This is the second of three essays discussing the state of sustainability.
- SUSTAINABILITY THEN - The Standard Model
- SUSTAINABILITY NOW - The Leverage Turn
- SUSTAINABILITY NEXT - Context, Texture, Meaning
Reviewing the standard model of sustainability change is important to understand progress and the lack of it– and as a scaffold for discussion. But the model itself needs correction. We need to ask:
- despite all the efforts to solve sustainability and climate in the standard model, why has more change not happened?
- why have cities and finance become prominent change-drivers, without any invitation from the leaders of the standard model?
- why has the internet not enabled more change for sustainability?
- what else is missing to solve sustainability and climate stability, fast?
One answer lies in an assumption about how the standard model works.
The standard model of sustainability change is an analogy of force relationships in the physical world. The actors act on each other, and on issues, through the various actions–as an act of force. Prices force market change direction, regulation forces corporations to change practices, information forces consumers to change behaviour. More force, more effect.
Even if other dimensions of the standard model do need change–the role of governments, or markets, or a generation of more active citizens–the reliance on a force framework of change is what needs correcting first. There are two reasons:
- inherent flaws in the standard model ensure that no matter how much force–effort, action, money–is applied, the results will not improve.
- force available for change may have reached its peak.
Even when people truly want to solve the sustainability crisis, the flaws of the standard model include deep paradoxes which limit a society's capacity to reform itself:
- personal and cultural aspirations for increasing material wealth
- economic progress based on compound debt and growing production-consumption
- limited capacity to understand system effects and complex impacts, including climate, nature damage, pollution
- disagreement over optimal action and the fair distribution of results
- the historic injustice of the global South now being impacted by the global North's material impacts, but being asked to restrict their own impact for everyone's benefit
There's also the irresolvable fact of incompatible priorites. Sometimes it's just too hard–to learn, care, change, budget–in a way that makes more change-force availalable for sustainability. That's not necessarily cynical–limits do exist, as sustainability advocates always insist on.
So if these inherent flaws and force limits on the standard model are with us for the forseeable future, what can be done? Expressed in universal terms, we can seek to apply force more efficiently: use leverage.
Once clear, it becomes a strange feature of the standard model that actions are applied inefficiently–without leverage. For example: carbon, nature, waste, pollution, mobility, and other sustainability actions are proposed, applied, measured separately.
How does this make sense, if we assume that force, in the sense of political, corporate, and social capacity is finite? It certainly explains in part why more change has not happened in 70 years. It's time to think of more levered solutions and to see how leverage is manifesting itself without prompting.
Leverage explains why cities and independent finance have arrived on the scene. It's not just because they are both newly big and prominent. They have come to the fore because they are instruments of and opportunities for massive leverage.
Venture and philanthropic finance arise when change is wanted–but standard actions are insufficent or unavailable. You can't regulate in favour of technologies that don't yet exist, you can't subsidize them, you can't ask consumers to switch to them. Markets can only optimize what exists. What do you do to create something from nothing? Go get finance. So venture, strategic and philanthropy capital, in principle, offers a leverage point, for larger forces to come into play.
With the built environment, the leverage is more implicit. Cities combine systems, people, and feedback so densely that if you want to drive change, your resources go much further in an urban environment. Unlike national policies, urban action also tends to cover multiple dimensions of change more manageably: a transport measure, is a pollution measure, is a health measure, is a economic development measure.
The systemic leverage power of cities is amplified by the additional leverage capacity of built design itself. Design is, beyond mere aesthetics, the art of efficiently creating many and better outcomes from limited inputs. Some of this is technical: if you a design an apartment block well, with compact units, you'll have also space for a garden courtyard. Some of this is psychological: if you create a lovely space to be, you'll not just be making market-valued housing, but you'll be making people happier at the same time.
Design-based leverage steers a tremendous amount of the leverage capacity of the built environment. If you design an office building with parking a few blocks away, and a transit stop right inside it, there's a embedded incentive to prioritize taking transit to work. This would have been a disincentive if the parking was in the building, and the transit stop was blocks away.
And now for the obvious. What about the internet and digital technology? Why has it not been effective for sustainability so far? Because it has been used a force transmitter, not a leverage tool.
The difference in engagement between a world of people flooded with net-based information, and those with less info living before the net, seems to be neglible. More information alone is not working.
But this is changing rapidly. Cultural influencers and social networks as disseminators of information and change drivers are becoming established. Identity, popularity, trust, social status, familiarity and other features of modern information sharing amount to a lever that drives much greater absorption of information b than old-fashioned high-volume information distribution.
It will soon enough seem amazing to everyone that 'public service announcements' ever existed, or that we relied on 'news' organiztions to guide social awareness. How were these ever supposed to work?
But this leverage potential of tech is far more complex than just network effects, social graphs, and reputational cout.
We don't even have names or theories for much of it yet. What do you call types of connection, collaboration, creativity, experience that have only come into existence at the boundary of the internet, digital tech and actions in the physical world? The digital age has scarcely begun.
Couple the inherent power of built design to lever change, the tendency of the leveraging finance to seek out solutions that are themselves levers, and the new potential of digitally-powered design approaches–and it's clear there will be growing attention on tech-enabled built design as a way to drive massive change at a time of urgent sustainability needs.
This new found focus on leverage as a change tool for sustainability, as a corrective to the flaws of the force-based dynamic of the standard model for change, and as the special powers of design, tech, finance, cities can be called the leverage turn. This is the moment, and these are the domains, in which sustainability and a secure climate will be enabled, mostly likely, if at all.
If there is one thing that is missing in the sustainability movement, that we can now glimpse through this lens of leverage, it's the emotional dimension. The issues of resource conservation and nature preservation are important but abstract–the realm of experts and authorities. Regular people, quite apart from other priorities, don't feel animated by them in most cases. This is sad but should hardly be shocking: the majority of people don't manage their own health or diet with as much focus as even they would like.
Leveraging change through emotions, however, is a dangerous area. The inherent lack of transparency, the urgency and spontaneity of emotion, the potential for overshoot and imprecision, mean that caution is needed. It's no surprise that the leverage over consumers gathered by large internet companies is criticised as manipulating people's emotions to capture attention.
And: it is also true tools for levering change are not just available to sustainability. A popular brand, an influencer selling snakeoil, any number of real estate and planning decisions–are levers in action. Much of the debate around the internet is in fact about leverage of consumer behaviour using new-old techniques, in particular manipulating emotions, with solely commercial intent.
So, hardly a surprise, much of the emerging attention on real estate and cities, digital design, and other advanced tools of change for politics and commerce and identity, influencers, and other advanced, leverage-based tools for change...is no different from people seeking out new influence and power opportunities across history.
But awareness of the self-interested application of leverage, and caution around the leverage potential of emotions, must not stop us appreciating that the standard model of change and its force assumptions are due for review. Skillful means, careful use of available capacities including time and attention, are now required, to achieve whatever change is possible in sustainability and climate change.
Everyone can understand this leverage turn, and the limits of forced change, and find ways to apply corrections to the standard model or their area of engagement. And even if most financiers, technologists, and designers of the built enviornment don't yet know it, they are the centre of this leverage turn: they have an epochal opportunity in their hands. Let's seize it.