Thomas Ugo Ermacora is a passionate Dano-Italian urbanist and geographer acting mostly as a creative social entrepreneur focused on sustainability. He started the visionary CLEAR Village Initiative to rethink space, one village at a time and focus on upgrading the existing with communities.
What got you started on the road towards becoming a “creative social entrepreneur focused on sustainability”?
I cannot live with things as they are, I need to take part in making them as they could be. You cannot do that in any other way than involving creativity and innovation in business, looking at the motivations for why the hell you give yourself such a hard time; and healthier environments and communities seem to me the only “meta-ideological” path or aspiration our generation has. It is more tangible to make places livable than strive for sustainability as such.
Your background seems to be a mix of science (geography, urbanism) and artist – can you elaborate?
I grew up in a family of engineers wanting to see me as the cheese eating meloman because I played the piano and lived in France with its lovely gastronomical inclinations. After enjoying too much illicit indulgence at college trying to learn hard sciences at Northwestern, I found out I was a humanist with an unstoppable thirst for knowledge and one single topic could not cut it for me. Music was what I thought my career would be but alas I was not disciplined and patient enough so geography seemed an adequate combo of everything and nothing, enabling a substantiated weltanschauung or anthropological perspective. I also leaned towards design and sustainability, gradually settling down into urbanism and communication, eager to deliver total transitions. Little did I know how hard it would be to navigate in this soup of false promises and reputation sharks but I carried on obstinately.
When did you begin Clear Village and what are your primary aims with the company?
It started as a dream when I cycled through the lost villages of Provence in France as a teenager. It became a study when I wrote my thesis and then report to the French government through the consultancy I was hired into. It became a job when I made space in my life two years ago to start Clear Village, first as a foundation, now a charitable trust. Its aim is to deliver transition experiences through a mix of participatory design, applied systems thinking and community development intentions. The short-term goal is to practice place design with a new mindset inspired by the learnings of collective intelligence driven processes and intentional community experimentations. The medium-term vision is to develop places either partially or completely with local and global experts into incubators of sustainable living, preferably in places of need, i.e. depressed rural areas or neglected urban/suburban neighborhoods. The long-term vision is to build a network of these rebooted places, possibly as complementary clusters or learning/experience excellence centers – sharing is the point. They would be nuclei of sustainable communities in other words. What makes Clear Village different or unique today is that it is the only organization having isolated the village scale and niche as a necessary focus to effectively designing holistically without being technophobic, peak oil centric, or about newbuilds – indeed retrofitting seems more critical when you look at the amount of lost infrastructure we have around which contains life stories often delightful to revive. We are now ready to go on the ground and start the processes with our tools and design philosophy – doing so in Iceland would be delightful.
Your Dreams on Wheels project has been a major success. Can you tell us what it is?
Dreams on Wheels is a travelling exhibit on cycling culture focusing on Danish best practice performed over the last 30 years to deliver a vibrant and visual example of the lifestyle that generates in a city. Copenhagen is the main example of this. Unlike Amsterdam where there is no better way of moving than a bike because you would commit suicide trying to park and drive through the center, Copenhagen has grown a cycling culture strategically over a number of years to a unique degree of success with over a third of commuters on bike all year round. I love to design and do creative things but above all I enjoy using these mediums and talent to bring people into an experiential and open context where they can learn about cycling culture by having that first dramatic realisation that a cycling city is not impossible – it is a political decision that a city makes. It is harder in some places rather than others, but altogether there is potential almost everywhere for the life-changing use of bicycles. What made the exhibit successful is the fact that it travelled and gathered city officials in the same room as local enthusiasts and the generally curious. It made a success story collide with the realm of possibilities or impossibilities where it came, always in key locations. It can still be much more and I hope to bring it to developing countries and write a book/magazine about this slow-living intent with the bike as the core communication vehicle.
What other projects are you working on?
I’d like to say I have enough on my plate but I have a bank of projects that will emerge with time and resources such as a small spaces furniture line, a futures museum and an unusual eco-catering concept amongst others.
What, in a nutshell, are your main concerns or messages vis-a-vis Sustainability / Urban Living?
A subject I could speak at length about but need to say something simple: that we spend too much energy talking about the ‘should we not’ and too little time designing the hedonistic yet meaningful and less consumer driven experience society we aspire to live in. Boticelli, Voltaire, Rudolf Steiner and Frank Lloyd Right already knew we had better be smarter about how we use our resources and that the road to planetary harmony was definitely not being followed by trashing our only real home. We’ve just become increasingly prolific in contradictory messaging about the whole complex system of issues related to that grand concept of sustainability which has resulted in confusing even the most informed of us. Therefore my philosophy is not to live by example or trying to know exactly what is right based on incomplete statistical models, but rather contribute what I can to making places people want to live, and within that have an evolutionary relation to healthy and increasingly self sufficient living, with a strong identity.
You’ve been working recently with recording artist Imogen Heap – can you explain what you are doing / trying to achieve with this collaboration?
Half mad scientist, half poetic dreamer, I deeply relate to and admire the constant breath of ingenuity that defines Imogen’s musical career. She shines beyond her art in social networks because she is truthful, dedicated and generous. She lives off her creations, I live off my ideas. She is exceptionally talented, I am just above average at all the art I can deliver but I see connections and systems, patterns and governing dynamics, or trends and markets as others call them. Together we hope to form an inspiring duo in what we find time to do, hopefully more and more, some of which we will talk about at YAIC. Her gifts and reputation combined with my design thinking and worldview can produce challenging and fun journeys that get greater numbers involved in the transition we wish to perform as an emerging civilization having used up its credits with mother earth. The first example is the lovetheearthfilm.org, a user generated content film on what makes people tick when they think of nature, which Imogen will score and premiere at her Royal Albert Hall performance november 5th 2010.
What will your YAIC presentation be about?
It will be about what Imogen and I have done in the past and are planning in the near future. I will also present a few core motivations and perspectives on how to make the best out of what is known through online and offline progressive collective intelligence development – which relates to the reason we do what we do and, more importantly, how we do it.