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.