Lo-TEK: Designer Julia Watson on Returning To Indigenous Design and Wisdom

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For architect, urban design lecturer, and landscape designer Julia Watson, the answer to building climate-resilient structures lies in looking to tribal communities for design cues.

In her book Lo—TEK Design by Radical Indigenism, Watson argues that indigenous design is anything but primitive,and is in fact sophisticated and designed to sustainably work with complex ecosystems. With a foreword by anthropologist Wade Davis and four chapters spanning Mountains, Forests, Deserts, and Wetlands, this book explores thousands of years of human wisdom and ingenuity from 18 countries including Peru, the Philippines, Tanzania, Kenya, Iran, Iraq, India, and Indonesia. 

Could you explain the philosophy behind Lo-TEK?

Lo-TEK was a response to my expertise, material technologies, which I was teaching at Columbia and Harvard. And often in the built environment, they’re high-tech material technologies or that – ‘that’s really old’ – that was being spoken about at the time that I was teaching, which was around 2010. And I have always had a really deep interest in the way indigenous and local peoples relate and adapt to their environments. 

So I developed a course that  took a counter view of what technology was and what was taught as a teaching: technology that was nature-based about the built environment, and that was looking very specifically at indigenous communities and how they adapt to their ecosystems as a form of technology. And often that technology was defined in literature as ‘low-tech,’ which it’s not. So I wrote the book and defined this form of technology as Lo-TEK, to identify its very unique blend of nature-based technology that works with the environment, that’s very symbiotic, that is not low-tech but incorporates traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous communities, which is known as TEK. Therefore that’s kind of the derivative of that word. The word was also a bit of a tongue-in-cheek play on the way we were calling this technology ‘low-tech’ because it’s actually incredibly sophisticated, and the way that we design technologies doesn’t really take into account the very sophisticated way that these technologies work.

You highlight that some of these design techniques in your book are radical. Can you explain that? 

Radical indigenism is a term that was taken from a professor who’s a citizen of the Cherokee nation, Professor Eva Marie Garroutte, and she talks about radical indigenism and defines it as ‘indigenous people who are going back to local knowledge and understandings and mythology and folklore and looking at that knowledge and coming up with new understandings of the contemporary world.’ And I thought it was incredibly interesting, especially in the context of sustainability in the built environment and ecology. I knew that my field wasn’t really thinking in that way yet, except I was really interested in thinking in that way, but didn’t really know that there was this idea that was already really prominent by a prominent indigenous scholar. And when I came across that concept, I was like, ‘This is incredible.’ She’s talking about it for indigenous people, and indigenous people are calling for non-indigenous people to recognize their stewardship of the environment and their expertise and understanding and stewarding biodiversity. And so this was sort of a way that I talked about ‘how do you design?’ considering this concept of relooking at local knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous technologies or innovations, and how we think about that to build new knowledge for the contemporary built environment, and the contemporary way we’re thinking about climate change.

Arabs have returned to the area after they were forced to evacuate after the marshes were drained in the early ninetees by Saddam Hussein. Pictured a woman outside a traditional house made of reeds in the Al Adel Marsh in Iraq which was reflooded in 2003. It suffered again from drought in 2008 but has partially recovered.

What is your perspective on the how we should address climate change?

The contemporary conversation about climate change really looks at two ways that we’re going to adapt, respond, overcome climate change, and that’s through high-tech or things like essentially conservation but that translates to carbon credits, carbon sinks, some form of mitigation – the carbon economy. If that’s the global conversation within nations and governments and multinational corporations, that’s where the money goes – towards those types of solutions. 

But what no one’s talking about is that there are already existing, sometime thousand-year-old solutions to climate-changing conditions on the ground that already exist. And there’s a reason why they’re not being talked about: it’s because they’re community-established, they’re owned by cooperatives, they’re owned by people who are indigenous, they’re nations that sit outside of the normal nation-state governance within a country. They exist sometimes out of the traditional economic-financial structures of the territory in which they sit. They’re often disempowered and disenfranchised communities. Sometimes they’re subsistence communities even. So they’re not well-represented in higher levels of government, or they’re not incredibly financially well-supported. So all those conditions make for the fact that these technologies have been overlooked and ignored. And then you get the whole layer of imperialism and colonialism, and essentially racism, that overlays that. 

In a country like India, there’s an incredible diversity of local technologies and, you could say, climate-change technologies that deal with water scarcity. But India was colonized by the English. And so the English came in and they brought their technologies, and all those water-collecting technologies were erased because we put in underground pipes and basically said, ‘Well, this is the way that we’re going to change cities and change the water conveyance and distribution systems,’ and that eradicated all these incredible water technologies. 

And so there’s multiple, both historic and contemporary, reasons why these technologies are being overlooked in the conversation. Therefore they don’t get any money or research or any attention. No one’s really talking about how in the global south and 70% of the world’s population, there are already technologies in place, and in some cases they’re called agriculture, or in some cases they’re called aquaculture, or an anomalous living root bridge, but they’re not called a technology. In indigenous populations, they’re considered really innovative, they’re considered technologies, but from an outside American or Western, Eurocentric view, they’re rudimentary, they’re primitive, and they’re unimportant, and they’re not really considered a technology. I think what Lo-TEK, and what I’ve tried to do is to provide a counterargument. I shine a light on the incredible ingenuity and sophistication of some of these technologies. And it’s been incredibly well-received. People are now recognizing that there is – and there is already – a call for climate change solutions. And it’s now being recognized that yeah, there are incredible climate change solutions, but there’s this whole third category of not high-tech, not conservation and carbon crediting – but this other realm that really is incredibly environmentally and socially equitable because it already exists in the global south.

Fishermen tend a net, East Kolkata Wetlands, Kolkata, India.

Could you share an example from your book of an indigenous practice that’s long existed that could help address our current climate challenges?

Let me talk about two, actually. There’s one in India that’s called the east Calcutta wetlands, and it’s a wastewater aquaculture system that processes half the sewerage that comes out of the city of Calcutta every single day. It’s a city of 14 million people, so that’s raw sewage from 7 million people every day. It’s a fish farming system that’s run by fourth-generation fish farmers, and they basically use the sewerage to feed their fish, and the water comes out relatively clean and then travels down into the Bay of Bengal and out to the sea – whereas before, it was just raw sewage going out into the sea. That system itself is very interesting because not only does it treat wastewater, it grows the fish that the city eats, it provides a hundred thousand jobs for residents of the city of Calcutta, it sequesters carbon. It does really great environmental things like it mitigates carbon, it provides biodiversity, it cleans water. Also, the water is used to irrigate many crops – vegetable and rice crops – that are growing around this aquaculture system that then also go back into feed the city. All that food is coming from the very perimeter of the city of Calcutta, so that you’re minimizing transportation costs for trucks to be traveling out to the countryside to then bring food in. It’s also in place of a formal sewerage treatment plant, or what you call an India an STP, which processes sewerage in the way that we process sewerage in New York City, and it saves the city $21 million USD and operating costs for that city. It’s a free service that these farmers don’t get paid for. They just offer it because it’s beneficial for them, for their aquaculture system, and the city gets it for free. And this is about a hundred years old, so it’s not a really incredibly old system. 

Then you have a system counter to that, which is in Kerala, which is in the south. It’s a system called a Kuttanad, and it’s also an aquaculture system. It’s intertidal, it’s on the fringes, the shoreline of the ocean. Before the monsoon, it’s a saltwater aquaculture system. And then after the monsoon, it transitions to become a freshwater aquaculture system. It also mitigates floodwaters and tidal surges and storm seawater surges. It’s this system of what you call polder and dikes, which is basically that sort of system that you see built up around the city of Amsterdam, which allows Amsterdam to exist because it’s all these barrier conditions and then big ponds that provide this big sponge between Amsterdam and the ocean. And it’s really interesting because this Kuttanad system is basically India’s version of the Dutch system – the polder-dike system. The interesting points about these technologies is that the Dutch are seen as the experts for preventing sea-level rise because they have this ingenious polder-dike system. But what I’ve done is explored polder-dike systems that are indigenous to particular countries. I’ve found that the Chinese have their own indigenous polder-dike system that’s also silkworm-wearing and food-producing and textile-producing. The Indonesians have their own system that’s also an intertidal system that’s food-producing. The Indians in the south have their own polder-dike system. 

What you often see happening is that in these countries – the global south – where they’re experiencing really big impact from climate change, they’ll often bring the Dutch in as consultants to assist with helping them respond to climate change conditions. For example, Jakarta have employed the Dutch to help them come up with a technology and a master plan to prevent sea-level rise, because it’s thought that in 50 years, 95% of the city of Jakarta is going to be underwater. And they do that through foreign-direct investment, so they will owe the Dutch money for many, many years because they’ve gotten assistance to help with climate change. But what the Dutch aren’t doing is saying, ‘Hey, look, you’ve got a technology that’s really similar to ours, but it’s very local and it produces the right type of food for you and it already understands all the extreme conditions of monsoon and the soil types and the weather patterns. Why don’t we look at using that system rather than us selling you our system?’ And so there’s this really weird neo-colonial climate change economy that’s happening within the design profession around climate change technology. What I’m trying to point out is that we’re – even designers are approaching this idea of responding to climate change – somewhat in a misdirected fashion. We really could be far more responsible and directed towards this idea of providing social and environmental equitability to communities that we’re working with – if we’re working with community based in the global south – and that we need to be held accountable for any form of colonialism that we’re still you producing, whether where it’s realized or not or recognized. And we need to do a better job to advocate these types of local technologies and to assist local communities to understand that the West is not the best, that these local symbiotic technologies are incredibly powerful. And we need to use them as a tool to adapt to climate change.

Based on your experience, are there any particular indigenous technologies that you think could support the hospitality experience and hoteliers that are looking to adopt regenerative principles in their projects?

I spoke to the minister of tourism in Kerala about three weeks ago, and they’ve already established tours of the system that I just talked about, the Kuttanad system. So in the tours of Kerala, it’s promoted that the tourists should go and see these technologies. However, there is no direct investment from the tourism industry going towards supporting these farmers who are building and managing and restoring these climate change systems because they’re thought of as agriculture or aquaculture, they’re thought of as a bit of an interesting tourist experience. But these types of technologies – and this one in particular – is really valuable for protecting against climate impact and reducing risk. It would seem to me that there could be a really critical role that the tourism industry could play in helping to support climate change technologies, by number one, recognizing they exist, recognizing their cultural heritage value, but also supporting farmers to understand this is a critical climate technology and trying to understand how we can go towards supporting and making them bigger and broader.

A small hut in the East Kolkata Wetlands, Kolkata, India. In the background is Salt Lake City, a planned satellite city in northeast Kolkata.

Given the current state of the world and still navigating the global pandemic, what are the biggest lessons of this world situation that we can learn from as a species moving forward.

I think one of them would be that all of these communities work collaboratively as cooperatives. There’s a real power to that – the lack of individual ownership, the fundamental government structure of sharing of resources, sharing of profits, of working together for the good of all, rather than for the good of self. I think that’s an incredibly unique common feature of a lot of these technologies. And they’re really supportive of life outside of just human existence – these technologies rely on all types of different species working together symbiotically to create these really resilient and incredibly healthy ecosystems that then support community and humanity.

By taking care of the whole picture, the whole environment, seeing the interconnectedness, the support of that holistic understanding of life creates a really healthy environment for humans to exist within. I think that’s counter to how we think. Like COVID and where that came from, that came from a very different understanding and a lack of support of the diversity of life. And so, I think that really understanding that our existence is interconnected with the existence of all other life on earth, that’s something that I think that people have really come to understand during COVID.

Buy Julia Watson’s book, Lo—TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism, via Taschen.

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