Interview with Professor Chris Ryan

Part I: Systems and Cities in Design for Sustainability

Sustainability is not a property of individual products, buildings, materials or infrastructure. It is a property of socio-ecologic as well as human-construct economic systems these are all part of. The field of design and innovation for sustainability is increasingly adopting this view. Nevertheless, carrying out research based on this new understanding is very hard if not impossible within existing, traditional and disciplinary system of universities. The systemic view which is required in addressing sustainability problems calls for transdisciplinary research approaches. As a result, research groups which can be identified as “niche” are emerging in the universities of the world.

In the recent past, I moved to Melbourne from New Zealand, where I lived for eight years and undertook a PhD in the area of system innovation for sustainability, to work in such a research group at the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning of the University of Melbourne. This research group is Victorian Eco-innovation Lab (VEIL) and to my surprise it is known better internationally than in Australia. VEIL is founded and directed by one of my research role-models, Professor Chris Ryan, whose work I’ve been following for thirteen years. Chris played an important role in the development and adoption of the systemic research approaches in the design and innovation for sustainability field. I interviewed him on the development of design and innovation for sustainability field, sustainability transitions at city level and VEIL. Here’s the first part.

Chris Ryan

Prof. Chris Ryan, Director of Victorian Eco-innovation Lab, University of Melbourne

IG: Chris, you are one of the first few people in the sustainable design field who argued for the need of systemic transformations in production and consumption systems as early as in the 1990s when the field was dominated with single issue focus such as recyclability, material selection etc. Why is it important to focus on systems for achieving sustainability?

CR: Well, that focus came out of the recognition of both a success and failure of a quite extensive, government funded project here in Australia undertaken in parallel with a similar project in the Netherlands. This project focused on the question of “Could we take any and all manufactured objects and systematically reduce their environmental impact whilst achieving market success?”. In Australia, the eco re-design program did that with a total of twenty companies. A number of those were projects which were hugely successful with big gains in the marketplace. After systematically going through the environmental impact from a life-cycle perspective, we worked out how to design that out in partnership with researchers, design practitioners and companies. Among these products, for example, there was a dishwasher. By the time we finished the work and released it to the market, it was quickly bought up by Electrolux, which is a world leading brand in regards to energy/water efficiency in appliances. We followed the same process with small appliances, with vending machines (partnering with Coca-Cola), ink cartridges for printers, packaging, etc. We covered right across the product spectrum. We achieved great successes from a life-cycle perspective; we achieved typically what could be achieved through the approach, that is between 50-70% reduction in environmental impact. If we generalize doing this for almost everything then that’s a huge success. This project was a great success in terms of beginning to think about sustainability systematically from a product life-cycle perspective. The problem with this approach, however, is two fold: First, much of the gains in these products came by designing out things which should never have been there in the first place. In other words, taking the design task as if the environment mattered, which was never done before, we were simply eliminating some really poor design. This meant that if we were to follow the same process again to the same product we wouldn’t get 50-70% improvements; we would only achieve marginal improvements as big companies like Philips and others have discovered at the time. You cannot continuously improve “things” with significant results even in an ideal world where this approach was implemented to everything. In other words, you cannot decouple environmental impact from products with an improvement approach. Second, both from the sectors we worked in but more generally, it was becoming remarkably clear towards the end of 90s that global increases in consumption were outstripping the kind of reductions in per product improvement. That vision which was there for a long time, the win-win vision that we can achieve sustainability by simply redesigning all the existing things was being underdone by the growth in consumption. There’re a number of good examples some of which are very well documented, for example, by the British Government. You could see the improvements taking place –mostly through technology development- which was being underdone by the impact of increasing consumption, so the total impact from those products was starting to rise again. So, if the aim from a societal perspective is to improve the world in which we live, reducing the environmental impact from all areas of production wasn’t going to happen by only changing the production and design of products. That one glorious win-win ideal didn’t last very long. As a result, we realized that we had to begin to think about the nature of consumption and about what’s driving consumption. All of that work -beginning to think about what you gain from products as services or functions- started in the late 90s. The history of most things we supplied as labour services are replaced by machines in the history of modern manufacturing and consumer products. The first question, then, was “Is there a way of doing without products and going back to services and do services generate a bigger reduction?”. In some cases, again in an ideal and theoretical way, it seemed that it was true, however, there’re very few examples that services have really done away. Even if services were associated with products, there’re some wonderful ideas but in thinking those ideas the following question was “How could the production and consumption system be organised such that there would be a really significant change in absolute consumption?”. We know those things now; they cover collaborative ownership of products or sharing of products, products that are leased and repaired, etc. Ultimately though, the most significant change can happen only if there’s a sheer reduction in unnecessary consumption. There’re figures from a US study, I think it was of Amory Lovins’ work but I’m not sure, indicating that only 1% of products sold, purchased, owned in the US are still being used after 6 months. This means that we exist in a world in which consumption actually is an act of making instant waste. We extract out of that incredibly short transaction some kind of satisfaction that doesn’t last for us long enough so we do it again and again and again. This is not new. It’s clear for decades; we know from the environmental movement of 70s that we can start to make significant changes only by changing the patterns of consumption. This incredible, embedded commitment to the idea that the world only survives if the economic growth continues is increasingly recognized as the fundamental root cause of sustainability problems both in its environmental and social dimensions. Therefore, increasingly more, we acknowledge that we have to start thinking about the systems that underpin the nature of economic activity. Design and innovation for sustainability research is shifting towards demonstrating the possibility of alternative systems through which human life can flourish and quality of life and wellbeing can be assured without a growth oriented economy through experimentation and modelling of new ways of organizing economic activity. These cover generation of new business models, even new ways of governing society so that its innovative potential can be brought forward and communities can be empowered and become resilient.

IG:  Chris, your focus has shifted from production and consumption systems to even larger systems. At VEIL under your direction researchers look at transformation of cities, of urban environments and of associated support systems. Why is it important for us to focus on cities now?

CR: There’re multiple reasons. Some of these in a sense “just arrived” while we were doing a continuation of this systems work. First, in the early work, that is in taking a life-cycle perspective in environmental impact reduction the idea of systems existed. The focus was diffuse to cover reducing impact with regards to biodiversity, water/air/soil quality, etc. which are of course absolutely essential if we are to have a sustainable future. One thing which wasn’t as dominant in the thinking of 90s as it is now, in terms of the suite of things we have to address, is climate change. Climate change brings with it two areas of focus: one is simply reducing the pollution to air and atmosphere stemming from the processes of production and consumption because we have to and because action is urgent if we are to have a future. This is all about mitigation; this has become a major focus of trying to achieve sustainability. But the other side of the equation is the historical increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which means that the climate is already changing. We are realizing that regardless of how successful we are in reducing emissions, the future is going to bring significant changes in patterns of weather. Now I introduce those two things because they suggest the necessity for a two-fold and coherent strategy: one about mitigation of climate change and at the same time processes to adapt to changing conditions. These two have to be coherent; you shouldn’t go in one direction for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions only to find out that by doing so, you made it harder to adapt. So, this is kind of the broad change that is happening in the sustainability research landscape. Second, coming back to the issues of what drives patterns of consumption, there’s a recognition that there are many drivers of consumption at the social system level and reducing consumption is not going to be achieved through intervening into individual behaviour as individuals are embedded into communities taking on particular patterns of living. We’re beginning to think about what can be changed at a community level beyond individuals to provide for forms of satisfaction that are not reliant on rampant overconsumption. Third, now more than half of the world’s population live in cities and in thirty years time this figure is projected to be 75%. The urbanization of the world is enormous. Cities, if you measure them as agents of the problems we face, are the driving forces of 75-80% of all greenhouse gas emissions. They’re dynamic driving agents of the worst kind of consumption. So, simply from a pragmatic point of view, cities are where the change has to take place. But the other thing is, which is about the positive side of cities as well, we’re beginning to understand the good cities; cities at a particular scale –it is a question mark what that size is- actually provide the kind of social conditions for innovation. That kind of creative interaction comes from the social mix in the cities. That’s partly why people move into cities; cities create dynamic social forces for innovation and change. So, somehow or other, in cities there should be the possibility to emphasise the social, the innovation, the creativity, to both find a way out of the problems we have and also to change patterns of consumption. But once you start looking at cities, you also realize that cities are being challenged right as we speak now. Especially evident in Australia is that cities have been built over a long period of time based on an understanding of and dealing with the weather patterns –the rainfall, the seasonal temperature change, the wind directions etc- as well as considering provision of human comfort, to provide us with food, water, and so on. Therefore, physical form of cities and the objects of cities, that are buildings, infrastructure and support systems, are all grown over time based on an assumption that we can expect the weather patterns and variability of those weather patterns to remain constant. But we already know that this is not the case. Time and time again now, major weather events or significant shifts in the average seasonal temperatures are making the existing infrastructure of cities very vulnerable and unable to deal with the new conditions. So for all of these environmental and social reasons, cities seem to be the only places to start really. It’s in the redesign of cities as physical, infrastructural elements as well as places of human habitation, community, social interaction. That is the only hope. Coincidentally, since the financial crisis of 2008 there is a very cogent argument being mounted from so many people that, where new economies are emerging, they’re not emerging from the old places of national governments; they’re emerging from cities, from people actually making decisions and taking action in sub-communities, sometimes as small towns or sometimes as whole cities.

IG: Can you give some examples of cities or communities driving this change?

CR: Yes, there’re numerous examples, we’ve known some of them for a long time. Majority of examples are from the developing world, not from the developed world. I think, if you look back on it now, the conditions of the physical embedding of power were much loser in them. There’s the famous example of Curitiba in Brazil where whole new ways of thinking about the city was possible and were achieved with remarkable outcomes. And there’s a whole host of examples within so called developing countries where big changes have taken place out of desperation at an earlier stage and without the entrenched push back from existing power structures. It’s much harder in the developed world because there wasn’t the driver until the financial crisis. Because power is literally embedded in the world around us by who owns it, by what cultural, historical and social cues are given, by the kind of structurally embedded consumption. In most Australian cities there’re parts of the cities that are grown over the last few decades, 3 or 4 decades, where it is structurally impossible to survive without a car because there is no alternative for it. So there’s also a type of consumption which is fundamentally structural and therefore obligatory. This kind of consumption patterns can easily be built into cities. Examples of recent case studies arguing that cities are the basis of the future can be found in some of the work of Richard Florida, by Edward Glaeser’s book “Triumph of the City”, in the recent book of Brookings Institution “The Metropolitan Revolution”, and in several reports by McKinsey’s. We also witness emergence of these global networks of cities aiming to make changes and support each other.  It’s very inspiring to see that in most of these places cities don’t exist as a formal governance structure and yet they’re big enough to generate economies.

-End of Part I-

(Part II: Victorian Eco-innovation Lab)

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