Substantive Edit: EDIT Festival, Toronto

“I have a friend who loves cars,” Bruce Mau told the audience for his keynote speech at the EDIT Festival last month, “and he said to me: ‘Since I got the (Tesla) Roadster, I never touch the Ferrari.’” That hedonistic sustainability, according to Mau, is how we will “win” in sustainability and development. “We make smart things, we make a better experience, not by saying: ‘Don’t drive that Ferrari.’”

And thus, one untouched Ferrari at a time, the world will be saved.

Mau is sincere in his aims. The ambitiously variegated designer grew up in a house without running water, and he understands the urgency of basic human needs. But entire regions of the globe now devastated by hurricanes, fire and droughts, might we suggest that we’re already past the point of sexy car choices?

EDIT Festival, Design Exchange
During the 10 days of the EDIT Festival in Toronto, the rooftop of an abandoned soap factory morphed into a garden cafe. Photo by Design Exchange.

This bifurcation of hedonism and plight loomed large at EDIT—the Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology—which concluded in Toronto last month. Produced by the Design Exchange and mounted in the abandoned Unilever soup factory, the EDIT festival showcased possible design solutions for the United Nations Development Programme’s 17 sustainable development goals. Addressing poverty, climate change and world hunger—the core aims of the U.N.D.P initiative—brought urbanists, architects, designers and scientists together in public talks and installations, from celebrity voices like Richard Florida and David Suzuki to real-world architects like Heather Dubbeldam and Dean Goodman, to rising stars like author-placemaker Jay Pitter. A giant grown-up game of show-and-tell, it drew everyone from school children to policy wonks.

The 3D full-scale architectural installations included the cute but environmentally tangential Mickey Mouse Dream Home of the Future, the One-House-Many-Nations installation by Idle No More and IKEA’s flat-pack refugee shelters and Ecostudio Ryerson’s Zero House. The prefabricated net-zero-energy Zero House is conceived as a unit within a stacked row-house configuration. It’s a Canadian design solution, optimizing low winter sun angles to collect solar energy on its south facade. The house itself, with its honey-blonde plywood interior, feels like a beach hut, but the building envelope is engineered to meet the winter conditions of North Bay, Ontario.

EDIT Festival, Design Exchange, Toronto
Zero House, a prefab prototype net-zero-carbon housing unit designed by Cheryl Atkinson at Ryerson’s Ecostudio with Chris Magwood at Peterborough’s Endeavour Centre. Photo by Tom Arban.

One-upping the net-zero-energy angle was Copenhagen’s zero- emission Amager Bakke power plant cum ski hill designed by Bjarke Ingels and completed earlier this year. Showcased on the main floor and cited by several of the festival’s speakers, the garbage-incinerator that doubles as an adult winter playground is perhaps the ultimate monument to sustainable
hedonism. By turning waste into profits and blowing clean water-vapour rings in the celebration of itself, as skiers vorlage down the roof, it’s the infrastructure equivalent of the Jetson’s flying car. (And it might end up just as fanciful: as of this writing, we have yet to see any vapour rings blowing out of Amager Bakker.)

Toronto-based Partisans Architects met the steep challenge of urban policy consensus-building with their usual whimsical irreverence. In their assembly line/Milton-Bradley Board Game “Letters to the Mayor” installation, Partisans exhorted architects across the city to write open letters to John Tory. Illustrated by Taxali cartoons, it was nonetheless a serious call to bring architects back into the planning process and unite the “dog eat dog architectural community,” as Partisans founder Alex Josephson calls it.

EDIT Festival, Design Exchange, Toronto
Former factory space transformed into Partisans’ ‘Letters to the Mayor.’ Photo by Jonathan Friedman.

From the grim billboards unfurling scenes of war and poverty to the tasty Oreo cookies made from real crickets, did EDIT convert any more recruits to the role of design in saving the planet? If not on the sweeping scale, it seemed to work on the granular scale. By reactivating the old Unilever factory in such an engagingly joyous way, the Design Exchange and its partners may have saved the structure from demolition. Developer First Gulf was reportedly set to raze the factory to make way for its massive East
Harbour development. By the time the Festival concluded on October 8th, apparently had a change of heart. “For a whole bunch of reasons—which arguably include the great success of EDIT—we’ve decided to try to keep the building,” First Gulf’s V.P. of Development, Derek Goring, told me after the festival concluded. “We recently made an updated submission to the City with a revised master plan which includes the factory building.”

EDIT Festival, Design Exchange
End-of-day conversing and imbibing enjoyed on the rooftop at the inaugural EDIT Festival. Photo via Design Exchange.

So chalk one up for the sustainable hedonists, saving the world—one fulsomely engaging design festival at a time.

Laura Lind is a Toronto-based cultural writer.