Monday, July 26, 2010

What's Old Is New Again: Traditional Knowledge Inventory Informs Innovation

international traditional knowledge database image

Low-tech Magazine, consistently highlighting how age-old low-tech solutions are thoroughly applicable in creating a more eco-friendly world, serves as a useful antidote to the usual high-tech hubris that infects much of the new green deal talk. A recent post on the newly established Traditional Knowledge Inventory is no exception. 

Though not fully fleshed out yet, all of the topics are fascinating for lovers of human culture, and many offer great practical promise today and for the future. Here are just three examples that caught my eye; there are plenty more at the link above which are worth perusing for a while:

torrent street yemen photoTorrent Streets

In areas of the Algerian Sahara desert, where the main water resource is flooding that takes place every three to ten years, whole areas of settlement are organized to take advantage of the flooding:
Large water intakes intercept the flow and distribute it to the tilled fields. The narrow streets enclosed between the high walls, which surround the gardens, become torrents that convey the precious water. Apertures are made in the walls to draw in the quantity of water needed for each garden where a further series of little channels, bridges and basins ensure the irrigation of fruit and vegetable gardens.
The same sort of system is used in towns outside of San'a, Yemen--entirely powered by gravity. You can see the apertures to direct the water on the lower right. Photo: Inventory of traditional knowledge to combat desertification

Underground Rooms & Hanging Gardens
Green roofs thousands of years ago...
At the end of the Neolithic Age, great innovations in the way of life and in agriculture had already been introduced. In the following period, metal-working techniques were disseminated as well as mobility and the ability to organize the environment increased: the experience in mining and the new metal tools facilitated the hypogeal practices.
In the development of the Sassi of Matera the troglodyte habitat and the hydroagricultural matrix of cultivated terraces dictated the architectural shapes and the urban layout. The original layout consisted of caves with an arch formation arranged around a threshing-floor garden, with the water reserves replenished from the plain above, and drained below by the excavated rock or condensed by capturing humidity in the caves. With the building of the barrel vaulted chambers in front of the caves the plain above became a hanging garden. The water was collected on the roofs, whose sloping sides were set into the walls for this purpose, and it was conveyed into the cistern well in the courtyard.
terraced and fortified olive groves photo

Terraced & Fortified Olive Groves

Love this. Who needs water near the surface when you've got stone walls arranged to condense water and irrigate the enclosed fields?
This practice of producing water by condensation systems based on mounds of stones was used in the Negev desert where, according to modern Israeli research, very ancient remnants of olive trees and vineyards were irrigated by means of dry stonewalls harvesting dew. In Arabic those devices are called teleylat al-anab (Arabic plural of tell which stands for heap of stones, hillock and al-anab, which stands for vineyards). Plants grew within small enclosures whose stones were purposely arranged with large interstices to catch the wind full of moisture. Thus, the vineyard and the olive tree did not need springs or groundwater tables in order to grow and the sweet raisin juice, that in ancient times was often referred to as honey, could be tasted as well as oil, thanks to the activity of solid rocks (Keller 1955).
Ancient Knowledge Should Be Adapted for Modern Usage

The genesis of all this was an idea by Italian architect and urban planner Pietro Laureano. Laureano says, "We want to pick up the thread of tradition again. Cultural heritage is not only to be found in monuments and galleries. It is also in the works and the landscapes of man."
As for the mission of the project:
The Traditional Knowledge Institute gathers and protects historical knowledge and promotes and certifies innovative practices based on the modern re-proposal of tradition as well. Using traditional knowledge does not meat to reapply directly the techniques of the past, but rather to understand the logic of this model of knowledge. it is a dynamic system able to incorporate innovation subjected to the test of the long term and thus achieves local and environmental sustainability.
As Low-Tech Mag quoted, Lewis Mumford made a really important point when he said, back in 1970: "The great feat of medieval technics was that it was able to promote and absorb many important changes without losing the immense carryover of inventions and skills from earlier cultures. In this lies one of its vital points of superiority over the modern mode of monotechnics, which boasts of effacing, as fast and as far as possible, the technical achievements of earlier periods." 

If that was true 40 years ago, it is even more so now. Ultimately, some of the most forward-thinking ideas of the 21st century may well take the bulk of their inspiration from looking backwards, towards traditional knowledge, largely forgotten in the "developed" world.

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