Sustainability

Social connection is more important than many other resources in surviving crises:

Throughout the city, the variable that best explained the pattern of mortality during the Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure. Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public spaces, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organizations fared well in the disaster. More socially barren places did not. Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal.

Also: The biggest threat facing middle-aged men is loneliness.

More on how the Paris climate agreement happened

The Guardian has a wonderful in-depth description of just how the world’s leaders came to an agreement on climate change action in Paris last December (previously). Lots of innovative techniques, including…

  • A headquarters with visibility across the conference:

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

About 60 French officials were there. In preparation for the all-night sessions that began almost immediately the conference started, a room with 20 cubicled beds was waiting for exhausted officials to refresh themselves with a few snatched moments of sleep.

  • Lots of unique meeting types, for each different type of expression and decision:

Procedurally, the French took great care. They instituted a series of talks known as “confessionals”. These were intended as confidential places where delegates could, in the words of one French official, “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, with no holds barred and an assurance of privacy.

There were also the absurdly named “informal informals”, in which a small group of delegates from various countries were charged with tackling a small piece of disputed text often as little as a paragraph at a time. Their task was to try to remove the infamous “square brackets” denoting areas of disagreement on the text and they met in small huddles around the conference centre, squatting on the floor in corridors or standing around a smart phone.

After these measures were still not producing enough progress, Fabius turned to “indabas” – by Zulu tradition, these are groups of elders convened to try to discuss disputes in communities. They were first tried out at the Durban climate talks in South Africa, in 2011, and under France’s plan they consisted of groups of up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to thrash out the remaining disagreements.

  • Small countries banded together to amplify their shared concerns:

While the French could draft in experienced diplomats on every side, some of the smallest countries had difficulty in keeping up with the meetings – many happened in parallel and they did not have the personnel to attend them all.

One way of getting around that was the formation of a “coalition of high ambition”, which was announced with three days to Friday’s deadline. Forged by small island states – a key figure was Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – and the EU, it was joined by many of the least developed countries, adding up to more than 100 nations. They could then negotiate together, with an agreed common interest. Before the end, this coalition had been joined by the US, Canada and Australia. It was hailed by Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete as a key factor in the end agreement.

  • Finally, 1:1 talks between the final decisionmakers:

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.

Carbs, fat, and politics

After years of pushing low-fat and high-carbohydrate diets, the federal health agencies have finally flipped their recommendations:

Following an Institute of Medicine report, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines quietly began to reverse the government’s campaign against dietary fat, increasing the upper limit to 35 percent — and also, for the first time, recommending a lower limit of 20 percent…the scientists on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, for the first time in 35 years have sent recommendations to the government without any upper limit on total fat.

The guidelines themselves take a strong stance on sugars and refined carbohydrates as well:

Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence.

And it looks like those egg council creeps finally got to the scientists too:

Available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.

I switched to a vegetarian protein- and fat-heavy diet with lots of raw vegetables, oils, eggs, yogurt and nuts this year and I’ve lost significant weight and felt amazing. It’s fascinating to see the tides change as scientists finally have the tools and data to run big studies on nutrition:

Confirming many other observations, large randomized trials in 2006 and 2013 showed that a low-fat diet had no significant benefits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer risks, while a high-fat, Mediterranean-style diet rich in nuts or extra-virgin olive oil — exceeding 40 percent of calories in total fat — significantly reduced cardiovascular disease, diabetes and long-term weight gain.

But all of this threatens a huge packaged-food industry that thrives on shelf-stable grain products, and the political deck is stacked against change. Hopefully the evolving scientific consensus will bolster efforts like the ones led by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to move our eating back toward freshness, sustainability, and health.

Capitalism as cancer

It’s been extremely successful; then again, it has to be:

A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting social ecologist Murray Bookchin

Fossil fuels, our starter engine

The fossil fuel deposits of our Spaceship Earth correspond to our automobile’s storage battery which must be conserved to turn over our main engine’s self-starter. Thereafter, our “main engine,” the life regenerating processes, must operate exclusively on our vast daily energy income from the powers of wind, tide, water, and the direct Sun radiation energy. – Buckminster Fuller

I reference this idea often but had forgotten the source. Buckminster Fuller, of course.

Design as politics in a changing world

A well-written argument that “politics”–built from mindfulness, personal commitment, and creative design–is as important to the climate crisis as science and technology:

[We have], basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology…[the other] is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world…

Does our culture still have the courage–and the harmony–to commit to real change based on moral beliefs?

Consider the end of slavery—not in the US, but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders…the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics…

[We need], in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself.

That sounds like real design to me. See also Dan Hill’s Dark Matter & Trojan Horses.

AidPod: Truly great design

I love the ColaLife AidPod:

  • Designed to fit in the empty space in Coca-Cola shipping crates, piggybacking on the most successful distribution network in the world
  • Provides diarrhea medicine (the Kit Yamoyo) along with literacy-not-required instructions
  • The sustainable business model provides value at every step of the supply chain

That’s great design. You can help fund the AidPod project at Global Giving.

Update Interesting follow-up: the founder says that actually fitting into Coca-Cola crates wasn’t important after all… but it drove them to simplify the product in ways that made it successful.

Empathy and imagination

Is it possible that, we human beings–who are soft-wired for empathic distress–is it possible we could actually extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family, and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family, and to the biosphere as our common community?

If it’s possible to imagine that, then we may be able to save our species and save our planet. And…if it’s impossible to even imagine that, I don’t see how we’re going to make it.

Consuming and transforming

“Consumer” is one of those words I’ve never been comfortable with. Along with “user”, it refers to real people as simply receptacles for whatever companies churn out for them. It’s a lazy, impersonal, demeaning, and ultimately unhelpful word.

Alex Bogusky thinks that as consumption is inevitable, people just need to be better consumers. I agree that’s needed, but still believe our word choice matters and can be improved. Lots of other people think so too.

The most obvious and simple change is to substitute “people” for these dirty words. That works almost universally, and I use it effectively in my design practice. But today I stumbled upon a use of another word that is more than benign–it’s empowering:

Transformation.

The article itself takes the side of “producers”, acknowledging that nothing is truly produced; it is merely transformed from one (perhaps natural) state to another. Carrying that theme through to the people we design for emphasizes that they too will transform what they receive, putting their stamp on it, doing good or ill with it.

Transformation happens to products, commodities, experiences, and ideas. The word transformation recognizes that people have the opportunity to improve what they receive, but also the responsibility of managing it.

I’m going to try substituting the word “transformer” for “person” in my work–probably just to myself at first–to see if it changes my design decisions.

The real futurist’s refrigerator

Julian Bleecker deconstructs some of the endless “kitchen of the future” design exercises and comes away with some interesting insights for better conceptual design.

I wonder about the various settings and contexts used to re-imagine what the world might be like in the future. Often times those contexts, objects, environments are associated with what wealthy people would like for themselves in order to drive sales of new stuff…

Big change — those things should be consistent with the real, global, epic-scale challenges to living in the near future world — which have nothing to do with a refrigerator that lets you know you need more damn milk…

This idea of every-increasing efficiency would be consistent with the Jetson’s kitchen from the old fantastic cartoon…

I think this example of the Ikea kitchen also embodies the challenges of future-fying anything well. Too much fetish of the object and very specific, naive and — old fashioned — ideas about what people want in the future. ((Isn’t that ironic.))…

It drives me nuts that entities with the ability to bring about real, substantive change in the world bother to spend their money with this crap that’ll just be torn down after the annual investors meeting or the stupid trade show is over.

My takeaways: don’t stop at the generic, everyday solutions when you’re wielding your futurist tools. Take your powers to the world’s real problems or bring the world’s real problems to everyday objects (as Julian writes, a typical kitchen could be an interesting place to explore issues like climate change, water and energy scarcity, civil turmoil, etc). IDEO did this well with their Living Climate Change series.

And no more smart refrigerators, please. We get it already.