In place of a “less bad” economy

“A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less – even though they are still polluting?”.
Gunther Pauli is scornful in his new book The Blue Economy of the “do less bad” school of environmentalism.
“It’s an approach which sees billions of dollars invested in less toxic and longer lasting batteries – even though the ‘less toxic batteries’ still rely on mining, smelting and toxic chemistry, are not recycled, and are dumped into the environment to toxify our ecosystems and pose long term health hazards”.
The most entrancing scenario for me is the idea of replacing mining with lichen. Mining, for Pauli, is “one of humanity’s most aggressive interventions. Armed with dynamite, and consuming massive amounts of water and energy, we extract minute concentrations of gold from the depths of the earth”

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Design, regions, and the two economies

The stated ambition of Cornwall, in the the far south west of England, is to become a “green peninsular”. It’s an evocative concept, but people there interpret the word “green” in different ways.

For example, although Cornwall aspires to become a “knowledge economy” it is more of a tourism economy at the moment: Many of the 500,000 people who live in the county rely on five million tourists who come each year to holiday, party and consume. Most tourists leave again, but enough of them have bought holiday homes that the price of the average house is now twenty time the average salary of people born in the county. Designers have helped created gorgeous spa hotels and chic restaurants – but it’s a moot point whether the Cornish people who staff them are knowledge workers.

New uses are also being considered for the abandoned relics of Cornwall’s clay mining economy. But plans for the development, in their place, of offices, shops, and marinas bring with them another dilemma: increased transport intensity. Despite the fact that 27 percent of Cornwall’s carbon emissions come from the transport sector (compared to 15 percent for the nearby city of Bristol), new roads, and airport expansion, figure prominently in its regeneration strategy.

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Eating animals

If Requiem for a Species (below) is shocking at an existential level, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals hits you at the level of lunch.
It’s no less gruelling for that. Among the in-your-face statements that pepper the text: “When we eat factory farmed meat we live literally on tortured meat..and put it into the mouths of our children”. And, “factory farming – which accounts for virtually all meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants – is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment”.
The author is especially appalled by the wastefulness of modern food systems. It takes up to twenty-six calories fed to an animal to produce just one calorie of edible flesh – and yet animal protein costs less today than at any time in history.

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Requiem for a species

“It’s too late to avert catastrophic change. Our politics and institutions are too dysfunctional to make elegant adaptations. We’d better prepare ourselves for surviving as best we can”.
Clive Hamilton’s new book Requiem for a Species is not for the faint-hearted. But my first reaction was to think: “So? what am I supposed to do with this information?”.
There is an element of fire-and-brimstone in the early part of the book. Hamilton lambasts our “greed, materialism and alienation from Nature” before advising us to “abandon the accustomed view of the future as an improving version of the past.”

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What Does Social Innovation Actually Mean?

The organiser of a conference in Poland asked me write an introduction to the programme: what is social innvation, and why does it matter?

For years, business has tended to assume that “being innovative” is the same “introduce new technology”. Companies all over the world innovate like crazy, and compete like mad, to bring out some new ….thing….at ever increasing rates.

Do we need a new product every three minutes? I don’t think so. On the contrary: the survey evidence is overwhelming that citizens despair at this flood of often pointless trash they are told will make them happy.

At the same time, state spending on public services in many countries is likely to shrink by a staggering 20-40 percent in the coming years as the bill for the financial bailout comes due. In the coming social economy, the role of  governments in countries will unavoidably change, and radically, away from the point-to-mass delivery of centrally-produced and paid-for services.

In this context of profound transformation, social innovation has been promoted in three very different ways.

First, some advocates see social innovation as a new way for governments to tackle such social problems as crime, obesity, or an ageing population.

A second approach is to see social innovation as the way to reach a new market for paid-for services – such as health-monitoring.

A third way to think of social innovation is as the emergence of a totally new kind of economy.

Common to all three approaches is the potential of social innovation as a way to co-design, with citizens and communities, lighter ways to organize daily life. When any of these small design steps succeed, even in part, others can quickly adapt them for their own communities and multiply them on a larger scale.

Social innovation best contributes to the emergence of a new economy when it supports the efficient use of local resources. In the radically lighter economy whose green shoots are now poking above ground, we will share all resources, such as energy, physical materials, time, skills, software, space, and food. To do so, we will use social systems—and sometimes networked communications -m in new ways.

A key role in the social economy will be played by new kinds of “social incubators”. These are places, platforms and organisations that enable people to connect and coordinate with each other more easily and convivially than is possible now. These places enable access to space, resources, connections, knowledge, experience and investment.

When regions think about innovation, they often make the mistake  of limiting their expectations, too narrowly, to technology. Technical advantages are costly to achieve—and often short lived because everyone else is looking in the same place.  That said, a social economy will still depend on some technology. Distributed networks will be used intensively. Relationships will be sustained by the intensive use of broadband, mobile and other means of communication. But a social economy will be radically less resource-intensive than the one we have now.

# See also Design Observer’s excellent annotated bibliography of design and the social sector. 

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Polish Art in Beirut

An underground exhibition of Polish art in Beirut looks like a specialised event, even for me – only it features the work of the Polish photographer Nicolas Grospierre which makes it definitely worth a visit. Grospierre’s modified architectural photographs were a highlight for me of the last Venice Architecture Biennale: a persuasive portrayal of what today’s urban contexts could well look like in the near future.
But Grospierre does not just do Bladerunner-ish images. He also shoots amazing structures at the edges of Eastern Europe. These range from bus-stops in Estonia…
to this…
I don’t know how many of our readers live in Beirut, know someone in Beirut, or are going there soon – but for all the above, please note that the show ends on 16 March:
‘Fitting In Space: Contemporary Polish Art’ is being presented in Zico House and 98 Weeks Research Project Space: Naher Street, (Jisr el Hadid) Chalhoub Building, n 22 – Ground Floor, Beirut.

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Balanced budgets?

A few weeks back I was talking to Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a partner in the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, when we were drowned out by the roar of a Eurofighter passing overhead. “One of those costs the same as a medium-sized opera house”, Kjetl observed drily.
Kjetl should know: he designed this medium-sized opera house in Oslo:
Kjetl’s throwaway comment prompted me to start looking for numbers comparing military versus cultural spending on a country-by-country basis.

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Electrosmog Festival

Preparations for the ElectroSmog International Festival for Sustainable Immobility are gathering pace. An Electrosmog blog has been launched, and Doors of Perception has agreed to co-host a session on Friday 19 at deBalie, in the afternoon. Our focus will be on the practical design steps to be taken now. ICT developers have been working on videocommunication since 1946 – but the experience still sucks. If massive amounts of bandwidth are not the answer, are there more artful ways to enhance remote communication? We’re hoping to discuss promising approaches with a game designer, a theatre director/designer, and an artist and/or poet/writer.

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True Cost Design – In Three Steps

The pretending phase is over

Our conference theme is admirable: “sustainable development requires a system discontinuity….radical changes are  needed in the way we produce, consume and socially interact…”.

But what will it take to transform those inspiring words into meaningful activity?

I propose three steps in this short paper.

The first is that we face up to the cost of design actions through the lens of ‘True Cost’ and the necessity to render visible the true cost of things our ‘Doomsday Economy’ takes for granted.

Second, I propose an ethical framework for design in which life is the ultimate source of value; this ethical framwwork leads us unavoidably to re-conceive economic activity.

I conclude with some practical actions that can be taken immediately the conference is over.

Step 1: Face up to the True Cost of design

A celebrated book by Oliver Saks, “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”, is about a man who looks at something familiar but perceives something completely different.  We all need to look at familiar things in such new ways.

I tried this technique at Madrid’s new airport. It was hard not to admire the gorgeous roof, the soaring curves, and the vast swathes of new concrete apron. But I then I started to contemplate the amount of energy embodied in the artefacts. structures and processes that surrounded me. An elegant concrete pillar looks benignly tree-like – until you remember the amount  of carbon dioxide emissions generated during its fabrication; a ton of CO2 is emitted for every ton of cement used. That’s a lot of tonnes when you add in the concrete floors and the miles and miles of concrete apron. I then looked at the smooth vast lines of a big new airbus, taxiing in to park: how many millions of pounds of matter and energy must have been used to build it?

In his book Collapse, Jarred Diamond explains that one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the negative impact of their own actions. Diamond focuses on Easter Island, where the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants’ survival prospects.

The lesson applies equally to us, today. We are bewitched, as a culture, by a high entropy concept of quality and performance. Thus bewitched, we waste astronomical amounts of energy and resources – and in the process are destroying the biosphere upon which all life, including our own, depends.

Most of these high-entropy products, services and infrastructures – and the resource flows and emissions that accompany them – would not have entered the world without input from the creative industries, especially designers.

These creative individuals designed a huge variety of strategies, artefacts,  packaging, supply chains, communications campaigns, and retail environments. All these creative ideas – and especially the $400 billion spent on advertising and marketing  – had, as their outcome, unsustainable consumption.

In recent times the design world has turned a blind eye to an uncomfortable fact: most products, even today, involve the in-efficient use of energy, water, and natural resources.

Our lust for speed, perfection, control blinds us to the fact that we live in a catabolically challenged world.  By catabolically challenged, I mean the complex, connected and high-entropy world we’re in now — the one that can’t possibly be sustained into the indefinite future. Why? Because it depends on perpetually growing throughputs of energy and resources that are not going to be available.

Adbusters’ True Cost campaign calls our economy a “doomsday machine.” We strive after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite. The better the economy performs — faster growth, higher GDP — the faster we degrade the biosphere that is the basis of life and our only home. It’s madness. And the world is waking up to the fact that it’s madness.

This sober mood has been well summarised by Clive Hamilton in his new book Requiem for a Species: ‘It’s too late to avert catastrophic change. Our politics and institutions are too dysfunctional to make elegant adaptations. We’d better prepare ourselves for surviving as best we can”.


Step 2: Commit to an ethical framework for design action

In 1949, the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold proposed what he called a “land ethic” that would guide “man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote Leopold. “It is wrong, when it tends otherwise.” (“Biotic community” here is another name for what we now call the biosphere.)

A growing worldwide movement is looking at the world through this fresh lens. Sensible to the value of natural and social ecologies, they are searching for ways to preserve, steward and restore assets that already exist –  so-called net present assets—rather than thinking first about extracting raw materials to make new consumables from scratch.

Designers have an important contribution to make in this movement. Not much, any more, as the creators of completely new products, buildings and communications. New is an old paradigm. But designers can very usefully cast fresh and respectful eyes on a situation to reveal material and cultural qualities that might not be obvious to those who live in them.

This kind of regenerative design re-imagines the built world not as a landscape of frozen objects, but as a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food.

Nabeel Hamdi, the author of Small Change and Housing without Houses, points out that emergy-unaware design ‘disturbs that which it touches. Hamdi says  says we need to give priority to the existing life and intelligence of place.

You may argue that this is to state the obvious: That of course you respect life, and the conditions that support life. But I stress the word unconditional. If a commitment is unconditional, it does not mean “take account of,” or “pay due respect to,” or “move steadily toward.”

It does not mean “minimize adverse effects on nature.” It means a target of no adverse effects.

“A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less — even though they are still polluting?” 

The biomimicry entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, who I’m quoting here, is scornful of the “do less bad” school of environmentalism – and design. Pauli demands that we commit to Net Positive Impact – that’s to say, “economic activity where the demands placed upon the environment are met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations.”  Otherwise stated: Leave the world better than you found it.

The central design principle of what Pauli calls a ‘Blue Economy’ is the idea of cascading nutrients and energy – the way ecosystems do. ‘A cascade is a waterfall. It requires no power, it flows with the force of gravity. It transports nutrients between biological kingdoms – absorbed minerals feed microorganisms, microorganisms feed plants, plants feed other species, with the waste of one being nourishment for another’.

Cascading energy and nutrients leads to sustainability, says Pauli, by reducing or eliminating inputs such as energy, and eliminating waste and its cost – not just as pollution, but also as an inefficient use of materials. In ecosystems there is no waste because the by products of one process are inputs to another process.

That kind of economy may sound fanciful, but it’s happening, out there, right now.

It is happening wherever people are growing food in cities, opening seed banks, or turning school backyards into edible gardens. The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds. Their number includes dam removers, wetland restorers and rainwater rescuers.

Many people in this movement are recycling buildings in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums. So called “slack space” activists work alongside computer recyclers, hardware bricoleurs, office-block refurbishers and trailer-park renewers.

You’ll find the movement wherever people are launching local currencies. Non-money-trading models are cropping up like crazy: nine thousand examples at last count. In their version of a green economy, 70 million Africans exchange airtime, not cash.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing – alternatives are being innovated.

The keyword here is social innovation, because this movement is about groups of people innovating together, not lone inventors.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing – alternatives are being innovated.

A subset of this movement, Transition Towns, is especially significant. Transition initiatives, which only started a couple of years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. More than 200 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Towns, or cities, districts, villages — even a forest.

The transition model — I’m quoting their website — “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye.” The key point is that they don’t just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks. They create a community-level to-do list, with an order of priorities. This plan describes not only the skills and resources that a community will need to cope with the challenges coming down the track, but also how those skills and resources are to be put in place and who will do what.

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people, of course, have different interests, agendas and capabilities. But they are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.

A second reason the Transition model is so powerful is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities — the “open space” method — that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view. Any alternative has to be system-wide and involve a variety of different stakeholders who will not, as a rule, have worked together before.

Step 3:  Adaptive resilience

Manufacturers exist to manufacture things. Most designers believe that their job is to produce artefacts (a piece of print, a website, a product, a building).

“Far less stuff” does not mean no products at all. The carrying capacity of the biosphere is limited, but it is not zero. There will of course be scope for the continued production of some things in a sustainable world.  But any new stuff we make – products, buildings, infrastructures – must be designed according to tough new principles:  low-carbon, closed-loop, zero waste.

When these principles are implemented seriously, relatively few products will be made from scratch using raw materials. Radical resource efficiency will be obtained in large part by re-using materials that are already out there – from paper, to buildings.

But how does a company, and its designers, move down such a road? I conclude with actions that can be undertaken quickly, now, and without major cost.

Map Assets

A first step for any city or region – and the companies and people who live there – should be to make a fresh evaluation of the assets and resources are already there, in their territory.

These assets can be hard or soft: natural assets – such as wind, or sun, with the potential to generate energy; materials, and the skills needed to use them; abandoned spaces with the potential to be re-purposed; food and systems.

These asset maps can be used gradually to replace many of the traditional maps used by planners or economists. The latter tend to focus on hard things, such as roads or buildings. Sustainability asset maps should make natural biodiversity and their starting point – with special emphasis on biodiversity and bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds.

In mapping such assets, it is important to represent the interconnectedness and interdependence of systems. This is where creative design skills will be valuable. New forms of representation are needed to communicate energy and nutrient cycles, or biodiversity – and to show the different ways that healthy social systems depend upon, and are intertwined with, healthy economies and ecosystems.

Connect Locally

A core task of design for sustainability is to make it easier to share resources – resources such as energy, matter, time, skill, software, space, or food.

Resource efficiency is a social process, not a technical one. The identification of individuals and groups who are already out there, and active,  is therefore key. This was the approach this writer took with Designs of the time (Dottt) in North East England (where he was programme director), and with City Eco Lab, the  “nomadic market” of projects from St Etienne region produced for the city’s  Design Biennale.

In these events, community projects are developed with people from the region in response to  two questions: ‘what might life in a sustainable world be like?’ and, ‘how can design help us get there?’ Their focus is to add in additional design skills, technology platforms and resources, as and when they were needed.

Connecting people to new people, and helping them learn from each other’s other experience, is itself a form of innovation. Every city-region needs a market place in which people can present grassroots projects, exchange experiences, and involve fellow citizens in ever larger numbers as participants in these experiments.

Open Space Enquiry

So there is a lot for designers to do in the transition to sustainability. But I have not yet answered the bigger question: what is a manufacturing company to do if our economy, in order to be sustainable, must produce far fewer things?

I do not have a pre-cooked answer to this life-or-death question. But I offer this advice to any company owner, or manager:  Do not hire expensive consultants to answer the question for you. And do not think about the challenge in secret behind closed doors.

Instead, pose the question “what do we do next?” to your staff, your suppliers, your customers – and explore the issue together.

The best way to organise such a collaborative inquiry is to use the Open Space approach to meetings and events. Open Space meetings enable groups of any size to address complex, important issues and achieve meaningful results quickly. All over the world, thousands of local groups are preparing inventively for an uncertain future in practical ways – and many of them are using Open Space to do so.

The search for Net Zero Impact solutions, and the creation of interesting social alternatives, can be as exciting and engaging as the buzz of new technology used to be. By keeping the question open, energy and commitment can remain positive and productive.

In the years to come, we’re likely to experience decades of muddling through what John Michael Greer describes as “scarcity industrialism” as we liquidate what remains of the planet’s oil endowment, fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources. Increasingly,

We will scavenge the ruins of abandoned manmade structures for their iron, steel and other raw materials.  Scarcity industrialism is well under way here in India, and Brazil, by the way.

I’m describing a way of looking at the world through a fresh lens. It’s about searching for ways to preserve, steward and restore assets that already exist — human and natural ones, or so-called net present assets—rather than thinking first about extracting raw materials to make new consumables from scratch.

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