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.

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I’ve had a couple of requests for help from design schools who have entered the competition to design a stuff-o-meter. (Designs of the time (Dott07) has teamed up with Design and Art Direction (D&AD) in a challenge to design students to come up with a stuff-o-meter that would lift the veil on the hidden history of the everyday products we take for granted). One unifying way to look at the issue is through the concept of embodied energy (EE). There are userful bar charts on EE at the website of CSIRO and a clearly written piece here. Check out this somewhat scolding story in Treehugger and this school syllabus on EE

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Buy this book now!

Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century will be an indispensable overview of tools, models and ideas for building a better future. In next month’s New York Review of Books, Bill McGibben writes that the book “is nothing less than The Whole Earth Catalog, that hippie bible, retooled for the iPod generation. There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plyboo (i.e., plywood made from fast-growing bamboo). There are many hundreds of how-to guides (how to etch your own circuit board, how to break in your hybrid car so as to maximize mileage, how to organize a “smart mob”.
Like movies, the success of books is largely determined by the rate of sales in the first week or two. The amazing WorldChanging team ask for our help in giving their new book a good start. They do brilliant work and deserve our support. We should all buy a copy (or more) before November 1 and help drive up the early numbers.

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Weakness in numbers?

Paul Hawken reckons that over 1 million organizations, populated by over 100 million people, are engaged in positive activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues. “Collectively this constitutes the single biggest movement on earth, but but it flies under the radar” he writes. Paul’s new project, a book and tv project called Blessed Unrest , will reveal the depth and diversity of this worldwide ‘movement of movements’. For Hawken, “the power of this movement is that it is not directed”. But therein, it seems to me, lies danger, too. It’s proving hard to organise a decent database of all these enties – let alone for them to work easily together. Our experience in Designs of the time is that it takes an awful lot of time and energy to herd organisations together around a shared agenda. Some of our public commission projects involve ten, fifteen different partners – and that’s just for a time-limited collaboration in a small European region. I have a strong feeling the dilemma of entropy will rise up the agenda in the coming period.

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The “social purpose space”

Having just read Heat (see below) I arrived in a sober mood in Beijing for what people said was the first social innovation conference.
Gerard Lemos, in his welcome, reminded us of our moral duty to be optimistic. Thereafter, forty five lectures made for a gruelling programme, but things do look brighter at the event’s conclusion.
The Beijing conference confirmed that although we have a lot to do, we are not starting from scratch. Social innovation is all around us. There is vast opportunity for us to amplify, improve and accelerate a transition to new ways of living which is already under way.
Several Chinese speakers combined remarkable candour about their own situation with a disinclination to cast blame at the West. One referred to his country’s irresponsible exploitation of resources for short-term benefits.
He was too polite to add that countries like the UK have contributed 15% of total emissions now present in the atmosphere. The main way we have ‘improved’ is by outsourcing a lot of pollution to countries like China. The resource efficiency per head of citizens in the West is in any case dreadful. According to the New Scientist (quoted by Matt Prescott ) the ecological footprint of the average American has increased in the last ten years by the same amount as the entire footprint of the average Chinese citizen.
It makes one cringe to recall the sanctimonious complaints about development in China and India still made by some Western environmentalists.
But back to the plus side. The social purpose space that we discussed in Beijing is a huge business opportunity. Health, care, learning – and climate reduction – already represent 30 per cent of most economies.
Redesigning them to be equitable, and sustainable, seems a daunting task. But how how fast will things move, pondered Ezio Manzini, when a billion entrepreneurial Chinese with mobile phones turn their attention to this market?
This is not a hypothetical development. Senior Chinese policy makers told us that they are looking to develop a “fundamental transformation of our economic growth model”. Others talked of a “campaign for a new countryside”.
Geoff Mulgan, joint organiser of the conference, and co-author of Social Silicon Valleys, agreed that profound transformations are under way. “Transformations in concepts, theory and language are leading to new new social models, and new ways to create value”, he said.
Some of these new models are combinations of elements drawn from different times and cultures. The Open University, for example, drew on experiments in 1950s Russia, and ideas about distance learning developed years later in the US.
Today, too, we need to scavenge widely in other cultures and eras.
My own contribution was to argue that social innovation and technology innovation are not discrete domains. We need to reframe social innovation as the driver of technology innovation, not as an alternative.
This can be a win:win realignment. A lot of technology innovation is driven by imaginary futures. These wished-for futures are often culturally impoverished; many predictions made for technology are wildly optimistic; and many of the unexpected rebound effects of technology-push can be devastating.
Social innovation, by contrast, is driven by practical, step-by-step responses to real and present needs. Reality checks (does this work?) are a real-time feature of the social innovation process.
Huge savings will be made saved when proposals for technology research are passed first first through a filter of social need.
I also explained what we hope to achieve with Designs of the time (Dott 07). In the context of China, Dott 07 has a teeny footprint. The North East of England is one of 250 regions in Europe, and these sit beside more than 500 cities in China which have populations of a million or more.
But we live in age of tipping points. It was evident in Beijing that many of our fellow regions and cities are asking the same question – “how do we want to live?” – and taking actions to answer it.
There is enormous potential to share and adapt new approaches to issues we all face, such as resource allocation. We can help each other figure out how to design services and infrastructures that will be delivered by multiple partners. And new business models are bound to emerge from new and unexpected quarters.

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Lethally lit lunch

George Monbiot also writes about food in his book Heat (see below). Food retailers, especially, waste insane amounts of energy. They use seven times more power (275 k Wh per cubic metre) to run a food hall than is used in an office. For the larger stores, up to a quarter of that energy budget goes on lighting – which is to make the food look good, not for it to be good. Most of the rest (64 per cent) is used for refrigeration, which is also ruinously wasteful. Think of all those open-fronted units: A single open-fronted freezer costs a retailer 15000 pounds (22,000 euros) per year to run in energy bills alone.
Monbiot says we should replace out of town food retailing with warehouses that would service internet-enabled home delivery services. But even that sounds too transport-intensive if powered vehicles are to be involved. Bikes are the answer. Young lads seem happy to haul fat tourists around in rickshaws in London, so they (the lads) can retrained to do grocery runs, too.

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My long walk home

I chose a bad place to read George Monbiot’s new book Heat – the transit lounge of Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi Airport.

I already knew that flying is an indefensible way to travel because of its contribution to global warming. But I’ve comforted myself over the years with the idea that what environmentalists call a ‘soft landing’ could be achieved if people like me cut down our flights a wee bit every year.

‘Heat’ destroys my alibi. Long-haul flights produce 110 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre. According to Monbiot’s numbers, a single passenger flying to New York and back produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is about the same as each of us will be entitled to emit in a whole year once a 90 per cent cut in emissions is made.

Monbiot says that a 90 per cent cut is needed by 2030 if the biosphere is to remain habitable for you and me. He arrives at this sobering figure as follows: By 2030, the total capacity of the biosphere to absorb carbon – its carbon sink – will be reduced from today’s 4 billion tonnes, to 2.7 billion. By then, world population is likely to be 8.2 billion. By dividing the total carbon sink by the number of people, and spreading the load equally, Monbiot arrives at an average cut in the rich countries of 90 percent per person.

In the case of my flying behaviour, it’s probably more than that. A single passenger going from the UK to Beijing and back in business class, as I am doing, emits probably four times as much carbon dioxide as someone going to New York and back in coach. I am probably using up four years’ of my personal carbon allowance in 2030 within one single week.

And that’s just if I count my time in the air. Sitting still, reading Monbiot’s book, was also wasteful. Suvarnabhumi is a vast forest of concrete pillars and structural decks. Outside, endless acres of concrete apron spread into the far distance. It all looked very nice and modern until I read, in Chapter 10 of Heat, that the manufacture of cement emits a ton of carbon dioxide for each ton actually made and used.

I don’t know how many million tons of the stuff were used in Bangkok’s new airport. Many. I would not be surprised if my use of that airport – for a few hours, just sitting there, on this one trip – used up another few weeks of my annual carbon ration.

A 90 per cent cut in emissions requires not only that growth in aviation stops, but that most of the planes which are flying today be grounded. We need to cut the number of flights by 87 per cent to meet Monbiot’s target.

And he is adamant that this means me, personally – not someone else, out there. ‘Writing, reading, debate and dissent, of themselves, change nothing” he concludes, pitilessly. ‘They are of value only if they inspire action. Progress now depends on the exercise of fewer opportunities. If you fly, you destroy peoples lives’.

Analysing the potential of energy efficiency, renewable resources, carbon burial, nuclear power and new transport and building systems, Monbiot unveils what works, what doesn’t, what costs the least and what needs to be done to make change happen. He argues that answers are available and hope is not lost.

I am still in Beijing as I write this. It is going to be a long walk home.

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School out of school

Over the next 15 years, 3,500 UK schools will be rebuilt or refurbished in a seventy billion pound (110 billion euro) programme called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). The problem, as Joe Heapy explained to a meeting last week of the Dott 07 Explorers Club, is that “BSF is so huge, that most people within it are working to the limits of their experience”. Besides, it’s by no means clear that throwing money at buildings will make a vast difference. As The Economist comments this week, a crumbling edifice improves results, but as long as classrooms are decent—not too dark, damp, noisy, airless, hot or cold—further frills seem to make little difference. The paper quotes Elaine Hall, a Newcastle University education researcher who has studied past building programmes: “While improvements to schools where the buildings fell below an acceptable standard did have a significant impact upon health, student morale and student performance, the same could not be said once an adequate standard of provision was reached”. Hall’s research seems to confirm my own unkindly-received assertion (on page 147-148 of In The Bubble) that “there’s no need to purpose build huge numbers of schools and colleges”. The more pressing challenge, surely, is to confront the dimishing spaces of childhood. Hence our search, in Dott 07, for a design challenge to do with “school out of school”.

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Design us a Stuff-O-Meter

The amount of matter and energy wasted during the manufacture of a single laptop computer (like the one your’re using now, perhaps) is close to a thousand times its weight on your lap. But this vast ecological rucksack remains invisible – out of sight and out of mind. Designs of the time (Dott07) has teamed up with Design and Art Direction (D&AD) in a challenge to design students to come up with a stuff-o-meter that would lift the veil on the hidden history of the everyday products we take for granted.

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