Living root bridges that can withstand monsoon rains, an organic sewage system that irrigates crops, burning forests to support forest conservation: we will all agree our climate requires creative ideas. But what if we told you these ideas are already in existence and available to us? Enter Lo-TEK, a design movement building on Indigenous philosophy and vernacular infrastructure to generate sustainable, resilient, nature-based technology.
Lo-TEK is a gathering of sustainable, adaptable and resilient technologies, each born out of necessity. It’s name is drawn from ‘lo-tech’ (uncomplicated primitive technology), yet the TEK in Lo-TEK stands for local technology composed of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. It’s engineered to sustain—rather than exploit—resources, with the ultimate goal to champion symbiosis between species. We had the pleasure of speaking with architect, activist and academic Julia Watson, a leading expert on local, climate resilient technologies and author of Lo-TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism.
We don't need to redefine innovation, we need to redefine technology
Can you start by explaining what Lo-TEK is?
Lo-TEK is a concept I conceived while teaching technology for the built environment. I realized that we’re too focused with ‘high-tech’ and short-term gain, rather than looking into past technologies that were already in existence and available to us. Yet, for some reason—or for many reasons—we were ignoring them. Many of these technologies were being categorized as ‘low-tech’, thus I started talking about them in a different context. Lo-TEK stands for local technology composed of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. The phrase came out of trying to redefine how people see these technologies, and bringing this knowledge and their communities to a different audience.
All too often when we speak with technology, we think of innovation. Yet one could argue that agriculture is just as much part of the technological realm.
Exactly. We don't need to redefine innovation, we need to redefine technology.
Lo-TEK is a way of ecological thinking
Humans have created a barrier between the built environment and the natural world. How does Lo-TEK bridge these environments?
Lo-TEK imagines that there is no difference between the two; the built environment isn’t any different from the natural environment. This is conceived from gaining an understanding in local communities and local Indigenous technologies, and the way in which these communities design together with nature. I believe that in the future we will no longer think of these systems as separate as they will become one. The built environment will be the natural environment. It’s a completely different reframing of a future history of how we will be, and how we will understand the world. A different perspective really.
The built environment isn’t any different from the natural environment
As an architect, you expose ancient systems and Indigenous technologies. What is it about these technologies that fascinate you so much?
Consider this: If we were to create a technology today, based upon the way we are currently developing technology—with some of the most powerful computer simulations—still, it would be a struggle to create algorithms to anticipate on all the different climatic and environmental variables. Whereas ancient systems and Indigenous technologies work symbiotically, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. They are just so highly sophisticated and intelligent, and yet we don't see them. We don't recognize them. We are yet to understand the incredible benefits these systems and technologies have now, and could have in the future.
When we speak of the 6th mass extinction occurring, we speak of biodiversity as one of the biggest losses of the 21st century. But what if the biggest loss is that we made extinct thousands of technologies—perhaps the most important technologies for human survival on Earth?
When we speak of the 6th mass extinction, we speak of biodiversity as one of the biggest losses of the 21st century. But what if the biggest loss is that we made extinct thousands of technologies?
Can you give an example from your book?
Perhaps the most relevant example comes from the East Kolkata Wetlands. These are human-made wetlands on the outskirts of the city of Calcutta, in West Bengal in India. This wastewater agricultural treatment system—which isn’t industrial—is in fact a patchwork of 350 fishponds, run by co-operative farmers. It gathers the sewage of 7 million people from the city of Calcutta, every single day. The sewage, which is in the Hooghly River, travels through a filtration system of agriculture; the water ultimately comes out clean, but on its way it irrigates rice and vegetables and allows local farmers to fish its waters. It provides habitats and over 100.000 jobs. It’s a living and incredibly resilient urban circulatory system that is a fishery, waste management system, agricultural field, rice paddy network, community hub, grazing lab and heritage set—and it’s just sitting on the outskirts of the city.
Ancient systems and Indigenous technologies work symbiotically, from the microscopic to the macroscopic
In redesigning our current cities, how do we find a middle ground between Indigenous primitivism and emerging technologies?
It’s not so much that the book is a re-application model for cities. Rather, it can be viewed as a parable of what’s possible. What is our future history? I don’t believe in a savior complex, I believe in a future built upon symbiosis. There is this example of industrial symbiosis in Denmark [Kalunborg Symbiosis, ed.], where companies are sharing in- and outputs of resources, to create multi stakeholder relationships that then have a reduction of their ecological footprint. That’s one way of how symbiosis could be embedded, and I think this concept could be explored using principles of Lo-TEK.
I believe in a future built upon symbiosis
What are these principles?
Most importantly is to consider multiple generations. Using closed loop cycles. Enabling ideas of technology that is nature-based and not coal-powered, and using sun and symbiosis as the means by which we’re powering the energetic systems within our cities. Still, there a big bridge to be build between high-tech and the potential of Lo-TEK.
Still, there is a bridge to build between high-tech and the potential of Lo-TEK
How to start?
What needs to be charted first, is that Indigenous communities want to allow other people to use these technologies. Next we need to consider if the technology is immediately transferable, or whether the idea is. The question you pose is humongous, and honestly hard to answer. My job as an academic, activist and architect is to embed these ideas into other people’s psyches, and to inspire others to take up these ideas and link them to potential climate change solutions. Simultaneously I aim to bring many other voices and modes of knowledge on how humans can live with nature to the forefront of this conversation. These voices are Indigenous voices. That’s why the book also includes interviews with local experts.
My next book is co-written with Indigenous writers, which allows for a whole new level of expertise to open up. I hope these ideas may continue to inspire and will be drawn into the common everyday mass cultural context, and ultimately spread globally to gain a common understanding of Lo-TEK as a mode by which human survival will be supported by.
Lo-TEK could be a mode by which human survival will be supported by
The notion of time appears to be very important in Lo-TEK.
The notion of time is being challenged already. We live in a society of late capitalism where time is now beginning to slow down. Just consider how the pandemic has forced us all to slow down. The main question: how do we want this to work? What’s our next step? What’s the future, and is there a means by which there’s a different way these technologies can evolve overtime? That hasn’t been explored yet. But is there a way that time can take place on a different plane? With a high-tech / Lo-TEK hybridization, I believe there can be.
The idea of ‘degrowth’ is important here [the idea that critiques—and advocates against—our current system that pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction, ed.]. If one would couple degrowth with Lo-TEK, and insert time in there, one comes to question the 300 years’ worth of time and technology in correlation with thousands of years of deep time and knowledge. Hence the question of what is our next step. Is it going to be deep time and deep knowledge? Or is it going to be 300 years of industrialized time and technology?
What if in the future we look back and think of industrialization as a form of primitivism? What if we would think ‘with industrialization we threatened our own survival, that’s how primitive we were at that time’. Therefore degrowth is becoming more prevalent nowadays, and a new symbiotic relationship could usher in a new time called the Symbiocene [the speculated era beyond the Anthropocene, ed.]. An era in which we will have figured out ways of how to live with this planet in a better way.
What if in the future we look back and think of industrialization as a form of primitivism?
I'm drawn to one of the opening statements of your book in which you state that we are ‘drowning in information while we’re starving for wisdom’. Can you elaborate?
That’s actually drawn from a quote by Havard professor and entomologist Edward R. Wilson. I’ve reiterated it to ‘drowning in the age of information, while we’re starving for wisdom’. I truly believe that in my profession. We now dream of smart cities and how Big Data could provide the infrastructure for such a habitat, but simultaneously it seems as if we have overlooked its threat to our individuality, privacy and security. In this age of information, we’re obsessed with the future.
If only we could begin to use this type of information in a better way I believe it could be relevant. Perhaps there’s a means by which we could start to understand AI in the context of Indigenous traditional knowledge. I know that Microsoft is already developing technologies to help forest systems, but in doing so they don’t look at traditional ecological knowledge in relation to any of those forestry systems. Yet forestry systems of Indigenous people have incredible amounts of knowledge about symbiosis and relationships that Western science doesn’t even understand yet. There’s an incredible value and potential in the understanding of how the age of information could assist us, or even be used symbiotically. It’s not being applied yet; we just seem to be fascinated or frightened by it.
Indigenous people have incredible amounts of knowledge about symbiosis and relationships that Western science doesn’t even understand yet
Why do you think that is?
When you look at these ‘new’ types of technology, one could argue such technologies were born from endless resources; the idea there were infinite resources in the world that were expendable. Technology from Lo-TEK is born out of scarcity; environmental extremes and having to adapt to the climate conditions. Having limited resources in a way challenges you to consider the finite resources on the planet, and so you have different outcomes. Because they were built with the principles of scarcity and not abundance, it holds a foundational principle like ecosystem thinking rather than just data driven. The technology we will create in the future needs to have different foundational principles, in order for it to be used symbiotically.
Technology from Lo-TEK is born out of scarcity instead of abundance
One of our core slogans is going forward to nature, which means using technology for a more natural world. How in your opinion, may we go forward to nature?
There is a different future that is already being written. In this future, technological systems already are our natural environment. The divide between nature and culture isn’t something that we can even conceive anymore because they're completely synonymous and symbiotic; they work together. Not that nature has been completely overrun and destroyed, but consider how the communities that live with nature, they are their nature. Their lakes are living entities that have rights and are all part of the same ecosystem. The whole conception of nature and culture being separate, that’s all a construct. If we could reframe our cultural understanding of human beings and our relationship to nature, this will determine our survival on the planet. Moving forward.
The whole conception of nature and culture being separate, that’s all a construct
Any words to the next generation of architects?
Create a pedagogy for yourself where sustainability, resilience and symbiotic thinking are fundamental to every single move that you make. That’s because institutions, academies and practice are far behind. You are going to lead the way, and if you demand that these principles become core foundations to the future of architecture in every single form (teaching, practicing) then that’s the way it will be. You have the hand that writes the history that controls the future; you’ve got the upper hand here.