“Many of the solutions we need are at the intersection between science and the arts”, says Jonathon Porritt

17th April, 2014 by Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon Porritt looks forward to Green Futures’ upcoming special edition ‘Where Science Meets Art’, which argues that innovation for a sustainable world can be significantly reinforced by science and the arts coming together.

I have an old Roberts radio: really very old. It still works perfectly well, and though I feel a little bit guilty about having to buy a new battery every now and then, I have no inclination to buy a new radio. I hear all the ongoing talk about the digital switch-over, and hope it just goes away.

I appreciate I’m unlikely to be a typical consumer of radio services. But the simple truth is that my clunky old Roberts radio is ‘emotionally durable’ – to the extent that I’m hoping I die before it does!

In my book, the designer of that radio, all those years ago, was one very smart person. If one of our primary goals today is to reduce and, wherever possible, eliminate the chronic waste of raw materials in an economy still based on ‘mine, make, use and dispose’ behaviours, then we need people to love their stuff, and to hang onto it for as long as it fulfils their needs and aspirations.

More controversially, many would argue that we also need people to get seriously good at resisting the seductive and incredibly creative skills of the advertising industry. After all, billions and billions of dollars are still deployed every year to harness these ‘dark arts’ to drive fundamentally unsustainable consumption.

I only raise these points because the underlying premise in this hugely stimulating special edition is that ‘innovation for a sustainable world’ can be significantly reinforced by science and the arts coming together. More challengingly, it asks whether the arts (and culture in general) can help to maximise the potential of today’s scientific and technology breakthroughs for a more sustainable world.

The place where this is already being tested is through the design industry. A growing number of design consultancies are putting innovation for sustainability at the heart of their business models. We already know that around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at the design stage: from that point on, it is incredibly difficult to do anything to substantially mitigate that impact. And we already know that if we’re going to ‘close the loop’ on some of the big material flows through our economy, products have to be designed for re-use, disassembly or even simply recycling right at the start of the process.

In some respects, scientists and engineers have it easy when it comes to addressing gaps in our knowledge, or advancing specific engineering or technology-based solutions. But the science of behaviour change is a big and complicated challenge. Indeed, complexity is a word that pops up time after time in these articles, whether we’re talking aesthetics or aspiration, psychology or peer group pressure.

Here in the UK, for instance, we’re about to embark on the biggest ever roll out of smart meters anywhere in the world, eventually reaching into every home in the country. The technology is really clever, and the potential sustainability benefits over time are enormous. But who’s to say how people will respond to a megaproject of this kind, led by the ‘big six’ energy companies whose track record in engaging consumers leaves something to be desired?

This is such exciting territory! Professional designers are already pioneering all sorts of synergies at the intersection between science and the arts; cutting edge concepts like biomimicry (the art and science of innovation inspired by Nature) have moved from a series of intriguing niches to big businesses worth billions of dollars. And many of the solutions we need can be located in that interface, tapping into the collective genius of both scientist and artist.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder-Director, Forum for the Future. His latest book is The World We Made.

Photo credit: Nick Woodford/Forum for the Future

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I read Green Futures from cover to cover (which I rarely do with magazines these days). It’s so full of inspiration and really thought-provoking stuff.

Lorna Howarth, Contributing Editor, Resurgence magazine