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Live/Work: Designing Services for Sustainability (Or Why You Really Don't Need a New Drill)
Alex Steffen, 3 Sep 06

If you want to reconnoiter the edges of bright green design thinking, London's Live/Work offers a unique vantage point.

Live/Work designs systems, and processes, and visualizations of new possibilities, all of which are very much to the point when one is trying to imagine a new vision of urban life, one that is greener, more prosperous and more innovative.

We've discussed their work before -- particularly their evidencing and their efforts to develop ways of creating service envy, making product-service systems in which people participate as much a part of their status as the products they buy -- so it was particularly cool to have a chance to sit down with Live/Work's Chris Downs to talk about the future of services and sustainability.

We ate an excellent lunch of venison stew and sandwiches at The Duke of Cambridge pub in Angel (a great place which serves up sustainable food and organic beers and wines). Chris explained that Live/Work is involved in a variety of work for a number of clients-- "not all of them perfect," but one of the lodestars of their practice is the idea of rethinking the way public services are offered, and looking at designing and explaining shared services, like [streetcar], in ways that increase their audience and their effectiveness.

"You are what we do, not what we own," is one of the slogans they came up with for the car-sharing service Streetcar, and there the folks at Live/Work are very much on the cutting edge of sustainability thinking.

We all want to encourage efficiency and conservation, the new thinking goes, but it turns out there are sharp technical limits to the amount of efficiency we can economically squeeze out of our current systems (barring unexpectedly rapid progress in carbon nanotube research or something).

That means that if we want to achieve the kinds of reductions in our urban ecological footprints we need to stave off even more widespread, perhaps catastrophic ecological degradation and climate disruption, we need to think about design of those systems themselves.

Our systems do a bad job of delivering the things we really want. For most of us in the developed world, the essentials of life are not in doubt, and what we most want is experiences and relationships that give our lives meaning, make them enjoyable, and give us the ability to better prosper.

Too often, we've been sold products we don't actually really need -- or at very least, rarely need -- on the presumption that these products will bring us closer to the experiences and relationships we crave. Toolmakers, for instance, advertise power drills as tools for providing for our loved ones' comfort, and thus showing our love for them, winning their approval or having the glow of a job well done (think: any of a number of ads showing a manly guy doing work around the house to the great satisfaction of his beaming wife). But the reality is that most power tools are used for only minutes a year. And, when it comes right down to it, what most of us really want is not the tool itself but the thing we get by using the tool. As my brother puts it, "You want the hole, not the drill."

So, in reality, while being handy around the house may well be something we want, the drill is just a means to the larger end. If we had easy access to a drill owned by someone else, we'd be just as happy. The planet would certainly be better off, as it takes a lot of metal and oil and pollution to make all those drills we're not using, and store them, and schlepp them from home to home as we move and ultimately to dispose of them in some landfill.

But many of us guys have been taught (largely by advertising) that to be a man is to own tools, so there's something a bit sissifying about belonging to a tool library. That's where Live/Work comes in: they're trying to figure out ways of talking about, for example, sharing tools in such a way that it's obviously cooler and smarter to be a tool-sharer than a tool-owner, whether or not one cares about the environmental benefits.

That's good work. We need better visions of a bright green future, but we also need the language that will sell them.

Here's the real kicker: once one is willing to look at tools as a system which could be delivered differently, all sorts of things, from cars to washing machines to big kitchens to vacation homes, turn out to be things that might be better (and more cheaply) provided as services than products. A great amount of the stuff in our lives is unnecessary to lead the kind of lives most of us most want to lead, or at least fairly easily substitutable. And when ten households own ten cars instead of twenty (and share an extra one between them through a car-share -- or better yet don't own cars at all, but share five together) all those surplus cars vanish, along with all the embedded energy and pollution involved in their manufacture and operation. No car yet designed is efficient enough to match the energy and waste savings a redesigned system like this can create, and almost all the systems of a contemporary city are amenable to redesign these days, or soon will be.

If we can learn how to sell the riches of a dematerialized life, urban sustainability -- real, measurable, honest-to-goodness one-planet living -- becomes possible in the very near future.

(Image: "Boys and Power Tools..." CC TMJR)

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Hi Alex:

Yes, this is a good idea. Providing services in a lot of ways cuts down costs and energy.

Services also provide the ability to sharing and scaling which are better for business and the environment.

One good example is part-ownership of Jets in the US. This has become a booming business. However, the case there was that it was a costly asset to own for one person, second, you do not need it always, and three it was possible due to the advances in information technology and databases to manage it.

One of the basic problems is the managing of data and sharing of it by people.

For example, in our workplace we are planning to introduce car pooling. One building has 700 people and we are testing there. It is hard to collect the data about people's home, their interest, common patterns to come etc.

Privacy issues and technical issues become the main problems in solving these.


Posted by: Suhit Anantula on 4 Sep 06

Ideally we wouldn't need to compile data to figure who goes where and when since we'd plan cities to include efficient public transit--but that's basically a pipe dream at this point.

Instead, this is a place where computer automation would solve each problem. Each user (of the car-pool) would input the necessary data privately at their own terminals into the database, which is kept securely (the data can't be displayed, only read by a computer, and it's encrypted, and so on). The system could then analyze the information to match up cars leaving at one time with the people needing a ride at the same time.

Hopefully your company already knows this, as it seems to me rather commonsensicle. It sounds complicated only because of the massive amount of data mining needed, but that's what computers are for. Everybody just has to remember that There's No Such Thing As A Perfect System (Yet). Until artificial intelligent agents become generic and we're able to evolve our systems in real-time, we're going to have to deal with the problems that are going to crop up with this rudimentary encarnation of the idea (or car-sharing).

The REAL problem with these services starts with geography--getting the people who live next to each other together, linking them up with a private, local wireless network so that they can keep an always-available list of who has what tool, and making it easy to contact the current user in order to get the needed tool. That's just the start.

Once this setting-up process is easy, THEN we work on the language. Because you can't grab someone's attention and say "You're doing it wrong" and not have an answer when they ask "Then what's right?" ...

I just realized, a generic system could in fact be built that everyone downloads and runs on their intranet--complete with data entering interfaces, database construction and maintenance, notification system, and so on. So the only problem left is the hardware. We need a simple unit that we plug into the wall (one stand-alone unit that people who don't have computers can use and one that's cheaper that plugs directly into your own computer)--just enter your neighborhood code (street name or whatever), then it should detect local signals broadcast by units with the same code and automatically do the rest. A little green light should go on when it's ready to take input. Why? Because everyone loves the color green...

Please comment on this post over here, so that I can respond if necessary (I can't check this WC post everyday).

Posted by: Corey Birnbaum on 5 Sep 06



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