Friday, December 30, 2011

The Very Beginning of Vision

Because I’m feeling singularly blessed for simply having the time to reflect and subsequently broadcast, I wanted to post today by way of sending a holiday greeting, and end-of-year summing up and shout out to any and all who have stumbled upon, inspired, or contributed to, my eclectic musings - intentionally or otherwise. Indeed this has been a year, perhaps more than most in recent memory, that deserves musings, reflections and summing up, challenging as that may be. For those of us employed or in general not on the ropes, up against the pipes, or down for the count (block those ubiquitous colloquial American sports and mechanics metaphors!), things have not been as dire as for the other disturbingly large and increasing percentage of humanity who are out of their homes or villages; out of food, water, energy, land; out of options; or out of their minds. And if you’re human, you’re feeling their pain too.

Excellent colleague and sportsman, fisheries biologist, 
and civil engineer Mahmood Azad with Delta black bass
I was quite fortunate to have spent 2011 recalibrating- slowing down, reading, writing, thinking, hunting, fishing and cooking, and spending time with family and friends. The recession/depression and unemployment necessitated some changes, but on balance these felt more like a reorganization of priorities than any kind of real sacrifice. I began the process of divesting myself of much accumulated material detritus (unfortunately it's going to be a long long process). I would never have admitted to myself that I am a consumerist, but it's pretty hard not to be if you have disposable income and live in a Western industrialized country- it's kind of the way the whole house of cards is set up, isn't it? Fixing up my boat consumed a good block of time and was well worth it. Reconnecting with old friends, many in a situation similar to mine, was, and remains, essential. Getting dirty, working up a sweat, and doing a few day's worth of honest physical work helping family and friends with hands-on DIY maintenance projects was a gift and a pleasure. And of course, extended periods of reflection and meditation outdoors in the eternal pursuit, preparation, and consumption of wild fish and game with my many excellent and intrepid fellow sportsmen had the usual salubrious and tonic effect.

Rickshaw driver in "Happy"
One film I saw this year helped my recalibrating- it’s called Happy, directed and produced by Roko Belic, a friend of my friend Ralph Leighton. (They collaborated on Ghengis Blues, the story of a blind blues musician Paul Pena's journey to Tuva to compete in a national throat singing competition.) Happy is a fresh, compassionate, and deeply moving film that examines the lives (and happiness) of a wide range of individuals and families across the globe. Of many stories and profiles in the film, two stood out to me. The first, with which the film begins, is an interview with a rickshaw driver in semi rural India. He makes just enough to keep his family fed and lives in an open air hut partially covered with blue plastic tarp material, but he's...radiantly, genuinely, happy: not craving or really needing much more than the warmth and support of his village and family. Tears were trickling down my face in the first two minutes of this film, as the fundamental, simple powerful truth and the contrasts and similarities of this man's life with my own hit me with a strong and transforming force. The next big choke-up moment (there are many) was a scene with a young Japanese widow singing in a choir comprised of "work widows"- women whose husbands literally worked themselves to death. Her husband, a manager at Toyota, dropped dead on the job, after years of  overwork and obsession with work over family. This is evidently a widespread phenomena in Japan, with its strong work ethic. For me, looking back at a lifetime of entirely typical workaholic behavior, this was a bitter and tragic wakeup call.

Lovely perspicacious daughter Isa with new husband
Nick and noble mutts Cain & Mr. T
Another huge influence in the evolving recalibration of my value system has been my lovely, strong-willed, perspicacious daughter, who has for the last few years renounced, among much else, what she calls the "college industrial complex," and decided to live in a remote corner of the Hawaiian islands in a tiny hut without electricity or running water, become an evangelical Christian, marry an Iraq vet, and generally reject consumerist, imperialist capitalism. She's taken a very logical path, really, that many people her age find themselves drawn to. The crashing of global financial systems and governments, widespread environmental degradation, and the ensuing political and social instability are not indications that the current version of the American Dream, as emulated by Americans and so many other countries, is anything but mostly bankrupt. Despite uncomfortable, unexpected, and classic generational clashes with her over beliefs and values (it's horrifying to find yourself sounding like your own parents), I am grateful to her for having the strength of character to live according to what may on the surface seem like a very different value system than we taught her. But underneath the differences, the similarities are stronger, and fundamental connections to family, and to the planet, are at the heart of our beliefs. So it was with with great joy that I learned that I'm about to be a grandfather: my daughter's due in June. Her decision to replicate seems like a small but vital vote of confidence in our ability to prosper in the future, when sadly, so many young people today despair of bringing children into our world.

Left to right: Frank Lloyd Wright's future city, complete with personal spaceships; the fabulous Jetsons; fabulous Dubai
Lately it seems that I can't stop apprehending common threads and connections between global events- both calamities and solutions, although the solutions are far more difficult to talk about because they seem to be largely in the future and are thus in need of being envisioned, planned for, and acted upon: but that’s precisely what my blog is about. It’s far too simplistic to say that all global social, political, and economic disruption and imbalance is caused by unequal distribution of resources, but that’s a really good place to start. And starting entails not an endless reciting of calamities and impending collapse, real and terrifying though they may be, but vision. Sometimes I think that what we have is a vision deficit- we are not envisioning what the future really needs to look or feel like. We did a lot more of that back in the first half of the 20th Century. I believe in the amazing power of visions- look what happened: Frank Lloyd Wright inspired the Jetsons, which gave us...Dubai. Were we wrong to have such a nutty view of the future? Maybe what we need is a vision that isn't quite so...well...visual. Allow me to explain with a long detour, thanks for your patience.

Wegework III, by James Turrell
Occasionally in the practice of duck hunting I find myself in some remote pond on the edge of a semi-wild tract of reclaimed Central Valley grassland. These areas are not always as well maintained as they might be, and it's not unusual to get lost even in familiar surroundings, especially when faced with pitch dark, dense freezing fog, and crude outdated maps, all of which were in play for me the other day on one particular adventure. After an excruciating two mile bike ride, I located my assigned pond and waded out into the water to get to the blind, typically a pair of concrete barrels sunk into a mud island in the center of the shallow pond. The path to such blinds is usually marked by small reflective stakes to aid in navigation, but these were sadly missing. I had been to this particular blind before and had a dim recollection of its specific location. I also had my iPhone with GPS that showed my precise location, well, fairly precisely...but as I waded farther into the pond I could not get my bearings at all. Things seem much farther away in the dark, and I could just make out shapes on the water that suggested small mud islands, but these faded into mirages upon closer examination. I was reminded of a piece by one of my favorite artists, James Turrell, who works with light in a way no one I know of has before or since. This piece, installed at MOCA in Los Angeles in the 1990s, consisted of a dark room with the barest suggestion of shapes off in the distance- the included image here may or may not be the piece, as I don't remember its title, but I distinctly remember the raw sensation of a tickling at the back of my eyeballs, my brain struggling to pick up a meaningful signal and separate it from the ephemeral hallucinatory tricks my eyes, devoid of verifiable data, were playing on me. It was fascinating. In the duck pond, memory, GPS, and common sense all failed me: I retreated to the edge of the pond until first light, then stumbled upon the blind, which was almost impossible to miss one the fog lifted.

This feeling of getting a dim, tiny spark of the beginning of a vision returned for me the other night, at a debate hosted by Earth Island Institute, where Richard Heinberg, author of the new book The End of Growth; and Earth Island’s Tom Athanasiou, author of Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor went head to head over the topic "Peak Oil or Climate Emergency?" During the audience discussion, I asked Richard and Tom where we could look to find any kind of historical precedent or vision for the "end of growth" scenarios they both promulgate as a key solutions to some of our most pressing global problems (at the moment I can't envision the world embracing the idea of no growth as a positive thing, but I am reading their books). I didn't get a very clear answer on that (I'm still searching), beyond the suggestion to read their books and others, but something Richard said caught my attention- he suggested that what we needed to do was to focus on things like getting clean drinking water to the almost 900 million people on earth who lack it and working towards food sovereignity and land rights, in short- a functional kind of vision based on specific goals around a balance of resources with population, rather than a utopian Jetsonian wonderland with green stuff slathered all over gleaming phallic highrises, sprinkled with decorative wind turbines. It's not necessarily about less population or more resources, but about the balance between the two; not about peak oil or climate change, but about solutions that address both and more; not about green building or cleantech alone, but about reinventing government and governance on a global scale; not as much about "sustainability" as resiliency. Environmental and resource issues are all necessarily political and vice versa.Governments like Brazil's that promote equality are on the right track. Nothing new here- it might smell like the evil Socialism, but let's see how Brazil progresses in the next few decades- so far many indicators look promising for them. Eradicating hunger and disease, reforesting African deserts or denuded rainforests, delivering free clean water to a billion people- projects like these seem wildly, extravagantly impossible when most of us would be content to just get back to having jobs, houses and unlimited growth, but really they're not. People are making progress on many fronts all over the planet. There is no real downside of shooting for big goals like these, because they focus on the most important capital in Natural Capitalism: human capital.

So in a way, this is my big takeaway for 2011: the tiny spark of an old vision, seen in a totally new way, arrived at almost by accident after a long period of wandering around in circles lost a freezing dark fog, running out of options, searching for a meaningful signal. The path is beginning to emerge. Thanks to all of you! Peace.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Occupy, Reinvent, Tweak, Design…Everything

The recent death of Steve Jobs affected me in a strangely personal way- I was quite moved in fact. It was strange because he was, on one level, just another media figure- I’ve worked with a few people who met and knew him- and there was no personal connection with him in a normal sense. But I realize now that what he and his teams at Apple did totally changed my life in a positive way: he not only delivered excellent design, he set the standards for it. I think that, just maybe, this could turn out to have much larger implications than even Mr. Jobs realized.

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his recent New Yorker profile of Jobs, “The Tweaker,” Jobs performed  a function not always widely recognized today. Rather than develop the groundbreaking new inventions that fuel huge revolutions, he was a "tweaker" - he took the groundbreaking inventions, refined them, made them work, and got them into the market. His relentless drive to perfect and refine is quite familiar to those of us involved in creative fields. The story of his complaining about the design of the oxygen monitor that doctors placed on his finger, while he was heavily sedated and on his deathbed, kind of sums it up.

The elegant and friendly Nest thermostat
Who can possibly succeed Jobs at Apple? There has been much speculation about the role of the obsessed visionary in managing innovation in large companies and effecting broad scale change. Can big companies innovate and tweak, or is this basically the exclusive territory of ornery little startups? One hopeful sign is the recent release of the Nest thermostat, designed by former Apple exec Tony Fadell. Maybe there will be not one successor to Jobs at Apple, but many, in many companies. I look forward to a day when high product quality as exemplified by Apple products can infuse industrial design in all kinds of markets, and beyond. Why not? We've instituted a quality movement before, TQM and Six Sigma, but this was largely focused on industrial efficiency, not user interface or customer service.

Job's frustration with bad design was personal, and one of the reasons it resonates so strongly with most of us is that it's really deeply personal for everyone. Bad design seems to rule the world sometimes. This is in fact the very basis of my Enduring Supreme Existential Rant, and making a mighty effort to curtail the roiling rivers of vitriol I hold in reserve on this subject, I will cite only a few quite random examples (I'm sure you can come up with dozens of others on your own with no effort whatsoever):

  • Most consumer electronics (especially user interface schemes)
  • Sprawl (the Mother of All Bad Design)
  • Hardshell product packaging (impossible and frequently injurious to open)
  • Most Microsoft products (except, possibly, Excel)
  • Like, totally, Facebook (AKA the Comercialization of Friendship)

Sprawl, The Mother of All Bad Design.
Photo: Congress for the New Urbanism
Bad design makes our lives miserable for many reasons, but chief among them is a creeping sense that the companies responsible for it are in fact completely hostile to our existence. In many cases, we've adopted a new technology (like a phone or computer) that replaces our dependence on something we control with something we can't. The new thing works so well at saving us time and money that it's that much more damaging when it breaks down due to some critical detail that was overlooked or forgotten in design. The compact of trust between producer and user is annihilated. Another complicating factor is that often, bad design is not random or sloppy, but entirely intentional - for instance, people refer to sprawl as "cancerous" or unplanned, but in fact it's all according to code - overplanned down to the last detail of street widths and paving materials. The problem is that its entire design as prescribed by the planning code is wrong in the first place. 

Good design by definition is not just additive or decorative, but holistically considers all parts of the system-efficiency, manufacturing, distribution, materials, service and support, and most importantly, user experience. Good design is inseparable from quality- it sounds obvious, but it doesn't seem to be so for manufacturers, judging by its relative rarity in our world today. It also is not necessarily more expensive or only for McMansion dwellers. Despite the persistence of Apple's legendary price premiums, I believe that equal distribution of the services and benefits of good design was ultimately at the heart of Job's vision. remember, he was an old hippie from way back.

Charles & Ray Eames
A whole-system design approach is not new- in fact, historically, the deep specialization and compartmentalization that exemplifies our current design world is the exception rather than the rule. I grew up with Charles and Ray Eames as our big design heroes, and was very fortunate to work in Los Angeles with a few of the people who were disciples from their office. Doing most of their work together between the 1950s and the 1970s, the Eames exemplified what Mr. Jobs, in a 1985 Playboy magazine interview, praised Edwin Lan (the inventor of the Polaroid camera) for: creating products that were at the "intersection of art and science and business."

The most powerfully transformative effects of the Industrial Revolution in England, and later industrial development in the U.S.) happened not as a a result of singular inventions (i.e. the steam engine, power loom, railroads, and telegraph for example) but as a result of their rapid refinement, and more importantly their combination. We're in a similar era today, where individual game-changing innovations are probably less important overall than the continual refinement and combination of existing technologies, and like late 18th century England, the possibilities are endless. Yet we often overemphsize singular technologies over whole system thinking. In the building design and construction industries, green design is often viewed as simply adding one "green thing" (recycled bamboo floors, geothermal heat pumps, or especially a green roof with a tiny little wind turbine spinning merrily on top of it) to an otherwise unintegrated, piecemeal, business-as-usual inefficient design, when using standard off-the-shelf components in an intelligent design would produce much better results. 

Opportunities for tweaking are everywhere. Many design improvements are driven by a regulatory factors - for example, refrigerators in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and access to buildings after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990. Each achieved the intended goal (dramatically improved energy efficiency in the case of refrigerators and better access to buildings with ADA) but also produced surprising unintended "side effects" (externalities?). Refrigerators not only saved a lot of energy, they became cheaper, bigger, and performed better. Buildings and facilities not only became easier for the disabled to use, they became easier for everyone. Oxo was wildly successful translating this idea to consumer products. In short- better design was achieved, not at ultimately higher cost, but at a lower cost, while achieving multiple other objectives- an efficient outcome. 

Square credit card reader
The democratizing effects of bringing higher quality products and services to a wider market can be profound- we can start with clean drinking water, cheaper energy, and adequate food and shelter to the lower income population of the world. ( Maybe I'll do a blog about that, I'll call it Water Fire Shelter Food). One of the natural effects of energy and water efficiency is to do exactly this. The best combination of strategies is design improvements in these areas together with policy and political reform. The positive political effects of good design are becoming apparent: bringing cheap communication to the masses played a key role in the Arab Spring, which helped to ignite popular uprising in "developed" countries with the Occupy movement. Square, developed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and team, allows small retailers and anyone else to bypass banks and make and accept credit card payments on their cell phones. If you haven't noticed, bypassing banks is a pretty popular idea these days. Occupy Wall Street started primarily as an outlash specifically against banks and financial institutions, who have accrued undue power and basically shafted Ma and Pa Public. Occupy is the first stage of redesigning capitalism, government and the economy.

Much of good design entails getting the "default" settings right. As Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein point out in their excellent book Nudge, default settings play a huge role in how we behave and make decisions, partly because they play well to our risk aversion, but mostly because we're too busy or just plain lazy. Adjustable shelves are never adjusted. Software that comes with your computer gets used first because it's there. Autofill information in online forms sets the direction of "decision paths" far more than we realize. The problem today is that the "default" settings for life are becoming untenable. For the banks the default setting is shafting the public, and for government it's doing what big corporations want. I see a basic hostility to the user, the customer, and the environment in so many things, even in generic commodity products. We can reset the defaults, and let good design be more of a guiding principal in how we organize our lives in all respects.

There are so many relatively invisible product categories and industries that are ripe for redesign, where resetting the defaults will not only provide better product quality but yield huge energy and water efficiencies, create jobs, and stimulate the economy. On the product side, what comes to my mind first are things like lighting, HVAC, building control systems, and insulation. On the industrial side, most large scale, energy intensive processes, like glassmaking, mining, oil refining, wastewater treatment, and even data centers are fertile grounds for process improvement. Rocky Mountain Institute has been doing important work in this area for decades. In approaching this broad redesign initiative, the biggest marketing message that has to be conveyed is to equate quality with improved efficiency. This hasn't quite happened yet, people still see "green" as more expensive, but we will change this perception.

Not to get all "intelligent design" on you, but efficiency is a natural product of excellent design and engineering, and evolution is the supreme designer/engineer. For this reason we can look to biomimetic design as a great source of ideas, and not only about physical form. One of the most fascinating things about biomimicry is how it explores how social and behavioral patterns in the animal world can suggest more optimal social organization in the human world.

Good design necessarily has a political dimension to it, in that it takes into account not just materials, ROI, manufacturing and distribution, but the social, environmental, and behavioral conditions under which systems, products, or services are planned, refined, executed, and maintained, and how they evolve over time. Design  is a fundamental human activity, at the "center of art and science and business." In order to create a more stable and balanced economy and social contract, one of the things we need to do is to set much higher standards for design in many, if not most, areas of life.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rating Location Efficiency

In my last post I talked about the need for a location efficiency metric. Since then, lo and behold, I’ve discovered that a very robust metric has been around for a few years, it’s called the Housing Tansportation (H+T) Index. Developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) and based partly on three studies done in partnership with the Brookings Institution and the Center for Housing Policy, the index represents a body of research on housing and transportation spanning more than 20 years.

What is the H+T Index, how is it calculated, and how can consumers, government agencies, and the private sector use it to make better decisions about where and how to build, buy, and invest in transportation and civic infrastructure? And above all that, how can we use it to grow jobs, stimulate the economy, and climb out of the depression?

The growing imbalance between income and combined housing and transportation costs in the U.S. is probably an underlying but largely unrecognized key cause of the mortgage meltdown, and represents a textbook case of what’s called an “externality” in classical economic theory, defined by Wikipedia as “…a cost or benefit, not transmitted through prices, incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit.” I define it as “stuff we didn’t or couldn’t predict, or forgot or willfully neglected to factor into the equation.” The raw facts of this imbalance, eloquently detailed in CNT’s report “Pennywise Pound Fuelish, New Measures of Housing and Transportation Affordability,” are that a significant portion of Americans are living beyond their means when transportation costs are factored into their choice of housing locations, and in many communities, people with long commutes pay more for transportation than for housing. Under traditional economic guidelines followed by lenders and consumers, which hold that housing costs should not exceed 30% of income, 69% of U.S. communities qualify as affordable. But by factoring in transportation costs and applying a 45% affordability benchmark, it turns out that only 39% of our communities are affordable. This 30% affordability gap is the elephant in the room, and there appears to be no zookeeper around. These unrecognized transportation costs qualify as an externality because neither mortgage lenders nor homebuyers by themselves caused the actions that created them, and for the most part they’re definitely not currently reflected in housing prices. This is yet another failure of “classical economics,” and yet another argument for completely replacing them with new models that deal adequately with “externalities”: things like, oh, water, fire, shelter, food, social justice, income equality, dignity, and host of others that we’re finding must be factored into all equations. But that’s the subject of another post.

CNT’s method for calculating the H+T Index is simple: total combined housing and transportation costs divided by income. The Index relies on nine variables in transportation costs, dealing with car ownership and use and public transit use. Housing cost data is derived from U.S. census data. Many will probably find much to quibble about in the exact methodology of data analysis and calculation, and such quibbling may produce a better metric of approach, but I’m more interested in exploring the broader implications of an index and how it can be applied and implemented through a rating system.

One of the many reason I like a rating system for location efficiency is that similar systems have worked so well for appliances (Energy Star) and buildings (Energy Star and LEED). With appliances like refrigerators, energy efficiency ratings helped incentivize manufacturers to develop products that were significantly more energy efficient, yet bigger, higher quality, and surprisingly, more profitable. Even though buildings are a completely different type of “product” for the consumer, and infinitely more complex, the Energy Star rating does apply to homes, as does LEED, which also addresses water, indoor environmental quality, and many other factors. Since we have rating system models for appliances, homes, and cars that are now up and running in the market, why not develop one for a key economic factor that can make or break development on a regional scale: location efficiency?

For behavioral and cognitive reasons, I think that an H+T Index rating should follow the Energy Star model, where a higher rating on a scale of 1-100 is better. Like Energy Star, neighborhoods or individual buildings would be rated against a constantly updated database of all buildings and neighborhoods, compared to the most location efficient.

The rating system will help to incentivize and build awareness of location efficiency, an initiative that has already been endorsed by the federal government, specifically Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). Location efficiency is already a loan qualification criteria, according to Daniel Olsen, the home mortgage guy at my local Wells Fargo in the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. To be sure, it’s only one of many factors that influence lenders qualification practices, but the fact that it’s now in the mix is encouraging.

A clearly understood label for neighborhoods and houses will help homebuyers to make more informed choices, with more information about the true costs of housing location. “Drive till you qualify” buying behavior will increasingly be seen for the losing strategy that it truly is. A focus on location efficiency incentivizes higher density development in general, and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in particular. It can reduce costs for homeowners (more money in consumers’ pockets will spur economic recovery and create jobs), provide more accurate risk assessment for lenders, which can stimulate lending- this will also help to stimulate the economy. It will ultimately improve the “livability” of cities and neighborhoods, provide more transportation choices, and help to insure that housing developments are assessed in light of their impact on transportation infrastructure, and vice versa.

Sprawl is the very antithesis of sustainability, and all indications are that it will begin to collapse, it’s just a matter of when, not if. One clear market indication is that sprawl is already overbuilt- production builders are not building low density developments anymore.

This one dimension of building and development, location efficiency, has a tremendous unexploited potential on its own. But what’s better ultimately is to combine it with efficiency strategies at many other levels- energy, water, and other resources, as the benefits gained from one strategy accrue to another. I got worked up about location efficiency mainly because of my personal professional experience promoting energy efficiency. One of the big lessons I learned was that once you cross a certain threshold, whole system effects can contribute to a compounding of benefits and savings and make efficiency investments pay off at a much higher rate than previously expected. So focusing on location efficiency will result in energy, water, and material efficiencies that will in turn ultimately improve the livability, walkability, economic health, and spiritual and physical well being in our cities communities and neighborhoods. CNT has done excellent and valuable work in mining and analyzing a lot of data and creating the H+T Index, and many of its sound policy recommendations are fortunately beginning to work their way into the fabric of government and land use planning practices. The next step is to roll out a rating system that gives the market better information about the relationship between housing and transportation costs.