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Vital Signs: when will our region be sustainable?

[DOTT 07 was an incredible exploration into tackling big problems by blending leading-edge design thinking with insights from local people involved in grassroots innovation in Northeast England. We're excited to be running 14 days of excerpts from the project's amazing book Wouldn't It Be Great If.... -Alex]

How will we know when our region is 'sustainable'? And how do we get from here, to there? The answers to these questions vary wildly. Vague promises to use "as few natural resources as possible", "reduce waste to a minimum" or deliver the "greenest Olympics planned so far" don't mean very much. As a target, 'increasingly sustainable' is a cop-out. We need to know how much things need to change, and by when.

Four Dott 07 projects, grouped together as Vital Signs, approached this challenging question in different ways. Our Planet Tonight, and Thinglink, helped people to connect the small actions they might take as individuals to the bigger picture of why and how climate change is happening.

Two other Dott 07 projects, Landscape/Portrait and Town Crying, gave a face and voice to citizens who would otherwise be invisible statistics in planning and designing.

Our Planet Tonight: how do we measure 'sustainable'? How far is it from here, to there?

Our Planet Tonight is an information design project to create a weather forecast equivalent for climate change. It was developed for the Dott 07 Festival in the style of a Radio One Roadshow. Professional and amateur TV presenters would take turns telling the story in three-minute segments, supported by an ecological and well-being 'dashboard'.

Are we measuring what matters?

The biggest problem we confronted in Vital Signs was the sheer number of overlapping and sometimes contradictory indicators to choose from. Hundreds of organisations churn out a flood of reports, graphs, studies and punditry.

Some organisations focus on air quality and surface water quality. Others consider travel, energy use or how much we waste. And, for some scientists, potato yields or the egg-laying dates of birds are highly significant.

A selection of indicators used to assess climate change across the UK:

  • Air temperature in central England
  • Seasonality of precipitation
  • Precipitation gradient across the UK
  • Predominance of westerly weather
  • Dry and wet soil conditions in southern England
  • Frequency of low and high river flows in North West and South East Britain
  • Groundwater storage in the chalk in South East Britain
  • Sea level rise
  • The risk of tidal flooding in London
  • Domestic property insurance claims for damaging weather events
  • Supply of gas to households
  • Scottish skiing industry Number of outdoor fires
  • Incidence of Lyme disease in humans
  • Seasonal pattern of human mortality
  • Date of leaf emergence of trees in spring
  • Health of beech trees in Britain
  • Date of insect appearance and activity
  • Arrival date of the swallow
  • Egg-laying dates of birds
  • Small bird population changes
  • Marine plankton Upstream migration of salmon
  • Appearance of ice on Lake Windermere


A: the Earth's surface temperature in the year 2100, as predicted in this powerful visualisation from the Hadley Centre


B: levels of C02 on Earth remained steady for 400,000 years - until the industrial age and carbon-based capitalism took off


C: the capacity of the Earth's natural systems to absorb greenhouse gases - its 'carrying capacity' - is fixed. Man-made emissions, on the other hand, rise with our demand for goods and services


D: although industry gets a lot of the blame for greenhouse gas emissions, transportation - and especially buildings - do even more damage


E: North East England's ecological footprint, as measured by the WWF


F: the Carbon Trust measured the North East's emissions by area. As the map shows, city regions like NewcastleGateshead make the biggest contribution to harmful emissions. Of course as big cities clean up their act, the savings can be bigger, too


G: in common with other regions, the North East faces a sustainability dilemma: if its economy grows, so too does demand for electricity - and that means more C02 emissions


H: are we measuring what matters? Traditional measures of economic success focus on the GDP - the production of goods and services. New measures, such as the Happy Planet Index, show that people can live long, happy lives without using more than their fair share of the Earth's resources.

A - (c) Crown copyright 2007, the Met Office;
B - Climate Change 2007: The physical Science Basis, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
E & G - North East Counting Consumption by Alistair Paul, Aron Welch, John Barrett and Joe Ravetz. Partnered by WWF, SeI Cure and Biffaward. Published by WWF 2006;
F - Carbon Trust;
H -

What next?

Below is a list of useful websites related to this project:

From December 1-14, 2007, WorldChanging will be featuring articles from Dott 07 (Designs of the time 2007), a year of community projects, events and exhibitions based in North East England, explored what life in a sustainable region could be like -- and how design can help us get there.

Click here to read the introduction to the series, "Dott 07: a new industrial revolution."

A national initiative of the Design Council and the regional development agency One NorthEast, Dott 07 is the first in a 10-year programme of biennial events developed by the Design Council that will take place across the UK. The projects were small but important real-life examples of sustainable living, which will evolve and multiply in the years ahead. Several projects were delivered in partnership with Culture10, based at NewcastleGateshead Initiative. Culture10 manages North East England's world-class festival and events programme.

Dott 07 projects aim to improve five aspects of daily life: movement, health, food, school and energy. The focus of the initiative was on grassroots community projects; but there were also projects involving more than 70 schools, plus exhibitions and events in museums, galleries and rural sites. All events explore how design can improve our lives in meaningful ways.

The year culminated in a free 12-day Dott 07 Festival in Baltic Square on the banks of the River Tyne. It brought together the results of the projects and enabled all those involved to share experiences and plan what to do next. Outstanding achievements were celebrated in the Creative Community Awards. Above all, the festival was an opportunity for many more people to find out how to participate in similar projects - and thereby accelerate the region's transition to sustainability.

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