Developing Socially Productive Places

March 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Public and private investors seeking to create socially and economically successful places have historically focussed on the economic aspect of that equation.  In keeping with our commitment to finding practical solutions for today’s challenges, the RSA is seeking to redress this imbalance: our current open innovation Premium is focussed on boosting investment in people, and we are now pleased to announce a conference this Wednesday in conjunction with British Land, focussing on the place aspect of this tripartite.

The impact of the physical environment on individuals has been well-documented in recent years, particularly in relation to the health and wellbeing benefits of access to nature.  Wednesday’s conference seeks to build on this body of knowledge – and produce practical outcomes – by establishing which investments in the built environment will have the greatest social benefits.

from the blog

It’s an issue which the RSA is well placed to address: research and action projects by our Communities and Public Services team have uncovered a wealth of understanding of the ‘hidden power’ of communities, and how value is created in the interaction between citizen and service.  Now we seek to apply these lessons to the interaction between citizens and developers.

This is where British Land come in.  Through their work on sites such as Regent’s Place and West Euston, they have gained substantial expertise in community mapping and engagement, resulting in facilities that local people want, which boost employment and help to reduce crime, deprivation and isolation.

We are looking forward to a day of expert insight, intense debate and collaborative working to identify the key barriers and opportunities in this sector.  Specifically, we will be focussing on the following issues:

  • Securing personal financial well-being: who benefits from building the built environment?
  • Investments which create shared value through community networks: maximising the social return on investment
  • Leveraging growth across city-regions: maximising the economic multiplier

Please feel free to follow along on Twitter, using #developingplaces or live-stream the keynote address (12.30-13.00) and closing plenary session (15.55-17.00).

We look forward to welcoming delegates to RSA House, surely the paradigmatic socially productive place.


Conor Quinn is Communications Intern at the Action and Research Centre, RSA.  You can follow him  @conorquinn85

Climate Change: My Beef with the Collective Action Problem

January 20, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Most of us recognise that climate change is both serious and caused by human activity, but few of us are managing to turn that recognition into behaviour change to reduce our impact.  While this is a multi-dimensional issue, I suggest two crucial factors are that:

  1. We know that many of the things we do are ‘bad’, but can’t see any way of making constructive changes that don’t require a drastic and unrealistic transformation in how we live
  2. We know that most changes won’t make a difference unless other people do the same, so acting seems like a pointless sacrifice

I think that a bit more information might change our minds on both these points, and make it a bit easier to motivate positive behavioural changes.

Revolution vs Evolution

To take just one area where these factors apply, consider what we eat.  It is widely acknowledged that eating meat is probably not the most ethical thing one can do.  In addition to animal rights concerns, the production of meat is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation.  To summarize:

  • Livestock accounts for almost 1/6 of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • An area of the world’s rainforests 2/3 the size of the UK is destroyed each year to create grazing land
  • Over 2/3 of global agricultural land is used to grow crops for animals in feed lots while a billion people go hungry

With population growth and the rise of new meat-eating middle-classes in developing countries, all of these problems are set to multiply.  It is therefore clear that current Western levels of meat consumption are completely unsustainable.

The implication is that we should all be vegetarians.  But personally, though I had long accepted the moral argument, I simply couldn’t envisage changing my behaviour so drastically. The end result was that I didn’t change at all.

But that was until I made an interesting discovery. To paraphrase Orwell, while all animals are equal, it seems some are more equal than others.  Red meat (lamb and beef) is by far the biggest offender, requiring many times more land, feed and fossil energy to produce.  This is partly because these animals are such inefficient converters of feed into meat.  Cows require about seven kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat, compared to around three kilograms for pork and less than two kilograms for chicken.  NPR made this useful infographic to illustrate just how resource and emissions-intensive beef is: 

What It Takes To Make A Quarter-Pound Hamburger

What it takes to make a hamburger

The above doesn’t even include the copious quantities of methane these animals produce – a gas which has 23 times the impact of carbon dioxide.  Factoring that in, it becomes even clearer that acting on climate change doesn’t necessarily require a radical change like vegetarianism; just cutting out red meat can make a huge difference.

Or can it?  The second part of the dilemma described at the outset concerned the link between this kind of individual action and the kind of collective action that will be required to avert dangerous climate change.

Individual vs Collective Action

Game theory describes a classic example of the collective action problem in the form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In this thought experiment, two prisoners in solitary confinement each inform on the other in order to get a reduced sentence.  The end result is that they both get heavy sentences.  Its logic applies, to a certain extent, to acting on climate change.  No-one wants to be in the situation where they act but others do not, making them both absolutely and relatively worse off, and rendering their sacrifice meaningless.

But that is where the analogy ends.  We do not live in solitary confinement.  On the contrary, our decisions are influenced more than anything by social values, social norms and social judgements.  A big part of our decision not to change our diet is the fact that hardly anyone else is doing it.  But if the social landscape can cause negative outcomes, then it can also engender positive ones.  If most people were making personal sacrifices for the sake of others, it would be much easier to make (and much more difficult to resist making) those same sacrifices ourselves.

So how do we get from this social landscape to that one?  Work by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom on the tragedy of the commons has highlighted the need for institutions, rules and incentives for behaviour.  But whilst these structures will be vital to global action, we must not lose sight of the role of individuals.  Your decisions do not just change your own tiny contribution to climate change; they also change the social landscape for those around you.

I am lucky that a significant proportion of my peers are genuinely altruistic, and their leadership made it much easier to motivate my own behaviour change in cutting out red meat.  And hopefully my decision adds a tiny bit more momentum to that movement, making it a fraction easier for the next person to prioritise the common good over personal interests.

If you do not have such role models around you, you can become one yourself.  If just one other person decides to follow your lead then you’ve doubled your impact.  If you share two more close friends, suddenly they are each confronted with the fact that two-thirds of their friends are making personal sacrifices, massively altering that social landscape and turning it from an inhibiting to an enabling force for change.

This ripple-effect of individual action can (and will need to) play a major role in overcoming collective action problems like climate change.  So if you are put off acting because you don’t want to change your entire life, or are discouraged by the collective action problem, it may be time to reconsider.  There is probably something much more manageable you can do, and it might have a bigger impact than you think.

RSA Student Design Award Winners: the next generation of socially responsible designers

June 27, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Innovation 

A self-repair washing machine, a bee-friendly neighbourhood scheme and an app that provides more active and scenic routes for commuters are among the 16 cracking projects that won in the RSA Student Design Awards this year. 150 people came together at the RSA last week to celebrate the 2013 winners, take part in a spot of speed networking, and hear keynote speaker Kevin Owens talk about his experiences as Design Principal of the London 2012 Olympics.

Now in their 89th year, the RSA Student Design Awards is an annual competition that rewards students for coming up with innovative design-led solutions to today’s big challenges. Each year the RSA works with industry and university partners to develop a series of briefs focused around social, environmental and economic issues. We work closely with universities – in the UK and internationally – to support design students in applying their skills to research and respond to these problems. Their finished projects are then judged in person by a panel of experts, and winning students receive prizes that include cash awards, paid internships, and a complementary year of RSA Fellowship.

This year’s briefs addressed a range of pressing social issues, from improving workplaces and commuting to reducing waste and water pollution. There’s a full list of winners on the RSA Student Design Awards website, and our online exhibition will be going live soon – but for now, here are some snippets about a few of the winning projects:

  • Chris Redford from Sheffield Hallam University won a paid internship at branding agency Springetts for his ‘Tinker’ project; a radical stripped-back domestic washing machine that is designed to be repaired by the consumer without the need for a technician.

Chris Redford

“I got the inspiration for my repairable washing machine from thinking about the number of times we dispose of entire products – especially large consumer appliances – when there might only be a single failed component. My design exposes the user to all the components so they can learn about its function and hopefully feel more confident about attempting to fix it.

  • Charles Anderson, who has just finished a degree in Graphic Design at Kingston University, won a paid internship at the Environment Agency for his scheme to reduce water pollution in the UK.

Charles Anderson_DIP

His project, ‘Dump in Polystyrene’, is a service design solution for breaking down and recycling polystyrene that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

“Since my childhood I have constantly been aware of the litter in the river and the influence it had on the local environment. Through my project research I learned about how water-borne animals mistake polystyrene for food. It clogs up their digestive system which starves the animal. Polystyrene also breaks up and releases pollutants into the soil formation. This project is about reducing polystyrene waste down to a manageable size. The current size-to-weight ratio targets mean that local councils can’t recycle it – so I designed a process that meets these targets.”

  • MA Design students Nicole Shadbolt and Meredith Thompson from Plymouth University each won a paid internship in Waitrose’s Graphic Design team.

The Hive

Responding to a brief asking for ideas to help people live more sustainably, ‘The Hive’ is a community improvement scheme focused on developing bee-friendly communities and educating people about the importance of the UK bee population.

Rebecca Ford is the Assistant Manager of the RSA Student Design Awards.

You can follow her @RebeccaPFord

Three economic approaches to global ecological risk

June 14, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I received a lucid and helpful email in response to yesterday’s post on reaching the centre-right on climate change, from Ian Christie FRSA who is a research fellow at the sustainable lifestyles research group at the University of Surrey.

I am posting it below with very minor edits and Ian’s permission because Ian’s response helped to pinpoint the slight feeling of unease I had in response to COIN’s report. In essence, while the first round of the challenge of engaging the right on climate change may indeed come down to the framing the message, the real battle feels like it’s in the framing not so much of the message, but of the issue itself.

As context and further reading to make sense of the issue, the two key questions (with indicative quotes) are:

1) Is Climate Change best approached as an environmental issue?

“Simply stated, as long as we think of climate change as an environmental issue we allow it to be something outside of our lives. When we realise it is not an environmental issue, it is harder to carry on as we have been before”

2) Is the continued pursuit of economic growth on a physically finite planet possible?

“A no-growth economy is a curious creature to think about, but as Sherlock Holmes once put it: once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Guest Post by Ian Christie FRSA

The point you make about growth is important. I think there are broadly three positions on global ecological risks and the economy, and they don’t fall that neatly into the existing political spectrum, as you note:

1) Business as usual growth – is desirable and achievable, and we can either disregard climate change etc or adapt to it.

2) A new model capitalism – Business as Usual can’t be restored but we can have a new model capitalism (cf the B Team, Plan A, Unilever etc) that generates economic growth while respecting planetary boundaries.

3) An economic model that eschews growth: 1) is suicidal, 2) is well-meaning but delusional; we need to rethink economic systems entirely and pursue wellbeing and go beyond growth, which cannot continue indefinitely and is in any case not generating the benefits we tell ourselves it is.

Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses

1) has incumbent power on its side, makes immediate ‘common sense’ (we don’t feel at risk from the environment) but has pretty well every climate scientist and ecologist against it;

2) has at least a chance of winning more adherents in business and politics, but is still very marginal;

3) has ecological and thermodynamic logic on its side, but almost no adherents in business and government.

Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses. The problem for 3) is that there is no political and economic narrative of transition that makes sense (so far). Approach 2) is attractive as a transitional model but still falls foul of the objections from 3).

The centre-right was left out of the climate change script in the USA when Al Gore became the face of climate concern, and things have never recovered from that and from the subsequent integration of climate into the culture wars, in which evidence is assessed on the basis of ideology and motives.

I suspect the situation will only change when there is a critical mass of ‘defectors’ breaking ranks in the authoritative core groups of centre-right thinking and practice – from concerned CEOs, influential media commentators to elected members of the Republican Party and Conservatives. And that seems likely to happen only if they can frame climate action as an economic opportunity and national security issue.

Which raises your key point: is climate change an environmental issue? No – it’s a major risk to economic and social order as well as to ecosystem integrity. There are people from the centre-right who get this, and who in consequence are embracing 2) above – growing numbers of food industry leaders, for example, whose businesses are in direct jeopardy from climate disruption. But they have not got a political constituency yet with Republicans and Conservatives.

Seeing the wood from the trees – A tale of two Fellows, a volunteer and some woodland

May 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

At the RSA I have the opportunity to meet and work with a diverse and motivated group of Fellows.  I’m always amazed how they manage to juggle the range of different ideas and enterprises that they are developing.  With 27 000 Fellows there are so many stories it can sometimes feel like you can’t see the wood from the trees but today I’d like to tell you a story of Fellows getting together, discussing an opportunity and providing a solution that helped the environment but more importantly a young man called Sam.


This year the RSA Fellowship brought together Hill Holt Wood founder and CEO Karen Lowthrop and Steve Coles, Salvation Army Social Enterprise Development Manager.

Hill Holt Wood lies on the borders of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and is home to an award winning social enterprise.  If you get the chance to visit please do, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and always offered a cup of tea.  In just over ten years of operation, the enterprise has transformed the woodland from a failing, flooded rhododendron-smothered patch of trees into a thriving broadleaf wood.

The main stay of the enterprise has been as a supplier of alternative education.  The woodland provides a developmental resource for excluded or marginalized young people to build skills, confidence and improved prospects.  Benefits to the young people and to the woods feed back positively one on another.  Kids need the woods to learn and in turn the woods are maintained by kids. So year on year a trickle of woodland converts graduate from Hill Holt Wood who are interested in sustaining woodland and so the story goes on…


The wood itself was privately owned but is now open to the public and community owned and the social enterprise operates from a stunning eco-build that incorporates an eco design team, meeting rooms, and a café.

Salvation Army enterprise manager Steve Coles was looking for a similarly sustainable project in which to invest a small fund of £10,000 donated as a bequest by the Booth family for the purpose of planting trees.  Hill Holt Wood seemed ideal and proposed the money be used to support a young person through a horticultural apprenticeship AND plant trees.   The long-term on-going gains are obvious.

Sam WelchSam Welch was 15 years old when he first visited Hill Holt Wood.  As part of his school curriculum he attended for a day a week on a junior rangers scheme.  He developed an unexpected passion for woodland and went on to attend Riseholm College in Lincoln but when he graduated with Level 2 and 3 qualifications in arborioculture he could not find work in Gainsborough. At this point a Job Centre advisor suggested that he return to Hill Holt Wood as a volunteer on the flexible support fund.  Sam proved to be a fantastic volunteer and an obvious candidate for the Salvation Army fund.

The award was given to Hill Holt Wood and they have funded Sam’s on-going apprenticeship in horticulture.  He says he has two main goals in life “the biggest one is to get a full time job at Hill Holt Wood which I would love, or work somewhere doing the same sort of job…

The Fellowship Team are always looking to hear about Fellow led projects.  If you know of work that is going on that would benefit from Fellows support and advice please get in touch directly, shout about your work at and apply to RSA Catalyst.  If that work is based in the East and West Midlands then I’m your first point of contact, email me at or tweet me @pickfordrich I love hearing about new ideas especially when they are told over a hot cup of tea and some cake.

Climate Week is brought to you by…

March 4, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s Climate Week! It’s described as “a supercharged national occasion that offers an annual renewal of our ambition and confidence to combat climate change”.  Sounds like something you can’t argue with. It’s also particularly significant for us, as the Social Brain Centre is in the early stages of an exciting programme of work investigating behaviour change for climate change.

Nationally, there are over 3,000 events taking place throughout the week, ranging from launch events for hydrogen partnerships to vegetarian punjabi cooking courses. It’s more than likely that there’s something happening near you and it’s easy to find out what.

Exploring the Climate Week website, I was most interested to see what suggestions were included under the ‘Green your home‘ tab. One of the themes we intend to explore in our own project is that of ‘home’ so I was naturally curious to see how the Climate Week team had dealt with the topic.

The list of suggestions appears as follows:

The initial shock for me was that the first of these categories consisted entirely of an advertisement for a brand of ‘eco’ toilet paper. Fair enough, sponsorship is a fact of life these days, and securing it was no doubt essential for Climate Week to proceed with its good work. But the fact that its ‘Green your bathroom’ category consisted only of promotion for one brand of loo roll was disappointing to me.

There are plenty of more effective ways in which we could genuinely take steps to ‘green our bathrooms’. Ironically, one of the best things we could do is take a lead from the majority of the developing world and do away with toilet paper all together, but such a step lacks universal appeal not to mention sponsorship potential.

Moving on, the next category is ‘Green your cuisine’. I was expecting to find all sort of useful tips on how to reduce my carbon emissions by changing my cooking habits, as well as a strong message about reducing meat consumption. The meat industry creates more Co2 than the car industry. One of the single most important actions we could all take to make a difference is to reduce the amount of meat we eat.

Do the Green Thing have, in my opinion, done a good job of finding the right marketing message for this, with their slogan ‘Make Meat a Treat.’ If we can move from considering meat as something that is necessary for a ‘proper’ meal to seeing it as a treat to be enjoyed on special occasions, we could see dramatic drops in carbon consumption per capita. This poster gets this across beautifully, parodying the ‘enjoy responsibly’ campaign that has accompanied advertising for alcohol.

But, no, Climate Week’s thoughts on ‘Green your cuisine’ make no mention of meat, and instead consists of a single, rather vague point about making meals from leftovers. Disappointing indeed.

Next, another advertisement/ plug for a specific company, this time in the form of a ‘green’ energy supplier. Again, this is the only suggestion that is made under the ‘energy’ category, and no attempt is made to suggest ways in which we might actually reduce the amount of energy we consume at home.

I was especially curious to see what was included under the heading of ‘Sustainable DIY’ – I genuinely couldn’t imagine what sorts of suggestions might be made here. Using a hand drill instead of an electric one? How naive of me. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the category appears to have been included purely as a promotion opportunity, this time for a paint company that measures the carbon footprint of the products it manufactures. Measuring the carbon footprint is all well and good, but are they actually doing anything to reduce it, or encourage us to do our bit?

Of the eleven categories in the list above, there are only four that do not contain links to specific companies selling particular products.  The four that are not linked to adverts are pretty limp, not really saying anything new and appear at the end of the list, all of which makes me think that this entire section of the website was created entirely for the purpose of giving a platform to advertise the products of companies that have given support to climate week.

I’m disappointed and I think it is a shame – even if the organisers of Climate Week had to include a page to list their corporate supporters, they could have used it as a real platform to share best practice and suggestions that we could engage with rather than the tokenistic disappointment that it is.

However, I don’t want to be so critical as to detract from the important messages that Climate Week is trying to convey. I very much hope that the week of events will go a long way towards renewing national ambition and confidence to combat climate change, far more deeply than simply persuading us to change our brand of toilet roll.


Soap dodging: Would you shower less to save the planet?

February 5, 2013 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Do you care about climate change? Do you think you have a role to play in helping to reduce carbon emissions? Would you make small changes if you knew they would make a difference? What’s stopping you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these sorts of questions recently, not least because I’m now working on an exciting and important piece of work looking at behaviour change for climate change. In doing so, my imagination has been particularly captured by the work of Elizabeth Shove (rhymes with cove not love). Professor Shove’s work has looked particularly at changing social practices and the implications of these for energy demand and climate change.

Her seminal paper on conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience had quite an effect on me. In the paper, Shove talks about the changing dynamics of social practices and conventions in relation to, amongst other things, personal cleanliness. It has become normal – expected, even – in the Western world, to shower (or bathe) on a daily basis.

This is a relatively new development – Shove notes that it was less than a century ago that a weekly bath was the norm. But the social practice has very much taken hold, and the idea of showering any less than every day is largely unpalatable.

I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take. My decision to do this was a direct response to reading Shove’s work, which made me see that I have succumbed, almost blindly, to participating in a social practice, for no good reason other than convention.

I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take.

Like many people, I’m someone who is, in general terms, quite concerned about the climate change problem. I recognise that my actions contribute to over-consumption and that my behaviour results in a carbon footprint. I’d like to do more than I currently do to make a positive difference, but it isn’t always clear to me what I should do.

Showering less frequently appealed to me because it is such an obvious way to reduce the energy I use in heating water, as well as the amount of water I consume, without having a terribly negative impact on my life. So, for the past three months, I’ve been having a shower roughly every other day.

It was remarkably easy to make the change, and I haven’t felt uncomfortable, unclean or self-conscious. No one has said anything to me about me looking or smelling any worse than usual, so all in all I’d say the experiment has been a success, and I’ve (possibly) permanently shifted my habit.

Great, I thought, this is an easy thing that everyone could do: I’d better tell people about it. I did not expect my friends to react in the way they did. Comments included, “Don’t you feel disgusting?” “I can’t believe you went out for a meal without having had a shower – that’s so disrespectful to your friend.” “There’s no way I could do that, I’d be so embarrassed.” “Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Other reactions were more supportive, but, to my surprise, no one I spoke to was keen to give it a try. Even a friend who works as the sustainability manager for a higher education institution couldn’t imagine “feeling right” without having a shower in the morning.

I really was surprised by this – although I knew the social practices associated with cleanliness are embedded in our society, I somehow didn’t expect to find such deep attachment to them. Am I an extremist for showering less-than-daily? Is it really disrespectful to socialise without having showered? And more importantly, if social practices can become so widespread and so deeply ingrained within a generation, surely they can also be moderated or even reversed. What do you think – would you shower less to save the planet?

Welcome to India

November 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Here at The Great Recovery HQ we have been glued to our TV screens for the last few weeks watching BBC 2’s three part documentary series: Welcome to India. Over 1 in 6 of the world’s population live in India, and during the series we see the film crew follow a handful of ‘backstreet entrepreneurs’ who are all “learning to survive in a crowded world”.

In episode 1 we meet 23 year old Kaale who has moved from the countryside to the city of Kolkata in search of gold. Gold is a precious metal with huge cultural significance in India – it acts as insurance, and Indian housewives own an incredible 11% of the world’s gold stocks. That’s more than the USA, Germany and Switzerland put together. Kaale lives with 20 other men in a small room in Kolkata’s Jewellery district, and wakes at 3am every morning to begin work. The huge mass of goldsmiths who live and work in the area leave particles of gold on the street which falls off their clothes, hands and hair when they wash, and gathers with the dirt and dust. Kaale and his friends spend hours sweeping the streets and using traditional American gold panning techniques to extract the metal.

“When people look at the street, all they see is garbage… But we know what’s hiding here.”
During the hour long programme, we see Kaale taking his gold panning venture even further by lowering himself down the tiny drains of Kolkata, extracting sack loads of ‘sludge’ and selling it to Javed, whose family own a backstreet gold panning workshop on a disused bank of the River Ganges.

Here, Javed’s 20 employees work tirelessly to first dry the mud, then sieve and crush it into powder (the only mechanised part of the process) before using 19th century Californian techniques with a wooden board and water to massage the mud to trap gold particles in tiny grooves on the board. Mercury is added to the remaining mud to ‘stick’ to the gold, and this is moulded into ‘ranga’ balls which are heated to first drive off any impurities, then to melt off the mercury. All that remains is one final smelting with nitric acid and they are left with 24 carat gold! These tiny gold particles that could so easily be dismissed as lost are being meticulously sourced and implemented back into circulation.

In episode 2 we meet Kanye, who also works recycling metals, but on a much bigger scale. Mumbai is home to a cargo ship graveyard, and it is down to 16,000 workers to ‘butcher’ these 12,000 tonne ships from across the world. It is an extremely dangerous job – every part of the ginormous vessels is taken apart by hand. Not a bit of the boats go to waste. The reusable parts go to the market and supply the Indian construction industry with cheap recycled steel, and the bits that cannot be reused are turned into something else and sold on. Even the tiny specs of iron that gather on the floor are collected and sold on.

Moving away from metals, to plastic recycling: Johora lives with her 12 children and husband alongside the railway tracks in Kolkata. She has worked her way up from a rag-picker to business-woman, with 3 warehouses collecting, sorting and selling on empty plastic bottles. Her young son, who has a network of ‘suppliers’ (who scour rubbish tips, restaurant and shop refuse) and a rickshaw collects the bottles, and brings them back to the warehouses where 4 employees remove the labels and sort the bottles by colour. They are then bundled into huge balls weighing up to 100 kilos and sold by weight for around £50 each to the next link in the recycling chain. (Johora cheats a little here by filling the odd bottle with water to increase the weight!).

At the next stage of the recycling process, some of the bottles are shredded, and the ‘chips’ are sold to manufacturers of poly-synthetic fibres who can use them to make everything from polar fleece to the stuffing for your sofa cushions.

It’s thanks to businesses like Johora’s that India manages to recycle a massive 60% of all plastic bottles. We, on the other hand are not even close to this figure, this is what the UK aims to be recycling by 2020 – Europe currently recycle 48% of their plastic bottles, the US just 29%.

All of these examples encapsulate so well the ethos behind a circular economy, however the tragic part of this story is the fact that these people aren’t dredging mud out of drains or collecting plastic bottles because they care about the environment, for them it a necessity for survival: “Where you see trash, we see a livelihood”. It’s time that here in the west we began to realise that ‘trash’ shouldn’t really exist as a concept any more. Money can be made from the recycling and recovery process. What if we started collecting and selling all of our plastic bottles? What if recycling became more of a business than a chore?

This illegal ‘backstreet entrepreneurship’ can also be seen in San Francisco, where due to the California Bottle Bill of 1987 (which means a deposit is paid on all plastic and glass bottles sold in the state) recycling has become an extremely profitable business for gangs who raid recycling bins. In February’s edition of BBC 4’s ‘Costing the World’, Tom Heap meets a 78-year-old Vietnamese woman who has spent all night rummaging through bins to collect just £17 worth of recycling. While this illegal activity means that 78% of all waste in the city is diverted from landfill, imagine if we could make this a legitimate business model, instead of relying on those in desperate need to do the work for us, illegally. One of the main drivers for the Technology Strategy board putting up £1.25million for designers to come up with new approaches to the closed loop system are the rising cost of metals and other resources. China now own 97% of the Rare Earth market. We don’t use the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ as the drivers are now financial as well as moral.

One of the most interesting things to note about all of these stories is the networks that these people have. When Kaale decided to take extend his business to selling drain sludge, he knew exactly who to call who could process mud into gold. When Johora brought her own van so that she could sell her bottles on directly, she knew exactly where to take them to get the best price. It’s developing these networks that we need to build on. We need to make sure that we know where to take our goods to recycle them; we need to make sure we know a materials expert to consult when designing new products and we need to make sure we are building and using these networks at every stage of a products life span. We need to become a connected society.

Join the Great Recovery community by signing up online, and find out more about material flow and closed loop behaviour by coming to one of our workshops, taking place throughout November.

(This blog was originally posted on the Great Recovery site)


Deconstruction #1: Sophie’s Toothbrush

October 30, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

When Sophie needed a new toothbrush, she was overwhelmed by the ridiculous choice of products available that all (give or take the odd tongue scrubber) do exactly the same thing. There are an awful lot of toothbrushes being made, and even more being thrown away. The NHS recommends that you “replace your brush or brush attachment every three months”. If we had all stuck to this advice in 2011, we would have thrown away 224.4 million toothbrushes in England and Wales alone.

So what happens to these toothbrushes when we throw them away? From the look of the one that Sophie found washed up on a beach, not a huge amount happens to them at all. Despite having been battered by the tides, this toothbrush looked in pretty good nick. So when these toothbrushes are sitting in landfill, they are doing just that. Sitting there. Wasted. All 224.4 million of them.

Then Sophie found a toothbrush that really puzzled her: A disposable electric toothbrush. The packaging clearly states to replace it after 3 months. It also carries the WEEE symbol, meaning that the consumer is responsible for ensuring the product is correctly recycled. But how? Sophie had no idea how to go about this. She couldn’t put it in with her regular recycling, and she didn’t want to just put it in the bin. So she took it apart!

Inside the toothbrush, along with a battery she found a motor, just like the ones that we have in our mobile phones to make them vibrate. The funny thing is, the motor wasn’t attached to the bristles. All this toothbrush does is make our hand vibrate.

She decided to send it to her friend Hywel at Sheffield Hallam University who took a closer look.

He found the plastic made up 85% of the weight of the tootbrush, and the motor alone was 10% of the total weight. Within this tiny 10% he has so far found the following ‘ingredients’:


This vast list is before we even get to the polymers used. These will contain fillers that he hasn’t yet measured, but titanium is likely to appear here.

The Royal Society of Chemists place Carbon and Tin as having a medium supply risk, and Tungsten and Neodymium as high. This means that if consumers don’t know how to recycle these small electrical items  they fall through the gaps and these precious elements are locked in landfill, increasing the pressure on supply

The way to break this cycle is through systems thinking where everyone plays a role through the life cycle of the product,  including the designer. Product designers could work with the design commissioner to make it easier to take the toothbrush apart (without the need for a saw!), packaging designers could work with supply chains to make recycling directions clearer, and government, brands and consumers could reassess the need for a disposable electric toothbrush in the first place,

Join us in our investigation into closed loop design. Why don’t you take something apart and see what you discover? (making sure you take the necessary safety precautions of course!) To contribute to our deconstruction series, contact or come along to one of our Great Recovery e-waste workshops, taking place throughout November.

This post was originally published on the Great Recovery blog.


Catalyst-themed workshops – meetings that help turn ideas into action

September 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Over the summer I went to Fellows’ network events in Nottingham, Cardiff and Leeds to discuss RSA Catalyst – the programme I manage supporting the new and early stage ideas for social innovations that RSA Fellows come up with.

I kept the events simple: firstly, I tried to get people thinking about new solutions to tackle social problems by talking about Catalyst-supported ventures and our criteria; then I asked local Catalyst-supported ventures to present; finally I gave those people with new ideas a structured platform for sharing them, in order to get attendees to give advice and start collaborating with them.

There were two main calls to action:

  1. Apply for Catalyst via; (two attendees of events already have, with one successful in getting a grant, the other shortlisted and encouraged to reapply once they have tweaked the improved their ideas in certain respects).
  2. Use the presentation I created to run similar events at more of the 60 places across the UK and internationally where Fellows meet regularly. The presentation, now up on the Fellows’ resources page, walks you through how to do this.

The Catalyst projects we heard from were:

  • Our Leicester Day; who recently ran their second annual gathering in the main market square for all communities, local clubs, societies and charities to share what they do with the local community and get more participants
  • Inklusive; who create sustainable employment for people with disabilities by remanufacturing, refilling and reusing printing cartridges rather than them ending up in landfill
  • New Endings; brings together residents, artists and town planners, to re-imagine dead-end streetscapes
  • Solderpad; A website for people to collaborate open-source on electronics

the main aim of the evenings was to hear and help new ideas being developed

We also heard from RSA Social Entrepreneurs Network Spotlight participant Inspired Youth, who use arts and media as a tool to engage, inspire and empower young people – watch a trailer of the video here.

But the main aim of the evenings was to hear and help new ideas being developed. Here are 6 ideas that were bubbling up at the meetings:

  • Urban growing/housing Turn farmland in Lincolnshire into a town that grows more edible food than it does currently as farmland whilst building affordable housing – more details or contact
  • Teaching support to start new peer-to-peer and online networks for and between new teachers, piloting in Cardiff and Bristol – contact
  • Unemployment/advertising Council-owned land puts up advertising hoardings of local businesses that take on long-term unemployed and also advertise local charities – more details or contact
  • Affordable housing a advice service for community groups across the UK to start Community Land Trusts, a way to generate affordable housing – more details or contact
  • Education tours of a cemetery for children to learn about the history of Bradford through its former inhabitants – more details or contact
  • Prisoners/photography  Train prisoners to take photos in visitors centre to give a link during their time spent inside – contact

Along my way I had some really probing questions about the Catalyst programme and some really interesting ideas about how we can improve it.

Where can I see Catalyst projects? “What if I want to expand a project to Cardiff?”

I’ve now put up a list of all ideas awarded a grant on the Catalyst webpage. Those projects at the top are the ones that the panel believe are most readily-scalable to other locations since they’ve been awarded an additional £5,000 Catalyst grant.

Why is Catalyst resource prioritised on those things that have “yet to be tried out”?

Taking on board feedback about the lack of clarity in this part of the criteria, last month the Fellowship Council Catalyst Working Group (the Fellows and senior staff who decide on grant awards and process changes) changed the criteria from prioritizing ideas that have “yet to be tried out” to ideas that “are totally new or applying something in a new setting”. This reflects the fact that we have supported ideas that are local responses to models proven elsewhere. For example, We Are Bedford is an empty shops project that focused on the inaccessibility of arts to the majority of Bedford residents and on the difficulty local arts and crafts businesses have in selling their products.

Why did Catalyst support Solderpad (see above); what have solder boards and a for-profit company got to do with a social problem?

after being asked ‘Where can I see Catalyst projects, I’ve now put up a list of all ideas awarded a grant on the Catalyst webpage

The Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), was founded on the belief that, amongst other things, manufacturing can improve social conditions. Solderpad helps people to collaborate for free on building electronic hardware for all sorts of products. As project leader Andrew Back’s presentation sets out, amateurs and enthusiasts are attempting to build the low-carbon products (such as the open-source electric car built by Riversimple) that companies won’t invest in. Solderpad is a for-profit company in part because it is looking for investment in order to get capital to invest in improving the services it has built to date. It will only pay back investment if it creates revenue from selling the services to commercial companies that don’t share their designs. For those students and others willing to share their designs, its services are freely available.

As always it was a pleasure to meet other Fellows of the RSA and I hope I’ve persuaded them and now you, the reader of this blog, to either apply for Catalyst or run a similar event using the presentation. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions or feedback.

Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager – follow him @watsoalex

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