January 2, 2013
"We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system."

Mark Bittman is always worth reading on the topic of food, and I loved this op ed, Fixing the Food Problem, in the New York Times in which he makes the case for both a systematic re-imagining of the way in which the food we consume is produced and distributed and our need to be patient while we do so. Reminiscent of Bill Buxton’s Long Nose of Innovation theory, it also reminded me of a conversation with an executive working on trying to innovate healthcare: laying the foundation is important and unflashy, she told me, when I was trying to figure out a story angle to impress both my editors and readers. As she explained, she wouldn’t be able to give me the all-important results or payoff on which I could hang my story of the progress of her work, because she wouldn’t know them herself for a decade or so. So that stopped me.

We’re all too impatient to see the fruits of our labor. This piece reminds us that every step we take is important, not just the ones when we triumphantly cross the line at the end of the journey. (And, of course, the end is never the end, anyway.)

July 20, 2012
Interesting research project from General Electric, which is working with Chart Industries and scientists at the University of Missouri to develop an at-home natural gas refueling station. Including a grant from ARPA-E for the work, the project will take 28 months and cost $2.3 million. GE’s release explains: “At-home refueling stations are sold today, but are expensive (~$5000) and require long re-fueling times. The 5-8 hours required to refuel an NG vehicle often leaves overnight re-fueling as the only the viable option for vehicle owners. While these barriers can be more easily managed by established fleets, they are not practical for passenger vehicles parked in the driveway or garage at home.” The goal of the program: to encourage wider adoption of natural gas vehicles, which for the most part currently consist of fleet vehicles such as buses and delivery trucks, and to accelerate the adoption of natural gas as a transportation fuel.

[Story via Marilyn Brda]

Interesting research project from General Electric, which is working with Chart Industries and scientists at the University of Missouri to develop an at-home natural gas refueling station. Including a grant from ARPA-E for the work, the project will take 28 months and cost $2.3 million. GE’s release explains: “At-home refueling stations are sold today, but are expensive (~$5000) and require long re-fueling times. The 5-8 hours required to refuel an NG vehicle often leaves overnight re-fueling as the only the viable option for vehicle owners. While these barriers can be more easily managed by established fleets, they are not practical for passenger vehicles parked in the driveway or garage at home.” The goal of the program: to encourage wider adoption of natural gas vehicles, which for the most part currently consist of fleet vehicles such as buses and delivery trucks, and to accelerate the adoption of natural gas as a transportation fuel.
[Story via Marilyn Brda]

April 9, 2012
Unilever’s Open Innovation “Wants”

In Why Unilever Is Betting On Open Innovation For Sustainability, Joel Makower reports how Unilever is pushing the envelope when it comes to open innovation, having published its own list of ‘wants’ on which it is actively seeking outside help. These range from super serious, world-challenging issues (“safe drinking water”) to rather less dramatic problems that are clearly important for Unilever (“amazing toothpaste”.) Here’s the full list:
  1. Safe drinking water: Bring safe water to the world’s poorest people
  2. Fighting viruses: Develop a new active ingredient that combats viruses.
  3. Better packaging: Create lighter and more sustainable packaging.
  4. Sustainable washing: Discover new technologies for sustainable washing.
  5. Less salt: Reduce the amount of sodium in food.
  6. Amazing toothpaste: We’re looking for new sensations, new flavors, and new ingredients.
  7. Preserving food, naturally: Help us develop natural methods for preserving food.
  8. Storing renewable energy: Can you help us bring cost-effective energy to millions?
  9. Sustainable showering: Do you have ideas about sustainable showering?
  10. Change consumer behavior: Develop new devices fo help consumers make sustainable decisions.

The Green Biz piece also includes an interview with Roger Leech, who’s Open Innovation Portfolio & Scouting director at Unilever. I liked this quote, which highlights the complexity of open innovation… and that the idea itself is just the “first and easiest part” of the process. “It’s never a straightforward process to find an idea and turn it straight into an innovation in the market. It’s very much a case of looking at the right ideas and looking at the technologies and the capabilities needed to develop those into something that can be taken into the market.”

[Story via Peter Laundy]

February 12, 2012
"The biggest resistance was an investment in the way things are done today. But I don’t think it’s going to be difficult going forward to dye textiles using zero water."

Eric Sprunk is the vice president of Merchandising and Product at Nike, and I was really taken with this comment, in a piece looking at the sportswear giant’s recent announcement of a bid to remove water from its apparel dying process. Color It Green: Nike To Adopt Waterless Textile Dying details a new partnership between Nike and the Dutch company, DyeCoo Textile Systems, and is clearly a huge deal for environmentalists. Water is already a focal point in our collective fight for survival, and any initiative that can either remove its use upstream (as it were) in the product development cycle, or prevent rampant pollution of it downstream is significant. As this article notes, up to 150 liters of water are needed to process just one kilogram of textile materials; 39 million tons of polyester will be dyed annually by 2015. That’s an awful lot of water, and the pollution levels in China are already horrible: this piece refers to the countless billions of gallons of polluted discharges into waterways near manufacturing plants in Asia.” 

But look at the quote again. The open admission of the internal resistance to change is really interesting, and an excellent reminder that innovation is never easy, even within those companies such as Nike that are constantly lauded for their innovation prowess. It’s important to remember that every single executive in every single firm meets the same forces, the ones that deliberately—and for the most rational reasons possible—attempt to prevent change. Acknowledging and dealing with these forces consciously and deliberately is the only way to have an impact—both within an organization, and in the world at large.

[Nike announcement via Andrew Zolli; Green Biz story via Adam Aston.]

February 2, 2012
"Through this year’s record-setting run of 100-degree days [Sandra Barry and husband, James McNown] were racking up minuscule $13 monthly electric bills."

Off the Grid in the City is an interesting New York Times piece by Karrie Jacobs about SOL Austin, “an ambitious attempt to upend the conventions of the American subdivision,” designed by architect Chris Krager and Russell M Becker, owner of the construction company, Beck-Reit & Sons. Loved the insight into the complexity and challenges of trying to create a “net zero” sustainable suburb, and the insight afforded by the quote above. It’s those kinds of cold, hard figures that will drive the behavior change (and solar array installation) we need to see.

September 6, 2011
"There’s no guarantee the work we do will have any impact… but there’s the very real risk that it may."

Letting Go: On Design in a Time of Disruption is a great presentation from the mobile designers at Edinburgh-based company, Yiibu

August 31, 2011

Overlooking the fact that even if we could go back to the start, we probably wouldn’t really want to (it’s not modernity that’s the problem, it’s how we’ve chosen to use it) this is a beautiful piece of animation by Johnny Kelly, and an amazing cover of a Coldplay song by country legend, Willie Nelson. And, yes, it’s also a check in the sustainable cred (ad) box for fast food restaurant, Chipotle.

(Video via Scott Crawford.)

August 22, 2011
"We humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability. The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth and profits, which is likely to cause suffering on a vast scale. With foresight and thoughtful planning, this suffering is completely avoidable."

Can Jeremy Grantham Profit From Ecological Mayhem? is a simply wonderful NYT Magazine profile of “big-picture pessimist”, Jeremy Grantham, public face of $100 billion asset management firm GMO, who also has a solid sideline in environmental activism as head of the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. Might seem like a strange mix, but frustrated ecowarriors should heed his assertion that

The rather burdensome thought is that people won’t listen to environmentalists, but they will sometimes listen to people like me.

There’s a lesson there for environmentalists (speaking in language understood by those with the power and money to make a difference at scale is a critical skill) as well as for anyone thinking about the enormous matter of environmental innovation. And, if recasting global warming or climate change as an issue of finite resources is what it takes to get people to take the action the world needs, well, so be it.

August 18, 2011
"We don’t love things because they’re non-toxic and biodegradable—we love them because they move the head and the heart. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern—it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet."

Great piece from Lance Hosey, author of the forthcoming book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design. In The Sustainability of Beauty, he debates the squishiness of the definition of sustainability, and asks some important questions:

  • What if we created a different approach to aesthetics, one based on intelligence, not intuition?
  • Can we be as smart about how things look as we are about how they work?

(Story via Valerie Casey.)

August 11, 2011
RIP Ray Anderson: Tomorrow’s Child

Green Biz’s Joel Makower writes a nice appreciation of Interface’s Ray Anderson, who died earlier this week. The charismatic company founder made a name for the huge strides he took toward creating sustainable business practices in what had previously been an incredibly un-green field. Makower writes that Anderson used to finish most presentations with a rendition of this poem, written by an Interface employee inspired by the company leader’s environmental vision. Makower concludes:

That Anderson made it his signature speaks volumes about this Southern industrialist, a businessman thoroughly committed to all that sustainability stands for.

Here’s the poem:

Tomorrow’s Child

Without a name, an unseen face

and knowing not your time nor place

Tomorrow’s Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.

 A wise friend introduced us two,

and through his sobering point of view
I saw a day that you would see,
a day for you, but not for me.

Knowing you has changed my thinking,

for I never had an inkling
That perhaps the things I do

might someday, somehow, threaten you.

Tomorrow’s Child, my daughter-son
I’m afraid I’ve just begun
To think of you and of your good,
Though always having known I should.

Begin I will to weigh the cost

of what I squander, what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.

July 26, 2011

Stop motion loveliness: The Joy of Fix was animated by Claire Lever and Steven Boot, with photography by Martin Kelly and concept by Olivia Knight. It was created to promote Do The Green Thing, a “not-for-profit public service that inspires people to lead a greener life.” Co-founded by newish Pentagram partner, Naresh Ramchandani, the site features “brilliant videos and inspiring stories.” Cynicism alert: I’m not sure this video will actually inspire anyone to mend anything, but it is rather lovely to watch.

July 25, 2011
"[The potential of design contests]… is tremendous. They can stimulate fresh thinking on intractable challenges. They can pose new questions, explore new solutions and start new conversations. They can bring positive energy to bear on situations that are otherwise bogged down in endless talk. They can foster connections between people who would not otherwise meet one another. Above all, design and sustainability challenges can yield such evocative “preferred states” that diverse groups can be motivated to try and make those outcomes actually happen. Can — but for the most part, don’t."

— I’ve either judged or observed the judging of numerous design contests, and it’s safe to say that no one has yet truly cracked the challenge of the challenge. In Ten Ways to Redesign Design Competitions, sustainability author John Thackara suggests improvements for those wanting to put on a design contest, concluding pithily, “do it properly or don’t do it.”

July 14, 2011
"The next innovation frontier is about breaking away from resource dependence, decoupling growth and consumption, and prolonging product life cycles."

In Over-Innovation Makes U.S. Firms Suck at Sustainability, Danish authors Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen make the case that for all of the United States’ vaunted skill at growth, transformation and innovation, the massive nation is missing a fundamental problem: the tax that the focus on perpetual reinvention places on the environment. The piece fails to acknowledge that the United States is a large environmental culprit *because it is a large country* but the authors make a good case for new areas of brand focus: to “standardize, slow down and redefine consumption.” They write:

The next innovation frontier is about breaking away from resource dependence, decoupling growth and consumption, and prolonging product life cycles.

July 13, 2011
"Congress should continue its recent institutional experimentation through measured expansion of such recent start-ups as the Energy Frontier Research Centers, ARPA-E, and Energy Innovation Hubs programs. Two worthy additional experiments would be the creation of a water sciences innovation center and the establishment of a regional clean economy consortia initiative."

Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment is a report on the clean tech economy published by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in collaboration with Battelle’s Technology Partnership Practice. Their goal: to figure out what’s really going on in “clean economy” industries in the United States. This piece on Green Biz does a good job of breaking it all down, while I was also interested in the report’s advice for how the federal government should think about working with the private sector to spur innovation (above.)

(Story via Adam Aston.)

June 27, 2011
Sustainable Design: It’s About the System, Not the Product

In Sustainable Design is Wearing Thin, writer Justin McGuirk looks at the sustainable design movement, and finds it sorely lacking. Sustainability, he writes, “suggests the flatlining of human ambition” while sticking a recycled logo on a product can’t really be credited with provoking thoughtful environmental behavior. The underlying problem, he continues:

is that consumers, and often designers, too, are bewildered by what really constitutes a sustainable product. You can’t judge it by looking it at; you have to know the object’s past and future – whether it’s made of renewable or recyclable materials, how much energy went into its production, how it’s going to be disposed of. It’s not objects that are unsustainable, it’s the systems that produce them. And designers have to steer their clients towards sustainable systems – that is, if they have the luxury of a client who isn’t just after the cheapest, fastest solution.

McGuirk is absolutely right to point at the systemic challenge of design as the area that needs focus from those looking to promote, provoke or provide a more sustainable way of living. And he’s also right that we don’t need more buzzwords or catchphrases to help us get there. As I wrote in CES: A Symbol of Global Vandalism, 20,000 products were unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. While that is the accepted norm, the chances of change on the scale it’s truly needed are slim at best.

(Story via Yves Behar.)