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Thinglink: what are the true environmental costs?
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[DOTT 07 explores how to tackle 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]

Every product that enters our lives has a hidden history - an invisible 'rucksack' containing huge quantities of wasted or lost materials used in its production, transport, use and disposal.

Every thing has a story

A great deal of nature has to be moved during the production of a computer. Many of its components require the use of high-grade minerals that can be obtained only through major mining operations and energy-intensive transformation processes. As Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken and Hunter Lovins - the authors of Natural Capitalism - explain, industry uses billions of pounds of material in order to manufacture the products we take for granted, and to construct the roads and buildings and infrastructures needed to deliver them.

Added up over a year, the amount of matter and energy wasted, or caused to be wasted, by the average North American consumer is roughly a million pounds in weight2. Europeans are better, but not by much.

These are not rumours. The material flows of our industrial society, its 'metabolism', have been measured with growing accuracy in recent times.

'Every thing has a story. We help people to link to it,' says Finnish designer and system developer Ulla- Maaria Mutanen. Mutanen created Thinglink to be an open online database for anyone, from artists to designers, collectors and trendspotters, to add and publish portfolios with their favourite things.

For a presentation at the Dott Festival, Mutanen's Thinglink team explored how their basic concept could be combined with mobile phones so that you or I would be able to scan products and read their environmental credentials before purchase.

The amount of waste matter generated in the manufacture of a single laptop computer is close to 4,000 times its weight on your lap 3

Thinglink provides a way to 'read' the size of a product's ecological rucksack by scanning it with a mobile phone

Where do the numbers come from?

Some companies and government departments are guilty of 'greenwashing'. Greenwashing occurs when companies (or governments) spend more money or time on advertising their green credentials than on investing in environmentally sound practices.

This is where the Publicly Available Specification, or PAS, comes in. Think of a PAS as a product's ecological passport. The Carbon Trust and the UK's Environment Ministry, Defra, have joined with the British Standards Institution (BSI) to develop a standard method for measuring the embodied greenhouse gas emissions in all products and services.

If every product or service were required to display a PAS that we could read with our mobile phones, it would enable people to make a meaningful comparison between the environmental performance of competing products and services.

New rules to regulate 'offsetting' are also in the pipeline. The UK government has plans to launch a new offsetting code.

Carbon offsetting is the act of mitigating ('offsetting') greenhouse gas emissions. A well-known example is the planting of trees to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions from personal air travel. Other offset methods are now in use: renewable energy and energy conservation offsets have gained popularity.

As governments and international institutions respond to political pressure and impose order on environmental reporting systems, designers such as Ulla-Maaria Mutanen can make data widely accessible in creative ways.

Greenwashing is when a company (or government) spends more money or time on advertising its green credentials than on investing in environmentally sound practices

What next?

To keep track of developments in the design of ways to read the history of products on our mobile phones, check these websites:

Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 2007/070530a.htm

Near Field Communication (NFC)

Tool for Sustainable Consumption (MIPS)

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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Nice worries me that you need to read the scan with a mobile phone.......about 20,000 times it's weight!!!! What about a recycled cardboard tag??

And on planting trees for carbon we get a monoculture or an actual environment planted? Sounds good in theory but is there any coordinated effort or just a random planting of trees, any old tree?

Posted by: Congadude on 4 Dec 07

Right on Congadude - there's some exceptionally dodgy accounting in parts of the "green accounting" industry - some previous high-publicity programs like Australia's "One Million Trees" projects have been criticised in scientific / enviro literature because 1mil trees were planted, but because of neglect / lack of nurturing , a huge proportion of them died before maturity! And what about trees that were due to be planted anyway, but which get included in the offset figures as if they were a new initiative! Not unlike the previous federal Australian Govt which made big announcements about renewable energy initiatives - until it was pointed out that their announcements were simply bundling the states' existing contributions together and re-badging them. Carbon trading / offset needs to be scrutinised VERY carefully... KT

Posted by: Ken Turner on 4 Dec 07



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