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FINANCIAL TIMES WEDNESDAY MARCH 7 2012

SPECIAL REPORT | Doing Business in Canada

Business and Leisure

 

Say PPP for Planet Earth

Margaret Thurley looks at the impact of social innovation on Canada's number-one fishing spot

Palleburen, 200 km north of Vancouver, was until recently known primarily for its abundant fisheries and a well-heeled retirement community. Yet Palleburen is also home to the historic Pallen Planetarium, whose iconic triad of copper cupolas manifest a majestic and spectral presence, reflecting in the swirling, chalk-white waters of Adriane River – lovingly dubbed 'the Milky Way' by locals.

Few would have foreseen that just one year after action was first taken to breathe new life into the spooked remains of this underrated piece of 19th century architecture, the re-opened planetarium is being hailed as "materialised music" by critics and now lures hundreds of visitors to Palleburen every month, as well as netting thousands more by means of its virtual pool.

In fact, Sheena Lucas, Palleburen council's chief executive, had anticipated several months of heated public-private infighting when she first tabled the unsavoury alternatives for the planetarium's future: tapping further into tax-adverse residents' earnings to fund a refurbishment or handing over to a private consortium that proposed to transform Pallen Planetarium into a high-yield luxury fishing hub. "Markets have never been as deregulated as they are today", recalls Ms Lucas, shrugging her shoulders with seasoned cool. "Hence our emotions tend to be deregulated also."

Canadian politicians and administrators at all levels, says Ms Lucas, are increasingly unable to take decisive action in today's double-edged climate of anti-public, anti-private sentiment. Public funds are few, but for a policy-maker seeking to reinvigorate materially and spiritually Palleburen's secluded community, the benefits of another mixed-fishing development were fewer still. "When Pallen Planetarium hit the agenda last year, we suddenly saw an opening to do things a different way. Instead of slaying the dragon in another private-public showdown and cooking up hard feelings all around, we decided to tackle the issue on a planetary level."

 

A crucial figure in recasting the local agenda to its current planetary dimensions is Burt McConell. A tall man with an elegant stride, who after retiring as an architect in Vancouver has gradually begun wearing chequered shirts again and allowed himself to grow a beard, he was for several years the Planetarium's sole caretaker.

"After three decades in the service of architectural post-modernism, I was looking for something new – perhaps fishing", remembers Mr McConell. Instead, upon his arrival in Palleburen he immediately found himself attracted to the planetarium and embarked on "a never-ending architectural love-affair."

Working single-handedly to patch Pallen Planetarium's leaky roof and put a brake on the building's demise, Mr McConnell quickly became accustomed to enlisting support from visiting foreign researchers and astronomy enthusiasts. Locals, by contrast, tended to take the Planetarium for granted and mostly shrugged off Mr McConnell's incessant call-to-the-arms.

"I have come to understand that people who are genuinely open-minded, in tune with the architectural potentialities of a triple-domed planetarium, and who might be willing to commit themselves financially and emotionally to its redevelopment were relatively few" he says. These people also tend to be scattered across the globe making it difficult to set their combined muscle to work on Pallen Planetarium.

Enter Rhymer Hosein, the council's newly appointed IT-officer. Bringing to Palleburen's chronically under-staffed and overworked e-government department a proven track-record of operational excellence in organic server-farming, his initial priority was to curtail employees' addictive passion for social networking and virtual sociability. But he realized that some of the new web 2.0 skills they were developing in their free time could also be useful in modelling herd behaviour patterns and building a global support network for Pallen Planetarium.

"Starting with the twenty odd real-world contacts that Mr McConnell gave me, we've woven an intricate tapestry of creative collaboration and global co-operation around a real-life building", explains Mr Hosein. Short of money to cover a complete redesign and renovation of the planetarium, he challenged his team to open-source the entire project. Within weeks, contacts and resources multiplied manifold. "We had peer-to-peer travel-accounts in place, a platform for shared accommodation in Palleburen, as well as a procurement-engine that mines the web for left-over building materials and even collects the residual software needed to maintain Pallen Planetarium's virtual architecture."

Accused initially of sidestepping the local community, upsetting potential investors and "copping out" of her responsibilities as a public administrator, Ms Lucas' vision of transformation was now underwritten by Mr Hosein's solid-spine IT operations and backed by an international community of volunteers, including artists, environmental activists and scientists. Working together in the Pallen Planetarium Partnership (PPP) with complete efficacy, conceptual elegance and record timing, they stripped bare and completely refitted the building. Perhaps more importantly, they also succeeded in rallying support from a local community dedicated primarily to fishing and wealth management.

 

One already gets a sense of what has been achieved at the re-opened planetarium's principle entrance, a field of magnetic filters vaguely resembling metal detectors at an airport. PPP-volunteers, as friendly as they are humble, ask all visitors to remove their shoes before entering – a measure taken to protect the planetarium's newly installed, highly fragile virtual surfaces.

An elderly resident of Palleburen, who was wearing a seal-fur coat and bending down to undo her red stilettos before visiting the planetarium for the third time in as many weeks, was clearly enthralled by what she was about to experience. "I haven't been as moved since giving unassisted birth in the Rockies thirty years ago – there's fear and terrific hope and no end to it. I'll be making a sizeable donation shortly."

Others have been more hesitant in their embrace of Pallen Planetarium's offerings. "I was expecting an optical connection with the universe", said one disgruntled visitor, slipping on his fishing boots . "Once inside, I felt like nose-diving into a half-empty swimming pool." At pains to identify her pair of Lacoste tennis-shoes in the mosque-like accumulation of footwear outside the entrance one Sunday afternoon, a well-groomed peroxide blonde wearing a blue mini-skirt said: "I'm an honest-to-god art-lover and don't expect my shoes to be lined up amongst the infidels."

Sigur Yau, a PPP-spokesperson who is Norwegian-Taiwanese-born and of uncertain attributes otherwise, says the project was as sympathetic to dissidents as it was committed to its believers. "We aren't your typical down-to-earth people, and neither do we fly sky-high. There's a before and an after – in-between stands your personal experience at Pallen Planetarium. By all means and by whatever means you prefer, do come and visit us. PPP aims to sustain a constant flow of information at all times. By means of sorcery, we have created a porous structural pattern that is gradually permeating and being permeated by all kinds of artistic and political practises. It is even possible to go fishing."

Given the high proportion of Pallen Planetarium's architecture that is virtual and continously evolving, it is a building no longer rooted in past, present, or future. "There is a specific form of nostalgic longing connected to each of these time frames, even and especially the future", elaborates Ms Lucas. "By discarding these time frames, we effectively discard nostalgia itself, which is an enormous relief in terms of freeing the arts, liberating politics and sharing the Pallen Planetarium Project with the global community as well as our local residents. Simply stated, we are in the process of learning how to make things possible for each other."

Rhymer Hosein, though rightfully proud of his initial contribution to the IT-infrastructure that makes possible the colourful myriad of risks, innovations and interactive invitations one encounters inside Pallen Planetarium, sounds a similar chord: "Ultimately, by getting everyone to look as closely as they can at arts, science, economics and politics, we begin to see how messy these fields actually are. Once you have understood that it is a mess and that you are part of it, you lose your inhibitions about rebuilding human society on a 1:1 scale – on planet earth."

Navigating the unpredictable fields and porous voids of Pallen Planetarium often means stumbling through the dark, as rudimentary patterns emerging and collapsing in rapid succession all around provide only scant guidance. Many visitors are bound to walk away from PPP under the impression that refashioning global society to attain sustainability targets is an infinitely complex affair. But Sigur Yau believes that these doubts will eventually dispel themselves.

"Complexity is a provisional state", says the spokesperson. "In the long-term, complexity is unsustainable, because it is born out of falsehood and simulation. We are all pretenders, pretending to be more than we are and wanting more than we can get. The telescopes at Pallen Planetarium allow you to see through the fog of simulation and make things as simple as possible for yourself."

A heartening message that will certainly be heeded by all those considering Palleburen in their search of simplicity and a bespoke way of life. Once you've brushed off the emotional particles that Pallen Planetarium has likely stirred up inside you, building your own home in one of Canada's most tax-friendly jurisdictions couldn't be easier. Located in close proximity to Vancouver, with excellent fishing as well as some of the choicest cultural pickings this side of the Milky Way, you'll find that Pallenburen is a wonderful place for business and leisure alike.

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