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


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.


TongJi LecturePlan.001

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.




An Overdue Update

It’s been a long while since I last updated this blog and major changes have occurred in the meantime. Once again, I sailed across the oceans and made a cross-country (cross-hemisphere in fact) move in July 2016 to undertake a new and exciting role as Professor of Sustainable Design at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. This opportunity came up at the right time as the project I was working on in Melbourne was approaching an end so while I was evaluating my options for my next career move. I started my job at Aalto on August 1st and in the past eight months I’ve been busy moving, settling, networking and learning. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the faculty in Aalto Department of Design which is ranked as 13th best design school in the world this year.

In the meantime an article I started to work on when I was in Melbourne, together with lead author Fabrizio Ceschin (UK Brunel University), got published in Design Studies. In this article we discuss how the field of design for sustainability evolved over the years from a focus on individual artefacts to systems. This article received very positive attention, yielded a book chapter in an upcoming book from Routledge and Fabrizio and I have been quite humbled as it became the third most downloaded article of the journal in a very short period of time following being published.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 10.52.37 AM

Currently I am running a two-week intensive course on design for system innovations and transitions at TongJi University in Shanghai as part of Aalto-TongJi collaboration in education. Reflections on this experience will follow shortly.

Innovating for Sustainability Transitions: Disruptive Innovation or Discontinuous Innovation?

Disruptive innovation has become a chewing gum in the mouths of the CEOs of small and big companies. Everyone wants to be a “disruptor” regardless of their market positioning or innovation approach. Unfortunately, disruptive innovation has also become a buzzword haunting the theoretical, practice-relevant and practical work of design and innovation academics who can be broadly placed in the field of system innovations and transitions for sustainability. I am not intending to argue against the general usefulness and relevance of the term within the mainstream management theory and practice. Instead I’d like to argue against its use in the context of system innovations and transitions for sustainability and propose that we use “discontinuous innovation” instead. The following paragraphs have a go at why.

The term “disruptive innovation” was coined by Clayton Christensen in his seminal book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” in 1997 (Christensen, 1997). Hoping to avoid any injustice to the intricacies of his theory, my simplified understanding of Christensen’s use of disruptive innovation puts emphasis on business model innovation (i.e. organizational innovation) by adoption and use of new technologies for offering new products/services that’ll meet the anticipated needs of users instead of focusing on meeting the current needs as an innovation strategy. This we understand as design researchers and practitioners very well albeit implement only occasionally. One could argue even, the whole premise of the non-diluted version of design thinking movement is based on this approach to innovation. If you’re not inclined to read Christensens book but would like to develop your understanding based on primary source, Harvard Business Review has an article in this month’s issue (Christensen, Raynor &McDonald, 2015) (in which the authors complain about the misuse of the term and how it has been made meaningless – just like what happened to “sustainability” and “resilience in the hands of greenwashers and whitewashers).

The theory of disruptive innovation is very relevant to system innovations and transitions as it explains how niche innovations can become successful and take over the incumbents (at least within the dominant economic paradigm). Nevertheless, the emphasis is on single companies and the “disruption” is not necessarily disruption at the level of socio-technical systems. The chances of a particular disruptive innovation being a significant factor –a core cause- in systemic transformations at the level of socio-technical systems is low, although, considered within the dynamics of a socio-technical system, one disruptive innovation may trigger a series of changes over time that could eventually add up to a systemic transformation. Disruptive innovation theory is somewhat congruous to the multi-level model of system innovation and these two could be integrated for a better leveraging of the niche-level. I’ll leave thinking of potential alignments of two theories to another time and move on.

Discontinuous innovation, although also a management buzzword, hasn’t made the mark disruptive innovation has, perhaps because no Harvard professor has yet written a book about it. According to the “lexicon” of the Financial Times, discontinuous innovation and radical innovation are synonymous and point to: “a paradigm shift in science or technology and/or the market structure of an industry”. Garcia and Calantone (2002), on the other hand, provide a more nuanced explanation and articulate that discontinuous innovations may be radical innovations or really new innovations depending on which level they influence (firm and the customer, i.e. micro, or the world or whole industry and market, i.e. macro) and whether they affect marketing or technology S-curves or both. According to them, radical innovations create discontinuity both at micro- and at macro-levels as well as embody new technologies and create new markets. On the other hand really new innovations create either technological or marketing discontinuity at macro- level and at micro-level they may create either or both (see table below). So, in this typology, the most common yet least acknowledged type of innovation –really new innovation- becomes visible and better articulated in terms of discontinuity.


From Garcia and Calantone (2002, p. 121)

Nevertheless, the problem with innovation typologies developed in management and engineering disciplines perceives the world of innovation to consist of two dynamics, i.e. market and technology, and as only taking place in firms. When we talk about system innovations and transitions on the other hand, we include innovations in socio-cultural and politico-organisational contexts (i.e. individual and group behavior, business model, governance model, institutional set-up) and several other actors in addition to firms. Therefore, framing discontinuity in system innovations with a narrow set of parameters and with references to only one actor is not sufficient, however, the strength of the concept of discontinuous innovation as understood in mainstream theory comes from its acknowledgement of the contextual changes that an innovation may create in addition to changes within the organizational boundaries where the innovation took place. For this reason, discontinuous innovation as a concept is more promising in terms of being able to take into account the complex dynamics of socio-technical systems.

Another reason for discontinuous innovation to be the preferred term in the context of system innovations and transitions is the implicational alignment of the concept of discontinuity with the required level of change for socio-technical systems to become sustainable (which is often referred to as “radical”) and the methodologies used in identifying the practical interventions necessary (mostly visioning and scenario development work to identify policy development and/or R&D investment requirements). I am hoping to write another post on creating imaginaries of discontinuities using these futures inquiry approaches in the near future.

References I cited in this post:

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C. M., Raynor, M., & McDonald, R. (2015). What is disruptive innovation? Harvard Business Review, 93(12), 44-53.

Garcia, R., & Calantone, R. (2002). A critical look at technological innovation typology and innovativeness terminology: a literature review. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 19(2), 110-132. doi: 10.1111/1540-5885.1920110


Design for System Innovations and Transitions

For more than a decade, it is known that sustainability is not a final goal but a journey; a journey that’ll require fundamental shifts and radical changes in our socio-technical and socio-ecological systems. The accumulated knowledge on managing system innovations and transitions is now used by governments and industry to navigate these complex, long-term, multi-dimensional structural changes. OECD has recently published a synthesis report on system innovations and framed system innovations and transitions not only as an innovation challenge but also as a “deeply political project” highlighting the need for shifting away from incremental innovations and pointing to the challenge of overcoming vested interests in doing so. The report also highlights the role of technology and business in processes of system innovations and transitions.

Of course the importance of making policies to enable and steer system innovations and transitions cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, since early days of system innovations and transitions discourse, although a lot of emphasis has been put on “niche innovators” as key actors, there has not been much work on how design and innovation decisions taken by these niche innovators can be aligned with long-term, large-scale systemic transformations. Maybe it has been taken for granted that once policies are put in place, this micro-level of the system would behave in favourable ways. When we look at the broad practice of design for sustainability though, it is hard to find evidence supporting this assumption; the majority of design practice is still engaged with incremental innovation and is dangerously techno-optimisic although system innovations and transitions require technological appropriateness (not “technology development” per se, but selection and implementation of technologies appropriate for the context) AND social change to take place simultaneously.

Design is no-doubt a future-oriented activity; many designers today would also claim being “change actors” for a “better world” without being able to articulate the politics of these claims (whose future? better for who? change by what means?). Purity of intentions aside, the 250 year long history of the profession created a professional culture which has predominantly been a servant of short-term commercial interests. Therefore, the future orientation of design is still short-term compared to the temporal frames that are subject to system innovations and transitions. To cut a much longer story short, design activity and design practitioners are key elements of endeavours to create systemic shifts towards sustainability and there is a need for developing theories and practical tools to reshape the culture (and practice) of design. Not an easy task by any means but one that has started to attract attention both in design theory/practice and in theories/practice of system innovations and transitions.

An article I co-authored with Prof. Han Brezet making an initial attempt to develop a conceptual framework that can inform development of practical tools and approaches for design and business community has been published in Journal of Cleaner Production and is free to access and download until December 8th. Comments, thoughts are welcome. This is “front end” of what’s emerging as a new field: design for system innovations and transitions.

Critical analysis of design and innovation approaches

Long time in the making, my paper “A critical review of approaches available for design and innovation teams through the perspective of sustainability science and system innovation theories” is finally in press and corrected proof is available online. The paper is based on my PhD work, nevertheless further developed and expanded in the past years. I submitted the manuscript to Journal of Cleaner Production in April 2013 and the review process took painfully long; not because the paper was challenged by the reviewers (all reviewers were quite positive about the paper from the beginning and provided very helpful feedback to improve its quality) but because the journal had been super slow in processing it in the first round following submission. Anyhow… It’s out there now.

In this paper I initially developed a set of evaluation criteria for approaches available to design and innovation teams based on sustainability science and, system innovation and transition theories. The set consists of five criterion: strong sustainability, systems thinking, radicalism, long-term orientation and mind-set change. Then I reviewed legislative and regulatory measures, voluntary initiatives, and design and innovation frameworks covering design for eco-innovations, product-service systems, design for the bottom of pyramid, biomimicry design, cradle to cradle design, and The Natural Step (aka The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development). Below is the table summarising the critical review findings.


Interview with Professor Chris Ryan


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)