By John Thackara on 2 November 2009 in Worldchanging -
Image above: Tokyo building atrium with mirrored escalators. Not so green. From http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1900344,00.html
This picture is by way of context for my lecture yesterday at the International Design Symposium which was held to mark Musashino Art University's 80th anniversary.
Here below is what I said. [I've borrowed here from a fantastic book I read on the way here: The New Economics: A Bigger Picture by David Boyle and Andrew Simms. Review of that to follow - but buy it now.]
Kosa-san, esteemed colleagues, I will talk today about the emerging green economy - and, within that, the role of art and design. But first, a word of background.
Peak energy. Peak credit. Peak climate change. Each of these challenges is daunting on its own. Taken together, they mean that business- as-usual is over - for good. The old ways will not return. Yes, there are “green shoots” - but they are not the same old plants. They are the first sign that new economic and social life forms are emerging.
I believe that we have arrived at what complexity researchers call an “inflection point”. After forty years of talk and prevarication, we have arrived at a moment of profound transformation in the economy. I believe our instinct for survival is taking hold.
I say survival, because the old economy - the economy in which Gross Domestic Product is the only measure of success – has become, in the words of the True Cost campaign, a "doomsday machine". The traditional economy can only survive if it keeps growing, to infinity; and yet it wants to grow to infinity in a biosphere whose carrying capacity is finite.
That’s what makes the old economy a doomsday machine. Running after GDP, we ensure the destruction of the biosphere for economic reasons. It’s madness. The economist Lord Nicholas Stern was talking at the People's University of Beijing last week.
Stern, an insider’s insider, a key architect of the global status quo, stated the unthinkable:
“We have to question whether we can afford future growth.”
Can’t afford to grow! What an extraordinary thing for a former World Bank chairman to say! But what choice did he have? Do we all have? The basic operating system of the economy is broken.
The good news is that a replacement economy – a green economy – is now emerging. It has a new operating system. Rather than strive to make the most profit, regardless of the consequences, the green economy sets out meet human needs, whilst also protecting the capacity of natural systems to support life.
For business, and design, this new economic framework changes everything. Before this financial crisis, a new product or service was launched, somewhere in the world, every three minutes.
Nearly all these new products involved the in-efficient use of energy, water, and natural resources. Each product – remember: a new one every three minutes - 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 environmental impacts that accompanied them, involved input from designers and the creative industries: concepts, artifacts, communications, packaging, shops, malls.
All these had, as their direct outcome, un-sustainable consumption. Without the creative industries, the economic doomsday machine could not function.
Design is not uniquely responsible, of course. The digital revolution, too, has played a part. The digital economy was added to, but did not replace, the industrial economy. The result of adding a digital layer to the industrial economy was to amplify energy and resource use in the global economy - tenfold. Digital communications also added a new layer of insulation – a kind of blindfold - between human beings and the biosphere.
Thanks to the the internet, and later with social networking, we became more connected to each other - but less connected to the natural systems on which all our lives depend. Technology separates us from direct experience of the world. It therefore blinds us to the consequences of our destructive economic behaviour.
So: If we can no longer carry on designing and producing stuff mindless of the consequences, what, then, should our focus be?
The emerging 'green economy' is based on a simple principle: We all live and work within a system whose carrying capacity is finite. The business opportunity, in this context, is develop the new services and infrastructures to meet daily life needs in radically lighter ways.
A key concept here is Ezio Manzini's idea of enabling solutions - solutions that re-assert human agency in our systems-filled world. A core task of design, in this emerging green economy, is to make it easier to share resources – resources such as energy, matter, time, skill, software, space, or food.
This green economy, you will note, is not principally about smart machines, such as electric vehicles, or wind turbines. The most important resources in the green economy are people. Even when machines are part of a green solution, people matter.
For example, efficiency in buildings, or in transport systems is determined by intensity of use, and by load factors - for example, of vehicles - not just by energy and material costs. Shared patterns of use are as important as low energy propulsion systems.
A huge design effort is also needed to create and optimize tools. Tools are needed to help us for perceive, understand the world in new ways.
The aim, in the green economy, is "radical transparency"- a situation in which we all know the true environmental, health, and social costs of what we buy.
The keyword here: True Cost.
Another keyword here is Social Innovation.
The green economy I am describing is not a future dream. It already exists. Social innovation is all around us. Even if the old economy, the market economy, does not recognize them, every community contains assets in the form of people and their skills and their culture.
By some accounts, there are one million grassroots environmental organizations out there. The website WiserEarth, alone, lists 120,000 of them all over the world.
The better-known examples have names like “Post-Carbon Cities” or “Transition Towns." The Transition Towns movement, especially, is, for me, hugely significant.
Transition initiatives, which only started to emerge 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 - and even a forest. A further 800 communities around the world are "mulling it over" as they consider the possibility of starting their own Transition Initiative. Transition groups have started to appear in Japan, too. Check them out.
The transition model - I'm quoting their website - “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye." But they don't just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks.
They develop practical to-do lists; put those items in an agreed order of priority; and then start to work on the priority tasks they’ve agreed on. Their focus is the notion of resilience.
“Fui so” in Chinese is the capacity of a system to adapt to change, to rejuvenate.
In a green economy, resilience means the capacity of a place-based community to survive without the profligate energy and resource consumption we have become used to.
Transition groups deal with this in a most practical way. Each group asks a simple question: "for all those aspects of life that our community needs, in order to sustain itself and thrive, how will we do, if the worst case scenarios, that we fear, come to pass?
The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people have different interests and capabilities, but are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.
A second reason the Transition model works is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities - the "open space" method - that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view. The green economy is not being made by clever guys staring at computer screens. The green economy is not being made in shiny expensive buildings protected by guards. No: the green economy is being made wherever people are growing food in cities.
The green economy is where people opening seed banks, or teaching young people how to forge links direct with farmers in Community Supported Agriculture schemes. It’s being made where communities are removing dams, and restoring watersheds.
Anywhere you find car-share schemes, or off-grid energy pilots – there is a green economy hotspot. You’ll find the green economy wherever people are launching local currencies – nine thousand examples at last count. In their own version of the green economy, 70 million Africans are exchanging airtime - not cash. Non-money trading is exploding. Thousands of groups, Thousands of experiments.
For every daily life support system that is unsustainable now - food, health, shelter, journeying – alternatives are being tried. In the green economy now emerging, some aspects of resilience are technological solutions.
Other solutions are to be found in the natural world, thanks to millions of years of natural evolution – fir example, using plants to clean water. But most resilience attributes are social practices - some of them very old ones, that have evolved in other societies and in other times.
So, before we start designing new services and systems from scratch, we need to ask first: has anyone addressed a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, adapt, and piggyback on their success? or failure, come to think of it.
Last week, for example, I received a new book by Azby Brown – Just Enough - which describes how Japanese society confronted multiple crises of energy, water, fuels, food, and population – 200 years ago.
Japanese society in the Edo period met these challenges because it was conservation-minded, waste-free, and valued wellbeing with the minimum of resource consumption. I do not propose that we try to go backwards in time. And I am not promoting Edo as a lifestyle choice, a product you buy from a catalogue. No: as Azby Brown writes in his book, Just Enough is valuable as a mentality, as a framework for acting in the world - not a list or rules and prohibitions.
The green economy is not a prison camp. It’s a garden.
Advanced Design Education
I have spoken about the emerging green economy. I have talked about the necessity to account for the True Cost of a whole system in everything we design. I have spoke about the concept of “resilience” as a keyword in the society now emerging. I have also argued that social innovation – and especially Transition Towns – are more important sites of innovation than technology labs - or design studios.
If these ideas sound a long way from the traditional concerns of art and design – well, that’s because they are! But it’s not just design that’s facing profound change. A green economy means profound change for all professions, all businesses, all cities and regions.
But a question has been posed to us: what is an “Advanced Design Education” and how to we deliver it? My first response to this question is that “Advanced Design Education” already exists – only not by that name, and not in one place.
In my travels around the world, I have been encountering what Im tempted to describe as “transition design schools!” Some of these schools, or research sites, have an environmental agenda, but also have art and design in their culture.
In parallel, so-called “green MBAs” are beginning to be offered, which also have a design component. Two interesting examples, again in the US, are Bainbridge Graduate Institute and the Dominican University. Other ventures are further ahead of traditional design.
What these all have in common is that they operate in three complementary modes: • the mode of the live project in a real place; • the creation of a marketplace to connect ideas and projects together in viable enterprise; • the cross-pollination of models, tools and experiences from other places, and other times.
I would also mention my own organization, Doors of Perception, in this context.
Five years ago, we stopped organizing big international conferences to focus on in-situ events.
For a city or region, we: • scope for and map resources, especially people and natural resources who would not otherwise be visible; • we bring the most interesting projects together, and run design clinics to find out how each project can be helped; • finally, we often help each project pitch for support in a kind of Dragon’s Den game, with the aim of launching them as a social enterprise.
Our model, City Eco Lab helps a regions speed up its engagement in the green economy. This, for me, is one new form of advanced design education.
Until recently, it has been it’s too hard to try these experiments in mainstream universities, or business.
But as I said at the start today, these are new times. The moment is right for what Eugenio Barba calls “the dance of the big and the small.” Big institutions need fresh input and thinking. Small, edgy projects yearn for scale, reach, and impact
For me, “advanced design education” is about making new connections, and starting new conversations. Advanced design education is not much about dreaming up original content in a lab, or studio. Advanced design education, for me, is about getting out of the tent – going to where the action is. Art and design have a lot to offer.
The ability of the artist to help us all perceive the unseen, or the invisible, is vital as we reframe the tasks and priorities of the economy.
Artists can sensitize us to systems, and their behaviour, and thereby help us engage with the biosphere as a systemic whole - in which human beings are a co-dependent part.
In many cultures, this has been the work of artists for thousands of years. The idea of art separated off from daily life is literally unknown in so-called “un-developed” cultures.
Design skills, too, are needed, right now, out there where the green economy action is. Design is needed to help create tools. Tools for perceiving, seeing, understanding, conversing. Tools for sharing resources, organizing people, and exchanging time.
As Professor Tony Jones reminded us yesterday, artists and designers are workers!
So, put them to work!