Monday, July 4, 2011

(S)low Tech, Japan, & Azby Brown's "Just Enough"

Bicycles are the ultimate example of slow tech. Tokyo, May 2011.
There are two definitions of Slow Tech floating around out there. The first definition is a relatively recent buzzword about slowing down your electronic communications and slow blogging, limiting your time spent online, and writing letters or emails instead of tweeting or texting. 

An older definition of Slow Tech has to do with choosing simple, low-technology solutions over higher-technology solutions. Complexity can be a double-edged sword: a high-tech tool may save time, energy, or resources during its production, but it may also be quicker to break, more difficult to repair, or too expensive to be within reach for all but affluent end-users. A low-tech tool is usually hand-crafted, more durable, and inexpensive.

Slow Tech, and the related 1970s term 'Appropriate Technology', is an idea that's finding a lot of currency in the design world, both in the contexts of developing countries and the transition movement (the idea that developed nations need to move beyond our current dependence on fossil fuel in preparation for increasing fuel scarcity). Designers heap praise on the rare new designs that show a combination of practicality, durability, repairability, and affordability - particularly when they show potential to change lives in developing nations, as do the Q Drum, the D Light and Nokero solar lamps, and Design That Matters' Car Parts Incubator. Design and decor bloggers return time and again to classic products and time-tested solutions that share slow tech qualities, like bicycles, Moleskine notebooksTrombe walls, and Swiss Army knives

When you think of modern Japan, you probably think of the neon-covered skyscrapers of Tokyo
Shinjuku, May 2011: many signs are still turned off to save electricity in the wake of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.
and gadgets like the Toto Washlet toilet seat found in place of more traditional squat toilets in most hotel and public washrooms.
Luckily by the time we saw this example we had figured out ones that were also labelled in English.
Not very low-tech or slow, right? Yet we saw a lot of clever, slow technology in use during our trip to Japan. Bicycles are everywhere you look, most of the time configured to carry some combination of children and/or cargo.
A classic mamachari parked outside a cleaning-supply shop in Kyoto.
A delivery trailer attached to a bicycle with electric assist in Tokyo.
To cope with summer heat and killer humidity, folding fans and hand towels are used by everyone from schoolchildren to salarymen, and women usually carry a parasol or wear wide-brimmed hats to protect their skin from the sun instead of slathering themselves with sunscreen lotions.

Crossing a vermillion-painted bridge on a sunny late May day in Kyoto.
At the Hida No Sato outdoor museum in Hida-Takayama, we saw a shishi-odoshi, a simple water-operated gadget constructed from wood or bamboo that strikes a rock to scare wild boars away from the crops,
It operates a bit like a see-saw; smaller ones made of bamboo are often found in Japanese decorative gardens.
tools made of wood or ceramic that use a repeated thorn shape to grate foods,
You can still buy small ceramic graters for ginger that follow this design in kitchen specialty shops.
and tears in paper screens repaired by gluing overlapping paper petals to cover the hole for a solid, strong, aesthetically pleasing patch.
Can you see the flower-shaped patch on the paper shoji screens covering the closets in this tatami room?
The glue on these patches on an exterior screen has started to mildew, but they're still strong.
Ancient temples still have huge centrally-placed rain barrels and stacks of buckets as fire-fighting equipment.
These ones are at the Asakusa Kannon Temple in Tokyo.
For more examples I highly recommend you take a look at Azby Brown's brilliant book Just Enough: Lessons In Living Green From Traditional Japan. It's a fascinating account of life in Japan during the late Edo period. It's a densely written book with an academic bent, and incredibly thorough, with charming hand-drawn illustrations and notes in the margins. I'd definitely recommend it as a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in permaculture, natural and sustainable building, small-space architecture, or Japanese history.

After reading Part I, Field and Forest, on the lives of rural people engaged in agriculture and forestry, I had a much richer understanding of the artifacts and architecture I saw at Hida No Sato and in the older quarters of Kyoto and Hida-Takayama, the agricultural practices and irrigation canals and human-modified ecosystems I had caught glimpses of as we sped past them on Shinkansen and tour buses, the daily rural life depicted in the background of Miyazaki's anime masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro, and even the uniquely consensus-based style of decision-making that modern western observers of Japanese politics and business describe as equally fascinating and frustrating. By the end of Parts II (The Sustainable City) and III (A Life Of Restraint), about the lives of commoners and samurai in Edo (Tokyo) itself, I was full of admiration for the internal courtyards and multiuse rooms and deep eaves still common in Japanese homes outside Tokyo, which must help immensely to make homes livable in the stifling heat and humidity of the rainy season, and much less confused by the block layout in modern Japanese cities.

However, the real point of the book isn't to make sense of modern Japan for tourists like me, but to call attention to the many ingenious solutions and strategies developed in Japan as a response to intense population pressures and resource scarcity could be brought to bear in a modern world facing similar challenges. The author also wrote a great essay for Design Observer, and did a talk for TEDxTokyo to discuss these strategies:

As Brown says, the crucial strategy underlying most of the innovations of pre-industrial Japan was that people looked for solutions that solved multiple problems at once ('multiform solutions'), and so designs were expected to live up to a number of requirements:
 Can this be done without consuming fuel (like weaving)? Can it be made from a rapidly renewed material (bamboo for baskets, or reeds for thatch)? Can it take advantage of recycled material (a broken iron pot becomes a blade)? Is it scalable and able to be customized to suit specific regions, households or individuals (like kimono)? What is the desired degree of durability — is it better to make it last for generations (like cabinetry) or remade every year (like straw boots)? Is there a way to use the material at end-of-life (use the straw as fuel, convert worn cotton fabric to pouches)? In most cases, these requirements were never spelled out in cost-versus-benefit calculations, but were inherent assumptions for Japanese of that period. Design questions were invariably viewed in the context of their implications for the wider environment and for sustaining the lifestyle indefinitely into the future.
This observation gets to the heart of the requirements for modern sustainable design, too. Perhaps, instead of lusting after shiny green gadgets, we should be looking more carefully at slow tech solutions: simple, practical, durable, repairable, affordable, and sustainable.

Let's use the comment section to brainstorm more slow tech solutions, to help each other find new slow tech to incorporate into our lives. Tell me: what's your favourite slow tech object?

1 comment:

  1. To get things going, I thought I'd list a few other examples of classic slow-tech products we probably all have used from time to time:
    - the Coleman lantern or cotton-wick oil lamp
    - the enamelled cast-iron wood-burning stove
    - the teakettle, measuring cup, cast-iron skillet
    - most hand tools we use in the kitchen (such as knives and whisks), the garden (shovels, trowels, and weeding forks), for sewing (scissors and thimbles), or for carpentry (hammers, hand planes)