(I recently started working part time at Library of Things and became a Trustee for The Restart Project so there’s a lot of climate change things on my mind. This was meant to be a piece for a friend’s magazine but they wanted something else so here goes.)
These are a series of vignettes, of what I think about design in a crisis. I’ve started this at 15:36 on Wednesday the 8th of July 2020 in South London. I anchor this in time and space because world events are affecting us more quickly. Outside, it’s grey and muggy inside, I am listening to Misprints (2003) :
Not gonna watch the climate drop
We’ve got to stop whatever I’m doing
Not gonna wait here while you shop
I can see the penny not dropping […]
A week ago, I was listening to Namita Dharia who teaches at RISD. She described some of the students who graduated from her Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies MA as ‘people who were already pretty entrepreneurial and who wanted to develop more knowledge to add to their practice’. The program is 1.5 years long and costs $53,820 a year. I think they could have gotten that same if not better education, for free, by reading. Or working for people who already do what they want to do. Remember apprenticeships? I blame Silicon Valley for everyone thinking that everything is a lonely Randian affair which will end in an Incredible Journey blog post.
Speaking of Rand, this unwillingness to learn from others in different ways could be blamed on the ripples of the Fountainhead. If anything, her original hero should have been a warning sign to us all. In the late 1800s, the image of the star designer hadn’t really started yet. Dankmar Adler, a civil engineer and Louis Sullivan his partner would enter the annals of time with high-rise buildings and Sullivan’s paraphrasing of Roman architect Vitrivius: ‘Form follows function’. Sullivan was the inspiration for Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, a title based on an expression he used in one of his books. He spent the last 10 years of his life in poverty, unable to secure clients (Adler was a better salesman) as the Panic of 1893 forced them to dissolve their partnership. He became an alcoholic, living in a hotel until his death. Grim.
But no one remembers this bitter end. Instead, surely warned by his ‘Lieber Meister’s’ demise, we remember his protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright. A (very probably bipolar) megalomaniac he was able to build up a very active, scandalous public life. Throughout a career that would span seven decades, he would claim to be the only real American architect, fighting off the European International Style, rallying wealthy businessmen to his multiple causes, and ultimately financing a lavish lifestyle and a devoted underpaid and badly treated following of young apprentices. By the time he died he owed $6 million to the IRS. A sobering account of his many human foibles can be found in The Fellowship (2011). It makes Elon Musk sound like a saint.
Silicon Valley today sells us a modern Wright, embodied by an infinite number of ‘tech founders’ who are there to philosophically lead the way, but instead of taking 70 years, they’ll do it in two to five before being acquired. From automated decision making in transportation, to computer vision enabled agriculture or 5G coverage to enable better streaming services, people’s needs are almost infinite and simply need to be selected carefully by startup founders for that perfect ‘product market fit’. And so for climate change.
The role of tech (if any)?
Climate change has, in the last 2-3 years become the new darling of very young to mid-career computer scientists. The job board on Climate Action Tech newsletter is pretty telling. The jobs read like any other tech job board. Developers, UX practitioners, etc. As COVID-19 has moved us all to Zoom and e-commerce sites, climate change work has moved to Silicon Valley. But what does that mean? Is climate change a market opportunity? Will a product fix it?
When it comes to complex societal behavioural challenges (see social health, prisons, education, gambling, addiction) tech actually doesn’t have a great track record. People do though. Mentors, teachers, nurses, doctors and care workers change lives and course correct. Not a website, not an app. The website and the app floats around these people who are trying to do their job and do it well, ideally better because they get paid more. In fact, a website doesn’t get them paid more, if anything, it might get them paid less. But that’s another matter entirely.
So. Climate change is a complex societal behavioural challenge. We would shut down power plants if we used less energy. Today. How? Well by using less and buying differently. And doesn’t that just sound so dull and duh! This isn’t the stuff revolutions are made of nor revolutionaries. And that’s just the problem. Noone is going to win an award for making sure 100% of lighting in your home and office is replaced by LED lighting. Noone is going to get ‘Designer of the Year’ for helping people switch off their television at night, at the plug. Noone is going to get coverage in the Guardian for highlighting that getting a smart meter installed is really helpful for the fuel poor and probably pretty useless for the middle class family who don’t even look at their household bills because they’re on Direct Debit.
People’s lack of literacy around the complexity of the systems means they’ll be all for climate change but continue to shop online (even if the van used to deliver to your door is powered by diesel), become a vegan (no matter where their food comes from and whose ecology they affect) and generally consider themselves to have done the job. Only one in 4 will switch to a ‘greener’ energy tariff, regardless of the National Grid Mix which they’re unlikely to have ever heard about (57% of today’s energy comes from fossil fuels thanks to no sun nor wind as an example). They’ll probably move into a home without looking up the EPC rating of the property and if it’s their first home on the property ladder aren’t going to invest in insulation which can cost tens of thousands of pounds. They also won’t install a solar panel or a battery because they’ve never seen one in a shop and it might negatively impact their ability to sell the house. If they drive, which many will now that we have a world where public transport has been vilified, they might consider an electric car. But without knowing what’s involved, if their street has Ubitricity on street chargers or if their semi detached house can have a charger installed. The electric car market represents 0.15% of the car market right now (or 2.2 million electric vehicles for the 1.4 billion cars in the entire world) so is that even the right choice to make? And where will all that electricity come from?
The revolution, in a sense, has still not been televised. These deeply dull, pragmatic conversations haven’t been made sexy. Even the lovely people at Glimpse can only go so far.
Seeing the problem
Next year, it’ll be illegal for Dutch commercial real estate below a particular EPC rating to go on the market. This could have applied to residential but they didn’t have the courage to go that far. This would be unnecessary if poorly performing real estate was obvious. If there was a colour-coded flag flying from every window. But that’s not the world we live in yet. This stuff should be on Google Maps really and they’re working on it, but unless they buy Zoopla, we’re unlikely to notice that kind of meta data. I suspect we’ll be able to see some kind of ‘COVID-19 likelihood index’ (based on density of cell phones) before we see the EPC rating of every building we visit. It would be even better if you weren’t able to get a mortgage for a poor EPC rating. Also incredibly unlikely. So then what? Well pensions. Your or your parents pensions are very powerful in today’s economies, so maybe you want to make sure they go to green projects. That’s a consumer choice you can make where you have the power. It’s your money and your money can end up financing all sorts of weird things, indirectly. This could also be made much more clear and could make a really nice little dashboard.
Playing the long game
None of this requires an incubator. What this does require is voting differently, educating yourself, reading, writing to your MP, putting pressure on your workplace to change their lightbulbs, stopping your friends from buying fast fashion, basically making a nuisance of yourself until your loved ones change their habits. It’s like planning an intervention but for everyone around you, all the time. Can you imagine?
If you were able to convince one other person not to vote for Brexit, or to take up exercise, or to quit smoking, chances are you’re psychologically equipped for the future. If you’re not, then we’ll stay in the realm of click-tivism and I don’t think we’re likely to see the kind of change we need. What we’ll need is even more policy-making around these issues. This is already happening.
The biggest barrier is energy and literacy. Without the energy to want to change your own and yours friends’ behaviour, things won’t happen. Without the literacy required around the issues I’ve talked about, things also don’t change. It’s energy you have control over at least. Literacy, well that’s another matter. One doesn’t exactly study climate change without ending up in a seriously depressing conversation about capitalism. So instead snack on things. Read books and look at which of the things you like the look of exist in your city and your country. Find out more about the work being done by your local energy company. Go visit your local nuclear power plant (yes they do visits normally). Go visit your local waste management centre. Go see how you can work in these places, how you can help. Everyone wants help with this. As 100 year old adage go, you can truly ‘think globally and act locally’ around these issues. My climate change will not be yours. Just like COVID-19 is being fought differently by every nation, we will all have different experiences of climate change because our countries, their economies and ecologies are all different. So get started locally.
I put together a Youtube playlist and Amazon List if you’re not quite ready yet, but think about it. The best time to plant that damn tree, really is now.