I was delighted recently to be invited to speak at Fixing the Future in Barcelona, an annual gathering organised by Atlas of the Future – co-founded and run by the wonderful Cathy Runciman (seen here) – which gathers people and projects from all over the world who are trying to imagine and build a better future.
Among many inspiring speakers was the celebrated Brazilian chef Alex Atala (pictured here), who spoke movingly of our need to revise the relationship between man and food. As well as running his celebrated DOM restaurant in Sao Paulo – where one of the signature dishes is a square of pineapple topped with an Amazonian ant – Atala is co-founder of the Áta Institute, which works with indigenous people in the Amazon to protect and reinforce local food traditions around such delicacies as fruits, fermented manioc, river fish, and, of course, the aforementioned ants (which apparently taste a bit like lemon and lemon grass). The Institute recently opened a new processing house for the local chillies, which is being marketed globally in an effort to provide an income locally and so preserve traditional ways of life in the Amazon. As part of its manifesto, the Institute states: We need to bring closer knowledge and eating, eating and cooking, cooking and producing, producing and nature’. I couldn’t have put it better myself. After listening to Atala speak, it was not hard to see why he was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Another speaker after my heart was Abby Rose, a young physicist and farmer who understands the value of good soil and uses her tech savvy to help smaller scale farmers all over world build ecological richness – and profitability – on their farms. As co-host of Farmerama, an award-winning radio show and podcast that often broadcasts from unlikely radio stations in rural sheds, Abby shares the experience and knowledge of such farmers, bringing new perspectives to farming communities around the world.
After the conference, some of us had the chance to visit Valldaura, a futures lab in a 19th-century farmhouse perched high on a wooded hill in the beautiful Collserola Natural Park, just outside Barcelona. An outpost of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC), the lab sees makers, mentors, thinkers and practitioners from all over the world coming to collaborate with the resident and non-resident students on the year-long ‘Master in Advanced Ecological Buildings and Biocities’ programme, asking how science, design and technology can combine to build a better future.
The Masters is an immersive programme in which students and researchers live in a close community, managing the forest, growing food, cooking and eating together and building 1:1 prototypes in the ‘Green Fab Lab’, a beautiful subterranean workshop with arched brick vaults and state of the art machinery such as 3-D printers and laser cutters. Multi-disciplinarity and open-mindedness are key to Valldaura’s approach: as project coordinator Jonathan Minchin says (seen here with my Barcelona friend Antonia), the aim of the lab is to combine networks of knowledge and practice – both futuristic and ancient – to be able to ‘make or grow almost anything’.
One result of this approach is a new project (seen here under construction) in which the team will test new soil-scanning technologies. A computerised sensor will be suspended on wires above a vegetable patch to give detailed readings of soil moisture levels, mineral content and so on, which can then be tested against plant growth. Such technologies mark a new departure in farming. Intended to be used at a small, local scale, they aim to help farmers who want to farm their land organically – proof that agri-tech and traditional methods don’t have to be in opposition; they can work in tandem.