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What Drives Our Machines Won’t Change Until We Change What Drives Our Ideas

"We need to leave the age of fossil fuel behind, swiftly and decisively. But what drives our machines won’t change until we change what drives our ideas." says Rebecca Solnit in today’s Guardian Long Read. (Rebecca on Twitter)

It’s a fantastic article that reflects both my optimism for the prospect of creating a new, viable future and the inertia I experience dealing with the narrow approach most environmental initiatives seem to take.

With Plumen we used design to illustrate how a humdrum, utilitarian product could be reimagined as an aspirational, coveted object. Something that would pave the way to the idea that sustainable consumption could align with our current modus; i.e. expressing our status though our posessions. I found it odd and frustrating that a global lighting industry, undergoing profound change in the shift to more efficient technology (“digitisation” is how insiders referred to the change), did not engage the imagination at all. Not a single operator in the £100BN lighting industry came up with the idea to make “a nice efficient light bulb” that people might actively choose over the familiar incandescent. A global industry, making light bulbs, THE SYMBOL OF IDEAS, couldn’t have a single new vision for what these products might become.

But of course having let the genie out of the bottle and with accelerating innovation at the deep technological level, the industry cottoned on and now the world is awash with beautiful, efficient bulbs. Our thesis was correct and creating that spark was important, not just so we could sell some bulbs, but that the idea was out there that these tawdry, domestic products could be something new and exciting. That this category could meet the needs of the shift towards new, higher performing technology AND create a new category with inspiring features that in time would feel like a huge leap from where we left off with those old incandescents.

The great thing about light bulbs is they’re ultimately pretty simple, both technologically and conceptually. So we managed to create a new one and use this as a vehicle to spark a big change in the market. But when I look at automotive and transportation, energy, fashion and food, there much greater complexity both on a technology level, but also in their cultural aspects. How baked in to normalcy so much damaging consumption has become and thus how difficult it is to prize the masses out of this bind. We’re starting to witness shifts in these categories, but we’re far from moving the mainstream. And while technologies have evolved considerably, it seems like the big changes ahead won’t be won by new functions and features alone, but more via culture change. And here’s the key, culture change isn’t triggered by technologies, but by stories, by inspired ideas that start to pave the way for a future that is exciting and that we can believe in.

My worry today is that if we continue to believe that the needed changes are exclusively in the hands of scientists, engineers and their supporters and investors, we won’t get the changes at the scale and speed we need them. But nearly every startup and body I speak to in the space sees no need for help figuring out how to pull cultural levers to achieve their aims.

So I’m very grateful for Rebecca’s thoughts on the matter and hopefully this grasp of the importance of the imagination in charting a viable future will resonate and we’ll see this manifest in more enterprises and initiatives moving forward.

Mary Heglar is quoted in the article and sums it up pretty well: “We’ve got loads of ideas for solar panels and microgrids. While we have all of these pieces, we don’t have a picture of how they come together to build a new world. For too long, the climate fight has been limited to scientists and policy experts. While we need their skills, we also need so much more. When I survey the field, it’s clear that what we desperately need is more artists.”

I was always sceptical about the role of the artist, even while sitting in my studio at art school making weird sculptures many moons ago. But 30 years later it’s crystal clear to me. We need artists more than ever, to help invent and shape the new reality the world so desperately needs.

I set up GGGGGGGGG as an ideas studio, to lend my lateral brain to such endeavours. Give me a shout when you realise that science and engineering prowess alone have their limits.


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