The Role Design and Community will play in Reverting the Climate Crisis
May 11, 2021
The primary challenge posed by climate change is the tension between the fact that when evaluating large scale impact - there’s very little measurable influence one individual’s actions can exert in the face of anti-climate legislation and corporate resource mismanagement – and the truth which is… Individuals (and SMEs) have the responsibility to do absolutely everything and anything that they can to minimize and reverse climate impact anyway.
Here’s: Why… And How…
Team Spotlight: Tom, Dawn and Yasmeen
Image by Seppo via Seppo.net
"Whatever you do will be a drop in the ocean. But what is the ocean other than a multitude of drops?" - David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
A Sparked Idea: Community and Environmental Legislation
Image by Region 9 via The SEOUS Project
Tom is Unboxed’s Senior Delivery Manager. His role is to facilitate our agile teams and make sure that what needs to get done is done. Growing up in Hertfordshire, he displayed a keen interest in everything around him: nature, people, technology - the mechanisms behind how things work. From this interest, an awareness of environmental impact developed organically. “In the early 2000s, knowledge of CFCs destroying the ozone layer became mainstream knowledge through Children’s TV educationals and infographics.” He witnessed how the impact of widespread education leading to public pressure caused governments to ban the use of CFCs. Tom went on to study Environmental Geology at University and then worked in Public Sector IT for over 15 years before joining Unboxed.
“In 2008/9, the idea of Green IT took hold. We first began to realize just how detrimental the technology sector’s impact can be and so began exploring more energy efficient approaches.” Cloud computing offered a viable solution because it allowed for more energy efficient shared data centres, which represented a big win if they could be powered by renewable energy. Microsoft, Amazon and Google all now mainly power their data centres from renewable sources. In other organizations, however, the pivot to more environmentally friendly operating models can struggle to gain traction. “Most councils have declared climate emergencies, so the awareness is there but translating this into real-life decision-making processes is a hard slog.” Climate change from an organizational perspective is one of the most complex challenges we face: “what we learned is that we can’t just look at climate change as one problem that needs to be solved. That way of thinking makes it seem too big.” Rather, reverting climate change will involve tackling a myriad of smaller overlapping problems.
“Starting small, starting local and then working your way up.” Tom joined a Design and Climate group dedicated to sharing learnings on how to solve small problems with wide reach while simultaneously creating the networks that will allow for the spread of these ideas. “Our design and climate group started as a small group of designers plus me and has grown into a slack channel of 77 people+ exchanging ideas and hosting climate-focused events.” He explains further: “tangible change will require political change, but political change will happen when people band together to demonstrate to politicians that climate friendly policies are a vote winner. Then comes the hard work of holding government accountable for those promises.” Communities start up as individuals bonding on the basis of shared interests or concerns and evolve into large groups capable of influencing large-scale decisions and legislation – they are a vital force for both change and accountability.
Circular Economies: Tackling Climate Change with Empathy
Meanwhile in a suburban London home, a mother sings her daughter to sleep. A slip of light, she pauses at the doorway and wonders what the future will hold. Will her daughter be able to walk through lush-green natural parks, marvel at varieties of birds and swim in crystal-clear rivers as she had done growing up? She sits down at her desk and begins to unpack the problem in order to identify potential solutions: “we have a serious waste problem” she concludes. In rivers and oceans worldwide, plastic clogs waterways and channels disrupting natural ecosystems. Traditionally, business models have been derived from linear models of production and consumption: take, make and dispose. Circular Economy models offer an alternative: borrow, re-use, recycle.
Image by Frits Ahlefeldt via fritsahlefeldt.com
Dawn is a User Researcher at Unboxed. Her role is to understand people, to walk in their shoes and to help provide insights that will allow for the design of products and services that meet their needs. She knows that the individual choices we make as consumers everyday do make a difference as ultimately all choices banned together are what influence supply and demand. But what she also understands, inherently, is that even for those who want to make environmentally friendly lifestyle changes, alternatives offered by circular models are often not accessible. “How might we redesign the life cycles of products and not just the products themselves so that waste doesn’t land up in rivers and oceans?” “How might we support the expansion of recycling infrastructure to meet customer’s expectations of convenience?” “How might we redesign the experiences and relationships between people and products so that people will be more mindful of what they consume?”
Reframing problems through a user-centered approach is a powerful tool because it allows us to get to the heart of the problem through learning to ask the right questions instead of assuming the wrong answers. “By identifying the root cause(es) healing can happen from the ground up and by collaborating with users to determine potential solutions, these solutions will have a higher likelihood of successful long-term implementation.” She explains. “And long-term is how we need to be thinking if we are to solve the problem of climate change” adds Tom. Succeeding in reverting climate change is going to require redesigning everything from economic models to product labels. The humility required to learn from previous mistakes and the empathy fundamental to the design thinking process will be critical to ensuring this success.
A Framework for Navigating Complexity: Environmental-Centred-Design
User-centred Design has been a revolutionary step in the world of business and tech in that it allows us to develop win-win solutions to complex problems in ways that positively impact people's lives. However, taking a step back to strategically consider the big-picture problem of climate change requires us to extend the empathetic curiosity inherent within UCD one step further: who are the non-human stakeholders impacted by our product and service deliveries? Trees, bees, water sources, soil quality, even viruses and microbes... Of course, the more stakeholders brought into consideration, the more entangled and complex the web of interaction determining ultimate impact becomes. So the next question we find ourselves asking is: "how do we apply agility and transparency to processes influenced by a set of dependencies that are by their very nature not always visible, logical or chronological?"
Image by Monika Sznel via Unpacking Design
Every Wednesday afternoon, Unboxed's UX team gathers together for a weekly (online) Design Club session where each member of the team takes a turn to present on a topic of their choosing, ask for feedback or facilitate a discussion. Yasmeen is a Service Designer at Unboxed who had been thinking about what a shift away from UCD to an even more inclusive approach (one that includes non-human stakeholders and future generations) could look like in practice. In her presentation, she offered a review of a few open source environment-centred design frameworks delivered by multi-disciplinary teams from across the design world. "It's a different way of approaching design." Yasmeen explains: "instead of putting humans on top of the pyramid, we begin to introduce human and non-human stakeholders as equal parts of an ecosystem in a very tangible way."
Frameworks are a useful tool in that they provide a structure that allows us to make sense of, simplify and visualize complexity. They also serve as guides that further enhance our ability to figure out what the right questions are to ask. "Our role as designers..." Yasmeen explains further: "is to bring these frameworks to life by experimenting with the available existing tools, contribute to their enhancement and then to develop new tools so that we can start asking ourselves even bigger questions." Some of the questions that we are asking ourselves right now are: "how might we enhance our value proposition by designing for sustainability, continuous adaptation and evolution?" "How might our understanding of value chains inform potential partnership decisions?" And ultimately, "what is the net environmental value of our service?" The possibilities that lie within the intersection between design and innovation are endless. Just one well executed environmental-centred design decision could trigger the application of hundreds and thousands of sustainable human behavioral changes. "It's an invigorating process" Tom concludes.
The Future of Story-Telling: Bridging Community with Design
While reverting the climate crisis, quite arguably, remains the single most difficult challenge we, as humans, have yet to overcome... By and far, the greatest determinant of success or failure is really just an adaptation of mindset. To achieve this, we need to learn how to think and behave differently by re-evaluating why we think and feel in the ways that we do - all of our unconscious motives and biases - why do we make the decisions that we do? More pertinently, we need to learn how to treat each other more kindly - with compassion and empathy - by letting go of old ways of categorizing and competing in order to embrace new ways of connecting and collaborating. At the same time, we also need to accept society as it is rather than how we think it should be. In his article: “How to Make Friends and Decarbonize People” - Tom describes the need to move away from climate change as a moral imperative in order to institute the kind of systemic-level change we need to survive this environmental apocalypse: “the old argument of ‘we need to change our ways to save rainforests / polar bears / vulnerable populations etc.’ has not been effective enough.”
If individuals cannot see themselves reflected via a representation of their subjective values and concerns, they’re not going to be motivated to engage with the subject matter. If the ethos behind the argument for change is laced with criticism, blame, suspicion and “you must do this because…” or “you should do this otherwise you are a bad person” - it’s not going to work. Reverting the climate crisis is going to require a global team effort and for that to happen every individual, every family, every community, every culture, every personality, every religion, every business, every corporation and every government needs to be brought on board. And, if they cannot visualize themselves being able to participate in and/or holistically benefit from the alternative you’ve suggested - the fuel required to power the emotional resilience needed to endure the discomfort of change will fall short.
This is why story-telling forms the final piece of the puzzle. The role of stories is to embed concepts and percepts over into the audience’s mind through words and images. Science, design, lived experience: in the telling and sharing of stories is where all these elements come together to bind individuals into communities capable of influencing lasting change - but only if they are able to imagine what that change could look like first. “Start small, start local and then work your way up” Tom reminds us. Campaigners, researchers, designers, developers, community builders & story-tellers (everybody is a story-teller)... Each and every individual has a role to play that is vital and important. Just one sparked idea and the future could start looking entirely different...