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Ushering in a third industrial revolution

Ecconomic crisis as a hangover from century-old break-throughs that today inhibit personal agency

This is not the sort of book normally reviewed in architectural magazines. But it is too important, and its implications for architecture and environmental planning far too great, to ignore. Any architectural practice wanting a better grasp on what the future might hold, and how to position itself to participate in bringing about that future, would do well to require a staff member to read and report on the book.

This is only the latest of a series of influential, often seminal, books by Rifkin, an economist, political advisor and prolific author. The primary focus of these activities is on the implications of scientific and technical change on the economy, society and the environment: he has long been concerned with climate change and renewable energy.

As well as advising the EU on embracing the Third Industrial revolution − which it is committed to, if now distracted by the Euro crisis − he and his colleagues have produced masterplans for San Antonio, Texas, and rome so that these cities may do the same to make the transition into the post-carbon future.

In Rifkin’s terms an industrial revolution is brought about by the confluence of a new energy source and new mode of communication, these being analogous to the bloodstream and nervous system of the body. It is the synergies between these and the impacts of the infrastructural systems they depend on, as well as the modes of financing these, that determine much of the character of each revolution.

The first Industrial revolution was brought about by coal-fired steam that powered railways and ships as well as the rotary presses of the mass-printed communications media of the day − newspapers, posters and pamphlets, and books. With the Second Industrial revolution, the new form of energy was oil that still powers the internal combustion engine of cars and trucks, as well as ships and planes.

Oil, along with coal and some nuclear power, also fuels the power stations providing the electricity for the new modes of communication: radio, cinema and television as well as the telephone and fax. Both these industrial revolutions depended on massive investment to extract the energy (in coal mines and oil wells, refineries and so on), build the corresponding infrastructure (the rail networks and then those of motorways, as well as power stations and distribution grids) and for the machinery that filled their foundries and factories.

Financing all this led to the centralisation of power in a few mega-rich owners and huge, often near monopolistic, corporations − generously aided and subsidised in various ways by government and taxpayer. In turn this led to top-down, pyramidal command and managerial structures, the reduction of much work to repetitive drudge and to gross inequalities in status and rewards.

With the Third Industrial revolution (TIR), energy comes from the widely distributed sources of renewable energy, with every building a micro power station, and the communications medium is the internet. These will both be served by the same smart grid that distributes through its dispersed networks flows of energy and information, the latter adjusting the flows of the former according to demand and where it is currently being produced.

This latter factor is important because the supply from renewables is erratically intermittent, so requiring networks to distribute it from wherever there is an excess beyond demand. Also required, for the same reason, is an efficient form of storage, and Rifkin has long been an advocate of hydrogen fuel-cell technology for this and transport.

Thus to implement TIR, what Rifkin refers to as its five Pillars need to be in place:

Rifkin’s five pillars

1. the shift to renewable energy

2. transforming buildings into micro power plants

3. deploying hydrogen and other energy storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure networks

4. using internet technology to transform the power grip into a smart ‘intergrid’ in which millions of buildings can share energy

5. transitioning transport to electric plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity throughout this grid.

This is a pragmatic proposal of great promise, with broad and profound consequences. In contrast to the vertical top-down power structures of the two earlier industrial revolutions, TIR is leading to collaboration rather than competition − what rifkin calls lateral power.

This will bring a partial shift from markets to networks in which: ‘The adversarial relationship between sellers and buyers is replaced by a collaborative relationship between suppliers and users. Self-interest is subsumed by shared interest. Proprietary information is eclipsed by a new emphasis on openness and collective trust.

The new focus on transparency over secrecy is based on the premise that adding value to the network doesn’t depreciate one’s own stock but, rather, appreciates everyone’s holdings as equal nodes in a common endeavour.’

Little wonder the corporate behemoths of the second revolution are doing all they can through lobbying and other forms of political influence to stall TIR. and recognising that some renewables are inevitable they try and hijack them by advocating massive centralised modes of collecting renewables (huge wind farms and solar arrays − which certainly must play some role) rather than small-scale distributed collection.

In part, the current economic meltdown is due to the delay in transitioning to TIR and the deregulation rather than overdue reform of these behemoths,as cogently argued by Rifkin, TIR will bring much more than economic and ecological survival, and very different ways of doing business.Because we will now be harvesting and living in harmony with nature’s cycles and capacities, it will bring what he calls ‘biosphere consciousness’.

In turn this will bring a leap in the quality of life as it ‘changes our sense of relationship to and responsibility for our fellow human beings.We come to see our common lot. Sharing the renewable energies of the earth in collaborative commons that span entire continents can’t help but create a new sense of species identity. This dawning sense of interconnectivity and biosphere embeddedness is already giving birth to a new dream of quality of life … We come to realize that true freedom is not found in being unbeholden to others and an island to oneself but, rather, in deep participation with others. If freedom is the optimization of one’s life, it is measured in the richness and diversity of one’s experiences and the strength of one’s social bonds. A more solitary existence is a life less lived.’

Also: ‘The shift … from elite fossil fuels to distributed renewable energies will redefine … international relations more along the lines of ecological thinking. because the renewable energies … are ample, found everywhere and easily shared, but require collective stewardship of the earth’s ecosystems, there is less likelihood of hostility and war over access, and greater likelihood of global cooperation.’

As the quotes indicate, the broader consequences of TIR are beautifully expressed in the book and, more important, inspiring − so (it is to be hoped) hastening the transition to it, despite the resistance from corporations, banks and the politicians they influence. for instance, there is a good chapter on rethinking economics, whose laws it is argued are disastrously modelled on Newton’s laws of motion rather than the far more relevant laws of thermodynamics, and an inspiring one on the necessary changes to education that is pertinent to how we might learn architecture.

All in all, it is an optimistic vision that in no way denies the messages of the doom mongers but instead outlines a very promising and convincing way forward.

The Big Rethink

Peter Buchanan also leads the AR’s Campaign The Big Rethink: Towards a Complete Architecture. In this in-depth essay Peter Buchanan starts to explore the architectural implications the ‘credibility crunch’ in modern science’s materialist view of the world

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