A ride on the green rollercoaster

18 October 2012

Following the most recent Global Environment Outlook report, GEO-5, Chris Sherwin felt thoroughly depressed but a look at some green innovations has made him realise that the glass is indeed half full

A percentage of my time is always spent on the look out for interesting and imaginative new green innovations, as is standard practice in most design consultancies.

A side benefit of tracking trends in sustainability in particular is in giving a real sense of the progress we are making in this area. It can be a bit of a green rollercoaster, but the peaks help instil a sense of optimism and hope to counter any growing cynicism.

Two parallel, but connected events really brought this home this summer.

The catalyst for all this was the depressingly ineffectual Rio +20 Summit — a majorly significant international pow-wow to agree the politics of sustainability, which failed to deliver.

What hit me hardest was the publication of the United Nation’s preevent report Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), giving a health check on the state of the planet.

Showing progress made against a series of 90 critically important universal indicators, this report made for seriously bleak reading.

Significant progress has been made on only four indicators (lead free petrol and ozone depletion among them). Some progress was shown in 40 goals, including the expansion of protected areas such as National Parks and efforts to reduce deforestation. But there is little or no progress detected for 24 others — including climate change, fish stocks, desertification and drought.

Further deterioration was posted for eight goals like the state of the world’s coral reefs.

On the one hand, the health of the planet looks increasingly rocky, on the other, this is unleashing a wave of creativity, innovation and great design that leaves me feeling excited and more optimistic

After telling me not to be so depressing and apocalyptic, my design colleagues remind me that it is hard to see any causal link between such high-level, global indicators like desertification and the products they are working on in the design studio.

Other than that we might indirectly increase (pollution, waste or toxic emissions from our innovations) or decrease them (low-carbon innovation). Yet I find all this pretty terrifying.

In parallel though, we were asked by a client to create a best practice showcase for sustainable design featuring the best of how designers are tackling sustainability. This was obviously much more fun and up-beat, but I did find these two oblique things coming together.

On the one hand, the health of the planet looks increasingly rocky, on the other, this is unleashing a wave of creativity, innovation and great design that leaves me feeling excited and more optimistic.

I think it’s worth sharing some of these world-changing examples with you in the hope they’ll lave you excited and optimistic too. It’s probably an idea to google them, as some are best explained through image not text:


A learning thermostat for the 21st Century, NEST has been created by ex-iPod designers.

A million miles from the drab mushroomcoloured box sitting apologetically on your wall, it’s smart, beautiful and simple. It learns your behaviour and adjusts your household temperature settings to your usage patterns even switching off when you leave home or go on holiday.

Method’s ocean plastic packaging

Household cleaning brand Method recently announced intentions to tackle the rising tide of plastic waste by commercialising a packaging innovation using ten per cent plastic material collected from Pacific Ocean waste streams into their product lines from November this year.

Effectively they are ‘cleaning up everyone else’s mess’ through innovation and design.

Caterpillar reman

This is an old case we stumbled across but still worth mentioning. For more than 30 years Caterpillar has been remanufacturing and reusing components from its enormous machines.

This extends to all 6,000 components, which it collects and refurbishes in 30 locations, saving 140 million pounds of materials per year.

The company then sells refurbished and remanufactured products alongside new ones at reduced prices, having passed the same stringent safety and reliability tests.

This is a great example of design for the circular economy.


BMW i sees the global carmaker using an integrated approach to sustainable mobility, extending the brand beyond simply the physical car design.

Mobility apps, like ParkatmyHouse, can find parking spaces in city streets for you, while the Sustainable Neighbourhoods Project, a collaboration with the magazine Wallpaper*, is well worth a look.

It’s exactly the kind of systemfocussed design thinking we need for sustainability breakthroughs.

Sustainable apparel coalition

This game-changing design collaboration features 60 organisations from across the fashion, textiles and apparel value chain.

Its goal is to systematically reduce the environmental and social impacts of how the entire sector designs and manufactures products. Importantly, it features once sworn enemies, like Nike, Puma and Adidas, sitting together to change the way they design, for good.

The above represents pretty much the cutting-edge of sustainable design, innovation and research. And it also worked as a kind of antidote to Rio +20 for me.

Wondering if this is innovative enough for GEO-5, or if any of this could be deemed ‘truly’ sustainable — probably not? At best these are weak signals of how we must innovate, then massively scale up.

But these, and the next wave of great green innovations I expect to unearth over the coming months, help me remain a glass half-full-kind-of-green-guy.

Comments on this article:

Mcor Technologies offers an eco-friendly 3D printer for designers and others. The build material is ordinary paper and the binding agent is water-based. The parts build can be fully recycled. This is unique in the 3D printing industry.

Posted by Julie Reece on Thursday 18 2012 at 11:30 AM

I feel sorry for Chris on this. Faced with a set of indicators that err… ‘indicate’ that we are going to hell in a handbag, designers who fail to connect with these indicators and the nagging doubt that even sustainable innovations may cause indirectly even more pollution and waste etc. he only seems armed with a set of positives that will make a marginal impact on the headwind of doom. Smart thermostats may help us with our individual bills (ignoring the fact that one reason our bills are so expensive is the historical lack of real investment in R&D in energy efficiency at the point of generation over the past 50 years, plus having failed to build sufficient generating capacity (of whatever type) in the UK especially over the past 20 years). Refurbishment of expensive capital goods and components is an honourable way of extending the life of expensive non fashion oriented products, although in many cases what is needed is brand new technologies that completely replace existing technologies. Refurbishing old energy inefficient TVs would hardly make sense – not everything fits into the idea of the circular economy and in fact indicates that it will often hold back innovation. The BMW/Wallpaper Sustainable Neighbourhoods project involving students – “scouring their nearest megacity for a suitable neighbourhood case study to act as a catalyst for creative thinking about how short term cultural and technological evolution will have an impact on the way we live tomorrow” will, I am sure have a big impact on the lives of people living in the less fashionable housing estates in Coventry and Glasgow. Even if, with the fashion example industries across the board managed to‘ systematically reduce the environmental and social impacts of how the entire sector designs and manufacturing – then the problem Sustainable-istas have is that in their world view the world and its resources will get ‘used up’ because the World is seen as static and its resources as ‘finite’. Sustainability seems to be based on ‘innovations’ for (i) increasing efficiency (ok – but should that not be happening anyway through normal engineering or product design – most customers large and small would hope so?) (ii) desperate attempts to modify behaviour either through guilt tripping, or neo Orwellian ‘nudge’ techniques (iii) the idea that we are getting many natural resources for free. Let us imagine as simple but important historical example and think where that analysis would have got us: if instead of building a fine (and invisible) sewer network Bazzalgette has instead insisted that the citizens of London instead had to separate out their ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ waste and put it in separate containers to be taken away by horse and cart every two weeks where would we be now? Depressed certainly, the ones who thought that approach would work probably suicidal, given the number of preventable deaths through disease that would have occurred. Cheerleaders for sustainability must realise that worthy and positive as their aims may be and the example Chris has given, in their own terms they will not work. This is for many reasons, primarily because all of these ideas lack the ambition for large engineering based (many of which haven’t even been thought of yet- but let’s stop living as if we have run out of revolutionary, transformative ideas) that Bazzalgette and his ilk had. Reducing and recycling (cradle to cradle) and chipping away (‘every little helps’) actually is anti-innovative, because it ignores the possibility of for example resource substitution (as happened with wood->coal->uranium) – just because we don’t yet know what the substituting resources are doesn’t mean we have to panic or get depressed- not a good state to be in for innovation. With developments and discoveries like Graphene and perhaps other developments with silicon (not going to run out) not to mention in the fields of Genetics and GM – with millions being bought out of poverty in China and even signs of it through development in Africa – there is less need to be depressed. Not everything is rosy – and new problems will emerge – but with more well fed bodies around more brains to solve them. Final example: even with apparently irreplaceable resources such as fish, why not have the ambition to research and develop sea going, robot shepherded farmed, fish. If a farmed steak can be delicious why not a fish?

Posted by Paul Reves on Thursday 22 2012 at 02:47 PM

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