computing design

Imagining how things could be different

Ann Light is Professor of Design & Creative Technology at the University of Sussex and Prof of Interaction Design, Social Change and Sustainability at
Malmö University, Sweden.

Ann is a qualitative researcher specializing in design for social wellbeing, participatory design and social innovation, with a particular interest in creative practice for transformations to sustainability. She also studies how grassroots organizations use design.

How do we democratise futures?

Meaningful positives

Together as a force

Looking at how we can dwell together better

Systems to empower better human nature

Thought experiment workshops – we’re all in it together

I don’t work well from a position of hopelessness

How do we change the message? There’s a beautiful, kind, gentle…party going on

How things get connected and in balance

Something to hope for

Definition: Dwell together well

Superhero: Collectively we’ve imagined how things could be different

Activist: Yes, that’s my identity

Motivation: Realising potential

Miracle: Something for people to hope for.

Advice: Take that first act, find person who believes and do it together.

computing design music

Artful Design

Ge Wang is the Artful Designer. Associate Professor in the Department of Music (and by courtesy in Computer Science) at Stanford University.

His book Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime is a masterpiece of photocomic that hides a book on the nature, meaning, and purpose of design in this age of technology, that hides a manifesto on values in practice.

Talking points

I make things that make me feel good.

Sufficiently good design

Design is a series of choices

Design not just for the needs, but for the values that underlie the needs.

(do we see value-wash?) Yes, things that were never designed with our wellbeing in mind.

What is good and for whom?

The choices we make hold implications…unintended consequences.

The choices we make in design hold implications for our users that are tantamount to taking actions ourselves.

The platinum rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

Sustainability needs to be an act of design. What purpose are we serving? What kind of society do we want?

Questions about questions. We need to be asking questions for which we not only don’t have the answers, but those for which we don’t have the questions.

Activist? Yes, good things don’t happen by staying neutral.

Go out of your way to help good ideas flourish.

Motivation: There’s so much to be done.

Challenge: Education shift, education has trended to the transaction. How do we align the thing you do with what you are genuinely interested in.

The conversation was recorded at ACM Creativity and Cognition in San Diego in June 2019.

design fashion waste

Zero-waste textile practitioner

Fiona Clements of Senorita Awesumo and Sustainable Dunedin City describes the many challenges of the clothing industry – not least of these that it is a business model that relies on changing fashions. She describes social injustice, water use, manufacturers’ waste (call it what it is – wasted resource). But rather than complaining, she has taken a positive approach to activism – making a difference through her own business and leadership in not-for-profit community sewing room Stitch Kitchen.

design education food waste

Food systems whisperer

Finn Boyle variously describes himself as a compost nerd”, a “food philosophy explorer” and a “yeast whisperer”. Realising the question of “what am I eating?” took him down a rabbit hole, Finn saw that he needed to change the world and that his lever was food systems design. He embarked on a food design degree which eventually saw him a grand tour of compost. Amongst several other activities, he is now working to reduce Otago Polytechnic’s organic waste. We talk about making disruption attractive.

Read more on Finn’s work on taking a thriving approach to Otago Polytechnic’s organic waste system (pdf)

design education leadership

Professional Disobedience

Welby Ings is Professor of Graphic Design at AUT.  His recent book Disobedient Teaching is causing big waves in the education community.  We ask Welby what drives him, and how professional disobedience can change the world.

Talking points

We need to play in the unknown

The terror of poverty

There is nothing beautiful about being poor

She doesn’t think I’m stupid…I loved her

There are people in dire environments who actually effect change.

You don’t need to tell someone that they’re awesome, show them that you understand that.  Ask their opinion of something, or ask their advice about something.

Often when we’re trying to repair someone who has been damaged and people say “what do I do, what do I do”, I say ask for their advice.  Ask their opinion.  Ask them to show you some stuff.  The crap detectors  are very good, they’re going to spot it when you are patronising.    But ask something you don’t know the answer to – hanging a gate, you say this isn’t working, do think there’s some other way we could try – when they realise that you are genuinely asking them, it makes a big change inside you.

When you are bit wounded you’re very sensitive to what’s false, so when you get something sincere, it has immense power.

It doesn’t have much to do with hierarchy, it seems to have to do with agency.

Cynicism is the death of hope and the death of agency.   If you live in your world cynically then you are not going to do anything to change what is there.  All you will do is accommodate and be witty about how negative it is.  But you have given away the agency to change because you have divorced yourself from the thing.

If you are a teacher and you are role modelling that then you are doing a very dangerous, very toxic thing to kids.

If you’re in an organisation where you are trying to grow the health of it, you’re doing bad things for people who admire you, because you are teaching them to become inactive.  You’re putting wit over the top of it so it sounds clever, but is actually the abdication of the power to change things.

A lot of people who do effect change have a mixture of optimism and common sense.   They do function with high levels of hope and high levels of belief and they refuse to relinquish that – even when an environment turns toxic they defiantly hold onto it.

Oftentimes those people who are effecting change are not necessarily in empowered positions on hierarchies, and they threaten people in them because their talent is more, and they are genuinely the true leaders.

People endure because they have spirit and they set up relationships with other thinkers and they care for those other thinkers

Understanding how the system works – not in a bitter way – but fundamentally.  The worst thing you can do with someone who opposes you is give that oxygen.

As soon as someone sees themselves as binary to you, they can put aside the morals, the ethics of how they behave.


If you want to have influence, do not let people hate you, don’t give them that.

I don’t (have a definition of sustainability) because the idea is so important but the word is so polluted.  I have a sense, but I try not to use the word.

Success:  Been loved.

Superpower:  I don’t know, I don’t believe in heroes, what I do believe in is generosity and courage.   How I measure if what I’ve been doing is working is the amount of agency that gives to people, even to the point that they might disagree with me.  Heroic is a very dangerous thing, it dumbs things down and it turns people into role models and that’s not sustainable because it’s not sustainable – it’s not a true thing, we’re flawed, flawed human beings.

Activist: Yes.  Active.  Quite a long history.   The point where I wasn’t I think I’d’ve lost a sense of value in myself.

I see activism as a hugely affirming thing.   Affirming things that are not usually acknowledged.

Motivation:  I’m passionate.  A lot of my friends died of Aids, and you begin to understand what a life was, and you don’t waste it.  It’s an extraordinary thing to have you health and a society that has got relative freedom in it and your talents, those are extraordinary things.

Opportunities:  New feature film.  Painting.

Relentlessly optimistic?  Yes.

Miracle:  I don’t understand war. I don’t have a frame, but it’s wrong.  It it’s wrong to kill people for ideas.  So world peace.  But it’s not going to happen like that, it’s going to take a different kind of mind.  But it’s not a wish, it needs an alert, critical positive mind.




design transport urban

Redesigning cities for people

Skye Duncan is an urban designer who is the Director of the Global Designing Cities Initiative at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) where she has been leading a multi-year program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop the new Global Street Design Guide.  We talk about changing the narrative to a people centred urban design.

Talking points

I realised a passion for urban scale – designing cities

Urban design is really thinking about cities.  Taking bits of  the languages of architecture, planning, landscape architecture, policy… and pulling all these aspects together and understanding as a designer, how can you try and have a positive impact  – whether it’s environmentally, economically, socially, overall livability.

The design decisions we make from the angle of a park bench…to entire neighbourhood to city-wide policy around public health and environment – you learn to speak a bit of each of the languages.   You need to know a little bit, and when to pull the right person in around the table to make responsible decisions about the future environments that we’re all living in and what we leave for our next generations. .

Looking at how the people use a space tells you 90% of what you need to know….desire lines, goat trails.  Signals in the built environment – signals for how people want to use a space.

It is important that we listen to local expertise.  We can come in with professional expertise, this is what we know is best practice, this is what is done around the world.  But we don’t live on that street, or send our kids to that school.  So understanding what the needs are from that community.

Our streets are our largest public continuous public spaces, but we have applied highway codes  – moving cars as quickly as possible – to communities.  We want our cities and urban spaces to be about people, not about cars.

Guidelines created for cities by cities.

The streets are a contested space but we’ve had the car at the heart of policy decisions.    Now we have a people priority approach.

An inverted hierarchical pyramid.   The car has been king, now the pedestrian is the queen or king of the public space.  Then to prioritise sustainable mobility choices- cycling and transit.  Then making sure we can deliver goods.  And then, when we have space, we give that space to the private car.   This is, of course, highly controversial.

(how do you overcome might is right, speed is right?) Pretty basic: talk about numbers…people die from the speed of our streets. We have the power to avoid that, it’s totally preventable.   Then the environmental side of it.   Physical activity.

One of the most powerful numbers is to talk about the efficiency of space.  Private cars is the least efficient way that we can move people.

We’re all tax payers, but it’s only serving one user – the person in the car.

New canvas for urban life.

Empowering communities to know what to ask for.

We have to give people an alternative. Tipping point of utility.

The bulk of our built environments are already there. So if we don’t go back and ask how are we going to transform those things, we’re going to be in serious trouble.

We have to go back and rethink, redesign our current swathes of asphalt.

Ask what’s possible, and if you have the power to change it, do it.   If you can demand or advocate for something more from your street then do it.

Lowering stress about change.

We have to give people an alternative, if we want  to say people should leave their car at home, we have to make sure they have access to things like car share, bike share, e-bike share.  It’s not about not using cars, just not for every trip.  If we can make it safe to walk to school or the supermarket or visit friends, then we can think about the streets in a different way.

It’s not a matter of if anymore, it’s a matter of when.

Dunedin should be going out and showing how it is done.   This is how we can transform great little cities.

Be proactive, what do we want to become…then design systems to support that.

As communities we have to be proactive and say what do we want to become, how do we protect and enhance what we love and what’s great, and how do we improve what’s not so great.  And then where are the impediments that are stopping us getting there.  Some of them are political, some are detailed policies, some are in changing mindsets – its all of those, and then we can identify how we’re going to get there.

Speak out about it.  Write a letter, speak to politicians – tell them this is the sort of stuff we would love to see in our community.

Sustainable:  A holistic (Brundtland), not the greenwashing version.

Success:  The Global Street Design Guide.  An incredible feeling.

Superpower:   Empowering other people to see what is possible.  Magic glasses.

Activist: Kind of, not in traditional sense, but it’s important to keep challenging the status quo.

Motivation: A better world.  Seeing and feeling change quite immediately.

Challenges: A book supplement  – streets for kids.  And meeting demand since the book was released.

Miracle: Go back to the magic glasses, see the potential.  Every mayor, councillor, city manager…see the potential and understand what they could do to change that so that they feel empowered how to make a difference.

Advice: Open your eyes, be open to change.  Then try and find a way to make your voice heard.  We don’t hear enough positive voices. Take five minutes to think of one thing that you could do in your daily action – professional or not – that would make a difference.  Maybe a phone call or a request, or if you’re a designer, drawing something slightly differently.    Remind ourselves – it seems so basic – our cities are for people.

community conservation biology design education

Loving life: Taking action

Tahu Mackenzie and Harvey Penfold won Audacious this year for their development of PekaPeka – a movable, predator-proof bird-feeding platform designed to feed a range of native birds anywhere.   Tahu is the lead educator for Orokonui Ecosantuary, while Harvey is completing a Bachelor of Product Design at Otago Polytechnic.

Talking points

Teaching people what we can do, what’s been lost and what we can come back to.

10 years into a 1000 year restoration plan

(we asked both Tahu and Harvey these questions – you can decide who said what).

Sustainable:   Closed loop production cycle.  Emotional connection with nature as priority.  Emotional well-being in environment.

Success: Audacious.  Meeting Jane Goodall.

Superpower: Love. Thinking.

Activist: Yes.  Yes.

Motivation: Make dreams come true, working for yourself and provide a great home life.   I feel the most inspired, loved and powerful in nature – I would like everyone to have the opportunity to experience that.

Challenges: Growing business.

Miracle.   Remove predators.

Advice:   You can make a difference in so many different ways – however you passionately connect with the world, I’d encourage people to take action and feel good about it.   Design has made such a difference to me, but I didn’t do it for so long.  So if you feel like you would enjoy something then you should look for ways to make that happen. .



architecture communication design

Synthesis through design thinking

A collaborative model, a visual representation of the problem which actually brings together different disciplines and brings together different perspectives.

Shane: So, our guest tonight is Ray Maher and he’s from the University of Queensland with the School of Earth and Environmental Science, and the Global Change Institute and its space in Australia. He is a Masters in Architecture and a Bachelor of Design. So Ray is a researcher in sustainability strategies, a building designer, a teacher of sustainable design and an active member of various NGOs and research groups. And he’s undertaking his PhD at the University of Queensland on Integrated Sustainability Strategies, which seeks to synthesise the complex and interdependent fields of sustainability and present them simply via visuals.


  The reason why he’s here in Otago is because Sam is one of his supervisors. He has recently begun Project Habitation with his wife and Ray’s main expertise is in drawing together the many diverse aspects of sustainability and synthesising them into mutually supportive design responses. Welcome to our show, Ray. How’s it going?


Ray: Good, good.


Shane: Were you born in Australia?


Ray: I was. I was born in far north Queensland, actually, so up in the jungle and beaches north of Cairns.


Shane: Oh, lovely. And what was it like growing up in that environment?


Ray: I don’t remember it well. I left pretty young. It was a beautiful place, though. And from there, after my sister came along, we travelled south and my parents found a new home in Northern Rivers, New South Wales, which is sort of another very beautiful place of subtropical forest and a pretty lovely place to grow up, actually.


Shane: What was it like growing up in Australia as a kid? Did you wander around the forests every night or chasing koalas or-


Ray: I suppose I spent a lot of time outside in the bush and every weekend we would be either going camping or going to local national parks, or going to the beach nearby. So it’s pretty glorious, and just one of those things you take for granted, I suppose. Also, dad’s a builder so he built us a beautiful house and we got a block of land there. Five acres, two and a half hectares, and mum started regenerating the forest that used to be there. So I’ve got to see that kind of grow and develop over time. And it’s, yeah, a pretty wonderful spot, actually.


Shane: I was going to ask you what got you involved in design and sustainability, but I’m beginning to think that was your parents that inspired that? Or was it something you watched and …


Ray: Well, I began with design and architecture so when I finished high school, moved to Brisbane to go to the University of Queensland and study architecture there. And that was a real shift, I suppose, in the way that I thought. Design brings with it a pretty incredible way of thinking, way of seeing the world, I suppose. You learn to see things not just as they are but how they could be. And that becomes really the focus of how I perceive things.


  It took a while, living in Brisbane, especially when you start uni. It’s all pretty social and sort of being in a new place and everything. But then after a while, maybe a couple of years, I suppose, I started to miss something without recognising what it was. And it took a while to realise that it’s sort of the natural environments. It’s being in the wilderness a lot, which I’d stopped doing. And all of a sudden it seemed really strange to me why all of these people lived in a place that was so lacking in natural diversity. And from my perspective, it was certainly not as dynamic and beautiful an environment as I was used to.


  Then I suppose I started to realise from that the scale of it all. That, you know, what I had taken for granted and had been a norm for my life up until then was the exception to the rule, and that most people lived in pretty urban environments. And around the world, the rate of change of natural environments to human uses has just been so rapid and so all-encompassing around the world that those kind of places are pretty special, and we’ve got to work pretty hard to keep what we’ve got.


Sam: What were you hoping to achieve going off to do architecture?


Ray: Mostly it was just purely a field of interest. I wanted to do something where every day would be different. Where I could approach problems from different angles, and architecture certainly is that. I think I got that bit right and I do love the whole field for that reason. But then within architecture I had some fantastic teachers, actually, and learnt from them, I suppose, more about sustainability and some of the issues that we’re facing. And the significance of the built environment within potential solutions to those problems.


  We invest a huge amount of our time and our money and effort and resources in building the places that we live in around us. And the way we do that can either be a massive force for destruction of the environment and people’s lives, or it can be a massive force for regeneration. There is just such a vast difference between the two that I suppose I really grew to love architecture both because of its way of perceiving the world and thinking about things, and also because of the significance of the built environment in addressing these major problems that we’re facing.


Sam: But isn’t architecture all about enabling development? And by development, I mean bulldozers.


Ray: It certainly can be. I mean, as within any field or discipline, there’s a very broad range of perspectives within it. And that’s something that interests me about it too, I suppose. It can be about enabling that but because architects are shaping the world around them to some degree, they have a lot of influence over the experience that people have when living in buildings and in the built environment. And over the sorts of materials that we use and the types of industries that happen. Energy sources, the way we consume water, all of these sorts of things which have these incredible ripple effects out into society and into the natural environment.


  It’s pretty empowering, I suppose, and certainly students that I’ve monitored, that I speak to. I think it can be really empowering to recognise the significance of that, of the responsibility and the influence that comes with it in making these decisions about shaping the world around us.


Sam: So if you have a big influence over how we live – and, as you say, the ripple effects and that’s empowering – is the duty of care that’s implicit in that. In your education, was that made explicit?


Ray: Well, yes and no. Again, there’s this huge diversity so many people including practitioners and at university overlook it. Architecture is very diverse. There is just so much going on. There’s so many different forces that you’re considering and trying to not only avoid conflicts between them, but to bring them into some sort of harmonious resolution. It’s complex and different people typically focus on different aspects of it.


  And that’s fair enough. We should expect that and it’s good for education, for people who have different levels of expertise. But it does mean that some people tend to overlook these aspects of architecture that I’m interested in, that I think are particularly important. And others are it’s front and centre and they do an incredible job. They’re making strides in changing the way that we build.


Sam: Just quickly before we leave off your architectural education, was the sustainable part of it explicit, implicit? How was it embedded?


Ray: I keep repeating this, but it varied enormously. So with some lecturers, which of course are researchers and practitioners themselves, it was all of the above. It was embedded in the core of their work and the way that they perceived the world, and the focus of their actions when designing and when teaching about architecture. And in others it was just kind of off the radar or, if not that, it was secondary to other interests.


Sam: Yep. But there’s something about that way of thinking which has been important for you. You said at some stage, I’ve forgotten the exact line that you said, but it was something like we could eat wicked problems for breakfast.


Ray: Yes, I think something I’ve come to realise is more recently, actually, during my PhD. After I finished my Masters of Architecture I did some research on a range of things, but then I began my PhD with the School of Earth and Environmental Science. So working with a lot of landscape ecologists and conservation biologists, et cetera, and looking at … It became really clear to me, all of a sudden, that the quite a different perspective that designers and scientists have, for example. And each of these perspectives are critical in understanding the world and responding to problems and et cetera.


  But I became really aware of the power of design in addressing the kinds of problems that we face in sustainability. So the way science has worked traditionally, especially in the early days, is one of reduction. One of looking at the world through a magnifying glass or a telescope. Pulling the world apart and looking at the elements that make it up. And that’s been an incredibly powerful force.


  But its’ not very good for solving complex problems. It’s certainly not very good for solving wicked problems. It’s an essential part of providing us a rigorous understanding of how the world works and of outcomes of some of our decisions. But I think much more suited to solving the sorts of problems that we face in sustainability is perspective-like design, where you’re not just balancing and compromising on different goals but you’re trying to find strategies for solving multiple goals simultaneously.


  When you look at, certainly in sustainable design but many other different problems, even our food systems, our water systems, et cetera, there’s just so many different issues embedded with them. Every time we make a new policy, every time we make a new decision or have a new development project, there’s so many implications of that. Across the natural environment, across the built environment, across society. And design is, I think, a pretty powerful way of understanding that bigger picture and developing a response where you get synergy, where the parts are working together to give you multiple benefits.


Sam: So if you were to liken designing a solution for sustainability to designing a house, what’s the process that you would go through in designing a house that we can borrow for how to solve problems in sustainability?


Ray: Okay. First of all, when you’re designing a house you’ve got to approach it from a number of different directions. And each new perspective that you take, when considering the challenge, sheds new light on the problem and brings forward new potential solutions.


  So you might consider you’ve got a new client, a new design that you’re going to undertake, and you might consider it firstly from the perspective of the clients. You know, what are these people looking for? What do they really want, underlying what they’re telling you? What are they really seeking to achieve? What would make their lives better?


  But that perspective alone isn’t enough. You also take on the perspective of the engineer, so how can we make sure these structures stand up? How can it actually be built? And each new perspective brings new information. Then it’s once you start to find a strategy, an approach to designing a building that starts to give you benefits across multiples of these perspectives, then you’re probably on the right track.


  If you can find, for example, a strategy that’s beginning to achieve the client’s ambitions, structural challenges, economic challenges, environmental issues, et cetera, then that’s at least a seed of a good design. And from there you can go and test it. I think that holds up very true for pretty much all the sustainability challenges that we face. That they’re so embedded in the environment and society that, if we’re facing a problem about sustainable farming in Otago, then we need the perspective of the farmer but we also need the perspective of the ecologist and the water systems engineer and the local council and the economist and everyone else.


  And each new perspective gives us a richer understanding of the problem and expands the potential solutions we’ve got to work with.


Sam: In architecture, if I was, as a client, describing what might on the surface seem to be an intractable problem.


Ray: They always are.


Sam: That I’m describing something, that I’m saying I want fantastic views but I also want no windows. I just made that up. How does that not just do your head in?


Ray: Sometimes it does, temporarily, but you’ve always got to look deeper. You’ve got to look below the surface. There’s another saying that you’ll often hear from designers is “first idea, worst idea”. You know, you’ll have a brainwave. You’ll be hearing these designs of a client and see all the challenges underlying it. “Oh, I know what the answer is. It’ll be X.” And you start sketching it out on paper.


  Almost invariably, it’s not a good approach to the problem. It seemed like it at the time. You know, you were working with what you had. You begin the process and, okay, there’s issues with this. But just through going through that process, you can start to see where the problems are and where new opportunities begin to arise.


  So each time you go through that process of testing an idea or having an idea, putting it out on paper, testing it from different perspectives, learning about what worked and what didn’t, and then taking that back to the next layer of thinking, it certainly develops your understanding of the problem and it broadens your number of different approaches that you could take to solving it.


Sam: One of the challenges of sustainability is that notion of think global, act local. And I think that in building a house – We haven’t talked about this but it’s just popped into my head – is that you’ve almost got the solution to that problem because at the same time you’re having to think about the overall house, but also where the doors go.


Shane: I was just about to ask that.


Sam: But if you were to start with the design of the doors and then separately do the design of the windows, you’re going to end up with a higgledy-piggledy mismatch.


Ray: Yeah, I suppose that’s how society typically works. We’ll go big scale for a minute. Sort of post-industrial revolution, the scale of humanity’s total endeavour is going through the roof. We’re getting enormous specialisations, different fields. So you’ve got to somehow organise that.


  The scientific approach, which had been so valuable so far and continues to be, partly resulted in dividing up people working in different fields into different disciplines. And, I mean, that goes back to Plato and before, but that really got accentuated. So now when we approach a problem, then that’s a typical way to do it. Who works out the solution to the water infrastructure problem? Well, that must be the water system engineers. Who works out the problem with farming? Well, that must be the farmers.


  But if you took that approach with a building, let’s just think what would happen. So imaging a client comes along. “I want this building to house my family and live on this piece of land and have a lovely life.” Imagine if you did that by going, “Okay, well first of all we’ll get the engineer to design some footings. We’ll get someone else to design some windows and openings. We’ll get someone else to design a roof and someone else to design some walls and someone else to design a kitchen and a bathroom.”


  And everyone else goes away and does their parts. You bring them all back together and what do you get? It’s a complete mess. It’s a Frankenstein. Nothing works together. Even if each part could have worked well in isolation. But that’s not how the world works. And it’s not how a building works. Everything is working together, or should be, and it’s not how society and the environment work. Everything is completely integrated. There is no way of isolating something, except in theory.


  Because of that, I think this design approach, and this collaborative approach as essential of that, of bringing together different minds and different perspectives, is really the only way that we can solve the most challenging problems that we’ve got. We’ve solved a lot of the easy problems. That’s why so many things are going so wonderfully. We’ve got to not forget that. But the ones we’re left with are the really challenging ones that we can’t solve from our typical institutional arrangements and the way we typically think by dividing up the world.


Shane: So what are you doing about it?


Ray: You said earlier that there was a rare moment of optimism in your numbers this morning. I think there’s a lot of great moments for optimism. They’re not always at the forefront of your mind. I mean, it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of problems. But there are just so many people from so many backgrounds doing so many great things, you can actually be overwhelmed by that aspect of it as well. It is pretty full-on how seriously and how successfully so many people have approached these problems.


  The momentum we’ve had since the 70s and 80s has actually worked. It has actually built up. We’ve got institutions around the world with teams of researchers analysing every part of the problem. We’ve got thousands of new businesses working at different aspects of providing solutions. We’ve got different types of professionals we didn’t have before. We’d got, as you said, different policies. Et cetera.


  I find that very optimistic but most of the time these groups are still working in isolation. So I really want to try and do what I can to bring together these different perspectives and reconnect between different people working on different parts of the problem. So to do that, that’s what my PhD is all about, is developing a new way of thinking, in part, that brings together these isolated perspectives that different disciplines have, and to embed that in a website for collaboration so that we can have a technical way of communicating more effectively and bringing together people from all different backgrounds.


Sam: How might we go about doing that? I mean, if you had an ecologist and an economist talking about something, they just talk past each other. There’s no overlap in the things they’re talking about.


Ray: It would seem not. I suppose upon further investigation, you can discover there is. But it doesn’t happen often enough. Okay, well the way that architecture and design deal with that problem is through visual communication. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to design anything, especially not something as complex as a building, without having a way of communicating that and describing it visually. That visual way of working becomes a visual way of thinking for an architect, and I think that’s partly what’s lacking.


  There’s been some success here too, but there’s a lot of opportunities in sustainability for visualising the perspectives of different people and visualising different pieces of important information, and that can provide a common platform. You know, a common language and a common platform for people to share ideas. So I think, partly via the right systems of visual communication, you can get the ecologist and the economist on the same page, appreciating each other’s perspectives and even finding common links between what they’re working on and their different perspectives.


  Once you can find that point of commonality, or at least two different perspectives on the same thing, then that gives you a great opportunity for collaboration where you can start to develop solutions which actually encompass multiple perspectives.


Sam: We always ask people if they’ve got a go-to definition of sustainability. I’m not going to ask that. At least I might ask it later.


Ray: You’re welcome to.


Sam: But now I’m going to ask if you’ve got a go-to diagram of sustainability.


Ray: I do. One I’ve been developing. A part of my research has been looking at different diagrams of sustainability. To look at how different people understand the challenges that we face, and the relationships between parts. You know, where the emphasis is in our thinking and in our actions. So I’ve been developing a diagram that synthesises these different perspectives as a way to help synthesise the actual thinking behind it. The thinking is the important part but visuals and diagrams can help us to do that, just like in architecture.


Sam: And?


Ray: And, okay, so this particular diagram, words certainly don’t do it justice. But they never do. That’s another part of our research, is the communication that’s needed is verbal can’t solve all our problems. We like to talk a lot better. So this particular diagram and the thinking behind it brings together different aspects of our natural environment and the built environment and society, and begins to show links between different parts of that.


  So if we’re unpacking a problem about water systems, we can see how water consumption, for example, which might be happening at a personal level, the decision that you or I make about how we consume water, are impacted upon by the infrastructure that we have in the built environment and by different government policy. And they have impacts going out into the natural environment in terms of waste systems or the need for new dams and the effects that has on ecosystems, et cetera. Again, this is very complex to communicate with words but some of these things become incredibly vivid when you see them on paper or on a screen.


Shane: And you’re imagining that people would use it. How?


Ray: Well, again like a building … keep using the metaphor. A building does a lot of things, doesn’t it? You don’t ask someone about their home, you know, what does your home do? What is the answer? Well, it’s everything. It’s a part of our identity, it’s a place to live, et cetera. So this diagram and this way of structuring thinking on sustainability, we want to form the basis of a digital platform for collaboration.


  Different people would use it in different way. A researcher might use it to explore and communicate the different aspects of their research and to help them understand how that fits in, how what they do relates to the big sustainability issues. I mean, this is something that a lot of researchers have a lot of trouble doing, and one of the reasons why there’s this sort of divide between. A lot of common perceptions of research is that it’s so inaccessible. It’s this alien thing that people do in these ivory towers.


  That certainly happens, but if you can communicate effectively what you’re doing and how this new piece of technology you’re working on is actually helping to solve climate change, or how this new way of approaching management problems is actually going to help us alleviate policy in the third world. I mean, this is a big deal. And that can help to, I think, give a lot more weight and value out of all this great research that’s already happening.


  So I suppose that’s from a researcher’s perspective. But if you’re a business and have a new piece of technology or a service that you’re providing, people need to know what it does and people need to be able to see the relationships between the things that they care about – whether that’s biodiversity or climate change or other issues – and some of the solutions that are already being developed to achieve that.


Sam: I was talking about an ecologist and an economist before. If those two people were employed to work on a problem, how might they go about using it to communicate?


Ray: Back to the big picture. A core part of the way that people are now thinking about sustainability is through systems. It’s through understanding. You mentioned at the beginning of the show that it’s through understanding how different things relate to each other. And, of course, diagrams are a key part of communicating that. So through this system, it’s possible for an ecologist to create a systems model, a diagram that shows how different issues relate to each other.


  Which is as simple as talking a bubble or an icon representing the health of the local river and an arrow leading to it from the local water infrastructure, like dams and things. You can build up these models visually that show how different elements of our social, ecological system relate to each other. So an ecologist might build up elements of their way of viewing the problem, and an economist could come in and add in elements that they think the ecologist has overlooked.


  Well, you know, you’re not seeing these market mechanisms which are an important part of the solution here. They can be added incrementally to the system and once you get a few minds on the job, this system can help to sort of synthesise these different perspectives until you get this collaborative model, a visual representation of the problem which actually brings together different disciplines and brings together different perspectives. Like in architecture, then you can get a more holistic view of the problem and of potential solutions.


Sam: It could be because we’re referring to the diagram here, but you’re seeing a much bigger system. Sort of a crowd-sourcing, pulling together of ideas?


Ray: Yeah, that’s right. I suppose if you look at the enormous global movement into online networks and the kind of revolutions that we’ve seen in how we communicate with each other. Things like Facebook, other knowledge sharing platforms like Wikipedia. You know, now the largest encyclopaedia that we’ve ever had has just been crowd-sourced for free. The Uber. Do you have Uber in New Zealand? Yeah, like a beginning? It’s very big in Australia -  Ride sharing. And these things are really transforming elements of society and how we do things.


  We haven’t seen that same kind of transformative networking platform for sustainability yet. We’ve seen a lot of seeds of that. There’s a lot of great collaborative platforms and knowledge-sharing platforms in existence but nothing that really brings together a comprehensive set of issues and communicates it in a way that’s accessible to everyone, from an interested member of the public to a policy-maker to a researcher. That’s the aspirations that we’ve got for this thing and we’ll take it as far along that path as we possibly can.


Sam: And what are you doing here? Talking with me, obviously.


Ray: Talking with you.


Sam: But you’re working with some research groups to map out their-


Ray: Yeah, it’s been a fantastic process, actually. To test this system and develop the ideas, critical feedback is essential. In the same way that you test other kinds of design, it’s important to develop ideas and then test them. At the University of Queensland, we’ve run a number of workshops with students from very different disciplines to use this system to try and explore the ideas and the problems that they face.


  Whether that be architecture students looking at a sustainable eco-village and understanding the issues there. We’ve spoken with and worked with ecologists and landscape ecologists and used it to unpack a problem from their perspective. And now in Dunedin we’re at Otago Polytechnic and, this Friday actually, we’re working with a group of Masters students doing a Masters of Geography.


  And what I know of it is that each student’s got quite a different and very interesting project in their Masters, all with some relation to sustainability. We’re going to sit down together, map out each of their different problems and each of the different aspects of research that they’re doing, and to see how they relate to each other. And to see how the understanding that each has can help to enrich the projects of the others.


Sam And you’ve got international interest?


Ray: Yeah, we’ve actually-


Sam: I’m not saying Australia being international from here, of course.


Ray: [crosstalk 00:32:40]. Yeah, we’ve just had some very big international interest, actually. The Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden is a very major research institution on sustainability and they are working with a number of other institutions including Future Earth, which is a great collaboration platform online. They’re running a programme of sustainable development goal labs. So these are, they call them social innovation labs. Ways of developing innovative ideas collaboratively and bringing out some great new solutions, in this case for the purpose of achieving sustainable development goals.


  They had an invitation to people from all around the world to present different ideas on how they would use collaborative thinking to develop an innovation that would help to achieve sustainability goals. We were successful against phenomenal odds and so …


Sam: Ninety four percent rejection rate!


Ray: Ninety four percent rejection rate. Yes, so now we’re developing these ideas and we’ll be presenting them in Stockholm in August. And with their support, continuing to develop them from there.


sam: Okay. I’ve let time rattle away on me so we’re going to have to hurry through these questions. So here’s your chance. What is your go-to definition of sustainability?


Ray: Just the dictionary definition, which is sustainability is the ability to maintain a process or a state indefinitely. So any process or state that we’re considering that could not be maintained indefinitely is fundamentally unsustainable and won’t be continued indefinitely. So whether that’s our rate of our extraction of resources or anything else that we might do.


  And I think it’s kind of a knife edge definition, but it gives us a pretty clear understanding of the inevitability of change in an unsustainable society or an unsustainable system. Things will change one way or another because things are not sustainable, and it’s up to us to determine which way they go.


Sam: It’s a real challenge, isn’t it, that necessary juxtaposition of things staying the same but in order to do that they have to change?


Ray: Absolutely, yeah. I suppose that’s where the resilience perspective also comes in, that there’s a certain amount of change that a system or a society or environment can cope with. And if we’re gentle enough with ourselves or the place we live, then we can deal with certain changes and still maintain a functioning system. But if we push things too far beyond certain limits, we get systems collapse. We’ve seen ecosystems and even societies around the world that have collapsed because they’ve pushed their systems too far.


Shane: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years? I’ll let you have one free hit about a five month old.


Ray: Yeah, certainly. I’ve just become a dad and it’s an exciting time of your life. There’s a lot going on there. It makes the challenges with work et cetera. But he’s an incredible human and it’s just, I suppose, the thought that the change that my kid is going to see within his life is just going to be absolutely phenomenal. I spend my life thinking about these future changes and where we can shift it in a good direction, and I am totally confident that I have no idea of the scale of change that he’s going to see.


  Now, if I think of my grandfather, died not too many years ago, but he went to school in a horse and cart and wrote on board with charcoal. That’s my grandad. There’s people alive, of course, who around the world are still doing that. But even in our modern, wealthy societies, they did that as children and here we are now with everything that we’ve got. The change has been phenomenal. The next generation of change is going to continue at the exponential growth and it will be vastly more so.


Shane: Are you optimistic? Do you think he’s going to have a better life?


Ray: I think anyone born at this point of time, into a society like Australia or New Zealand … I won’t say anyone, but as a whole we are incredibly lucky. Again as a whole, we’ve got one of the highest standards of living around the world, and certainly the highest standard of living that’s ever been achieved throughout human history. So that’s part of what he’s born into.


  But he’s also born into the mammoth challenges that we’re facing. When teams of the best scientists around the world are telling you that we’re facing a system collapse, or that with climate change we’re facing the largest migration in human history, bigger than all the world wars combined, that is a big deal. There is no underestimating the scale of the problem.


  So, I suppose, he’s going to live through all of that and I don’t know which way it’s going to go. We just push it as far as we can in the best direction we think.


Sam: Okay, well we only have done two of these questions. We really are going to have to rattle. It’s my fault for distracting you. We’re writing a book of these conversations. We’re calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes. So what’s your super power?


Ray: Super power? It would be the ability to take on the perspective of someone else who I met and fully see the world from their view. You know, everyone’s got so much to contribute, I’d love to be able to get their take on things.


Sam: What have you got now? What’s your super power that you have now? What are you bringing to this?


Ray: I suppose design thinking to sustainability problems and ways of synthesising all different sorts of perspectives. I think there’s a huge amount of potential in that.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Ray: I’ve never used that word to describe myself but I’m certain that we need large scale, systemic change to have a wonderful future instead of a terrible one. So I suppose if I’m seeking systemic change, then that to a degree does make me an activist, I guess, doesn’t it?


Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Ray: The gap. The gap between how things are and how things could be is just so vast. The potential futures that lay out in front of us are so widely different that there is just so much at stake in choosing the best path over the worst one. And we really could go any way right now. There’s so much pushing us towards horrific outcomes and there is so much pushing us towards fantastic outcomes that it’s a big pendulum to swing. So swinging it as far as I can towards a good future is, I suppose, all anyone can do.


Sam: What challenge are you looking forward to in the next year or so?


Ray: Bringing this platform to fruition. It’s got to happen. Everything is lining up. You never know when you begin something, a big challenge, how it’s going to go. But you’ve just kind of got to go with it. And then sometimes things don’t go in the right direction. Okay, I’ll approach some new challenge. But other times, things start to line up. And with this one, everything is beginning to line up really nicely.


  We’re bringing together some very diverse thinking into a cohesive system. We’ve got a lot of the right people on board and we’re having the right conversations. And we’ve got the right support from some big institutions. So I think there’s a lot of hope for this.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, tomorrow morning, what would it be?


Ray: I suppose everyone’s got different things that they’ve got to think about and devote their time to but, just for a single moment, if everyone in the world could get a glimpse into the different futures that are possible, vividly, I think that would just … I couldn’t imagine a greater force for change. When people can see how things could be, one direction or another. So there, I’d click my fingers and we’d all see into the future 50 years.


Sam: A follow-up question to that one is what’s the smallest thing that we could do that would have the biggest impact towards that? I’m not sure how possible that is but what could we do that would do that?


Ray: Well, we can see the future. We do it all the time. You know, we look both ways before we cross the road. We can track the path of a ball through the air when we play sports. We vote for someone who will do things in the future which we hope it’s happening in a good direction. And we’ve got incredible science at our back.


  I think we can do a lot in predicting futures. We’ve just go to start looking at the information we’ve got, which means it has to be accessible. We’ve got to see what’s there. And you can feel the trajectory, can’t you? Like, we can all think of an institution, anything, and get some direction of, well, where is this headed? And if that’s not a good direction, how can we steer it?


Sam: I like that idea of glimpsing into the future and we do it anyway. How can we formalise that?


Ray: Well, I’m hoping that’s part of this platform that we’re developing. But how can we formalise that? There are different-


Sam: I mean, in architecture you draw the picture of the house and you put a picture of the house surrounded by trees, looking like it’s been there for a long time and everyone’s enjoying it.


Ray: Right.


Sam: So we explicitly visualise it.


Ray: We do explicit … yeah. That’s, I suppose, one of the great things about architecture. The ability to imagine a future state that doesn’t yet exist and bring it to life in our minds first so that we can then bring it to life in real life. It’s a powerful thing, I suppose. Again, that’s where the power of visual communication behind design comes in so powerfully. And there’s lots of people looking at developing scenarios. I mean, some of this is sort of complex systems modelling and economic scenarios, et cetera.


  But whatever we can do to get a glimpse at that future and share that knowledge amongst people, I think is a very powerful tool.


Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?


Ray: Which listeners?


Sam: All of them.


Ray: I suppose if you’re going through life and you’re seeing something that you think needs to happen, you’ve just got to start taking steps in that direction. If you’ve got doubts about how it might turn out, then all that means is that you’re doing something of value. Something that isn’t the default option for you.


  So just take a chance. Just step forward and do that thing that you’ve been thinking about doing that you think is something that someone needs to do. Start doing it. Talk to people about it. Take the steps to do that, whether that’s through a business or education or collaboration. Anything. Just push forward.


Shane: Thank you very much.



Knowledge ecology for industrial design

Mauricio Novoa is a designer and academic with 30 years of professional experience in a broad range of fields; from product to industrial, architecture, advertising, communications and marketing (2D, 3D and 4D time based, events and moving image).    He draws on his professional experience with special interest on new emerging technologies and their development including their influence on society and culture, design and designers agency on social and cultural change, design thinking and innovation, design for the other 90%, human environments, cognition, user centered design, experience design and sustainability. Mauricio is a lecturer in industrial design at the University of Western Sydney University, and is completing his PhD focussed on redefining the knowledge ecology for industrial design.


Sam: I’m with Mauricio Novoa from the Western University of Sydney. He’s an academic there. He’s an industrial designer with a long history of industrial design across the globe for various large companies. He’s teaching design, focusing on emerging technologies and lots of social aspects to that design for the other 90%, including influence on society and cultural change, human environment, sustainability. …and he’s doing his PhD.


Mauricio: Yep.


Sam: Thank you for joining me.


Mauricio: Thanks to you for having me.


Sam: Where did you grow up?


Mauricio: I grew up in Chile, in beautiful South America, in the capital of Santiago.


Sam: What did you want to be when you grew up?


Mauricio: That is a good question. I don’t remember. I’m not the typical guy that says I want to be an astronaut or anything like that, but I came from a very political family so probably I wanted to be a revolutionary. I was a small, perhaps a small kind of opinionated kid at the time. When I grew up, there were a lot of political issues in my country, so it was just natural to be interested in politics and social issues.


Sam: What did you do through high school? What was your focus?


Mauricio: My focus in high school was quite a lot directed into what is called now creative industries. In fact, I was born into a family that was socially motivated, but also was in relationship with craftsmanship. My father was one of the finest fine furniture makers and restorers in my country. My brother, an architect, and the family were academics. Some relatives mathematicians, some musicians. Either because of luck or just as a curse, I was born into humanities and arts.


Sam: But you didn’t follow your father into furniture-making?


Mauricio: Yeah, that was an interesting thing. Family pressures in Latin America are such that ideally they try to push into the real professions like law, medicine, architecture, and engineering. In my case, I wanted to become a sociologist. At the time that I did my HSC equivalent in Australia, the person that was at the top, closed down the sociology faculty because it was dangerous for deficient dictatorship. I had to decide on the next best bid, and I went into architecture fine arts, visual arts. Because of a matter life, I ended up working a lot in design. That became my way of doing things. In a way, I’m still connected to craftsmanship, but the modern way of doing craftsmanship.


Sam: Did you manage to combine that social motivation and your design in your undergrad degree?


Mauricio: I went to a school that was the Pontificial Catholic university in Santiago. Basically, that university is very much based on Bauhaus thinking. The idea of the craftsman person making social change was very important, coming from those times of pre-wars in Germany. Also, it was a very socially motivated area because in that time of the Bauhaus, it was natural for architects and designers to be together with philosophers and socially driven intellectuals.


Over the years, that was [transplanted] into Chile. Chile’s a very political thing. When I grew up, you spoke either about politics, religion, or soccer. It’s a strange mix. In the mix, you put a little bit of dancing. It has to be like that. I’m stereotyping a little bit, but looking backwards in time, it was an issue of spontaneity. An issue of trying to fix things. Yes, my undergrad degree, I was socially motivated quite a lot.


In fact, with then my university sweetheart that became my wife, we helped out orphanages with a group of friends, even. I was not the main founder, but we collaborated in the founding of an orphanage back in Chile. At a very young age, we took responsibility on about 30 or 35 children that were very destitute.


Sam: A politically motivated or socially motivated young graduate with … Were you calling it design by then, or design schools?


Mauricio: Design was very young in Chile at the time. I would translate it to fine arts, visual arts. There was in the universities a school of design that was part of the faculty of architecture design and art. But as a typical Bauhaus thing, you decided where to go. Because I was already working in industry for a few years, and I grew up in the business so to speak, I felt that I was going to be a little bit wasting my time if I went to study design per se. I was already working on it. The issue of becoming a designer became a matter of trying to make things useful, not just artistic. I think that was the shift concerning a lot of changes at the time because art sometimes tends to be very elitist. Nowadays, you see that many times art serves an art market, but doesn’t serve changing society in many places. Design became the better way of making things happen.


Sam: You were already working in industry. That continued?


Mauricio: Yeah. I was like a young guy, age 18, that I was already working in some architecture projects. Then I went into design and advertising. Somehow, I had a head start in comparison with my classmates in a sense. I was still young, but I was older in the way of seeing things in the discipline.


Sam: Your bio says that you’ve got experience across product, industrial, architecture, advertising, communication, and across a whole pile of fields and across a whole pile of countries, and in a whole range of different things from electronics, construction, scientific. How do you hold all that together? What’s the common thread in that?


Mauricio: That’s a good question. One of the best things that I can say is that as a designer, and I’m happy to be in this age because of in advertising, design and communications before, people thought in clients and users as consumers. Because of my upbringing, it has always been the opposite. The issue that you are the service of a user who’s a master of his or her own universe. You need to be very participatory.


Designers through ages, they have been elevated, not trying to be artistic, but being very design-centered. When you are talking about social innovation, it’s about how to actually contextualise a problem. To answer your question, yes, I have been through different areas. But the important thing as a designer is not necessarily the one who knows more about science or more about engineering or more about sociology or ethnography. But a good designer is a good glue between different participants, and brings creativity into a problem because of can see things in a non-linear way.


That’s why I’m saying I’m very happy to live in this age because this age is about the non-linear planet. It’s physical and digital. It’s multi-dimensional in different ways. Multi-mobile. Because I’ve been improving my own profession from project to project, I can come to a project and be quite humble to say I know zero about the expertise of my client or the user. But I know how to listen, and I’ve got methodology and techniques to actually see things in a way that sometimes others may not see it because they are too close to the problem.


Sam: I want to talk about the research that you’re doing now, but before I get there, I want to skip through the rest of your life, but don’t have time to do everything, and certainly not to do-


Mauricio: That’s all right.


Sam: You can have a free hit. Pick a couple of highlights.


Mauricio: Highlights in my life? Been lucky enough to be in a family that was visually related. Seeing things in three dimensions, in volumetric ways is important nowadays. Highlights in my life, obviously meeting my wife. She changed me a little bit from the guy who actually wanted to do a revolution to be smarter about it.


Sam: Do you still want to do a revolution?


Mauricio: Of course. If you are a designer, you should. But there is a big difference between disruptive innovation and incremental innovation. You need to be strategic about when is the proper time to do one or the other. The other highlight is that when I mentioned to you that I couldn’t get into sociology, now I’m doing a PhD in institute for cultural studies, which is called the Institute for Culture and Society in my university. Somehow, life is coming in circles.


My interest is about re-defining the knowledge ecology for industrial design. I’m passionate about it because industrial design in itself has good things and not good things. The first question would be how can you be talking about industrial design in a post-industrial society? Some people call it post-post-industrial. I think it’s a good topic to talk about because still industrialization is a way of saving seven billion people that we’re going to become at some point, or we are. We cannot actually just do the old one-off thing. If we do it, we need to do production through customised means.


I’m excited about living in this era that we have gone through 40 years of globalisation, and now we have to discover how to fix those 40 years. I’m sad about the sustainability problems, but every problem for a designer becomes an opportunity. It’s a very exciting age to live in.


Sam: Industrial design has supported massive growth of industry and consumption that the world has never seen before in the last, well over the last 200 years, but in particular the consumption has gotten crazy in the last 50 or so years. Is industrial design to blame for that?


Mauricio: To a point, yes, to be honest. There are some statistics, maybe they are a little bit old at the moment, that say that 99% of all the products that come out every year, they end up in the rubbish bin before six months. That is a result of somehow industrial design and industrial manufacturing involved in that. Yeah, to be quite honest, yes industrial design is in a situation that they need to wake up itself as a discipline. They are already doing that. There are some people that are already doing that. I’m not the first one. We need to start thinking responsibly about what we’re doing.


Sam: From an industrial designer’s perspective, is planned obsolescence a thing?


Mauricio: Yes. But I would say the idea of obsolescence, from my point of view, is still too attached to 1940s, after second War, American push for consumerism. There are people who are leaders in the field, not just in architecture and design, but also in culture that actually talk about the issue of evolutionary thinking and in itself obsolescence. How do you actually create a cradle-to-cradle system, so whatever you use today, you can get out of that not just one lifetime or life cycle, but quite a few of them. The idea of good being, that life cycle keeps repeating forever. Obviously, it’s impossible because we are in a physical planet, but the idea of use and reuse and recycling and all the other factors that are important for sustainability are in there.


Sam: I had a colleague once who declared a few years ago that he was only going to buy things that would outlast him. Not in terms of food, obviously, but in terms of shoes and bags and whatever. Is it doable?


Mauricio: Not always. Not always. But that is an interesting idea to follow. I’ll give you another example. Yes, for example, if you take packaging. Packaging is one of the most wasteful manufacturing outcomes. Many times, we spend more time in packaging than what goes inside. The packaging goes into the rubbish bin at the end of eating or doing something. If you think in packaging that could outlast you … If for example, you compost it or you change it in different ways, I think it’s not about outlasting you when one issue, one object is about maybe living system that can re-generate itself. In that way, even us, we can become compost and be useful for something else at some point.


Sam: In terms of that social driver that you started with, does that come through in the work that you’re doing, and that you’re teaching students?


Mauricio: Yes. Actually, yes. We have done projects in the past that are related to social innovation. But looking at the new definition or knowledge ecology for industrial design, what I have done for example is work internationally with for example, universities in Chile in projects related to social innovation. The outcome would be in people who are disadvantaged, for example, but also used in new technology.


There is a big, big shift in third world countries that are no longer called third world countries. For example, Chile’s considered an emerging economy. Actually, you have knowledge and technology that they are transferring very quickly, and they are leap-frogging technology. While in Australia, New Zealand, or in United States we have invested in assets that become dated very quickly because of technology, countries like Chile or India or other countries, they just see the latest and they jump in straight away. Somehow, we’re going to see in the future a little bit of disadvantage, even in first world countries.


I’m excited about that issue that is a social issue as well. To give you an example, how can it be that some of the poorest areas in United States are just nearby Silicon Valley? People in Silicon Valley have an easier communication with people in Netherlands than down the road or in the next town or suburb? We are going to see social divisions or social differentiation in a way that we have not seen it before. Before, we said, “This country’s poor. This country’s rich.” In reality, what we are developing with globalisation is not just differentiation between countries, but within countries. We may end up with many different nations so to speak, just going from one suburb to the next.


The social edge, I think, is expanding in my case. At the beginning was an issue of helping marginal communities. I helped a lot, also, when I was young in what it would be like the Chilean favelas marginal areas. Helping them, for example, teaching them what now is called entrepreneurship, how to start a business. Instead of stealing because they are hungry, they can develop their own small business and build a community out of it.


Now, you need to use the same principles through teaching to empower people to be self-starters because there is not a safe job anymore. Those same skills that I used to teach back in Chile in the early ’80s may become quite handy, even in first world nations like in Australia nowadays.


Sam: Do you have a black list, a line that you won’t cross in terms of the clients that you’d work with or the products you won’t work on?


Mauricio: Yes, actually. Things that are not ethical, and things that actually exploit people. I’m very, very strong over that. When you grew up in a situation that you are marked because you are a free thinker and you dare ask a question, that actually makes you really strong about defending all this even if you see injustice. Even if you don’t like a person just because … Is an issue of injustice. I’m very quick in championing that.


Sam: Would you expect students or graduates to be able to do that?


Mauricio: Ideally, yes, but those principles are principles that need to be contextualised and culturally based. I think we are living in an age, hopefully, the end of consumerism. Quite likely not. Where I have had students that actually say, “I don’t care what is happening in other country. If I see something that costs me $2, and I can get a Gucci lookalike or Louis Vuitton lookalike handbag, I’ll buy it. It doesn’t matter if it’s exploiting people somewhere else.” Or, for example, some brands that I prefer not to mention actually have made money at the expense of exploiting people. Yes, I will not wear that.


Sam: You’re not going to go as far as to tell the students where that line is, but you would expect them to be aware of their own life?


Mauricio: I welcome much debate as a lecturer. I think a good designer and lecturer should actually instil in people the capacity to think by themselves. Because of that premise, I cannot become a dictator and tell them what to think. But my job is to teach them how to think, and hopefully by teaching them how to think, they will realise the value of what is good or not.


I have had some people, for example … Now, in Australia, there is a sense of wrong nationalism that for example discriminate by race. I’ve been in classes that suddenly they change into debates about races taking quite a lot of dominance in our country, in Australia, that you could describe as racist. My job is not to tell the person, “You’re wrong”, but my job is to actually teach them how they can find out that they are wrong. If you just impose your view on others, basically you’re not promoting critical thinking in a way. I’m paid to teach critical thinking, and the values come from there.


Sam: You write about meaningful innovation. Whose meaning is it?


Mauricio: That is an issue. Good question. Good design has got an impact, but that doesn’t mean that may be meaningful. When your friend says that he’s going to buy things that outlasts him or her … I don’t remember if it is male or female. He has got a sense of a planet Earth and being part of a whole universe in a specific sense. Nowadays, I think there’s sometimes wrong views about what meaning is. Yes, I admit for me, meaning would be improving culture, improving well-being, health, improving education. If you look from the economic point of view, that sometimes it’s taking us, impacting us how much money you make.


My approach to design is that the impact, if you measure it by money, is a by-product of a good, meaningful outcome. A meaningful outcome, in that case, would be if you have influenced the user through your making to the level that that person goes to a better level, standard of living in a sense. If you can build a community in a sense that they have a better sense of belonging, for example. If they could actually go from, in the case of education, for a very transmission model of education which is the teacher knows, the students doesn’t, to one where you become involved in a Socratic and dialectic relationship. The teacher can learn as much from the student as the student can learn from the teacher, for example. That is a meaningful part that I am interested in.


Sam: The counter-argument is that the designer’s work should be transparent. You shouldn’t see the influence of the designer on this thing.


Mauricio: Okay. Transparent in which way?


Sam: That you shouldn’t be leaving your personal feelings on that object or service or whatever it is.


Mauricio: Yeah, for some people yes. There are two ways you can take that. The old tradition for design, and industrial design in this case but also communications, is that if a client came to you. Gave you a brief. You executed the brief. In that case, you were not different to a craftsman or woman that is given a task and produced it, like this piece of furniture. The only way to have creativity at that point would be whether the table is round or square, for example. That is all good.


But in the day and age that we live today, we are not just operators, executors of a brief as someone else thought. I’m all for designers that actually are free thinkers. If you do that, you need to have your sense of ethics, sense of what is good or bad, being responsible, and that is where all these principles of equity and all the important principles come in. The idea of a designer being totally unattached or not showing evidence that they touched the design, I think it’s a little bit impossible.


But it’s not good to be the other way where you see too much of the designer that you buy an object because it’s branded by the name of a designer. I think many designers do it and it’s a good way of branding and everything. But an object or an article of design, an artefact of design, should be bought or should be adopted because it actually helps the user. There are different levels of helping. One is perception. The other one is a status. The other one is actually functionality. Now, design has become very complicated. It’s not linear anymore like it was in the ’80s or ’90s when I was younger.


That transpires a point that you are talking about. I will allow myself to find the concept of transparency in this case. It’s always the meaningful part. It will be transparent according to meaning, and if it is transparent according to meaning, the question would be whose meaning it is? I still vote for serving the user.


Sam: Do you think that your twenty-something years of experience of this, do you think though that that’s got you to the position where you have the luxury of being able to think like that? But as a young graduate working in a design shop? Today I’m toothpaste and tomorrow I’m doing something else.


Mauricio: In a sense, yes. You become more material about it. When you were talking and making a little bit of a joke about making a revolution, look at Cuba. They made humongous mistakes with their economy when they started, for example, just in agriculture they focused in sugar canes. They created a little bit of a sustainability problem in Cuba. I think we cannot deny the mistakes that we have made in the past.


In a sense, I have grown in a profession through a profession and by a profession that is awakening to a reality in a sense. When I was younger, I was worried about putting bread on the table. But yes, I have to confess, I was a little bit different because of my, not necessarily socialist background, but social interest. I was a little bit lefty in that sense. I don’t see capital as the end of it. I think capital is a tool to get somewhere.


Sam: Is design thinking inherently sustainable?


Mauricio: Could you define that better?


Sam: No, I was hoping you would.


Mauricio: Design thinking is a process. If that is the case, it’s not about being sustainable or not, so I’ll ask you with an encrypted answer. I would like to think that design thinking has got a place. But what should be sustainable and we should start talking more about is about design competencies and design intelligence. We’re talking about business intelligence. We’re talking about emotional intelligence. We’re talking about different kind of intelligence. Why is that we and also governments and politicians are not talking about design and innovation intelligence? That is what should be sustainable.


To me, design thinking is a tool to actually question, a tool for inquiry.


Sam: If we were to articulate a design intelligence and a sustainable intelligence, how closely matched are those?


Mauricio: It should be not close match, but close by. If you are talking about design as a process and design thinking as a method of inquiry, to some point I’m talking in an improvised way answering your question. Sustainability in itself is a balancing act. In there, you have things that could collaborate with each other, but at some point depending on how do you take sustainability. Sustainability may run the risk of becoming a little bit still, and design is not about being still. It’s about improving balance while in movement. In that case, if sustainability is balance in movement, then design and sustainability are a good match.


When you talk about sustainability in business, for example, I have had the chance in my life to deal with business people. Sometimes their interpretation of sustainability is about at the end the bottom line. How to pay the bills. How to pay the receptionist at the front of the shop or the agency. Sustainability for them it becomes an accountability ledger. A cash flow issue of inputs and outputs. But design is not about input and output, at least not any more. It’s about balance in movement. It’s walking a tightrope in a sense.


Sam: I’m told you’re an artist.


Mauricio: That was a part of my beginning, yeah. In fact, in Chile I exhibited quite a lot. But in Chile, my generation is a generation some people have described as a little bit of a lost generation because many of us ended up outside of the country, so there was a brain drain. Now, yes I exhibited at Sydney Biennale which is very prestigious. Now there’s quite a few Biennales, but Sydney is one of the important ones.


Still, in that case, it was about social change. It was about visual studies and culture. I learned when I was young the traditional skills of painting and drawing and of sculpture. But the work became a mix of different technologies, even digital technology at the time.


Sam: How much is the move to digital changing design?


Mauricio: Quite a lot. Just look at this building. We are at RMIT building and there are a lot of things in here that couldn’t be done a few years ago before computing. I was the director of the academic programme of industrial design until last year when I realised that I had to concentrate on my research. Administration is a good thing, but basically what I did was to re-write the curriculum for industrial design. We had a lot of discussions similar to the conversations that we have. You can see the difference between the old-fashioned designer and the new designer. In my case, I don’t deny. I’m not a born and bred academic guy. I come from industry, so to me it’s very practical. If the thing doesn’t work, it’s not design. If you are still telling me how beautiful it may be, then maybe that is good, but that is living in a special dream time.


Designers should make their living out of not the proposal of the concept, but how it works. It’s a full, full process. One of the things that I’m involved in and developed for the new curriculum, is that we needed to go from craftsmanship and deciding what was the outcome of the design before you started, which is very 1980s. The new curriculum is about understanding that design is an animal that evolves. It’s a living animal in a sense. You start with the proper inquiry. That is where design thinking comes in, but also you apply ethnographic and anthropological techniques. Cognitive techniques as well, participatory action research for example is a very good one to carry out with users.


After you listen, you learn from the user. You basically don’t know. You know the direction, but you don’t know the outcome until you get this agreement with the user. Only you can declare that it’s done when the user adopts it in a sense somehow, and it works. In the curriculum, the digital part that you’re commanding is very strong. For example, before I came in as a director, there was a lot of resistance to use of, for example, programming and developing, teaching students that the products, they need to become smarter. It doesn’t need to be necessarily smart. A bottle of water can be very smart by itself, but it’s passively smart. But it needs to be at the level that it can explain itself and you don’t need the manual for it. Many times, designers are very good at selling verbally and creating a manual, but not really delivering. That is the old way. The new way is about a thing that is very self-explanatory.


The other part is to make it smart. If you look at the iPhone, it’s a good example. The iPhone is not really a phone. It’s the first mobile computer. The iPhone is not really a product. It’s a platform. When you start talking at that level, a good industrial designer needs to become capable to understand what happens inside the iPhone, which is the app, the programming, the coding. How, for example, you need to think and design at a different level, which is co-designing, co-creation, cooperation with users.


Terms like co-designing and open source approaches to a design were not embedded in the curriculum before I came in. The digitalization of design is becoming quite important. It’s not just like in this beautiful building. You couldn’t actually do this because basically the façade of this building is the outcome of developing paramatric 3D CAD, for example. You couldn’t do this shape unless you were Gaudí in Barcelona that hewed it manually many years ago.


But the other part is not just 3D CAD, parametric development. It’s also the idea that we are living more digitally. The students need to understand the user not physically only, but the digital identity of the user. That becomes very handy today. For example products, even if they are done in the old-fashioned way, they are no longer manufactured down the road. Basically, any product that you do today, one part, metal, will come from one country. The plastic from another. It’s quite likely if they are over-crowded in one place, they’ll outsource to two other different countries.


I remember some time ago seeing some statistics that an iPhone inside was between 35 or 60 different providers from different countries. This idea of digitalization is very important for the students to learn. That is what I did with the Chileans as well.  We were actually talking about the distributed design and manufacturing. Flexible design and manufacturing. Our students were working in Australia with the students in Chile, with people from Canada, people from Europe, and they were creating a product that ideally was going to be produced in China. That is the sort of digitalization, and that was not taught in the course until I came in.


Sam: You said before that sustainability is about balancing movement. Is that your go-to definition of sustainability is someone backs you in a corner and asks you to define it?


Mauricio: Ah, sustainability. Yes. I prefer to think that sustainability is dynamic. Yeah. The old definition of sustainability is yes, a balancing act, but I prefer the idea of the tightrope where the guy’s walking because I feel we are living in those times. We are walking out on a tightrope without a net, without a safety net. We need to be very careful about the steps that we take.


Sam: We talked lots about destruction and change. My favourite definition of sustainability is now one of transformation, and we’ve got to get away from this “nothing is changed” because ironically, in order to not change, we have to change heaps.


Mauricio: Yeah.


Sam: My favourite definition is restorative socio-ecological transformation. What do we need to do to design, indeed to co-create in a distributive way, all those words you just used, a sustainable, global transformation? Can we apply this thinking at a whole of society level?


Mauricio: We should. We should. I guess there are still quite a few experiments that are trying to be scalable. If you look at, for example, what businesses call not “green movement” but they call it “blue movement”, which is when the green movement people decided that they cannot actually save the planet by themselves. They need to be at the same negotiating table with people who have been polluters for many years. With business, business has been in charge of polluting this planet for a long time.


The part that I like about what you said about sustainability is a transformation in spirit. There are some leading thinkers that talk about transformation, but also another thing which is transcendence. I guess that should be one ideal of a good design that is meaningful to a level that transcends. In my understanding of English language, transformation is the act of moving from one shape to the next. But the idea of transcendence could take you from one domain to another, can take you from one piece of history to another, from one territory to another, from past to future. Maybe that is another thing that we could actually enter in the definition of sustainability. Like legacy to our children and grandchildren. That is transcendence.


Sam: We’re writing a book of these conversations. We’re calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes, trying to work out what it is that people are doing so that we can bottle it and make more of it. How would you describe your superpower? What is it that you’re bringing to the good fight?


Mauricio: Salsa. Salsa dancing. No actually, my wife is good at dancing. I’ve got two left feet, but I try. Superpower. I have never been asked that. Never.


Sam: You can’t have laser eyes and you can’t have flying. I’m just narrowing it down for you.


Mauricio: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m not about super powers. I’m about becoming more human. It’s very true.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Mauricio: Myself? Yeah. I’m a little bit of a troublemaker, yes. If you can ask my colleagues, they can vouch for that. The issue of activism has evolved quite a lot. When I grew up, the activism was simpler in a way. I used to participate in rallies. It was a group of people against the tank shooting at you, or police people shooting three […] bullet in front of you in short distance. But now, if you’re going to be an activist, you need to become very sophisticated.


I would like to think myself as a hacker, in a sense. But not at the level of … Some kind of hacking the system. I think we need to hack the system, in a sense, to make it better.


Sam: More sophisticated, but perhaps less brave.


Mauricio: No, not necessarily. My wife says I’m a bit foolish. Look, when you have grown up under a dictatorship, you are not necessarily afraid of death. The challenge is that you become more strategic, and that doesn’t mean that you are … With time and getting older, you become more strategic. I could say that when I was younger, I was more passionate. I still have the passion in there, but I’m becoming more strategic.


The issue is that if you’re a good designer, you cannot lose that factor of being brave. It’s not about being bold. It’s about being brave, and not being afraid of change. That is a big risk if you are in education because of institutions by themselves tend to actually push into a certain shapes. One of the authors that I like from the ’80s was Foucault. He used to say that the institutions and education, for example, tend to build their own norms of good conduct.


In one of his books, he was talking about an analysis of the prison system at the Panopticon. He said that at the end, the institutions doesn’t generate itself. It recycles itself. It’s the wrong sustainability factor, and in that process, anything coming in contact with it needs to follow the good conduct. That is a risk for a designer teacher because as soon as you need to have the good conduct with inverted commas, it somehow you stop yourself to do the design inquiry.


Very important within design inquiry is the context where lies the inquiry. Because if the institutions as a matter of the religion, or political parties, or universities, they create their own domain, their own universe. Immediately, they come in context in themselves. But in theory, we’re teaching people for a context that is outside that institution. That is what Foucalt called the Panopticon. I don’t remember translating from Spanish or the Latin languages, the Panopticon syndrome maybe or something like that.


Yeah, there is a risk in there: becoming institutionalised.


Sam: Four more questions unless another one sneaks in. What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Mauricio: Currently my research. Silly me, I still hope to change the world, even if it is just a matter of just thinking that if you say “I give up is not an option”, because if you give up, it means that you serve the system in these old terms, socialist terms. My wife says I am a very stubborn person. Maybe that is […]. Some friends have said replace that with being focused, which is the elegant way in English to call the same thing. But that’s it. I still believe that I can contribute something.


Design is an ideal issue. I don’t mind if I go back into doing art. I still perceive art as a way of changing the planet, but at a cultural level. Design becomes an issue, especially industrial design, as a possibility of changing culture by things. For that, we have good examples. When ex-Bauhaus people wanted to re-establish Bauhaus in Germany, in the school that they initiated, they started tossing up two ideas to come up with a school of politics and social sciences, and they were going to start that. They decided to go for a school of design because that was a way of effectively changing and re-constructing Germany.


I’m more for that issue. I’m a practical person. If we come up with good art, good product, it could be a good service or good system nowadays, and if we empower the user and the user becomes his or her own creator of meaningful outcomes, that would be excellent. That would be the ideal work of art, in a sense.


Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?


Mauricio: Finish this PhD.


Sam: How is it going?


Mauricio: Well, I have deadlines so I am working for that. I’ve been working while I’m in here.


Sam: Are these wife-imposed deadlines?


Mauricio: University-imposed, it is convenient to finish. I would like to move with doing research based on that very soon. I just started a research with industry about new learning environments, which is very interesting. In Australia, there is a lot of money put into infrastructure to make things modern. Still, to me, the most changing moments have been talking to a mentor, and it has cost us the value of a cup of coffee. The issue is that we cannot avoid technology, but somehow we are investing in so much technologies that people don’t know what to do with it. That is an area of research that we need to investigate from an industrial point of view, but also from cultural aesthetics point of view because to me, the two are very much related. I think that would be my future. The other thing would be to try to enjoy life because as a PhD student, you don’t have much of a life.


Sam: Yeah. If you could wave the magic wand and have a miracle occur by tomorrow morning, what would it be?


Mauricio: You are making questions about magic wand or superhero. I’m so down to earth in that case. I like superhero movies, don’t get me wrong, and my says that I’m silly because later on I’m going for a few hours soaking with strange sounds like after watching Star Wars or something. Yeah.


Sam: But of course, the catch of the superhero question is that they’re not really superpowers. They are really things that anybody could do. This question here has a similarly earthly version of it, which is what’s the smallest thing that you could do that would have the biggest possible impact?


Mauricio: I would like to develop more design as a tool. But I would like to work more into social innovation, social change. As I was saying to you, I think that, for example, in Australia where I’m standing, the digital divide is becoming a certain level that some people are going to be left behind. There is one thing about knowledge and knowledge flow that is important. We need to work on that.


I don’t perceive design and industrial design to clarify as an issue of a material product. For me, I go back into the essence of industrialization, which is pattern-making, serialisation. If that is the case … For example, one of my students came in from South Sudan years ago. He couldn’t understand about all this rapid prototyping and all that that we had in the university, but he told me one very interesting thing which was he started working well in industrial design when he actually realised that what he wanted to do was go back to South Sudan and start helping in the education system and re-educating the country after civil war and they won independence.


He and I started developing open source blueprints. At that time, he couldn’t speak about digital open source because the country was in ruins, but the idea was to actually empower people in villages. You can with ideas about how to actually come up with artefacts. It was about teaching them the same language, Dinka, that is highly oral in tradition, and teaching them literacy and numeracy and all that because they needed to reconstruct the country. One thing that he taught me was to remind me about what I used to do in my younger years.


Social innovation is something that I would like to actually help out, and if I had a magic wand, I would actually work on that, probably 100%.


Sam: Lastly then, do you have any advice for our listeners?


Mauricio: It’s good to be troublemaker, so don’t give up. Don’t forget about empathy. A lot of what we suffer today is because of lack of empathy.
Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Mauricio: Yeah, thanks for you. I hope I didn’t speak too many silly things.


Sam: That’s fantastic.


computing design

Saving the world through computing(?)

Vanessa Thomas hails from Alberta, Canada via Lancaster, England.  She’s a PhD candidate in the High Wire Centre and has worked in a lot of different areas, continually exploring the relationship between computing and sustainability.


Sam: Welcome to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Shane’s not here tonight because I’m in San Jose, California at a conference.


Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference and we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens is that of Vanessa Thomas, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster and is a research associate in the Institute of Social Futures, also at Lancaster but she’s not Lancastrian. Where’d you grow up?


Vanessa: I’m from Edmonton Alberta, Canada, which will probably give you a lot of context for why I do what I do if you know anything about the environment and oil sands and natural resource extraction.


Sam: What did you want to be when you grow up?


Vanessa: A fire truck but I’m not allowed to say that am I? Initially, in high school, I thought I wanted to be an accountant.


Sam: You saw the light?


Vanessa: I entered university and I took some entry-level classes, then I saw the light. I also took entry-level classes in computer science and learned that all of my skills in mathematics, which was what I always excelled at, could be applied to computing is well.


Sam: You shifted into computing?


Vanessa: Yes. During the first year I shifted away from accounting towards computing because I had thought that it was a more exciting and creative field for me to be in than just plain old numbers and maths and accounting.


Sam: What did you think you were going to do with computing at that stage?


Vanessa: I think I bought into a lot of the rhetoric around computing about saving the world through digital technologies, so I thought that I would get a job with Google. Google was just starting up at the time and it was really, really cool. Alternatively, I thought I would use my programming skills to make cool tools that would help people with their problems.


Sam: Interesting that you described that as the rhetoric. I would say that the “cool tools” rhetoric is a lot stronger than any “saving the world” rhetoric, doing something innovative perhaps with digital technology, but I don’t know if there’s a common “saving the world” vibe.


Vanessa: You’re right. I think retroactively I’m applying the saving the world rhetoric just because of the communities that I got involved with. Probably building the cool tools rhetoric was what I saw at first but that’s quite a long time ago. It’s over a decade ago that I started doing this, so it’s hard for me to remember exactly, back then.


Sam: You said that Edmonton in Alberta, if I know anything about that, I’ll know everything about you. Okay. Pretend I don’t know anything about it.


Vanessa: A lot of people won’t know very much about it, so that’s fair. Edmonton Alberta is a city of about a million people at this point. It was around 800,000 when I was growing up. It is heavily attached to the natural resource extraction industry in Canada and in Alberta specifically.


Obviously, Edmonton is the capital city, so a lot of companies are based there, our government is based there, so policies around natural resource extraction are developed there, which means that groups that want to lobby for and against that are also based there and are also quite active there.


Many people from Edmonton go and work in the natural resource extraction industries and those industries include forestry, they include oil. They also include fishing. There’s a large farming community as well, which you can argue is or is not a culture that sometimes gets looped in with natural resource extraction, if you consider crops, extraction, but some people don’t. In which case, it’s kept separate.


Sam: What I want to know is, were the tensions that are implicit in that, apparent when you were at school?


Vanessa: I would say it wasn’t clear to me when I was a teenager. I’m sure for some teenagers who were far more aware of those issues, it was obvious for them. For me, it didn’t really make sense. These issues came clear to me probably at about the time that I turned 20 or 21, certainly not when I was younger.


Sam: What happened?


Vanessa: I started getting involved with student groups on campus. Just through convenience and interest, I became involved with the Student’s Union at the University. They were a very open and welcoming group who shared a lot of nerdy interests with me and I didn’t know very much about how Alberta’s industries were tied to Canada in global economic issues at the time.


They introduced me to a lot of those issues and retrospectively, I could see how that was linked to my upbringing and a lot of the issues in the area of the city that I’m from, which is quite a low income area, the city. A lot of people that I went to high school with graduated and chose to take jobs in the oil sands, or in forestry, or in the natural resource extraction area industries.


I was one of the few people from my graduating class that went to university. There may be a cohort of like 20 of us from a graduating class of 700, who went to university. The rest all went off to low income housing and/or natural resource extraction industry jobs, things that didn’t require anything else after high school.


Sam: Were you living at home or on campus?


Vanessa: I was living at home. Yeah, with my parents. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.


Sam: Did the neighbourhood think you were going off to a day job as a hippie?


Vanessa: I didn’t look like a hippie at the time. I didn’t have dreadlocks at the time. My immediate neighbours, one was an old couple and they were just happy to see us go off and do anything and the other house had quite a transient population, so we didn’t really get to know them very well at all. It changed over a year or two, so I have no idea what they thought of me. They often didn’t talk with us.


Sam: Around the family dinner table, were you bringing in new ideas or was it carrying on ideas, developing ideas that were already there?


Vanessa: No. There was quite a lot of friction, especially when I became vegetarian and then eventually vegan. That caused a lot of friction. My family has a conservative bend to it, I would say. That’s the polite way of phrasing it, because Alberta, for a very long time, for 44 years had a conservative government in power. Everybody was just assumed to be conservative.


You obviously supported the natural resource extraction industries. We had a large active beef farming community, so you obviously ate a lot of beef to support that. Yeah. Very conservative. The idea of having a vegetarian in the family was very off-putting. I remember vividly, a conversation with my dad where he asked if I would still eat my vegan burgers if it was cooked on the same grill as a beef burger, now that I had become vegan.


Sam: Similar conversations in your computer science classes?


Vanessa: No. No. Not at all. No. I had very few friends in my computer science classes. First and foremost, I was one of the few women. In one of the first classes that I took actually, one of my peers said that I never had to do any programming because I was female and I could get away with just letting the boys do the work for me.


I didn’t actually make many friends in my computer science classes. I think that’s part of why I turned to the Student’s Union, because they were an open welcoming group who had similar ideas to me. They didn’t care that I was programming. They didn’t really care what I did for school, we just had these shared values.


Sam: Within the academic frame, where there opportunities to explore the social side of computing?


Vanessa: During my undergraduate, no. No. Not at all. Actually, I dropped out/got kicked out and took an internship, an international development internship, after three years in Ecuador doing something called ICT4D, Information and Communication Technologies for Development.


I worked in a human rights nonprofit called Defensa De Los Niños, Defence of the Children. They helped support street children in Ecuador to do with all of the very many issues that they faced. I helped them set up their database and website, which in 2006 was very new for them. I helped them get email in their workplace. I trained them in how to maintain their website and maintain some of the computers that were also in the workplace. That opened me up to questioning the values of computing.


Sam: You went back and finished your degree?


Vanessa: I did. It was a very slow process. It took me until 2011 to get my degree. I started in 2003 and it took me until 2011 to get my undergraduate degree. I ended up taking courses in feminism along the way. I also took courses in management studies, communication studies, Earth and atmospheric sciences.


I went looking for answers that computer science wasn’t giving me and that meant that it extended the length of the time I spent in my undergraduate but I also had a much more well-rounded and eclectic education as a result.


Sam: Can you see a way of structuring a computer science degree that you wouldn’t need to go searching for those things?


Vanessa: Absolutely. Yeah. If you included more flexibility in the course offerings. If you allowed people to take classes from the … Every University will obviously have a different departmental structure but if you we’re allowed to take courses in the environmental sciences and have that count towards your degree. If you we’re allowed to take courses from women’s studies or indigenous studies and have that count toward your degree, I think that would help.


Sam: Having gone through the left-field way of eventually finishing a computer science degree. Then, you turned your back on all that and went to work in a bank. Is that right?


Vanessa: Well, no. I was also working throughout that entire process because I needed to be able to pay for my education. I had been working for utility company for a bit, so they provided the power and water services in my city. I also worked for the government in my province, both for the energy ministry and the environment ministry.


I eventually also tacked on a Master’s degree at the same time, to all of that. By 2013, I had earned a Master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies while working quite extensively in government and nonprofits and briefly, for-profits. Then, I quit all of that and went and worked in the Inter-American Development Bank for a few months before starting my PhD, so yeah I did get to the bank.


Sam: What were you doing in the environment ministry?


Vanessa: I was doing the same thing in the environment ministry and the energy ministry. I was the internal communications technology specialist. I helped set up and run their websites internally. I also was a member of a lot of projects helping employees feel more engaged within those ministries and to share their work because there was very low engagement.


People were very angry and upset about what they were doing in those two ministries specifically. They had the lowest engagement scores of any of the ministries that the government delivered us, so I was trying to help that.


Sam: What’s the structure of the government? Is the environment ministry to protect the environment or is it to provide a vehicle for extraction to go on? How does that tension sit?


Vanessa: Yeah. There’s no real clear answer there. You can take the slogans that the government offers at face value if you’d like. I believe that, at that time, the slogan for the environment ministry … The full name for the environment ministry was Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and they were stewards of Alberta’s environment. However you wanted to take stewardship, you could.


Sam: They’ve got all of the options stuck in that title.


Vanessa: Yes they do. Yes they do. That is a very carefully worded title, I think for a reason. I think also, what they pursued policy wise was very different than what many of the employees had in mind with that ministry.


Some of them were really keen on protecting the environment and making sure that Alberta had a long sustainable ecosystem with crop rotations and carefully planned forests that handle different animals as well as bugs and just had a proper forest ecosystem in place.


Then, there were others who were more keen on making sure that we could just move those issues aside to make oil development a more easy process. It was a highly conflicting environment at Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.


Sam: Were you based in the IT department?


Vanessa: No. I was strategically based in the communications department so that we had more flexibility to do what we wanted to do. The IT department was very structured and had a very slow approval process for everything.


When you want to help employees with engagement, you want to have quite a lot of quick movement at your fingers, I would say. You don’t want to be bogged down in bureaucratic structures that take a year just to get a website approved.


Sam: Interesting that you’re a person who’s clearly driven by social justice and the environment. Having coming out with a computer science degree, in which you’ve got none of that, except which you’ve managed to shoehorn in. Did you then manage to find a job that enabled you to do both or was it still more computing?


Vanessa: I wasn’t able to find a job that allowed me to do both, which is why I ended up pursuing that PhD that I’m pursuing. I’m still desperately seeking a way to reconcile the real social and environmental justice activism I used to be involved with and my computing career because they’re not two things that are easily reconcilable, as I’m sure you’re aware.


Sam: Okay. You said you were working for some non-profits as well or at the same time. What was that about?


Vanessa: Yeah. I also worked for another non-profit in Bolivia, which was called INFOCAL. It teaches people from low income areas, skills that they would need to be employed as a mechanic or doing food prep, just giving the skills that people from low income areas from Bolivia would need to find employment.


I was also involved with a bunch of groups that help immigrants when they moved to Edmonton, helped them get settled. I was involved with something called the Sierra Club and also briefly Greenpeace in Alberta. I was the provincial coordinator for the Canadian commission of UNESCO’s Alberta presence and they did work on biospheres and also education support in rural communities.


I was involved with just a peace organisation, the John Humphrey Centre for Human Rights. I was involved with a lot of different things. I didn’t sleep very much because in all of my spare time I went seeking the things that my job didn’t offer me.


Sam: What were you trying to achieve? I’m sure there’s a path to a theme in there, but I don’t know what it is.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think it put a lot of people off because I was doing a lot of things.   The pattern for me was trying to … I don’t know what the pattern is. I still don’t know what the pattern is. You can help me with that baby.


Sam: MSc in interdisciplinary studies, what was that about?


Vanessa: Yeah. It was actually an MA, a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. It was focused on something called Human Security, which is a United Nations development programme paradigm for looking at any sort of issue that you may have, any sort of problem around the world.


There are seven pillars to this paradigm. We’ve got the economic security pillar, the food security pillar, to health security pillar, the environment security pillar, the personal security pillar, the community security pillar and the political security pillar. Those are the seven. You look in any sort of thing, you can even look at objects with those pillars and pick apart how they’re related to it.


How does this microphone affect somebody’s food security, their access to food? How does this microphone affect somebody’s environmental security, their access to safe tree spaces, green spaces as well as water? Water’s typically linked with environment. It could be also put under food. Political security is another one. How does this affect whether or not somebody is going to be arrested? How does this link to their community security, which relates to their friendships with people?


If I’m giving this interview now, now that this microphone is recording it, is this going to make somebody in my community hate me? Is it going to make them more accepting of me? All sorts of things. You pick apart anything with these seven pillars and that … As I was searching for, actually something quite like this paradigm, it came into my life through the Masters and it helped me see things differently. I think I was looking for something like it during my computer science undergraduate degree, which is why I went so broad with my extra classes and ended up taking a lot more than I needed.


Sam: In your Masters, did you relate that in any way back to computing?


Vanessa: I did in a couple of papers. I also related it to media systems because I feel like in a lot of … Media systems and computing are connected and have been for quite some time, so I linked them to both of those.


Sam: What did you find?


Vanessa: I found some not pretty stuff. That’s where I first started learning about eWaste – eWaste is electronics waste, so what happens to your electronic devices when you throw them away when you get rid of them. It’s a massive issue globally.


It’s also where I first learned about some of the rare earth minerals that are in computing devices and the flows of minerals and materials that make up our devices. I had somehow not managed to put these pieces together before I got to my Masters. In part because I’d been distracted by the more common things that people are interested in.


Environmental issues, I had been interested in, so at that time it was a lot about oil industry in Alberta and also plastics in the ocean. Food waste was a big thing that people talked about but I hadn’t thought to link all of that with computing.


Sam: Because we don’t go out of our way to connect those things?


Vanessa: I think so. I think we definitely don’t go out of our way to connect those things.


Sam: We’re happily seeing these things as information appliances with no consequences, they just exist.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think some of the rhetoric around those appliances aids that by saying that we’re putting our data in the cloud. I’ve actually had conversations with people where they think their data is up in some cloud. It’s got nothing to do with the ground and the planet. There’s no physical place.


Sam: There’s no such thing as the cloud. It’s somebody else’s computer. People just don’t get it, do they?


Vanessa: Yeah. I think some of the rhetoric supports that, that they don’t want you to think about it in a way. That sounds very, like a conspiracy theory because … Yeah. It does. That’s not how I meant for that to come out. I don’t mean it to sound like there’s a conspiracy but I think the wording around the cloud, I think we need to change it. I think we have to.


Sam: What do we need to change?


Vanessa: I think we need to have some pretty open and honest conversations about what happens with our digital devices after they’re used. I think we also need to have some pretty open and honest conversations about what happens with our digital devices while they’re being used.


What is the cost of a Tweet? Why don’t more people know that? What is in the background of all of those Facebook feeds? How often are those algorithms making calls to a database on the other side of the planet and what cost does that have?


Sam: You finished your MA, then what?


Vanessa: I thought I wanted to go work for the United Nations, to try to tackle some of the big global issues that I had problems with, so I got a job at the Inter-American Development Bank, which is a smaller international development organisation. That was not a pleasant experience, so … I had also applied for some PhD’s at the time, thinking that perhaps I could spend some time researching the issues that I was interested in.


Sam: I’d like you to take this positively but I can’t imagine you ever thinking that going to work for a bank was a good idea, even if it’s a development bank.


Vanessa: Yeah. I completely agree. It was not the smartest decision, I would say in retrospect. I really actually desperately wanted to get out of the Alberta government, so I started looking for options and that was one of the first ones that came up.


When I worked in Latin America, actually the Inter-American Development Bank had a very good reputation. It funds a lot of very successful and very helpful projects around sanitation, around urban development. They support a lot of good work, even if they are a bank and-


Sam: On a continuum of not-for-profit Sierra Club through to corporate bank, where does that sit on that continuum?


Vanessa: Obviously, at the corporate bank end of things but they were at least a corporate bank interested in social justice and they really do support a lot of amazing projects in Latin America that would otherwise not have happened. Most of the bank is staffed by people from Latin America.


A majority of the people working at the bank are from Latin America and they find projects that they care about because they affect the people that they care about. That’s certainly a gross simplification of it and there are bad projects funded and there is money wasted, of course, but I had also just witnessed the exact same thing at the government of Alberta, which was a non-corporate public sector organisation that I thought should have been doing a lot more good and at times it was.


I was perhaps a bit lost and looking for answers and I thought that this organisation that had supported a lot of great projects in Latin America might have had some of the answers and they didn’t, so I pursued my PhD instead.


Sam: Okay. You decided to pursue a PhD.


Vanessa: Yep.


Sam: Where did you look?


Vanessa: In England because I was getting old and I didn’t want to spend eight years in Canada doing a PhD. That’s probably too honest. Also, England has a lot of really unique programmes, a lot of really unique interdisciplinary programmes, which is what I was seeking.


I didn’t want to go back to feeling like I was stuck in one discipline and just needed to study one thing. I wanted to be able to draw on all of my very different knowledge bases and experiences and work that into the research that I was doing.


I applied to a couple of different schools in the UK. When I met the people at Lancaster University, I immediately got along with them incredibly well. Their programme was the most radical of all of the programmes that I had applied to as well and it seemed like the right fit for me, so I joined them.


Sam: Which programme is it or what-


Vanessa: It’s called the High Wire Centre for Doctoral Training. It is a post-disciplinary doctoral training centre, which means we’re supposed to be long beyond any sort of disciplinary confines. The people that it has attracted, I think, share a similar set of values to me.


Sam: You took yourself off to England?


Vanessa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Sam: Then what? Did you know what you wanted to do?


Vanessa: Initially I thought that I would look at how digital technologies were being used in rural communities because sorry, I also grew up splitting my time between Edmonton and a farming community where my grandparents are based, in a small town in Alberta called Killam. It’s a side story, it’s not important. Anyway, I was interested in rural development so I thought I would see how digital technologies in rural development would be used, or would be linked rather.


Sam: You said initially?


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: That didn’t last long then?


Vanessa: No. Part of the fun of High Wire, is that they actually tell you to get rid of your initial idea when you enter. You go through this year-long process of basically being put in a blender with all of these other people from different backgrounds.


I worked with somebody who had studied philosophy. I worked with somebody who had run an arts organisation and was a poet. I worked with somebody from China who had become a service designer and an ethnographer. There’s a fellow from Mexico who does audio locative. It’s called Locative Audio Experiences.


I’ve worked with somebody who had done indigenous studies work with the Sami people in Scandinavia. I worked with a comic artist as well. We were all doing very different things and coming at our ideas with very different perspectives, so we were told to forget that initial idea that we had developed before we met all of these fabulous other people and to instead, come up with something new, with and amongst and even from them, so I did.


Sam: What else did you try in that process?


Vanessa: Throughout all of this, I was also involved with something called the Standby Task Force, which helps the United Nations during-


Sam: Of course you were!


Vanessa: Of course I was! I had briefly thought about studying crisis informatics, crisis response in digital technologies. I actually ended up co-authoring a book chapter about that and I am still involved with an EU project related to this.


I also dabbled in something called Smart Cities, which is a … Do you want to call it a paradigm? Can I call a paradigm? A current research and tech development industry paradigm trying to make cities smarter and by smarter they mean more full of technologies to help make people’s lives easier.


Sam: For someone that’s questioning the value of computing, pumping more of it into a city wouldn’t seem to be a sensible place to start.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think when I first looked at the marketing materials, I was interested in what they were trying to achieve by pumping more technologies into cities. I was very fortunate that right when I started to get interested in Smart Cities, a fellow by the name of Adam Greenfield published a book critiquing them. I read it and immediately connected with everything he said.


He’s a brilliant man and everybody should look into his pamphlet called ‘Against the Smart City.’ That started to help me unpick a lot of the marketing materials, which is mostly what I had been exposed to. There was quite a large body of research at the time, also about Smart cities, but it was mostly about specific digital technologies and how they would address a certain “problem” within a city. None of it seemed to make much sense to me. I was very sceptical and then Adam’s book crystallised a lot of that scepticism.


Sam: That’s what you’re not doing.


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: What are you doing?


Vanessa: I’m now finally, very happily, looking at how natural resource scarcity will affect people who do HCI.


Sam: In which order is that? How natural resource scarcity-


Vanessa: I should say, might affect people.


Sam: Might affect.


Vanessa: Might affect people who are HCI researchers.


Sam: Why is that of interest?


Vanessa: Because I think that throughout this whole messy process I’ve realised that a lot of what I did in industry was HCI. I was working with people trying to design technologies to support them and help them, which is a lot of what HCI is supposed to be about. Also, I have always had this, not always, I’ve had for the past decade or so, this interest in environmental issues.


I crafted this research as an attempt to unify these seemingly disparate threads in my life and try to crystallise something for me. It’s a very selfish endeavour. I want to know what I can do in the face of natural resource scarcity, as somebody who does HCI.


Sam: What are you doing? Are you talking to people?


Vanessa: Yeah. I’ve done two phases of research. I’m in the middle of the second phase. The first phase I interviewed people who repair and maintain retro computing technologies, so Commodores, super Nintendo’s, Sega Genesis, BBC micros. I was trying to talk with anybody who still repaired those.


Then, now I’m talking with people who are currently active in HCI research and finding out what they do and how they do it, how they develop new things because I think the two groups are linked and that resource scarcity is one of the things that will link them.


Sam: Are you particularly looking for people who are thinking those two things, the HCI, the Human Computer Interaction Research or practise and environmental stuff, the natural resource scarcity?


Vanessa: Yes. Definitely. I work with people who are in sustainable HCI, which is, I think, the closest field dealing with these issues. I’ve also the Limits Community to be quite interesting because they are playing around with similar topics.


Sam: Because, while there’s a few people doing that, the vast majority aren’t.


Vanessa: Yeah.


Sam: What are you hoping to find?


Vanessa: This is not going to be a very satisfying answer but I want to find answers for myself. I want to have a good idea of how I will be affected. I think, because I’m learning that the HCI community is quite a small, close-knit community, I think I will start by sharing my research amongst people who do similar things.


Then, I will progressively get shoutier and try to integrate this into broader HCI discourses because I think that more people within HCI need to think about how what they’re doing relates to climate change and the environment.


Sam: You’ve done some of those interviews?


Vanessa: I have done some of those interviews, yes. I’ve got 17 done so far. I just started a couple of weeks ago. I intend to spend the next three months interviewing as many people as possible and having as many conversations around this is possible. Then, I will try to write it up.


Sam: Has anyone said anything surprising so far?


Vanessa: Yes and no. Most people aren’t thinking about, even if they’re going to maintain their data for the next 10 years because University requirements state that they have to, most people aren’t thinking about whether or not they should go back to that data and reuse it in an interesting way and how that relates to the environment or doesn’t, for some people.


The more interesting things for me selfishly, have just been the differences between countries and the pressures that they face to deal with these things and the pressures that they face to publish interesting new work every year. That’s not a thing that I was expecting. Perhaps that shows how young and naïve I am within the field. I was expecting it to be a little bit more homogenous than it has been.


Sam: The academic publishing cycle of identify a problem or define a problem, identify solution, do an intervention, measuring it and write it up real quick, doesn’t sit very nicely with-


Vanessa: No, it doesn’t.


Sam: -intergenerational equity with looking at changes on large scale over long time periods and messy wicked problems and so on.


Vanessa: Right.


Sam: Has anyone got a solution to that?


Vanessa: Not anybody that I’ve spoken with but I’m hoping that somebody might.


Sam: You’re hoping that there’s someone out there?


Vanessa: I’m hoping. Yeah.


Sam: When you do …


Vanessa: I think I have to hope that other people are thinking about this right now. I don’t have to hope that. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who acknowledge that it’s a problem, they know that it’s a problem. They don’t like that there is this publishing cycle that they have to adhere to but they also would rather not be fired.


They would also rather not lose access to their immediate colleagues and peers if they don’t do this because you have to make a living as well. They feel almost a sense of discomfort and inability to do anything in the face of this particular challenge. The ones that are saying this to me mostly are ones who are not super senior academics. Most of the senior academics … That’s not true, I’m generalising. I want to take all of that back.


I had a conversation with a very senior academic from Cambridge. He’d given a presentation to a large group of people where he had been calling for more interdisciplinary researchers and he was saying that we need to rethink the publishing cycle and rethink how we value people within academia.


I went up to him after his presentation and I was like, “That was great. That really resonated with me. Thank you so much for saying that. I want to do an interdisciplinary generalist PhD. If I came to Cambridge, how would I do that without facing the pressures of this publishing cycle?”


He laughed in my face and said, “You’re too early. Come back in a decade. We might be able to accommodate something like that then but right now, no. Nobody’s going to allow you to do that.” To me, that interaction optimised the problem in academia. People want it, they will claim it to a large crowd of people. They will say, “This is the thing that we need to be doing,” but nobody’s making steps, they’re just deferring the problem to 10 years from now.


In many ways, that is the exact same issue we’re facing with environmental problems around the world, with climate change. “Oh, we won’t deal with that right now. Come back in 10 years and we’ll have a solution for that. In the next 10 years we’ll have figured it out but right now you’re too early to be trying to figure out the answers to these issues.”


Sam: You’ve been involved in a lot of different organisations.


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: Probably more than anyone else on the planet and from a whole range of different areas mixing both environmental and social justice and culture and everything else. How come you came down to natural resource scarcity in your question?


Vanessa: Because you have to have a very narrow question to get your PhD done. It was a practical choice. If I could … The paper that I’m writing about the retro computing people, it’s actually far more broad.


It’s just resource scarcity that includes access to knowledge, that includes access to support, that includes access to the physical components that you need to replace broken things on your computer. For my thesis, I had to be quite narrowly focused so that I could finish it in the time and meet the requirements of this academic structure that is not ready for something more broad.


Sam: Do you have a go-to definition of sustainability?


Vanessa: I do not. I know that I probably should but I keep it quite flexible because of the broad variety of people that I speak with. Business sustainability is a very different thing than environmental sustainability, which is a very different thing than community sustainability, even though they’re all connected. If that makes sense. I wish that I had an easy to ramble off thing so that … I’m probably going to need to articulate one at some point in the near future and it’s going to be very difficult for me.


Sam: What do you say when somebody says, “We’re computer scientists, this is not our problem”? What’s your line into it?


Vanessa: I ask them typically, why they think it’s not our problem and then I ask more probing questions like, “Have you ever considered where we get the materials to build our computers? What happens to your data? Where are you storing it? What do you know about the broader context?”


They typically respond with more questions and then through that questioning process, I try to provide them what information I have on hand and that changes regularly as well because I think new research comes up quite regularly about the environmental impact of computing. Yeah. I try to fit that into the conversation as they’re responding to me.


Sam: On the scale I’ve just invented of one to 10, where one is optimist and 10 is pessimist?


Vanessa: Oh. Ah. Scales, again. I fluctuate between probably one and 10, quite regularly, even earlier today, depending on a lot of things. I have to be optimistic because I’m just in my 30s and I know I have a long, long trail ahead of me. I think if I was pessimistic all of the time I would not have the energy to get myself out of bed in the morning but I also see a lot of exciting things happening. I see cool projects like to Restart Project. I see cool projects like Fairphone.  Fairphone’s a great project.


Things like that give me hope and make me quite optimistic but then, talking with lots of researchers who don’t think about the environmental impact of their computing at all makes me quite pessimistic. Attending presentations by large search companies who talk about wanting to provide abundant access to the Internet for everybody and then not having them acknowledge that the environmental impact of that. That makes me quite pessimistic as well.


Sam: The whole paradigm, not just of computing but of technology and business itself really, is make new products and sell more stuff.


Vanessa: Yep.


Sam: Are we kidding ourselves?


Vanessa: By trying to think about environmental issues related to that?


Sam: No. About turning around that sight, that discipline, that science, that industry that’s behind it, the business.


Vanessa: I don’t really care if we’re kidding ourselves. I feel like somebody has to be saying it. Somebody has to be trying to raise these issues with big business or it will never change. I don’t know if in the long term this will matter, I don’t really care.


I just feel like I have to do it. It feels like the right thing to do and beyond that I don’t really care. I should care because I know that neoliberalism is the problem and that we should try to bring it down but I also know that I am one person.


Sam: Some questions to end with. What is your sustainable superpower?


Vanessa: Yeah. Laughter? Am I allowed to say that’s my superpower?


Sam: You just did.


Vanessa: Great.


Sam: I’ve written it down, so that’s what it is.


Vanessa: Perfect. I feel like I have to laugh in the face of some of the things that make me incredibly pessimistic. That’s probably what keeps me optimistic.


Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?


Vanessa: Oh, wow. Quitting my job at the government of Alberta and pursuing what I cared about.


Sam: Do you consider yourself an activist?


Vanessa: Yeah. That’s a question that I’ve always struggled with. I should, I should consider myself an activist and sometimes I do. Right now I don’t. I don’t feel like I’m doing enough. I’m just doing a PhD and some research. I don’t feel like I’m enough of an activist right now. I used to be.


Sam: Do you see a long-term future where you can be an activist?


Vanessa: I see a long-term future where I will be an activist. Yeah-


Sam: Do you think that you’ve cracked it? Through your myriad of things that you’ve done there’s been a separation between computing and your, let’s call that part that bit of the activism.


Vanessa: Right.


Sam: Do you see a long-term future where you’re going to be able to bring the two together?


Vanessa: Yes, and I’m trying to right now. I just submitted an environmental impact of computing … Yes. I just submitted a digital technologies and climate change proposal to the government of Canada, a competition about a month ago that closed.


I’ve made it to the top 10 for that particular competition, so there’s a very good chance that this submission I have is going to affect policy in Canada, getting the government to think about how their computing regime is linked to the environment. That’s my first step.


I intend to write a lot more for the public sector, more policy document submissions. I’m going to try to engage with some ministers. I intend to be more active about this specific subject, at least within Canada because we have recently had a government change there and I think that we now have the right people in place to think about these issues, so yeah-


Sam: How’s that going down in Edmonton?


Vanessa: I will find out when I’m home in about a week and I start chatting with some people.


Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Vanessa: Yeah. That’s a great question. What does motivate me and get me out of bed in the morning? There are the typical motivations that everybody has. I need to eat food and survive, those things. I need to have friends…like motivations, whatever.


I am motivated by … I hate this question. I’m so terrible at answering it. I should have an answer to this question and I don’t. I have an idea of what I want to see from the world and I’m motivated by pursuing that idea. It’s a broad, messy, complicated idea that draws in all of these different threads, so it’s not an easy thing for me to articulate. I do end up styling it a bit when I am talking with different people but that gets me up in the morning.  Pursuing that gets me up in the morning.


Sam: Maybe it’s always only ever going to be a broad, messy, complicated idea.


Vanessa: I think it’s going-


Sam: If there was a silver bullet, simple idea, we would have fixed it already.


Vanessa: I would agree. Yeah.


Sam: Good. You can stick with, “Oh, your answer was good there,” remember that one.


Vanessa: Thanks.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would it be?


Vanessa: I can give you a flippant answer or a very serious one.


Sam: Give me both.


Vanessa: Okay. I would wave a magic wand and we would all be transported to Jurassic Park and it would be a fabulous, exciting time with dinosaurs.


Sam: Except we would get eaten.


Vanessa: They need food too. Dinosaurs need food too. I’m not a species-ist, I’m not. Yeah. No, if I could wave a magic wand and make one thing happen it would be that the world would be a less unequal place for everyone and the environment.


Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?


Vanessa: The-


Sam: It’s this last question, it’s a free hit.


Vanessa: I know. I know. I’m sorry. The advice that I used to give when I was a mentor for young women entering computing was that you should feel and it’s such a piece of advice from a place of privilege, you should feel that you can pursue the things that you care about, even if they don’t fit into the nice, normal, clean, clear structures that are centred in front of you.


Even if you are an engineer, if you want to learn about knitting, go learn about knitting. If you are a nurse and you want to learn how to fix a car, go learn about fixing a car. That would be my advice. Pursue the things that you’re curious about and be curious. Be curious, please.


Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Vanessa: Yeah. Thank you. I’m sorry that was so rambled.


Sam: All of the best stories are a ramble.


Vanessa: Are they?


Sam: You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann.


We broadcast on our title access radio, and Podcast on On, we’re building up searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens.


Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Vanessa Thomas, variously from Lancaster and Alberta, Canada. She’s a PhD candidate in the High Wire Centre and has worked in a lot of different areas, continually exploring the relationship between computing and, let’s just call it sustainability. Although, she didn’t.


You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook and you can listen to Sustainable Lens via iTunes for free and it goes out to lots of other party places. Please do like us on Facebook. It keeps the wolves from the door and it means we don’t have to go and get a job working in the oil sands.


That was Sustainable Lens. I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.


art climate change design energy

designers of the Anthropocene

Beth Ferguson Sara Dean

We’re mapping different types of unknown territory.

Our guests tonight are Sara Dean and Beth Ferguson.

Sara is an assistant professor of graduate design at the California College of the Arts. She is an architect and designer. Her work considers the implications of digital and social media as urban infrastructure, especially in relation to issues of sustainability

Beth Ferguson is an assistant professor in industrial design at the University of California Davis. She runs Solar Design Lab, a solar design and build company. Her work positions solar energy design as a civic and public resource.

They are here in Dunedin as collaborators in a project called Climate Kit. Climate Kit is a project commissioned by Zero1, American Arts Incubator in partnership with the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs and the US Embassy here in Wellington. Climate Kit brings together Beth, an expert on design and solar energy and Sara, an expert in digital design to create a cross disciplinarian workshop of with academics, artists, business and government leaders to discuss and share best practices on raising awareness of resiliency in climate change and how to communicate and share our best practices publicly in compelling ways.

Talking points

A question I’ve always had is what is the device that makes a problem or a challenge visible, engageable, start people moving together towards solutions.

We’re really looking at the environment through the lens of the challenges that the environment sees and as we tool up to kind of solve some of these problems on a grassroots level, they become images that can be brought into a community setting like a university or a museum to have discussions.

I think often when we deal with complex systems, we end up addressing both in the community and in interventions, addressing the effects of the systems… upstream in the system as possible so that they can make better decisions.

One of the challenges I think we have right now as a global population, and as designers, is how to connect those in a productive way to be able to not isolate people who are feeling the effects of climate change faster because we’re all going to be feeling them eventually.

Tangible glimpses at large shifts

If a community is prepared for climate change, it is significantly more affordable than responding to disaster.

That’s the language as designers that we’ve learned to use of coming up with creative ways to talk about challenges.

Sustainability is really about thinking about future generations. If we’re not designing our economies and systems, infrastructure systems to just be for our generation, the next 30 years. If we’re really thinking the next 7 generations, that is sustainability

We’re not really wired to think long, big scale or long distances. It’s a challenge. It’s probably a challenge we’ve always had, but I think the challenge of scale right now is the one that kind of obsesses me. We’re not great at thinking beyond neighbourhood and city. A lot of the challenges that we’re facing in neighbourhoods and cities are coming at us from really large scales. To me, that’s a design challenge. Time and scale right now, are a design challenge.



Shane: First of all I want to talk about you guys. Beth can I start off with you? You got into solar energy. You’re an engineer. When did you decide to become an engineer and what got you interested in solar energy?


Beth: Yeah. It’s actually a personal transportation story. I was a graduate design student at the University of Texas in Austin and really interested in small electric vehicles and just by chance saw a small electric scooter on Craigslist. It’s like a used item website in the states. For $200 I bought an electric bike and it was an awesome way to move around the city without having to deal with expensive parking or gas. I’ve quickly found challenges bringing it to my college campus. I had no place to charge it or plug it in. I’d bring it in to my study and be bothered thinking everyone thought it was a gas motorcycle. I realized, being in Texas, that there’s not infrastructure for small electric vehicles yet, but of course other more progressive states probably have that infrastructure.


This was in 2007. I had trouble finding other alternatives and worked with a small solar company and found out one solar panel could charge my electric scooter. Then I started getting into design and prototyping and thinking a solar charging station would actually be quite feasible for electric bikes and scooters and even electric cars. In 2007, electric vehicles were just catching on and the prices of solar panels, so my timing with this challenge was really good. Seeing both the solar industry get stronger as well as more electric bikes and scooters and cars available. The last seven years I’ve seen these industries really grow and I started my own studio call Solar Design Lab, where I work with other engineers, architects, designers and do public projects that are commissioned by universities, city utilities, music festivals for phone charging. We’ve brought the project to many different places.


We’re on, I think, prototype 12 right now for the city of Austin, they’re utility for a new street called electric drive. Electric drive will have demonstration areas for electric car charging, bikes and scooters as well as USB ports for outdoor phones. That’s like a quick version of many years of working in public places and bringing solar energy down to the street. The projects are the size of bus stops. They’re pretty easy for people to interact with and see how they work.


Sam: That’s incredible. Go back to your childhood. Where did you grow up?


Beth: I grew up on the coast of Maine, which is a good question because it’s not unlike Dunedin and I felt quite at home here in the hills and on the coast.


Sam: All right. As a young girl, did you imagine yourself being an engineer from a very young age or is that something you … How did you get into engineering? What’s your journey there?


Beth: I was always really interested in the environment. Living on the coast, being able to ride my bike and hike and find the environment as a big inspiration. My master’s degree is in design, but after I received that degree, I did take solar engineering courses at a local community college to get solar engineering skills. That’s kind of been my toolkit so that I’ve been able to put a lot of curriculum together. I’ve always loved teaching from a young age, working in environmental summer camps and getting to explore the outdoors. Maine is on the East Coast of the United States, very close to Canada. It’s a place that people really appreciate the environment. Coming up with alternatives that are going to be using less dependence on fossil fuels has been an interest of mine for a long time. My interest in sustainability kind of has merged with transportation solutions, transportation and electricity are huge numbers to the green house gases in the US. Coming up with solutions for the way we move through our city and the way we use electricity is very important for how we’re going to really reduce our carbon in the US.


Sam: Was that your driving passion, that pushed you through college and guided your career?


Beth: In undergraduate work, I studied ecological design. My interest art and all different types of art, public art and performance art really combined with my interest in the environment to be environmental design. I think I saw a documentary on Buckminster Fuller as a young student and that really inspired me to see the types of design that’s possible for re-envisioning the world that we want versus accepting these unsustainable models we have for the way cities are laid out. We have suburbs. I’ve always like a city you can bike and walk in. I’ve lived in New York City. I love community gardens. I love having a healthy lifestyle and I think that that is possible if we re-shift the way urban planners have made big sprawl in cities and really condense cities again to be livable and affordable with public transportation as well as small electric vehicles.


Shane: I think one of the focuses of the interview, we’re going to talk about this interest between arts and science and design and the environment. We’ll circle back to that eventually, but I want to turn to Sara and ask you the same questions. Where did you grow up and what’s your background? What got you into your career?


Sara: One of the commonalities that Beth and I have is a varied number of disciplines that we’ve kind of accumulated into a space where we want to work. I grew up in Virginia, which is in the Southeast of the United States. I originally studied communication arts, interested in how we communicate through graphic design and illustration. After that I moved to New Orleans, and worked a lot in building and renovating houses alongside the work I was doing as a graphic designer, which was geared toward community organization.


I worked as the lead graphic designer for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now for a number of years in New Orleans and that work really brought home to me how design can activate communities, can be tools to make policy and the distinctions, or the opportunity for on the ground community work design and government policy to be in a conversation together. A question I’ve always had is what is the device that makes a problem or a challenge visible, engageable, start people moving together towards solutions. That’s my kind of where I worked from. While I was in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina happened and that was a really devastating climate change moment and policy failure moment for the city and the region. I worked for a number of years after Katrina in energy policy and building practices to try to make more sustainable methods of building.


After that I went back to school for architecture, realizing that I was more interested in the built environment and wanted to tool up in that way. Since then my practice has really been to combine those two worlds. Understanding urban infrastructure and an architectural mindset and then coming from community organizing and communication structures, has put me in a position where I work with really multi disciplinary groups to tackle big infrastructural issues through many forms. Digital media, built form, manufacturing practices, and using everything from say social media and technology to house those in and other types of build work.


Shane: How did you two guys meet up? How did you meet up? What was that story?


Beth: We were really lucky that a mutual friend who is actually on the board of Solar Design Lab, my studio was giving me advice on how to scale the project and said, “You really need to meet Sara Dean.” We had a mutual dinner and then Sara and I immediately have like 15 ideas of new projects. We’ve been coming up or baking new ideas ever since and have a huge list we’ve yet to crack. Doing Climate Kit has been really fun as a real immersion in the support from the Otago Museum, the science communication department here at the University of Otago, the Zero1 American Arts Incubator, and the US State Department in Wellington, the embassy in Wellington have really helped connect so many thoughts especially in the community for us to really hear many different voices on the challenges related to climate change. Otago and Dunedin, just really big spirited people. We feel really lucky to have this month to work together as well as do community work.


Shane: Neither of you have had a typical career. It’s not like you decided to go in one direction. You’ve taken this kind of serpentine path and it’s fascinating to me that you’ve taken all these different areas and kind of blended them like hard science and soft sciences and kind of community. You’ve blended together, and you’ve brought together this amazing ideas and concepts. When you try to explain this to people, do people get it or is kind of like, “You what? What do you do?”


Sara: Probably half and half. I think for me one of the things that disciplines give us in general is a language. When I use architectural language to talk about infrastructure system problems and how social media, for example could be used as an architecture in a city. If I’m using architectural language, the architects get it. If I’m using community organizing language, the community organizations will get it, but it doesn’t quite work the other way around. Really understanding how to engage different types of disciplines is an incredible benefit as long as you can be a flexible person that’s okay with some questionable stares now and then.


Shane: One of the things that we constantly hear about, one of the major things, is the theme of narrative. How you turn your story and again you’re repeating that. Like you said, you have to tell your story in a particular way. Is this your experience as well, Beth?


Beth: Yeah, absolutely. People are so curious, especially with doing prototyping and innovation and experimenting, combining unordinary things. A lot of my solar charging stations have used 1950s gas pumps. I’ve recycled a symbol of the road trip, the American Legacy of this vintage automobilia. That humor and narrative has helped me really launch into a place as a public artist to combine cutting edge technology which are batteries, battery storage for solar energy, electric vehicles. We’re doing a project that’s charging Tesla cars. Sometimes there’s a space in the world, like a crack that hasn’t been investigated to bring new projects out into the world. When you wear as many hats that Sara and I have worn of working with Universities as researchers, us working with arts institutions, museums, architecture firms Sara has done, and starting my own studio, you really learn different ways to use multiple narratives to get visions across and that’s when the work becomes powerful.


Shane: You guys met over dinner, you have the projects and it sounds really exciting, like you guys sparked off each other. What brought the idea of the Climate Kit and I’ve seen some really interesting pictures of like a gas mask, well some sort of air filter, and a strange rod with a spiral rounded. A few bits and pieces which I think quite works and they’re quite able to identify, but fascinating museum. What is the climate Kit and just start off with that?


Sara: The question that we started with with Climate Kit is how is expedition and exploration changing in the world. When you think about California and then also thinking about New Zealand as these new frontiers that have been explored in various ways and we can picture the types of tools that go into that exploration of new territory, unknown territory, but we have different types of unknown territory now, that aren’t about mapping unknown terrain, but mapping unknown metrics or unknown data. Moving into say a big data space or a post natural space of exploration, what are the new tools that people are using. Asking that, say very broad question has gotten us a starting point to different conversations that we’ve been having here between each other and in getting the exhibit together at the Otago museum.


Old tools have different purposes now and there’s a lot of new tools being developed. That was the starting point for us. As far as what is a month long conversation basically that we could have with the science community in Dunedin around field working tools for climate.


Shane: When you come here to, I can see the appeal for Dunedin to have two amazing academics come from overseas and create a space for conversation. Can you do that in the same way in America or at home? How do you start creating that space. I can see the appeal here but how do you do that back?


Beth: One important part of Sara and I meeting that we didn’t mention is we were new to San Francisco, new to the Bay area, new to Silicon Valley. Sara had moved from Andover Michigan. I had moved from Austin Texas and we had a lot of excitement as many new pioneers in Silicon Valley to come up with some new ideas and push boundaries. Our work related to emergency is actually inspired by the threat of earthquakes in the Bay area. We’ve had constant little tremors. We’re really thinking about infrastructure and thinking about human impact on the environment. Thinking about like a field guide to the anthropocene is a part of the toolkit project we’re working on.


The lens we’ve gotten to use here in New Zealand has actually been to map and photograph and explore dams and different parts around Dunedin where there’s failure of controlling flooding. Where there are challenges related to pollution or related to a side of the hill that the houses are too moist and people are getting mould and environmental illnesses. We’re really looking at the environment through the lens of the challenges that the environment sees and as we tool up to kind of solve some of these problems on a grassroots level, they become images that can be brought into a community setting like a university or a museum to have discussions.


Our exhibition’s opening tomorrow, but Saturday we’re having a community panel and inviting people in to talk about their work in Dunedin related to climate change but also open up that conversation. That’s kind of the spring board idea of toolkit and kind of the benefit of having the whole month to really talk to people.


Sara: I’ll add there’s a huge advantage to having time. There’s nothing more luxurious than time. As much as Beth and I have been working together for two years, there’s a lot of other things happening as well and we both have our own individual practices that were also propelling forward. To get a month together to work on these questions in a new place is a huge luxury. As much as this could happen in daily life, it’s a lot easier in some ways to do it in isolation and get new inputs and kind of feed off of the new community event and all of the energy here.


Shane: How did you decide on Dunedin. It’s not the most obvious choice. Obviously we have an amazing university and Polytech. Why Dunedin?


Beth: Dunedin was chosen or recommended by the US Embassy in Wellington. I think it had a lot to do with the science festival that happened a few weeks ago. Our timing with the really exciting science festival in Dunedin was perfect in the timeline for our commission and residency was about the same time. I think it was a natural fit, the beauty of the Otago Peninsula, we just feel so lucky to have been able to come here. The other artists that have been a part of the American Art Incubator have been to the Philippines, to Vietnam, to China. This is the first group that’s come to New Zealand. We’re the lucky ones.


Shane: How do you describe yourselves? Are you scientists? Are you engineers? Are you artists? Are you all of the above? How do you describe yourselves?


Beth: We’re really in an exciting time in the world as academics and designers. I describe myself as an industrial designer. That having a multi toolkit and being able to bridge disciplines that becomes a strong problem solver. When you’re able to kind of go between a city utility and consider how electric vehicles are going to be charged on a city grid, versus an arts organization that would really amplify a story in a new way, that’s kind of the beauty of having multidisciplinary skills. Sara’s worked in architecture and myself in industrial design, as a contractor you have to be able to bring in a lot of skills to the table and execute large scale projects. This was a very fast project in one month and we have a couple years worth of research ideas that maybe we’ll still be back to do in the future.


Shane: Brilliant. Sara, how do you describe yourself?


Sara: I think of myself as an architect. I’m trained as an architect, and to me when I approach a problem, I think I approach it as an architect even though I’ve been trained as many other things as well. To me it’s about those methods of approaching a problem, methods of coming up with ways of solving it. To me, I do that architecturally. I think of it systematically. I look for a point of agency in a city or in a community or in an organization and try to find what the physical landing point of that is. I get the most mileage, personally out of thinking of that as an architect. Some architects don’t think what I do is very architectural because I use Twitter, or I use interaction design or I use visualization techniques, but to me the methodology is very architectural. That’s what I go with.


Shane: Fantastic. Neither of you have really used any kind of language like numbers or facts and stuff. You talk about narrative and art and creating spaces. That’s really interesting to me, because a lot of our society’s folks ran numbers and facts and new projections. This is a very much a new way of conceiving science within society. Do you think about it that way?


Sara: I would say, I think at least for me, what I offer are methods of approaching problems and that’s what I’m developing personally. When I go into a new project, all of the facts matter a lot, but the topic or the subject matter, say whether it’s a flooding problem or it’s a drought problem or it’s a spatial problem, the facts are incredibly important, but the methodology is what moves between projects. That’s maybe why it’s more of a narrative and how it’s described. When we came in to Dunedin we really dug in to a lot of the details of the history of Dunedin, the economy of it. We learned as many facts as we could as we went. Really the community workshops provided a lot of that knowledge for us and that’s incredibly important to us. We don’t want to come in and just make assumptions and start working and think we’re participating in the community. When we go to the next, the next thing could be very different and it would be another fact finding starting point.


Sam: When we start talking about that Anthropocene or the climate change, we’re starting to talk about complex systems. There are heavy science concepts in there. Things like, well there’s lots of data, but there’s also the science concepts of a certainty and so on. At the other end there’s people concerned about their houses and where they’re going to live and so on. How do you bridge between those two.


Sara: I think often when we deal with complex systems, we end up addressing both in the community and in interventions, addressing the effects of the systems and the systems themselves aren’t changed by the intervention. It’s incredibly important that people can feed their families and feel secure and not worry about the impact of weather and large scale environmental issues on their daily life. It’s also important that as we address that, we’re addressing it as upstream in the system as possible so that they can make better decisions.


As an example, it’s important to raise houses in flood plains and we see that in New Orleans that happened, but it’s also important to change the policies around lead use. We don’t want to just keep raising houses another couple feet every year. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s kind of how I go about it. What are points of agency within these systems that create more ability to have resilient responsive communities?


Beth: Here in New Zealand, we’ve gotten to meet with City Council members and look at some of the projections of climate change in Dunedin. There’s some amazing maps that show the different, actually kind of retraces where the marshland used to be, and where a lot of the infill is now. Looking at the future sea level rise, it’s projected that the sea level will go back to where the coast originally was. There’s a lot of interesting history that we’ve been digging up with different academics and researchers and community members that have worked with us. We’ve worked with a public school teacher. We’ve worked with a professor from the Polytechnic.


We have a project that we’re going to be launching tomorrow that’s actually using a topography mat of the Otago Peninsula that will project different layers of maps. Thinking about past, present, and future. That’s going to be revealed so we invite people to come see it. That’s been a way to think about … It’s a table and it has bumps on it so you can see the hills and the lower valley areas. When we conceptually try to think about sea level rising, it’s kind of hard to do without something that’s 3D or dimensional. That’s what we’re hoping with that project and it’s something similar, we’ve seen at a museum in the San Francisco Bay area and it’s very popular. Seeing people really consider how water moves through an area with so many coasts, I think is really important.


Sam: I think a big part of the problem is that it’s not actually that technically complicated, but it’s still a messy, wicked problem. If we take the sea level, and the houses in South Dunedin, It’s reasonably easy to understand what’s going on in terms of the water levels, the water table and so on, but solving it-


Sara: Yeah, absolutely.


Sam: -is enormously complicated.


Sara: Absolutely and it shouldn’t be simplified just because as you say, the part about the water seems simple, right? Because it’s not a simple problem when you factor in people’s properties, and safety and community and all those factors. The fact that we have historically as people, built by water means that the problem that South Dunedin is facing is the same problem that a huge number of cities in the world are facing. We’re facing it faster and we’re urbanizing faster, which is creating more dramatic run off because of all the impervious surfaces are increasing in water shed. We’re getting it from both sides. There’s both the water table rising and there’s run off and water sheds changing their behaviours. This is happening at a local scale here, and it’s happening at a local scale in many cities. One of the challenges I think we have right now as a global population, and as designers, is how to connect those in a productive way to be able to not isolate people who are feeling the effects of climate change faster because we’re all going to be feeling them eventually. How we kind of deal with these, the more immediate impacts is going to really manifest down the line.


Sam: I think for the longest time, Dunedin’s had the niggling feeling that actually a couple of degrees warmer wouldn’t do us any harm and not really thinking through the actual implications. People have been talking about for a long time that it’s not just about being a little bit warmer, it’s actually speeding up of the system and the increased floods and increased droughts and all those sorts of things and the complexities of that on where people live. There is this kind of twofold danger that people think that there’s a technological solution just out there, so we can carry on having a party, what Susan Krumdieck calls the green myth, that everyone having a party, there’s a miracle going on somewhere.


Beth: I have a comment for you on that. I think that’s exactly right. Hearing two degrees warmer doesn’t sound very big but hearing that we don’t have snow pack in California or here on the western side of the south island and thinking about without snow what does that mean? That means our rivers are not filling up. That means our dams are not producing the amount of electricity they once produced. If pastures are getting larger and larger, that means the heavy rains are going to have more nutrient rich soil run off in to the rivers. We’ve heard that kind of historically, or more recently that water quality in the south Dunedin rivers, it has to be safe enough to stand in with your gum boots. If you can stand in the river with rubber boots, it’s clean enough, but thinking about what if we could have our kids swim in that river again, or what if we can have healthy fish in that river again or what if the eels could come back and have a way to swim up river. It seems like a lot of conversations we’ve had are people wanting to raise the bar on water standards.


I got to go out last week with the Healthy Harbour Watchers, an amazing team of scientists and public school teachers and high school students that go to about 7 different points around the Otago Peninsula a few times a month and collect water samples, bring it back to the lab at the University of Otago and test for nitrates, phosphates, water salinity. They take a note of the colour of the water and I got to help take notes with them and I had such a blast. Seeing the spirit of citizen science is really amazing in Dunedin. Being part of the science festival really taught us how many great projects are happening. It’s been inspiring.


Sara: One of the projects we’ve been doing here is talking to scientists about exactly these kind of tangible glimpses at large shifts and it’s been fascinating because this is such an incredibly unique ecosystem and kind of meeting point of many environments and the impact of the ocean and the small shifts in current. I’ve learned enough to be dangerous as they say about this while I’ve been in Dunedin. A small change in temperature can change the ocean currents dramatically which will change the make up of the ocean life.


One of the issues that I’ve heard that I thought was very telling as far as this two degrees is just a little warmer kind of question is that there’s a sea urchin in Tasmania that will drift, the larva will drift on the current down to the north shore of the north island and that’s happened periodically but the temperature of the water has meant that they haven’t survived. Now with the increase in the temperature of the ocean water and the current is getting stronger, but also the water is warming up just a little bit on the north shore of the north island which means that now these sea urchin are growing up there and not dying in their larval stage. Which means that now the ecosystem of the ocean shelf on that shore is changing dramatically. The kelp is disappearing because the sea urchin are eating it. Then you can see that as it chain.


Now that they’ve taken hold on that shore, when the water gets a little warmer farther down and some larva drift down, they will survive and these kinds of impacts that are very minute changed thresholds that are very controlled and important and very minor. On top of that, and this is one of the things that’s been fascinating in talking to scientists here that work on these incredibly long timelines, is talking to them about climate change, because of course they’re like, “Well which one do you want to talk about? We’ve had them through all of history.” Thinking about human impact not as a … Thinking about human impact as an added stress to already stressed environments that animals are constantly struggling and that’s fine. That’s always been the case, but we’re making them struggle so much harder to continue. These little shifts in temperature and the little shifts in fishing and fishing for example, the lobsters on the north island meant that nothing was eating the young sea urchins when they were coming. That increased their foothold there. These kind of cascading issues can start with really minor climate differences.


Sam: One of the issues that we have is that people would rather not talk about it. Hands over our eyes, fingers in our ears. Let’s pretend it’s not happening and being quite critical of people that do. You’re very much taking the approach of engaging the community is a thing we need to be doing. I’m wondering what you’re hoping to achieve from that?


Beth: When you start preparing a community …. Actually the numbers, you guys asked about numbers. If a community is prepared for climate change, it is significantly more affordable than responding to disaster. If South Dunedin and the community at large come up with solutions now, it’ll be a much cheaper price tag than dealing with a polluted water table and homes that are not livable and all of the challenges that come with not planning. That’s the world all over. The Bay area we’ve seen numbers if we start planning in the San Francisco Bay area for climate change now, it will be much more affordable even though the price tags are big. What the climate deniers, where they kind of are comical, is they deny climate change but if you tell them, “Oh. We came up with a solution for climate change,” they say, “Great. Let’s get it.” They want a solution but at the same time they don’t want to acknowledge the problem.


That’s the language as designers that we’ve learned to use of coming up with creative ways to talk about challenges. We’ve heard from climate activists here in Dunedin that instead of calling it climate change, there’s sea inundation, backyards with saltwater at high tide. There’s ways to be less threatening but still come up with solutions for communities and families that are going to need drier homes so that their kids are healthy. Asthma rates, if your basement is damp, go up. We heard about someone digging a fence in his back yard and he had to wait until it was low tide, because the holes were filled with water at high tide.


Sea level inundation is something you can’t ignore when you’re living in it. We want to actually learn some of these tactical skills that Dunedinites are going to have to put into practice sooner than later, and share them with our home communities.


Sam: Do you think that we can get there through incremental approaches or is it going to take a revolution?


Sara: I don’t think we’ve been here long enough to say locally.


Sam: Just in California then.


Sara: …California. I think it has to be both. Some of the tipping points that we’re seeing are coming from kind of the most standard places you could think of. When insurance pulls out of a community, and the government and the community are now on the hook for the liability of home ownership, which is one of the major safety nets of families all over the world. When insurance pulls out and this happened in New Orleans, things get a lot more of an emergency a lot quicker. There was just news last week in San Francisco, the millennium tower, one of these new big development projects in San Francisco is  sinking already and it’s sinking because, well for many reasons. Okay. Now that’s a different focus. It’s important that these are not the rich and the insured that can manage to push us forward, but when we’re seeing it from both sides, where the world bank is trying to do infrastructure problems to hold off flooding, because they have an investment that needs to be secured. Meanwhile, poor communities are really suffering from that insecurity the most. The question is, how do we get everybody moving towards the same solutions rather than pit it against each other.


Sam: What’s your go-to definition of sustainability?


Beth: Sustainability is really about thinking about future generations. If we’re not designing our economies and systems, infrastructure systems to just be for our generation, the next 30 years. If we’re really thinking the next 7 generations, that is sustainability. The carrying capacity of one generation using up natural resources that are not going to be sustained for future generations, is unsustainable. There’s a lot of great over the sustainability movement the last 30 years. I’m teaching a course next semester on the history of sustainable design. I’m excited to bring out some old precedents even. European town and country inspirations that were done in England of bringing farmers markets, or bringing urban gardens into a city so you can grow your own food. There’s a lot of old precedents that can be brought in. Thinking about electricity and power, I was really inspired by indigenous architecture that faces in the US, the south would be the north here. The home is actually facing the direction of the sun and that the home is a solar collector, versus just having solar panels on their roof. Really thinking about designing in a way that’s going to use electricity, be comfortable and be healthy. Not be in a threat of a flood is really important.


Sam: Talking about engaging people in future generations or thinking about future generations. We’re not very good at it.


Sara: It’s true. I think people in general, we’re not really wired to think long, big scale or long distances. It’s a challenge. It’s probably a challenge we’ve always had, but I think the challenge of scale right now is the one that kind of obsesses me. We’re not great at thinking beyond neighbourhood and city. A lot of the challenges that we’re facing in neighbourhoods and cities are coming at us from really large scales. To me, that’s a design challenge. Time and scale right now, are a design challenge.


Sam: One of my favourite definitions of sustainability is ethics extended in space and time. What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?


Beth: I’m about to install my dream project. In Texas I’ve worked with these gas pumps with solar panels, I’ve told you about. We’ve just gone through a year process of getting permits for a new solar charging station for the city of Austin that will be in this beautiful park in downtown Austin that was formerly a power station. It’s called the Sea Home Power Plant that was built in the 50s and decommissioned in the 90s and now the city is taking it over to be their ecodistrict. It has numerous features of sustainable design. Working with the city of Austin’s utility, Austin Energy, to do electric vehicle charging is where all of my more whimsical prototypes have wanted to go. I’m about to install my dream project that will be Austin Energy’s Electric Drive Solar Charging Station and it will have space for electric scooters and bikes to charge, as well as outdoor seating and plants and a beautiful solar canopy.


Keep an eye on Solar Design Lab’s website to see that project soon. That’s kind of an interesting moment for me, where as a public artist doing realistic infrastructure. The city finally took notice. It took 7 years, but persistence is really the secret to community changing. Buckminster Fuller has a great quote of, “Don’t spend time pointing out things that are not useful. Really build the things that you want to see for the future.” I think that’s important for all of us of thinking about climate change and sustainability in Dunedin, let’s build that vision as opposed to blaming and pointing fingers, let’s start building a way to make these hard transitions possible.


Sam: We’re writing a book about these conversations. We’re calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes. We’re writing a book. Aren’t we Shane?


Shane: We are indeed. Slowly.


Sam: What we’re looking at is trying to describe people’s superpower. What’s their sustainable superpower? It’s really, what are you bringing to the sustainable team? How would you like your superpower to be described?


Sara: I think what I end up bringing to teams, I think, is finding that way to engage the platform to engage. The moment of agency in a system.


Sam: That’s cool.


Beth: Yeah, that’s a great question. For me, I think, thinking about design, not just design for the dump, but design for positive innovation. With doing solar energy projects, it’s been a really fun superpower. Someone said it’s like open source solar energy giving free solar power to the public to really experience it for the first time. It’s great to have solar panels up on rooftops, but to bring it down to the public level for them to touch and experience it. We’ve done musical festivals where we’ve charged 4,000 cellphones over 4 days. Getting to be that close to that many people wanting to try solar energy out has been really thrilling and that’s kind of helped feed this kind of work and my commitment to teaching and design is going to keep that going at the University of California Davis with continuing that research.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist.


Beth: Definitely. You asked me about my childhood, and I didn’t mention I guess in my early 20s I was part of a bike circus. It was a bicycle circus that we did month long bike trips around issues of biotechnology and environmental pollution and anti-globalization and a lot of issues that we were worried about 10, 15 years ago, we’re actually seeing play out in really terrifying ways. We’ve lost so many jobs in the US for building things. We’ve lost a lot and the cycle right now is everything being made in China and then shipped to the US, is not a sustainable path. I’m really interested in being part of some design research as well as shifting design education to come up with some ways to do local manufacturing.


Sam: Same thing?


Sara: I think I’m definitely an activist. It’s important to me that work is political. If a design, if it’s not a political project, than … I guess another way to say that is I usually make projects a political project. I think all designs should be political.


Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Sara: That’s a tough one. I guess there’s just a lot to do. Ways of being in collaborations, different types of groups to collaborate with, I’ll say and I’ll piggy back this on my recent success of the last three years. I’ve been working for the last couple years with a really multidisciplinary group in Jakarta, Indonesia. There’s computer scientists and geographers and engineers and urban theorists. I’m the designer on the project. It’s using social media data to get real time flood maps of the city that’s a community resource and then also a resource for the Emergency Management Agency. Ways of leveraging both community tools, open source tools, big data and real on the ground problems that’s the sweet spot, I think, for where to design. That’s been a fantastic project to be a part of and it’s been a very successful project that’s now picked up by the city of Jakarta as an official resource for community reporting. That type of … Which, you know, it’s not like those projects come along everyday, but being able to be part of projects like that where factors are being thought of through engineering and community and I can add the design eye of how to engage the public through what methods on their terms, that’s the perfect spot.


Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?


Beth: For me, kind of transitioning, the more you do work in public space the bigger the projects or the more exciting the collaboration gets. Climate Kit, has been a really fun way for Sara and I to prototype and learn from another country some of the challenges, sort of bring some of these skills and prototype ideas home is going to be really inspiring to share what we’ve learned her and really think about new infrastructure design and innovation that could come up with some bigger challenges for climate change. I just joined the University of California Davis Department of Design, with a few new faculty and we’re starting an industrial design programme for the design department. I want a lot of the curriculum to really be about solutions for climate change. That’s a big tag, but what that means is design innovation to come up with how can we have our city work on drought issues, work on aging infrastructure that needs to change, bringing more public transportation to our cities, bringing more sustainable building options. Living in smaller spaces. There’s a lot of great projects happening but how to have that be a pedagogy, a real curriculum and how to grow a program like that. I’m excited about. As well as continuing my own practice with Infrastructure for small electric vehicles.


Sam: Two more questions, we’ll have to be very quick. If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would it be?


Sara: I think I’ve eliminated all of those options from my brain. I don’t know if I can put it back in.


Sam: What’s the smallest thing that we could do that would have the biggest impact?


Sara: Really engage the issue and believe that that would work. I think the thing is that, as you said, turning away from it is easier but also it’s a challenge. It’s so out scaled from an individual that getting that feeling any agency within these problems, I think is a real difficulty right now. I think that’s what it would be. Just kind of feeling like we could charge ahead in it.


Beth: We absolutely have all the solutions to these challenges and then we have precedence in the world of the amount of people that were organized for dealing world wars is possible and necessary for coming up with solutions for climate change.


Sam: Lastly, quickly. Do you have any advice for our listeners?


Beth: Enjoy the beautiful parts of Dunedin and come to our exhibition. It’s going to be at 4 o’clock at the Otago Museum. Work with each other to come up with some solutions to the challenges in this beautiful place.


Shane: Brilliant. Thank you so much for coming in.




computing design values

Values: Working on problems that really matter

Batya Friedman

Multi-lifespan information systems, starts with premise that there are certain categories of problems that we’re unlikely to solve in a single human lifespan.

Dr Batya Friedman is a Professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. She tells us how her early interests in science, arts, education and politics all came together in value sensitive design. Batya’s recent work in multi-lifespan information systems has lessons for sustainability – in particular, the implications for intergenerational equity.

Talking points

Interested in how people organise society, and the choices they make, what sort of society we want to build and what tools we want to build – those themes have stuck with me.

Science museum…exploring residues that we create when we do any kind of work. What is the work we are doing, and when does that justify the kinds of waste we are producing?

I was teaching in a situation where we had 8 computers for 15 kids, traditionally the teacher would allocate them, but I turned it around to the students a and said how are we going to share these? And they came up with policies, and we would vote on those, and them implement them, and then reflect… the policies started to change as the kids saw what the implications and consequences where for this small community, and so they took those things into account as they allocated the resources they were using. It put in their hands this issue of resource allocation., and they were able to have their own conversations about what’s fair, what’s just, how do we create a caring society in our classroom around these kinds of resources. There wasn’t any whining about access to technology, there was mature conversation. The students learned to express what their needs were, what their desires were, and to listen to what other kids’ needs and desires were

(Thesis) Kids understand canonical things – stealing a bike, a car – the nature of the harm is clear, but when you move to the digital realm, it isn’t so clear to them what are the natures of the harm.

When we have new technologies and the conventions around them are not well understood, the adolescents I worked with fell back on moral reasoning – trying to identify harms, and then trying to identify the harms, and then coming up with a way of acting in the world that was respectful of the harms that they understood.

Human beings are tool users, and our tools become a part of what we do and how we go about being in the world. So there’s no strong delineation between a tool-use act, and a non-tool use act

We act in the world and we act with our tools

And as we act in the world, we ask ourselves these questions…am I hurting somebody by engaging in this action, is this fair…what’s the nature of justice, am I building community, am I being a good friend to somebody, am I being generous? These questions these qualities are part of how we want to be in the world, and technologies are an integral part of that.

The issue isn’t whether there is technology of a tool there, the interesting moment is when we introduce a new technology that gives us a very different way of acting or being in the world and we are unfamiliar with the ways in which it will intersect with all the other things we are doing.

By being conscious and intentional about some of the value implications that we are more likely to have effects that are positive or at least to avoid some of the more egregious negative impacts.

Designers of technology don’t control all the aspects of how these technologies will be appropriated and used by society, but they do control some of the important pieces. And if we don’t attend to those then I think there may be inadvertent consequences where had we been attentive, we could have been proactive on something positive.

Does the technology embody values? – yes, the architecture of the technology makes somethings easier and other things harder if not impossible.

Historically the greatest protection on privacy was just the amount of effort it would take. Rules and practices evolved from a time when you had to physically go down to the courthouse and look at records if you thought something was amiss, but it was accessible to you, you could examine them if you thought there was good need. Now you can do that search from your house, with very little effort. That balance between privacy and transparency, that delicate balance in place for a certain kind of technology, that has been changed. So the question for society is what balance do we want between privacy and transparency, then to put in place the technical infrastructure so we can experience that balance that we think is beneficial for society.

We hold a multiplicity of values, and they all sit in delicate balance with each other, just like the strands of a spider-web. If you pick up one value, put pressure on one part of the web, all the other values move with it. Two things can be in tension and together that tension holds them up. These tensions and how they sit in relation to one another is the nature of human life. So the question is how do we hold onto them. Take something like calmness, or the desire to be left alone, and also the desire to be part of community, also to be able to be responsive if someone has a need or emergency. We value all of those things simultaneously – holding onto that is the design challenge.

We can question the presumption about building more and more widgets. How many microprocessors do people have? We can ask is that sustainable? In therms of the resources, power? We’re building things now with the presumption of 24/7 access to power and network, and people are increasingly putting data and activities that are critical to their lives into infrastructure that needs to be on and functioning 24/7. We created this idea of 24/7 ubiquity, we can question that.

Multi-lifespan work, starts with premise that there are certain categories of problems that we’re unlikely to solve in a single human lifespan.

Multi-lifespan because of the nature of the problem: 1. limitations of the human pscyhe…lasting peace…first generation agree to keeping children alive, second generation grow up in environment where they don’t feel threatened, maybe third generation can really build a peace. 2. tears in social fabric (Rwanda) 3. Environmental timescales

We need to recognise that these problems and solutions are going to unfold over longer periods of time.

How do we engage in this longer term design thinking? We can help people understand where their lifespan fits, how that relates in to environmental time-frames, so you can begin to see how decisions in your lifespan can begin to affect and mesh with what might be going on on an environmental timeline. We can think about doing supporting people doing co-design 20-40 years in the future. What might be the systemic conditions in 40 years? then we can bring people back to “well what if we made some different design choices now?”

We’re at the start of the development of systems of international justice – just like where democracy was 200 years ago.

While can be discouraged about how our societies are evolving, we can point to areas of real progress, and that’s really important to hold onto

Take skeptism seriously, then go build something

Starting to do the work, slowly doing the work as best one can, trying to having eyes open to complexity, then over time one has a proof of concept about how you could make progress.

Working on problems that really matter is important

You could spend your life working on things that you know you can solve, but if you and others don’t really care about those problems, then maybe there’s a better way to spend your time.

If you work on something you care about, even if it is really hard, and you fail, or you don’t make progress, at least you know you are working on something that really matters.

For me if failure isn’t a actual possibility, then it doesn’t meet the criteria of a problem for me to work on.

There are things that really matter to us where we know we can do better.

(Learning from stone carving) Continually working the whole, without ever being able to see the whole. I’m comfortable going into a project not knowing where it is going to end or what it will look like at the end. You can use principles and be adaptive in the goals, and as you move into the project you can understand better what the next move will be. If I try and prescribe things, the solution ends up being brittle.

(Superpower) Systemic thinking and approach, it is organic and in some ways spatial or visual, and context, situation, to technically what is there, and then wait until I know how to act. Time is crucial. The same with research, we can be designing a system, and we don’t know yet what the next right thing to do is.

(Success) 25 years ago even saying you were working in values and technology was considered out there, now there are many people doing this.

(Activist) Not in a traditional way, but I am beginning to think of myself as a public intellectual, playing that role.

I would like to participate more in a public conversation about what kind of science and technology we should be engaging in. I would like us to be more thoughtful about which technology we should build out – that is a choice. What sort of society do we want to live in, what technologies do we want to support that?

Yes, I do work on margins, and those margins are always moving. What are the hard questions, but also what are the socially ethically important questions with respect to our tool use and infrastructure building?

(Motivation) Curiosity about each day

(Challenge) Crossroads…art, some big ideas, but also pushing at those margins, multi-lifespan work. And contributing to public discussion… different forms of expression…theatre, animation, artefacts…stories.

(Miracle) Peace

(Smallest thing biggest impact) Sleep: I mean that, seriously, a lot of aggressions and micro-aggressions…when people are exhausted they get cranky, if everyone on the planet could get a really good night sleep on the same night and reset

Advice: Slow down. Get a good nights sleep and wake up in the morning without an agenda, just opening your eyes and looking at the world and what it is offering and take that opportunity. Our society is so goal directed, we don’t see what is in front of us.

This conversation was recorded at CHI2016.

children computing design

Children as design partners in technology and sustainability

Allison Druin

We’ve got to start with the large to be able to connect the dots of excellence.

Professor Allison Druin is a Professor in the iSchool and Chief Futurist for the Division of Research at University of Maryland. She has been a leader in the the use of children as design partners, which has been widely applied, including to digital libraries for children (eg ICDL). She is currently seconded to the National Park Service, where she is Special Advisor for National Digital Strategy.

Talking points

With an inventor scientist father and an artist mother I’m a mix between the two of them

My undergraduate degree is in graphic design…A wonderful thing, I always say to people, if you want a real degree: problem solving, creativity, exploration – go get yourself a degree in design, it’s incredible.

I realised that I think like a designer -sometimes visually, sometimes problem solving – but really it’s about what are the parameters in front of me, how can I think out of the box to make something better than it is today.

Then at MIT, in my head I was translating from design-speak to technology-speak.

Not just how technology affects children but how children affect the design of technology

I was a big proponent – back when this was a bit of the lunatic fringe – of really hearing the voices of users as designers, as participants, full participants in the design process.

Rarely do you get a chance to ask kids who don’t have a lot of experience with technology, how do you tell stories? Why do you tell stories? What matters to you with stories? and then to work with them to figure out what that means in terms of new technologies.

It’s a people-led process – its understanding the needs of people, the desires of people, it’s also understanding how processes work, and how they are broken. And where you can bring solutions in that make change

We’re an information-centric world – the scale and speed that information moves, and we need better solutions, we can’t just keep doing the same things faster.

When we do amazing research for a particular population, it spreads like wildfire to what the rest of the world needs

The sooner you can get kids into the design process, the better the outcome will be, and the shorter the process will be in terms of back-end testing.

The notion of cultural tolerance was always underneath the surface of everything we do.

It was never about how do we make kids better readers, it was always how do we help people think about each other, oh and by the way, make them a better reader at the same time.

National Parks Service…a long time partner…maybe it is time for me to come in and think about a national strategy

How do we make it so that kids have a lifelong experience with parks? The pre- and post- experiences can be enhanced with new technologies

Today’s kids will look harder at the mountains if they’ve got a cellphone in their hands.

They’re thinking deeply about what is it that I am doing so that then I can report back to my friends.

Kids have a hard time not being able to be reporters themselves, not being able to share that experience.

If we do let our technology separate us from our physical world too much, that is a bad thing, but with embedded, mobile, ubiquitous technologies we can have physical/digital switching seriously, without a context collapse.

So what sort of language do we use with the Park Service about digital?

What does it mean to have 24/7 to the front door of the parks? Traditionally we built larger and larger visitor centres with beautiful exhibits, but what happens if the mobile app is the front door?

What would it mean if kids could digitally tag a landscape – to tell other kids this is a really cool place to go?

The messages, themes, are really important – the parks are about stewardship, about learning. The parks are not necessarily glorified vacation spots.

The parks are our best idea in education – they’re about teaching the American public that we need to be stewards of our own environment, or else there’s not going to be an environment.

Traditionally we’ve not been able to implicitly share these themes – some administrations haven’t wanted us to focus on climate change or the science behind things. Thankfully in more recent times we have been able to say the science matters, climate change matters, how do we look to ensure we are preserving

This goes for digital too – how do we look to digital to preserve what we know and what we care about?

The first innovation of the Park Service was the campfire (talks), before that they were really just to protect the land from poachers. In the campfire discussions we started talking about the stories behind the wilderness, the culture and the heritage that we have.

(Success) People taking up the methods: children in the design process.

People don’t question why we need to have children at the design table anymore, they just question why we haven’t done it sooner.

(Activist) I think all good academics, researchers, thinkers, are activists. Because we have to share ideas, we have to share what we are thinking. And we have to convince people that what we are doing matters, is unique and truly is a contribution.

(Motivation) Being able to help make change in this world.

CHI Conference (of which Allison is 2016 co-chair) theme is CHI for Good.

Making a little bit of change is going to make the world a little bit better in the long run. It’s not about making money, it’s not about better law, it’s about making people’s lives better.

We’re in a field HCI Human Computer Interaction, that starts with humans,

I’ve never seen such a uniformly positive response to a conference theme in 30 years of coming to this conference.

(how will it stick, not just be the year CHI was good) People really care deeply about change, and keeping that activist-change idea in the CHI community.

We’ve found that the impactful research is where you create innovative technologies that have broad impact.

(Challenges) HCI at scale.

It’s not about one type of user, one type of interaction. How do we work for multitudes of users, in multitudes of contexts, with multitudes of data.

(Miracle) I use this question. My most favourite answer was from a kid who I asked if you could wave a magic wand in your library, what would it be? And he didn’t know what a magic wand was – he had learnt to read reading his Mom’s magazines in the beauty shop. Once I had explained – if you could just change something, what would it be? He said, “I’d put grass on the floor of the library”. I said “what?” and he said “I’ve always been afraid to sit in the grass and read a book where I live, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do”. So if I could wave a magic wand, I’d give grass everywhere so kids could feel safe, to learn, to be quiet, to explore, to do whatever they wanted, to sit and read a book.

That’s the challenge – HCI, technology at scale. When I got to the Park Service one of my colleagues said maybe you should start with one small thing and grow it. But I said that’s the problem, we’ve been doing that for too many years, we’ve got to see the larger picture. We’ve got to start with the large to be able to connect the dots of excellence.

We do so many wonderful things in this world, but they don’t seem to be connected to the next wonderful thing. In those connections, that glue, that’s where change can happen.

Working with children as design partners – it’s the surprises that make it worth doing everyday.
Could I have imagined that a kid would ask for grass on the floor the public library?
What does that mean? Can technology help? I made a digital library that makes it as fun to do the reading as the searching.

(Advice) Be a futurist. If all of us collectively could not just try and predict the future, but really try and prepare for it. And in preparing for the future we do what matters today – and the rest is commentary.

My children insist I put up this one too:

Allison Druin 2


This conversation was recorded at CHI2016.

business design values

Value driven bikes

Wishbone - Richard Latham and Jennifer McIvor

Richard Latham and Jennifer McIvor are the passion behind Wishbone Design Studio. And that passion has created a successful international business firmly embedded in sustainability and quality.

Because we declared our values early on – sustainability and quality – we were attracting customers of that same ilk, the pressure on us was not to drop standards, but to raise them.

Talking points

Wishbone is a family business, we’re located in Newtown in Wellington, and we design and manufacture for a global market high quality childrens products – ride-on toys, most of our products have wheels – and we’re making them with sustainability as a background principle.

(Rich) I wanted to make stuff…industrial design

I don’t want to make rubbish, so from that perspective if you’re making quality product you’ve inherently got a sustainable ethic to it.

There are a lot of cheap Chinese toys in the world, and we didn’t want to make cheap Chinese toys. We manufacture in Asia but we focus on quality, we focus on guaranteeing that the bits and pieces that we put in the box are worthy.

(Jen) I studied law, I wanted to find way I could practice law that would pursue a passion. And I discovered environmental law and international law…(eventually) I became a diplomat.

Sustainability has been a key principle for me, I wouldn’t describe myself as a greenie. I’m interested in policy around environmental issues.

Starting a business was an exciting opportunity to pursue sustainability through the private sector.

(Jen) I’ve always had a love of natural world, I love the outdoors, I derive a lot of energy from it, and I thought if I’m going to be a lawyer, I thought how am I going to connect those dots? (and The Lorax, adds Rich)

I was making stuff for my children in our New York bathroom.

My supply chain (during the initial design) was Home Depot – what I could work with. When we came to production we could address those things – we looked at the glues, the materials themselves so we could be sure they weren’t going to corrode or rust,

Wishbone Design Studios started with three principles – simple, smart, and sustainable. The first two referred to the functionality of the product and how it transformed, and the sustainability was the manufacturing ethos.

There is no plastic in our packaging, it’s all recycled board. Even the packaging itself, we realised that we had to have a box to put the product in, but what happens when it gets home? So we printed an image on the inside of the box so it becomes a play space and a cut-out mobile.

These sustainability things are adding value.

(Is it harder not to make rubbish?) In a competitive marketplace your product is more expensive. People make cheap rubbish because they are trying to hit a price point, we have never really been driven to look at that. It is a factor in business, obviously there’s no point making world’s best widget if no one is going to buy it – so we’ve tried to navigate the fine line between being commercially viable and making the best product we can.

We launched just as the 2008 crisis hit. So we were very aware that the world was encountering a major financial crisis, and money was suddenly not what it was, and consumption patterns were not what they were. At that very moment we were working on our brand, what are our core values we want to instil into everything we do? Our product design but also our employment strategy, our partners choices – fundamentally Richard and I are not major consumers of material goods…

At the time the world was suffering this financial crisis, it would be a fair assumption we thought that there’s a good market of consumers tat would revert to traditional values rather than speedy consumption of goods from discount sources. They would go looking for the one item that might indeed cost a little more but would last longer.

We thought that there was this old school value that would enjoy a renaissance, and it was coincidence that these are the values that we live by, and so that was the brand, and we might have an opportunity to start a new brand right in the thick of a global financial crisis.

The product could suit a child as young as one, and we intended for them to still be riding it when they were five. So that put the pressure on to make sure it would last four years – in the life of a children’s toy that’s quite a long time. And we would hope that they would pass it on to a younger sibling.

The back page of the instruction manual, we printed a car-ownership style registration page

Another principle is 100% repairable product. We wanted to make products that would never end up in the landfill.

That our bikes hold their value for second-hand resale is a matter of intense pride.

It’s a conscious strategy to promote the second-hand market.

It’s counter-intuitive to business where the more stuff you make the more stuff you sell, we say, no, we’ve got this product that we like to see being resold amongst a community of user, we can service it and keep it usable. An endearing quality we’re building, the value set of our brand.

We’d love our bikes to be second generation products…passed on to their own children…that for us is an inspiration, that we can produce something so well that it will be there not only for a family and its siblings, but potentially for a second generation of those children.

We use the phrase that we’re designing a new generation of classic children’s toys. Modern design together with old school value.

The limited edition bikes…started out as cosmetic seconds bikes, we took the frames out of the skip, added artwork to them and increased the value. That is part of our DNA, seeing an opportunity, taking something that was rubbish and making good out of it.

Because we declared our values early on – sustainability and quality – we were attracting customers of that same ilk, the pressure on us was not to drop standards, but to raise them.

The last thing you want is to be culprit of green-washing. So we adopted policy early on of stating what we do do. We describe the steps we have taken in areas of sustainability, corporate social responsibility – this is what we do do, and here’s the truth about everything else, and here are our aspirations for the next 12 months.

This bike is made from carpet.

Communicating the values of the business through product.

A matrix of new ideas coming together. Theoretically the world’s a better place because produced this product that sets a benchmark – it can be done, you can take recycled residential carpet and produce a children’s bike.

So now we’re asking how far can this go? How can we take the product learnings…this is just the beginning of the path..

We have to deliver a product that delivers functionally something better than everything else, the fact that it’s made from recycled carpet is a secondary point. It’s just inherently in the product.

Sell more stuff not our business model. We made a decision one year, our business plan was to be sure that the following financial year we didn’t sell an additional unit. The hardest thing we do is manufacture well. We will make and sell to those who want it, and we will do a good job of that. Our goal is not to just sell more.

We are a model of a family owned creative business.

(Success) Global consumers are looking to get the products that they need from brands that represent who they want to be…people want a cleaner

(Activists?) Futherist thing from activist…trailblazer. Fine line. Never going to beat chest and try and preach, but I would like to think we care doing things in a interesting and creative way – which other people can get some inspiration from.

(Motivation?) Five core values, the first: get close. It’s about the human element.

We both get out of bed in the morning, not to sell bikes, but to have the joy of the interaction with people

There’s a hook to it, now other people are dependent on us to sell bikes. There is a responsibility there that we’re coming to terms with.

We’ve never driven to make 1000s and 1000s more of what we already make, we’ve never been driven to have major staff numbers

(Challenges?) Growth, learning discovery…maturing…knowledge base…scope…technology strategy.

Maintaining values as we scale…trying to find people who understand our value sets…culture within our business internationally.

(Miracle?) Not having to work so late at night.

(Advice?) Have stamina…so many times we’re looked each other and asked are we idiots? Confidence – there is a bigger picture here, and we’re on a path to achieving it. Knowing we’re doing the right thing.

(How will you know when you’re there?) (Jen) We’ll never get there. (Rich) When I sold the first bike, I thought was there…

computing design energy

Participating co-developers

Maria Angela Ferarrio

The task becomes to bring values into technology you develop.

Dr Maria Angela Ferrario is a Senior Research Associate at Lancaster Management School working on Catalyst, an EPRSC funded community-led research project aimed at developing next generation digital technologies for social innovation. Her research interests lie in innovation studies, interdisciplinary research methods and the impact of digital innovation on society. We talk about the On Supply initiative on the Isle of Tiree and using participatory development to overcome tensions between innovation and sustainability.

Talking points

There is a thread – understanding of human relationships and human dynamics, how we interact and how this is communicated.

Digital innovation for social innovation, and what sustainability means in that.
The sustainability of life on the planet as a frame has been a the forefront of my mind since I was a teenager.

I had a problem, innovation, especially digital innovation seems to be contrasting with sustainability. So I questioned that a lot.

(Italian philosopher) Innovation is going to happen, you decide whether it happens with or without values you believe in.

The task becomes to bring values into technology you develop.

Being open to change, and values of democracy and participation at the core of technology.

Respect for people we work with – the people we work with are equal partners in research.

How technology could first investigate and then facilitate the synchronisation of energy consumption to the time varying availability of renewable energy supply.

We used to have energy on demand, now that is not the case, what does that mean to our daily behaviour?

Energy as a community resource

Core characteristic is the time varying ability of energy supply

(Children exploring with energy treasure hunt) thinking about energy as positive force you can harness, but also something you need to respect.

A Real butterfly affect…you do not know the reach or the ripples of your actions…that a child found a previously thought extinct butterfly on a school trip exploring energy makes me hopeful there are many different entry points to complex societal problems – they can be tackled in many different ways.

The most important thing is a mind set that is open to change and also open to let things go, and also open to transcendence.

Our participants were most definitely co-developers.

Establishing an empathetic relationship with the element (wind) makes the value of the number deeper and more connected to action and change.

(from participant) “…we are in a privileged position to learn to synchronise our lives to natural rhythm.

If I can adapt my life to the production of natural renewable energy that won’t be to the detriment of the planet, I don’t see why I’m not going to use my time to do that.

The key motivation for people was to learn how to synchronise their consumption behaviour to the availability of clean energy for a time when renewable clean energy has a bigger share in the basket

We are aware that at the moment we have energy whenever we want, but we are also aware that we are having a detrimental impact on the environment

So it’s a good thing for me to prepare to change my patterns of consumption for a time when renewable energy is going to be more available and at the same time learn practices that are less aggressive on the prospect of sustainability of life for the planet of the future.

Even I, totally committed to the sustainability agenda, found myself going to the shop to buy a coffee (after experimenting with a self imposed rule of not brewing a coffee when the campus wind turbine wasn’t spinning).

This mentality of “I need it, I need it now”, is so ingrained in us. We need to accept that, or weakness, but it’s good to be aware of that. It’s good to play with technologies that unearth that.

We learned we live in an industrial age still. The 9-5 pattern, going to work regardless of the light…we started thinking, what if our life practices were more in tune with seasonal patterns.

I’m very conscious that energy is a metaphor for climate change, sustainability.

The way we approach sustainability should be grounded

(Motivation?) The life on the planet. I’m not religous but I quite treasure the fact that I had the opportunity to be alive on the planet, and like me, the billions of different people and creatures.

For me, sustainability is giving the opportunity to this life to be self sustaining.

(Activist?) Active but not activist

(Challenge?) Sustaining myself because when you start getting your head around the complexity of the word sustainability, you can see how you may try to work on a path of values that are quite contrasting from the mainstream, so it’s a bit of a compromise between the two.

(Miracle?) For me the miracle is that everybody at the same time will wake up with a magic wand – the most interesting experience of seeing how people decide to have the world look like.

(Advice?) Use less the word “wrong” and ask more the question “why?” whenever we hear words and sentences from people we do not agree with.

business design systems

Strategic sustainable products

Sophie Hallstedt

The trick is to make a business out of being more sustainable.

Dr Sophie Hallstedt is a researcher and lecturer at in the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development at
Blekinge Institute of Technology. Her research interest is sustainable product development and the question of how a strategic sustainability perspective can be integrated and implemented into product innovation process with focus on the early phases.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.

Talking points

Strategic sustainable development means you you take a strategic approach to the success ladder.

Supporting companies to consider sustainability as part of everything they do.

If you talk to individuals in an organisation, many are concerned about the unsustainable society that we live in, and they want to contribute…but as part of a bigger organisation it’s not always so easy to do that – to put that on the agenda when there are other issues that are putting pressure on the company.

You need to have a long term perspective. If you only look at today, you might have one choice, but if you look 10-15 years ahead, what would be the best alternative if you could then choose for today. It may be best to invest in the thing that is more expensive today but will in the long term be more beneficial.

We are developing support for including the long term in decision making. This is tricky because you don’t know what is going to happen. So we use scenarios.

We have a tool for visualising scenarios.

There’s a danger of reducing to economic terms if you do it too soon. You need to keep it as transparent as possible and also have a qualitative assessment. You need a dialogue around the results. This can be supported by the visualisation of the quantitative results.

It is harder for engineers to accept qualitative results…it helps to visualise it…but the qualitative story is needed.

(Can human rights, human suffering – less tangibles – be represented in a format that makes them equivalent to the numerical values in a decision support system?) You can’t. You can’t put a figure on some sustainability aspects.

But if you are going to support product developers, to support them in their decisions, their designs, then it may be important to help them go from the larger picture to something they can translate and compare.

To make a more sustainable product it is important to collaborate with your partners in its value chain.

Can a product be sustainable?) It depends on how you manage it for the whole lifecycle. It is very difficult to say something is sustainable. You might be able to say more, or less sustainable.

What is strategic sustainable development? What is a sustainable society?

(Role of ecology in engineering degree?) I would think it very useful, to see how everything is connected.

Everything is connected. Even a small change can have catastrophic consequences.

(Consumers). A big impact is to use with care so it lasts longer.

(Decision to buy, are we getting better at supporting through product design the decision not to buy) You have to take responsibility as a consumer, but yes, you will see more of that.

(Is there a sweetspot as a consumer?) A mix. There is a need for companies to make products that enable consumers to choose between alternatives.

To some extent we (as consumers) need to trust the producers that they have taken their responsibility seriously to make their product more sustainable, or as sustainable as it can be at the moment and have a road map.

(but we have to wade through a swamp of greenwash). yes, as consumer, your responsibility is to be aware of that. It’s quite hard, that’s why we have labeling schemes. These aren’t perfect, but they are better than nothing.

You should be aware of the labelling schemes, but you still have to take your own responsibility when you chose your product.

Issues such as ecological issues, production issues and so on are harder for the consumer to see, so these values have to be in the company – what is good for society is also good for us.

(On planned obsolescence) I hope and think there is another way to do products design, so they have a value for lasting a long time, maybe a modular system where you replace parts of the system.

3D printing may cause a new sustainability problem itself if overused.

(Activist?) I wouldn’t call myself an activist – I’m trying to inspire. I want to try to inspire and grow and have a seed to take a direct responsibility to continue to work.

(Challenges) Having companies taking a more active role in bringing in a sustainability perspective in business strategies. I working on describing more good examples so they can see it does have a value.

(Motivation) Trying to contribute, To inspire other people to work with it.

(Miracle) My wishlist would be to have more resources in companies to prioritise this area.

(Advice) Everyone can contribute in their field to a more sustainable society and you should do that – both as a person and in your profession


design sociology systems

Socially strategic sustainable

Merlina Missimer

Merlina Missimer is a researcher in the department of Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. She is exploring the social side of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.

Talking points

What does the world need from us to make sustainability happen?

We need to find a way out, and depression is not the most helpful thing we can teach

Rather than convincing people of what’s right, we create positive examples of what’s possible in a sustainable world.

Considering sustainability with a systems lens to make sure we don’t address one thing but create negative consequences somewhere else…this has been clearly done on an ecological basis, but for social we had gone straight to the individual…what would it look like if we took a systems perspective to the social side?

People are not subject to systematic barrier to integrity (physical wellness), influence (the individual is able to influence the system), competence (ability to learn), impartiality (being treated equally), meaning (clear purpose).

Systematic barriers are ingrained in how we designed the system

Sustainability principles create a space for people to meet their needs

Asking bigger and better questions. Does this product even exist in a sustainable society? Those are the kinds of questions we need people to ask.

We don’t necessarily have to have the answers, but the more people we have to ask questions in that way, the better we will be going in the direction of a sustainable society. If we don’t ask those questions, we’ll never get there.

It’s the giant systems that we currently have for production that are really hard to change

Aha moment…there’s a framework, an intellectual structure around of these things that are interrelated. Without that structure we’d be going crazy because there’s just too many things to think about.

(Activist?) I don’t consider myself any of the labels. I’m actively working. Would I choose academia if I thought it was imperative to take a neutral stance? No.

(Miracle?) People woken to face the fact that we have somehow managed to build systems that are not only inherently unsustainable, but don’t actually achieve what we want to achieve – and equipped with a desire to do something about it.

(Advice?) If you haven’t started asking yourself what we’re doing, then start asking.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.


Beyond ecodesign

Yorick Benjamin

I don’t think “ecodesign” goes deep enough – it’s more about optimising the status quo rather than challenging it.

Dr Yorick Benjamin is the Director of Sustainable Design at the Falmouth University. His interest and background is in the pragmatic realisation of sustainable design products and methodologies and he has been active in a wide range of projects both nationally and internationally since 1988. Yorick’s latest work is a collaboration on the design of Sustainable Bus Shelters for Cornwall Council; 50 shelters of different sizes have been digitally manufactured using local companies and are in public use today.

Talking points

There is a need for much more responsibility in terms of product….closing loops, circular economy, don’t downcycle…

Material science has to focus on natural and renewable – almost forgotten since we industrialised

We’re only a small element, but what we can do is to show best practice in terms of using materials wisely, using them for appropriate purposes, and using them in ways that are improving people’s lives in a very obvious way.

Are design ethics and profitability in conflict?

Retrofitting sustainability to an existing design is very hard, almost impossible.

I don’t think you can retrofit at scale, it means changing infrastructure…I prefer to be supporting and growing the pioneers…the new providers.

It doesn’t matter if we get it wrong at the smaller level, so long as we learn and correct.

I want to see us make a difference and the way we do that is to make the physical artefact, get it into market to change people’s opinion and give them examples of best practice – in doing that it is OK that we get it wrong sometimes.

One of the hardest messages to get across is that you are buying product longevity…it is difficult to get that across when people’s profit horizon is a year or less.

A broader way of considering design: students don’t start with designing a tap, they start with water.

(Motivation?) Doing the right thing, making designers who are competent, happy, enjoy their work, make a living, but do the right thing and are actually ambassadors for sustainable design and the values that underpin that.

(Activist?) No…I’m hesitating, when I was younger I very much was an activist…we founded Green Drinks…I see myself as an enabler, a facilitator, but also having the vision I hope – which is to see the bigger picture, which is how we can make this gear up, get sustainable products out there.

There’s no point doing sustainable design if you can’t get products out there, you have to actually make something.