100 Years of Progress and Decline: Unboxed's Mission to Address the Climate Crisis
April 13, 2021
The world has seen, in the last 100 years, technological progress previously inconceivable to human imagination. Refrigerators, microwaves and ovens that allow us to store and cook food more efficiently. Cranes that can manoeuvre the heavy equipment required to bring skyrise buildings to life. Vehicles that travel across motorways to mobilize intercity transport networks. Computers that have advanced medical science to the degree that surgeries can be performed trans-continentally via robotic arms. It’s astounding! However, despite having access to information at the click of a Google search, the complex problem of how to meet the energy-hungry needs of a society that has evolved more rapidly than any other in fossil record, sustainably, remains the most challenging of all to solve.
100 years ago, very little was known about the natural world aside from the gentle and reliable rhythm of it’s seasons. Temperate and predictable climates allowed for the advent of farming. The ability to produce food more efficiently gave the people of the time, the gift of more time. 10 days gained because seedling trays had replaced foraging. 100 days gained because maize could be crushed and stored. 1,000 days gained because mono-cultured farming could yield streamlined harvest processes. As the hours of work required to survive reduced, subsistence gave way to the luxury of recreation and exploration. It was in these goldilocks-style environmental conditions that creativity blossomed and innovation boomed.
Image by Jay - In Northern CA via mftca
Progress compounded as each generation advanced the boundaries of innovation, competing to solve problems by inventing, building, creating. Faster. Quicker. More efficiently. Appliances automated menial domestic tasks, motor vehicles replaced horse-drawn carts and libraries of recorded knowledge expanded beyond the scope of memorization. The hum, buzz and purr of working appliances, moving vehicles and sprawling, insomniac cities demanded more and more energy. However, this didn’t seem to be a problem requiring an imminent solution: the supply of energy-producing natural resources was perceived to be infinite. The adoption of “growth” mindset-styles of thinking meant that there were very few constraints to inhibit us. We didn’t know then what we know now…
A keyword search on Google’s Ngram viewer chart reveals that it was only really in the 1950s that terms like “climate change,” “global warming” and the “greenhouse effect” were beginning to feature in scientific literature. As our ability to record and process data improved, by the 1990s, the frequency of people talking about these concepts saw a sharp incline. By the 2000s, climate change forecasts spelling doom dominated newspaper headlines while public understanding around the mechanisms of the greenhouse effect, conversely, decreased. However, communities with lifestyles not yet removed from direct daily contact with nature via modern comforts did not need newspaper headlines to tell them what they could see and feel for themselves: weather patterns were changing at unprecedented speeds.
These communities encompassed farmers and vulnerable minorities alike who experienced, together, the first-hand devastating impact of rapid, unrestrained progress. Natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes were occurring more frequently. Crops were becoming increasingly more difficult to farm as soil became increasingly depleted of nutrients due to overuse. And, the Earth’s natural biodiversity was disappearing as rainforests were cut down to extract rubber and timber alongside industrial sized fishing vessels that pillaged, incessantly, the ocean’s reefs. These are stories that foretell a bleak future if we don’t action drastic changes based on the knowledge we now have: our supply of natural resources is not infinite. There is an edge to progress.
Tsunami damage, Indonesia 2004. Image by Mast Irham/EPA via The Conversation
Addressing the climate crisis will, first and foremost, mean facilitating a mindset transition away from unchecked “growth” and towards “sustainability.” However, if we are to truly pivot away from the bleak environmental future foretold… Driving a deeper, more widespread curiosity about the nature of the world in which we live - it’s beauty and it’s fragility - will be key. “It’s unlikely that you’ll want to protect a place unless you love it. You can’t love it unless you understand it. You can’t understand it unless you know it.” Wrote Kristine Tompkins, UN Environmental Patron of Protected Areas and former CEO of global outdoor brand, Patagonia. In other words, we need to go outside. Reintegrate with wild spaces and develop a more accurate understanding of our place within them - away from newspaper headlines - how do our everyday decisions impact the world in which we live? The more accurate our understanding, the more informed our choices will be.
Image by Maike-Li via Patagonia Expat
Getting to grips with a greater understanding of our impact on the environment does not involve demonizing, reversing or halting progress. Instead, the process requires us to evolve what we define as progress. An integral component to this transition is increased awareness surrounding the cost of convenience. For example, typical home features and modern appliances such as fridges, air conditioners, stoves, boilers and lights have become such a natural extension of daily routine that amidst the busyness of everyday life we - quite understandably - take for granted the fact that, even when not in active use, these tools all draw energy. All this in mind, redefining progress, within this context, does not mean “energy conservation” as much as it means “energy efficiency.” One of the ways in which Unboxed has sought to tackle this problem has been by working with the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in order to explore and validate future user needs of the Energy Technology List (ETL).
“Energy efficiency” simply means less energy to perform the same task. In the same way that farmers learnt how to design innovative tools in order to increase their productivity. The technology sector has learnt how to design eco-conscious tools in ways that eliminate energy-waste in order to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact. However, though knowledge has progressed dramatically, implementation has been slow. The ETL is a digital repository of energy efficient products instituted with the goal of helping public sector organizations and businesses make energy-efficient choices when retrofitting or building offices. The criteria for an appliance feature to be included on the list is strict - it must meet the ETL’s energy saving criteria, which is typically set at the top 25% of products on the market. The list is reviewed annually and connects organizations with suppliers and manufacturers in order to help facilitate quick, easy and confident decisions, based on their needs. Since inception, the scheme has evaluated over 60,000 products and now features 56 technology categories. Considering that the built environment constitutes as much as 50% of energy consumption in the UK, ¾ of which is attributed to wastage as a result of poor or outdated design, small changes can make a big impact very quickly.
Alongside “energy efficiency,” “carbon net-zero” is another common phrase used frequently in conversations surrounding climate change. This concept is also simple. There is a direct line from our homes and gas stations that connects us to coal-fired power plants. Coal plants burn fossil fuels in order to produce the electricity and petrol that we need in order to run our homes and drive our vehicles. In order to serve these energy demands, via the process of converting fossil fuels into usable energy sources, coal plants emit toxic gasses which include carbon dioxide, mercury and various others. Furthermore, as we drive, our vehicles also emit CO2 as gas cylinders fire to convert petrol into the energy that moves the vehicle across motorways in order to deliver us to our destination. The more energy we demand, the more coal plants produce, the more we consume, the more carbon dioxide is admitted into the atmosphere.
The goldilocks environmental conditions we enjoyed 100 years ago depended on a fragile balance of atmospheric gasses that kept the earth at a stable temperature. It was this same atmospheric stability that allowed for the predictable seasons we were able to exploit in order to farm. Where there was an excess of CO2 due to fuel emissions, initially, rainforests sprawled across the north and jungles situated on the earth’s equator by virtue of photosynthesis were able to lock carbon and add moisture to the air in order to keep the earth at a stable temperature. We cut down rainforests, built bigger cities, built bigger coal plants, consumed more, moved more… The homeostatic balance was upset leading to the phenomenon we now know as “the greenhouse effect.”
Illustration via Earth 911
“Carbon net-zero” is one of the solutions proposed to solving this problem. Put simply, “net” refers to CO2 emissions while the “zero” means that these emissions will be offset. In a “carbon net-zero” scenario: CO2 emissions are calculated and removed by the same amount that they are being produced. For example, we still drive vehicles but we also plant trees in order to store carbon in the biosphere as opposed to the atmosphere. Governments globally have adopted this strategy with the UK government having set their achievement target for 2030. The strategy involves three components: reduce and/or eliminate emissions as far as possible, transition to renewable energy sources and offset any and all emissions still being produced. As means of achieving the first and second components of this strategy, the UK government instituted the Office for Zero Emissions Vehicles (OZEV) and tasked the department with the goal of reducing and eliminating the transport sector’s environmental impact.
The primary way in which OZEV has determined to achieve its goal is by driving the uptake of ultra low emission vehicles across the UK. In opposition to their combustible engine counterparts, Electric vehicles (EVs) are considered to be more energy efficient because they do not rely solely on fossil fuels for power (electricity can be sourced from renewable energies whereas petrol is fossil fuel dependent) and they do not contain parts like fuel tanks and tail pipes which cause them to emit exhaust fumes. On average, over a full lifecycle, an EV produces half of a conventional vehicle’s carbon emissions (inclusive of upstream emissions produced during manufacture). Despite clear benefits, the uptake of EVs has been slowed by limited availability of charging infrastructure. Short-term fears will always take precedence over long-term impact. If a choice needs to be made between driving a conventional vehicle that can be confidently refueled at regularly occurring petrol stations vs. the stress of trying to figure out where and how to charge a vehicle in cities where access to the off-street parking required for electric charge points is limited - road users, quite reasonably, will choose the former.
Established in 2016, one of Unboxed’s flagship spin-off companies is Char.gy which rose as a solution to “range anxiety” in order to support OZEV’s mandate. Char.gy achieves this by making charging points more accessible to drivers who don’t have access to off-street parking and by propagating the installation of charge points appropriate to projected demand. In addition, Char.gy uses lamp posts for its charging units, making use of existing infrastructure and electrical supplies to minimize installation costs and disruption for residents, councils and businesses. It’s a win-win all round.
Image by Char.gy
Looking to the future, the third component to the UK government’s “net-zero” strategy which is to “off-set any and all emissions produced” will require a step beyond the adoption of “sustainability” mindsets towards the application of ”regenerative” mindsets. Recalling the interdependence of our ecosystem: the goldilocks environmental conditions that have enabled the progress we are able to enjoy today relies on a fragile composition of atmospheric gasses and an abundance of biodiversity. In order to restore balance, we need to reverse the damage. With the view that it was our ability to record and process data that first highlighted us to the decline caused by rapid progress - moving forward, data science can continue to serve as aid. However, tackling a problem as complex as climate change where assessing the impact of every decision involves data inputs from near incalculable quantities of environmental sources across past, present and future timelines so vast it dizzies the mind attempting to decipher the sheer magnitude of data requiring consideration - the need to develop and advance means of synthesizing data in ways that allow stakeholders to make decisions quickly, efficiently and confidently becomes increasingly imperative.
Connected Places Catapult is the UK’s innovation accelerator for cities, transport and places with whom Unboxed has worked in order to create a prototype to explore meeting this need. The project formed part of the Integrated Land Use Planning prototype initiative and constituted the first stage of a strategic programme to create an integrated model that will support planning for “net-zero” growth by bringing together different sources of land use planning data such as energy use, transport movements and housing trends in order to more accurately assess the net impact of urban planning and development. The work was intended to test various methods of data synthesis and brought local authorities, suppliers, SMEs, developers and designers together in order to reimagine means of using data in order to facilitate eco-conscious decision making. The project is ongoing and holds some very exciting opportunities for further exploration into data applications.
GIF by WATG via ArchDaily
Looking back to the last 100 years, perhaps even more astounding than the rate of technological progress achieved is just how drastically the modern-societal concept of time has changed in its wake. Pre-2020 advancing the boundaries of innovation meant quicker, faster, more efficient production and consumption. It was by these metrics that we measured success. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns placed into sharp focus just how quickly environmental conditions can change. As a result, we’ve been forced to slow down, adapt, change and rise to the challenge of developing new ways of living and working. Perhaps, it’s been a blessing in disguise. For certain, the pandemic has given many of us over this time, the gift of more time. Time to reevaluate definitions of innovation and efficiency. Time to reconsider the metrics by which we measure success. The conclusion is perhaps that it’s less about higher rates of production and consumption and more about discovering ways to live healthier and higher quality lives - the benefits of which will perpetuate across to future generations.
It may seem overwhelming at first. But as history has taught us, small changes can yield big results. 10 days can be gained by switching from single-use plastic to reusable materials. 100 days can be gained by choosing to go for a walk outside instead of switching on the telly. 1,000 days can be gained by designing circular economies that place environmental-centred mindfulness at the heart of every process and tool. What will the next 100 years look like? The same creativity that brought us here can take us to where we need to be: a future that holds no paradox. Progress without decline.
Image by Myriam Cobb via Click in Moms
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