24 April 2009

How community drives environmental change

The Danish Island of Samso is a well-known environmental case study. The island has achieved energy self-sufficiency from renewable energy sources over a period of 10 years. It is a case study not only in terms of the success in moving from being fossil fuels dependent to wind and bio-mass based energy independent, but also in how important it is to leverage community, to build a common vision and purpose, and to promote ownership when it comes to tackling the global challenge of climate change at the local level. For those with an interest in the island's progression to energy independence, a report published in 2007 provides ample data and analysis. An article in the New Yorker captures the transformation well:

"Most Samsingers heated their houses with oil, which was brought in on tankers. They used electricity imported from the mainland via cable, much of which was generated by burning coal. As a result, each Samsinger put into the atmosphere, on average, nearly eleven tons of carbon dioxide annually. Then, quite deliberately, the residents of the island set about changing this. They formed energy coöperatives and organized seminars on wind power. They removed their furnaces and replaced them with heat pumps. By 2001, fossil-fuel use on Samsø had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2005 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using."

What is most interesting is the community dimension and how a small, relatively conservative farming based community embraced and enabled the island's transformation.

In a piece in the Guardian newspaper, author Robin McKie interviews Soren Harmensen, the individual who spearheaded the effort. He recognizes that what has been achieved in Samso may not be easily replicated elsewhere (the island benefits from sustained winds, lower per-capita energy consumption and higher per-capita available bio-mass (vis-a-vis the Danish population)): "This is a pilot project to show the world what can be done. We are not suggesting everyone makes the sweeping changes that we have. People should cherry pick from what we have done in order to make modest, but still meaningful carbon emission cuts. (See prior blog post for more on cherry-picking and low hanging fruit to affect environmental change.) Harmensen goes on to note, however, that what really made the project a success was community engagement: "The crucial point is that we have shown that if you want to change how we generate energy, you have to start at the community level and not impose technology on people."

The article highlights another key element in the community's engagement - buy-in and not just at the conceptual level, but also at the financial level. Everyone has a share (whether through individual or cooperative ownership): "'No one minds wind turbines on Samso for the simple reason that we all own a share of one,' says electrician Brian Kjar... And that is the real lesson from Samso. What has happened here is a social not a technological revolution. Indeed, it was a specific requirement of the scheme, when established, that only existing, off-the-shelf renewable technology be used. The real changes have been those in attitude... 'Everyone knows someone who is interested in renewable energy today,' (Kjar) adds. 'Something like this starts with a few people. It just needs time to spread. That is the real lesson of Samso.'" The role of the municipality (local government) is also important - on Samso five of the 10 offshore wind turbines are owned by the Samso municipality, providing important local government support and commitment.

While Samso is a unique experiment, many of the lessons learned can be applied in other environments. There is no reason that other communities cannot adopt similar approaches to implementing change at the local level that will have a positive impact on the environment. Lasting global change will be brought about by local action - but it does not have to be as comprehensive as the Samso example. Local projects to increase renewable energy usage are essential to environmental progress, no matter their ambition. And as important as the technologies are, the real determinants of success are a community wide purpose and vision and a very real sense of ownership, as the island's experience shows.

23 April 2009

Fix the simple things first

Global climate change is a "wicked problem" - convoluted, interconnected, complex and dynamic. It appears to be an unsurmountable challenge. Yet sometimes it pays to start with the simple things first: affecting change through addressing low-hanging fruit may be a way to show progress in this intractable challenge. Black soot is one of those low-hanging fruit. The NYTimes carried an excellent article recently on the impact of wood stoves in the developing world on climate change. And not only is it an environmental issue, but it is also a pressing health issue:

"Doctors have long railed against black carbon for its devastating health effects in poor countries. The combination of health and environmental benefits means that reducing soot provides a “very big bang for your buck,” said Erika Rosenthal, a senior lawyer at Earth Justice, a Washington organization. “Now it’s in everybody’s self-interest to deal with things like cookstoves — not just because hundreds of thousands of women and children far away are dying prematurely.”

Research in 2006 suggested that "burning firewood -- the principal fuel for cook stoves in the developing world -- produces 800,000 metric tons of soot worldwide each year. In comparison, diesel cars and trucks generate about 890,000 metric tons of soot annually. These two sources each account for about 10 percent of the soot emitted into the world's atmosphere each year..."

According to the NYTimes article, a bill in the US Congress would authorize the US EPA to provide aid for the deployment of 20 million new stoves. Good new for the likes of Project Surya which is one of a number of parties urging basic change in India and elsewhere. Good news also for innovations in this space, such as the Chulha stove and the Kenya Ceramic Jiko portable stove.

To bring about change one has to look at the fundamentals - and sometimes they are so basic, so ordinary, so everyday, that we fail to see them. Affecting small changes in human behavior and practices and enabling simple innovations in product, service or organizational design can bring about a substantial impact. Treaties and other global mechanisms must be accompanied by a more systematic approach to addressing environmental challenges at the local, national and regional levels, otherwise commitments agreed to at the international level will be for naught. Encouraging cleaner, healthier cooking is a case in point - a small and mundane step in the scheme of things perhaps, but one that results in substantive change nevertheless.

07 April 2009

The nursing home of the future

Business Innovation Factory has undertaken some excellent work on how innovation and systems thinking can help re-architect the nursing home. The BIF work shows how inadequately most nursing homes address the challenges the elderly face. How the physical space is designed - how long the hallways are, how adapted the sinks and counters are to wheel chair use, etc. - is key to the well-being of the residents. But it is not only the home itself that is important - the home and its residents are part of the local community and ensuring accessibility to the community is also an essential component of the elderly care system. As a doctor notes in one of the videos, before moving into nursing homes most residents could probably access some green space - either their back garden or nearby park, etc. Once inside that ability is drastically reduced thereby depriving residents of the joys of being outdoors (and the physical and psychological pleasure that is derived from it). BIF's work shows how important it is to re-think and redesign not only the home itself but also the home's place in the community and local environment. The welfare of the elderly in our societies has been grossly neglected and this work, and work undertaken by Participle for example, are important steps to building environments and communities in which the elderly can thrive. Such initiatives need to be encouraged, at local and national levels - after all, we all become elderly eventually.