Networking Overload, with Potplants

For Thresholds 38
Edited by Orkan Telhan
MIT School of Architecture & Planning

“Natural fuse” is a micro scale carbon dioxide overload protection framework that works locally & globally, harnessing the carbon-sinking capabilities of plants. Generating electricity to power the electronic products that populate our lives has consequences on the amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere, which in turn has detrimental environmental effects. The “carbon footprint” of the power used to run these devices can be offset by the natural carbon-capturing processes that occur as plants absorb carbon dioxide and grow. “Natural Fuse” units take advantage of this phenomena.

Each Natural Fuse unit (they are now distributed in households in London, New York & San Sebastian) consists of a houseplant and a power socket. The amount of power available to the socket is limited by the capacity for the plant to offset the carbon footprint of the energy expended: if the appliance you plug in draws so much power that it requires more carbon-offsetting than available then the unit will not power.

The problem is that even low-power light bulbs draw more power than can be comfortably offset by a single plant. So, all the units are connected together via the internet so that they can communicate & determine how much excess capacity carbon-offsetting is available within the community of units as a whole.

For example, if you use an appliance that draws 4 watts, & there are 6 Natural Fuse units out in the community that are not currently drawing power then you can offset the carbon footprint of your appliance by borrowing from others. (Calculations include the energy cost of powering the electronics inside the unit itself too, of course).

The project is as much about the structures of participation as it is about energy conservation. Rather than just having an “on/off” switch for your appliance, you are provided with a “selfless/selfish” switch. If you choose “selfless” then the unit will provide only enough power that won’t harm the community carbon footprint. But, if the carbon sequestering capacity of the community is low, the electricity will switch off after a few seconds – though it may be long enough for what you need to do.

If on the other hand you absolutely must have electricity (e.g. you hear an intruder in your apartment and you *must* switch on your light at full power) then you might want to choose “selfish” – which will give you as much power as your appliance needs. BUT, if you harm the community’s carbon footprint (i.e. it goes from negative to positive) then the Natural Fuse system will KILL SOMEBODY ELSE’S PLANT!

Each unit actually has 3 ‘lives’ to lose, before which a vinegar shot is dispensed to the unlucky plant. So as it loses each ‘life’ an email is sent both to the owner & the owner that sent a ‘kill’ signal; this provides the capability to communicate & explain their situations to each other prior to final execution of the plant.

Peoples’ decisions to be selfish or not have a visceral impact on others in the community. By networking Natural Fuses together, people share their capacity & take advantage of carbon-sinking-surplus in the system since not all Natural Fuses will be in use at any one time. If people cooperate on energy expenditure then the plants thrive (and everyone may use more energy); but if they don’t then the network starts to kill plants, thus diminishing the network’s electrical capacity.

MF The documentation of the experimental stages in the development of the design include a lot of footage of dead and withering plants as you test potential plants and how fast they can be killed by the application of vinegar to their various growth media. The idea of sustainable technology tends to suggest a narrative of improvement in which the basic infrastructures of western society can remain untouched, indeed globalised, whilst their modes of production and consumption are to be made kinder and gentler. Your homely landscapes of poisoned soils and houseplant-scaled deforestation at once poses the idea of individual solutions, of ingenuity in handling and testing them, but also perhaps stages it in terms of fundamental and multilayered problems that are incommensurable with contemporary visions of an easy energy future?

UH I’m interested in the situation well described by game theory’s “prisoner’s dilemma”. It is sometimes used to explain why it is so difficult for human beings to take coherent decisive action with respect to tackling the issues surrounding the environment and climate change: whoever makes the first move towards tackling global problems in the short term is bound to suffer the most (this is unsurprisingly most often expressed in economic terms). Prisoner’s dilemma shows how it is quite possible for us to make logical decisions that appear to be in our own interest, but which, when viewed from a global perspective are actually counter to our own interests.

But initiatives like the Grameen bank in Bangladesh and other micro-credit systems have provided intriguing strategies for ‘socialising’ risk. In the Grameen bank, for example, although individuals take out loans, the community as a whole is responsible for repaying them – this partly relies on peer-pressure with respect to ensuring that individuals repay, but also partly on the idea that there will be a collective attempt to help out an individual in time of need. I’m interested in exporting this kind of approach to the debt that we owe to natural resources.

The point is that there is no ‘easy energy future’. We’ve got to stop trying to sell people the idea that there are obvious ways to deal with the kinds of complex systems that govern both our social and environmental lives. It is often expressed that it is the task of designers to “make things simple for people” – which I find patronising and counter-productive. If anything it is the task of designers to show how *complex* things are, and to help build tools for dealing with that complexity (which is the basic function of the perceptual systems we are endowed with anyway!).

Whether it’s bio-fuels on the one hand (which for a brief moment seemed to be an ‘obvious’ solution) or extensive government subsidies (in the UK) for homeowners installing solar panels (which, when you do the maths makes little economic sense, and merely makes people feel happy they’re “doing” something), we keep discovering that the ‘easy’ option has detrimental consequences.

MF Systems designed by tacit knowledge and slow custom-based development (such as the evolved designs of unpowered ships and boats) often allow, within a general approach of precautionary over-engineering, for certain components, usually the cheapest and easiest to replace, to be the first that will break under particular stresses thus saving the larger structure. Within a sailing ship, these might be smaller cords attached to the larger stays holding a sail in place. These would snap if a wind suddenly became too strong, in a way that might otherwise damage the mast or sail. Power would be lost, but the core parts of the structure would remain undamaged. This ‘design to fail’ approach is quite different from the imperative for ‘graceful degradation’ often found in computing and HCI, where crashes are seen as abhorrent and problems are sublimated. But it is also different from the ‘fail-free’ design approach such as those developed on the bases of highly engineered but mathematically driven and ostensibly optimised design which imagines problems can be simulated out. In consumer electronics the fuse, embedded in the plug, is of course the part designed to fail if an electrical surge is encountered. I wonder with this project if there is a more general ethic of brokenness that you subscribe to in design?

UH This is an intriguing way to look at it, and I hadn’t really considered “Natural Fuse” in those terms. But, certainly, embedded in the core concept of the project is the idea of the ‘canary in a coal mine’ – using proxies for ourselves that break earlier and less expensively (in economic, social and ecological terms) in order to make it clear before greater damage is done.

There is also an aspect of the project, not, I should say, carefully considered, that concerns the use of plants: if we had killed an animal instead of a plant, that would be a lot more uncomfortable for people (and they probably wouldn’t have wanted to take on the responsibility, considering the life of the animal is in the hands of someone else).

So using plants (apart from their carbon-capturing aspect) means that we can conveniently offer people something that they won’t need to “worry” about too much but which, nonetheless, grows on them – when you adopt a plant, over time you become attached to it. So, surreptitiously, perhaps, we’ve got something into your home that you didn’t think you would care too much about but which you *do* actually begin to worry about and have concern for its well-being. Plants seem non-threatening (in the sense of responsibility) but ultimately become quite important to people. And this is intriguing since we tend to think that you can kill plants indiscriminately (in a way that is not morally acceptable for animals), even though they may be extremely good at helping us survive. A colleague has referred to this as “horti-torture”!

MF One thing that is notable in the project is that it reverses the genetic engineering scenario of the plant being switched on and off at the chromosomal level by technologies working on biological material through the metaphor of information. In this case, electronic systems are shut down by organic material. Does Natural Fuse suggest some convergence of the informational view of life and a more organismic or ecological sense?

UH Partly, yes: but only because at heart I’m interested in systems, and more specifically I’m interested in ‘coupling’ systems. Most of my work looks at how we can couple human and non-human (I don’t say “natural” because that implies that humans are not “natural”) systems; electronic and social; ecological and economic.

That’s also why, when we introduce “Natural Fuse” in a city, we try to encourage an economy of plants. I want to disrupt the conventional economic approach, where money is used because it’s convenient. In Natural Fuse people rent the units by paying with plants that they bring to the exhibition or the store – they actually have to bring 5 or 10Kg of plant material which they leave behind. This is enough of an investment in time and effort that they must really want to participate.

(In New York, they were also able to rent in US dollars (ultimately donated to the Bronx River Arts Center), but the rental fee was high enough to act as a disincentive and make paying with plants much more attractive).

Upon returning the Natural Fuse unit, they actually get their plants back (so in conventional economic terms they rented it for ‘free’): in fact the way they have “paid” is by lending us the carbon capturing capacity of the plant they left behind (which is applied to a very slowly brewing cup of coffee: it takes many dozens of plants growing for a long time to offset the carbon footprint of making a single cup of coffee!).

MF An underlying argument of the project is that design produces social architectures. Every object stages a set of more or less stable relations between infrastructures, resources, ecological processes, organisms and technicities, that imply or require forms of community, of participation, of intelligence, that in a certain way articulate the idea of the perfect user/s, or provoke encounters with the abstractions, ideas and actual forces that are perhaps sometimes occluded in certain kinds of design. To say this another way, Natural Fuse brings assumed ease of function, for the human user, painfully to the fore. Is this a kind of design for inhibition or for knowledge?

UH I’m not really trying to “communicate” something with Natural Fuse – it’s not that I want to say “you must conserve energy because otherwise we will all suffer”. I think such strictures are counter-productive: we just don’t like being told we must do something. So it’s not about communicating.

Much more than energy issues, the project is primarily an experiment in the structures of participation: how can one design a system in which available options are increased (e.g. you don’t just have “off/on”, but you have “off/selfless/selfish”) while making it possible (and more likely) that people will make decisions that benefit the community as a whole. (See reference to prisoner’s dilemma above). I can’t say that it’s necessarily been a total success: we usually leave the actual “kill” function switched off for the first few days after launch simply because it takes people a while to fully grasp that they may be killing other people’s plants on the basis of their own decisions. And, interestingly, the demo unit left in the store or exhibition, which people feel no “ownership” of – was constantly left by visitors in “selfish” mode, to the extent that we had to remove it from the network calculation because otherwise it would have always anonymously killed other people’s plants.

Clearly, as a designer, I have some idea of what I consider desirable goals for the kinds of things that I hope people do. I would like people to act in a way that benefits the community as a whole. And it finds me unusually optimistic: I feel that a project like Natural Fuse shows that peope *can* make altruistic decisions in order not to harm people they don’t know.

In terms of participation the point is to involve people actively in the processes of decision making and *also* in the processes of carbon-capturing/energy reduction.

One of the major problems that I see in the so-called climate “debate” is that we are constantly told that there is plenty of “data” out there for us to consume and process, and that conclusions should be obvious or self-evident. But it is very difficult for ordinary people to form their own opinions about environmental and energy issues – they are confronted with so many dozens of valid explanations, visualizations and extrapolations of the data from a variety of authority figures (politicians, scientists, media figures) but much of it is conflicting or contradictory. Authority figures try to tell them what to believe – but the authority figures don’t all agree which means people just opt out.

I think it is vital for people to be able to participate in the process of evidence-gathering: partly so that they can question the ‘standards of evidence’, partly so that they can become part of a solution, but also so that they can understand the methodological limitations to any data-acquisition (and carbon-capturing) process. In Natural Fuse when a plant dies any carbon sequestered during the growth period is, in the absence of continued sequestration (e.g. by sealing it deep within the earth), soon released back into the atmosphere. A zero-sum situation depends entirely on where the arbitrary boundaries of the system are drawn. So what might you do with your plant? Eat it? Bury it? Weave it? Of course eating it results in carbon dioxide output from the body (exhalation, excretion, etc.); burying it takes a lot of energy; weaving it might be an option – but that becomes very “object” or “product” oriented.

It is important to understand the cascading consequences that sets of decisions can have: first at a local level and later at a global level.