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The United Nations says we have 12 years to take action against climate change, to avoid global disaster. It’s the greatest design challenge in history, says Nicolas Roope.
The climate is in trouble and we’ve now been given a deadline by the UN to pull our proverbial socks up and try to avert a catastrophe.
I’ve already had nights of sleeplessness and worry, with that heavy feeling of inevitable doom. But that worry won’t change anything. We have to move on and do something about it. The clock’s ticking.
We already know we can turn our washing machines down a few degrees, change to efficient lighting (Plumen of course) and reuse shopping bags. But it is now the time to ask what more we can do to scale the solutions that so often feel out of reach by individuals, and the sole preserve of governments and legislators. And more specifically, what can designers and architects do to accelerate an at-scale response to the problem?
Finding efficiencies in each individual product and project is a good start but how can these binary digits become viral phenomena? So that the force doesn’t come from pushing, campaigning and regulation, but from the warm rush of exuberance, cheered by global applause?
It is now the time to ask what more we can do to scale the solutions that so often feel out of reach
First we need to look at where we are and how we got here. One way to do this is by using my favourite graph, the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, which charts the mental journey we go through when processing grief or trauma.
For the environment, the chart starts about a decade ago – there was a real awakening, with the subject really surfacing in the mainstream. But quickly the clarity was diluted and became vague through the clever antagonisms of anti-fact propaganda. Add to that the tendency of organisations to greenwash and you can understand the eventual despondence and fatigue. It became too complicated, too tiring, too scary, and we all entered a period of denial.
I’m hypersensitive to light bulbs obviously, so over this period I noticed a huge resurgence of Edison-style lamps. They were everywhere, as a collective “fuck you” to climate change, a swan song to a bloated inefficient technology that really had no place in the enlightened world.
Beef, the least sustainable livestock, also had a huge resurgence, with modern quality burger joints popping up in every corner.
We weren’t going to acknowledge climate change, let alone do anything about it. No, we were going to surf our Range Rovers into oblivion in a hedonistic puff of carbonised smoke.
That period was followed by frustration and depression, as the majority finally accepted the problem was real, but the scientific community and media organisations were still rooting out the final naysayers. Frustration and depression often happen when you feel like you’ve been tricked and conned by those in authority. Remember the financial crash? How no one saw it coming?
But look back at the graph. There’s hope. Because when the facts of a challenge or a change finally settle, there’s a change of mindset, a new mood for the challenge and a new will to overcome all the barriers that hitherto seemed unsurmountable. I want us to focus on this part.
Stop pretending that attaching a windmill to a tower block is going to fix anything
What we can do, as designers, architects, culture makers, symbol creators, desire directors, is to stop telling half-truths.
Stop designing things that ride the environmental story, with a lack of real intent or impact. Stop pretending that attaching a windmill to a tower block is going to fix anything. Stop talking about eco retreats at the end of a long haul flight.
To change anything we need to get beyond the confusion and the empty virtue signalling. We need real impact.
Shell has suggested the idea of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with new technology it is funding. But on further reading you realise that it would take hundreds of thousands of these suckers to make any meaningful impact. And who’s going to pay for that? No one of course, which is precisely why it’s not a solution.
How can a technology that costs trillions to run day and night operate when it’s only a cost on the national balance sheet? When you buy a tank full of petrol, you’re not paying to spew out tons of carbon, you’re buying the transport miles. You’re buying the benefit of getting somewhere. The CO2 is a bi-product. So to create a shadow industry – to balance every car, plane and power station burning stuff in the world – would reach an impossible scale of economies. Perhaps it could work if the costs were offset by taxation on users but that’s a political quagmire unlikely to pass.
This situation shows the systemic nature of the problem. So many interrelated activities make the behaviours and interdependencies hard to unlock. And yet, as creative thinkers, designers are incredibly well skilled to establish new codes and systems.
Designers are so often in the business of creating desire, of providing the fuel for dreams that drives so much production, commerce and construction. Why can’t we coral this skill, to infect everyone with a lust for the truly progressive objects, projects and experiences?
Great design doesn’t just make things more usable and elegant, it elevates them and makes them cool
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the smoking habit was perpetuated through cultural memes. The individuals most likely to smoke at the start were the most gregarious and popular social animals, the ideal to which others aspired. The cigarette therefore became a signal of social potency and status through this association, ensuring its uptake and spread across the masses who wanted to bathe in the reflected status.
Designers don’t just create arbitrary things outside culture’s context, they pull the levers of reference and narrative, to reflect the zeitgeist and to create directionality, to pull people in who want to associate and identify with this direction and inferred values.
This is most obvious perhaps with fashion, where the designer’s expression becomes a cultural artefact and symbol for the label’s underlying status and values. The consumer buys into this and they themselves get to fly the flag as a wearer. It’s a logical step therefore to see how fashion designers have a key role to play in shepherding opinion, with their acute grasp of our attention and the alchemic skills they have for conjuring allure.
Louis Vuitton’s window displays this summer featured a beautiful patchwork of solar panels, a kind of aestheticising of these otherwise utilitarian objects. But the statement was helpful – there are €5000 jumpers and there’s stopping the world from melting. And they’re both cool, says Louis Vuitton.
This is what we have done with Plumen – used design to encourage a reappraisal of the bulb as a technology and commodity, a way of calling out category indifference, but also provided something really positive, a beautiful and efficient product that gives the user real pleasure. More than that, it gives a symbol of hope. Bound up in Plumen’s genesis is the idea that making a lovely light bulb is one thing, but helping the world see a positive future, where sustainability and pleasure are not necessarily at odds with each other, is something that will help grease the wheels of change and move us from despondence to exuberance for building this new world.
So many people still believe living better will come at a heavy cost. With the light bulb at least, we’ve helped to break that spell. And we’re certainly not alone.
Let’s all just get serious about how we can take responsibility for both the problem and the power in our hands to tackle it
Tesla has been the poster boy of this philosophy. It changed the automotive business, because it made the electric powertrain cool. And when you make things cool, you give everyone permission to own one and to actively align with these new symbols. Without Tesla I don’t think we would have seen Volvo announcing to go all electric for another decade.
We need to create a new landscape where we have permission to care and permission to act. That’s exactly where design needs to come in. Great design doesn’t just make things more usable and elegant, it elevates them and makes them cool. Coolness may seem trite and superficial in the face of climate change, but it is the very cultural trigger that creates this much needed permission. It is the difference between partial uptake and things going truly mainstream. Coolness drives the market, drives adoption of new behaviours and transforms the unusual into the normal.
There are already some examples of significant change happening that should give us encouragement and hope.
Look at the speed of change in how we eat. Vegetarianism is going mainstream, fuelled by social-media feeds that break with clichés and traditions of vegetarian food dramatically. This dramatic, visible change signals a new culture and therefore new space for new identities. The door has opened for people who didn’t fit the “veggie” picture. With the shift comes an acceleration of change and the much needed growth in scale. Livestock is a huge CO2 contributor. Making vegetarianism attractive to billions is as much a design challenge as it is culinary. And the project is already well underway.
We can also find solace in other recent seismic shifts. For better or worse, we live in a world where we can shape-shift faster than ever. The 12-year timeframe the UN report has given us all to make a meaningful reduction in emissions is longer than it took Apple to get the smartphone concept into the hands of more than half the world’s population. No legislators were needed to drive this meteoric rise, just the intense allure of technology, shaped by compelling design. Perhaps we should be asking Jony Ive and Tony Fadell for some tips about how to start a revolution of this magnitude for the good of the planet?
The role of design in driving these shifts can be oblique. But scratch the surface and it’s there. Take for instance air travel. Technologists agree that alternative fuels for aviation are way off. The energy density in batteries makes long distant flights an economic impossibility for this weight-sensitive mode of transportation. So designing a new kind of plane isn’t helpful because the limit is technological. But rejuvenating domestic destinations for the staycation is something architects and designers can do, so people don’t need to head to the airports in the first place.
In the UK, we’re already seeing our neglected seaside towns become attractive destinations again. In 2017, a national survey revealed a 23.8 per cent rise in UK holiday planning. That’s a lot of unreleased carbon. If the true cost of flying increases for consumers, you’ve got an even more compelling reason to stay at home.
The technology is there to make remote meetings as good as those in person, but so many still feel compelled to fly across oceans to commune in the flesh. Surely this too is a design challenge. Create new kinds of meeting spaces to enhance the virtual experience and shape the rituals for a new way to conduct the face to face in virtual space. Another move to pull some more planes out of the sky.
Off-shore wind already is trading at £52 per megawatt against Hinkley Point’s £92. But on-shore is a great deal cheaper to construct and service. However, communities resist them because they don’t like a blot on the landscape – a design challenge if ever I heard one, and one I’m working on as it happens.
Freaking out isn’t going to help anyone. Let’s all just get serious about how we can take responsibility for both the problem and the power in our hands to tackle it. Not just as designers but as global citizens, as parents to every subsequent generation, let’s engage the complexity. Let’s learn where the biggest impacts can be made so we’re not wasting time and resources, and let’s not leave space for empty gestures.
It is an incredible moment in human history, whether it’s something we come to look back at fondly or with regret
World politics is clearly unfit for purpose for a problem of this scale. It’s never had a problem like this to tackle, where the entire world community faces such a common enemy. Our divisions have been a source of power because a common enemy is galvanising. This time we really do need to come together.
While the rise of populism is dark and daunting, we need to remember one thing very clearly. We as designers can make things popular. And if we shape new modes, behaviours, products, buildings, ideas, words, looks to create popular movements, we’ll hear a change of tune from our leaders. When they know we all care and we all think progressiveness is cool, they’ll turn. Soft power, turning hard and with it another step towards material change at the required scale.
Design is already global. Everyone, everywhere engages with it in some form, and uses its many tools and techniques. It reaches beyond borders and language. We just need to stop ignoring it, or pretending the little we do is enough.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced, and also perhaps its most exciting. We can join together like never before, to write the rules of a new world. It is an incredible moment in human history, whether it’s something we come to look back at fondly or with regret.
So let’s start designing the future that gives us a future. Now.
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