Biosphere 2 and the joy of ‘failed’ experiments

A few weeks ago I visited Biosphere 2. If you haven’t come across the project before, it was built as a test of whether we could recreate the support systems we have on Earth (or Biosphere 1 as the project’s supporters call it). To test this idea they built a $150 million airtight greenhouse in the Arizona desert.

Initially, eight people (or biospherians) lived in the building for two years, trying to use only the food, water and oxygen that Biosphere 2 could produce. Although it was 20 years ago, I remember it all happening and the main story on the news was that it didn’t work. Having visited now, I know quite a bit more about it and there were three main problems:

  • First — they underestimated the amount of CO2 that the curing of the concrete would absorb. This in turn led to the plants photosynthesising less which meant that there was less oxygen being produced.
  • Second — it was an El Nino year and so Arizona was (very unusually) cloudy for much of the Winter, meaning that the plants again didn’t photosynthesise as much as predicted.
  • Finally, they underestimated how much oxygen the microbes in the soil would absorb.

All this led to the oxygen content of the sealed space gradually declining until it reached 14% rather than the 20% we’re all used to. This wasn’t dangerous as such but made it really hard to work and made them all a bit grumpy so there was a split after 10 months that never healed. Half of the biospherians refused to talk to the other half — they even gave the two teams names: ‘them’ and ‘us’. In the end, once they had worked out why the oxygen levels had gone down, they added some more so they could continue to stay in the experiment.
I’d read about the project in Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control but hadn’t realised quite how big it was. It’s on a scale pretty similar to the Eden Project in Cornwall but its purpose was far more tightly defined. And the engineering is far more impressive, especially considering how quickly it was built. Only 10% of the air was lost during the 2 years and 20 minutes of the first experiment which is less than the Space Shuttle lost in a single mission and none of the water in the system was lost at all — which is incredible. The underground systems that kept everything working are huge and give you some idea of what we’d need to keep ourselves alive in space or on another planet. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a spaceship in action.

I also didn’t know that one of the biospherians was British. She’s Jayne Poynter and her talk at TEDxUSC is well worth a watch.

20 years on and Biosphere 2 itself is starting to age a little. It’s now managed by the University of Arizona and the site of a number of scientific experiments — particularly about how water affects ecosystems. It’s all good stuff but not quite with the ambitions of the original project. None of the projects require the original airtight seals. Biosphere 2 now mingles fairly freely with Biosphere 1 as the structure has degraded and the windows have gaps where maintenance has slipped. Just looking around you realise it would take a lot of work to get the thing working properly again.

The received wisdom is that Biosphere 2 was a failure but having learned a bit more about it I don’t think it was at all. A little written story is that the second batch of biospherians thrived. Having sealed the concrete and improved the food growing systems, they didn’t have problems with breathing and managed to be completely self sufficient food wise. They didn’t fix the human relationship problems though — the experiment ended after 10 months after the mission director fell out with the management.

If you happen to be in Southern Arizona, it’s well worth a visit.

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Getting past the gloom

This is roughly what I said in a talk I gave at the Designers Accord London Town Hall meeting at the Design Council on 19th January 2012.

I don’t know about you but when I read, watch or listen to the news at the moment I get pretty depressed. The Today Programme seems to be a relentless torrent of unsettling events and terrible things that might happen. The newspapers are full of institutions failing and people to blame. Even Twitter and Facebook have become just links to more doom and gloom.

And it’s easy to find yourself feeling pretty small in relation to the complexity of the problems we face. If you don’t have any money, don’t have any position of political power or a large organisation you can boss around, it can seem like an impossible task to get us from here to where we want to be — a society where we’re all safe and able to live fulfilled lives.

It’s only when I think about what’s changed in the last ten to fifteen years that I feel more optimistic.Technology, mainly created by small startups, has changed the way that we consume information and products. Correspondingly it’s revolutionised the sectors where that’s been easiest to do — advertising, music, film and retail. The dinosaurs fight back occasionally — as has been the case with the companies almost getting SOPA to the point of being agreed. But overall, they’ve had their day. I think the day the internet ‘went dark’ yesterday was probably a turning point.

What I think is interesting is that the same types of technology are actually only just beginning to change the sectors that are the most important ones for social progress — sectors like healthcare, education, care for our elders, energy, food. The reason is that they’re tougher problems to solve but everything we’ve learned from the last decade of the internet can be put to good use.

What I think we’ve learned is that technology is a great tool to reorganise systems. It’s a tool for us to imagine, then prototype, then grow new ways of organising that change the way people behave and reach millions of people. Sometimes the technology itself is pretty obvious and simple — it’s just never been used like that before. As Clay Shirky says, “tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

Over the last few years I’ve tried to work with teams to help them turn ideas into startups and I’ve done my best to learn from some of the best in the business in the US and Europe. I think what’s emerging is a pretty simple pattern that you can use to develop sustainable social innovations.

  • Find a need (and a customer)
  • Build something simple and measure its impact
  • Learn what works and what doesn’t
  • Do it again

There are then tricks to every one of those stages but it’s only when you’ve got it working that you should try to get bigger. If you get it right, scaling becomes easy because lots of people will want to help you, whether they are investors or customers or people who want to work for you, but there’s no point in forcing those things until you know you have something good.

I guess that’s really what we’ve been trying to do with Social Innovation Camp and now with Bethnal Green Ventures. We’re learning that you need real discipline to do it well — and at its best design thinking is just that. Creativity matched with honesty and perseverance. I think that over time if we’re all meticulous about the way that we try to create social innovation, the gloom that pervades our society might start to disappear.