Written for the Guardians new Resource Efficiency Hub, Great Recovery project leader Sophie Thomas explores how waste is a design flaw, and how we need to rethink products to ensure fewer end up on the mountain of e-waste.
Six months in and The Great Recovery programme, run by the design team within the RSA’s Action and Research Centre has begun in earnest. Our investigation into new design methodologies for a circular economy has thrown up some big very complex challenges. Trying to consider the re-design of even a fraction of the 600 million tonnes of products consumed in the UK is a pretty daunting task.
We are a linear nation with only 19% of the materials in those products being recovered and re-used in the UK. Our current best practice for recycling electronics is to sort, crush then export to somewhere else to refine. Of the 40 odd elements in the ingredients list for each of appliances even the best recovery facilities in the EU can only recover at best 16. A designer may come up with the best design for disassembly but with our current infrastructure there is still a very high chance it will end up on the e-waste mountain. The answer lies in the re-design of the ‘material to manufacturer to consumer’ system and making it circular.
Resource scarcity feels like a problem that should be solved by technology or sorted by government. The reality is that this challenge is so big and complex everyone must pick up the gloves. When approx. 80% of the environmental impact is locked in at the concept design stage the reason why we bring together designers, technologists, chemists, waste experts, manufacturers and businesses to face the mountain is clear. The material recovery path must lead the design process and this process must be co-created by all those that are part of the supply and recovery chain.
Our investigation has focused on re-imagining products by looking at their material flow cycles; taking emphasis off the product itself which, you could say ‘borrows’ materials for a period of time shaped into a form before ideally releasing them back into the cycle at the end of the product’s life.
We do not currently design or manufacture like this. This becomes obvious when you take these objects apart and try to split out the ingredients. Toothbrushes, disposable coffee cups, books, TVs, houses; all designed and manufactured with endless lists of materials that are moulded and fused together by machines on efficient production lines, but in the process making them impossible to disassemble so that materials can be recovered.
Our workshop participants swapped their studios and offices for rooms that overlooked enormous waste mountains deep inside packaging recycling plants, textile sorting centres and electronic waste recovery facilities. We spent days in engine re-manufacturing factories, material science laboratories and went down a disused tin mine in Cornwall. These places were physical demonstrations of the potential value in resource and the current best, but by far complete, practice of recovery. Those that came to the workshops walked away with a new sense of reality that came to be known the ‘Fear, Farce and Challenge’.
1. The Fear is a reaction many of the designers have expressed when they are asked to ‘look at the product they spent months designing, launched to much fanfare a year ago that now sits in the mountain of rubbish’.
Waste is a design flaw. Current design process only takes us to the point where the consumer picks it from the shelf and takes it to the cashier. We rarely consider what happens post-consumer and when we do our knowledge is out of date and often incorrect. Designers hide behind the brief saying they have no power, they only deliver a service – so brief writers were invited to the workshops too.
2. The Farce is the growing realisation that in order to make these appliances we had to source piles of raw material (including some from war torn areas, or perhaps extracted using slave labour), invest in numerous production processes around the world and ship them from continent to continent incurring many ship and air miles’.
A new laptop can cost you under £300 but if you track the flow of raw materials from the mines to the factories and distribution centres the average computer travels the equivalent of three or four times around the world before they end up in the hands of the customer. Designers have to work with the global market system and it would be naïve to think otherwise but understanding material flows and designing to circular economy principles could result in more local and less carbon intensive production. Traceable supply chains designed around transparency can enhance resource security and support the corporate social responsibility objectives many large manufacturing businesses have adopted.
3. The Challenge is to re-think the design of our products from first principles. Pull an item off the waste mountain and take it apart. Understand what is in the product, where the materials came from and why they are there? Most objects disassembled at the Great Recovery workshops were not generally made to be taken apart. Take LCD TVs that have hazardous light tubes full of mercurial vapour, which must be taken out by hand before they can be put through the crusher. Some models have over 250 screws requiring 15 different screwdrivers to undo before you can extract anything.
The process of deconstructing an object (also known as ‘tear-down’) in order to understand how it has been put together and how it can be improved is a well-established design tool. Many Japanese electronics companies train new designers on the recycling floor before they are allowed to enter the design studio. Many designers talk about their misspent youth tearing apart anything they could lay their hands on with nostalgia and joy. It engages the practical maker/creative part of the brain and even the hardiest consultants and heads of finance attending the workshops had glints in their eyes when handed a pair of safety specs and a hammer.
This newly re-set vision allows you to see things in a different way. Some things become ridiculous – a disposable electrical toothbrush becomes an electrical appliance with a 4-month life designed with multi-moulded unrecyclable plastic, a long life battery and almost as many elements as a mobile phone; some things become opportunity – a laptop is for life and is fixable, upgradable and eventually will be sent back to the manufacturer for dissassembly and re-use, but everything seems to need re-designing.
The Great Recovery is supported by the Technology Strategy Board that is funding 50 feasibility studies selected through their competition on re-designing for closed loop systems. www.greatrecovery.org.uk
 Design Council
Today I had the pleasure and the privilege of being a judge at this year’s RSA Student Design Awards (SDA). The competition issues briefs to young designers to demonstrate how the insights and processes of design can solve 21st century problems. The brief I was on the jury for, created in partnership with Yorkshire Water, was to design innovative solutions to help individuals and communities value water more. There were quite a few amazing entries, which made the shortlisting process challenging, but in the end we arrived at a very strong list (congratulations to my colleague Sevra Davis who heads the SDA programme, and to Robin Levien RDI who did a great job in facilitating the discussion).
The main themes of the entries were metering, and how to make better use of rainwater or grey water. Apart from some genuine insights I gained from going through the folders (how much water goes to waste only to heat up the shower!), I was delighted to also see entries from Hong Kong, the Czech Republic and Cyprus. In fact, SDA is becoming more international every year. Last year, with Eva Besenreuther for the first time one of the winners came from abroad.
As I am writing this post, the first ever RSA-US Student Design Awards are about to stage their annual lecture in New York at the Cooper Union this Friday (congratulations to David Turner FRSA and the whole team on this terrific Fellow-led initiative). The keynote will be delivered by Kevin Owens, Design Principal of the highly successful London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. On Saturday then, the big day, there will be a whole host of high-calibre speakers at the RSA-US SDA event itself, which will be followed by a reception. If you’re quick, perhaps you can book a spare seat.
Which brings me to another first for the RSA: Starting this autumn, in collaboration with Genovasi Malaysia we will run the first ever RSA Genovasi Malaysia awards as part of the SDA programme. As part of a consortium including Pearson, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam and Singularity University, we will partner to reward craft, ingenuity, insight, communication and social benefit of the designs of a new generation of Malaysian students.
And we are currently exploring further countries to add to our list together with the RSA Fellowship. Next year the SDA programme, which started in 1924 and is the oldest design competition of its kind in the world, will be going strong for 90 years – what a better way to celebrate than for RSA Student Design Awards to go global.
This post was originally published on the Great Recovery blog page on February 27th 2013.
Last week another BBC documentary caught my eye. “The Hunt for Britain’s Metal Thieves” was an action-packed-shaky-camera –police-chase-o-rama of a show, but hidden beneath the ‘police-camera-action’ style footage was a very serious message.
We’ve all heard of lead being stolen from church roofs, and probably all been delayed due to theft on the railways – I was left fuming without internet for three weeks last year when telephone cabling was stolen in my area, but despite this I was still shocked by the extent of metal theft that is currently happening throughout Britain.
Metal is extremely, extremely valuable. In 2011, an estimated 15,000 tonnes of metal were stolen. In just the last 3 years, £13million worth has been taken from British Railways alone, including copper cables, clips that hold the track down, earthing straps, overheads, power lines and even the track itself. A former metal thief, ‘Matt’, revealed that he could get up to £1000 to £1500 in just one nights work.
I think the most shocking footage in the programme was from 2011, when in Castleford, Yorkshire, 3 terraced houses exploded, with fire crews forced to evacuate and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage caused. It transpired that this was due to thieves targeting overhead electricity cables for their copper. Cutting this cable had removed the earth of the electricity supply, which was diverted into the metal in the structure of the houses. The now electrified gas pipes heated up and caused an explosion. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt, but for a piece of copper worth £40, this could have had some truly tragic results.
In Sutton, Surrey, a more unusual form of metal theft is taking place, in the shape of man hole covers. A huge 50 covers were stolen in just one weekend, and as soon as this number crept up to 200, the council knew that they needed to do something about it. Instead of using heavy metal covers, they are being replaced with replica plastic models, which are of far less worth. On top of man hole covers, 1 war memorial per week is vandalised for its bronze, and there have been cases of silver sanctuary lamps in churches being stolen in broad day light.
So what happens to all this metal once it has been nicked? As soon as it’s back in its ‘raw’ form (i.e. bundles of copper wire, all casing removed) there’s no way of telling where it’s come from, so scrap yards – an industry worth over £5 billion in Britain – have difficulty identifying whether they are buying stolen goods.
When metal leaves the scrap yards, it is loaded onto containers, a huge amount of which are shipped to countries such as China. There are 3 million containers a year of scrap metal shipped from Felixstowe port alone, and in 2012, 420 containers were searched along the East Coast of Britain revealing half a million pounds worth of stolen scrap metal on its way to China, Africa and India.
Paul Robinson of the London Metal Exchange explained how in the last decade, metal prices have risen between 400-500%. 10 years ago, copper was trading at around $1,500 per tonne, but by 2011 this figure had risen to $8,500 per tonne. Why is this growth so rapid? “Consumption has grown because of the growth of China. In 2011, China consumed as much copper as Japan, North America, Europe and Russia combined.”
And is this set to settle any time soon? No, says Robinson. Even when China stops growing, there will be countries like India, waiting to have their turn. Our metal prices are going to continue to rise.
So what can we do to stop this crime? Preventative measures are already being put in place to make it harder to sell stolen metal – since 2012, scrap yards have been required to detail transactions and ask for ID, and cash payments are being discouraged. But is this enough? As long as metal is worth so much money, and so readily available on our doorsteps, there will always be people to take it.
But where is this theft going to stop? Sweeep in Kent told us how they have to be extremely careful of bales of scrap plastic casing (from computers etc) being stolen, as the cost of plastic is now soaring, and last week at LMB Textiles recycling in East London, we heard all about the huge amount of organised crime there is surrounding recycled clothing. Gangs will know when ‘collection days’ are for charity bags of clothes, and get there just before them. Textiles recycling ‘bins’ are a regular target for crime, with second hand clothing selling for a premium in Africa. We are seeing reports of people trapped inside these recycling bins while trying to steal the clothes inside, and even ‘dangling children’ into the bins to get at the valuable textiles.
Clearly this is not just an issue around metals, but an issue around material security and scarcity as a whole. So how could re-designing for a circular economy attempt to solve some of these issues? There’s no doubt that materials are going to become any less valuable, so we need to reassess how we use them and what happens to them at the end of their life. These stolen materials are being ‘recycled’ – but not by the right people at the right time. At the beginning of the design process, we need to assess the products life and design accordingly. This is why we have developed our circular design map. Designing for longevity is not always the answer, and clearly is not suitable for every case. We can also design for a service model, for re-use in manufacture or for material recovery.
Our need for a more circular economy is driven by economic factors. Risk to our supply chain is increasing, and the cost of materials is rising sharply, putting pressure on businesses to change. We need to shift towards more circular systems and good design thinking is pivotal to this transition.
“The Hunt for Britain’s Metal Theives” was aired on BBC One, 12 February 2013. All images credited to the BBC.
This blog post by Miquel Ballester was written as part of a series of guest blogs on the Great Recovery site.
Miquel Ballester believes in the power of making the right products to bring positive impact to the world. He is responsible for product strategy at FairPhone, a social enterprise that is putting ethics first in their journey to creating a fair smartphone.
It was during a very inspiring conversation over coffee that we (Bas and myself) got to know Nat Hunter, co-Director of design at the RSA, and one of the brains behind “The Great Recovery” project. It was just prior to it’s launch and it was an inspiration to us that two organisations like the RSA and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) had joined forces and networks to really make it happen. For us at FairPhone The Great Recovery is a compelling example of how to bring together stakeholders as diverse as designers, producers, consumers and business investors together on the basis of shared responsibility.
At FairPhone we are taking a similar approach in realising our vision of creating technology that really matters. By making a FairPhone, we are creating a fairer supply chain, improving working conditions for miners and manufacturers, addressing the issue of minerals mined in conflict zones, countering e-waste, and stimulating transparent and circular business models and, most importantly, creating a platform from which we pull together ideas and re-think the way we design our economies.
We believe that the best way to create our ethical smartphone and start a movement for systemic change, is to open up the systems and bring together all the stakeholders. The platform created by making the FairPhone will offer companies an in-road into sharing best practices as well as raise awareness about individual and collective responsibility. Using a single tangible product. I’d like to take this opportunity to shed some light on how we as a social enterprise are dealing with some of the challenges of producing our fair smartphone.
First, obviously, is the ‘minor issue’ of money. To develop a mobile phone from scratch, or better said, from ready components , the initial investment is roughly a million pounds. For a start-up, this could be seen as an overwhelming obstacle, one that could prevent us from even trying. But what we thought was a niche market of aware consumers, is in fact a bunch of enthusiastic people and companies who are willing to invest in our phone because it offers them a means to take action and make a statement for what they believe in. We are no where near a million pound investment and so our first phone will focus on ethical interventions, rather than develop new technology, but over 5,500 people have already signed up for a phone on our website and come May, another 5,000 will be able to buy one.
And speaking of production, our second challenge involves production models. It’s taken the world decades to build the current economic model we have and it would be naive to think that we can change it overnight. When it comes to our vision, we can be bold and embark on a journey and put social values before profit and growth. But when it comes to producing a mobile phone, there is a undeniable practical matter, which is that we need to operate within existing production chains. Our mission is to change the conditions around these production chains, to do that we need to open up and understand systems and pull together the creative initiatives that are already out there (eg. the Great Recovery’s platform around reuse, recycle) and apply them to the whole chain.
This brings me to the third challenge, our human condition. I have often heard said that we humans strive to be ‘better-off’. My view here is that we confuse ‘better-off’ with ‘more’. More in terms of stuff, rather than more in terms of how many people can benefit from what you do. Slowly, people are realising that our planet’s resources are limited, but also that ‘slimmer and faster’ are not necessarily the only improvement a phone manufacturer can make to its product. I feel that FairPhone’s proposition is powerful, it is ‘an idea whose time has come’. But FairPhone itself isn’t the movement, it is just riding the wave of change. Change that is becoming ever more apparent as projects like ‘The Great Recovery’ gain momentum.
As an social enterprise and a platform, FairPhone needs you, so if you know any relevant good practices that we could implement in creating and designing a fairer smartphone, please feel free to contact us.
 Full Quote: Victor Hugo “Nothing is as powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
This blog post by Julian Kirby was written as part of a series of guest blogs on the Great Recovery site.
Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth’s lead campaigner on its Make It Better campaign, works on supply chain reporting, resource use and waste prevention.
Trying to tackle the huge pressure that the over-consumption of natural resources places on our world’s fragile ecosystems can sometimes feel like trying to push an elephant uphill. So it’s encouraging to be working with so many innovators from different sectors as part of the Great Recovery. At Friends of the Earth we’re really excited about this movement towards a resource-efficient economy, in which products and services are thoroughly re-appraised with a view to reducing their environmental, social and economic costs.
Rethinking product design is central. One of my favourite parts of the Great Recovery is the tear-down workshop. Fancy trying to fix a disposable toothbrush or home coffee machine? You’ll see just how difficult the design makes any prospect of repair. But as well as reparability, designers should also consider factors like how the product performs and how it influences the user’s behaviour. The Great Recovery’s genius lies in bringing together all necessary players to ensure the final product is the very best for all of us – and our world.
That includes considering the demands placed on our planet by manufacturing. They can be boiled down to four headline categories: the amount of land required, how much water is needed, the weight of materials necessary and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. Friends of the Earth is pushing for new rules that would require large companies operating in Europe to report on these impacts, alongside other environmental and social indicators.
That’s because we believe that it’s only by recognising and emphasising these overlooked costs that we’ll start to see real progress in factoring them into how our products are made. As the saying goes, ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’.
Better management of resources would include things like less wasteful product design and shifting business models towards more hiring and less buying. The circular economy is a brilliant idea. But if it’s a circle that keeps expanding instead of sticking within our world’s safe limits then we’re still headed for trouble – just slightly later.
To bring the issue to life, our new Make It Better campaign tells the real stories of our products – what they’re made from, and what they affect along the way.
We’ve begun with an investigation into tin, a key component in all electronic gadgets. Around a third of the world’s tin is from the Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung, where our research found that mining is destroying tropical forests, choking coral reefs and devastating communities. Tracing back up the supply chain, we found evidence that tin from Bangka almost certainly ends up in products sold by Samsung and Apple.
More than 14,000 people have now asked the tech brands to reveal their supply chains and work with industry and communities to resolve the situation in Bangka – so far they have refused to say if they use tin mined on the island.
While we keep the pressure on the smartphone makers, offline and online (check out our recentdigital tagging of their stores using augmented reality), we’re also celebrating the positive steps some companies are taking towards more planet-friendly production and how innovative design can reduce the environmental impact of our favourite things.
That could be Unilever’s recent launch of a deodorant designed be half the size but last as long, with major savings on carbon and materials. Or Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket advertising campaign, launched at the height of Christmas shopping fever, which suggests that customers only buy what they really need. You can see more examples on our Pinterest Green By Design board.
Millions of us love our smartphones and other items. More supply chain accountability and design innovation would set us on track to being able to love the way they’re made, too.
Filed under: Design and Society, Uncategorized
One of this year’s RSA Student Design Awards briefs, ‘Improve Water Environments’ calls for a design (or re-design) of a system, service, product or environment that tackles issues of water pollution. Improving our water environments has huge benefits for people, communities, wildlife and the economy, but it is a complex problem that is notoriously difficult to solve.
On the 21st February, representatives from the Environment Agency and Thames Water hosted a site visit with a group of students to Valentines Park in northeast London to help us get to grips with some of the problems around this important issue.
Valentines Park, home to Valentines Mansion, a manor house built in 1696, has four bodies of water, including a small ornamental pond, boating lakes and a large main lake to the south of the park. The lakes take surface water drainage from all local roads and houses, and are all inter-connected across the park.
Surface water is defined as anything that runs from the roads, roofs, pavements and paths. It is essentially rainwater, which has landed! This needs to drain away to prevent flooding and networks of drains flow this water into our rivers.
Shahnaz Isaac and Karen Douse from the Environment Agency showed us several points throughout the park where surface water enters the waterways, and explained that contaminated water from surface water drainage systems entering our rivers is one of the biggest problems when it comes to water pollution.
This contamination can happen in several different ways:
1) Water waste being disposed of incorrectly.
Examples of this are washing your car with chemical detergents on a road, with the chemicals being washed down a surface water grate, and things like mop buckets and paint pots being emptied straight onto a road. This means that toxic chemicals bypass the sewer system, and instead enter the surface water stream, ending up in our rivers.
2) Mis-connections in properties
Laziness and/or lack of knowledge means that kitchen and bathroom water outputs are sometimes plumbed straight into the surface water system rather than the sewage stream. This water can be toxic for many different reasons – water from your washing machine containing chemicals, organic matter from waste food, and worst case scenario, sewage waste and non-decomposable items such as baby wipes.
It is the job of Richard Pumfrett from Thames Water, who works with the Connect Right programme, to identify properties that have mis-connections and advise them on correct water disposal.
It can be easy to spot potential culprits of mis-connections, of which approximately 2% of the population is guilty, and while we were on our visit, we spotted a property which looked like it could be one in this minority. You can see a large amount of pipes from the house empty directly into the gutter, indicating that contaminated water could be entering the surface water stream.
To test for mis-connections, Richard puts dye in the water at these properties, and then looks for traces appearing in surface water streams and outputs. This is a time consuming and laborious task, as permission is required from landlords to carry out the testing. Sometimes the council has to get involved, which can make the process even slower.
We were also able to see how entire roads can be checked for mis-connections. Manhole covers containing surface water drainage pipes are lifted up, and wire nets inspected for debris. If anything is found down here, like toilet paper (and we even heard of goldfish and mobile phones!) it is an indication of a mis-connection.
We all assume that it is chemicals and non-decomposable materials that are the main culprit of water pollution, but I was surprised to learn that organic matter is also a problem. We were shown a water output which entered into the park through a grate. This grate was littered with rubbish – mostly food packaging – and Karen showed us the resulting grey fungus in the water. This has not been caused by the plastic in the rubbish, but from the decomposing food scraps that remain. Feeding the ducks (of which Valentines Park has many) can even be bad for the water, with excess bread rotting and promoting the growth of the dreaded blue/green algae, which Karen described getting rid of as “a dark art”.
There is in fact a huge amount work being put in to improve the water environments behind the scenes at places like Valentines Park. And this isn’t an isolated case, it is mirrored all over the country. It struck me that the two main issues to be tackled here were behavior change and education (with huge design opportunities for both!). How can we encourage people to take more responsibility for water AFTER it has left their home. We are currently in the mentality that once water has left our house, it is no longer our responsibility, our ‘problem’; however we all want to live in a cleaner world, and see benefits of cleaner water environments among both people and wildlife. We need to start taking ownership and responsibility for some of these issues.
Do you have an idea to improve our water environments? Download the brief here, and enter the Student Design Awards, and you could win a 6 week internship with the Environment Agency, £2,500 and see your design idea developed into a real solution.
Deadline: March 22nd 2013.
Moby famously sang that we are all made of stars. And yesterday evening at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Professor John Wormersley, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, echoed Moby’s mantra (okay, maybe that’s a bit of stretch). Professor Wormersley spoke about how the search for black holes and the higgs boson impacts society and the economy.
Professor Wormersley’s talk was engrossing for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he emphasised the link between ‘big science’ (think of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year) and the implications for our daily lives, society and the economy.
While for many people (me included), our knowledge of theoretical physics may come mostly from reruns of The Big Bang Theory on E4, Professor Wormersley noted that we rely on the numerous outcomes and chain reaction results from ‘big science’ in our daily lives: the internet (originally Tim Berners-Lee’s method for information management for scientists at CERN), wifi (which was enabled through Hawking radiation), and MRI scanning (which comes from knowledge of superconductors). In short, we need theoretical physics to help develop and improve our economy, our health, and the environment.
Yet ‘big science’ is often viewed as a risk because it is in an investment in the unknown, the unexpected and can often fail. But, as Professor Wormersley pointed out, we must be willing to take that risk.
So, Professor Wormersley’s thesis got me thinking about design. Just as Wormersley emphasised the need for and the link between theoretical and applied science, I think we need both theoretical and applied design.
But how can we teach and understand and then reap the benefits of theoretical design?
We can interrogate the design brief. Instead of just applying our knowledge of design and the design process (observing, analysing, prototyping, etc. ), we should use design to question our motives and why things are the way they are, without necessarily expecting a certain outcome.
This is where projects like The Great Recovery come in. The RSA’s Great Recovery project is about how we can promote and foster a circular economy and for now, we’re focusing on making connections between science, design, manufacturing and policy. But, we don’t necessarily know what the end result will be – though there actually is some ‘small, medium and big science’ going on in our workshops related to the project) as we don’t know necessarily what the end result will be.
You might even call it ‘big design.’
Since October 2012 I have been lucky enough to undertake a 3 month internship in the design team at the RSA – which happily , has been extended to a 6 months (I’ll assume I have been doing something right!)
Social design (or design for social good, maybe an easier way to understand it) is a passion of mine; however this is an area that I feel is still sadly underrepresented in the design world. I was starting to tear my hair out at the prospect of finding an opportunity to gain experience within this sector; then I found the RSA internship scheme. A full time position with real, grown up things that most interns can only dream of, like a salary, and paid holiday, at a globally respected institution. Perfect. Even more perfect when they offered me the position!
Sadly, my time here is flying by, and it will be mid-march before I know it! So I thought I would take a few minutes to reflect on my internship and try to offer some insights for anyone who may be thinking of applying to the two amazing internships that are currently on offer. So here are three things that I have learned during my time at the RSA:
Just because you haven’t done something before, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a go.
This one is pretty self-explanatory really, but oh so true. People really appreciate a ‘can do’ attitude, even if this means shutting your eyes, pinching your nose and launching yourself in at the deep end. You can always ask for help if you are unsure, and as internships are one of the only opportunities you will have to try things out ,with no commitment, its 100% worth giving something new a go. The RSA has been great at encouraging me to try new things; take on responsibility, undertake training and work in different areas to those that I am used to. I have learned a huge amount as a result.
Doing stuff is good.
When people find out that I am a graphic designer, the most common response is something along the lines of “Oh, so you make flyers and stuff.” There’s an assumption that you spend all day every day wearing all black, laughing at comic sans, whilst glued to your mac. This couldn’t be further away from the truth at the RSA. Working with the design team has taken me to a water treatment site in Leeds, a plastic recycling facility in Dagenham, the RBS head office in Edinburgh and an e-waste centre in Sittingbourne, the senior common room at the RCA, various conferences and lectures, and a coveted seat at the Royal Designers for Industry award ceremony.
Closed Loop in Dagenham for the Great Recovery
Yorkshire Water treatment centre tour for the Student Design Awards
Royal Designers for Industry award ceremony, RSA
It’s been great that I’ve had the opportunity to travel around with the projects, meet some amazing people and see how the RSA functions beyond the office, but the most important lesson that comes from this is DOING stuff is so much better than just thinking about doing stuff. Ideas are great, but having an idea won’t get you very far, you need to act on that and DO something. This is something the RSA is great at, and I love hearing about all the other projects that are going on – what everyone is DOING! This leads me nicely to my final point:
The RSA is a complex organisation.
I thought I had a pretty good idea what the RSA was before I started working here, but I have been proved massively wrong. I am still trying to work out how to explain it in one sentence (answers on a postcard please!) When people ask me where I’m working and what the RSA is, I end up just reaming off project after project of amazing, fascinating work that is taking place under one roof. I wish I had time to spend a day with each team in the Action and Research Centre (ARC), as there are so many things happening that simply pass me by. And I would encourage any future intern to make the most of being here by immersing yourself completely – I only wish that I had done this more!
“People are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about” Tim Jackson, TED
I have been watching a series of films made by the Culture, Materials & Design Anthropology students at UCL for a brief set by The Great Recovery around people’s personal ‘stuff’.
Their footage follows a middle aged married couple in their home in South London (above) juxtaposed with another film of a young professional living in a newly built shared apartment in Notting Hill. The students were quizzing the inhabitants about their possessions. The shot pans around the house in South London, which is piled high with stuff; intricately carved wooden heads from Africa, stuffed toy animals, audio equipment with its vast quantity of snaking wires, CDs, books and trinkets. Kitchen drawers opened exposing a myriad of objects deemed ‘too useful’ to throw away. One of the couple starts to talk: “I don’t have anything in my house that is not useful to me, I don’t like objects that have no particular function”.
In the second film we pan around the stark white walled room belonging to a young advertising professional. Objects have been carefully curated on the shelves; an unopened beer can; a bottle of whiskey; a vintage camera. All these objects relate to specific moments, reflecting history through their creases and scuffs, and held in a personal space. A stark contradiction when we pan through to the small shared kitchen where chaos rules. Piles of food packaging flows from the bins and the shared fridge is smaller than a bathroom cabinet.
Watching these films made me realise three things:
1. The way I define usefulness is not universal.
I could see no intrinsic use in most of the stuff that populated the first house – but the couple who lived there clearly did. As a designer this is a very interesting concept. Can a trinket carrying personal memories be deemed useful? People’s possessions are testimonies to their history and not everything has to be practical. We seem to be very good at building attachment to our objects. We like to customize our things, and we define ourselves through the brands we have around us. Brands use this desire to build entire campaigns enticing us to identify with their lifestyle and therefore buy whatever they are selling – its clever stuff.
2. Many newly built houses are not fit for purpose.
The 3-bedroom apartment in Notting Hill was a new development. It’s built-in kitchen was not, it seemed, designed to cook in; its fridge was so small it had no room for fresh vegetables and and there was a tiny amount of preparation space on the counters.
RIBA’s report ‘The Case for Space: The Size of England’s new homes‘ highlights that the average 1 bedroom home newly built in the UK is 4sqm short of the recommended minimum size. It puts this into perspective by relating it to our use of space; 4 sqm is enough to work at home on a computer comfortably or ample room for a single bed with a bedside table and a dressing table with a stool. 57% of the people they surveyed said they did not have enough storage for their possessions and 35% said they did not have enough space for their kitchen appliances.
3. Designers can’t predict the user experience.
Finally, the question I had posed to the students was giving different answers to that which I had expected. I had asked them to observe people’s disposal habits, but the films clearly showed how bad we seem to be at this, generally keeping things for as long as possible to the point where we border on hoarding. In fact the UK is seeing a rise in extreme hoarding and we now have dedicated helplines for those that suffer.
Even though I am nowhere near extreme, I have a clutter drawer where all manner of things are shoved out of sight. Things I don’t know where to put but can’t yet face to throw away end up there. It’s where my old mobile phones live side by side with forgotten plastic toys from kid’s party bags, old batteries and pens that no longer work. When I open this drawer I despair in the same way one woman in the films despaired when she went up into her loft and saw the boxes of unopened possessions still carefully packed from a move two years ago. It was so much easier to close the door and walk away.
Our hoarding habits are beginning to become an issue: We are squirreling away valuable resources. Research done by Hallam University as part of their ‘What’s in my stuff‘ project estimates that the UK have over 85 million old mobile phones stuffed into those drawers. We pull out excuses that we don’t know where to send them, still hold useful addresses/pictures/fond memories in them or keep them for our kids to play with. Each phone is made of approximately 40 different elements including Copper in the wiring, Indium in the touch screen and Gold in the circuit boards. These elements are becoming increasingly viable to recover as the price of metals and minerals increase. There is more gold in a ton of mobile phones (approx. 300g) than there is in a ton of mined rock from a gold mine (approx. 1 – 5g)
Our clutter drawers are filling up fast. It seems it much easier to design things without talking to the people who have to live with the stuff and eventually dispose of it and with little or no consideration as to where our finished products will end up: re-used, recovered or landfilled once we as consumers are finished with them.
Incredibly the design industry still seems unable to fully understand the subsequent impact of design decisions. In an age where the rising cost of resource and increasing nervousness around security of supply of these raw materials is affecting business decisions and where 80% of the environmental impact of products is pre-determined at concept design stage this surely needs attention.
By Sophie Thomas, Co-Director of Design, RSA
With thanks to MA Culture, Materials & Design, UCL
On Monday 5th November, the RSA team spent a fascinating day at one of Yorkshire Water’s 83 treatment centres in Headingley, Leeds. Peter Thornes from Yorkshire Water’s education team provided 20 students working on this year’s ‘Valuing Water’ brief with a unique insight into the world of water treatment. Zoe Allis, R,D & I Project Manager at Yorkshire Water and the RSA Student Design Awards team also joined the visit.
The Headingley plant we visited treats enough water to serve 4.7 million people throughout the Leeds and Headingley area, and treats 1.24 billion litres of drinking water per day. To put this into perspective, this is enough water for everyone in the world to have a small cup full of water. Per person in this area, people use on average 153 litres of this high grade drinking water, a shocking 40 litres of that can come from leaving the tap on while you are brushing your teeth (which 10% of Yorkshire water drinkers admitted to doing!), 110 litres from a washing machine, and a hose or sprinkler up to 810 litres.
So how does the water get from the source to our taps – and where does it come from? Peter told us how 44% of the water treated in Yorkshire is from reservoirs, 33% from rivers, and 22% from boreholes (these tend to be on higher ground up in the peaks). The remaining 1% of water is from ‘tunnel gather’ – sitting water that is collected from the tunnels and pipes
This ‘raw’ water arrives at the plant ready to be treated. It is currently slightly coloured, with a high level of turbidity (tiny particles such as sediment, plankton, or organic by-products) and contains potentially harmful bacteria. This is when the treatment process begins.
The first stage is to remove to negatively charged turbidity by adding positively charged aluminium sulphite to the water – this is known as flocculating. This causes all the particles to clump together to form a brown sludge that, with the help of oxygen being passed through the water, floats to the surface. This sludge is now removed by slowly rotating brushes, which skim the surface of the water and brush the waste into the sewers.
After this, the filtering process begins. Only sand is used to filter the water, rather than the more traditional method of a combination of materials. These filters need to be cleaned daily, which takes one hour.
Once filtered, the water travels outside to the o-zone tank. O-zone is an unstable oxygen molecule, which provides a powerful oxidising agent that is toxic to most waterborne organisms. This kills everything in the water, and it is now ready to drink. However as the water is going to be travelling through the mains, it needs to be chlorinated to ensure its purity in case of leaks. The chlorine stays in the water for 30 minutes to ensure all bacteria have been killed, and that all of the water has the correct level of 1mg/litre of water. Finally the water reaches the underground tank ready to be piped to people’s homes.
Despite all of the processes that are happening 24/7 at the plant, there is usually just one person on site. The whole process is monitored by computer, and can be accessed externally if a problem were to arise.
After this fascinating insight into a process that many of us are oblivious to, and take completely for granted, we chatted to Zoe about the issues that arise when selling water. Water is a human right, and a life necessity, making it very different to selling gas or electricity, which can be cut off. People need water, and water companies are legally obliged to provide it. We are using more and more water, and the treatment centers can only produce a certain amount. Yorkshire Water are desperate to get people to cut down on their water use, but it is extremely difficult for them to monitor water usage.
All of the water that comes into our homes is this top grade drinking water, even if it is just used to feed the plants in the garden. Is this a wasted process if a large amount of water is not consumed? How can we get people to appreciate the quality of the water that they are using?
Water meters can only be installed at a customer’s request, and many feel that they are taking a gamble and will end up paying more than they currently are on a fixed rate. This is very often the opposite of the truth, and meters generally save people a lot of money, as well as allowing and encouraging people to be aware of water consumption. There can be difficulty when installing meters in old properties such as Victorian terraces, where the pipes are often in a tangle!
Leakage is also a big problem for water companies, as a huge amount of water is lost this way. Without a meter in place, it is difficult to find pipe leaks, and the old fashioned method of listening for the gushing of water with a long ear horn is still used.
With the UK’s population predicted to grow by 10 million over the next 20 years, the demand for water will increase. We need to tackle these issues now before we get to this point. How can we use design to communicate and reveal the inherent value of water? From everything we learned at the site visit, we feel that the solution will be holistic and take in behaviour and/or culture change, so that people improve their understanding of water as a limited natural research and commodity.
We can’t wait to see the design solutions that this year’s students submit in March 2013, both for the Valuing Water brief, and all seven others. For any more information on the Yorkshire Water site visit, or any questions relating to the RSA Student Design Awards, please contact Sevra Davis (email@example.com) or Hilary Chittenden (firstname.lastname@example.org). Download the briefs here.