Design is the New Green

young child in a forest touching a web of energy, green light

Image credit: ‘Contact’ by Ira Ratry

Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Poverty. Hyperconsumption. Lifestyle diseases.

These are wicked problems - those that are complex, and for which there are no simple answers, or no easy-to-implement solutions, or no known process to address them. And sometimes all three.

They are also symptoms.

Symptoms are clues that a system has been designed in such a way that it is not delivering the desired results (or that it has been designed to work to benefit particular interests). They are the manifestations of an underlying field of energy and intent.

Another way to think of ‘symptoms’ is as the logical consequences of a set of system conditions – for example, if you make energy-dense high calorie foods easily and cheaply available to a population that is car-dependent and in sedentary work, they are very likely to become overweight or obese.

Sometimes, symptoms are unintended consequences of a course of action. One of the most illustrative examples of attempting to fix symptoms with ‘solutions’ instead of taking a systems approach is the tale of ’Operation Cat Drop’, cited in Amory Lovins, L Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken’s book, Natural Capitalism:

Sometimes single-problem, single-solution approaches do work, but often optimizing one element in isolation pessimizes the entire system…

Consider what happened in Borneo in the 1950s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects (‘consequences you didn’t think of,’ quips biologist Garrett Hardin, ‘the existence of which you will deny as long as possible’) started to appear. The roofs of people’s houses began to collapse, because the DDT had killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars.

The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people could not sleep when tropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were being eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied.

The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it had itself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. Thus occurred Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.

Sometimes, it can be reasonably predicted that a course of action will generate undesirable symptoms, but even so, decisions are made with the acceptance that certain outcomes will happen.

Ideally, we’d be able to attend to the short term concern of symptom management and also put some effort into preventative measures. Yet frequently, investment in prevention is traded off in favour of cure – ‘fixing’ the problem after the damage is done.

Symptoms absorb time, attention and money, often so it can be shown that something is being seen to be done, while the underlying causes go unaddressed, and continue to perpetuate the problem.

In a recent post on The Daly News, conservation biologist turned steady state political economist, Brian Czech, drew the comparison between environmental journalism and the doctors in terms of their attention being focused on symptoms:

Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.

Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection…

Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.

Yet in the same week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on the east coast of North and Central America, the connection between climate change and economic growth was cited by a somewhat surprising source - Businessweek:

In his book The Conundrum, David Owen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, contends that as long as the West places high and unquestioning value on economic growth and consumer gratification—with China and the rest of the developing world right behind—we will continue to burn the fossil fuels whose emissions trap heat in the atmosphere.

Wicked problems like climate change will not be effectively addressed while we continue to focus on the symptoms – perhaps our biggest challenge is the shift in mindset needed to understand that the things ordinarily listed as being a ’cause’ of climate change (burning fossil fuels, destruction of forests, industrial agriculture etc) are, in fact, symptoms.

Now, it’s certainly easier to keep describing the problems, and what can be done to ‘fight them’, and it’s harder and messier to have to change the complex systems that are producing them.

But we cannot resolve our intractable social and environmental problems by focusing on the problems themselves.

A system is a big black box
Of which we can’t unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out.

Perceiving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes, to relate
An input, output and a state.

If this relation’s good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us — heaven forbid!
We’ll be compelled to force the lid!

Kenneth Boulding, in ‘Thinking In Systems: A Primer’, by Donella Meadows

Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.

pic of black box with 'opening the black box' in white lettering written on it

Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all - they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.

This approach might also help reach those groups for whom the the ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ frame is no longer working or for whom environmental or sustainability messages have never resonated, because design focuses on how to make life better rather than offering up a laundry list of problems to be ‘fixed’.

If we ‘open the black box’ and design systems and environments that enable us to live collaboratively, share more and consume less, we might just find that the trend lines start to reverse, and we won’t need to tackle ‘obesity’ or ‘waste’ or ‘saving water’ or ‘greenhouse emissions’ or ‘social breakdown’.

If we want to address symptoms, then we need to design new systems.

Design is the new ‘green’!

green background with schematic chalk drawing by hand in white, linking three people with a light bulb in the centre

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Has The Green Door Been Bolted?

Cartoon of 'Titanic' style boat labelled 'World Leaders' heading towards an iceberg labelled 'climate change' - caption: 'It's settled - we agree to sign a pledge to hold another meeting to consider changing course at a date to be determined'

Image credit: David Horsey

The Rio+20 Summit has been and gone, was largely considered a failure, and has barely registered in the consciousness of the average person. We are no closer to any co-ordinated, serious global approach to addressing sustainability at the international level than we were in 1992 at the first Rio Earth Summit, which set out the ‘sustainable development’ agenda (itself a contested concept among sustainability activists).

Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, called Rio+20 ‘a failure of epic proportions’ and bluntly described the 253-paragraph Summit statement as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot noted the absence of a popular movement:

It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers’ rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law.

So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

While there is an increasing number of environmental and social groups around the world doing this work – involving more people than ever before in history – it seems that Monbiot’s observation is also correct.

In many OECD nations, a combination of budget cuts, austerity measures and increasing costs of living associated with the GFC fallout appear to have diminished popular concern with environmental and sustainability issues. Data collected from the UK, US, Germany has shown that environmental issues are not top of mind for these populations, and according to a recent research report ‘What Matters to Australians’ cited in The Australian:

A study of what matters to the average Australian found environmental issues “mattered intensely” in 2007 but had dropped to being of “middling” importance today.

The resulting picture was one of a conservative society intensely concerned about day-to-day issues.

Global sustainability dropped from third in 2007 to eighth in 2010, the only category to see any big movement either up or down…tangible things such as health and family “always were and always will be the things that really matter”.

Leaving aside the not-insignificant question of what people understand by ‘sustainability’ or ‘environmental issues’, and whether or not they see connections between issues (for example, food and health issues rated as the biggest concern, and yet sustainable food systems are intricately connected to a plethora of environment/sustainability issues), it is clear that for many people, all things environmental have fallen off the radar. The report does note that the high profile around climate change 2007 may have been an aberration.

With pressing day to day concerns around cost of living, access to basic services and local crime prevention, abstract notions of invisible gases causing major atmospheric and geographical changes at some undefined point in the future are simply not the immediate worry for citizens.

Similarly, just as people do not experience ‘the economy’ – they experience availability of work, fuel and food prices and mortgage repayments – the scale at which most sustainability advocates are attempting to communicate issues is beyond the realm of many people’s experience and therefore seen to be irrelevant. If people feel no sense of agency about how their individual efforts can effect change, and if daily demands leave little spare time to contemplate, let alone plan to enact change, it simply will not be a priority for most people.

For businesses facing economic downturn, and governments facing budget cuts, any initiative that involves investing money and employee time to become more resource efficient – even if it can ultimately save them money – is off the table as organisations retreat to focusing on ‘core business’. Sustainability is still being perceived as an add-on rather than an integral part of how organisations work.

If the general public and organisations have gone into siege/survival mode, then sustainability advocates need another approach to find their way in than exuberantly flinging open the ‘green door’ carrying a basket laden with all kinds of messages about carbon, climate, energy, waste, water and efficiency.

Because by and large, the ‘Green Door’ to the wider public is bolted.

ornate green door with two padlocks

Image credit: Breno Peck

What to do?

We could start with what’s going right, what is working using an assets-based approach, rather than talking about insurmountable problems.

Then there’s the packaging – ‘sustainability’ might work better if it’s more subtle and less overt, a bit like hiding vegetables in the kids’ pasta. It might be good for them, but they’re doing it because they enjoy it, or because they identify it as meeting their needs, not because someone told them it would be good for them and/or the planet.

A cynic might say we need a Sustainability Trojan Horse – to conceal the intent in a different guise. But we really do need to start where people are, with what they value.

head of Trojan Horse tinted green

‘Sustainability? Oh no, we’re talking about how you can make your life more fun and easier right now!’

An example: an initiative developed in Australia called MamaBake was established to encourage collaborative meal making as a means to lighten the daily evening meal preparation burden on women. A group arranges to get together at a member’s home, decides what to cook, and the task happens as part of a social occasion. At the end of the session, the women divide up all the meals into portions for each family who then has a week’s worth of frozen meals on hand – not to mention a week’s worth of free evenings.

These women are not cooking in bulk, and reducing potential temptation for for time-saving but often expensive and less healthy take-away because someone told them it would be better for the environment.

They are doing it because its fun, it offers them social connection, and to turn what is a chore into an enjoyable occasion and claw back precious time during the work week.

Now MamaBake is not going to save the planet or address concerns for healthy eating and more work-life balance for families on its own – but it is a contribution, and if we identified, worked with and supported the replication of many similar initiatives, it would amount to a social shift. MamaBake groups are also a ready-made audience and social norms transmission device for talking about local food production, healthy eating, recycling and food waste, modern cloth nappies in lieu of disposables, and a whole range of other things that are captured under the sustainability umbrella.

In the broader collaborative economy, people are finding ways to meet their needs through sharing, not because it is a government policy about reducing consumption, not because sharing – and therefore needing to buy less – is good for the environment, but because it makes sense to people, allows them to meet their needs, and has been enabled by technology, the social web and the ‘currency’ of reputation.

It’s a model that can also be applied to business:

“Most business owners are currently overlooking the renting potential of their business equipment. At Open Shed we believe renting out the equipment you own, when you are not using it, creates a number of opportunities for you. It can reduce your operating costs, help you establish relationships with other businesses and customers, reduce waste and keep money in your local area,” says Lisa Fox, director and co-founder of Open Shed…other common requests by businesses that use the site include projectors, projector screens and PA equipment, which people often need for a one-off event.

Is the Blue Door of the sharing and collaborative consumption approach the one we should be knocking on? That’s where people are.

We might find that progressing sustainability could be more effective if we treated it like acupuncture – subtly channeling the flow of energy through providing a platform for encouraging the existing momentum out there – rather than the major surgery of international action that we keep putting off.

Sustainability advocates can always carry the spirit and intent of sustainability into their practice, but present it in ways that are relevant and meaningful for people. Find the door that opens for them, rather than the one we want them to enter through.

Have you had any experiences where a message couched in ‘green’ or sustainability terms has been rejected, but a similar message framed in a different way has been accepted?

What other ‘doors’ are there through which to reach people?

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