The Diaspora ChangeMakers Network is born!

April 30, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

This is a network:

diaspora100net

It’s not a very interconnected network yet, but it’s a snapshot of the 100 remarkable people who we will be working with over the next year, and the relationships that connected them at the start of the Diaspora ChangeMakers programme. [Read more below]. Read more

Can we save the planet, keep the lights on, and avoid freezing to death?

December 5, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

References to ‘green crap’ miss the point. The key political fault line on climate change is not green versus non green, but how you order the priorities of the energy ‘trilemma’. The case for climate change action needs to be made at this level to gain political traction.

Michael Fallon is the minister whose thinking most closely mirrors Number 10′s stance on energy policy so if you want to know what number 10 thinks beyond disputed references to ‘green crap’, his words should be carefully observed.

The Energy Minister recently told The Spectator Conference on energy that the most important issues were ‘security of supply, affordability, and playing our part in combating climate change. And that for me is the order.’

This seemingly innocuous statement is hugely significant because it publicly acknowledges the key trade-offs at the heart of energy policy, and candidly takes a clear position on it. Fallon, like Cameron and Osborne are not denying the need for a rapid reduction in carbon emissions, they are saying you can’t get those reductions without compromising two other important priorities.

the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty

In this case, the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty. Such ‘trilemmas’ are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, but they are not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow.

There is wide political agreement that we have to try to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change, which means significantly reducing and gradually eliminating fossil fuels from our energy supply, and improving energy efficiency at scale.

However, we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply, which is harder with renewable forms of energy that are generally less reliable than the baseload power offered by fossil fuels (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’) and complex if you are simultaneously interfering with the energy market to lower prices. This was the argument (strongly contested) recently used by British parliamentarians to justify extending the life of the country’s dirtiest power stations. - that it was necessary to ‘keep the lights on’.

And we also need to keep fuel prices affordable, especially for those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because they can’t pay for their heating. Keeping costs low is not easy with a transition to renewables, which is costly in itself, and because renewable energy is currently more expensive. On current form, energy companies will inevitably pass on such costs to consumers.

It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of the three imperatives – energy security, fuel poverty and climate change – but we can question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and challenge some of the assumptions underpinning them. Indeed, how you do so represents the new political fault line on the energy debate.

As I argue in a forthcoming RSA report on climate change, I believe the moral priority of climate change takes precedence, and would challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. If pressed, I would probably say the order has to be climate change, energy security and fuel poverty, but making this case well requires keeping competing perspectives on ‘morality’ firmly in mind.

If your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country, you have to think about that moment every day when people return from work, when there is a huge spike in demand caused by heating and lights going on, people having hot showers, watching TV and preparing meals. Can you stomach the idea of power failure for millions in that context?

And if, like millions, you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy as an electoral issue, would you not be more inclined to question the importance of our climate commitments, regardless of scientific opinion?

The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. 

The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. Those like Fallon apparently accept that we should ‘do our bit’, but argue that we cannot unilaterally decide what ‘our bit’ should be – for that we look at the actions of comparable countries. This position is hardly heroic or inspiring, and makes my heart sink, but let’s accept that it is at least understandable.

Which doesn’t prevent us from saying it is wrong on a number of levels.

Those attacking the priority of energy security could ask why we can’t significantly reduce our energy demand through lifestyle changes. Or they might ask whether it’s ok if the power goes off every so often. Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in affluent parts of India do? If that sounds like political suicide, more powerful is to challenge the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability, as Marc Jacobsen and others are doing with increasing conviction, or(more controversially) that we need more nuclear power.

Those attacking the priority of fuel poverty might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, as David Cameron recently did, which chimes with social practice theory arguments about ‘energy need’ being socially constructed, but feels much too facile. The key challenge, surely, is to the billions of pounds offered in fossil fuel subsidies, without which renewable energy would not struggle to be seen as affordable. An even more fundamental question is whether profiting out of energy provision – now an essential human need – makes sense at all? Could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy, as 69% of the population seem to want?

You will notice, in each case, that few of the arguments or suggestions sound straightforward or completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically difficult if not implausible. That’s why we have a genuine energy trilemma. Something has to give.

 Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and the author of a forthcoming report on Climate Change ‘stealth denial’ in the British population. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathan_rowson

Killing innovation for the public good?

September 25, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

It is a truism that investors like certainty. They also like a return on investment. This cannot even be described as economics – it’s just common sense. If, as a Government you intervene in a market, then you had better ensure you don’t create uncertainty and that you enable market players to secure a return on investment. This is precisely where Labour’s newly announced policy to cap energy prices fails: certainty and opportunity.

Essentially, price caps suspend the market. The price mechanism is a vital signalling device. When it is disabled then the market doesn’t really function anymore. The information about incentives to invest is silenced. When a Government caps price, in itself this is a signal. The Government is willing to essentially suspend this market. Investors and entrepreneurs read this as ‘avoid at all costs.’

So we are still left with a concentrated, poorly regulated energy market in sore need of investment to meet our energy, living costs and environmental needs. There is a trade-off between these three objectives. Vertical separation between retail, wholesale and generation prices might be necessary. Providing capital and wholesale price support for new entrants who help us meet our energy and environmental needs might also be a worthwhile intervention. Even a break-up of the big market players on horizontal as well as vertical lines could work. Price regulation could well be a component element of a functioning market in the short-term at least. These are all possible and necessary components of a new institutional structure for the market. However, the last thing you want to do is cap prices- especially if you want to encourage new entrants, new innovation, new ideas, new competition.

What happens when you start controlling prices in a market that has a degree of volatility? I’m afraid it’s difficult to get away from the Californian power catastrophe in the early 2000s- bankruptcy and under-investment.

Come 2017 when the price cap came to be reviewed, a Miliband Government would be faced with a choice: lift the cap and prices explode or keep it in place and increase the chance of market failure. That’s if the market failure hasn’t already happened. Keep it in place and you are basically nationalising the energy market. Remove it and prices may pop, encouraging another intervention. The Government gets politically locked in. Both routes are likely to eventually pass financial responsibility to taxpayers. Do we really want to choose between investment in power stations and investment in healthcare? Hayek would recognise this unintended mission creep from politics to state expansion very well – assuming it is unintended.

Elsewhere, in Ed Miliband’s conference speech he articulated, in a very clear fashion, the importance of promoting small business and safeguarding the environment. The price cap denies opportunities for new players to enter the energy market – including the type of municipal suppliers common in Europe and the US. New investment could accelerate progress towards environmental objectives; without it progress will stall.

There is a bigger point here. This energy example marks a shift in Labour’s approach. The ‘use it or lose’ it policy on land has similar deficiencies which would end up in the expansion of central state power too. Labour orthodoxy over the last twenty years has involved an accommodation with the market as one element of driving growth and providing opportunity. Justice and efficiency are bound inseparably together in this model. The market can be reformed, regulated, and loaded but it had a place in Labour’s worldview.

Miliband’s speech yesterday – in a seemingly harmless fashion – broke with that orthodoxy. The policy on energy price caps is clear and it will be popular. Its consequences wouldn’t be and significant damage can be done. Once you give up on the market mechanism – albeit one that is regulated or has a mixed economy form – then that will create its own dynamic. If you are going to have price controls or property confiscation in energy and housing, why not food, petrol, pharmaceuticals, internet and mobile telephony, sanitary products, baby’s clothes, foreign travel, books, or funeral services?

These are all choices ultimately. They are all things which impact on the cost of living. They all have varying degrees of regulation and market structure currently. But it’s a bad idea to remove the price mechanism from the markets that govern them- regardless of how heavily regulated they are.

You can write a very long list of reasons why price controls are a bad idea. Essentially, they kill innovation in the name of a public good and cause harm as a consequence. There is one good reason for them from a political party’s perspective – short-term politics.

Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His new book ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ is now available.

Did Somebody say Khazzoom-Brookes postulate?

May 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

One would assume that using less of something every time you need to use it would mean that you use less of it overall, right?

Alas, it’s not that simple. It seems we cannot take efficiency gains for granted, particularly with respect to energy where we most need such gains. If you use less petrol per mile, perhaps you travel further. If you save money on your domestic energy bills, perhaps you spend it on a foreign holiday.

This crude rendering of a complex idea is known as ‘the rebound effect‘, which is a controversial issue in certain circles.

Some say we drastically underestimate how big it is, and therefore squander resources in trying to improve efficiency; gains that are later wiped out because we don’t address underlying causes relating to attitudes and values. Others says we drastically overestimate the rebound effect and undervalue and fail to prioritise perfectly good and tangible environmental gains (e.g. cavity wall or loft installation) for fear of rebounds. My own view is that the effect is likely to be quite large, but in most cases energy efficiency gains are still well worth pursuing. It seems to make sense to start on the relatively easy target of energy waste before moving on to the much tougher target of energy use.

the idea is not just that increasing energy efficiency doesn’t always save that much energy, but that, perversely, it actually leads to more energy being used.

The question of how big the effect is is ultimately empirical in nature, but extremely hard to measure. Clearly it varies depending on the product and the activity. Efficiency gains in fridges are likely to be absolute for instance, because they are on all the time anyway, while efficiency gains in lights are not so clear, because you may feel less bothered to turn them off.

A couple of years ago we built a whole project around the fuel efficient driving of taxi drivers, because we believed we might learn important things about behaviour change as a result. I think we did, but my strong impression is that the drivers were motivated by cash savings rather than any environmental benefit of those changes, which at least begs the question of how much embodied carbon the chosen product or service they buy with the money saved will have.

Anyway, the real purpose of this short blog was to introduce you to one version of the rebound effect, known as the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, which is rather extreme, and slightly amusing, at least partly because of the name. In this case the idea is not just that increasing energy efficiency doesn’t always save that much energy, but that, perversely, it actually leads to more energy being used.

The simple expression of the postulate is: “energy efficiency improvements that, on the broadest considerations, are economically justified at the microlevel, lead to higher levels of energy consumption at the macrolevel.” Needless to say this postulate is not universally accepted as being true to reality, which is probably why it’s still called a ‘postulate’.

I mention this now in response to a tweet message from Nick Stanhope, The CEO of ‘We are what we do‘ who kindly forwarded an article in Scientific American suggesting that, at least in the US, the rebound effect has been shown to be small. In fact, the article quotes a few experts with that point of view, with no real supporting evidence, so to my mind the key questions remain:

How big is the rebound effect? How might we find out? And can you say Khazzoom-Brookes with a straight face?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can we resolve our energy ‘trilemma’?

March 13, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

As part of our research for ‘The Power of Curiosity’ report I came upon a particularly arresting turn of phrase that encapsulates one of the major policy issues of our time: ‘the energy trilemma.’

“There’s what we call the energy trilemma; three great forces for change, but pulling in different directions. First of all you’ve got our commitment from the government around climate change, so we must reduce fossil fuel generation but this will need more investment in renewable and possibly nuclear generation. The second one is that we’ve got to keep the lights on which becomes more complex and costly with renewables as it’s less predictable and controllable. The third part of the trilemma is trying to manage the bills that you and I are faced with, in the context of the first two parts of the trilemma, in recent years we’ve seen bills rise higher than the rate of inflation and bills are hurting people.” - Daniel Taylor, Head of Innovation, British Gas

 

Trilemmas are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, just not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow. In this case, the issue at hand doesn’t just apply to energy companies, so let’s make it a bit clearer:

  1. We have to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change which means we have to significantly reduce and perhaps gradually eliminate fossil fuels from our energy supply. 
  2. And yet we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply with renewable forms of energy that are often thought to be less reliable (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’)
  3. At the same time, while considering those trade offs and the costs incurred due to the fact(albeit an increasingly contentious one, and related to government subsidies for fossil fuels) that renewables tend to be more expensive, we have to recognise the existence of cost of living pressures on families throughout the country, especially those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because putting the heating on has become too expensive.

It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of these imperatives, but we can, I think, question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and question some of the assumptions underpinning them.

Personally, I don’t think we need to debate the first point at all, and I find myself motivated to challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. But before doing that it’s important to keep perspectives and biases in mind. If you work for an energy company that relies on the supply of fossil fuels or if your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country(especially hard when people return from work apparently, when there is a huge surge in demand caused by heating and lights going on and meals being prepared); or if you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy bills as an electoral issue you might be more inclined to problematise or interrogate the rather abstract and remote sounding first point, regardless of scientific opinion.  

Those attacking the first horn of the trilemma might not question the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but they could question, for instance, the validity of the 2 degree global target, or question whether this country should take any kind of leadership on the issue when other similar or more culpable countries are doing less.

Those attacking the second horn of the trilemma could ask: Surely we can significantly reduce our energy demand? Or ask: How secure and stable do you need the energy supply to be? Isn’t it ok if the power goes off every so often? Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in India do? Or perhaps that argument is too weak, and you accept the need for reliability and predictability, but you don’t accept the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability. In a previous post on ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’, the idea of an energy internet was suggested to deal with precisely this challenge.

Those attacking the third point might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, but that’s a bit facile. The tougher question to pose, surely, is: Aren’t the energy companies simply charging too much? In light of the importance of climate change and the security and stability of the energy supply, could a case be made that profiting out of energy provision is somehow morally wrong? If so, should there be some sort of cap on profits, or make it mandatory that profits are reinvested in renewable energy, or could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy?

You will notice, in each case, that none of the arguments or suggestions sound completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically implausible. That’s why it appears to be a genuine trilemma. Something has to give.

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?

New Report! The Power of Curiosity

June 14, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

(If you are just too curious to see the actual RSA report to read this blog, go here, now, and come back and tell us what you think…)

Curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. - Arnold Edinborough

Tomorrow Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will visit the Eco Technology Show in Brighton - a national showcase of the latest technologies designed to protect the environment and make our daily business and home lives more efficient. No doubt there will be lots of great gadgets on show, and most of them will have arisen from forms of innovation that we urgently need to address our future energy challenges.

Urgent seems to be the right word. A combination of high levels of economic growth in developing countries, the perceived imperative of economic growth in developed countries, and a rise in global population means that, short of a radical overhaul of the
entire world economic and political system, the world’s energy needs will continue to grow. And yet research at the Stockholm resilience centre suggests we have already harmed the planet beyond repair in certain ways (biodiversity loss and
disturbances to the nitrogen cycle) and, on our current trajectory, are likely to continue to do so to an increasingly damaging extent, particularly in relation to the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.” 

We need more energy, but we are running out of planet. In this context, while political (e.g. meaningful emissions targets) economic (e.g. viable carbon markets) and technological (e.g. more productive renewable energy) solutions are important, any progress on these fronts need to be supported by reductions in energy demand and improved energy efficiency. Moreover, progress on these fronts should not be viewed as additive, but as inextricably linked. We need technology to enhance society, but technological design relies on human insight.

Unfortunately, the recent social attitudes survey, and various market surveys suggest that people are developing a kind of ‘green fatigue’, and part of the urgency has to be finding ways to reconnect people with the energy they rely on, but never think about when they boil four cups of water for one cup of tea or pre-heat the oven for twenty minutes instead of ten. Despite rising energy prices, we don’t seem to behave as if we understood that energy is scarce.

In fact we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky. We get used to such things, and learn how to live with them and through them. But is something lost when we cease to be curious about the things we rely on? In what ways might it help to be more curious, and what kinds of curiosity might currently be most needful?

In our report, launched today: The Power of Curiosity: How Linking Inquisitiveness to Innovation could help to address our energy challenges we explore these questions in detail.

we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky. 

Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.” However, the first chapter probes existing definitions, measures and dimensions of curiosity in more detail, and we attempt to create an empirical measure of curiosity based on six questions adapted from the existing psychometric literature. The survey was used to gauge existing levels of curiosity throughout the UK.

One result in need of further analysis is that Scotland appears to be the least curious part of the UK, and Wales the most curious. We don’t really know why yet, which has made my job rather difficult today because on regional and national radio stations the presenters all want a clear explanation for that result(in itself an example of the information gap theory of curiosity that we mention the report). “What’s wrong with Scotland?”, was in fact the opening question of my interview with BBC Radio Scotland this morning. “Nothing!” was my reflex response, being Scottish myself, but they kept digging- could it be about education? confidence? I’m not sure, though I managed to slip in one of my favourite questions as a way of suggesting it might be ‘contentment’ : “If ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge?”

I hope you can read the report, but if you want the jist, here is an extract from our conclusion:

Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature.

Our research indicates that curiosity may play an important part in stimulating innovation in ways that we urgently need to meet energy challenges in Britain. Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature. We also explore several ways that we could try to build on the natural curiosity of young people in educational settings.

If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense. 

If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense. Shallow curiosity can now be quickly satiated through Google or similar devices, but deep curiosity that arises from sustained focus and engagement is arguably not supported and protected in the culture at large as much as it could be. Creating a truly sustainable economy is an issue worthy of deep and sustained engagement from all of us, and it is hoped that a deeper appraisal of curiosity in all its forms may help to achieve this.

The Third Industrial Revolution

January 3, 2012 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

They say a rainy day is no match for a sunny disposition, but London’s wet, windy, monochrome sky is enough to make the cheeriest soul wish they were elsewhere.

While weather and climate are related, weather is immediate, salient, shared and self-evident, while climatology is statistical, abstract, systemic, chronological and inaccessible. Indeed it is far from clear what kind of mandate the link between weather and climate gives us, and whether it is perhaps safer not to rely on weather as a way of communicating the climate challenge.

For instance, George Monbiot writes today about how selective attention to weather patterns is used to reinforce the narratives of climate change doubt and denial, while many have criticised Al Gore for linking extreme weather events in China and Pakistan to the need to act with urgency.

The connection between weather and climate is a narrative challenge. We want to tell a story that links them, because it makes the issue vivid and real, but the links are tentative, non-linear and probabilistic i.e. they are not good ingredients for an inspiring narrative to galvanise action on a global scale.

And narrative matters. It has been argued, for instance, that despite major policy initiatives, Obama’s green jobs initiatives never really took off because he didn’t have a compelling vision for how the myriad of policies could be woven together to create a vision of the future that people could figuratively and literally buy into.

we urgently need a narrative that is complex enough to capture the dimensions of the problem, but simple enough to make intuitive sense to billions of people. If weather can’t do that, what can?

This is no minor point because we urgently need a narrative that is complex enough to capture the dimensions of the problem, but simple enough to make intuitive sense to billions of people. If weather can’t do that, what can?

(image from voiceseducation.org)

Of all the RSA talks I attended last year, Jeremy Rifkind’s Third Industrial Revolution made the deepest impression, because he addressed the challenge of finding the right narrative head on. He spoke eloquently, passionately and coherently without prompts for 45 minutes, and it was the first RSA talk where I had to hold myself back from starting a standing ovation in the great room. (The Twitter feed suggests I wasn’t the only one).

Before I continue to wax lyrical, I should express some intuitive doubts about the speaker that I can’t quite put my finger on. He came across as warm, wise and brilliant, but I am mindful of the saying that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is, and there is something about Rifkind’s clarity and certainty that, while it inspires, it also makes me a little nervous. For instance he valorises Europe to an American audience in way that doesn’t ring true, and appears to name-drop to a suspicious extent. He also seems over-fond of highlighting just how influential he is. These reservations might be ill-founded, or perhaps just grit for the pearl in the oyster, but I have them for whatever they are worth.

And yet, Rifkind offers a vision of the future grounded in an economic, environmental, technological, political and psychological diagnosis of the present that sounds coherent and feels compelling. Who else does that?  I strongly encourage you to listen to the talk to hear the argument for yourself, jump to the wikpedia page, or buy the book where it is unpacked in detail.

Here is my quick summary.

  • All industrial revolutions are based on an interplay or energy and information (An ontological aside- is there ultimately anything else in the world?) The first Industrial Revolution brought together print and literacy with coal steam and rail, while the second combined the telegraph and telephone with the internal combustion engine and oil. The Third industrial revolution is about bringing together renewable energy with the internet.
  • We misunderstood the financial crisis. Everything was mis-priced because we didn’t factor in the true cost of energy. We thought it was about the housing market, toxic assets, and debt, but these were corollaries of of gradually diminishing fossil fuels and increasing oil prices. We witnessed: “extraordinary binge buying designed to keep the economic engine artificially revved up while the real economy was winding down.”
  • ‘Peak globalization’ occurred in in July 2008 where ‘peak oil per capita’ happened (linking population growth to oil production). We need a completely new industrial model.
  • The new industrial revolution has five pillars:
  1. Shifting to Renewable Energy on a grand scale.
  2. Turning all buildings into power plants i.e. DIY renewable energy for everybody.
  3. Storing this energy, principally with hydrogen.
  4. Reconfiguring the world’s energy grid along the lines of the internet, allowing people to share energy, and overcoming the main problem of renewables (“the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine”…)
  5. Creating electric transport vehicles to transport energy that can be plugged into the main power grids.

All of these steps beg questions, mostly of a technological nature, but it appears that in all cases ‘we have the technology’, as they say, and the process is already under way in several parts of the world, including Rome, San Antonio and Utrecht.

This combination of renewable energy, distributed capitalism, lateral power and a change in consciousness forms the basis of the third industrial revolution. It looks like a vision worthy of the challenges we face. The Devil will surely be in the detail, but in the blueprint I sense the divine.

What is lacking is the political will to make this model the prevailing narrative of our time.

In this respect Rifkind builds on his earlier work on empathy to argue that these five pillars must emerge alongside a ‘shift in consciousness’, and he links this shift in consciousness to a political shift, illustrated in the Arab Spring in which the top-down power of the second industrial revolution is gradually replaced by what he calls ‘lateral power’- the power of non-hierarchical connections, or what is sometimes also called heterarchy. (If you listen to the audio, I ask about this shift of consciousness towards the end of the event).

This combination of renewable energy, distributed capitalism, lateral power and a change in consciousness forms the basis of the third industrial revolution. It looks like a vision worthy of the challenges we face. The Devil will surely be in the detail, but in the blueprint I sense the divine.

 

What’s wrong with wonky carrots?

November 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but today 5,000 people, including me, have had exactly that. The event in Trafalgar Square was the brainchild of Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. The aim of the event is to draw attention to the astonishing amount of food that gets thrown away every year.

Partly, the idea is to encourage consumers not to overbuy and to use up food at home before it goes off and also, to draw attention to the shocking quantities of food that get wasted higher up the food chain. UK supermarkets have much more stringent cosmetic standards than our European counterparts, meaning that tonnes of perfectly good fruit and vegetables are sent to landfill simply because they are the wrong shape.

A delicious vegetable curry was prepared by Hare Krishna volunteers, made entirely from ingredients that would have otherwise ended up in landfill.  In addition to the main meal, punters could help themselves to freshly pressed apple juice made from misshapen apples deemed unfit for our supermarket shelves. Fruit, including uneven bananas and pineapples were being given away and you could help bag up wonky carrots which will later be distributed to food charities. As well as the vegan curry, there were also tongue sandwiches, and seared ox cheek on offer. The queue for these was considerably shorter than for the veggie option, and, to my amusement a volunteer was checking with people that they knew what they were queuing for.

The whole thing was impressively well organised, with fast moving queues and plenty of volunteers making sure everyone got the message as well as the free food. I spoke to a couple of staff from FareShare, who explained to me how they manage to feed over 35,000 people daily through redistributing food waste. The examples of food thrown away by the industry were very surprising – even rice and pasta with more than a year left before the use-by date get chucked simply because of misprints on the packaging. FoodCycle volunteers handed me recipe cards for great meals you can make with vegetables which are past their best, and a woman from Love Food Hate Waste told me that the average family throws away £50 worth of perfectly good food every month.

Everyone attending was asked to sign the Feed the 5,000 pledge, committing to buying only the food they need, and eating the food they buy. For me, the most striking statistic of the day was that if we all stopped throwing away food that could have been eaten it would have the same carbon impact as taking 20% of cars off the road. I don’t know why this was the figure that had most salience for me – maybe because the carbon impact of car use seems more obvious to me than that of wasted food.

Not wasting food seems like such a simple and obvious thing we can all do, and really shouldn’t be that difficult. I guess like many of these sorts of challenges, it’s about subtle shifts and changes of habit, maybe a bit more in the way of planning before we go shopping, and more flexibility to use up what we’ve got once we’ve bought it. So, before the end of the day, I’d better eat the apple that’s been sitting in my desk drawer all week…

The iPod of Thermostats

October 26, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

It’s a hideous cliché for product companies to say that their product is “the iPod of…” breadmakers, shopping trolleys, remote controls or whatever they make (though just another indication of how Apple have raised the profile of good design). But one product launch that took place yesterday had more right to use this title than most. Tony Fadell was a senior executive of Apple’s iPod division until 2008, but has more recently started Nest, a product development company.

Nest’s first product is the iPod of (sorry) thermostats. It’s simple, intelligent (its main selling point is that it ‘learns’ from the way you live) and wouldn’t look out of place in a Foster + Partners home (if they made homes). It’s an interesting example because thermostats are exactly the kind of product that are traditionally heavy on features and light on desirability and ‘human interface’.

Developing the last point, cognitive scientist and designer Don Norman used thermostats in his Design of Everyday Things (one of the inspirations for Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge) to illustrate how the human interface of a thermostat often fails to match a homeowner’s mental model of their central heating system. Norman writes that people often think of the thermostat as either a valve (in which turning the dial up increases the amount of heat flowing through the system) or a timer (in which turning the dial up makes the system respond more quickly). Both are wrong, and both illustrate a problem with how people understand thermostats (for more see this post from Rattle Research and this post in response by Dan Lockton).

Why does this matter? Well, while possessing products that are well-designed might fulfil some of our desires, it also has an impact on big social and environmental problems. ‘Space heating’ is the highest percentage (61%) of domestic energy consumption in the UK (domestic energy is itself 32% of the UK’s overall) and with sky-high energy prices, more falling into fuel poverty & climate change, it becomes more important than ever that we can clearly understand and manage the energy we use. The way that we interact with our home’s central heating system directly affects our energy consumption.

Nest seem to be motivated by trends like these. They reckon that thermostats control about 50% of a US household’s energy bill, and that a well-designed and properly programmed device will be an attractive proposition to consumers. We’ll wait and see I guess (there’s price premium of about $100 more than competitors), but it could be another example of great product design not only making consumers happier, but also helping to solving social problems. As Nest’s website says: “Technology should be about more than newest, loudest, prettiest. It should make a difference”.

Older Posts »