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October 31, 2006

Stern, Monbiot, and the tasks of design

The publication of the Stern review of climate change economics by a former World Bank chief economist marks a step change in government responses to the crisis.

It’s not just that Stern's conclusions correspond broadly to what environmentalists have been saying for fifteen years. The fact that the report was commissioned by The Treasury, which holds the keys to the nation’s money, is also key.

Money is at stake: Something must be done.

If something must be done, rather than just talked about, then design moves centre stage.

George Monbiot, responding to Stern in today’s Guardian, proposes a “ten point plan for drastic but affordable action" that the UK government could take now.

I thought it would be helpful to outline some of the design tasks that would be involved during implementation of such a plan.

At the heart of Monbiot’s plan is the setting of an annual personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He or she spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If they run out, they must buy the rest from someone who has used less than his or her quota.

DESIGN TASK: The information and interaction design of such a rationing system.

Monbiot proposes the introduction of new building regulations that would impose strict energy-efficiency requirements on major refurbishments, and ensure that all new homes are built to the German Passivhaus standard which requires no heating system.

DESIGN TASK: Many technical components of low carbon emission building exist in embryo. If compelled to do so, big construction companies have the expertise and systems to implement them. What’s missing is a service to help private citizens, who already have a place to live, choose between competing claims. Myridad suppliers of passive and active heat and power systems, fuel cells, geothermal and the like all claim to have “the answer”. But a wind turbine on every roof, next to the satellite dish, is wildy inefficient compared to off-grid combined heat-and-power system installed and maintained by groups of families. In Dott 07, our Low Carb Lane project is about getting an entire community to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions through a range of practical measures. We want to create a “green street” by helping people make sense of the bewildering range of eco-friendly options they have. And at least 50 schools will take part in our Ecodesign Challenge.

would be a ban on the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights and other wasteful and unnecessary technologies.This would be followed, he says, by a stiff "feebate" system for all electronic goods sold in the UK, with the least efficient taxed heavily and the most efficient receiving tax discounts.

DESIGN TASK: As with construction companies, consumer electronics companies could make their products more energy efficicient if they had to. Some are already trying to do so. But the personal ownership of devices will always be more wasteful than use–not-own. Services to help us use devices only when we need them - from cars to stereos to food mixers – are the more important priority. These services - their system architecture, the ways we access and use them, their touch points in daily life - all these need to be designed.

is to redeploy money now earmarked for new nuclear missiles towards a massive investment in energy generation and distribution. He favours very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high-voltage direct-current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network.

DESIGN TASK: both these solutions are large-scale engineering projects based on the persistence of a national power grid. They would entail huge investments of money and matter. For me, new paradigm design would focus on micro-generation systems at a local level.

Monbiot proposes a new national coach network to replace most car train and airplane journeys. Journeys by public transport then become as fast as journeys by car, while saving 90% of emissions.

DESIGN TASK: In Newcastle, UK, a fleet of near-silent electric buses already glides around the city. Vehicles are not a design priority. To make a national coach system work, transport connections between homes, workplaces, shops and long-distance coach hubs would need to be seamless and painless. Integrated transport systems already exist in many places: Transport for London, for example, brings together 52 previously separate transport organisations.

Writing in car-crazed UK, Monbiot assumes that private cars will be an inevitable part of a sustainable future. Yes, he wants the government to abandon its huge road-building and road-widening programme, but he then proposes that all chains of filling stations be obliged to supply leasable electric car batteries.“This provides electric cars with unlimited mileage: as the battery runs down, you pull into a forecourt; a crane lifts it out and drops in a fresh one. The batteries are charged overnight with surplus electricity from offshore wind farms”.

DESIGN TASK: this part of Monbiot's plan suggests a large amount of design work on new vehicles and battery exchange points. But this is a conservative solution. Better, surely, to
re-think the way we use time . One hour of mobility a day over a working year of 220 days adds up to a vacation missed of five to six weeks. Rather than enable long-distance patterns of movement at accelerating speeds, the more interesting design task is to enable local patterns of activity so we don’t have to move so much. Otherwise stated: Think More, Drive Less

As I was dismayed to discover a week ago, we have to reduce the number of flights, period. That means my flights, and your flights, not somebody else's flights. Monbiot demands a freeze on all new airport construction and the introduction of a national quota for landing slots, to be reduced by 90% by 2030.

DESIGN TASK: In the chapter on mobility in In The Bubble I was too scornful of mobility substitution as a design task, and too dismissive of the idea that telepresence—travelling on highways of the mind—could replace the highways of traffic jams, pollution, and road rage. "If the aim of travel were simply to exchange information, then we wouldn’t bother doing it", I wrote. "The trouble is—to state the obvious—that’s not why we do it. It’s that mind-body business: Experientially, there never will be a simulated alternative to actually “being there.” Even if you could capture the smells, sounds, tastes, and feel of a place, digitize them, and send them down a wire, you’d still never get near the sensation of “being there.”

Face-to-face communication is not the only type of communication that counts. The telephone, after all, is a form of virtual realty—and it’s a powerful medium that delivers a satisfactory sense of connection to billions of people everyday.

There are more interesting tasks for design than the use of brute bandwidth to achieve “being there” verisimilitude. The communication quality of cyberspace can be enhanced by artful and indirect means. In a project called The Poetics of Telepresence, British designers Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby looked at the potential fusing of physical and telematic space.

Monbiot states that warehouses containing the same quantity of food and goods use roughly five per cent of the energy of a superstore. Out-of-town shops are also hardwired to the car, whereas delivery vehicles use 70 per cent less fuel. Monbiot therefore insists that the government legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system.

DESIGN TASK: Our city farming project in Dott07 addresses this design challenge head on. It's one of many practical responses around the world to the realisation that food is a design opportunity.

The Stern review provides an economic justification for dramatic changes to the ways we live. The taxes, incentives and regulations to come will drive demand for sustainable solutions, which will have to be designed.

But we are not talking about a few design projects here. The transition to sustainability involves a new approach to innovation and new, post-consumerist models of development that will emerge from ongoing social innovation.

And about time, too.

Posted by John Thackara at October 31, 2006 08:19 AM


Very interesting ideas. Different form anything I have heard yet. Not all sound viable but its great to hear the variety of ideas widening.
I'm pretty sure that this will not even be considered outside of the environemental and design community here in the U.S.
But just as well. We've already dug our own graves anyway.

Posted by: Nicholas Reback at November 6, 2006 04:58 PM

HI John,

You may remember me from Esprit's ecollection and O2 Rotterdam workshop. I design freelance now and focus on socially and ecologically 'responsible' materials/sources....and teach Sustainable Fashion Design at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Good job applying the Stern recommendations to design so quickly. Students always struggle with bringing large scale systems down to their own personal design process.

I'll do something similar for my fashion students. Though this discipline lags behind ID and architecture, there's an increasing awareness of the impacts of textiles and solutions that go beyond material substitution...and green marketing.

Keep in touch

Lynda Grose

Posted by: lynda grose at November 6, 2006 07:34 PM

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