CTCN interview with Julia Watson: How indigenous technologies can improve our society’s health and environment


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"I started wondering how many technologies are out there that haven’t been considered as technologies yet. The crisis of our changing world requires the entire diversity of ingenuity and innovation."

With COVID-19, the world is facing an unprecedented global challenge which has quickly altered the way we live and work. The CTCN has therefore decided to explore technology paths that can serve to improve the health and environments of our societies. Julia Watson is a leading researcher on indigenous, nature-based technologies for climate-resilient design, a field she refers to as Lo-TEK. She believes that her work is threaded with an "optimistic hope" and now more than ever we have an opportunity to reshape how humans align their societies with nature.

Julia recently launched a new book as the result of more than 20 years of research on original “smart” settlements around the world, through an architect’s lens. She teaches urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

• So how can indigenous technologies change the way we design cities?

In the book, I talk a lot about this mythology of the contemporary world and of technology. I think we need a new mythology for our world that is underpinned by an understanding that we're not superior. These technologies are about symbiotic relationships, which are the fundamental building blocks of nature. LO–TEK is innovation born of humans living in symbiosis with natural systems and that’s what I think needs to change. 

We commonly think of sustainability as bringing plants and trees onto buildings, but what if our most sustainable innovations were rooted in cultures who figured it out a millennia ago? There are hundreds of nature-based technologies that have been constructed by indigenous cultures across the globe that need to be considered as potential climate resilient infrastructures, that will assist us to develop and live in harmony with nature.

It’s timely because right now there is a huge political swing in response to governments stuck in a business-as-usual model of progress that denies climate change is happening. Then there is this groundswell of youth who are listening to the science and begging them to consider their futures. That’s why the book is dedicated to the next seven generations. At the root of sustainability, which drew from the Great Lore of the Iroquois, is the principal of making decisions that consider the next seven generations. This is actually a universal indigenous belief and something our dominant worldview has disregarded or completely forgotten.

Lo—TEK is not just a book, it’s a global design movement. The crisis of our warming world requires the entire diversity of ingenuity and innovation, borne from thousands of years of living in harmony with nature, that Lo—TEK can offer. Lo-TEK is how humans have been dealing with the extremes we now face, by harnessing the energy and intelligence of complex ecosystems and the book is calling attention to an entire body of unexplored nature-based technology.


•    How can modern cities learn from low-tech to adapt better to climate?

The way we exist in this moment is only one way and not the only way we can live with nature. Across the globe, there are hundreds if not thousands of different ways that humans have been dealing with climate extremes for thousands of years. Those alternative systems are still available to us to study, adapt and understand in the context of the challenges we now face with climate change and how we can design cities. Lo—TEK explores the innovations of indigenous cultures who’ve been dealing for millennia with the crises we now face, by using local innovations that are symbiotic with nature and that harness the intelligence of complex ecosystems. Designers responding to the challenges ahead should be imagining radical new urban typologies for sustainable growth where indigenous, nature-based technologies are hybridized with contemporary materials and construction techniques. From the scale of the symbiont, to the module, structure, system, and infrastructure, we should employ a design language of symbiosis to reduce density, rebuild diversity and shrink the individual and urban footprint.

For cities, the next evolution might be bringing lo—TEK and high-tech in conversation to evolve new hybridized systems. Below are some thoughts on how this concept could be evolved in cities:

Greening our skyscrapers for food

Across the world, constructed rice terraces are now considered one of the world's most important ecosystems, acting as massive absorption or purification systems, and as nutrient and biodiversity storehouses. Indigenous communities like the lfugao in Philippines and the Subak in Bali have developed the Palayan and Subak rice terracing and aquaponic systems that take advantage of local ecosystems, including wetland microbes, plants, and wildlife that compose the primary building blocks of the global water, nitrogen, and sulphur cycles. With techniques unchanged for two thousand years, their biological performance can inform the integration of vertical farming and landscaping within the infrastructures of the future. The terracing innovations that are constructed on slopes of up to seventy degrees, have a scale and steepness comparable to city skyscrapers, hinting at the opportunities for our urban, vertical environments to become havens for aquatic, terrestrial, and airborne biodiversity.

Biodiversity as a Buoyant Building Block

For delta cities threatened by rising sea levels where land reclamation has been the strategy for expansion, successful and sustainable indigenous islanding infrastructures from peoples like the Uros of Peru and the Ma’dan of Iraq could offer alternative futures for aquatic civilizations. The Ma’dan of Iraq have survived for six thousand, five hundred years by evolving simple, habitable, adaptable, and biodegradable buoyant infrastructures, so versatile that a single reed species is used to construct entire built environments that rival contemporary, non-biodegradable floating island technologies. The islands are simultaneously a floating village, aquaculture farm, and artificial wetland synthesized into a single living infrastructure. Designed for mobility, islands are secured with anchors, but able to move to deeper waters. Buoyancy is achieved by amplifying multiple natural processes of decomposition, while water cleaning is performed.

Edible Infrastructures Fueled by Waste

In other parts of the world, where cities contaminate their rivers and water supplies with sewage, Kolkata has adapted its wetlands to treat half of the wastewater from a city of 15 million people to produce a fishery, a waste-water treatment plant, farmland, and community hub. The network of pools are shallow, flat-bottomed fish ponds fed by 700m litres of sewage daily – half the city’s output — to produce thirteen thousand tonnes of fish each year. But the system, which has been operating for a century, doesn’t just produce a huge amount of fish – it treats the city’s wastewater, sequesters carbon, reduces carbon emissions and costs by reducing transportation to market, fertilises nearby rice fields, and employs eighty thousand fishermen within a cooperative. The treatment of sewage in the ponds removes organic waste using a symbiotic process between fish, algae and bacteria as energy. So rather than a coal and chemical fed waste-water treatment plant, this infrastructure is fueled by a new renewable - the next generation of green tech.

Living Infrastructures

Taking the cues from indigenous innovations across the globe, like the living root bridges of the Khasis in India, and the temporary fishing dams of the Enawene Nawe in Brazil, cities could introduce more sustainable, nature-based infrastructures that are responsive, productive, adaptable, and resilient. Implementing biodiversity as a building block, living trees coupled with innovative construction techniques become building materials that harness the intelligence of natural growth. The Khasi living root bridges - grown from a single, living tree trained from one riverbank to another where its roots are planted - respond to monsoon rivers by becoming stronger, growing higher and rooting deeper, making them extraordinarily efficient in their load bearing ability with a truss system that continues to strengthen with age. Similar systems could be grown to reduce urban heat island effect, increasing canopy cover along roads with roots trained into trusses that integrate with the architecture of the street. Stretched between shores to partially close rivers, the Enawene-nawe dams are porous, multi-functional, productive, responsive, seasonal, and temporary, supporting a unique forest fishing life. The dams offer clues to how microgrids and microdams might accommodate dynamic, symbiotic natural cycles, allowing river systems and their human and non-human species to thrive.

•  You have spent years developing your concept for Lo–TEK. Can you describe what inspired you?

Indigenous technologies are not lost or forgotten, only hidden by the shadow of progress in the remotest places on earth. While society values and preserves the architectural artifacts of dead cultures, like the four ­thousand-year-old Pyramids of Giza, those of the living are displaced, like the six-thousand-year-old floating island technology of the Ma'dan in the southern wetlands of Iraq. Extending the grounds of typical design, Lo-TEK is a movement that investigates lesser-known local technologies, traditional ecological knowledge (IEK), indigenous cultural practices, and mythologies passed down as songs or stories. In contrast to the homogeneity of the modern world, indigeneity is reframed as an evolutionary extension of life in symbiosis with nature. 

I became interested in TEK as a scientific exploration while teaching an eco-technology seminar that I designed at Columbia. In my research for this course, I realized that many of the technologies we see as contemporary green infrastructures have ancient lineages. So, I started wondering how many technologies are out there that haven’t been considered as technologies yet, and that question produced Lo—TEK. It’s ironic, that many contemporary green technologies, such as green roofs and floating wetlands, have been around for thousands of years, being rediscovered only when packaged as new. The vision for this book is something of the same. By gathering this compendium of indigenous design and innovation, a framework for adaptation and innovation is posed. This book retells an ancient mythology-that humankind can and must live symbiotically with nature-and provokes an emergent movement of design. One that intentionally hybridizes the innovations of indigenous peoples across the globe to radicalize the progress of humanism with the spirit of indigenism - rerooting our very relationship with nature from superior to symbiotic.

•  What would you want to communicate to others working to address climate change?

Harvard professor Dr. Edward O. Wilson predicts that during this next hundred years the protection of biodiversity will be our highest priority. However, species extinction alone won't be the twenty-first century's greatest loss. The same forces that drive species extinction endanger the indigenous technologies that may hold a key to humanity's survival. With indigenous communities being one of the groups most impacted by climate change, and many of the activities that, in the name of progress, have precipitated it, their knowledge is, in fact, an essential part of the solution.

•  Could indigenous technologies have a positive impact on the challenges we are facing today, from a health or climate change perspective? 

In 2019, as the Climate Movement called for action, world leaders said there was no way they could shut everything down to lower carbon emissions and protect the environment. In the state of the global pandemic, the impossible has been made possible.

The way we’ve come to live and travel, speeds up viral transmission and carbon emission alike. In all likelihood, if we continue to go up higher, out wider, further faster, and deeper to extract, we can expect more contagions and crises to follow. In indigenous cultures, a connection to nature is the foundation for physical, spiritual and psychological health. Australian Aboriginals call this a ‘connection to country’, that is handed down by the ancestors.[1]  The latest science on epidemics supports this indigenous understanding by suggesting that viral outbreak is closely linked to a lack of environmental resilience.[2] As we’re realizing with climate change, resilience in a community depends on an interdependence with a thriving environment. Therefore, if the pandemic has both medical and environmental triggers, our response must be multi-dimensional, initiating systemic change that ensures our communities are resilient to both air-borne viral transmission and air-polluting carbon emission. A vision that addresses both climate change and public health on a global scale would use biodiversity as the building block to evolve ecologically active, adaptive, productive and resilient innovations.

In the early 1900’s, in response to the Spanish flu, designers championed the introduction of parks, wide streets, and clean water, known as the City Beautiful Movement, which remained at the forefront of urban design for many years. But this pandemic in the context of climate change is different and a response cannot be limited to sanitation and beautification. Nor can it end with restrictions to the consumption of wild animals, which has been the response from China and Thailand. What can we learn from this pandemic to usher in a movement of urban design for the 21st century? Enter Lo—TEK, a design movement building on indigenous philosophy and vernacular infrastructure to generate sustainable, resilient, nature-based technology. It suggests that some of our most resilient innovations might be drawn from the past, but beyond the recent of the Spanish flu. Lo—TEK explores the innovations of indigenous cultures who’ve been dealing with the contagions and crises we now face for millennia, by using local innovations that are symbiotic with nature and that harness the intelligence of complex ecosystems. Designers responding to the challenges ahead, should be imagining radical new urban typologies for sustainable growth where indigenous, nature-based technologies are hybridized with contemporary materials and construction techniques. From the scale of the symbiont, to the module, structure, system, and infrastructure, we should employ a design language of symbiosis to reduce density, rebuild diversity and shrink the individual and urban footprint.

In the present state of pandemic from COVID-19 when now more than ever we value the air we breathe, we have an opportunity to reshape how humans connect with nature. The monoculture and the homogeneity is actually crippling, because it makes our cities and systems vulnerable. Cities cannot remain human centric as complex dynamics are at play. By only focusing on the dynamics of human society, other species suffer and eventually we suffer as well. A contemporary response needs to be active, adaptive, productive and diverse. It must afford a co-existence for many species, and use the intelligence of hundreds of unexplored nature-based technologies designed for the extreme conditions we now face.

•  So what is next? 

At the opening or closing of a significant event, indigenous peoples ask an Elder to give an acknowledgment of land. Based on the belief that the world cannot be taken for granted, the acknowledgment of land and all living things is spoken to align people’s minds and hearts with Nature.  At the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world must take a moment to acknowledge the Elders we have lost along with the knowledge they have taken with them, and align once again with the Earth, which is our most critical life support system, and then evolve into the next century. Accommodating infinite growth on a finite planet is the root of many problems we now face together, but isolated by quarantine, alone.


[1] Novelist Ambelin Kwaymullina

[2] The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health’s paper published January 2019 titled “Association between severe drought and HIV prevention and care behaviors in Lesotho: A population-based survey 2016–2017”

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