Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Get Green: Design Leads the Way

In my mind, there are three keys to solving the "green equation" of how we can live more sustainably, particularly with respect to energy and natural resource consumption. The first is driven by science and public policy, and has to do with our ability to discover and develop fundamental advances in our ability (as a society/economy) to get the goods and services we need out of the primary inputs we consume, with minimal adverse impact. Clearly, research and development efforts in fields as disparate as biofuels, solar/fuel cells, genetic engineering, carbon sequestration and other core science and technology initiatives are targeting these fronts. To my inexpert eye, the investments we are making here are limited to-date, and the initiatives, though encouraging, are insufficient.

The second piece of the puzzle is cultural, and lies with the willingness of individuals, as consumers and political actors, to make decisions that take into consideration environmental consequences. These decisions include choosing to consume less, pay market premiums for goods and services that provide greater dividends in protecting environmental and natural resources, and promote, through voting and civic engagement, a political climate that supports policies targeting sustainable development. A political and economic climate created by an environmentally conscious public could more effectively create market opportunities for alternative, efficient technologies, fund research in core sciences and technology, re-aligning tax policy to create incentives environmentally responsible behavior, and create a baseline understanding of the values and ethics of "sustainable development." While the cultural sensitivity to certain issues like global warming and a potential energy crisis have been heightened in recent years, I don't think that a true ethic of sustainability is anywhere near close to existing in the U.S. Additionally, as a sometimes student of economics, I'd mention that much 0f what I discuss above is somewhat anathema to parts of economic theory - in that, I believe that people as consumers will have to make economic choices that aren't rational w.r.t. price because of a deeper core set of values, ethics, or understanding about environmental consequences. Consumers will have to shape the market, not vice versa.

The third piece of the puzzle is very much design-driven, and have to do with the ability of architects, engineers, product designers, and policy makers to create appealing consumer choices - in terms of what car to drive, where to live, what to buy, and so on - that align environmentally-positive consequences with benefits that appeal to other values, like status, cost efficiency, comfort, quality of life, aesthetics, and so on. Where I have a dim view of the progress we're making on each of the previous two fronts, I am excited about the cool new products, across all facets of life, that seem to come out every day. While the impact on the bottom line may be modest, it is tangible. And the further impact of these "green" products and policies, if successful may be a heightened environmental consciousness for individuals and greater investment from government and private capital in the fundamental technologies that can allow us to take big steps forward.

I lay out this somewhat abstract framework for two reasons: first, simply to put it out there, to solicit feedback, and to reference in future posts. I hope it is a useful framework. Second, as an excuse to post about a handful of interesting innovations in technology and design recently published in Wired magazine:

- A proposed new dorm at Stanford University, whose theme will be eco-efficiency, but which also proposes to be the "most desirable housing on campus." Thankfully, having gone through Stanford's undergraduate housing lottery, that claim is readily falsifiable. See here for more detailed plans;
- A Jetsonian plan for improving transportation efficiency and quality of life in San Diego, through the deployment of "robot buses." Cool if it works, and a great example of how environmental efficiencies and quality of life improvements can be made in one fell swoop;
- A proposed residential tower in Chicago that falls back on pre-Columbian building design to create a more energy efficient and more pleasant living environment. The simple decision to angle the buildings Southern exposure to maximize passive solar heating in the winter, and minimize direct sunlight in the summer helps keep electricity and heating costs down while letting more natural light in. Not the first time such a dwelling was built in the Americas, and hopefully not the last.

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