As world leaders descend on the COP26 conference and plant-based canapés in Glasgow this week, our collective attention will rightly be focused on the climate crisis we are living in and ways of tackling it. Mostly it’s about priorities. The science is increasingly hard to ignore and citizens are holding their governments to account. Public and private organisations, as well as individuals all have a role to play and there is an urgency to act like never before.
Most individuals are now aware of the stark correlation (and contradiction in carrying on) between our high-growth economies and consumer behaviour and keeping our global emissions below a level that will limit the rate of global warming to a threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Some may argue this is still too high and others will certainly lobby to carry on with business as usual — but this arbitrary figure seems to have captured the collective imagination and formed a consensus, a common goal to aim for. The figure can be used as a metric, a tool to hold governments, businesses and individuals to account about their polluting activities.
Engineering and innovation has solved many large-scale problems in the past and it’s clear that technologists have a role to play in finding a way out of this economic, environmental cul-de-sac. At the same time, it’s important and timely to question some fundamental assumptions. How responsible is innovation for driving carbon emissions in the first place? What is the role of engineers and entrepreneurs shaping new technologies in reigning in rampant emissions and decarbonising our future economies? It is too easy to wrap ourselves in the comfort of the technocratic view that we can frame a problem, assign immense resources to it and solution-engineer our way out of global crisis. What I feel is lacking in this approach is the question of individual behaviour change? How can we all start taking a proactive role in fixing our broken system — at the same time as professionals and as individual consumers? What will drive accountability or ownership of the problem? These are the questions I find myself asking and in this post I want to examine the relationship between the solutions we are developing, the resources new innovations require and the need to embrace alternatives to growth-based technology solutions if we want to effectively de-escalate our climate emergency.
Degrowth — busting myths
There is a new wave of economics that is questioning our reliance on and obsession with an over-simplified and increasingly redundant economic indicator (gross domestic product or GDP). The fundamental issue seems to be that it does not assign enough value to other worthy elements of a healthy society, economy or planet. A year-on-year metric which must always go up fails to paint an accurate picture of the public health of a nation, changing demographics or loss of biodiversity, all of which and more have an undeniable impact on economic activity. By looking to better measure progress in economic, societal and environmental terms it may be important to expand our ‘dashboard’ of metrics beyond the single gauge of GDP.
Does this mean that we must go back to hunting and gathering our food, cooking by campfire and living in caves? I very much believe not (although some people seem to think it makes for a jolly good holiday)! Shaping our old economic systems and building new ones that are not solely focused on short-term economic gain doesn’t automatically mean poverty and suffering. By assigning more value to the health of the planet and those living on it, surely IS the way we can secure long-term success.
For example, a business making it its fundamental mission to provide value in a community, a decent living for their employees, protect natural environments and return a fair and appropriate profit to its investors will suffer if the metrics it is evaluated on are solely focused on year-on-year growth and share price hike. It’s undeniable that despite their ‘poor performance’ by traditional standards, they are creating value, a value that needs to be quantified and recognised systematically. Reshaping this short-termist thinking, reprioritising core values and measuring success in more holistic ways is arguably behind the term degrowth.
What does this mean for us engineers, makers, technologists? Must we down tools and return to the wilderness and build tools out of twigs and leaves? Are the only two alternatives really…
Colonising space or living in caves?
Neither, please, as far as I’m concerned.
Part of human nature is a fundamental curiosity about the world around us. It is by fostering this urge to explore that we have been able to evolve, adapt and change course as individuals and as a species and build comfort, convenience, beauty and security into our lives and societies. This curiosity and increasingly sophisticated set of tools at our disposal helps us push boundaries — exploring continents, converting raw materials, dreaming beyond the horizon. Can we really fault scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs for thinking big and embracing this very human condition of pushing boundaries and discovery? On one level I can relate to the wonder and excitement that comes with imagining, designing and building technology to solve problems previously thought unsolvable (regardless of the scale of impact). In this time of global environmental crisis, it’s easy to adopt this mindset, and with caution it should be.
What I am more concerned about is that we seem to focus all this attention on pushing a model that has already wreaked havoc to one planet. Part of good engineering is learning from mistakes — this is a difficult process — it hurts pride, professional ego, requires introspection and hard truths. Thanks to rigorous science we now have a superior understanding of the impact of sustained economic growth on the health of our planet, ecosystems and society. The logical next step then, is to change course, act and continue to evolve with this new information at hand — just like an agile business would. Ignoring the science when it is painting an increasingly stark picture of racing towards a cliff edge is arguably less excusable than pure ignorance itself. As engineers, we pride ourselves on taking as many factors into account when designing a solution as we possibly can — surely we must build the environmental impact of exponential growth into our models.
Engineering new systems — open sourcing appropriate technology
System change is a hefty subject that occupies thinkers across many disciplines. Economists and financiers are debating new structures and models for a more circular economy. Sociologists and policymakers are shaping new ideas on how society could function without the onus on growth. Architects, engineers and makers will design and build better tools, environments and processes with the latest scientific knowledge and historical evidence. This latter area is where I have the most understanding and motivation to exert change — in mindset first, then in action.
First, let us rewind to a few decades ago, at the dawn of the information age, when personal computing and Internet connections became a reality for many. Online forums on all manner of niche subjects evolved to help people working on similar topics connect, share findings and approaches. This dynamic, democratic, inexpensive exchange of ideas, along with advances in computer science and electronics (making computer chips small, powerful and cheap — a growth paradox certainly!) has given rise to a brand of open-source, diy, enthusiast engineer — solving problems in ingenious, creative ways. There’s a motto amongst entrepreneurial developers and engineers — make something that solves a real pain point in your life. Once you have solved it, look around and see who else has got a similar problem. You’ve just solved their problem too!
Sharing knowledge is nothing new, in a way open-source principles go back to the fundamental aims of academia — freedom of thought and sharing experience with peers. For centuries we have built a culture around science which relies on shared knowledge, exchange of ideas and constructive criticism. The scientific progress resulting from this ‘melting pot of ideas’ has progressed society in countless ways. Understanding our bodies and biological processes means healthier, longer lives. New materials mean warmer, stronger buildings and homes. Climate research helps us understand the impact we have on our planet. In short, open-sourcing ideas is a driver for progress in society. When we talk about open-source technology in a modern engineering context, we often refer to software or code that has been published online to be used, modified and benefitted from freely. It’s like an encyclopaedia, or rather a vast, distributed library of techniques and instructions to solve problems with computers.
In the more physical disciplines of engineering, we are now seeing slow but steady embrace of open source principles. Electronics have become small, low-cost, readily available. With embedded software, enthusiasts and professionals alike can develop connected devices at negligible hardware cost and virtually free software. The investment becomes that of time and effort, which is absolutely worthwhile. Spending time understanding, framing the problem that the solution proposes to fix, requires much more localised knowledge, communication and creativity (what humans are good at). It makes sense to assume that is where unique value is created and so the time and cost of getting it right is justified. Once the problem is correctly framed and the motivations for solving it becomes clear, building a solution with open-source technologies (increasingly in the physical realm too) becomes less of a challenge.
The coming years will see an expansion of open source ideas in more diverse disciplines of technology. People are sharing designs for farm tools, plant-based, biodegradable materials, robotics, automation, connected and distributed systems to solve real-world problems with the appropriate amount of complexity. The work becomes less about re-inventing the wheel and more about integrating a set of peer-reviewed, trusted and stable subsystems into a working, evolving, dynamic system. An active maintainer role must be assumed for the modern engineer. A system never really being ready, complete or finished, supporting a solution through its lifecycle becomes a necessity. Contributing to resources that were used becomes a shared incentive for both user and the wider community. Chances are that the evolution of an open-source project is valuable to a wider community too — other engineers, makers, tinkerers, designers or artists grappling with similar problems. Community building and sharing knowledge becomes a way of not only making connections, but building better, more resilient and more holistic solutions.
So why am I encouraging this new, collaborative approach to designing and building technology solutions? One reason is how we have come to frame failure in our growth-obsessed economies as something to be aware of. It’s a money pit, a time warp, bad for business. This is true, if we look at short-term goals. However, not allowing ourselves to fail in turn increases pressure on having to succeed. Succeeding at all costs is risky, illogical and unsustainable. Yet we seem to still believe that great new innovations can happen without experimentation. Let’s face it, experimentation is all about failure. We need to re-frame failure as an opportunity to learn, to do it better next time, to explore alternatives. By engineering as a community, we can learn from each others’ mistakes and celebrate a shared successes. Embracing small, iterative, incremental improvements to a system allows it to evolve. When deemed important enough, a community can swarm around a project and grow it quickly, iteratively to something that has been investigated, reviewed and tested form many angles. In short, more than the sum of its parts.
Businesses are now recognising the value of open-source too. In a shift from protectionism, there’s a valid alternative to patenting new research and locking it away as a form of speculation. Instead, the value proposition is reversed and a user and developer community is actively encouraged to adopt and modify a new library, technique or tool and then enthuse to their respective communities about it. It allows a system or solution to be the best it can be (supported by a peer network of contributors and reviewers) and to fit into more diverse solutions more readily. It requires us to seek value, not in the puzzle piece, but in the overall picture.
I propose that through open-sourcing our technology needs we can better debate what is truly needed and what is superfluous to our shared goal of limiting global emissions. I propose that through open-source technology solutions we can engineer what is needed instead of what we can create a market for. It’s the pull vs push argument borrowed from lean manufacturing, that could very well find meaning in the climate solution context.
As we all watch the next climate technology solutions being presented at COP26, let’s ask ourselves the question — is this solving a problem that needs solving? Is the proposal using more resources to develop said technology than its ultimate climate impact will be? Could we be looking at solutions that are already out there? How can we change our mindset (as citizens, employees and consumers) to understand and effectively communicate our needs? What can we live without? What solution can I pull from the open-source community?
Appropriate tech solutions will drive the reduction in our consumption, energy use and emissions and regenerate the planet we live all call home.