Local Systems

May 5, 2012

I’m interested in doing research on local systems. In particular, understanding how small towns in the U.S. functioned 100 or so years ago. That is: What type of energy was used (water, coal, oil, etc.)? How were people employed? What did people use for transportation? Where were the farms, factories, and dairies? What did people make at home? What food and objects were made locally, and what came from elsewhere?

The rationale for this is that there is a growing interest in developing local economies as a way to strengthen local communities and promote sustainable living. This seems new. Yet, only a few generations ago many of the practices we associate with “sustainability” were commonplace. Americans grew food and manufactured goods locally and regionally, and reused things like kitchen waste for garden fertilizer or glass bottles for milk. So, if we want to understand how we can develop sustainable local economies, perhaps we can first look to our past.

This isn’t technology research per se, but certainly relates to other Deep Tech work in terms of thinking structurally and systemically. It deals with technology in a wider historical way, as it involves looking at the tools and associated systems people used to help them meet their daily needs.

For example, in many small towns in the northeast milk was delivered door-to-door in glass bottles up until around WWII. When empty, these bottles were picked up by the local milk company to be reused. In some ways this isn’t too different from looking at a technical system which involves devices that circulate (ex: mobile phones // milk bottles), related practices (e.g. how and why people use the phones // milk & bottles), a manufacturing and distribution system (e.g. factories, retailers // dairy and delivery system) and what happens when the product has been used (e.g. it’s often thrown out and dismantled // it’s cleaned and reused).

Part of this research of course involves examining our assumptions about the past and about sustainability. That is: Perhaps some past practices wouldn’t be seen asĀ  particularly sustainable from an environmental perspective today. The local is not always more sustainable. And, U.S. economic activity 100 years ago was certainly not exclusively local.


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Infrastructure, Social Impact