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.