leadership urban

grand challenge of LA as a global model of urban sustainability

Cassie Rauser



I said, “No, that’s not ambitious. That’s not acceptable.” I want it to be better. I want urban ecology to be incredible.


Dr Cassie Rauser is Director of UCLA’s Sustainable LA grand challenge.

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 Los Angeles at UCLA. 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 Dr. Cassie Rauser. She is the director of UCLA’s sustainable LA grand challenge. We’ll find out what that means. Thank you for joining me.


Cassie: Thank for being here and thank you for having me.


Sam: We’ll come back to this but let’s start with an introduction to what the sustainable LA grand challenge is.


Cassie: Sure. Sustainable LA grand challenge is a campus-wide research initiative. It was introduced by the Chancellor in 2013. It’s a little bit different than business as usual, as far as a research initiative goes for a campus because we are organizing the research and the faculty around a major ambitious goal in sustainability. That goal is, or those goals are, to transition Los Angeles the county to 100% renewable energy, 100% locally-sourced water and enhanced ecosystem health and human health and well-being by 2050.


Instead of everyone continuing to work in their silos on their sustainable and environmental issues, we’re really bringing the faculty together from across disciplines to tackle this major problem and to rally them around these ambitious goals.


Sam: I read that part of the goal is to have a thriving in a hotter LA and be a global model for urban sustainability.


Cassie: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.


Sam: That’s quite a big call for LA.


Cassie: Well, sustainability for LA is a pretty big call, quite honestly. When I heard about the initiative, I wasn’t here at UCLA and I got a phone call and they said, “We think you might be great working on this project. We want to make Los Angeles sustainable.” I kind of laughed and I said, “Yeah, good luck with that.” LA doesn’t have a reputation outside of the LA area as a place that is sustainable. I think that it conjures ideas of smog and urban sprawl and actually a lot of very negative environmental ideas when in fact, LA is really quite fantastic.


The folks who had come up with the idea of the grand challenge, they were very inspiring, although very ambitious. I kind of started to feel like, “Gosh, if we can do it in Los Angeles, well then you can do it anywhere.” That’s really the idea is like, “Yes, it’s a big challenge here.” We do have a long history of success overcoming environmental challenges. If you were here in the ’70s or ’80s, you couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t go outside I don’t know how many days per year. Obviously, you’re here today, although a little bit cloudy for Los Angeles, it’s pretty lovely and much clearer and the smog has significantly reduced.


We know that we can pull off things like that so in that spirit, I guess, if we can do it here in Los Angeles, if we can get to 100% renewables, if we can start using the water that we do have here, instead of importing up to 60% of our water from over 200 miles away, as a county, if we can do that kind of stuff here, you can do that anywhere in the world. There are so many major mega cities around the world that can use the technologies, the policies, the management strategies etc., that we will develop and implement here in their own backyard. This wouldn’t just be a success for Los Angeles of course; this will be a success for everyone.


Sam: Anywhere in the world. Let’s talk about your anywhere in the world. Where did you grow up?


Cassie: North Dakota.


Sam: I’ve driven through North Dakota.


Cassie: Well that’s incredible. I don’t know many people who’ve been to North Dakota. I usually get the response of, “Oh, you’re the first person I’ve ever met from North Dakota.” Well, in fact, there’s less than half a million people there still so that’s not strange. I grew up in a town of about 40 people, not 40,000, but 40 people and my parents still live in the same house that I grew up in, and everyone around us, they were farmers or worked somehow within the farm industry. We’ve had a sugar beet factory in our town where I went to school.


In a lot of ways in relation to sustainability I guess, I unknowingly was very much raised in a family that was operating in a sustainable fashion, but maybe for very different motivational reasons or philosophical reasons than kind of how I operate today. You know, not much money, always conserving, always turning the lights off, turning the water off, collecting cans for recycling and making money, but also growing our own food, freezing the food for the winter, bartering … My father was a mechanic and he would fix someone’s tractor and we would get half a pig so I didn’t grow up around fast food.


I just didn’t have the distractions and some of the negative aspects, I think, that come along with a major city. It’s a very interesting upbringing, but I knew the whole time that I also didn’t want to live in a small town and I felt like there was something bigger and better for me to do. I moved away, I think, literally the day after I graduated high school.


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


Cassie: I actually always wanted to be a lawyer, and I always wanted to be an activist of some sort. I wanted to be like a social justice lawyer. I went to college in Minnesota, Minneapolis, St. Paul, at a little liberal arts school and that was just such a fantastic, amazing experience for me having come from such a small town. Everyone was really smart and there were so many options as far as careers went that I had no idea about. I quickly realized that I was very much attracted to environmental justice rather than social justice issues, and almost immediately, I became very involved in the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the PIRGs, and became active and a leader in that organization. I took a bunch of environmental courses, both on the social and political side, but also started taking them in the science side and realized that, oh gosh, science is really quite easy for me and fun so maybe I should do that. That’s kind of how that all evolved and I always continue to be active in the community movements.


I can’t tell you how many Earth Days I’ve co-organized or organized wherever I was. They started there in Minnesota. I found my way actually to Arizona State. I transferred there eventually and finished, but similarly, I think I was the first environmental … I can’t even remember what they called me but for their student counselor, their student union group, they had no environmental representation. I went to them and I said, “Well, gosh. You need recycling here, and you need to have an Earth Day event, and you need this and that,” and they were like, “Do you want to do it?” I said, “Sure,” and so they gave me a little bit of money and I think I did their first Earth Day and I helped them start recycling. I keep doing that because then I did that in Costa Rica, too. Like it’s so crazy. Keeps following me around.


Then from there, I went to graduate school. I figured, well, I had done some research and I enjoyed the research, and I thought, “Well, maybe I can contribute the most through getting my graduate degree. I don’t know what I’ll do with that. Maybe I’ll be a professor,” and wasn’t so sure, but enjoyed the learning and always enjoyed the schooling. I went to graduate school in ecology and evolutionary biology and was very, very fascinated by evolution and evolutionary theory, population genetics, how genes are flowing through systems, how it really in the context of sustainability … I mean anyone who knows anything about conservation … how important it is for those genes to continue to be able to flow so that when we’re … When we’re building cities and we’re building walls and we’re building freeways, we’re cutting off this gene flow and that is really affecting plant/animal populations among other organisms. I don’t know, it’s all kind of always been related and always been there.


Sam: You started out with explicitly, if not law, but the social sides of the … Is that thread continuing or did that thread continue through that research or did it become more and more technical?


Cassie: Oh, the research was much more … It’s much more technical and in fact, my dissertation wasn’t related to sustainability at all. It was very much evolutionary theory and experimental biology, but underlying knowledge that is extremely beneficial and applicable in everything I do because sometimes getting your PhD is much more about the other skills you learn than the tiny bit of knowledge they you know more than anyone else in the world. Yeah, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with that and how to apply it, and I had left many options open. I think I really missed the application maybe, or the activism that was always me and what I had always been doing because those five years of getting a PhD, they were about being in the lab and doing the work, and the other parts kind of dropped off.


I did have a fellowship to go to the National Institutes of Health to do a postdoc, and I went to Costa Rica for what was supposed to be three months to take a little break before what, to me, started more and more to feel like my jail time at my postdoc position. I went to Costa Rica to surf and to do some yoga and to just kind of relax, and realized I cannot go back in that lab. I don’t belong in a lab. I need to be out here. I need to be doing something else. I need to be making a big difference in the community. I felt suffocated and I called them and I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t come.” I stayed in Costa Rica and surfed and did yoga for a while because I didn’t have a job. Things came together. You think, “Gosh, I’m in Costa Rica. This is like the biodiversity mecca of the world. There must be so many amazing things you can do, but I’m an American in Costa Rica. I can’t legally work in Costa Rica. It’s a very different infrastructure for how science and conservation work, etc.


I explored things I could do in the community, anywhere from essentially volunteering at a preschool and doing what I could with education, art and science. I looked into other teaching opportunities, both high school and there was like some kind of adult community college-ish things going on, but nothing really formal. I explored a lot of different things and in the end, quite honestly, what happened is that that preschool volunteer experience is the thing that paid off because one of the child’s mother’s dad had a development that he was operating in the small beach town where we lived and he heard about me through her. You heard, “There is a woman who lives in this town who has a PhD in biology and I want her to work for my development,” and I said, “No, I am not working for somebody who builds things.” That is the last thing that my conscience would allow me to do. I was convinced by number of folks to meet with him and I did, and I was actually inspired by his vision.


The vision really was to build. People were building there anyway, quite honestly, and very irresponsibly. His vision was to build a community and it was a pretty upper-scale type community, but around a nature preserve rather than around a golf course. I thought, “Well, that’s pretty cool.” He had showed me his vision and all of that and what his goals were for it, and he really gave me freedom. I’m not even sure I ever met with him more than two or three times in the couple years I worked there. He just let me do what I wanted and it was really such an amazing experience. The idea was to form a public-private partnership, so a partnership with the equivalent of their national park system, to take some of his land, form this public-private partnership so that we had the expertise and really the legal guidance of their national park system in running a park or preserve, but then he had me obviously representing the private side.


I had a lot of both organizational experience and research experience, but in the United States. It’s very different having to translate that into the customs and the laws and the regulations of what are going on in a different country. I worked really, really closely and side-by-side with this fantastic woman from their national park group to do this and we developed community programs, education programs, recycling programs … Recycling keeps coming back.


Sam: What was in the preserve part of it?


Cassie: It was mostly mangrove wetlands. It was a piece of land that was actually in between two estuaries so we were along the beach. There were two estuaries. Actually, a national park on the other side of one of these estuaries was Las Baulas, Parque Nacionalas Baulus, and that’s the large Las Baulas leatherback sea turtle. That’s a very famous national park and you know, of course, the numbers of turtles coming to lay eggs there had been dwindling and it’s really tough. This was a piece of land that was actually adjacent in a roundabout way to that national parks land so it was an addition in a way to existing parkland. It’s mostly, I would say … Well, it’s seasonal dry forest but other than that, I mean that’s it. It’s really mangrove and seasonal dry forest.


Sam: There was development of housing?


Cassie: It was housing development and the developments prior to me being there had already made a choice that was legal, but perhaps not wise. They built too close to the mangrove and it really had the community fired up, for good reason, and that was a huge struggle. A lot of the struggle that both myself and the woman I worked with from the park service was community engagement in such a way that … We wanted to do good in the community and that maybe sometimes meant making up for building too close to that mangrove on the first try. Nothing else was along the mangrove. That was just the one very first building they built and that is a thorn in their side until the end, quite honestly. I mean I think the wonderful things that came out of it were a lot of great community engagement and community programmes.


This was a very international town. The town on the beach was international with a lot of expatriates and folks from Europe and Argentina, and United States, Canada, the whole thing, but the surrounding communities were all Costa Rican communities and I would’ve never, on my own, been able to go into the Costa Rican communities and have the experiences and the effect that I had without working with this woman, of course, who is Costa Rican. I actually married a Costa Rican and had a Costa Rican daughter. That helped a little bit, but they were very suspicious of course of the developers, and rightfully so, for the most part.


I think we had a really lasting impact in bringing good resources and community programs to them. The recycling program which was not started by this group, it was actually started by now my very good friends, Gina and Tony, who live back in Minnesota. They brought me on really early on and we started this recycling program that, to this day, is still happening and I can’t tell you how excited I am. That from once a month, everyone bring us your trash to the beach and we’re going to sort it, and have this guy come in his truck and pick it up and haul it all the way to the capital city like four or five hours away. He sells it. He gets his money, whatever, but we were recycling.


Then I helped expand that into the Costa Rican communities and they actually very much had a tradition of recycling because they were used to recycling glass bottles. Many of the older generation folks, they were like, “Why these plastic bottles? What can we do with them? They’re just trash and lying around and we can’t burn them.” It’s too bad, you know. That was a lot of obviously American influence that changed the way that they are bottling and receiving their … things are packaged and receiving their food and drink. These programs have continued and the recycling program evolved into something the municipality actually has undertaken, and by the time I had launched Costa Rica, we had begun talks with the municipality to get them on board to pick up recycling the same way that they would pick up trash. I’m actually very impressed that it ever happens. I think there were some great successes and the project actually ran out of money and that’s why I ended up coming back to the United States, but I think some good things did come out of it.


Sam: I was about to ask, but I’ll ask anyway if sustainability is the bit at the intersection of the Venn diagram that I don’t like, but let’s stick with it for the moment. Then it is where the environment and society and economics interact. This seems like a good example of something that’s actually operating in that intersection. I was about to say, “Is it working?” Then you said it’s run out of money.


Cassie: Well, 2008 happened. I mean the economic crisis happened. They were trying to sell high-end homes. That’s a second home to people who are buying those homes so they weren’t selling, obviously, at the range that they had thought that they would be selling. Well, the environmental girl was the first person to go. To some extent, I was probably sort of a piece of jewelry for them, right?


Sam: Mm-hmm (affirmative)


Cassie: They let me do what I wanted to do, but I mean the integration with what they were doing was very minimal.


Sam: That’s a shame because what I wanted to know is if it is working at that small community level. Is that the model for what has to happen of the whole … over a huge city such as LA?


Cassie: Some of the most valuable things I learned there were from the practices of their national park system and the way that they do approach that. They very much approach it like the Venn diagram, although I’ve never seen any of them use the Venn diagram. They really put effort into educating the communities where they have their parks. With the turtle experience … I’m sure many people know this story. One reason there was decline with the turtles, other than a lot of extra homes and lights and things like that and extra infrastructure, was because people would steal and sell and eat the turtle eggs. These people were making a living on doing that and so for the park system to come in and say, “No, these are a protected species. This is protected land. You can no longer come and take these eggs in the middle of the night,” that was really huge for the community.


The way the park system approaches that is that they retrained these individuals to be like where the park. Sometimes I can’t remember the words in English, you know, like the park rangers. They did workforce development and workforce training, and they gave these individuals other career options where they could make money. That was something they consistently did and was there. They were very conscious of that and it was really such a great execution of the Venn diagram of the sustainability model where they weren’t displacing people.


Sam: Then you came back. Did you go straight back to Irvine?


Cassie: I did. I came back to Irvine. I felt Irvine was a familiar place after four years of living in a let’s-have-coffee-in-a-hammock-in-the-afternoon kind of lifestyle. I mean it was culture shock to come back to the United States. One I did at Irvine actually was a bit different. I kind of left Costa Rica thinking, “Gosh, if I’m going to go back into academia, I don’t think I want to a researcher. What am I going to do? I feel like I don’t have any skills.” You know, I know how to sex a fly. I know how to sequence DNA. It’s like what are my skills? I felt a little bit lost so I thought maybe nonprofit, I am not sure. Anyway, I found my way back to Irvine and it was in a position that’s called research development. What that means is truly the development of research ideas, the research teams of proposals to fund those ideas and those research teams, so it’s the whole gamut of the research enterprise and I don’t just focus anymore on sustainability issues or even biological issues.


I was in an office that served all of the sciences, medicine in the stem fields, and the reality is that that type of job utilized all of my organizational skills, all of my community skills, all of my diplomacy skills, all of these skills that being this environmental activist my whole life had given me and I just didn’t realize, gosh, they’re truly applicable in so many ways. It was fantastic to be a part of, in some way, all sorts of kind of science going on. It was never boring. It was always the cutting edge work that was going, and really the focus was to provide support for the faculty and researchers working on interdisciplinary projects which, as you know, it’s not usually within their comfort zone or naturally what occurs in a university.


I think the trend in funding has really shifted the trend of what’s going on the university. I also think the fresh, younger professors and researchers are also a lot more keen on interdisciplinary work. I think there’s just a big shift happening in that way and it’s pretty exciting because if you take that back to sustainability, no one discipline could ever solve the problem of sustainability, ever. You know, no one technology is the silver bullet. You need to develop that technology. You need to have the policies in place for that technology to be applicable. Applied, legal, you know there are many technologies that we have that can solve so many of our problems and we can’t use them.


From Irvine, I think as I mentioned before, I got the call from UCLA when they were dreaming up this sustainability project. It was a matter of somebody had met me, knew that I did research and proposal development, also knew I spent time in Costa Rica doing environmental work and activism and this and that, and they thought, “My gosh, we need to combine all of that to have somebody come and lead this program,” and quite honestly, that was a great vision that they had because I think this really is just like the perfect job for me. It’s so amazing. It’s so fun to be a part of. I sometimes miss doing the research, but even in this, I’ve been involved as much as I want to be on that side as well.


Right when I got here, the first project was truly, “Okay, we need to coordinate and develop a research plan. You know we have these goals, we have this vision but, my gosh, how are we possibly going to get there?” I coordinated and brought together 28 faculty from across campus, so very multidisciplinary, organized them into our three major groups of energy, water, ecosystem health. In that energy room, we had lawyers with engineers with policymakers with urban planners and me, a biologist, and some of those conversations were really hard and when you get people with such different perspectives or different ideas of how the problem should be solved, it can be difficult but when you can get over that hump, it can be incredible and just so rewarding. The ideas that come out of that don’t even compare to what you would get being in the room with just a single type of researcher.


Sam: The three goals, renewable energy, locally-sourced water and ecosystem health, which is the hardest one? Which is going to be the hardest one? This is a long-term plan. You said 2050?


Cassie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)


Sam: You’re going to be here for a while.


Cassie: Well, you know. I feel like even if we got 50% of the way there, I feel like it’s still a huge success, right? The hardest … I’ll tell you what. I feel like in energy and water, I think we, even with existing technologies, we can do it. We know it can be done, now can it be done sustainably? Can it be done economically? Can it be done while not imposing hardship on lower-income communities? Can it be done efficiently? Those are all research questions that we need to address in the next five years. With ecosystem health, and that also includes human health and well-being, that one we found was a lot more difficult to, one, define what that meant. You’ll notice it’s the only one that doesn’t have a quantitative goal. It’s not a quantitative goal, I guess, enhanced ecosystem health.


The one thing I want to point out that was very important to me to do is that the language for that started out as something along the lines of “without harming biodiversity to achieve these other two goals,” and then just kind of, “let’s not mess it up any more than we’ve already messed it up.” I said, “No, that’s not ambitious. That’s not acceptable.” I want it to be better. I want urban ecology to be incredible. I want people to think about it, to notice it, for it to be a part of their lives, you now? We realized through the process that we don’t know much about urban ecology, that we don’t know much about the species that exist here. LA is really fantastic and I think most people don’t know unless you’ve spent some time here that there is a lot of protected land. We have a lot of protected land in LA County and so we do know a lot about what happens in the Santa Monica Mountains, for example, because it’s natural, protected land and people do research there. People don’t do research in the concrete jungle.


People think there’s nothing going on, but I think there really is. It’s not ideal what’s going on and there are a lot of invasive species that have now … not invasive, sorry … non-native species that have found their home here so we have a lot to think about on what do we do with those? How do we integrate them? Is it okay? Can a hard-core ecologist get over the idea that sometimes the non-native is okay? There are a lot of questions. Then we’re also so incredibly culturally diverse in LA County. I think we are the most diverse area in the world and so, culturally, what does biodiversity mean to all of these different groups? What does a lawn mean to different groups? Is it a status of an economic status? What does the rosebush mean? It takes up a lot of water, but I mean these things mean different things to different cultures and I think we need to be really sensitive about those feelings and how we integrate all of this and still make it better. I think that one’s the most challenging, quite honestly.


Sam: The lawn was a good example because as you get closer to UCLA and the houses get bigger, the lawns get bigger and the lawns get greener.


Cassie: Oh, they do. It’s no secret. Well, it’s kind of a secret because you can’t, of course, see individual water use but there is, of course, a lot of talk that has been going on with regard to lawns and the use of water and the responsible use of water, and how do we price water so that that type of behavior is deterred in some way? Yeah, definitely the poorest communities already use the least amount of water compared to the wealthier communities. There’s a lot of shaming going on. There’s a cultural shift that needs to happen here, but a lot of great, just personal conservation has already happened. Los Angeles, the state has water-mandated goals right now because of the drought and Los Angeles, I believe, has already met the goals or is only about 1% away from meeting their conservation goals with water. People have stepped up and people are conserving, and it’s going in the right direction. It’s definitely motivated by the drought, which is kind of the only good thing about the drought. Hopefully these are types of behaviors that aren’t so much of an imposition that people will continue.


Sam: Tim Flannery, who we talked to a few months ago, said that the current El Niño is a good thing because it’s given people a bit of a view into the future. The drought is perhaps doing the same thing.


Cassie: Absolutely. Absolutely.


Sam: When it starts raining again, will people forget?


Cassie: I think so.


Sam: Let’s party in the swimming pool again.


Cassie: Yeah, everyone was expecting the El Niño to bring us a bunch of water to LA and it didn’t. Prior to El Niño, the Godzilla El Niño, as it was referred to, everyone was just like, “We’re going to be fine. We’re not going to have to conserve water anymore,” and it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen and so that’s an eye-opener, too, that some of these changes need to be permanent. California is just really incredible as far as being a leader on environmental policies so I think it’ll stick. If the policies stick, then I think we have some hope here.


Sam: California might be a leader on environmental policies, but it’s also, as you say, a concrete jungle with cars everywhere.


Cassie: There are.


Sam: Can a city be sustainable just on those grounds? It doesn’t seem to me that that would be a sustainable model for that. Even if it was all electric powered, it still has to come from somewhere.


Cassie: Right, but what if all cars were electrified and all of our electricity came from renewable sources? That’s pretty sustainable. We’re going to have self-driving cars and the car culture is changing in a sense like never before and at a very rapid rate. We have shared transportation. We don’t just have public transportation anymore. We have Uber and Lyft and what not, and that has really transformed the way LA operates in a huge way. I am personally getting rid of my car. I live in LA. People would’ve thought you were a nut, like, “You can’t do that.” I take public transportation all the time. I have two children and a husband, and we currently have two cars but our lease is up and I’m done. I’m done so we’ll have one car because my husband drives for his job.


It’s not necessary anymore and I think the younger generations, all the studies show the millennials aren’t getting their driver’s license. The millennials are using shared transportation networks and that works better, too, for low-income neighborhoods, you know, the last mile to get to and from public transportation if that’s the hardship. The Los Angeles Metro did just open the train that goes all the way to the Santa Monica Pier now, so that’s the first time since … I can’t remember, the ’60s or something like that. Now, the train, you can go from Downtown Los Angeles all the way to the beach and prior to that, there was essentially no rail transportation on the west side. The greener the lawn, the less public transportation.


Sam: When you’re talking about those energy and water, you said they could be done with existing technologies, but can it be done sustainably? That’s a nice model. I like that. Can it work economically? Can it work in terms of social justice? Is that connection widely felt? Yes, we could solve this technical problem, but that’s not necessarily solving the sustainable approach to it.


Cassie: In general, I think so, and I think that’s partially because we have such great leadership in the Los Angeles mayor’s office. They developed and released their first sustainable city plan in 2015, and that plan is truly a sustainability plan. It’s not an environmental plan so I think when people hear the word “sustainability” in general, because very often, the word “sustainability” has been used to mean environmental but it has a negative connotation and that anyone who is against the environmental movement, because it’s not thinking about business, it’s not thinking about these other things, can be turned off by that. Sustainability is gaining traction globally as a concept and idea that truly encompasses the economic and societal parts of that. Like you just said, something isn’t sustainable if you can’t economically do it. I’ve had that conversation, I can’t tell you how many times, where I’ve had to remind somebody like, “No, we’re not just going to make you use that or make that technology be the way to go. It has to work economically.”


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


Cassie: Oh, that’s a good question. I do often refer to, I guess, what you would see in the Venn diagram, but sustainability in general, of course, is something for us to use today that will not harm future generations or will not leave future generations without resources.


Sam: A Brundtland definition…


Cassie: Yeah, it really is, but that’s what sustainable means, whether you’re talking about the environment or not.


Sam: What do we think that those future generations will be thinking about what people are doing in LA now?


Cassie: Well, hopefully they’ll look back on sustainable LA and they’ll think it’s just amazing because we will have been successful. Gosh, that’s a good question. I think I feel like we’re in a really great era right now. I feel very positive and I’ve been working in environmental movements long enough now to now have always felt like I was gaining traction or that I was being heard, but now you have major leaders who truly believe in this and are progressive enough and visionary enough to see that, “Gosh, if we continue what we’re doing, there are no future generations. There’s nothing for them.” Even today, this is about making quality of life better today and I think we can do both. I feel really good about it right now and maybe it’s because I live in the bubble of California, but again, hopefully we can continue to serve as a model.


Sam: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in the last couple of years?


Cassie: The coolest thing?


Sam: Yeah, a thing you’ve seen that you thought, “That’s awesome,” or either you’ve done or you’ve seen one of your colleagues do and you thought, “That’s something we need to bottle. Let’s do that more.”


Cassie: Wow. Well, I had a child in the last three years so I’m going to say that’s the coolest thing I’ve done. I have to say that.


Sam: Let’s not bottle a child.


Cassie: Let’s not bottle the child, but if we could bottle their energy and their spirit, that would be amazing. Gosh, there are so many things. There are a lot of really cool technologies and I feel like everyone has seen this, but I remember that ah-ha amazing moment when I saw the transparent solar, flexible solar panels. I wouldn’t even call them panels, right? You know, the ability to put solar on windows, the ability to put solar in car paint, the ability to put solar on the streets, this is amazing. This is so incredible. We can constantly be getting energy from the sun that comes up every day. That was pretty incredible.


Sam: Do you think we can get there with such technologies, the cool stuff, or are we going to have to consume less?


Cassie: Both. It’s absolutely a combination of the two and that’s funny. I think people have a very different perspective in that, in that a lot of individuals believe that we can continue to consume and do what we want because technology is always going to come around at some point and fix this, which is a strange way to not really take responsibility for your own actions or to be a part of the solutions. I always believe in being a part of the solution and that means you recycle the inside part of the toilet paper roll at my house. Every little thing counts.


I definitely think it’s a combination and in the research plan we developed, that’s really what we came up with, that in order for us to get to local water … We do have quite a bit of rain here in LA, sometimes 12 to 15 inches a year … and that the combination of reduction in consumption and technology combined because with the water, we’re seeing we can already get a huge reduction with just really small behavior changes and so combine that with the technology and yes, that’s how we can get there. Definitely, reduction in consumption needs to happen and we know it can happen and we know we have a lot of room to reduce consumption because if you compare consumption across the world, I mean we have a long way to go. There’s a lot of wiggle room there.


Similarly with energy, most of the energy accomplishments that we’ve seen to date are because of efficiency measures, so not only just consumer behavior, but retrofitting light bulbs. These were consumer changes in consumer behaviors in many ways. The first time you started using the different light bulbs, you were like, “That light’s kind of funny. I don’t really like it,” but I think people are really used to it now. They’re saving a lot of money, saving a lot of energy, so those little things make a really big difference and they’re not imposing too much upon the individual.


Sam: Will those little things add up? Are they enough?


Cassie: Oh, they definitely add up. Those little things, water conservation, we’re a perfect example. That has added up in California. We’re reaching the mandates and we’re doing that simply through our actions. Nobody put in a recycling plant since the mandates came down. This is really all human behavior in reduction and consumption.


Sam: Is anybody complaining about that? Are people having a lesser life because of it? Part of the opposition to the sustainability movement is, “You’re wanting me to go back into the caves.”


Cassie: Right, it’s about the imposition, so it’s about what the individual feels is an imposition. I think with the combination of technology and slight modifications in behavior, that’s where we come to that equilibrium because if you think of the car and you think of even 10 years ago, who would be driving an electric car, someone who like a Charger or a Mustang probably wasn’t going to be driving an electric car, but now there’s the Tesla and it’s sexy and it’s cool and it’s fast. Now you have a different demographic that would drive an electric car that wouldn’t only 5 or 10 years ago. I think together that these things will bring different populations to a point of not feeling like this is such an imposition on them.


Sam: We’re writing a book of these conversations, which is going to be called “Tomorrow’s Heroes.” How would you like your sustainable super power to be seen?


Cassie: I think I’m an organizer. I think I’m a matchmaker and I am a very empathetic. I think I have this super-power ability, truly, to understand the different languages that the folks in the different disciplines are speaking, and translating it enough so that they start to understand what the others are doing and what the contributions are realize that they have so much more in common than not. I do often say, because I am always bringing together different groups of researchers and I’m always saying like, “Gosh, I always feel like I’m a translator. It’s so funny and in so many meetings, I will say exactly this, “I think what he’s trying to say is this,” “I think what she’s trying to say is actually this,” and “that you guys are saying the same thing, just from a different perspective.” These folks have gone on to work together, to write grants together, to do projects together, and it would’ve never happened without my super power.


Sam: I think you’ve already said that you’ve bridged the qualitative and quantitative, but have you managed to bridge the reductionist and systems thinking people?


Cassie: Yeah, a little bit. I definitely am working with those two types of groups. I have had them work together. I brought them in a room together. I do a lot of counseling before and after, truly, but we have some really great visionary system thinkers and they know that they don’t know the tiny details about how the solar is captured and how that’s delivered and how much … They know they don’t know that, but they really are the big system thinkers that we need to kind of help pull this all together. I’ve gotten that group to meet with engineers in water and energy, and it’s tough but they’re working together now because they’re giving them the numbers they need to do the big system calculations. This is one of our first projects that we really hope to have done and released, and I think it will be really provocative and incredible because it’ a “What does LA 2050 look like?” Project. It is a big system thinking project, but it really needed all of the reductionist-type research contributions to make it successful.


Sam: Are you funding spaces for the creative people to contribute to those?


Cassie: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. That group is actually led by a world-famous architect who is very creative and their visuals are really what drew us to them because they have just amazing ability to create visuals of a city and to the urban fabric and all of that. Additionally, we have other creatives. We are UCLA. We’re in Los Angeles. We have a fantastic film theater television department. We have a great humanities department with an environmental humanities component, and I just met another professor last week who was super interested in being involved and she’s in the arts. They’ve become integrated in different ways. We had a woman in humanities who was fascinated with the idea of trash and has done projects with students on trash and waste, and what does that mean, again, across cultures? Yeah, so this really is interdisciplinary and this can’t be successful without the contribution from all of them.


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


Cassie: I think the release of our research work plan. That was really a year in the making and what I think makes it so successful was the ability to bring together the interdisciplinary groups and really develop a solid comprehensive research plan. This is the research we think, across disciplines, needs to be done in the next five years to answer the questions that we’re still not so sure about so that by 2020, we can develop a blueprint or an implementation plan for how the transition would actually happened by 2050. We’re a research university and so we do research well and will stick to doing the research, and we understand that we can’t do this alone and this is so much dependent on partnerships; partnerships with the city, partnerships with the utilities, with other institutions, with civil society, with NGOs, nonprofits. I mean you name it. We have to partner and we’re building those various relationships as we’re doing the research and together. We really want to develop an implementation plan that has input from all of these stakeholders.


Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?


Cassie: Absolutely, every day, all day long.


Sam: At work?


Cassie: At work, at home, yeah, absolutely.


Sam: What motivates you?


Cassie: I think what motivates me most is contributing to positive change in the world. I’m a sucker for humanity.


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


Cassie: The challenges of figuring out how you get this fantastic research translated into something that is applicable and implementable, if that’s a word, because that is the struggle. There are so many amazing ideas bouncing around this campus, on any campus, and the percentage of those ideas that actually get translated and applied are very small. We realize that that is probably the biggest challenge for us.


Sam: Speaking in UC Irvine terms, because I don’t know the people here, do you have somebody like Irvine’s Peter Bowler that is going to go out and say, “I’m going to take this neglected area and regenerate it and actually do this work?”


Cassie: Oh, definitely. There are very different degrees of folks in all of the disciplines who are doing very applied work. It’s by far not the majority, but there are definitely your Peter Bowlers here and there are your Peter Bowlers in engineering, too, and there are your Peter Bowlers in law and policy. I have a much better understanding of law and policy, researchers and faculty than ever before. I always was working in the sciences, in the hard natural sciences, physical sciences, and quite honestly, what they’re doing is applied work every single day. That’s the applied work. Now, you can do policy research and then you can write your report and it never makes it into the hands of policymakers, but that’s easy to change. It’s easy to give a report to someone. It’s much more difficult to go out and change the swamp into productive land for a native species like Peter does.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would you like to have happen?


Cassie: Oh, wow. I think what I would like to have happen the most is equity. I would like to see equity and somebody had brought up the other day in a conference I was at, equality is not the same thing as equity, and that is very much true. With regard to energy, with regard to water, with regard to our health and with regard to our ability to enjoy our ecosystem and receive all of the benefits that this has to offer, I really, at the heart of this, I want to see equity. I want everybody to have that same experience and those same options.


Sam: What’s the smallest thing that we could that would have the biggest impact in getting us there?


Cassie: That’s a tough one. I think little things make a difference. I think that, quite honestly, if everyone could think of 5 little things they could do in their life, in their daily routine that didn’t, I don’t think, impose on you too much. It’s very slight modifications. If everybody did those 5 little things, that would have a huge impact. We have 10 million people in LA County. If you had 10 million people taking 1 gallon bucket of water from their shower they ran, that’s a lot of water, right. That’s just one little thing so I think it’s the little things. I think everybody engaged in doing some of the little things, that that’s going to make the biggest cumulative impact.


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


Cassie: Advice? Well, if you love sustainability or you love breathing clean air or living in a world that has equity, equality and economic prosperity, then I think everyone can be an activist in a little way. Don’t be discouraged, and that sustainability, as an area, is so broad and so diverse that I think everyone can play an important and interesting role, regardless of what your passion is so take your passion and then you can use your passion for improving life on Earth as we know it.


Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Cassie: Thank you so much. This was fun.


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’re broadcast on Otago Access Radio, OAR.ORG.NZ and podcast on On, we’re building up a searchable archive of conversations of 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, what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight, the sustainable lens was that of Dr Cassie Rauser, who is director of UCLA’s Sustainable LA grand challenge, and a grand challenge it is. You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook, and you can listen to us via iTunes and other places for free. 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.