To Shanghai and Back: Running a Pilot Course on Design for Sustainability Transitions

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Shanghai, view from The Bund 

Aalto University and TongJi University in Shanghai are in the process of materialising their collaborative partnership in education discussions for which started few years ago. I’ve been one of the lucky professors who were given the duty to run a pilot course in TongJi. The main aim of these pilot courses are to familiarise ourselves with the working culture, facilities and students of TongJi and to identify logistical as well as pedagogical requirements together with TongJi staff we need to take into consideration when further developing the curriculum. In line with this aim, I went to Shanghai on March 4th and came back yesterday, on March 18th. I delivered a masters course entitled Creative Sustainability: Socio-technical Transitions to Sustainability. Before my departure, I was on one hand very excited with the prospect but on the other hand very nervous as I felt like I was facing several unknowns that I needed to manage: First, I had no idea about the school’s facilities, in what kind of a room I’d be teaching and weather it’d be suitable for the purposes of the course. Second, although I always had a couple of Chinese students in all my classes in New Zealand, having a class full of Chinese students was new for me and I was worried whether I’d be able to understand and work in accordance with the cultural differences between me and the students to give them a good learning experience. Third, due to logistical difficulties I wouldn’t be able to invite any of my Aalto colleagues as guest lecturers and decided to try to invite colleagues from TongJi but I practically knew no one except from an Italian colleague who had been working there for several years. I invited her for a guest lecture but she couldn’t commit until very close to my departure date as she her teaching schedule was not ready. Fourth, I was going to teach theories which were essentially about radical, structural changes that had predominantly been developed in Europe and therefore are based on certain cultural assumptions that are not yet tested in Chinese context. So, I wasn’t sure how the students would react to what I was about to teach them. Fifth, as I have little understanding of Chinese culture I was worried to somehow make a big mistake that would strain Aalto-TongJi relationships. Upon reflection, now I know that all I needed was actually to prepare my lectures (which I did) and not worry about the rest (which I didn’t).

Muumi and Sauna and the Funkiest Elevator in the World

My class was to be held at the Sino-Finnish Centre, which was outside of the main university campus, ten to fifteen minutes from my hotel. At the airport in Helsinki I bought a box of Muumi biscuits to give to my students in the first class as an icebreaker and to introduce something “Finnish” to them. But first 4 levels needed to be climbed for which I took the world’s slowest yet funkiest elevator. To compensate for the pace of the journey, there’re couches to rest on and many photos with familiar faces from Aalto to look at. I learned that every now and then the elevator stops and traps people in but it was a relief that there were people I could call in case I were in such trouble.

When I finally arrived at the fourth floor, I realised that there is already a lot of Finnish presence in the centre -Muumi and sauna meeting rooms, Finnish-Chinese hugging point, Marimekko design couches, etc- and so my Muumi biscuits would break the ice but wouldn’t be a cultural exposure hit after all. I had 17 students in my class, all female, and five of them were exchange students from Italy, Sweden and Germany. The background of students covered industrial design, environmental design and architecture.

I designed my teaching to consist of two parallel running tracks: one on theories of sustainability transitions and the other a group project through which the students would get a chance to implement the theories as they learned about them on a step-by-step basis by doing the front-end work for a mini-scale transition experiment. We had classes everyday except for Mondays for two weeks and the final presentations of the group project was on March 17th.

 

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Lecture Plan

The students engaged enthusiastically with the lecture content and the project from the beginning and worked incredibly hard within the short time period allocated for the course. The first day was probably the most challenging for the students as they were introduced to several new concepts and models including systems thinking, multi-level model of system innovations and multi-phase model of transitions. The second day compensated for this by being a day allocated to initial project framing, site selection and data collection. Together we discussed what is feasible within the limited time and went over the data collected to develop actionable insights. Then the rest of the first week went by alternating days of lectures and project activities. The second week started with a lecture on strategic niche management and a guest lecture on open design which the students enjoyed immensely. In the rest of the week I introduced students to backcasting from a desired vision. The students developed timelines to show how their vision can be achieved in fifteen years time and who should be involved based on the stakeholder analysis they undertook in the first week. Then they ideated for an initial ‘acupuncture’, a small, scalable project that can start today to trigger the transition. On the last day before the presentations the students spent all day in the studio and I made myself available to them for feedback and final critiques.

On Friday morning I was rather excited. One, because the day before the Dean Lou Yongqi had invited me for a short mIMG_7147eeting in the morning. Two, because my students were going to present in the afternoon and the course would come to an end. My meeting with the Dean was short and sweet; he had a mini tea ceremony set in his office from which he poured tea in tiny cups. Not knowing how to appropriately receive the serving I felt a bit clumsy, but Dean Lou made feel comfortable by creating a light conversational atmosphere. We talked about the Väre building in Aalto campus which is going to be the home of School of Art, Design and Architecture once it is completed in 2018.We exchanged few jokes as well as good wishes. Following my meeting with the Dean, I went to the studio to find all of the groups working hard to finish their presentations.

The presentations started at 2 pm. Apart from me as the main assessor, there were three colleagues from Tongji to provide comments and give marks for moderation purposes. Following the presentations we left the class to discuss and reflect while students completed feedback forms. We all shared the opinion that the students did a good job within the given the timeframe although their work could be pushed further with certain arrangements we may try in the next round. Following this discussion and after students finished filling in the feedback forms I went back to the class to celebrate completion of the course and to farewell. Then I rushed back to my hotel room to read the feedback forms as I was very curious what the students thought of the course.  IMG_7161

In general the overall feedback was very positive. The students thought the course added to their knowledge and skill set and listed several specific things they learned and thought to be valuable learnings. Two main improvement suggestions stood out as being mentioned by the majority of students: 1. The short duration of the course made it difficult for them to reflect on and digest all of the learnings and the pace was trying, 2. Some of them struggled with English and stated that it’d be good to have a Chinese course assistant. I have a list of things I thought could improve in how I designed the course and I will incorporate these in the second running of the course. I have also noted down several improvements needed about the practical arrangements and logistics which I’ll share with Aalto and TongJi colleagues to together work on.

I arrived back to Helsinki yesterday, on 18th, in a state of happy exhaustion. The past two weeks have been intense and tiring but yielded to many learnings and rewards. Collaborating across oceans and cultures is not the easiest of undertakings, nevertheless, it opens new doors, creates new perspectives and inspires new projects. I feel very lucky having had a chance to run a course in China on a topic that has been my primary research focus since I started my PhD in 2006. What a privilege to look at my work from others’ cultural paradigm as it’s reflected in their practice. Also, what a great chance and learning opportunity to put to test my teaching style and pedagogical assumptions. And on top of this, having the opportunity to shortly glimpse at a dazzling city I never had been before.

 

 

 

More Value to P2P than Uber and AirBnB: The Neglected Commons

Recently, Grattan Institute here in Melbourne published a report on peer-to-peer (P2P) economy arguing it could save Australians $500 million on taxi bills, help them use underutilized assets and generate income and increase employment and income for people on the fringe of the job market. The report argued that governments should adopt policies to facilitate growth of these businesses while also regulating for downsides. It is a worthwhile report to read.

What I’d like to raise as an issue is not the content of this report but the scope. First, the report has left out discussing benefits of a large portion of P2P economy that is commons-based and framed “the” P2P economy as businesses who own proprietary online platforms that allow people to “sell” their services (let it be provision of a ride or a clean bed or use of a product for a few hours) to others. The businesses thus enable “micro-businesses” –which is great- but without necessarily empowering those micro-businesses by enabling them to contribute into the development of the platforms, co-designing of the business model the “mother” corporation operates under or by providing a fair share of the value generated although the overall value in these systems are generated by those micro-businesses.

Grattan Institute’s report is unfortunately not the only publication that overlooks the commons-based P2P economy; this is a common attitude in media and research institutes alike. This could potentially be attributed to the high lobbying power that is held in the hands of “sharing economy corporates”. For example, I remember attending a “policy pitch” event at the Grattan Institute in February 2015 on “regulating the peer-to-peer economy”. This event featured David Plouffe, Uber’s Senior VC of Policy and Strategy at the time, who is in fact a political strategist and was the campaign manager of Barack Obama in 2008. He flew all the way to Australia to legitimize Uber which was facing a for amount of rage from the taxi sector as happens in every city Uber “disrupts”. Since then, us Uber users in Melbourne receive offers from Uber to cuddle kittens in our offices for 15 minutes delivered by Uber drivers etc; we’re used to Uber “making our day” through advertising campaigns all targeting the correct demographics and therefore cannot say no when we receive messages that go like “Sign a petition so that Uber is not banned in your city”.

The neglected part of the P2P economy needs more attention though; first technically it has been around much longer than the uberised versions and can easily be traced back to early days of open software movement. Second, there is a lot of under-appreciated value in commons-based P2P economy. To understand this a bit more, particularly in the context of sustainability transitions and resilience in cities, we in VP2040 project undertook some exploratory research that also involved an expert consultation and prepared a summary report of our findings.

I strongly recommend a full read; it’s an interesting report with references to lead thinkers in this area and features the best examples of peer-to-peer commons economy. But for those who prefer protein drinks over real meals because they’re too busy to indulge in life, here’re the key messages:

There are three value models competing for dominance in the digital economy: traditional proprietary capitalism, peer-to-peer exchange and peer-to-peer commons models. The latter two were relevant to our investigation.

In a peer-to-peer commons economy there is an effective creation AND sharing of a resource by peers. A peer-to-peer exchange model is about creating and financially benefiting from platforms that connect peers to trade, sell, or rent excess idle resources. The difference between the two value models is a lack of consideration and contribution into the commons in the implementations based on the latter model.

The direct socio-environmental impacts of the two peer-to-peer value models are similar. The main differences are indirect and structural and stem from the different implications of the two value models in business model development, product and service design and structure of wage-labour relationships. See table below.

Summary of indirect and structural socio-environmental impacts of the two value models

 

Peer-to-peer exchange model

 

does not address overconsumption or deal with consumerism at a cultural level

 

the dematerialisation effect observed by some is not because there is less material throughput in the economic system, it is because there is an additional, very resource efficient economic sector based on cognitive labour

does not raise environmental awareness as argued by some but only reinforces the existing awareness (at best)

 

planned obsolescence is an inevitable part of business models which are for-profit

 

the users are not contributors to the platforms which creates a wage-labour dependency

Peer-to-peer commons model

 

assists with re-establishing the relationships between workers, products, users and means of production through localisation and direct participation (except in cases in which low-cost raw materials come from somewhere else)

 

encourages diffusion of local knowledge, therefore incentivises designs that suit best to the context

 

encourages higher resource efficiency (planned obsolescence and other means of creating artificial scarcity is contradictory to the logic of a commons based economy)

 

circulation of commons does not necessitate an increase in scale as the value is created by a reciprocal relation between benefit and nurture. Nevertheless, the peer-to-peer commons value model is agnostic about growth which might be a barrier for sustainability because any digital commons necessitate natural commons

A digital economy in which a set of companies own or control important city data poses a danger for cities as it creates the risk of ‘data feudalism’ as well as incentives for business models that undermine sustainability and resilience. There are also unresolved ethical questions about ownership and use rights of data generated by citizens through the use of proprietary or non-proprietary peer-to-peer platforms.

There are different options for how digital technologies can be deployed in cities depending on which technologies and business models are implemented. However, it is uncertain which options will yield to highest sustainability and resilience outcomes.

Based on the expert consultation and our research findings and reflections, we proposed the following policy recommendations under four main categories:

  1. Developing and Implementing Citizen-centric and Democratic Governance Models
  • Understanding and leveraging institutional, organisational and cultural enablers for creating sharing cities
  • Developing and implementing models of governance for the physical and digital urban commons
  • Facilitating and widening the scope of public debate on urban data and peer-to-peer alternatives
  • Facilitating participatory decision-making and budgeting
  1. Managing and Leveraging Urban Data
  • Supporting the development of a digital open design commons and open information platforms
  • Establishing and supporting experimentation with data and technologies in cities
  1. Developing and Supporting New Models of Business and Securing Finance
  • Educating, empowering and collaborating with digital entrepreneurs to direct innovation efforts and resources towards decarbonisation projects
  • Identifying and developing financial enablers of the digital economy that will assist in radical decarbonisation
  1. Maintaining Socio-economic Resilience
  • Leveraging the expected changes in distribution and number of jobs across sectors by creating employment opportunities that will help shift to a decarbonised economy

 

 

Reflecting on 2014 at the Blurred Boundary of Personal and Academic Experiences

It’s mid-December; a summer day in Melbourne, beginning of the final week before the holidays. 2014 has been a challenging year for me more than it was rewarding. The challenges mostly stemmed from steep learning curves I encountered associated with the “newness”; adapting to life in a new city, adapting to a “research only” academic position after three years of juggling lecturing, research and program leadership, finding my own feet (or not) in a new project in a new area (the urban) focusing on a new context (Australia). Time for a reflective account at the blurry boundary of personal and academic life in 2014.

A New City

I have completed one year living in Melbourne in August. This city where I came knowing absolutely no one has treated me very nicely by offering many creative and intellectual stimuli which kept me and my mind occupied and content despite the difficulties associated with the absence of an established social network. Being born into a city is an entirely different experience than acquiring it as home later in life as a mature person, even if temporarily but for an extended period of time. Currently I know many things about Melbourne that born-here Melbournians do not such as the mysterious Cave Clan thanks to Sophie Cunningham’s delectable book “Melbourne” which enabled me to bond with this city as a result of developing a historical and contextual understanding of it. The stories of how different migrant communities came here are full of fascinating details as well as the early colonial history of the city. Melbourne has never been boring for me in this year and there’re still many to discover about its history, culture, architecture and diverse communities. Nevertheless, experience of place is closely associated with experience with the people of the place. I have been lucky to meet with some people through my Turkish and New Zealand networks so now I have a few people to hang out with and enjoy several attractions the city has to offer. Nevertheless, I still have not build deep enough relationships with anyone. Whenever I think of a potential emergency, I cannot think of a person whom I’d call for help. An unsettling and a first ever occurrence in my life. Relationships take time to mature and require a lot of mutual effort. I know this is not a unique experience of mine but many others, some of whom being close friends scattered across the world by choosing to be mobile members of the global labour force for we follow positions that suit our unique expertise, financial expectations and lifestyle choices rather than choosing a place to settle and making the most of what’s available there for our ever insatiable intellectual and emotional needs. What we rejoice in and suffer from have a lot of commonalities no matter where we are in the world: missing family, friends, connections that are in fact sustained offline, in cinemas, cafes, beaches, museums, and around our own dinner table instead of on Skype or on Viber. We are an emerging sociological phenomenon: rootless white collars of the global urban. In an internet connected world where traditional office space is becoming redundant for many professions this is a contradiction. Just like Buckminster Fuller had to stop being a polyphasic sleeper because his business partners found his work patterns disruptive, we are expected to be “working” at the same time as our immediate colleagues. Although displays the importance and influence of local economic interactions in individuals’ lives, I find this requirement archaic and I’m dreaming of a time when I can work from anywhere I please for anyone in the world who’d like to receive my services. As much as I love living in Melbourne, if I could do the work I’m doing from anywhere I wouldn’t choose to live here. This has been one of the revelations of this year. The following question is of course revolves around the relative importance of the work I’m doing in the big picture of my life. This is something I’ll reflect on in 2015. One thing that clearly occurred to me is that I don’t want to move to yet another new city, ever again. My wanderlust has settled, at least seems to be for the time being.

Here’s a piece of research related reflection stemming from my experience of having recently moved to a new city: In envisioning futures of cities, we mostly assume those futures are for permanent inhabitants. How would a desirable, sustainable, resilient city look like, feel like, be like if more than half of its population were temporarily but for extended periods of time residing there. System innovation work involves strategising for the transformation of socio-technical systems meeting societal needs or “functions”. We assume the need to be met in similar ways or function to be fulfilled to carry the same characteristics, but what if it all changed? For example the need for shelter is met by housing development although property ownership is not anymore merely for meeting a basic need but also for investing. So some people own more than one residential property while increasingly more (but not yet many) people in big cities opt out from the option of buying a house and commit to renting throughout their life for this or that reason one of which is “being mobile” like myself. What are the economic, cultural and social implications of a potential mass movement of not buying but renting in cities? What institutional, organisational, social innovations would be needed to make a city functional, desirable and liveable in such a scenario?

A “Research Only” Position

One thing I can say: I miss teaching. I miss teaching not only because I see teaching as a great way of intervening in the systems I’d like to see change but also because managing time and measuring performance is much easier when there’re set short-term commitments to fulfil. I thoroughly enjoyed the few experiences of guest lecturing this year. In teaching you know that you touched someone’s intellectual buttons almost immediately but in research your influence is spread over longer term and is indirect most of the times. I think I am a short-term interventionist although my research is about the long-term changes. This personal characteristic, which seems like a dilemma in the first place, is resolved through my research ambition-i.e. linking micro-level changes with macro-level transformation. Nevertheless, my work in this has remained dormant throughout this year. I’ve been feeling that I’ve been fulfilling project tasks without any creative license so I took the initiative to start developing two small projects I can do with project partners which I can frame, design and run. I need to be strategic in how I manage these as the only way I will be green light by my manager is if I demonstrate direct relevance and importance of these projects to the main project I’m employed for. The whole phenomenon of having a “manager” has been challenging for one I chose to be an academic in order not to have a manager as such. I miss being my own research boss. In this process, I also reflected on what I’d like to achieve with my work and many questions arose if academic career is still the best option for this. These questions gave birth to other questions on the most suitable base for my academic work and a potential of mixing of academic work with consultancy. I don’t yet feel ready to make any major changes in my current set-up. All I can conclude from this year is that transdisciplinary research doesn’t go down well in traditional research universities no matter how niche the immediate base of the researcher is; same performance criteria applies to all researchers at central level and disciplinary researchers always have the advantage in an institutional set-up that is still predominantly disciplinary. But all of this is irrelevant if I don’t aspire a faculty position where I’m currently working at the end of my contract.

A New Area of Research in a New Context

I find the urban as a research area fascinating for it is a highly complex system and increasingly a focus in sustainability transitions and system innovations research as a key intervention context. On the other hand, I was hired for the project I’m working on because of my expertise integrating sustainability science, system innovation/transitions theories and design research, at least this was my understanding. When I pointed out at the time when I was offered the position that I don’t have in-depth knowledge of urban theories, I was reassured that there were other researchers in the project with this expertise and so my shortcoming in this area was not an issue. My hope was to continue developing my expertise in integrating design research with system innovations/transitions and sustainability science. However, this hasn’t been the case so far. The first year of the project passed by fuzzy front end work involving engaging with stakeholders, organising workshops, writing foreground papers with no academic novelty, and trying to adapt to being a member of a collaborative team which, after fifteen months still struggling to collaborate effectively. The roles and how we will bring in knowledge and expertise from our respective domains has not been clarified. I struggled with finding my feet, framing my own contribution and positioning design research in the project. I cannot say that I have succeeded in this yet. It is unclear to me how design research fits into the project as it is mostly focusing on policy. Although there are several opportunities to bring in design research into the project, including policy making, design research focuses on the micro level and the project focus remains very large-scale. The kind of design research I’m interested in is about people and practices more than it is about artefacts and technologies; the project focuses more on the technologies and physical elements of the urban. Although there is emphasis on the requirement of socio-cultural change and organisational transformation, and that design research can offer a lot in this regard, as a result of running a highly ambitious project, in a politically challenging time of Australian history in relation to climate change, with a small team with only one member having an interest in and knowledge of design research and a relatively small budget compared to similar projects undertaken elsewhere I am not sure if there will be opportunities for me to use my expertise effectively and build on it through this project. This is also another reason why I started developing small side projects with partners; so that I can directly work with the “users” of the project to make project learnings immediately relevant for their organisation through different methods of design research. This is also aligned with my desire to build on my specific research interest of linking micro level with macro level in system innovations and transitions. But as I stated above, I am uncertain if my time allocated to these small projects will be seen justified. I am learning to negotiate my way to meet my needs as a researcher while meeting the needs of the overall project.

Besides navigating my way through these challenges, I managed to squeeze in trips to New Zealand and Turkey in June and September respectively. I wrote about my New Zealand trip in the previous post but I didn’t get a chance to report on my Turkey trip. Although it was officially a holiday, I met with very interesting people who are working in sustainability, futures and social entrepreneurship fields which gave me the insight that the discourse and practice in sustainability, strategic design, futures inquiry and entrepreneurship has come a long way since I left the country in 2005. I could observe this in my annual visits looking at the steadily increasing number of people attending the lectures I gave and workshops I held. Nevertheless, during the time I spent in Istanbul this year, I had the chance to interact with professionals in addition to academics and became aware of a few exciting initiatives including Studio X Istanbul (Istanbul base of global urban think tank), Gelecekhane (futures think tank), Kadikoy Council’s design thinking initiative and S360 (an international sustainable business consultancy). One of the highlights of my time in Istanbul was having to -thanks to a sweet-talking friend- give a “lecture” about my experiences of Gezi Park protests to Danish sociology students right in the heart of Gezi Park with only two hours notice. I tried to frame this on-the-spot-spontaneous-lecture in the context of global urban based social movements focusing on the right to environment to make it somewhat academically relevant to my work although the students were more interested in hearing about first hand anecdotes about the events.

I think Turkey is currently a very interesting context to look at through system innovations / transitions lens. On one hand policies and practices that are completely counter any understanding of social, cultural, environmental sustainability at the central government level, on the other hand, a wide variety of niche innovations initiated by some local governments and a young urban entrepreneurial population which is no less informed, knowledgable, creative than its global counterparts but perhaps with fewer resources and less empowerment than some.

 

 

Interview with Professor Chris Ryan

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Part II: Victorian Eco-innovation Lab

(Part I: Systems and Cities in Design for Sustainability)

IG: Chris, we talked about the need to shift from objects and artefacts to systems in design and innovation for sustainability, cities being the new and necessary systemic focus. Let’s also talk about Victorian Eco-innovation Lab (VEIL) a bit. VEIL is known as a future-focused ‘design-research-engagement-action’ laboratory. Can you please explain what this means?

CR: Right from the start of VEIL the changes in systems that we’ve been thinking about have been those changes which would mitigate CO2 emissions but also very strongly about resilience and adaptation. When we reflected on this, dealing with mitigation and adaptation simultaneously, the idea of shifting away from centralised systems of provision –energy, water, food, transport, information etc –, which have been the dominant ones in the last two hundred years or so emerged. These systems of provision resulted in ever-increasing production, ever-increasing distance of distribution of production, ever-increasing dependence of consumers as only consumers who are removed from any action in relation to production except from the current choice between brands. Instead, at VEIL we’re positing a networked system of provision with much greater localization and much greater diversity. This is the Internet model for production and we think it is potentially much more resilient; in fact that resilience is intentional. If one part breaks down the others can continue to work. The distributed model has a much greater social and cultural impact. We can begin to think about the future lives of cities where production and consumption is much more distributed across the city in all of the provision areas we talked about. Food was a dominant system in our research in early days. You can think about the fact that everybody is to some extent both a consumer and a producer; even if they’re not directly involved in production themselves, they understand the local nature of production. But we can do that in a networked way more effectively. VEIL started with this idea of exploring what would happen if in all areas of the provision of goods and services we moved to a distributed model. Without going into too much history, because the lab is 8 years old now, it started in 2006, the big shift over time has been to place ourselves within a university, at least within University of Melbourne. In Australian context VEIL is fairly unusual; it is a research lab, it has researchers who get research funding but really, VEIL’s position is not embedded in the university itself; it sits between the University and community. At VEIL, we’re interested in research which can be directly influential on changing conditions of engagement with the community in a process which is fairly open where we can say, “here’s what we think are the challenges for the future” and then work with communities to search for possible solutions and to generate other areas of research. But half the research we have now comes from the visions of the future generated in earlier projects. Our biggest success and strength has been to work out over time how to involve final year master students -broadly in the design, planning and engineering areas- in the work that we do. In a way that satisfies, more than satisfies actually, their educational program by getting them involved in not just today’s planning and engineering problems but also future’s. This gives us a huge force to work with; to engage with communities, to rethink how the future might be structured and to ponder how we might get there. So, VEIL is involved in design, research, engagement, action and teaching as part of a whole unified strategy to create change.

IG: What are some of the projects VEIL is working on currently? Why do you think these projects are important?

CR: Well, in that engagement space the most enduring program we have now is called eco-acupuncture. Eco-acupuncture is VEIL’s process of taking research and thinking about the challenges of the future, as well as some of the elements that might allow us to address some of these challenges into real communities and places; “precincts” typically of the size of ten thousand people where the challenges in terms of resilience, extreme weather and reducing CO2 emissions and so on are complex. Eco-acupuncture projects are not about changing buildings; they’re about life, they’re about the infrastructure of survival as well as the culture. We take our students and our research, go out into these precincts and we engage in a process of work with representatives of the community to think about alternative, much more distributed 25-year futures. We do try to resolve environmental problems as well as improve well-being, health and all of those other things. Then, on the basis of that work we try to identify interventions that the community can make now; many small scale interventions that might start to open paths to go in the direction of distributed futures. Over time we’ve understood that in the nature of that engagement process, it’s best if we take all university research and education out into the community. For this purpose, we set up a “shop”, a kind of design lab in somewhere terribly public in shops, disused schools, disused town halls, surf life saving clubs etc. We work with the students and the researchers through our process of analysing what the challenges are for a particular area with lots of engagement with the local councils and the representatives of various local organisations and we develop visions of potential futures based on distributed future solutions. We exhibit these visions and carry out more engagement with the community while they look at those visions. When I use the word “visions”, I literally mean “visions”; visual representations of the future designed by students, then on the basis of some degree of acceptance, of intrigue and perceived plausibility for those futures by the community. Then we present another round of design work; proposals for things that could happen now that are small enough, that they’re within the ability of the local communities to do but also experimental; small enough so if they fail that’s not a big disaster but experimental enough so if they succeed they can replace business-as-usual. This work coming out of eco-acupuncture projects gives us the backbone for some of the research projects that are within the university and more traditional research projects which cover mathematical modelling and scenario analysis to understand what is possible for Austalia’s future in terms of food. There is some work about researching the nature of current pathways by which communities access food and how that can be improved with the purpose of trying to intervene by setting up new experimental ways by which connections between producers of food and consumers of food can be made in a way that improves health outcomes and improves sustainability. All of this work in a sense comes together in a very new, big, national project, in fact the project that you’re the principal researcher of, which aims to engage communities, business, governmental organizations and researchers in thinking about possible 25-30 year futures for Australian cities as low carbon (in the current terminology) and resilient. It’s called Visions and Pathways 2040 and it’s a four-year project funded by Cooperative Research Centre Low-carbon Living.

IG: VEIL carried some of its work at international level. Can you please explain some of these projects?

CR: The work that we’ve done in precincts in Melbourne, in country towns and so on, in some ways are better known overseas than in Australia. We had lots of requests to present VEIL’s work to other universities from different places ranging from Asia to Europe. Finally, two years ago, the City of Florence came to us through a very strange and indirect way. Somebody had seen our work, mentioned it to the City of Florence and the City came to us explaining that they have a fundamental problem with the future of Florence. Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and preserved in that way. It’s increasingly there simply for the gaze of 12-14 million tourists a year and yet it’s a city that is trying to exist in that partly artificial past in a slightly theme park way while environmental conditions, weather conditions in particular are changing dramatically. So we went to work with the City, we took a whole team and some European partners joined us to redesign possible futures of the City and presented ideas on how the future might unfold for Florence. When we went there it was the fourth or fifth year of a severe draught, summer temperatures went regularly over high 30s and frequently over 40 degrees. It’s a city that has no trees in public places none whatsoever, it’s a city in great danger from flash floods and in winter the conditions have deteriorated as well. So there was a very clear clash between the future viability of that UNESCO museum and future survival of Florence. We took a team of students to work there with the support we got from a philanthropic organization attached to the University of Melbourne and the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning. We spent an intensive period of time working in the middle of the City, following the process of eco-acupuncture. There was lots of interaction with the residents and council representatives. Many of them were very challenged and surprised by some things which they thought should not be able to happen because they have an idea of fixity and preservation. We went back there with the students and the City itself as well as New York University Florence campus as partners. We furthered the work we started and produced a series of propositions the City should look at in particular; not blueprints of what they should do, but guides for how they might approach the future development of Florence. We have recently get into agreement with the City of Rotterdam in the Netherlands to carry out a similar eco-acupuncture project for Rotterdam starting from this year.

Florence Vision: Greenaissance Flowers and Distributed Innervation
The old Court House is the prototype site for a new network of reconditioned ‘Ghost building’ spaces, that all feature prominent retractable solar collection arrays or ‘solar flowers’. The Court House features creative studios, research and experimental facilities and an exchange space. Small start up companies can take advantage of the flexible studio spaces for developing new sustainable businesses. The Solar array ‘flowers’ provide energy and amenities for the host buildings and create a provocative addition to the heritage skyline of Florence.

Florence Vision: Arno Wetland Functional Landscape
A functional and recreational wetland is constructed along the banks of the Arno in central Florence. The lifeless space of the Lungarno is transformed into an extended night and day leisure corridor with active riverbanks. This is designed to act as a flood mitigation strategy, provide water purification and easily accessible green space for Florentines. Sustainable bioremediation techniques are exhibited within the park and horticultural activities such as flower growing are featured.

IG: The new project you mentioned earlier, that I’m working on, Visions and Pathways 2040, is a very important project for VEIL, bringing all the expertise accumulated in VEIL over the years of its existence, as well the current projects which are ongoing together, and it is a large project in terms of the partners and stakeholders involved. What would you like this project to achieve in Australia?

CR: One quite simple thing -which is the same thing we achieved in eco-accupuncture projects and I think perhaps the most critical thing to achieve in this project as well, that it overcomes a sense within the community that the change beyond a small variation of business-as-usual is simply not possible, that perhaps the most problematic issue in terms of changes associated with climate change, in dealing with significant structural change is that most people think that change is not possible. There’re surveys which ask people what kind of future they want. People respond with wonderful, radically non-business-as-usual ideas. But when they’re asked what kind of future they think they will get, their response is present carry through to future. So there’s an increasing gap in that sense. In a way, through this project if we can move in to situations where we’re able to say “The future can change. It can change quite quickly and here’re some ways in which future might be very different than the present” and do that in a way that people, communities, businesses, service companies, built environment companies and so on can get ideas about alternative futures, then I think we can achieve a lot in terms of speeding up the change. The critical issue is, we know we need to make changes within a remarkably short period of time. We sit at the end of two hundred years of development based on fossil fuel consumption and we’ve got 25-50 years at the most to completely unpack that and replace it with something else. Nothing like that has been achieved before. So we need ways in which we can address and overcome areas of resistance. The simple answer to your question is: to have sufficient communication of alternative visions of futures. We’re already in the process of generating these; we’ve touched, had the input from, have engaged with many people but hopefully through this project we can widen the audience of our message and the visions created in this project can become intriguing senses of the futures and demonstrate future doesn’t have to be straight line continuation of present, that it can be dramatically different.

IG: Chris, all of this is very exciting. I learned a lot about VEIL through our conversation and I am looking forward to actively take part in Visions and Pathways 2040 project as a researcher. Thank you for your time.

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)

Sailing to New Oceans

I am sailing to new oceans… In fact, I am moving onto “city level” challenges.

I have resigned from my job at Auckland University of Technology where I taught design and innovation for sustainability and design futures across three programs (Design Major, Master of Design and Product Design) in two faculties (Faculty of Design and Creative Technologies and Faculty of Business and Law) as of Friday August 9th. I am moving to Melbourne, Australia to take up a role as a researcher at the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL) of University of Melbourne. The project I will be working for at VEIL aims to explore and articulate visions, scenarios and policy pathways for a low carbon built environment in some Australian cities. I am very excited with the prospect of working in a project which looks at systems (i.e. cities) larger than what I’ve focused on so far (i.e. organisations and production-consumption systems). This will enable opportunities for me to use and expand my knowledge on system innovations, design futures and transdisciplinary research. I am also very excited that the project leader is Prof. Chris Ryan whose work I’ve been following for thirteen years. Maybe I died and now I’m in researchers’ heaven.