Disegno No.9

2°C – the roundtable


25 September 2015

On 30 November the leaders of 196 nations will descend on Paris in order to manage the “climatic disruption that threatens our societies and our economies”. The premise is simple: there is no longer a question about whether climate change is happening. It is. Or even why. It is human-made.

This event in Paris, the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), piqued Disegno’s interest. If climate change is occurring – and 98 per cent of climate scientists agree that it is, predominantly as a result of greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels – how should the design world relate to this? What role might design play in addressing a problem of this scale?

For the Disegno No.9 residency, we decided to examine the way in which climate change is communicated. We asked twelve leading designers to reconsider the campaign’s public face, asking them to consider how climate change might be presented so that a familiar story feels fresh and provides a new impetus to action.

The need for greater public understanding of climate change is crucial. The aim of COP21 is to find ways to prevent the global temperature from rising by more than 2°C, a UN target that was agreed in 2009. Should this target fail to be met – and at present rates of fossil fuel consumption the world is on track to heat up by 4°C or 5°C by the end of the century – dangerous climate change will take place, with huge swathes of the planet becoming uninhabitable, subject to flooding, desertification, or severe food and water scarcity.

Considering the outcomes of such a temperature rise, it is shocking that the issue does not garner more attention in mainstream and social media. “Changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list,” wrote Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor-in-chief in March. “The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers… Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead.” 

Disegno wanted to examine whether design could play a role in remedying this. Design is frequently described as problem solving, but clearly no single discipline will solve climate change on its own. Instead, we wished to set a more modest target: could design trigger a shift in the way that we perceive global warming?

None of the proposals that are exhibited throughout this issue provide a final solution or a campaign that is ready for roll-out, but they do prod and probe, raising questions and asking us to consider a problem that we will all have to tackle before long. All of the proposals are also included and furthered in an accompanying exhibition at The Aram Gallery that was designed by Universal Design studio and curated by The Aram Gallery’s Riya Patel. 

Following the completion of the residency, Disegno invited several of the contributing designers to come together to discuss climate change. The resultant conversation is documented below and provides an insight into the designers’ research, the thinking behind the final proposals, as well as the failings of the existing communication of tclimate change. “There isn’t enough campaigning,” noted Cathrin Walczyk, a designer at Universal Design Studio and one of the participants in the roundtable. “That’s the fundamental issue.” This is what 2°C aims to tackle. 

Roundtable participants: Hannah Carter Owers (Universal Design Studio), Jessica Charlesworth (Parsons & Charlesworth), Ilona Gaynor (The Department of No), Ross Lovegrove (FutureAir and Ross Lovegrove Studio), Tim Parsons (Parsons & Charlesworth), Luke Pearson (PearsonLloyd), Simone Rothman (FutureAir), Cathrin Walczyk (Universal Design Studio)

What are the problems with how climate change is communicated at the moment?

Ross Lovegrove Climate change is not a fashion or a trend, it’s a fundamental part of life. When you work as a designer and visit all sorts of factories and fairs, you become very sensitive to the vast scale at which things are produced, which causes a dilemma. Industry is both good and evil. It’s there to improve life, but I still don’t know where all this stuff goes. But how can we influence the people we work with? Commerce and shares are often a big negative because they drive the wrong value system. A lot of the things we may talk about here don’t always go down well when you’re talking to producers who are not doing so well as to be able to invest in things that might affect their profitability.

Ross Lovegrove

Ilona Gaynor I have a tendency to run away from the mawkishness that occurs in relation to climate change. Images of polar bears and tigers that are going to become extinct are dull and so far removed from the realities of the gritty, chicken wing-floored London life that we actually experience. Everything is so far removed from our reality that we just can’t imagine the effect on our everyday lives. The cynicism surrounding that is what interests me. Images of polar bears and ice caps melting are incredibly cynical. They’re obviously true, but there’s a falseness in us actually giving a shit in caring about them.

Luke Pearson I really feel like I’m part of the generation of pure choice. We can decide what we want to do for a living, where we want to live, whether we want to be a hippy or wealthy. I went to college at a time when mass production was moving from global to local and things were really changing at an incredible pace. Everything was getting cheaper, yet it was clear that we couldn’t keep expanding. So when we started looking at this brief we plugged in “climate change” to Google and you get these very dull images that, mostly, are incomprehensible. They don’t mean anything to me because I’ve never seen an iceberg. I can imagine what one would look like, but to imagine that nine tenths of it are under the sea? I can’t imagine the scale of that. So I think the problem is scale. The scale of the problem is enormous. What we fundamentally need to do is relate that back to the human being and to make every single person realise that they have a choice.

Hannah Carter-Owers Fear of change makes the situation absolutely stifling. Fear makes us run away and stick our heads in the sand and for us this particular exercise was quite a selfish pursuit. We wanted to address our own fear of change by imagining possible futures. It’s only once we’re used to that language of talking about change in a more positive way that you can start to come up with ideas to help us move forward. But at the moment we’re petrified and stifled, even though people are ready to engage. We need to find different ways of engaging.

Luke Pearson

LP For us, this project was about bringing communication down to a human level so people feel empowered. People don’t feel that they're empowered, because they’re all a part of a big system and a global machine that rolls on. But of course, a collective of 7.3 billion people all acting consciously and carefully is a huge influence. Communication should be about showing that everybody has an opportunity, which is where most existing campaigns fail. They’re generally too dramatic and all about doom and gloom. “What the heck, I can’t do anything, I’ll carry on as normal.”

Tim Parsons All of the existing narratives, whether they’re true or contested, are stories. One of the things that jumped out to us from our research is the notion that if you tell a story in a compelling enough way, it can last. There is a very interesting talk given by the writer Neil Gaiman, in which he mentions a gentleman called Thomas Sebeok, who in the early 1980s wrote a report for the U.S. Department of Energy. Sebeok was asked to devise a method for communicating the dangers of nuclear waste storage sites, which have a radioactive life of 10,000 years plus. So it was an interesting design problem, because written language can change its meaning over that time, as can pictograms. His conclusion was that the only solution would be to come up with some kind of compelling story that would be passed down through generations like folklore. That story doesn't have to be true, it just has to be gripping, which points to our problem: the stories we’re being told about climate change are not even gripping enough to contain our own generation’s mental energy. If we can’t manage to tell ourselves a story that we are prepared to pass on, then what hope do we have?

Cathrin Walczyk Part of the problem of the climate change campaign is that it’s very academic as a subject, spanning across very many actors and issues. I think designers can help by being a lens on the debate, pulling out the relevant bits and presenting them in a fresh way, rather than mirroring the complexity of high-level academic discussion.

RL There’s something fundamentally wrong with the big picture. There are so many interrelated problems, which a designer designing objects can’t solve.They can rationalise them maybe, but there’s still a political level.

Simone Rothman

Simone Rothman I don’t think we can design our way out of this problem. Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, which seems a while ago in the scheme of things and a lot more damage has been done since then. There is a lot of discussion right now in the U.S. about the root of the problem and how we got where we are today, a lot of which is political. There is an amazing book by Naomi Klein called This Changes Everything, which is really about how our climate problem could actually be the solution to the next wave of capitalism. There are solutions out there, but we’re stuck in a system that doesn’t allow them to be implemented. It’s a really scary time right now and I don’t think people fully realise how scary it is yet.

HCO People still don’t know what to do on a grassroots level, but we can’t sit around waiting for policymakers to tell us what to do. As designers we can do the groundwork so that by the time policymakers reach decisions we’re already more receptive to change. I was recently talking to an elderly neighbour of my mother, who was the rations mistress in her village. It was her job to look after the ration tokens and make sure that everybody received their allowance. I started looking at the messaging around rationing and there was a lot of positivity surrounding it. People had already suffered the catastrophe of the war, so they needed to feel good about what they were doing. It’s actually interesting looking at that, rather than looking at the catastrophe that is now happening or waiting to happen.

IG But there’s something interesting about embracing the dark enlightenment and accepting the fact that it’s over. Designers, instead of designing things by brute force and forcing them on the environment, as all designers do now, could begin designing for the best of what we’ve got left. We’re past a point of no return and could actually enjoy the rotting of the Earth, being quite content to watch it fall apart because we’ve made that happen. It’s a completely alternative opinion I know, but designers can begin to adapt, rather than continue to propose things that are preventative when we’ve already crossed the Rubicon.

LP We have got to prepare for some pretty horrible things ahead of us. Our fundamental psychology is based around an idea of growth and acquisition, which is probably built into our DNA. But we are smart enough to start questioning that and challenging it. The problem is that our economic structure is based on growth. You go to school, acquire knowledge with the idea of bettering and furthering yourself. That's generally based on acquisition: earn more, have better surroundings, more opportunities. The whole economic framework we’ve developed is about that, but it also tends to promote the acquisition of goods, the generation of product. All those things take energy and resources and are finite.Tim mentioned pictograms and a short period of communication, but we have had an even shorter period of industrial development. We’ve created phenomenal change in an extraordinarily short period of time, all based on an absolutely horrible premise: growth. Companies talk about success in terms of growth, they don’t talk about it in terms of quality or sustainability. This is the fundamental problem.

Hannah Carter Owers

HCO I think as designers we need to be careful that we’re not facilitating guilt-free consumption and designing things that feel OK to keep consuming. I know plenty of people who have gotten rid of gas-guzzling cars, bought new hybrids and felt that that was a very positive thing to do. But the car they just got rid of is still around. It’s either going to landfill or will be driven by someone else. It’s about changing behaviour rather than the products we consume.

LP I read a piece of documentation that said if you heat the average London home to 21°C, which most of us would say is comfortable, then raising that figure to 23°C doubles your heating bill. That’s effectively twice as much CO2. So put a jumper on instead. People can do things that will have a positive impact and what designers promote in the products they create also has a knock-on effect. These things can become viral and designers can start to produce things that challenge how people want to consume products. We can talk about if local is good, or whether having to ship from China very slowly under a sail-powered ship is better than driving at 50MPH on the back of a truck. The system we inhabit is highly complex and without education it will remain elusive in terms of how we actually do the right thing within it. But we have to start this debate and we can’t just say it’s too complicated. We also have to be careful not to preach. We’re in the developed West, but certain parts of the world have come out of very poor subsistence economies and suddenly have opportunities in front of them, which are driven by our consumption. We have to educate and build a healthy environment in which the culture can change, rather than just laying down laws.

RL The disappointment is that emerging cultures and economics should benefit from the new systems and technologies the world has to offer, yet they fall into the old trap of luxury consumption and aspiration. That’s sad, because you don’t recover from that.

TP There's a question of whether to be optimistic or pessimistic, utopian or dystopian in communicating this. But we felt it’s not particularly useful to polarise one way or another in this situation. We were really keen to create a fiction that held a mirror up to the viewer and invited them to question the idea of individual action. Is it futile or is it something that actually, if enough of us did our bit, would really make things change? One thing stories can do, by temporarily removing you from your reality and the stories you’ve been told, is tell a slightly different story, even if it’s a parallel one. Then there is a possibility of people reflecting on their own situation.

Cathrin Walczyk

Jessica Charlesworth We were keen not to tell anybody what to do, because we didn’t feel that we were in a position to do so. To change behaviour is very difficult and we were interested in how you could imagine a culture of change in a group of people. What can individuals do? We wanted to learn about geoengineering and mitigation, and I became interested in some of Margaret Atwood’s writing about different technological impacts, such as carbon sequestration. Could people take on a very absurd set of technologies for their own way of life? How far could people take a local, individualistic geo-engineering, if there even is such a thing? Would it be so absurd as to be futile, or would it get everybody on board to have a go at changing their behaviour?

TP We were keen that our story was about actually doing something, about making, because so many of these narratives that we’re fed are about limits. We all know that limits will help, but they they have not proved compelling as a narrative. To Luke’s earlier point, everybody knows we should just put on another jumper in place of turning the thermostat up, but how many people actually do that? That mode of communication is not getting through.

LP I think, unfortunately, not everybody does know that putting a jumper on will save your heating bill by a factor of two. As Hannah said, a lot of people have gotten rid of gas guzzlers to get a Prius, not realising that a far greater impact was created in building that Prius in the first place. We have to be optimistic about the power of education and information, which can be delivered in lots of different ways. I’m an incredible pessimist, but I’ve got two children, who have changed my belief system. The reality of the matter is that I have to believe that I can promote change and believing somehow that society can maintain itself and sustain itself.

IG I think there’s an interesting point in relation to children. We know that children are the denizens of the future and it makes sense to make them the target audience for these visions of tomorrow’s world and how we should do things to affect the future in terms of climate change. But that effect is very disconcerting. There’s this completely ridiculous, absurd talking down to children about how the world is happy as long as you’re happy. Putting on a jumper? I just don’t believe that those kinds of messages hit home or put across deep-seated change. I think it needs to almost be horror, to put across the pessimistic.

CW I want to add to this idea of whether campaigns are optimistic or pessimistic. To me it doesn’t matter. There isn’t enough campaigning, which is the fundamental issue. The reality of my takeaway coffee, for instance, is that the cup takes 140l of water to make. One cup. So ever since I did this research, I’ve been running around thinking “Oh my God, what can I eat, what can I drink?” Everything has such a big impact and if only there was a will to communicate this to people, change would be possible. But it’s not fashionable, it’s not sexy. Campaigning is about choices.