I don’t believe in climate change…

November 3, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Uncategorized 

…but to clarify, I don’t “believe” in anthropogenic climate change, because it is not a religion.

I do, however, accept that there is considerable scientific evidence that man-made climate change is happening, and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would help to mitigate against its effects. And yesterday’s 100-page “synthesis report”  from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) backs this up no uncertain terms, stating that:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity between 2000 and 2010 were the highest in history.
  • Since 1970, total carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement production have tripled.
  • It’s extremely likely humans are responsible for more than half of the warming since the 1950s. Scientists’ best guess is that greenhouse gases explain all the warming.

But while the evidence presented by the IPCC suggests that it is imperative that “action” is taken now, as my colleague Jonathan Rowson has said: generic calls for ‘action’ on climate change actually stifle our ability to act. While the IPCC outlines some clear measures that countries could take to deal with emissions, it offers the broad caveat: “Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation.”  Policies and cooperation, eh? Now that’s the tricky bit.

Read more

An Audience with Terence Woodgate, Royal Designer for Industry

October 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Innovation 

‘Designers were considering sustainability before sustainability really existed.’ It wasn’t what I expected to hear from an internationally renowned designer, but then it seems to be the job of designers to defy expectations.

Solid Slide #9

A light from Terence Woodgate’s SOLID range

This particular designer, Terence Woodgate, rose from humble beginnings in North London to become one of the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI), the highest accolade for a designer in the UK and acclaimed for his exquisite furniture and lighting. After failing his 11+ and with dyslexia misdiagnosed as lack of aptitude, he was steered towards woodwork and found a niche in technical drawings – and maths. An apprenticeship at Gordon’s gin plant in Clerkenwell found him designing machines to stamp wax crests onto bottles, and was followed by work in the petrochemicals industry and travel in Europe and Asia. It wasn’t until his 30’s that Woodgate trained as a furniture designer.

One of Woodgate’s heroes is the iconic designer Charles Eames, who famously said: ‘I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints’. Woodgate takes this a step further, declaring: ‘You have to be passionate about every constraint’. For him, this includes the material constraints that must be taken into account when designing for reusability or recyclability, and he maintains that it is the job of the designer to know about the whole life cycles of a product’s components. More than anyone, it is the designers of ‘cheap stuff’ who should be thinking about the lifespan of a product: ‘Because those are the first things that are going to be thrown away!’  

‘You have to be passionate about every constraint’

  Read more

In Search of a Prime Example

February 8, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

If you are interested in Social Psychology (and who isn’t?) you’ll be well aware of some of the wonderful experiments on priming i.e. situations where participants are exposed to a certain kind of stimulus that influences their response to a future stimulus. The evidence on priming appears to suggest, for instance, that:

If you prime people with images relating to money they will be less cooperative

If you prime people with words relating to old age, they will walk more slowly.

If you prime people with a warm mug they will be friendlier

And so forth.

But does the evidence for priming really stack up?

I, like many others I know, had taken such ideas as established facts, as firm as any others in psychology, not least because they were propounded by academic heavyweights like John Bargh, Ap Dijksterhuis, and even Daniel Kahneman. However, in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all.

in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all

There is a wonderful article by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle Review that details the range and extent of these doubts. One particularly punchy paragraph highlights the heated nature of the debate in the field:

In one of those e-mails, Pashler issued a challenge masquerading as a gentle query: “Would you be able to suggest one or two goal priming effects that you think are especially strong and robust, even if they are not particularly well-known?” In other words, put up or shut up. Point me to the stuff you’re certain of and I’ll try to replicate it. This was intended to counter the charge that he and others were cherry-picking the weakest work and then doing a victory dance after demolishing it. He didn’t get the straightforward answer he wanted. “Some suggestions emerged but none were pointing to a concrete example,” he says. 

Now the stakes are pretty high here. I don’t yet have any settled view, but it does matter that people working in applied psychology, broadly conceived, figure out where they are on this matter, if only because so many people build their practice around the assumption that priming works. For instance, there was a really powerful study done by Common Cause  about priming people who are extrinsically motivated with intrinsic motivators and watching the effects:

much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.

“Although all the participants in the study had been selected because they held extrinsic values to be more important, we found marked differences between, on the one hand, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon extrinsic values spoke about bigger-than-self problems, and, on the other, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon intrinsic values spoke about these problems. Compared to those primed with extrinsic values, participants primed with intrinsic values spoke about social and environmental challenges in ways that conveyed a stronger sense of moral duty, and a greater obligation to act to help meet these challenges.”

In this particular study, extrinsic values were primed with reference to wealth, preserving public image and popularity, while intrinsic values were primed with reference to affiliation, acceptance and being broad-minded. While the study’s authors are duly cautious about over-extrapolating, they do indicate that their findings show that even those who express no dispositional inclination towards thinking or caring about ‘bigger-than-self’ problems, can begin to do so over time through the priming of intrinsic values.

Come to think of it, much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.

My impression is that priming fits with our best understanding of the unconscious, automatic, situational and social features of human nature, and probably does ‘work’, in the broadest sense, even when individual studies can’t be replicated. But, then again, on reflection, perhaps I just think that because I have taken too many studies at face value. Perhaps (cue voodoo music) I have been primed to believe in primes…


Where does all this stuff come from? (food, phones, meat and tea)

January 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Over the last few days I have noticed several people daring to think about – and this really is rather daring – where all their stuff comes from.

It started with food in general, in the context of an appearance on the Today Programme. My basic argument was that our sense of what is wasteful depends on our perception of scarcity, and we don’t experience scarcity, mostly because we are so far removed from the provenance of the things we rely on: food, water and energy. I am beginning to think that the core problem is that such things are kept relatively cheap only because we don’t factor in their true environmental, social and health costs, and an excellent editorial in Sunday’s Observer: “There’s a price to be paid for our cheap food”  seemed to share this view.

Image via www.gulawweekly.org

Then I noticed a tweet from Public Understanding of Science supremo Alice Bell this morning: “Those last two tweets posted from my phone. Which is amazing. But I want to know more about the materials, people & injustices that made it.” She probably already knows this story about phone materials, but it is pretty shocking. A line from the feature captures the core problem- there is a huge demand for tin due to our insatiable appetite for new phones, but the kinds of tin we need are not easy to extract, and cause a great deal of harm along the way:  “Tin mining is a lucrative but destructive trade that has scarred the island’s landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs, and dented tourism to its pretty palm-lined beaches.”

(Image via thehindu.com)

On the same Twitter stream there was a report about Tea plantations being threatened by Climate Change. My colleague Dr Emma Lindley has a charming biographical line “Manchester-based drinker of Yorkshire tea” and I’m partial to Yorkshire tea myself, but you don’t need to pause for long to realise that Yorkshire tea is not actually grown in, y’know, Yorkshire. It seems there is now a consortium of tea companies “Tea 2030″ supported by Forum for the Future who are realising that some of the places most likely to be impacted by climate disruption (by the way, I think that’s a much better term than ‘climate change’ HT Ian Christie). If the idea of Polar bears swimming in search of ice until they drown didn’t get your attention, perhaps waking up without access to a good and affordable cuppa might do it.

(Image via touristindia.org)

Finally(for now at least) I remembered the absolutely wonderful RSA event “Eating Animals” featuring Jonathan Safran Foer. I strongly urge you to listen to the full audio podcast which includes his considered answers to some tough audience questions. I loved this talk because I don’t think people should wear the term ‘vegetarian’ as some sort of self-righteous badge of honour, and then cross-examine people for their consitency of their practices (milk? eggs? leather?). I fully agree with Jonathan’s point that making it a moral binary, an either-or, just doesn’t help. People are attached to meat for lots of reasons, not just taste but various valued cultural and spiritual practices that involve it.

(Image via guardian.co.uk)

The key is first to recognise the harm involved in the process, and to take responsibility for your actions with as much awareness as you can. And that’s the reason the talk was so brilliant. The main take-home point for me was his simple observation that the meat industry relies on ignorance about food production and guards it very carefully. The corollary (note to self: at some point it’s worth digging out the exact quotation) is that Jonathan says something like “It only goes in one direction. The more you know about where it comes from, the less you want to eat it.”

The same point applies to ethical behaviour and sustainability more broadly- much of it is about who owns and protects information. More about that on Friday.

Deconstruction #2: Mobile Phone

November 15, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 


The next item in the firing line of our deconstruction series is an old phone. It’s been sitting at the bottom of a drawer, ‘just in case’ it was needed, but it hasn’t been used in a long, long time. This phone isn’t alone in being popped to one side for years on end. On average, each UK household has 2 unused or old mobile phones stored away somewhere. That’s a massive 49 million handsets that are simply sitting in our homes. So what actually are we storing in our cupboards (apart from a few text messages and an old photo of your cat?).

We took apart an old phone at a FairPhone workshop to try and find out.

Inside a basic old handset, we discovered layers of metal and circuit board, all made up of a huge 35 types of metal, including copper, tin, cobalt and gold. A recent study suggests that one tonne of ore from a gold mine produces just 5 grams of gold on average, whereas a tonne of discarded mobile phones can yield a massive 150 grams.

Digging a little deeper, we discovered that a tiny part of the phone – the capacitor – contains the element Tantalum. The name Tantalum comes from the metal’s unusual quality of repelling liquids, much like Tantalus, a figure in Greek mythology who was forced to stand in a pool of water that remained constantly out of reach when he tried to take a drink. Tantalum can be found in nearly all of our electrical goods – mobile phones, lap tops, hard drives, PlayStations… and the list goes on.

Derived from the metallic ore Coltan, which is mainly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, its ‘medium risk’ labelling and its rising value has made Tantalum a huge catalyst in the on-going Congo war. A recent report by the UN has claimed that all the parties involved in the local civil war have been involved in the mining and sale of Coltan. In the province of Katanga alone, an estimated 150,000 work in the mines, including 50,000 children and young people, some as young as seven years old.

At this year’s 100% designMark Shayler looked in a little more detail at the global supply chain of our electrical goods, and revealed that up to 64% of the world’s Coltan supplies are estimated to come from the Congo. Now think back to those 49 million mobile handsets that are sitting unused around the country. If we were able to recover all of the Tantalum from these, we could make 49 million new mobile handsets that wouldn’t need to rely on a ‘conflict metal’.

FairPhone is working to bring a ‘fair’ smartphone onto the market. This means a phone that is made“entirely out of parts and utilised without harming individuals or the environment.”  They are working to find new ways to produce these necessary raw materials by questioning every stage of the process; finding fair mines (or investing in their creation) and recycling our existing raw materials. If we could roll out this thinking beyond our mobile phones, and apply it to all of our electronics, questioning where elements have come from and where they will go, we will be one step closer to a circular economy.

It’s time that we all begin to question the products that we are consuming. To find out more about e-waste, try your hand at taking a mobile phone apart, and learn how you can make a difference, come to one our e-waste workshops at SWEEEP electronic recovery facility, Kent on the 16thNovember, or at S2S in Rotherham on the 21st November.

Why don’t you take something apart and see what you discover? To contribute to our deconstruction series, contact hilary.chittenden@rsa.org.uk

This post was originally published on the Great Recovery blog.

Latest Winners of a Citizen Power Award

April 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

This post was originally posted on Project Dirt, where we are building a cluster for all the community-led environmental projects in Peterborough.

Here at the Citizen Power Peterborough* project we’ve been working with community groups that have ideas which could make Peterborough a greener place. One way we’ve been doing this is by running workshops that allow people to develop their ideas and meet others, then help them apply for a Citizen Power grant that will allow them to test that idea on the ground.

So far we’ve funded further development of a well-loved community garden in Paston and a group who are in the process of assuming responsibility for a section of ancient woodland in Bretton. The latest decisions on funding were made at an event last Friday, when eleven individuals and groups applied for grants to allow them to put their ideas into action.

The three judges were environmental innovators Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible Todmorden and Hermione Taylor of The DoNation, together with Councillor Sam Dalton – the member of Peterborough’s cabinet with responsibility for environmental issues. The judges heard from each group, who pitched the idea of their project for the chance of a grant.

People developing project ideas at an earlier workshop (photo by Adrian Stone)

Among others, the judges heard from one group who wanted to replicate the success of a Cambridge paint upcycling project in Peterborough. Rather than sending paint straight to landfill, they planned to collect waste paint from local recycling centres, store, sort and redistribute it to community groups and families.

A group of students from Peterborough Regional College presented a plan to convert old unused bicycles into safe and usable bikes. The improved bikes will be available for college students to buy at low weekly cost over the course of a year – making travel a more active and healthy experience, as well as being better for the environment.

The judges also heard from another individual who wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of alternative energy systems like hydrogen power to people at public events. He planned to use an education fuel cell to power a low-energy projector, at the same time demonstrating and explaining the physics behind the post-oil future.

In the end, the judges opted to fund all eleven projects for amounts between £300 and £500 each. Each project will be creating a profile on Project Dirt (if they don’t have one already), so in time you’ll be able to keep track of their progress through the Peterborough cluster on Project Dirt.

Well done to all involved!

* Citizen Power Peterborough is an initiative from the people of Peterborough, the RSA, Peterborough City Council and the Arts Council, East

The full list of winners:

  • Peterborough Repaint Scheme from Kevin and Fiona
  • The Backyard Food Group Shop from Sophie
  • Green Backyard Woodskills from Renny
  • Rake and Bake Gardening Club from Parents United
  • P£anet Bikes from Peterborough Regional College students
  • Pond & Frogs project from Peterborough Regional College students
  • An Introduction to Hydrogen Fuel Cells, HHO and Alternative Energy from Jordan
  • Bike workshop from Dominic
  • Slow Sewing from Lorena
  • The Little Miracles Peterborough Sensory Garden from Michelle
  • The Olive Branch Community Garden & Allotments from Mark

The Understandable Madness of Economic Growth

March 26, 2012 by · 22 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must. - Tim Jackson

Speaking at the RSA President’s Lecture last year, David Attenborough made a profoundly subversive comment disguised as an innocent joke: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist.”

The trouble is that political and policy arguments are largely driven by the methods and metrics of economists. So while the means to the end of achieving economic growth are constantly debated, the legitimacy of the end itself is barely questioned. In this sense most of our political class are indeed ‘mad’. The problem with Attenborough’s joke is that after the laughter has subsided here we all are, believing in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet.

The problem with Attenborough’s joke is that after the laughter has subsided here we all are, believing in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet.

I write as a relatively privileged thirty-something with a full-time job, so perhaps it is too easy for me to make this case. Perhaps if I was a recent unemployed graduate with a young family, desperate for work in a depressed region, who just received his thirtieth rejection letter I would feel differently. Perhaps if I wanted to start a new business but couldn’t get a bank loan, or if I had to lay-off good staff in a small company because my main customers were withdrawing their business…perhaps.

But for what it’s worth I think the prevailing focus on ‘jobs and growth‘ is painfully shallow. The debate about ‘jobs’ obscures a much more productive discussion about employment, particularly finding ways to support flexible, temporary, and part-time work. NEF lead the way on this issue, with their examination of the feasibility of a 21 hour working week. It appears obvious to me that if most people who have full-time jobs feel overworked and stressed while others are not working at all the solution is not necessarily to create more ‘jobs’ through economic growth, but rather to redistribute the available work more evenly.

It just looks obvious to me that if most people who have full-time jobs feel overworked and stressed while others are not working at all the solution is not necessarily to create more ‘jobs’ through economic growth, but rather to redistribute the available work more evenly.

The reason this idea is viewed as subversive rather than obvious is due to the assumption that we need economic growth at all costs, what Clive Hamilton calls ‘growth fetishism’.

Prosperity without Growth?

Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson is an indispensable guide for anybody hoping to challenge this idea. It is a remarkably sane, balanced and human book by an economist who has the capacity to authoritatively present conventional economic arguments at their strongest, and the insight to show their limitations, sometimes even on their own terms. There are many reviews online, so what follows are the traces of the argument left in my mind a week or so after I finished reading it:

Prosperity is a legitimate goal, but it is best viewed as a social and psychological concept rather than an economic one. Linking prosperity exclusively to income is unhelpful, because even if they are related(and some dispute that) prosperity is a much bigger concept, relying only on minimal conditions from income.

Moreover, a fuller analysis suggests we are suffering not just from an economic recession, but also a social recession(poorer relationships, less trust, more lonliness) and, more urgently, we are rapidly approaching our planetary limits. These are clearly related concerns, and it is completely wrong-headed to think that growth will solve the other problems, when it often causes them. As Jackson puts it:

“The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people.”

Our Dependence on Growth

Alas, the need for growth is deep. We have constructed our economies in such a way that they have a structural dependence on growth and are therefore inherently unstable. Economies are full of positive and negative feedback cycles(e.g. low/high growth, high/low unemployment, less/more spending power to support growth). If the economy stops growing, it starts shrinking towards collapse…there is no steady state. Accepting this means we have a stark choice: to make growth sustainable or ‘de-growth’ stable.

The challenge with the latter is that economic growth is driven by what Jackson calls the ‘social logic of consumption’ underpinned by a deep human need to convey identity and signal status. This is the engine of capitalism, fuelling aspiration, innovation, higher living standards i.e. it’s not all bad and we are used to it. It appears so much easier to find ways to make growth sustainable, but what Jackson’s analysis makes clear is that these approaches don’t add up, quite literally.

We have constructed our economies in such a way that they have a structural dependence on growth and are therefore inherently unstable. 

The Myth of ‘Decoupling’

The Ehrlich equation outlines the arithmetics of growth with respect to sustainability, and it doesn’t look good. The impact (I) of human activity is the product of three main factors: 1) P: the size of the population(going up to 9-11 billion by 2050), 2) A: its level of affluence (income per person) and a technology/efficiency factor which measures impact per unit of economic output. I=PxAxT.

Here is the issue: If P goes up, and A goes up, T has to go down to stay within planetary limits. This is why so many economists and politicians need to believe that we can continue to grow, and the only way to believe that is to argue that technological and behavioural change can make us much more efficient such that our impact remains within sustainable limits. This solution is often called ‘decoupling’- in other words separating economic activity from environmental impact.

However, when you look at the numbers more closely that appears at best wildly optimistic and at worst completely delusional. We have no reason, other than recklessly blind faith, to believe that technology can deliver in that way. One reason many remain caught in this delusion is that they don’t distinguish between relative decoupling(less environmental impact per unit of economic output) and absolute decoupling (less environmental impact overall) which is what we desperately need to achieve. It is possible to appear ‘green’ with relative decoupling, but you are only really sustainable if you achieve absolute decoupling.

It is possible to appear ‘green’ with relative decoupling, but you are only really sustainable if you achieve absolute decoupling.

There is a very strong argument that while we can improve relative decoupling and should continue to do so, absolute decoupling is incompatible with the continued pursuit of economic growth, at least in the developed world. (It remains coherent to argue for growth in the developing world where the marginal utility of growth is much greater, and environmental impact can be lessened through appropriate investment).

So I found Jackson’s argument (much more sophisticated than I can present here) persuasive. I am not sure if that makes me a lunatic an idealist or a revolutionary, but I think we have to think about changing the structure of the economy through giving serious thought to what a model of a stable economy without economic growth looks like. Some models have been proposed, but they remain nascent. We urgently need to develop them.

On reflection, such a bold approach does not appear ideological to me, but rather waking up from a prevailing ideology that is manifestly self-destructive. We are running out of planet. 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.



What do Your Jeans Mean to You?

March 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

In 1890, William James wrote that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, his friends, his wife and children, his ancestors, his reputation and works, his lands and yacht and bank account…”. Now I don’t have any children or a yacht (or even much of a reputation), but I am a sucker (and an advertising agent’s dream) for the idea that my possessions are linked with my identity.

I suppose the objects I feel this most keenly with include those I use daily – like my ageing Apple Powerbook – things that were created by someone I love, like the cartoon my grandfather drew of rush hour at Glasgow Central Station in the 1920s, and things that have almost become a physical part of me – like my wedding ring. As a product design graduate, when I’m buying a new object I tend to critically assess it, working out how long I think it’ll last. Sometimes my favourite stuff has changed as I’ve got older; my laptop has dents where I’ve dropped it for example, which somehow make it an object more special to me.

Can this process of owner, object and identity be enhanced? A new maker of jeans in Wales think so. Hiut Denim are including what they call a History Tag with each pair of jeans. Each pair of their jeans will have a unique number which you can register on their website. Once registered, you can send photographs of you (presumably wearing your jeans) to the website, amassing a collection of memories over time. They describe it more persuasively than I can:

“…the History Tag is a bit like a blank iPod, but as you add more and more music it becomes more and more interesting. Or in our case, the more memories you add to it, the more fascinating it becomes. So if in the future, your jeans get handed down, or end up in a second hand jeans shop, their memories will go along with them. Your memories won’t be forgotten which we think is good. A good marriage between Luddite and Geek.”

In short, the History Tag is a way to make this connection between owner and object more visible, even enduring when the object passes to another owner. Could ideas like this help us become more satisfied with what we have, reducing our ‘insatiable’ desires? Or on the other hand – will enough customers actually bother to do it? I think it’s a neat idea, but have a sneaking feeling that it’s sustainable in a way that I find just a little bit too sickly sweet…

What do you think, and what are your favourite objects?

Climate Change: You can’t wake a person who is pretending to sleep.

November 4, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Hanah Arendt famously wrote of the ‘banality of evil’ in the context of the Holocaust. I wonder if we should now recognise ‘the banality of doom’ in the context of climate change. Or as Economist Paul Krugman put it in a different context, is it possible to be bored and terrified at the same time?

There is yet more bad news about the climate today, which should be of massive global significance, but is unlikely to make any headlines. The simple fact is that the world is ‘not getting it’. We pumped about 564m more tons (512m metric tons) of carbon into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009 – an increase of 6%.

Such dry facts do not set the pulse racing. As John Reilly, the co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change said: “The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing.” Anthony Giddens made the same point when speaking at the RSA last week.  We are, as Iain McGilchrist puts it, ambling towards the abyss.

as Economist Paul Krugman put it in a different context, is it possible to be bored and terrified at the same time?

It is tempting to give up, individually and collectively. Yet there is hope, of sorts. I am reminded of a John Cleese line from the comedy Clockwise where he is desperately late but sees that his mental agony is caused by the fact that he still has an outside chance of being on time: “It’s not the despair. I can handle the despair. It’s the hope!”

So what do we do with that hope?

I mentioned Clive Hamilton’s theory that we need to accept climate change emotionally, through a form of collective grieving, before we can act with any conviction, and rather than feel despair at today’s news I wanted to highlight another perspective that gave me some hope.

Jason Clay is Senior Vice President of Market Transformation at WWF. I watched him give a wonderful talk at the Climate, Mind and Behaviour Conference at the Garrison Institute outside New York in March. If you don’t have time to listen to the talk, at least flick through the slides, or reflect on one of his opening lines: “it is the people who buy and sell that are changing the world.”

Population growth plus climate change means we are running out of planet. As Clay puts it: we need 8,000 years worth of food in the next 40 years. We urgently need to focus, and find the greatest point of leverage.

A simple fact helps to focus the mind: 100 companies produce 25% of all commodities, and 25% of demand leverages 40-50% of production.

Clay’s point is that we need to focus on the supply chain. Rather than target consumers or the primary producers/extractors on either end of the product life cycle, we need to focus on the retailers, brands, manufacturers, traders and processors.

For starters, you need to take deforestation out of the supply chain- that means focussing on Brazil, Indonesia and Russia where 50% of deforestation takes place, and focussing on particular products including beef, soil, palm oil, soya and fish that are some of the worst carbon culprits.

He is not saying it’s easy. The big companies are competitive beasts, struggling to survive against other competitive beasts. Clay’s main take-home point, for me, was that sustainability is a pre-competitive issue. No planet, no competition. And the big companies get that.  But Clay said it takes 8-15 ‘touches’ to get a first meeting with the big companies, and much longer to lock them into to significant changes.

The core challenge is to define the boundaries of competitive and pre-competitive, which is where regulation and carbon markets comes in. And yet, Clay suggests that if you truly factored in environmental costs, prices would triple, which nobody wants.

What does this have to do with behaviour? Clay began his talk with a beautiful Oromo proverb: “You can’t wake a person who is pretending to sleep.” The big companies who are causing the biggest problems are not easy to wake, precisely because they are pretending to sleep i.e. they think they are doing ‘their bit’. The challenge for all of us, I think, is to recognise how we are complicit in their slumber.




The Ecology of Innovation

January 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

One of the component parts of Citizen Power (a two year programme of innovation, participation and place-making in Peterborough) aims to spark and support local people’s ideas that could make “green” behaviour easier throughout the city. When planning the project we were inspired by insights into what can influence people’s behaviour and decision-making (such as the dramatic effect of social proof).

Our approach has been to teach these principles to local residents and help them apply them to the behaviours that underlie local environmental problems. We think that giving community activists the knowledge and support to “nudge” their neighbours could be a better way of encouraging behaviour change. National attempts to apply these principles could leave people feeling preached at, or alienate people by taking covert approaches.

Instead, we think that training community activists with the knowledge they need to nudge their neighbours can harness their local knowledge, their “one-of-us” status, and their existing trusted relationships with their community.

Towards the end of last year we tested this approach in a two-day workshop. Twenty-five enthusiastic residents learned about the effects of personal, social and infrastructural factors on human behaviour, then worked together to apply this knowledge to Peterborough specific problems. After a pitch to a panel of judges, two ideas were selected for seed-funding and non-financial support to allow them to become pilot projects.

One of the pilots will encourage a wider segment of the community to manage local plots of unused land. The group behind this project plan to map unused land in their neighbourhood and throughout Peterborough, then run small interventions to encourage local people to take an active role in stewarding the land.

The other pilot will encourage residents living near an area of ancient woodland to take an active forest management role. Currently neglected and the scene of anti-social behaviour, the community decided to create a woodland walk to make walking through the forest a normal activity for local residents.

Part of this approach to local nudging was informed by a paper – The Ecology of Innovation - that we published just before Christmas. It presents a few simple principles that could be used to encourage and support local people in getting projects off the ground. These principles include ensuring that local community organisations are able to participate in contributing their ideas, and supporting their ideas with financial and non-financial support so that they can be tested. You can read the paper online or download it here.

In 2011, we’re looking forward to getting these ideas off the ground, and also holding more workshops to encourage and support more ideas that could make Peterborough into an even greener place to live!

Older Posts »