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)

An Interlude: Forum for the Future’s System Innovation Animation

In my first entry, I wrote that the main motivation to start this blog which I have been planning for a long time came from Forum for the Future‘s new strategy about system innovation. Last week they have released a short animation announcing this new strategic move and explaining what system innovation is. I found the animation to be concise, clear and to the point. Of course, whenever a complex topic is simplified for the sake of making it easy to understand, there is selective elimination of certain aspects of the topic which make it complex (and which generally constitute the essence of the topic). But for this very reason, I think the animation is very effective. The main messages given in the animation are completely aligned with those messages us ranty academics have been trying to get through to the public, businesses and governments for a long time. The difference is, we write pages and pages long of reports, journal articles, books etc which none of these stakeholders can be bothered to read (even if they would bother and even if they had time, most often than not they don’t have access to the material) and these guys come up with a short animation which is fun to watch and not full of perplexing scientific jargon. Another important determinant of effective communication is of course the timeliness of the message. Governments, organisations and individuals are starting to realise that the sustainability issues are far more complex than we once thought them to be and there is definitely a need to move beyond single-issue-focused optimisation approaches. I’d like to share this animation here for two reasons. First, simply because I’d like to spread it so that more people will hear about system innovation. Second, using it as an inspiring spark for me, I’d like to ask some questions I have in my mind about how best to approach system innovation (which I’ll leave to my upcoming entries).

So, here’s the animation:

To recap, the main messages in this animation are:

1. Although there have been efforts to achieve sustainability for a long time, unsustainability prevails (my addition: in fact, the indicators tell us that it’s worsening at great pace);

2. In order to achieve sustainability, instead of focusing on individual elements (products, services, companies, etc) we need to focus on systems (my addition: well, sustainability is a property of systems and not of individual system elements, so please, no more “this is a sustainable product”, “we are a sustainable company” nonsense);

3. Focusing on systems requires collaboration of all involved stakeholders (my addition: well, practically every single one of us);

4. To achieve system innovation, measurement and analysis, futures thinking and futures inquiry tools, and, creativity and innovation tools are needed (my addition: this corresponds to the three types of knowledge needed for systemic interventions: 1. Systems knowledge; 2. Target knowledge, and; 3. Tranformation knowledge (Wiek, Binder & Scholz, 2006)).

5. FFF proposes to start their system innovation adventure focusing on three sectors: food, energy and finance.

References I used in this post:

Wiek, A., Binder, C., & Scholz, R. W. (2006). Functions of scenarios in transition processes. Futures, 38(7), 740-766.