Case study: Desert Flower

Tom Bosschaert case

This case study is adapted from a project, executed in 2000/2001 in Western Australia.

Central kick-off question: What to do with a remote desert town in decline? A case study of a simple integrated solution process based on resource mapping, and lessons about why it didn’t work the first time. The city council of a small desert town in Western Australia had a problem. The town was faced with the upcoming renovation of an historical pumping station on the outskirts of town, and had received government funds to restore it, although not enough to do something useful with it. Since the town had no funds of its own they posed the question: what to do?

At this time I was studying at the University of Western Australia and I had just started the first outlines of SiD and was eager to try out this new integrated approach. We visited the town with a small team of people from the university and investigated the pump station first. While the town council focused on the historic pump station itself, we quickly realized the town had bigger fish to fry; it was suffering from economic and social decline, its infrastructure faltering, and its younger population leaving to seek better prospects elsewhere. It wouldn’t be long before this problem got worse.

I set up a quick-scan investigation to determine the problems and resources. As part of the mapping stage, I drew up a matrix of several categories such as energy & materials, economy & culture, and health & happiness (which we later named ELSIA) and stepped down these categories one by one. With the assistance of a few people in town, I tried to examine all the relevant subcategories I was able to find during a period of about three days. Together with some other students, we held a few interviews with a variety of people in town and because of its limited size, were quickly able to form a coherent picture of its issues and assets.
Analysis; figuring out the hidden resources
Historically, the town’s reason for existence was as a through-stop on the way to the mines that were deeper inland. It functioned as a truck-stop and supply station along the way, offering various restaurants and motels. It hosts a small train station, and maintained the water pumping station that brings fresh water from the coast further inland towards the gold mines. Over time agriculture sprung up, most consisting of wheat and other grains under irrigation, and the town had a marketing strategy as a source of healthy foods. Because the mines had been established in the early colonial era, the town has an unusual rich history and accompanying cultural heritage.
Over time trucks got bigger and faster, reducing their numbers, while the town kept growing. As it goes, a system growing with a limited resource, ends up in trouble. Its largest factory shut its doors eventually, and youth left town as there were no career pathways. Its local historic theatre, one of the first in the state, closed its doors.
Another problem increased the issues of the town: an unusual high groundwater table, which seemed strange for a desert town. The town turned out to be positioned in an area with an invisible underground valley. While there is little rain throughout the year, the rain that does fall for miles around eventually flows towards the town underground, picking up salt from the desert along the way, resulting in a high saline groundwater table. This water seeps into roads and building foundations, and is sucked upwards, where it evaporates under the sun, leaving its salt behind. The salt cracks foundations and roads and causes a constant maintenance nightmare, and heavy costs.

Drawing up the resource maps
With this rough analysis completed, the asset matrix could be filled: plenty of sunlight, an available labour force, its ‘health’ image, and access to a strong logistic network of road and rail. Other assets included the saline ground water and plenty of cheap land. The regeneration capacity of the groundwater provided for some sustainable use. Ecologically speaking the town didn’t have many resources, but culturally it had interesting historic buildings worth visiting. The town didn’t have enough financial resources at the time to fix the library’s roof, so a it had a severe lack of financial resources. But, there were plenty of eager and energetic people wanting to start a new enterprise, but few ideas on how to generate a viable economic model.

Understanding the system
Lining up the problems and resources made a few things very clear: what was a problem in a certain light could be seen as a resource in another. Drawing up the resource maps in space, and considering the town’s history in time gave enough resolve to state that the town really needed a brand new economic engine. Just relying on the trucks as a means of sustenance is a weak proposition, and makes the town vulnerable to the will of the mine’s management and operations, resulting in a really low resilience score. Were the town to become healthy and flourishing, it would need to find autonomy in its own resources and become not just a through-stop but a destination in and of itself. I set out to find a solution that would provide the town with an economic resource that provides a solid foundation for its future, and resolve multiple problems at once, and secondarily create enough interest to attract those travelers that were currently passing by without stopping.

Solutioning
I started searching for a solution by “cross-breeding” every asset with another, and see what would result. I investigated if using the available sunlight as a means to desalinate the saline groundwater would be feasible, which turned out to be too expensive and lengthy a process to make the water potable. I investigated new cultural possibilities for the pump station to make travelers stop, including a health spa using the salt water as a selling point, but this didn’t seem a solid business case either. As the investigation went on, things started to itch while I became more and more familiar with the ‘system’ of the town. It was clear we needed something stronger, something perhaps less obvious.

I decided on a new strategy. We knew the saline groundwater was an asset somehow, as well as the land, sunlight and old pumping station. What element could we add as a catalyst in between these four resources that would achieve our goal? I started thinking of a wide range of options, technological, biological, cultural, and individual based on art and crafts. To do this, I progressed down SiD’s ELSIA ladder to consider all possible areas. I discovered that if we used a biological resource, we could add material value that sustains itself, because thriving biological systems generate value without human intervention if the conditions are right. If we could find something that would grow using the abundant sunlight, semi-arid land, and saline ground water, we’d be set. I started looking at agricultural crops that would grow under these conditions, but quickly exhausted all options. I then looked at more basic biological resources in the form of fungi, bacteria, algae, and so on. During this search, I narrowed in on the organisms that could grow in the saline ground water. And that’s where I found our gem, an organism I never had heard of before, which seemed a perfect match: the Spirulina algae. Spirulina loves the saline water, loved the sunlight, and grows at breakneck speeds in open-air shallow basins that require a lot of surface area, and thus, land.

Concept development
I studied the algae further and found that Spirulina has a variety of uses. It’s used as an edible blue coloring agent in cosmetics, as well as a source of vitamin B12, and thus is considered a health-food product. Its various uses establishes a solid market value, and the algae are generally sold in a freeze-dried state, which keeps well.
I made the pumping station the headquarters of the Spirulina plant. The old water-agitator out back could serve well as a demonstration and test-tank while the empty lands around it were a perfect place to roll out large, outstretching algae growing pools. The algae would be pumped into the pumping station, where it would be freeze-dried and packaged, and would have direct truck-access to the the highway from there. Looking at the business case, the Spirulina turned out to be so valuable, that a multi-million dollar a year enterprise could be established in a short amount of time, employing dozens of people, with a short return on investment (under 5 years).

Evaluation
The Spirulina plant establishes everything set out in the goal. It provides for a solid economic resource, makes the town visible in a unique way along the highway to attract people, provides employment, and resolves the saline ground water issue, all with a completely renewable ecological resource that ties in to the health programme of the city. I presented the plan to the city council knowing it would work.

Lessons learned
I learned two big lessons in this project. The first one is about using a systems approach. This was the first project where I applied an integrated approach, and it worked great, and beyond imagination. It gave me the conviction to continue to develop the approach in what today has become SiD, and perform many other projects in this fashion.
The second lesson I learnt came after I presented the plan to the town. I, fully convinced of the plan’s viability expected cheering and rejoicing by the town’s officials, but much to my surprise, they hardly took it seriously. This was 2001, and ‘sustainability’ was a word rarely used among general audiences. Algae seemed to the town a virtually impossible to imagine outlandish crackpot idea. Nobody cared to check the numbers or even imagine this would become a reality. My biggest mistake was that I developed this project without involving the stakeholders much in the process. When I communicated the plan, I thought everyone else would see it the same way I saw it: a huge positive opportunity. But they didn’t; they couldn’t imagine these weird ‘algae’ having a place in their community, felt uninvested in the whole idea and to them it was nothing more than a crazy idea that dropped out of the sky. I failed at involving the people that I was doing it for, and because of that they, justifiably, rejected the proposal. I didn’t build trust, understanding, and a shared solution. I learned a valuable lesson that day: without a collaborative process that involves the community and stakeholders, one is just building castles in the sky.
A small consolation is that a decade later the town did construct an algae plant on the proposed site, which can be seen from satellite views today. This is another pattern we’ve seen over the years: it usually takes about a decade for an innovative solution to go from concept to implementation. After doing a number of these innovative projects it was clear we would have to have a lot of patience along the way.

The approach worked beautifully, fast, efficiently, with amazing results… but my failure to involve the stakeholders resulted in an non-executed project. Since then we have taken care to implement both stakeholder involvement and communication strategy as central elements in the SiD system. So you don’t have to make that same mistake.