Balanced budgets?

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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:
OsloOperaHouseNorway-ErikBerg.jpg
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

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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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Bonfire of the Literacies: Service Design for Higher Education

In 2010 I was invited by  my friend Andrew Polaine to run a workshop in Luzern, Switzerland, about service design for higher education. This text was my brief to the participants.

Our topic is service design for higher education so it would tempting to focus in immediately on the ‘how’ side of things. But the ‘how’ stuff never makes sense to me until I’m at least partially clear on the ‘why’ question.

The ‘why’ question is not an academic one. Higher education is one of the main motors  of an economy that can only survive if it keeps growing, to infinity. And yet this economy, and the education that drives it, is designed to to grow to infinity in a biosphere whose carrying capacity is finite. That’s what makes the economy we have now  a doomsday machine. Running after GDP, we ensure the destruction of the biosphere for economic reasons.

So that’s why the ‘why’ question matters. Higher education will remain a powerful cog in the doomsday machine until:
– it helps us regain respect all living beings and the non-living world;
– it reminds us that we have a limited understanding of how things work;
– it teaches us respect for the wisdom of other cultures in the world, and for other cultures in history.

The limits of online

I was prompted to make these portentous comments  by re-watching Jane McGonigal’s TED talk. I was absolutely knocked out when McGonigal’s World Without Oil happened. It seemed to me, then, that Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) portended a revolutionary use of networks and collaborative media to stimulate collaborative work in the real world. In her talk, McGonigle waxes lyrical about the potential of games to give players “the means to save worlds”. What if we could harness this gamer power to solve real-world problems? McGonigal asks. But then she says: “Reality is broken, and we need to make it work more like a game”.

And here, I’m afraid, she loses me. Because it’s not reality that’s broken – it’s the way we perceive reality, and act in it, that’s broken.

Digital communications are in part to blame for this. They have added a new layer of insulation – a kind of blindfold – between human beings and the biosphere. Thanks to the internet, and more recently with social networking, many people feel more connected to each other. But we are now *less* connected to the natural contexts and systems on which all life – including our own – depends.Technology separates us from direct experience of the world. It therefore blinds us to the consequences of our destructive economic behaviour.

Gaming is no exception. I don’t dispite its Its visceral power to engage and ‘incentivise’. As McGonigle points out, 500 million people are spending billions of hours gaming now – as many hours as they spend in formal schooling – and their number could treble within a few years. But just because gaming is engaging does not mean it is enlightening. On the contrary: it surely blinds us to just how little we understand how things in the real world work.

The way McGonigle talks about gaming and ARGs, the world’s problems could be solved if the cleverness and commitment of one billion online gamers were to be focused on real-world issues. Nowhere in this narrative does McGonigle question the limits to understanding that humans have by virtue of being – well, human. Otherwise stated: Intelligence is embodied; gaming is not.

The good news is that, in reflecting on ways education might change, we don’t have to choose only between ARGs and Armageddon. On the contrary, an alternative to the doomsday machine economy is already being made, and it involves a lot of learning at all levels.

A new economy is being made wherever people are growing food in cities. It’s being made by people opening seed banks, or where schools are joining Community Supported Agriculture schemes. It’s being made where communities, with the support of scientists and experts,  are removing dams, depaving roads, and restoring watersheds.Anywhere you find car-share schemes, or off-grid energy pilots – there is a new economy hotspot. You’ll find a new economy wherever people are launching local currencies – nine thousand examples at last count. In their own version of a non-doomsday economy, seventy million African citizens are exchanging airtime – not cash. Non-money trading is exploding.

Thousands of groups, Thousands of experiments. For me, these are the elements of an alternative education to the doomsday machine mainstream. These thousands of real-world projects are also educational experiences that in one way or another to the extent that they:
– are based on the mode of the live project in a real place;
– involve the creation of a marketplace to connect ideas and projects together in viable enterprise;
– entail cross-pollination of models, tools and experiences from other places, and other times;
– inculcate not just understanding but love for interconnectedness and interdependence, of systems, resource flows, energy and nutrient cycles

Service design for higher education 

Oh yes, that’s our topic. As I stated at the top, we need an education that:
– helps us regain respect all living beings and the non-living world;
– reminds us that we have a limited understanding of how things work;
– teaches us respect for the wisdom of other cultures in the world, and for other cultures in history.

I do not have a proposed curriculum that we can discuss this week. Neither do I have a blueprint for a new kind of post-doomsday-machine university. The best I can do is describe what, for me, would be the ideal attributes of someone emerging from a next-generation educational  environment. This person will be able to:

  • listen and hear outside her or his usual ways of thinking;
  • be sensitive to cross-cultural perspectives
  • work collaboratively in groups; be trained in the art of hosting or similar;
  • use and apply systems thinking
  • help people to tell their stories
  • prototype and demo things, and not be satisfied to write reports;
  • look outside the tent for solutions that may already have been designed somewhere else (or in another time);

Further reading

What is an advanced design education?
http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2009/11/high_entropy_mo.php

Schools as gated communities
http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2005/12/schools_as_gate.php

New geographies of learninghttp://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2000/09/new_geographies.php

Other John Thackara ramblings on learning
http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/learning_institutions/

(Wodcast): Should design schools be closed down?
http://www.wodcast.org/wodcast_webarchive/wodcast_thackara.mp3

 

 

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Make Sense, not Stuff: A Three Step Plan to Connect Design Schools with the Green Economy

What would architects design, if they did not design buildings? What would designers design, if they did not design products, or posters?

My question is not a rhetorical one. On the contrary, I believe design schools are in danger of being marginalised by events. The world is changing around them fast – and they are not. Or not fast enough. I agree with Al Gore that the world has reached a tipping point in its responses to climate change, resource depletion, and economic crisis: Changes we have all talked about for years are starting to beimplemented.

But design schools are finding it hard to move on from the old paradigm of design-for-production, and design for individual expression.

Last year, a new product was launched somewhere in the world every three minutes. Most of these products involved the inefficient use of energy, water, and natural resources. Each product thereby contributed to the 70 million tonnes of C02 that is emitted into the earth’s atmosphere, every 24 hours, as a result of human activity

Most of these products, and the emissions that accompanied them, involved input from the creative industries. Creative designers developed concepts, designed artefacts, and dreamed up a wide range of communications, packaging, and retail environments. All these ideas, images, symbols, and forms – and especially the $400 billion spent on advertising and marketing – had as their outcome unsustainable consumption.

Many students and young designers are looking for a new direction. But in most design schools I visit, they are still being encouraged to  design a poster about sustainability, or to design a thought-provoking“eco bag”. But emitting messages, however clever or evocative they may be, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change an aspect of their everyday material reality. The transition to sustainability is no longer about messages, it’s about activity.

Some multinational companies moved on from awareness-raising seven years ago or more. Today, they are moving faster on practical measures to mitigate climate change than most governments – and most design schools.  Patrick Cescau , for example, until recently Group Chief Executive of Unilever, committed his company to the application of “new design principles” that would “progressively drive down its usage of resources and move towards ever more sustainable consumption. They are in themarket for sustainable design principles. So, too, is a growing number of cities and city-regions. 

 Waste becomes visible – and measurable 

 

One reason big companies are moving fast is that their operations have become more transparent. The

waste generated in a consumer economy (a new product every three minutes) used to be hidden. The

energy and resources needed to produce buildings and products remained out of sight and out of mind.

 

But three new tools have increased transparancy: a framework called industrial ecology; a

measurement system called Materials Flow Analysis [MFA) or Life Cycle Analysis;  and a concept called

embodied energy.

 

These three innovations have enabled researchers to measure energy and resource flows properly for

the first time. The scale of resource waste in our consumer economy is no longer hidden. Researchers

recently found, for example, that although a mobile phone weighs only 200 grams in your hand, the total

ecoogical footprint of a mobile phone adds up to 75 kilos per phone per year. That’s the resources

needed to mine the heavy metals in it, manufacture it, fabricate its computer chip, make and build the

relay masts, manufacture the packaging, build and run the shops, and so on. Nokia, on its own, sells a

million of the things a day. Other manufacturers probably equal that number. That’s 150 million

kilogrammes of environmental impacts added per day, just from something small and innocuous like a

mobile phone.

http://sedac.ciesin.org/openmeeting/downloads/1004554152_presentation_federico_tel_mips2.pdf

 

If the material impacts of something small like a mobile phone are that huge, think what the equivalent

numbers are for “green” – but physically heavy – products. Think of the mass in a green car, for

example; or in the turbines used in wind power. Those things weigh 25,000 kilos per unit upwards – just

fot eh ,mechanism. Add in the towers and the cables and the sub—stations and the impact of this

“green:” infrastructure is immense.

 

Industrial artefacts don’t even have to be heavy, to have a big footprint. The manufacture of a single

sheet of A4 paper, as used in your and my laserpinter, requires ten litres of water. Not for the whole

packet, for one single sheet.  

 

This is jnot to argue against the design and production of stuff as such – just that we can no longer carry

omn desigjning and producing stuff mindless of the consequences. Design education, and the design

industry it feeds, therefore confront a huge dilemma. If they are not seen to be searching for alternatives

to product proliferation, then they will be blamed as a major cause of the problems we all face.

 

Climate change and multiple ‘peaks’ – peak oil, peak energy, peak debt – change everything. Within a

system whose carrying capacity is finite, the optimal strategy is to design away  the need for more stuff

– and to focus on regenerative design is that creates conditions for life.

 

A Three Step Plan 

 

“Far less stuff” does not mean less design. On the contrary: a huge amount of creativity is needed to

reorganise daily life in ways that eliminate landfill and ecocidal footprints. But the stuff we will still make

– products, services, infrastructures – must be designed according to tough new principles: low-carbon,

resource-efficient, and zero waste.

 

The transition to sustainability entails the re-localisation of most production and consumption. Some

globally available tools, some foods, and a lot of knowledge, will be still be globally exchanged. But the

focus for design schools should be existing grassroots and regional activity where their contribution can

be to create frameworks that enable these actions to grow and develop.

 

But how to start?

 

Step One: Map assets  

 

A first step for any design school should be to find out what 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 systems.

 

The asset maps will gradually replace many of the maps used by planners or economists. These tend to

focus on hard things, such as roads or buildings. Sustainability asset maps should make natural and

biodiversity assets their starting point – with special emphasis on biodiversity and bioregions, foodsheds

and watersheds, or geographical locations where sun and wind can be exploited. 

 

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.

 

The human assets of meighbourhoods and communities – people – need to be mapped too – especially

those who are engaged in valuable but sometimes invisible innovation  at a grassroots level.

 

Step Two: Connect locally

 

The identification of individuals and groups with positive energy and ambition leads to Step Two:

connecting with local activity.

 

When I was asked recently by the management consulting firm McKinsey to explain where the world’s

primary centers of innovation will be, my answer was simple: down your street, and down everyone’s

street! Social innovation is all around us. By some accounts, there are one million grassroots

environmental organisations out there. The better-known examples have names like Post-carbon Cities

or Transition Towns. Such groups – and others with different names, or no label at all – are emerging

fast in many parts of the world. The website WiserEarth lists 120,000 of them al over the world.

 

Go and find the ones in your region. Offer your school’s design skills and communication in a respectful

way. Assume that they will be the co-authors of any new solutions that emerge.

 

Most elements of a sustainable world aready exist. Some of these elements are technological solutions.

Some are to be found in the natural world, thanks to millions of years of natural evolution. But the

majority of solutions are social practices, some of them very old ones, that have evolved in other

societies and in other times. From this insight flows the proposition that designers should become

hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that may already exist – sometimes quite

near by. Rather than design new services and systems from scratch, we need to ask: who has cracked

a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, adapt, and piggyback on their success?

 

This was the approach we took with Designs of the time (Dott 07) in North East England (where I was

programme director). Dott 07 was a programme of community projects and events developed with

people from the region, that engaged practically with two questions: ‘what might life in a sustainable

world be like?’ and, ‘how can design help us get there?’

 

The challenge was to frame these questions in such a way that local communities could take the lead

and identify answers that best fitted with their needs – in particular, the need radically to reduce the

consumption of energy and material resources in meeting daily life needs.

 

Our role was to discover and accelerate this existing grassroots innovation, not to create it from scratch.

Our focus was on bringing in additional design skills, technology platforms and resources, as and when

they were needed. We learned in Dott 07 that connecting people to new people, and helping them learn

from each other’s other experience, is itself a form of innovation. Dott innovated a number of event

formats, such as Project Clinics and Explorers Clubs, to bring project leaders from diverse backgrounds

together. People gained tremendous energy and insight from these exchanges experiences – but once

again, the designed formats we developed were not especially complicated.

 

The four key success factors in Dott, we now conclude, were first, to pose meaningful questions in a

real context; second, to identify project leaders from that context as partners and co-designers in the

project; third, to connect them with new partners and actors that they might not otherwise have met; and

fourth, to communicate the lives and times of these projects effectively using non specialist journalists to

do so.

 

These lessons also informed City Eco Lab, the  “nomadic market” of projects from St Etienne region that

we produced for the Design Biennale there in 2008. We gathered together real-life projects to do with

food, mobility, water, and other aspects of daily life. For each project, we explained the ways that design

might help the project improve, or grow.

 

The approach I advocate to design schools is this: Don’t start a new organisation. Find a well-organised

project with good local roots, and join that one. Offer them your scavenger-innovator design skills. Help

them become expert and choosing between the multiple solutions on offer, or that can be found –

including adjacent organisations.   

 

Step Three: Use new language   

 

We all struggle with the word “sustainability”. There is no agreement on what the word means and

besides, it sounds boring and unattractive as a destination to head for. The word “eco-design” has a

more precise meaning – but ony for professionals.

Like “sustainability”, the word “design” is often a barrier to conversation with civilians: it tends to be

associated with chairs, cars, frocks, and narcissistic individuals. The word design triggers more negative

reactions than positive ones.

So let’s use some new words!  My personal favourites right now are “green economy” or “green collar

jobs”.  This is because I recently met their inventor, Van Jones, the American founder of Green For All. I

like his use of  “green collar jobs” and the “green economy” becauuse they connect with what people are

thinking about – jobs – rather than what we would like them to be thinking about – sustainability, or

design!

And the focus on work, and jobs, also shifts the focus away from technology-based solutions towards

what Ezio Manzini calls enabling solutions.

Doors of Perception  

 

I have described three steps that I believe will enable design schools to adjust to the accelerating

changes that are now underway: map the assets of your region; connect locally in live projects; and use

new language.

 

In my opinion, these three steps are not so hard to take. But I do recognise that institutions, like oil

tankers, tend to change very slowly. I therefore conclude this short paper with the scenario of a fourth

step: a partnership with Doors of Perception with the objective of supporting change.

 

Doors first explored the links between sustainability, design and innovation in 1994, at our conference

Doors 2 on “Info-Eco”. Ever since that inspiring week in Amsterdam, Doors has organised events, and

developed projects, in which designers, students and grassroots innovators explore two questions:

“what might life in a sustainable world be like?”; and, “what design steps are needed to get us from

here, to there?”.

 

Our idea has always been to co-design, with citizens and communities, lighter ways to organise daily

life. Our ambition is  is that when any of these small design steps succeed, even in part, others can

quickly adapt them for their own situations – and multiply them on a larger scale.

 

In projects like Doors 9 on Food in India; or Dott 07 in England; or City Eco Lab in France: our focus has

moved away from set-piece conferences, which is how Doors began, to the organisation of events and

encounters that help designers – and design schools – practice the steps I have described here:

mapping the assets of a region; connecting locally in live projects. We believe that learning from other

people’s experience is itself a valuable form of innovation.

 

Our new focus is to connect the theme of green collar jobs, and the green economy, with design

actions to enable social enterprise. Increasingly, we encourage our project partners to prepare the

business plans of start-up or social enterprise at an early stage. These emergent business plans

function as attractors for future funding or investment. We also produce  “Dragons Den” style

events. and “First Tuesday” style marketplaces, to bring business plans and funders and investors

together.

 

We do these activities with design and architecture schools, not for them. As a small organisation,

our aim is to complement the work of large  tnetworks such as Cumulus. In practical terms, we ask

design schools to think of Doors as, say, half a faculty member – and budget accordingly.

 

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What Should A University Do, And Be?

A major new university in Finland is named after the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto.  Aalto University which opened in 2010, is the result of a merger between the Helsinki School of Economics; the University of Art and Design; and Helsinki University of Technology In 2009, I was invited to speak at symposium in Helsinki called “Beyond Tomorrow” about what the new university should do, and be.

The University has stated that it will will “make a positive contribution to Finnish society, technology, economy, art, art and design, and support the welfare of both humans and the environment”.

I propose that Aalto University should stand for something more precise than this: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life.

Such a commitment would be stronger than the hippocratic oath sworn by doctors. Young doctors promise to “prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment – and never do harm to anyone.” Unambiguous respect for human life here – but no mention of the rest of life!

An unconditional respect for life would also be clearer than the proposed scientific oath that has been circulating since 1995. In this text, scientists would commit to “minimise and justify any adverse effect our work may have on people, animals and the natural environment”. The natural environment is mentioned, which is a step forward – but the proposed commitment here is to minimise adverse effects, not stop them altogether.

Aalto University, in contrast to these ambiguous earlier attempts, could now acknowledge the biosphere as a systemic whole in which human beings are a co-dependent part.

An ethical position along these lines was first first championed by the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold, in 1949. 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”. http://gadfly.igc.org/papers/leopold.htm

“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]

Leopold argued that harm was frequently done to natural systems because of our culture’s belief in its separateness from, and dominion over, nature. This myth of apartness dulls the sense of responsibility that would follow if we felt ourselves to be co-dependent members of natural community, he wrote.

This sense of apartness is not universal. Hundreds of millions of our fellow humans in other cultures worship nature now. We tend to call them “pagans” or “undeveloped” – but nearly all of them, unlike us, live sustainably.

There are a lot of tress one could hug in Finland, but an ethic based on an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life, does not mean the abandonment of science or engineering.

On the contrary: it’s because of what science has taught us about the biosphere, and about the complexity and precariousness of nature — things that we did not know at the start of the modern age — that the time has come to re-define the ethical basis of the academy.

Measured against this clear principle – respect for life, and for the conditions that support life – many of the things that Aalto University could do, that until now have been taken for granted, become a “maybe”:

Innovation is a maybe. Innovation is a right thing to do when it is informed by a commitment to preserve the integrity of the biosphere. When that commitment is absent, innovation can have profoundly negative consequences. The carbon economy is the result of innovation. The financial crisis is the consequence of innovation. Need I say more?

Fostering creativity is a maybe. Last year, a new product was launched somewhere in the world every three minutes. Most of these products involved the inefficient use of energy, water, and natural resources. Each product thereby contributed to the 70 million tonnes of C02 that is emitted into the earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours as a result of human activity.

Most of these products, and the emissions that accompanied them, involved input from creative professionals. Creatives dreamed up concepts, designed artefacts, and deployed a glittering array of communications, packaging, and retail settings. $400 billion was spent on advertising and marketing alone – a global flowering of narratives, images, symbols, and forms that had, as their outcome, unsustainable consumption.

I’ve read that Aalto University stands for a student-centered culture, too. Well, maybe! For me, a student-centered culture is no better than a professor-centered culture, or a technology-centered culture, unless this culture is suffused by an unconditional respect for the biosphere.

Multi-disciplinarity, too, is a maybe. Being active in international networks is a maybe. It is not a virtue to work across disciplines, or across national boundaries, unless the purpose, the ends of that collaboration, are predicated on…unconditional respect for the biosphere.

Collaboration with industry? That’s another maybe, too. Nokia is of course an amazing success story. But this story has its dark side. Although a mobile phone may weigh 100 grams or less in your hand, the total environmental footprint of a mobile phone adds up to 75 kilos, per phone, per year. [That number is calculated by adding up the resources needed to mine the heavy metals used in electronics, manufacture the handset, fabricate its computer chip and battery, build masts, run servers, manufacture the packaging, fit out and operate shops, and so on].

Nokia, on its own, sells a million of these small but not so innocuous artefacts every day, day after day. A million a day x 75 kilos per unit per year? Do the maths!

Universal mobile connectivity will be a necessary infrastructure in a sustainable economy – but it has to become a zero waste and zero emissions infrastructure. How, I don’t know – but that has to be the target.

Industrial artefacts don’t have to be technological, to have a big footprint. Paper, for example, is just as important to Finland’s economy as the mobile phone. But the manufacture of a single sheet of A4 paper, as used in my laserpinter, requires ten litres of water. Not for the packet, for one single sheet.

In a country like Finland, with its 188,000 lakes and 265,000 square kilometres (100,000 square miles) of trees, the footprint of paper is not an obvious priority….but globally, these ratios are critical.

Innovation, technology, economics, design. These activities tend to be celebrated as ends in themselves – but they are not, of themselves, virtuous. They are means to an end. If that end incudes unconditional respect for life then – but only then – these activities are worthwhile.

You may argue that this is to state the obvious: That of course Aalto University will 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 towards”. It does not mean “minimise adverse effects on nature”, as it says in that proposed scientific oath – it means a target of no adverse effects.

Unconditional does not mean generating “less waste than any of our competitors” – it means a commitment to zero waste, and zero emissions.

Neither does an unconditional commitment to the biosphere mean adding environment courses to a curriculum that otherwise remains untouched.

Philosophers at Aalto University may argue that there is no logical reason to make this clear ethical commitment. Well, there’s no logical reason why doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath – but they do so, anyway, because it is the right thing to do.

Others among you may worry that the watertight commitment, that I propose, would constrain academic and research freedoms. But the only freedom constrained by this commitment is the freedom to damage the basis of life – and for me, that’s a freedom we have to live without.

Let me be blunt: If you are not for the biosphere, you are against it. Sitting on the fence is no longer an option. The belief that we exist outside the biosphere – a belief which as shaped our universities since the enlightenment – has had, as its objective result, putting the biosphere in peril.

Ethics apart, I’m certain that climbing off the post-Enlightenment fence will give Aalto University incredible competitive advantage. People all over the world are looking for leadership, for an institution to take a stand. People, energy and resources will flock to the first institution that makes this commitment.

RESILIENCE

An ethical commitment to the biosphere suggests a challenging new focus for Aalto University’s programmes of work. That focus is the notion of resilience.

Resilience is a notion shared by the worlds of ecology, science and engineering. Resilience is also a more evocative and energising word than “sustainability”, which is such an unexciting destination.

Resilience is defined in The Transition Handbook as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, and reorganize, while undergoing change”.

In the context of Aalto University, striving for resilience means the development of the understanding, tools and skills that will enable us to flourish in the absence of the profligate resource consumption we have become used to.

Developing these assets – understanding, tools and skills – will involve a huge amount research, practice, and critical reflection.

Does an unconditional commitment to the health of the biosphere mean that designers should stop designing products? that architects should not design buildings? that engineers should not exploit finite resources and energy to embody their creations?

My question is not a rhetorical one. The inputs and outputs of industrial society are so wildy out of balance, that questions are raised about all its buildings and infrastructures. Business-as-usual, with a new brand name, is surely not an option for Aalto University.

In this context, even if the main focus of their work stops being the design of shiny new buildings and products, there is much work for architects and designers to do.

The architect and engineer’s understanding of space, time, materiality, and process will be valuable as the focus of our innovation shifts to  closed loop systems.

Designers and architects are also needed to create and optimise tools:tools for perceiving, seeing, understanding, conversing; tools for sharing and organising and exchanging; nd yes, tools for making things!

The carrying capacity of the biosphere is nor limitless, but neither is it zero!

The ability of the artist to help us perceive the unseen, or the invisible, will also be vital as we reframe our tasks and priorities.

We need to re-imagine the built world not as a landscape framed by certainties, and populated by frozen objects – but as a complex of interacting ecologies: energy, water, mobility, food.

But the stuff we will still make –products, services, infrastructures – will be designed according to principles that are based on respect for life and conditions that support life: low-carbon, resource-efficient, and zero waste.

We need to reconceive Aalto University as part of a complex of regenerative people and institutions that operate in ways that are sensitive to context, to relationships, and to consequences.

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For sustainability champions: my book is now in Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese and Polish.

4a701ae59f65f4.84703029.pngRule one in book publishing (where I worked for ten years) is: promote your own book, because nobody else will do so with as much energy and commitment. So, sorry to be brash, but please note the following:
Today I received printed copies from its publisher, SUN, of Plan B – the Dutch version of my book In The Bubble; (the latter was published by MIT Press in 2005).
For the Dutch and all the other language versions mentioned here, I reduced the original text to 45,000 words – but also added five new chapters. on: Sustainability; Metrics; Food; Development; and Telepresence.
Here are three ways you can help Plan B reach sustainability champions:

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Have I cracked the the telepresence conundrum?

girl-in-globe.jpg
Last evening I particpated remotely from my home in France in a pre-event in Amsterdam of ElectroSmog International Festival for Sustainable Immobility.
I didn’t use the fancy gadget in the photo above. My set-up yesterday was a bit, but not a lot, better-organized than the remote recording session (below) I did for a BBC radio programme last summer.
johnradio.jpg
I said my bit to deBalie via skype, and followed the rest of proceedings, which were chaired by Eric Kluitenberg, on deBalie’s livestreaming feed.
The deBalie session was not, I know, a major event in the greater context of events concerning sustainability, media, and design. But I’m proud, nonetheless: I have not yet set foot in an aeroplane in 2010, and this event was a meaningful first step: it followed a new year resolution radically to reduce my work-related travel.

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20. Bubble-glazing

bubbleglazing.jpg
Here is a late addition – number 20 – to our story of last week: 19 reasons to be cheerful after Copenhagen.
Instructions: cut-to-fit; spray with water; bubbles face inwards. Done.
(thx Miranda, for the new word)

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