TED Conversations

Rachel Armstrong

The University of Greenwich


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This Live Conversation with TED Fellow Rachel Armstrong will open on February 8th, 2012 at 1pm EST, 6pm UK time.
Join the conversation as Rachel discusses her view on ecological humans and city 2.0.

We are not machines but Ecological Humans. We depend on our networks for survival, like an oak tree in the forest, being made up of highly interacting and interdependent systems. For example, eating is not simply consuming ‘fuel’ to feed our body-machine but is a mutual relationship shared between our gut bacteria, our food and our bodies (which, in turn, are highly interconnected assemblages of specialised tissues). The way that we see ourselves influences the way that we operate through the world in all aspects of our lives - from health, to business and even space exploration!

Ecological Humans, imagine the City 2.0 as being grown from the bottom-up by its communities. It is underpinned by highly interacting and interdependent networks, which use dynamic fabrics that behave in life-like ways. These buildings can be described as Living Architecture that are capable of responding to the changes in our dynamic cities as only real ecologies can.


Will The City 2.0 be qualitatively different to modern cities? Or pragmatically, can the transition only be made as a series of incremental changes? What can we do to facilitate this transition?

What does being an Ecological Human mean to me? Can it help me find new or more effective ways of working?

Can we rely on biology to provide all the answers when it comes to sustainable building solutions? Is life a technology - and should we exploit it in the pursuit of more sustainable ways of building?


Closing Statement from Rachel Armstrong

Thank you so much everyone for joining me today and taking time to comment and share your thoughts. What an amazing set of discussion threads have begun! I am excited about how the TED Prize winner City 2.0, will turn out - which is the event that inspired the context for this discussion. Perhaps, beyond the immediate context of near-future cities - the idea of being an Ecological Human may help us imagine ourselves and the world around us differently. Maybe we can use this way of imagining the world so that we can find truly sustainable solutions for the places we live in. We could possibly also use this approach to help others understand what being 'ecological' might mean. Perhaps this way of looking at the world may have applications in other areas of our lives such as, in the workplace. So, again - a really warm 'thank you' everyone for taking time out to share your thoughts with me and offer your perspectives. If you would like to find out more about Living Architecture you may like to buy my TED Book http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks, which is available from Amazon.com, Apple's iBookstore, and is also on the Nook platform.

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  • Feb 8 2012: Interesting idea. Cities are controversial, some say all problems come from them, some say they are the basis of civilization - according to wiki "The word civilization comes from the Latin civilis, meaning civil, related to the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city or city-state"

    Not sure why our current cities aren't "ecological" given humans are part of nature and made these decisions.
    • Feb 8 2012: Daniel, I completely agree. We are part of Nature, irrevocably immersed in living systems (until death anyway). All we build or create are artifacts of Life.

      Civilization existed before cities.
    • Feb 8 2012: The first part of your talk is based on the assumption that civilisation is something good! but why do we think so?
      A lot of changes has happened from the time we (human species) went to cities about 8thousand years ago. We can not easily judge and say that was a good change or bad change. but we have a tendency to think that civilised life is better than tribe life. Which reminds me of missioners.
      I think our cities are not ecological because they are not in harmony with nature and our environment and they are not sustainable. For example our garbage is not recycled our ecosystem is not connected in all parts which for a forest is different.
      • Feb 8 2012: One of the hurdles in getting people to engage within cities is that most problems are solved by removing them from the city -- trash is collected & taken away, electricity is produced elsewhere & imported in (also applies to water, fuel, etc). If people don't understand what happens when they flip on a light switch or turn on a faucet, or, alternatively, what goes down the drain, or who deals with their trash, they are unlikely to make sustainable changes. How do we make this understanding part of the collective knowledge again? Traveling to a 3rd world country, many people have a more basic understanding of cars and urban agriculture than we do here in the US
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          Feb 8 2012: Agree - it's not unlike our food supply, and the difference between buying packaged chicken from a grocery store and experiencing the process of raising, slaughtering and eating a chicken. We're often disconnected from these realites in the first world. How do we reconnect and make a compelling case - a "need" - to think differently?
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      Feb 8 2012: Daniel, whether humans are 'ecological' in their nature or not is again a matter of whose perspective you are viewing the world through. This is a very personal set of decisions and there certainly is no right or wrong. But let me attempt to address something of your insight as to the 'ecological' nature of humans. When we think of ourselves in mechanical terms - we are separate.The issue is a complex one with theological roots and also scientific ones. Theologically speaking if humans have a 'special' role in the world they are apart from 'nature', especially animals because they are favoured by God. That is a gross oversimplification but Steve Fuller covers the complex origins of Christian thought and its impact on modern culture in his book Humanity 2.0 http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/sep/25/steve-fuller-time-for-humanity . The other aspect is that science requires humans to be distinct from nature to create technology and make interventions otherwise the investment in technology, is meaningless ... here is a an article in Nature that starts to look at this issue. 1. Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 ... Ultimately, this is a form of belief and way of looking at the world. We choose to think of ourselves as being separate or connected - and connected by degrees.
      • Feb 8 2012: i think a significant issue is that urban culture can be detached from nature by design. We are meant to relentlessly defy the effects of ageing on our bodies and faces, extend our lives to beyond the point of meaning and put off reproduction for careers (relying on technology to extend reproductive years). Fashion is a crazed market driven culture that eats up the world resources, requiring 4 seasons of new clothing every year - if the system is to be obeyed. Cultural systems are out of synch with natural systems.
        Similarly we are detached from industrial processes of food production and desensitized from the ecosystems that support our lives. Cities are designed as distinct from nature and are often oblivious to the waste that they produce, which is out of sight out of mind.
        Cities are still designed by market forces, which ignore the natural and cultural landscape that is so important for organic communities and meaningful urban places. Cities need to be resensitized to nature.

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