viernes, 20 de diciembre de 2013

To design, or not to design, that is the question, or not?

In a matter of a few days, different information sources arrived to me, which when combined, made emerge a series of reflections and questioning.
The first of them was the book of Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark “The burning question”, a clever word game, is not only about burning fossil fuels, but also a question that must be answered rapidly. The authors tells us that we know beyond any doubt that the raising of CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere is directly correlated to the raising mean temperature of the planet.
We know too that the exponential growth of such concentration in the last years has predominately an anthropogenic origin, a fact recently supported by the IPCC report (International Panel for Climate Change), where hundreds of scientist, the best and most respected from around the globe, reported that the raise in temperature is unequivocal (Fig. 1), and that reductions in greenhouse gases must be done in a substantial and sustained fashion.

Fig. 1. Relation of mean global temperature and CO2 concentration.
(Source: National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA)
Therefore Berners-Lee and Clark question us: stopping climate change means persuading the World to unquestioningly abandon fossil fuels, proven reserves with a market value of trillions of dollars: could we do this? In political, psychological, economic and technological terms, what do we need to do? Can we do these changes on time? Who can do which part in order to make all this happen?

Fig. 2. Past, present and future of fossil fuels extraction
(Source: the author with data from World Bank, International Energy Agency and others)
Figure 2 shows the past and future (according to proven reserves) of fossil fuel extraction, there are many different charts like this one, the main difference is when the peak take place, some say we already past it, some that is still to come, no far away, but not yet there. The issue is that if burning the amount before the peak took us where we are today, the answer is pretty simple:
We cannot burn all the fossil fuels we still have.
A few days ago I had the chance to see one presentation by the extraordinary Dr. Hans Rosling, this time in a BBC production. With his characteristic simplicity and powerful data visualisation, he showed that human CO2 emissions are evidently related to economic power, but how big the difference is between rich and poor people?
The first thing Rosling did was organising the World population according to income, from those who earn $100 dollars or more per day, to the ones with $1 dollar or less, which defines the extreme poverty line, and today they are almost two billion people (Fig. 3). The distribution is more or less like this: the richest billion emit 50% of World CO2, the next billion 25%, the next one 12%, and so on. Yes, is an approximation, but does not demerit the argument.

Fig. 3. Income distribution and CO2 contribution
(Source: the author based on Rosling’s visualisation in BBC1 “Don’t panic”)
Be aware that the two richest billions are us, the ones reading this document, us that have a car, wash our clothes in a washer machine, us that have electricity at home, gas in our stoves, television, Internet, mobile phone, etc.
This means that the World today has almost two billion people desperately trying to get out of extreme poverty, and that an increase of their CO2 emissions, even a 100% increase or more, would be insignificant in comparison to what the richest three billion emit, but it could represent an extraordinary raise in their living standards, without considering that we can do this with better/cleaner technologies if we want to.
Us, the richest billion emit very much, yes, and we must reduce it dramatically, not only in quantity but also rapidly. It is a very urgent problem, and other equally urgent issue are the two following billions, which economically are growing very rapidly and they want (and have all the right to) live with the same comfort and opportunities that we have.
Finally us –designers- what are we doing?
A few years ago the initiative “design for the other 90%” was brought up. Someone not so long ago, realised that the majority of designers worked for the richest 10% of the population, and that not only in ethic terms, but in economic ones too, we are ignoring that “other” 90%. A true avalanche of “human” methods, “social entrepreneurship”, “open platforms”, etcetera, has been produced; which, not without some controversies, have created conscience and are changing many things.
This is excellent, it must be done, and in increasing numbers, acknowledging errors and learning from them, not only as a moral duty, but also for the economic opportunity that means for everybody. This does not imply take villainously advantage from the poorest, it means realising that without an economic benefit, even if very small, it will be very hard to see the change in magnitude and speed on which it needs to happen.
On a different thinking, if we must design for the other 90%, we have to REDESIGN the other 10%. As I showed previously the real danger in climate change terms does not lie in the poorest 3 or 4 billions. The way on which the 3 richest billions live, consume, use and discard must change dramatically, and for reasons that are evident, this latter is much more complex than the former, and I would even dare to say it is more urgent, specially because of the incomprehensible denial we can see in this group, even with the high education standards they have, even with undebatable evidence in front of them.
Definitely designers won’t save the World, as some have lately preach, we must lower our ego and accept it. We can contribute greatly, but the questions should simply be: which part of all this is ours? Where to begin? What do we need to do it?
The good news is that there are many people working on this, designers and hundreds of other professions, with great ideas and giving it all to make a difference, but is not enough, no even remotely enough. It is impressive to see how still today, talking about sustainable design, for many people means crazy neo-hippies, tree huggers trying to save the World, and not what it should be: a logic base for fair and egalitarian progress and development.
I came across a beautiful term: “nomological”, from the Greek, like many other beautiful words. It relates to or express basic physical laws or rules of reasoning, things like gravity, which we take for granted and we don’t expect it to be turned off any time soon. There are certain sustainability principles, which I argue are nomological constrains, but we haven’t yet realised fully, I have touched this theme before in other documents, still a lot to research and process.
I will close with the last source of information I was referring to above; it is the speech Noam Chomsky gave at the North Carolina University on September 30th 2010. I recommend you read it fully, but for now I simply allow myself to quote the last paragraph:
“…the only potential counterweight to all of this is some very substantial popular movement which is not just going to call for putting solar panels on your roof, though it’s a good thing to do, but it’s going to have to dismantle an entire sociological, cultural, economic, and ideological structure which is just driving us to disaster. It’s not a small task, but it’s a task that had better be undertaken, and probably pretty quickly, or it’s going to be too late”
Do you want a real design challenge? There you have it, and it is not about designing lamps or chairs with waste. A key part lies in accepting our limits as professionals, and like Chomsky says, create a substantial popular movement which pushes constantly, and among all disciplines questioning the deepest roots of our structures, starting with the economic one, as well as our personal assumptions.
Where to start?
I’ll share with you some ideas and resources in future articles.

martes, 17 de septiembre de 2013

Solicito ayuda: indignación extraviada

“La psicología popular siempre ha sabido que la forma de predecir y entender los pensamientos humanos y sus acciones, es asignando ciertas creencias acerca del mundo, ciertos objetivos, deseos y alguna medida de racionalidad. Asignar creencias y deseos a un organismo es atribuirle representaciones mentales.”
V. Goel

El mundo vive tiempos turbulentos: masas de indignados por un sistema caduco, que hace tiempo dejó de proveer el camino hacia el sueño del progreso (que jamás se definió que era), han tomado formas diferentes: Occupy aquí y Okupas por allá; primaveras y otoños que han marcado cambios, que si bien la mayoría no ha logrado una diferencia sustantiva, al menos mantiene alerta a la masa y conciente de su necesario papel regulador ante los abusos por parte de aquellos que han sido seleccionados para velar por sus intereses. “El poder corrompe y el poder absoluto corrompe absolutamente” eso no se debía permitir.
Hace tiempo me pregunto qué es lo que ha pasado en mi país que la gente ha perdido el instinto básico de la indignación. Abuso tras abuso, el agua se calentó y la rana ya hirvió, no saltó y los dueños de la estufa ya degustan suculento platillo.
Decenas de miles de muertos por una guerra que nadie pidió, un constante bombardeo noticioso sobre violencia desbordante, digna del más vulgar cine de horror, jóvenes abandonados por décadas y que han perdido el rumbo, la motivación, si es que algún día los tuvimos.
Una sociedad dividida y pre-ocupada en poner en práctica el dilema que nos enseñaron a fuerza de constantes palos: cada día al despertar debes tomar una decisión: dejar que te chinguen o salir a chingar, no hay opción.
No hay manera de creer que detrás de todo hay una mano que dirige, una mente súper dotada que ha movido las piezas para lograr sus tenebrosos objetivos. En algún momento, por alguna razón, se desvió el camino, en algún momento nos encendieron la estufa a fuego lento y simplemente se han dedicado a sazonar el caldo y distraer a la rana.
En este punto ya no hay evidencia que valga, ya no hay suceso que sorprenda, ya no hay persona que se salve, no hay líder en el que se crea. Hemos extraviado nuestro poder de indignación. Los que sostienen las riendas están, todos los saben, en una efímera posición, pero que será perpetuada por el rapiñador en turno. No pueden hacer otra cosa más que tomar ventaja, no importa la corriente filosófica, esas también se prostituyeron hace tiempo, el motto sigue siendo el mismo: salir a chingar o que te chinguen.
Hay algunos que sintieron el calentar del agua, algunos bichos raros que no entraron en el juego, que decidieron no chingar, pero que el que te chinguen día a día, con puntualidad casi matemática, sumado a la impotencia de recuperar esa capacidad de indignación en sus similares, los ha hecho tan patéticos como todos los demás y no son capaces de aceptarlo. Algunos de ellos, de hecho algunos de los mejores, se auto-convencen, se auto-tranquilizan diciendo que quedarte callado y hacer bien tu trabajo es la mejor forma de contribuir y hacer que las cosas cambien, mientras no falte el pan en la mesa no hay porqué hacer olas.
No hay salida, dicen que la hora más obscura es justo antes de salir el sol, pero tenemos un manto nocturno sobre nosotros, la noche parece ser eterna, ya no hay sol, parece que ya no lo habrá. No hay cierre motivacional en este texto, no hay futuro esperanzador pues no hay ya poder de indignación. “Indignación” indica la existencia de dignidad, quién se diga digno no podría quedarse estático.
Podemos seguir violentándonos, podemos seguir abusándonos, alguno prevalecerá al final, es de aquel que debemos compadecernos aún más, porque él, inevitablemente se dará cuenta, en su estéril supremacía, de lo estúpidos que fuimos.

jueves, 2 de mayo de 2013

Our share

This is one more exercise I did after going through all those databases from UN and other large institutions.

It is quite simple and by no means part of a serious research, is just a reflection on how much all humans produce and ideally how much each one of us could have if divided in equal parts.

It accounts only the "official" production, we need to bear in mind that small family crops e.g. for personal consumption are not included here.

Some may say that is an unrealistic thing to think of, and yes, it is virtually impossible to accomplish, but I wonder if could awake some part of our conscience and help us be more coherent with our context and reality. It is important to think that is not only the stuff we consume directly, it is also everything that is needed to produce the stuff we consume.

Some interesting things I could highlight: each one of us could have access to 1.33 square meters of gas, that is a large amount, we could do a lot with that. Coffee has zero nutritional value. Sugar, even if it contributes with a lot of calories they are not really that beneficial, turns out that nutrition is a bit more complicated that what it may seem.

The amount of CO2 relates to the amount each one of us would be responsible of if the current World generation was divided in equal parts, we all know that there are a lot of people that produces almost zero CO2 and others producing literally tons of it, the interesting challenge is how can the standards of living be raised for those on the bottom of the pyramid and maintained for those on the top without generating more CO2.

lunes, 18 de marzo de 2013

Culture or cult?

It has been always a matter of debate the blurry position of product design between the technical and the artistic; according to where the training takes place one can have a balance of both or tend to one or the other side. It is not a matter of discussion here to tag any of them about being the ‘correct’ or ‘right’ way of teaching and practising design, doing so would be pointless.
There is nevertheless for all, even if in minimum, a knowledge or general perception about what a good design is, searching for common grounds, appears to be accepted among a great majority of practitioners the 10 ‘commandments’ of good design from Dieter Rams.
Again, I will no enter now in the not irrelevant discussion if Rams’ points are to be followed verbatim, but it allows me to open the debate about designers’ creation of object culture or object cult, not only among their peers, but in the users they serve to.
Allow me to develop the idea, culture intended as the body of knowledge created through time and passed along generations and regarding to our matters, the taste acquired through intellectual and aesthetic training. The former a more accurate definition for the user as part of a general population without any specific training as the latter, perfect to recognise the designer, which is hammered through the years on teaching the eye to see ‘God in the details’.
Cult on the other hand is the devotion; the worship with that devilish touch of blindness that can lead the most centred one into harmful extremes. Cult may create as well a particular feeling of addiction; all these combined are a powerful mix for impasse and lack of questioning, which ultimately may lead to loosing touch with reality, and by reality I mean the events taking place in the context that make all of us inevitably interconnected and interdependent.
As a designer I reckon the overwhelming feeling emerging with the creation of an aesthetically sublime object, the limitless possibilities of merging it with a perfect functionality and coherent technology. But I question if this is not being used to create a blind devotion in the final user, than in itself is not necessarily negative. The structural perversion arrives when combined with the current macroeconomic model under which all modern society thrives.
It is no secret that the debt model forces us to seek perennial growth in order to avoid collapse and that the recurrent crises are not a symptom but rather a mechanism to fulfil the need.
This infinite economic growth linked to endless use and unplanned discharge of matter, within a closed system such as Earth, creates a time bomb that is not far away from exploding.
Encouraging people to enthusiastically participate in this is far away of being good design, and Rams falls short on the current demands.
The presumptuous conception of being above or below and unlinked to all previously described is one more tragedy of the commons, deep under we know we should do differently and some of us clean our minds with short term solutions (many times with worst outcomes), meanwhile feeding the beast.
I recently heard: ‘prey the gospels and only if necessary use words’.
The laziness from designers and design educators toward reading and better understanding other close related fields, and the continuous selfish attitude of boasting themselves, will ultimately relegate us to a secondary participation and relevance.
To my hands arrived a few days ago the analysis of the book Harvesting the Biosphere What We Have Taken from Nature by Vaclav Smil, MIT Press.
Without sensationalism and based in accessible scientific knowledge, he sets things in clear perspective: “Systems ecology teaches that the human population and consumption trajectories need a stronger feedback control than currently exists. Either we are smart enough to craft that feedback mechanism ourselves, or the Earth system will ultimately provide it. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the commons suggests that collective international actions to voluntarily reduce consumption are contrary to human nature.” This is juts the most recent report of a large set produced in the last 40 years, most of them ignored or unheard.
I can’t say change will not be painless, but will be greatly more painful not to.

viernes, 10 de agosto de 2012

Is not data, is how you see the world

Almost since the beginning of my PhD I started to navigate into large databases, I was looking for information about countries, things like population, electricity consumption, GDP, etc. I did this work for a few months and the more I got into it the more interesting data I found, the UN has tons and tons of things, is overwhelming the amount; also the World Bank and several international agencies like the International Energy Agency, or even the CIA.
But slowly, something more interesting happened; at the same time I was going through all these statistics I was reading about macroeconomics, biology, thermodynamics and things started to mix, questions started to arise.
I have been always keen to countries’ statistical data, I remember as a child spending hours looking at the almanac, and I was used to see terms like population density, GDP growth, population growth, etc. Is the classical data governments and institution use to write their reports and create forecasts, strategies and policies.
But as I said, things can get mixed, and different priorities or focus to put the attention are, I guess, sometimes forgotten or not taken into consideration.
I started to make correlations out of the “classic” view and benefiting that I was learning Processing I decided to put into graphics some of my ideas.
Here four I find interesting, hope you do too.
Electricity consumption
People are normally not aware of how many watts-hour of electricity they consume, they know very well the bill they have to pay, but how relate that to the consumption of a country, or the average per capita consumption, what does it mean in a developed or underdeveloped country and their economic growth?

This first image, in blue you will see the total electricity consumption of each country, it jumps immediately to the eye India, China and the USA. The first two have a large total consumption due to the size of population and manufacturing industry, these two countries are below average in per capita consumption, the upper orange lines. As you may well know both countries are experiencing very important economic growth, what would it happen when they reach a first world country per capita consumption? Then you can think from the USA: they have a not so large population (compared to China and India) and great per capita consumption, nevertheless they seek economic growth, they want (like everybody) more.
If you look carefully some countries have a green line above the orange one, which is the percentage of that energy produced by renewable sources. Very notable is Iceland that is the country with the largest per capita consumption (by far) but practically 100% comes from renewable resources… remarkable!
GDP versus HDI and what about GDP growth?
If the goal of every civilization is to have a good quality of life we should start by defining what is good quality of life, and depending on the answer questioning ourselves if there should be a limit or if we should stop at any moment on pursuing a higher level, if there is such thing.
Until today almost all countries measure well-being through GDP growth, which is nothing else than an economic measure  “the sum of all value added to raw materials by labour and capital at each stage of production, during a given year” (Daly and Farley, 2004). The United Nations has an interesting tool called Human Development Index (HDI), that is fully dedicated to measure the quality of life through things that, for most of the people matter more: education, health, life expectancy among other socially relevant issues like gender inequality or multidimensional poverty.

In the next image I place an orange horizontal line representing each country, the upper the line, the higher their GDP per capita, so you can see that Norway is the highest in this chart (is not the highest in the world). The more the line goes to the right of the image the more GDP growth that country has, and the more goes to the left side the higher the HDI. The vertical white line is zero for both GDP growth and HDI, and the blue lines represent world average for each measurement. In this way you can see that for example Singapore has a very good GDP per capita, above average HDI and extraordinary GDP growth, similar to Australia, Arab Emirates and Switzerland. It is very good to see that countries like Bhutan and Ethiopia have an extraordinary GDP growth, very needed to increase their HDI and GDP per capita, both below average (this not always is the outcome of GDP growth, ask to your confidence economist about “allocation”).
Just in short, if you compare HDI and GDP per capita for all countries you will see that after a certain level of income makes little or no difference for quality of life, besides showing the great inequalities between rich and poor countries (this image is not made with Processing is a boring excel chart).

Calories consumption

This image is similar to the electricity consumption one, in blue the total country calories consumption (how much food each country needs) and in orange the calories per capita. I haven’t marked the averages but it is not hard to see the “weight” of each country and understand if that weight is due to large population or large per capita consumption (or both), to my surprise Austria is the country with the highest per capita consumption. I’m thinking to add here in some way the total population; it will be easier to draw conclusions.
Population vs. arable land density
People have more or less an idea of how many people lives in a country and how big that country is, so you can imagine how “dense” the population may be, examples like, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bahrain or Bangladesh are dramatic.

But I believe what is more important is not how many people can fit in one country, but how many people can that country fed? I found the amount of arable land per country and I created the “arable land vs. population” density, and cases that previously would not raise any alarm, suddenly become scary, like Colombia, Congo, China, Japan or the UK, they have little arable land for their population size, which makes them dependable of other countries.
One of my last conclusions and for many naïve questioning is: why if many countries with above average consumption or life quality and in definitely excellent conditions, keep on searching for growth? Some of these countries have a very low or even negative population growth. Obviously I’m not that naïve, I know the answer. I just found stupid this system that is growth-dependant and allows such inequalities, not only among countries but also inside their populations, and that the trend, even if economic growth is achieved, is increasing them.
I would like to do some interactive graphics next, with Processing I should be capable of switching between parameters in order to make more interesting correlations, the only issue is finding time to do it, I’ll let you know.

viernes, 6 de julio de 2012

Smoking habits and cigarette butts

This will be the first post I publish in English, I apologise to all Spanish-speaking readers, but it is imperative that I practice my writing; therefore any comments and suggestions about it are more than welcome.
A few days ago I published in Facebook and Twitter a survey about smoking habits.
First evident question: what has to do with Victor’s research?
The issue is that, since I began riding this to go to work:

I started to look at the floor much more and also started to notice things like the ridiculous amount of cigarette butts in the street.

So I wanted to know how much of the total amount of cigarettes people smoke end up in the streets, gardens, etc. and no one picks up; I found out that it is almost half of them!
First a bit of numbers:
According to FAO’s website the production of tobacco in 2010 was 7,100,000 tonnes. Each cigarette weights about 1.2 grams, from which only 0.9 grams are from tobacco; that gives a total of 7,890,000,000,000 (7.89E+12) cigarettes a year.
There are 1,300 million smokers in the world, being, evidently China, the largest consumer with 320 million people poisoning their lungs.
And the market grows 1.5% annual; at that trend the market will double in size in around 50 years (if we manage to produce that amount of tobacco). For what I could find the European market is the second largest and is now saturated, so the big companies are focusing in developing countries.
There are 6 companies controlling practically all the tobacco industry: China National Tobacco, Altria, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco and Philip Morris International.
In my survey I was mainly interested in knowing how many cigarettes end up in indoors or outdoors and if there was a possibility of having a trash bin in the surroundings. With 40 people answering the survey the results are:
Where do you usually smoke?
15% Home
0% Work
7.5% Street
10% Garden
10% Indoors special areas
37.5% Outdoors special areas
0% other indoor
20% other outdoor
How many cigarettes a day?
74.4% 1-5
15.4% 5-10
0% 10-15
10.3% 15+
So I’m assuming that street, garden and other outdoors, in total 37.5%, are the ones mainly contributing to the problem; even if there is the possibility of a trash bin some where I will take this number as a base. I’m pretty sure that in less developed countries this percentage could be higher due to the lack of special outdoor areas and growing number of policies pushing people to smoke outside of buildings.
Having the total number of cigarettes produced and the above percentage, the number of cigarettes that end up in the floor is 2,960,000,000,000 (2.96E+12) worldwide.
The dimensions of an average cigarette butt are: 8mm x 20mm that gives a volume of 0.00000000101 (1.01E-9) cubic meters. Multiplied by the number of cigarette butts we have a final volume of 2,970 (2.97E+3) cubic meters, that is a cube about 54.5 meters per side, pretty much like the Pisa Tower in height.

Lastly the weight of the cigarette butt is 3 grams (3E-6 tonnes). So this cube will weight around 8,880,000 tonnes (8.88E+6).
I hope my math is correct, if so, we are throwing that gigantic amount of cigarette butts into the streets and gardens each year. Do you wonder why the swage blocks on a heavy rain? This may be part of the answer.
I was thinking on ending this post with an image of a human lung with cancer, but it is too depressing and visually strong, I will end up just saying to our friends or family that smoke that we know it is hard, but definitely better to quit; and if there is no power on this galaxy making you quit, at least throw the cigarette butts to a trash bin, always!

martes, 3 de abril de 2012

UK ¿país de vanguardia en sustentabilidad o no?

Hace tiempo que tengo en mente escribir sobre esto y el viernes pasado asistí a un evento que agrega al tema, así que mejor de una vez y es posible que este post sea un poco largo.

Cuando buscaba un lugar para hacer el doctorado evidentemente tenia el objetivo de ir a un país donde los temas de sustentabilidad y cambios de habito de consumo estuvieran a la vanguardia, de lo que me pude enterar en mis búsquedas por Internet y charlas con amigos me quedó claro que Suecia, Finlandia, Noruega, Holanda y el Reino Unido están entre los mas avanzados, más aún que Estados Unidos o Japón.

Una vez que tuve la opción de venir a Newcastle investigué un poco más y me enteré que la ciudad, por decisión gubernamental, tiene el objetivo de ser la primera ciudad en el Reino Unido con cero emisiones de carbón; el grupo de investigación al que me uní se llama “High value low carbon”, todo pintaba para encontrarme en el paraíso.

Al llegar me encontré con algo muy distinto a lo que esperaba y me refiero en primer termino a los hábitos de la gente en pequeñas cosas del día a día, que sumadas, me hacen comprender porque el impacto tan grande de las sociedades de primer mundo.

Las primeras cosas fueron relacionadas a los edificios, en la gran mayoría tiene puertas giratorias y puertas asistidas por motores eléctricos, originalmente pensadas para las personas en sillas de ruedas, tienen botones claramente señalizados y a alturas especiales para estas personas. Sin embargo prácticamente todos usan las puertas automáticas en lugar de las giratorias que evidentemente debes empujar tu. El esfuerzo me parece mínimo, pero la pereza es mucho mayor.

Otro tema es la calefacción, primero estuve en un pequeño hotel y aunque estábamos en septiembre y había un clima estupendo, la calefacción estaba encendida al grado de tener que abrir la ventana porque me estaba asando. Pensé que sería un caso raro, para después ver que en el edificio de la escuela de diseño pasa exactamente lo mismo, en un día bonito con buena temperatura la calefacción no se apaga y las ventanas están abiertas sino la gente se cuece en su propio jugo.

Otros detalles mas: luces potentes que iluminan el edificio encendidas durante el día, prácticamente inexistentes generadores eólicos o solares, se ven dos o tres nada mas en toda la ciudad, etc.

Un tema impresionante es la cantidad de comida procesada, la gran mayoría de la gente compra las comidas industriales ya listas solo para meter al horno; es posible que sea más eficiente en términos energéticos, preparar una super cacerola gasta menos gas que sumando cada quien cocinando en su casa, pero cuando sumas el transporte, el empaque y los daños de la comida industrial a la salud (exceso en sal, toneladas de conservantes, amorales cantidades de azúcar y grasa) la cosa cambia mucho.

Por otro lado me queda claro que mucho de estos gastos energéticos son necesarios debido al clima, simplemente no me imagino vivir en este lugar sin calefacción (es increíble como el cuerpo se prepara para el invierno, en noviembre me daban ganas de comerme la mantequilla a mordidas, comía como troglodita y no subí ni un solo gramo, ahora que el frío fuerte ya pasó las preferencias indudablemente se orientan a verduritas y cosas más ligeras). Pero en general veo una actitud muy laxa en cuanto al ahorro y la disminución de la huella de carbón.

He asistido a varios seminarios de investigación donde regularmente surgen estos temas y podría aventurarme a decir que prácticamente todos están trabajando hacia la adaptación al cambio climático (entiéndase por esto el impacto que tendrá en la población mundial las extremas variaciones de temperatura en cuanto a la producción de alimentos (desertificación, acidificación, salinización, escasez de fósforo y nitrógeno, entre otros) y el acceso a agua potable, principalmente), en lugar de buscar medios para contrarrestarlo; un poco pesimista la posición si quieren, pero también clarificadora de la realidad, la gran mayoría de los ciudadanos del primer mundo por nada disminuirán su nivel de vida y por consiguiente su nivel de consumo de recursos. También prácticamente toda la literatura consultada hasta ahora menciona que si la población del tercer mundo desapareciera, aún así el consumo del primer mundo se mantendría en un nivel de insostenibilidad, esto queda claro al ver que el 20% de la población mundial más rico consume el 80% de los recursos.

Pero la cosa se poner aterradora cuando vemos que todo el tercer mundo aspira a lograr el nivel de vida del primero y el dilema es que tienen todo el derecho de hacerlo, pero eso acelerará los problemas a niveles extremadamente críticos, gran trabuco sin duda. Aquí hago referencia a la pregunta ¿cuanto es suficiente? en términos de ingreso y consumo para lograr un nivel mínimo de bienestar, ya esta evidenciado que después de un cierto nivel de ingreso la calidad de vida no mejora. La siguiente imagen muestra la relación del Human Development Index, desarrollado por la ONU y el ingreso per capita, se puede ver claramente que después de los $8,000 o $10,000 usd de ingreso anual poco mejora tu calidad de vida.

Fue todo esto que me dejó una sensación de desengaño ante la esperada vanguardia de este país, yo esperaba ver cosas ya aplicadas y gente más comprometida y no es que no la haya, pero es como en otros lugares, son algunos cuantos conscientes haciendo lo que pueden, en lugar de la gran masa de gente haciendo lo que es necesario, si no logramos esos números los esfuerzos son en vano.

Así pues el viernes pasado (27 de marzo 2012) asistí al seminario “e-mobility” organizado por los países de la cuenca del mar del norte. La reunión giró en temas relacionados a la aceleración en la adopción de vehículos eléctricos en la región con miras a disminuir sus huellas de carbón.

Específicamente se habló de baterías, que hasta ahora, en la mayoría de los especialistas es el reto a vencer, lograr una autonomía energética similar a los vehículos de combustión hasta ahora limitada por la capacidad de almacenamiento de nuestra tecnología en baterías.

Justamente el primer tema a tratar fue que las baterías son solo eso, un sistema de almacenamiento, el problema poco se soluciona si generamos la electricidad con combustibles fósiles. Según las estadísticas de la International Energy Agency en el 2009 el mundo generaba su electricidad de estas fuentes:

39.3% carbón

21.7% gas

16.8% hidroeléctrica

13.6% nuclear

5% petróleo

1.4% eólica

1.1% con biocombustibles

0.3% incineradoras

0.3% geotérmica

0.1% paneles fotovoltaicos

menos del 0.1% de solar térmico y marea.

Se habló de las barreras que encuentran los vehículos eléctricos para entrar en el mercado, en un reporte para la WWF de Escocia la agencia Atkins creó una tabla donde muestran que los puntos mas difíciles están directamente relacionados con la capacidad de las baterías.

El Dr. Sjoerd Bakker de la Universidad Tecnológica de Delft nos dio una charla muy interesante sobre el manejo de las expectativas del consumidor, del individuo y las colectivas que no son las mismas, nos advirtió de la generación de decepciones y que las expectativas son generadas siempre apoyándose en el desempeño y actuación en el pasado.

La Dr. Gentili de la compañía Axeon nos dio una cátedra sobre baterías de Litio, después tuve oportunidad de hablar con ella y se me ocurrió preguntarle cuanto litio había en el mundo, si alguien sabia de que tamaño era el negocio, a lo que ella simplemente respondió, “muy grande, hay mucho, para muchos años”. “Mucho” es brutalmente impreciso, “mucho” pueden ser 10, 1000 o millones de años, en términos financieros probablemente “mucho” puedan ser tan solo 5 años.

Así que me puse a investigar, las reservas probadas del planeta son de 13,000,000,000 kg, principalmente en yacimientos en Chile y Bolivia. El consumo del 2008 fue de 25,400,000 kg con un crecimiento en el consumo promedio anual de 3%; el litio se usa para muchas cosas, principalmente para producir vidrio y cerámica, la fabricación de baterías tiene el segundo lugar con un 27% del mercado. Así que haciendo un poco de números y evidentemente asumiendo que el ritmo de consumo no varíe y dada nuestra tecnología actual, tendríamos Litio para vehículos eléctricos para 57 años. Este numero es solo una referencia, las cosas pueden cambiar mucho, el consumo se puede disparar y los 57 años serían mucho menos o la tecnología seguramente mejorará y necesitaremos menos litio por kilowatt en las baterías, lo que haría que los 57 años se hicieran muchos más, pero también pueden pasar ambas cosas.

Se habló de nuevas tecnologías de telemetría, especialmente la impresionante compañía Smith, que en cada vehículo que venden incorporan censores que mandan hasta 2500 señales por segundo y pueden detectar un problema en uno de sus vehículos inclusive antes de que deje de funcionar, mejorando el servicio al cliente de manera impresionante al mismo tiempo que reducen costos.

Nos mostraron el increíble caso de la ciudad de Peachtree en Georgia USA, donde de manera informal surgió un sistema de transporte con infraestructura estupenda, todo organizado por los vecinos del lugar.

Una de las charlas que fue particularmente interesante la impartió el Dr. Colin Herron de la compañía Zero Carbon Futures. Dicha compañía fue contratada por Nissan, que tiene una planta de producción enorme cerca de Newcastle en la ciudad de Sunderland, y que comenzará a producir el vehículo eléctrico Leaf.

Nissan esta interesada en entrenar a su gente a construir vehículos eléctricos, hay un sin fin de detalles que los diferencian de los vehículos de combustión y que debe ser tomado en cuenta, pero no solo, Nissan también, inteligentemente, comprendió que para que su producto sea exitoso debe crear el contexto adecuado, así que planean también entrenamiento para bomberos, talleres mecánicos y todos aquellos profesionales que en algún momento tengan que lidiar con un vehículo eléctrico sepan hacerlo; el caso mas sencillo de explicar es el de los bomberos, si un vehículo eléctrico choca, ¿que hay que hacer? ¿te preocupas primero del pasajero o de las baterías? La respuesta inmediata podría ser el pasajero, pero las baterías pueden derramar liquido altamente tóxico o inclusive estallar y el daño sería mucho mayor, o en caso de fuego ¿lo apagas con agua?

Entonces Zero Carbon Futures junto con Nissan, gobiernos locales, otras autoridades y grupos sociales están desarrollando todo este contexto necesario. Ahora me pregunto, en países como México que el Toyota Prius ya se vende, los bomberos ¿sabrán como actuar contra un posible choque y/o incendio de un vehículo con baterías de litio?

En este momento me quedó claro que aunque aún no se ve esa vanguardia, están trabajando fuerte para que en poco tiempo veamos esa masa de gente haciendo lo que es necesario, no pequeños grupos haciendo lo que pueden. Sin duda son razones para tener esperanza en un futuro mejor, al menos en un inicio. Hay muchas cosas que se deben mejorar, hay mucho trabajo por hacer, se que en estos momentos el mundo esta muy revuelto y que especialmente los jóvenes no ven por donde encontrar un futuro, yo desde donde estoy veo tantas oportunidades, tantas cosas que se deben hacer que es abrumador.

Al final hubo un cierre con comentarios y yo no pude quedarme callado, comenté que veía todavía una fuerte tendencia hacia el reduccionismo (one size fits all), que yo creo que hay una enorme oportunidad de negocio y de ahorro de recursos si desarrollamos productos más personalizados y potenciando más el desarrollo local, que no es un problema tecnológico, es un problema de modelo de negocios.

El moderador era nada mas y nada menos que el alcalde de la ciudad, y a mi comentario él dijo: somos seres irracionales, si le preguntas a la gente que quiere todos te dirán que un Ferrari, hacemos siempre elecciones irracionales, al mismo tiempo, los más rudos hombre de industria presentes asentían con la cabeza. Me quede con la boca abierta, me parece difícil de creer pero así fue, nos ven como ganado, no como seres pensantes y si así es, entonces, ya lo dijo Steve Jobs: la gente no sabe lo que quiere, quiere lo que conoce; será siempre, les guste o no, responsabilidad de quienes ponemos productos en la calle el impacto que estos tengan.