Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
We switch formats again at this point, as Jill Fehrenbacher moderates a panel on sustainability, featuring Allan Chochinov of Core 77, Susan Szenasy of Metropolis, Graham Hill of Treehugger. Jill had asked readers of her blog to contribute questions, which was a nice idea, and a few of those questions made it out. Equally, it was a free-flowing conversation, particularly driven by the energy of Chochinov and Szenasy. I’ve switched from my usual method of documenting these talks to give a sense of the conversation here, by pulling out the quotes that stuck. Those in speech marks are verbatim, as I heard it; the other text is the gist of what was said.
How and when did you wake up to this notion of sustainability?
Susan: "At the beginning! I was born in post-war Hungary, and learned from the very beginning about conserving things. That has never left me."
Allan: "A good awakening was when I started teaching and saw just the nonsense that people were bringing in." Good designers are always sustainable, but the "drive to create stuff is just so powerful," and dangerous.
Graham: "Two squares of toilet paper! Grew up with real hippy parents." Efficiency was there from the beginning.
Key elements in sustainable design
Susan: Not sure we’re ready to answer this question coherently. "We start evaluating wood in relationship to steel to wood to plastic, and so on … We don’t know what we’re doing yet. Look at location, extraction, shipping etc. There’s no answer right now, so keep looking. It’s a pitiful, small body of knowledge at this moment."
Graham: "Size." We keep building these massive buildings. We need alternatives to that, but they need to be stylish too, as "ugly things get torn down". There’s quite a list: multifunctionality, repairability, transportation issues etc.
Allan: "Look at how it’s used."
How has blogging affected design discourse?
Susan: "There’s a lot of nonsense up there." "It’s more exposure with less knowledge than ever before". People are "showing their lack of education and lack of understanding of the subject … Every time I look at some of those responses, I cringe." (Later she clarifies she’s mainly talking about user comments on blogs.)
Graham: "Made it more of a dialogue. Has an overall positive effect, if you think things tend towards the good."
Allan: There is this issue of the ratio of signal to noise. Our mandate at Core 77 is "predicated on the fact that we’re going to serve the global design community, and show them products. (But) most products are a problem."
Susan: "I’m not negative about bloggers, but the result of the blogging and the dialogue that occurs is what upsets me."
Jill: "It’s one of the most flummoxing issues that we have. We get many comments, but they can be very uninformed. But people are passionate about something."
Graham: "People don’t read very well online. Some of the comments may be made at 11pm, after they’ve had a few! But comments are a very small segment of who is reading." Perhaps there’s a technological solution here, in terms of people rating each others’ comments etc.
Allan: "It’s an emerging medium. Comments is an issue for all us."
How to enable change?
Susan: Families are "adding to their fleet" by adding another small ‘green’ car, as a nod to sustainability, without getting rid of their other two SUVs! "This is something we’re not going to consume our way out of." But in terms of over-consuming, "it’s not the loin cloth thing … I live very well in 400 square feet in New York City. Well-designed, incredibly compact space. Design comes into this."
Allan: "First we need to recognise ourselves in the wholesale poisoning of everything." Notes his love/hate relationship with designers. Thinks there’s something more in what John Thackara and Bruce Sterling have been writing about. Thackara’s notion is "use not own". For example, the power drill is used for probably four minutes of its actual life, on average. If one is shared, that’s more effective.
Susan: "Industrial design as a practice seems clueless in terms of the environment … Even the graphic designers are talking about sustainability. Where are the industrial designers?"
Allan: "Systems are important." Designers need to see that a product should be sensitive to its ecosystem, to see the lifecycle of product, to see the product’s construction holistically. The rest should get out of the business.
Graham mentioned Alonovo.
Susan: "The rating systems – LEED et al – are interesting as they draw attention to it. But I don’t think designers should work to a checklist. People who are doing breakthrough work are going past LEED and have never even tried to a LEED rating, as they’ve been doing that kind of work for years."
Graham: "In business, what gets measured gets done. And we’re beginning to measure it, so that’s really important."
Allan: "The thing is almost accidental; the thing can serve people, it can save lives, but to (think of things) to treat design as an end – that we’re going to make things – well, when they create more consequence than the value of the thing?"
A question from a punter:
As interesting as it sounds, and possibly valuable, tracking a product through its lifecycle is also horrifying. Sometimes you don’t want to know the life history of a product?
Susan: "The question of what it means to be a private human being is very important."
Allan: "All this talk of ubicomp. Big trouble. But green!"
A good panel, even if it occasionally meandered around some well-trodden paths. There are questions around whether some aspects of discourse around sustainability movement can have an almost pious attitude, as perhaps these things should’ve been done right all along. But I found the reaction to this last point, about a memory of products, particularly interesting. Adam Greenfield has written of how to gracefully, ethically build these systems – or at least what to look out for – in terms of ubicomp.
Personally, I think there’s huge value in devices being aware, and this may change things as much as anything. I think we can design systems, devices, scenarios which convey one’s behaviour, and this can change behaviour. This was the subject of my talk at the first Design Engaged conference, back in 2004, noting that using a pedometer makes you walk more, using Last FM makes you listen to more music, more carefully. Using smarter versions of devices like Wattson and iSave, and networking these, aggregating data over time, as per well-designed social software (that respects the individual), and conveying behaviour through a range of interfaces and scenarios, digital and physical/sensual, woven into the fabric of spaces we inhabit … Well, that may help things along a little bit.
Echoes of Matt Clark’s preceding talk, and Duncan Wilson’s Drivers of Change work with Arup’s Foresight Innovation and Incubation team again. This might sound like a technological solution, but I don’t mean it to be perceived that simplistically. Obviously the cultural, infrastructural, political aspects have to align too. Something this panel made very clear was that these solutions must be holistic.
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