Emergence Summit at the Centre for Alternative Technology
Footprint attends inaugural international arts and sustainability conference at CAT
From 6-8 September, Footprint joined 170 environmental visionaries, architects and artists on a journey into the Welsh mountains to decend on the Centre for Alternative Technology for its inaugural Emergence Summit entitled ‘Creating the Future’. Organised in collaboration with Volcano Theatre and Sustain Wales and supported by the British Council and Arts Council Wales, the conference explored the roles that architects and artists can play in the transition to a low-carbon Britain.
Pat Borer and David Lea’s WISE building came into its element during the conference, fulfilling one of the functions for which it was originally designed. Few auditoriums can boast natural daylight, much less a roof oculus. Now welcoming over 40,000 visitors per year, WISE caters for CAT’s 300 MSc students, doubling as a research hub for Zero Carbon Britain 2030.
‘The conference aims to not only discuss and debate change, but become the vehicle for the change itself.’ - Fern Smith, Volcano Theatre
Delegates were welcomed into the rammed-earth Sheppard Theatre to the sound of a fanfare, before being addressed by Lucy Neal (theatre maker/educator), Fern Smith (Volcano Theatre), John Fox (WSI founder) and Paul Allen (CAT’s External Relations Officer).
The summit comprised the second part of Emergence. The first was a five day ‘land journey’ on foot undertaken by 42 delegates winding through the Welsh countryside, curated by artist Simon Whitehead and fueled by ethically-sourced local food provided by Touchstone Collaborations.
Two eliptical walks, one north and one south, culminated at the international weekend conference, which grew out of a series of small conferences in Cardiff during 2011.
Speaking in the rammed earth Sheppard theatre, Paul Allen addressed the crowd,
‘Emergence is our chance to escape the dominant dystopian vision of our future, instead developing a positive, solution-focused and practically achievable vision for the transition to a more sustainable society’.
The evening closed with a reflection of what the delegates aim to give and gain from the summit and a thought for the night from Rhun Bleddyn and Lil Woods.
The two days of workshops, discussions, performance and presentations commenced with an optional 7am morning practice, which included yoga, singing or a swim in a nearby reservoir. Paul Allen opened Saturday’s discussion with a speech on getting to grips with 21st century challenges and motivating ourselves to act through the story of humans and energy.
Other conference speakers included comedian Rob Newman - who discussed life after fossil fuels - Touchstone Collaborations, Ansuman Biswas, Rupesh Shah on systems thinking, and Peter Harper and Nick Capaldi of Arts Council Wales.
The tall airy spaces and natural materials of the auditorium providing the perfect setting for the conference.
CAT has been described as ‘wired for data’, a ‘living laboratory’ - trialling renewable technologies, both new and established. These include solar thermal, PV, biomass and a reed bed sewerage system. Electricity generated on-site is fed back into the national grid via Good Energy.
Key themes that surfaced throughout weekend included adaptability, resilience, risk taking, self-organisation, interconnectivity, visions into fruition, storytelling and imagining alternate futures alongside a focus on intergenerational equality.
The artistic community - which Paul Allen suggests has played a huge part in previous cultural transitions -has the power to cultivate new attitudes, approaches and ways of engaging for the public.
Footprint opted for the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 workshop on the Saturday afternoon, co-ordinated by Paul Allen and Alice Hooker-Stroud, a ZCB researcher, based at CAT. The group explored the scope of the low-carbon manifesto, including its possible impacts on the built environment. Paul Allen commented that ‘if the WISE building is a physical embodiment of CAT, ZCB is its non-physical manifestation’.
It was suggested the largest decrease in carbon emissions will be from retrofitting the existing building stock, with all new builds constructed to a zero-carbon specification, with emphasis on natural materials. Resiliance must be built in, alongside unlocking the UK’s potential for renewable generation.
The second half of the session involved creative feedback and presentation, which took the form of a group dialogue based on the concept of ‘Annie’, an eight-year-old girl living in ZCB 2030 and her trip to Spain to visit her Grandma. The evening concluded with a meal, land journey film and country dancing long into the night.
Footprint attended a ‘quest space’ on Sunday morning organised by Julie’s Bicycle and Arcola theatre in Dalston, called ‘What if every cultural building could be more like CAT?’. The discussion was based on Arcola’s recent research into renewable energies and research by the Theatres Trust entitled Energising Culture.
Drawing on the work of the Green Theatres Network, the session investigated ways to retrofit buildings, challenging both management, lighting designers, performance groups and the audience to consider the impacts of the production. Examples of successful existing schemes included the SoHo theatre renting out dressing rooms during the day to local independent businesses, and Classics for a New Climate series at the Young Vic.
Paul Allen suggested Emergence had an awakening effect on the WISE building, with it becoming a ‘living organism’. When Footprint asked how this excitement could be transferred from the remote rural setting into the heart of the city, he replied, ‘we need creative adaptations, spaces and places that contest the prevailing view of a dystopian future.’
‘I think we can do this through collective purpose and endeavour in architecture and the arts. Architects need to combat the sad overindulgence and obesity of current building methods. I can see architecture becoming more minimalist and conscious of passive design - which is something that WISE can teach us. How does light move through your building?’
‘I hope in the aftermath of Emergence together we can generate a hum, a signal against the background noise of the arts, leading to a shift in attitudes towards the environment, and most crucially, climate change’.
Stand-out activities of the weekend included the ‘quest spaces’, Zero Carbon Britain 2030 and meditation workshops, with a memorable talk from Rob Newman, which generated much discussion and reflection among the attendees.
An important lesson from the conference is that there are many strands to the energy performance of a building, with the first being reduction in embodied energy and occupancy, generating it by renewable sources and the often forgotten strand of good management - could performances for example be timed to coincide with public transport links?
Events such as Emergence bring the more qualitative aspects of sustainability alive and engage people to act, which is cruicial for communicating messages from more scientific studies such as Zero Carbon Britain to a wider audience.
CAT’s MSc Architecture Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies and Renewable Energy and the Built Environment can both be found on Footprint’s Guide to sustainable masters courses.