John Thackara | Essays

Line Loss [January 2010]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

Why Are We Here? — Greener on paper? — Telepresence With No Illusions — Designing An Associative Life — Transition: The Movie — Read My Lips, Not the Label — Hand-made Clothes For All? — Move Your Money — Visual Voltage — Sustainability in Bangalore — Social Media In Brazil — Mass Design of Health — World In A Shell — Barter Economy Section

WHY ARE WE HERE? [Good question]
In March, this email newsletter will be eight years old; its sister Doors of Perception blog will be ten; and the Doors website, where it all gets archived, will have been online for sixteen years. That's a lot of content - and to what end? The way we see it is that we hang out near the door of the design tent; look outwards; and tell people about interesting things happening outside. Sometimes we invite passing strangers into the tent to make new friends. And from time to time, we set up our own tent when we spot an interesting new challenge for design. People seem to find what we do valuable - if hard to place. And we enjoy doing it, even if the business model to pay for it remains…emergent. But if the the stories below are true, we have to start doing what we do differently, and soon. All suggestions welcome.

GREENER ON PAPER? [Communicating sustainably - or not]
Are we e-writers really so green and virtuous? There’s growing evidence that humble emails, such as this one, pack a hefty environmental footprint. McAfee, for example, calculate that a single spam email generates 0.3 grams of CO2 emissions. On that basis, this newsletter has a ten kilogramme footprint. Once the internet's infrastructure costs are factored in, that number probably underestimates things by a factor of ten. Kris de Decker, in "The monster footprint of digital technology", has written an excellent explanation of the hidden costs of communications hardware; and Don Carli, who coined the term "media carbon," reminds us that "computers, eReaders and cell phones don’t grow on trees; their spiraling requirement for energy is unsustainable." Buoyed by studies such as these, paper-using industries are fighting back. Martyn Eustace, for example, director of the newly-launched TwoSides initiative, states that “producing and reading a traditional newspaper can consume 20% less energy than reading news online for more than 30 minutes...print and paper products can be far more sustainable than the equivalent electronic version." Decker's argument is disingenuous. "Far more sustainable" does not mean sustainable: It means, "unsustainable, but less so than the other way". Greenwasherish language games diminish public appreciation for the many positive actions that the paper and fibre industries are engaged in. Framing the question as print vs. digital is a bad idea because the life cycles of both print and digital media have negative environmental impacts. Don Carli puts it well: "This is not a time for the print media pot to call the digital media kettle black. The fact is that neither print nor digital media supply chains are sustainable as currently configured."

TELEPRESENCE - WITH NO ILLUSIONS [Tools for not traveling]
So it seems as if carbon footprint of the "virtual" newsletter you are reading is heavier than we thought. But it's still nothing compared to the travel footprint of its author. For the last nine years my business model has been: write interesting stuff for free, and then get paid to give talks, run workshops, and organize conversational festivals. Face-to-face is always best, but the carbon footprint of my travel to work has been, and remains, excessive - tonnes and tonnes a year from my flights and TGV journeys. For the last three years I've reduced the total number of trips by ten percent a year - but that's too slow a change. I simply have to do a lot more of my work remotely. That's where you can help: tell me of real remote models that work for you, and how.

LINE LOSS [The problem with videoconferencing]
In power grid design, 'line loss' refers to the waste of electrical energy due to inefficiencies in the distribution or transmission system. Line loss affects mediated human communication, too. Despite decades of effort by engineers and designers, the experience of video-conferencing remains mostly awful. So what to do? and how? As a start, there are several events about the subject of telepresence one could go to this year: in March, "Electrosmog: A Festival of Sustainable Immobility" will take place in Amsterdam, Riga, New York, Madrid, Helsinki, London, Banff, Aotearoa, and Munich. Then, in November, the theme of the Saint-Étienne International Design Biennial will be Teleportation. In parallel with these events, Caroline Nevejan is editing a special edition of the research journal AI and Society about the concept of Witnessed Presence. Nevejan poses a question: Could the performing arts do better than the engineers and designers? After all, artists have practiced orchestration, dramatization and choreography for centuries; by now they know how to set a context, how to spark the imagination, how to show the unsaid.

TRANSITION - THE MOVIE [More useful than Avatar]
One way is achieve effective eco-communication is to be James Cameron and spend $300 million making Avatar. Another way is to be the Transition movement in which hundreds of communities around the world are both stars in, and users of, their own film. ‘In Transition’ is the first detailed film about the movement filmed by those who are making it happen on the ground - communities around the world responding to peak oil and climate change with creativity, imagination and humour. The film is positive, solutions-focused, and fun. It has has already been shown in communities around the world and is now available as a special edition two disc DVD set, "beautifully packaged in entirely compostable packaging."

DESIGNING AN ASSOCIATIVE LIFE [Region-wide social innovation in France]
Government departments responsible for sustainability, or "the environment," are too often constrained by small budgets and modest influence. Their very existence allows traditional departments - "industry," "economic affairs," "finance" or "transport" - to carry on their ecocidal ways as normal. A growing number of individuals in government want to work collaboratively with their peers in other silos - but they are often stymied by a system that imprisons them. So what to do? Rather than rage against the iniquities of politicians, a new French organization called La 27e Region (The 27th Region) has set out to help regional governments change by running collaborative projects that enable them to experience a new approach to social innovation in practice. Read more at:

READ MY LIPS, NOT (JUST) THE LABEL [Transparency and labeling]
The UK government has published a new food policy, Food 2030. Among the most feeble of its proposals is that companies should clearly label food with its country of origin - but voluntarily. As with Copenhagen, we citizens will have to do the work that governments cannot or will not do. Some great tools are becoming available: Platforms to enable citizens to communicate directly with the people who make or grow things. We have written here before about ThingLink, and about the Fair Tracing project at the Oxford Internet Institute. More recently, GoodGuide has been launched "to lift the marketing veil from consumer products and give shoppers better information about the impacts of what they buy." Also welcome is an open source project called SourceMap. This is "a supply chain publishing platform dedicated to transparency" that is dedicated to tracking, documenting, and mapping where all of the components for our everyday goods come from. What these projects have in common is a commitment to openness, and a degree of socially-grown trust, that today's supply chain monopolizers will find hard, over the medium and longer term, to compete with.

HAND-MADE CLOTHES FOR ALL? [Platforms for design sovereignty]
Could countries such as Sri Lanka achieve design sovereignty by producing clothes for customers using communication platforms that connect maker and designer and customer directly? A radically dis-intermediated relationship is feasible technically. But, as with food, a key requirement will be transparency concerning costs. Read more at:

MOVE YOUR MONEY [How to be a David to a Goldman]
What concrete steps could individuals take to help create a better financial system? A new web-based campaign responds with a simple idea: Move Your Money.


VISUAL VOLTAGE [Design for energy awareness, Berlin]
Myriel Milicevic writes with news of Visual Voltage, a series of Interactive exhibits at Nordic Embassies in Berlin that explore how to engage different senses in an awareness of energy consumption. A one-and-a-half day workshop for professional designers will explore design strategies for raising awareness about energy-efficiency without imposing a gloomy feeling of guilt.

SUSTAINABLE IN BANGALORE [Sustainability conference]
A conference in Bangalore called "Sustainability in Design: NOW!" will focus on opportunities for design research, education and practice in product, service and system design. Participants will share swap notes on ways to promote sustainable systems thinking in design education. The conference concludes a three year EU-funded programme called LeNS - Learning Network on Sustainability - whose partners are Politecnico di Milano; Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), New Delhi; King Mongkut's Institute of Technology, Bangkok; Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore; Tsinghua University, Academy of Arts & Design, Beijing; Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands; and the University of Art and Design (TAIK), Helsinki. 29 September to? 1 October 2010. Deadline for abstract submission 31 March.

SOCIAL MEDIA IN BRAZIL [Rate our friends!]
The Knight Foundation has committed to to invest at least $25 million over five years in the search for bold community news and social media experiments. The deadline for entries is now closed, but you can still comment on and rate the 320 entries for the 2010 challenge. There are some terrific projects here, but the Doors house favourite is MetaReciclagem. MetaReciclagem is an open network, present in all regions of Brazil, that connects together hundreds of people and several organizations with an interest in critical appropriation of technologies for social change.

MASS DESIGN OF HEALTH [Coordinating multiple actors in a complex system]
One way to redesign a health system is to allow an army of lobbyists employed by insurance companies to do it for you. That has been the the Obama way. Another approach, tested in Canada last year, is to design a process that allows all the different stakeholders to decide priorities together. From April to June 2009, close to one thousand health service providers, physicians, community leaders and local citizens had a chance to weigh in on health care priorities for their region. MASS LBP designed an innovative engagement model to capture this diverse range of voices. Their website describes how they did it:

"Indigenous peoples have been living harmoniously and sustainable with the Earth for millennia. They are not only the most affected by climate change, but also by its false solutions, such as agro-fuels, mega-dams, tree plantations and carbon offset schemes." The World in a Shell project will take a polliniferoused container on a journey around the globe to connect with a wide range of peoples and cultures. It is scheduled to visit Botswana, Greenland, Mongolia, New Guinea, Congo, Ecuador, Laos, the Solomon Islands, Mauritania, Rajasthan, and Queensland. The idea is that "it will become a metaphorical treasure box of the peoples, cultures, living conditions and natural surroundings of these locations." This sounds like another example of design students putting more effort into engineering than empathy - but I am sure the "indigenous people" they turn up to meet, with their box, will be unfailingly polite and hospitable.

Jobs | May 19