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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New voting computers crisis

The Dutch computerised voting system is completely open to fraud, and bad guys could find out, remotely, how you voted. So argue Rop Gonggrijp and colleagues of the “We do not trust voting computers” foundation in The Netherlands. Gonggrijp and co are some of smartest hackers around, so we are sure they are right. A technical paper by Gonggrijp’s team details how they installed new software in Nedap ES3B voting computers. They established that anyone, when given brief access to the devices at any time before the election, could gain complete and virtually undetectable control over the election results. It also shows how radio emanations from an unmodified ES3B can be received at several meters distance and be used to tell who votes what. This is not a small crisis. 90% of the of votes cast in The Netherlands are cast on the Nedap/ Groenendaal ES3B voting computer – and it’s due to be used in a national election next month. The same computer with very minor modifications is also being used in parts of Germany and France.

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The economics of attention

In his review of Richard Lanham’s new book The Economics of Attention, Adrian Ellis says that “its core argument (is) that everyone is straining for distinction in a late capitalist global economy jammed with commodities and information, and that culture and creativity are what affords the producer the possibility of distinction. (This) explains the universal prevalence of shock tactics in both art and advertising (and) offers insights into the changing role of the creative artist and the artist’s sensibility in contemporary society”. I’m not so sure. Are attenion-seeking artists really a new phenomenon, economic or otherwise? After all, it’s 135 years since artist Emile Zola assured the world, “I am here to live out loud” – and few artists before him were shrinking violets. Ellis goes on to attribute the phenomenal increase in the number of people describing themselves as artists, in the past half-century, to “the changing balance of power between the technical and the creative (and) the inexorable logic of The Economics of Attention”. Surely traditional job market economics are a simpler explanation. As I’ve been telling everyone recently, a Dutch survey found that only two percent of those with a degree in art or design consider themselves to be unemployed. The government should introduce compulsory art education for all – and thereby abolish unemployment at a stroke.

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Vote for La Voute!

Our friends at La Voute Nubienne are among the 13 finalists of the Ashoka-Changemakers Competition on “How to Provide Affordable Housing.” This ancient architectural technique, traditionally used in Sudan and central Asia, but until now unknown in West Africa, can accelerate appropriate house-building in the Sahel. The Nubian Vault (“la Voute Nubienne” or VN) technique uses basic, readily available local materials and simple, easily learned procedures. The major cost element is labour, so cash stays in the local economy. Raw materials, too, are locally available, and ecologically sound. In Burkina Faso, trained VN builders are becoming independent entrepreneurs.
La Voute Nubienne has been shortlisted by a panel of five distinguished judges. Now it’s over to the online community – ie, you – to vote in three winners. Each voter is required to cast three votes – otherwise your vote is rendered invalid. (Ashoka say this is a good way of ensuring fair play, and has worked well in past competitions). The deadline for voting is October 16, 2006. The Changemakers Innovation Award winners will be announced on October 17, 2006.
So please: get cracking and vote here for La Voute Nubienne – and two others!

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Stuff-o-Meter

Yesterday’s Doors of Perception Report pointed you to an out-of-date url. The Call for the D&AD stuff-o-metre competition is here

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