ invention of the clovis point for evolutionary significance.  Both are tools imagined for the purpose of navigating the particular, urgent predicaments of their moments. The collective impact of all the energy efficiency efforts now being taken in Japan can’t be overestimated. In the next few years, might Japan take us to a tipping point—might we humans actually realize that we are capable of thinking, designing and moving in relation to geologic forces and materials?  Might Japan’s adaptations generate an evolutionary boost that enables our species to continue to inhabit the earth into the far future?

Super Cool Biz campaign logo

Japan’s emerging, soft human system could become its most valuable export. Especially if the new knowledge that emerges from that system taps the deep cultural knowledge invented and accumulated across thousands of years by people who chose to inhabit Japan’s geologically volatile archipelago. Rather than imagining its geologic forces might somehow be overcome or avoided, many aspects of traditional Japanese culture express the desire as well as the means to live in direct relation to them, and to move with them.  Such a cultural disposition might be the most vital resource humans have for sensing where to go from here.  As a recent NHK report from Tokyo details, luckily for all of us perhaps, it seems contemporary Japanese culture hasn’t completely lost its connection to and awareness of the inexplicable natural forces that humans assemble with on a daily basis:

“An expert on energy conservation opened the event with useful tips, such as unplugging electrical appliances instead of just turning them off… Participants sprinkled water on the ground to lower the surrounding air temperature. A breeze then picked up and wind chimes started ringing. A mother from Fukushima said she was amazed the breeze came up after the water was sprinkled. She added that she was pleased her children were able to enjoy playing outside for the first time in many days.”

T-shirt spotted in Tokyo, FOP 2008

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[…] and their lifestyles in relation to the limits of geologic material and force? —via Friends of the Pleistocene. Setsuden poster June 27, 2011 Tags: energy // evolution // […]

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