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An Ideal Sustainable Future

Environmental accountability means a system where everyone’s personal impact to the environment is quantified, a system where real-time data enables citizens and policy makers to induce cultural shifts in their thought and actions.

My vision of a sustainable world stems from the core beliefs instilled in me through my academic experience, about the multi-disciplinary approach required to design and evaluate policies.

With a paradigm shift required in the fields of urban planning, construction, ecological and environmental economics which efficiently utilizing technology to plan a better, eco-friendly, safe space for humanity and nature to thrive in (within the planetary thresholds), I recently came across a TED Talk by Neri Oxman of MIT Media Labs, which formed the basis of the philosophy which governs my view of a sustainable world.

In the following piece, I will try to integrate Oxman’s views, my personal experience and existing prototypes/case studies of “sustainability” in 6 different verticals from regions across the world.

The verticals I have chosen are (i) Manufacturing and Infrastructure, (ii) Agriculture and Food, (iii) Energy (iv) Waste Management (v) Transport and Public Areas, (vi) Citizen Behavior/Culture (Green Credit System). Certain important verticals such as water will be addressed briefly. The piece assumes some futuristic conditions regarding technology diffusion and distribution, data availability and citizen co-operation.

The Philosophy

The philosophy behind my view of the sustainable world stems from the fact that during the Anthropocene, human-impact on nature is so extreme, that three of the nature-given planetary thresholds have already been crossed.

This requires us to design policies, infrastructure and communities by blending in with nature as Oxman says, and move towards a “design-inspired nature” from a “nature-inspired design”, where we co-exist, build, live, thrive and sustain within nature while enhancing nature itself. I would call it symbiotic synergy. A Nash Equilibrium between societal choices and planetary thresholds. As Oxman would say- a future where “we mother Nature”.

An example of this can be an agricultural system where the farmer’s methods enhance the eco-system around him rather than destroy it, or a localized food-production system in urban areas which allow nature to thrive within cities, or perhaps an energy production system which focuses on Renewability & Recycling and nourishes the very environment it caters the energy to.

This would require a new, radical way of redefining and quantifying economics, where within resource constraints of the environment, and internalization of “externalities”, there is environmental accountability within each citizen.

By environmental accountability, I mean a system where everyone’s personal impact to the environment is quantified, a system where real-time data enables citizens and policy makers to induce cultural shifts in their thought and actions.

Behavior modification through effective policy design requires this seamless flow of information between the citizens and government regarding their consumption patterns behavior, energy-usage. A cultural shift will also require a new understanding of markets, exchange and the economy.

My view of the sustainable world also incorporates Agyeman’s concepts of collaborative co-production and consumption, where citizen altruism and a quid-pro-quo basis for exchange occurs, without a monetary transfer. It thus becomes a sustainable society through straying away from the usual growth models of development, which depends on a consumerist attitude of citizens. Therefore in my view, a sustainable world depends a lot on collective action, community participation and a culture where societal needs and the sustenance of the ecosystem transcend individual aspirations and desires.

(i) Manufacturing and Infrastructure

— Rise of 3-D Printing and Additive Manufacturing- As I saw in the TEDTalk by Oxman, we have come to a very rare time in humanity, where for the first time, specialization in different disciplines is trumped by the rise of liberal studies, and the confluence of different disciplines. With rapid technological progress and game-changing technologies like 3D printers on the rise, MIT MediaLabs is working in the confluence of the four areas of computational design, additive manufacturing, material engineering and synthetic biology, to provide us with tools to design and build objects, clothing, furniture and buildings which emulate the processes of nature, and incorporate nature to build a living eco-system, which breathe life into the environment around them, rather than chiseling and destroying nature to construct and build.

— Chisel vs Gene approach (MIT Media Labs)- In my sustainable world, I incorporate these 2 alternate world views of chiseling nature versus using the genetic and diverse natural processes to build “around and within” nature, rather than replacing nature with buildings . I envision a sustainable world where the material world around is not built by individual parts extracted from nature, but rather material world around us being nature itself. While this has been done in a small-scale and in lab-experiments, its emulation on a large scale for urban planning will require a substantial diffusion of these technologies through huge investments.

— “Chitin”-based construction/manufacture- Buildings and materials breathe life into nature and vice versa- MIT Media Labs has already found such organic material (Chitin) which behaves like “fruit-bearing fruit tree”, and using the confluence of the 4 disciplines above, they have created furniture, objects, clothing and buildings which use the principle of “nature-inspired design”. Such material seamlessly transforms shapes, uses air from the atmosphere to grow, helps marine life thrive if put in water, and enhances soil if kept in the earth.

— Grow your own house? - This potentially means, for a sustainable world in the true sense of the word “sustainable”, we are already bestowed with the technology to basically co-exist within nature, and thus my sustainable world will have citizens who will have the opportunity to access such technology which allows them manufacture, construct and design in a manner which “takes and gives back” to nature. A future where houses have living breathing walls, where a symbiotic ecosystem is created, and man and nature live in harmony.

(ii) Agriculture and Food

— Organic farming- localized- terrace farming- My view of a sustainable world involves a society where localized, eco-friendly methods of organic farming are incorporated even within the urban ecosystem. This would involve urban planning where terraced farming is encouraged and the concept of “vertigrow” is encouraged, where agricultural spaces are vertical instead of horizontal. With technology already existing for this in a very limited way, there is empirical evidence for the effectiveness of “vertigrow” on space conservation, building insulation and reduction in carbon footprint (as it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and insulates the building. Hence this system of agriculture will be prevalent in a sustainable world, where realities of space constraints and rapid urbanization exist.

— Bio-waste based fertilizers- One of the most integral steps towards “sustainable agriculture” according to me is the use of Bio-waste fertilizers, which use organic material and decomposable waste to increase soil productivity. Extracts from Neem leaves are a common product in bio-waste fertilizers, which enhance the ecosystem of agricultural production. The state organic policy guidelines of Sikkim, the first 100% organic state in India are a good starting point to extrapolate the trajectory of how I believe the organic farming culture can begin to take shape in a sustainable world.

— Waste-water irrigation (blending conventional water with treated effluents, cyclical process) - Mihir Shah, an ex-member of the Planning Commission has propagated a paradigm shift in the way water-management practices are incorporated with the constraints of the ecosystem. I too believe that a sustainable world requires a synthesis of water-water treatment and irrigation in agriculture. Through the right combinations of treated effluents, organic waste water and technological innovation, irrigation and waste-water treatment can act a cyclical process which conserves and recycles water, and boosts agricultural productivity.

— “Eco-consciousness” during food-choice- A cultural shift in tastes and consumption patterns of consumer will be prevalent in a sustainable world, where they consciously choose food products derived from the above mentioned eco-friendly practices, and through the promotion of organic food markets, such as in Sikkim and Japan.

(iii) Energy

— Biomass, photovoltaic solar cells, wind energy – Promotion of renewable sources of energy are integral, subsidies from the government to make them cost effective among citizens. In the USA there is a system known as REC or Renewable Energy Certificate, where households can purchase RECs and be deemed eco-friendly, and the money from the acquisition goes into building more renewable energy sources for power supply. However, the scalability and scope of such a scheme in India are yet to be determined, especially given the differences in demographics, demands, power production, electrical grid structure, composition of households and so on. Also, this still does not change behavior on a grass root level, and does not raise “green-consciousness” on every plane. With minor alterations, and incorporating Green Credit System along with REC, the objectives of Renewable Energy promotion can be met.

— Localized system of energy generation within households- In a sustainable world, I believe there should be generation of power and electricity from a household level, thus providing ways for every household to contribute marginally towards the storage and supply of energy for the entire grid. In a very hypothetical sense, if say, kinetic energy from riding a particular bicycle installed in every house can be used to produce electrical power to households, a community-participative way to generate energy locally should be the ideal scenario for sustainable energy production in the future. (If technology allows such individual power producing-units to be cost-effective and easily available)

— Subsidies and “Green Credits” for reduced energy usage in households, Grass-root smart-metering- If energy consumption patterns can be monitored on a grass-root level, through wide-scale distribution of smart metering technology, then a system of Green Credits, as ideated by Ron Dembo (Risk Analyst, CEO Zerofootprints) can be implemented to induce behavioral change. 16 A sustainable world according to me, will have this seamless flow of information, and a reward system of Green Credits (funded by the government through subsidies and other mechanisms (explained later)) which allows “gamification” of energy production and consumption through real-time information transmission and a reward-based scheme like Green Credits

(iv) Waste Management

— Grass-root segregation (Kamikatsu, Japan, Zero-Waste Model), Biodegradable packaging- The Zero-Waste model followed by regions such as Kamikatsu in Japan will be a norm in the sustainable world I imagine. Kamikatsu households segregating their waste in more than 32 categories, and have transformed their economy to a one based on the employment through waste-management and recycling. I believe that with the right incentives for this community-based recycling initiatives, a sustainable world will emulate this on a large scale. To move towards an economy where there is lesser waste generated, we need to shift away from consumerism, and as Agyeman argues, move towards an economy which operates on collaborative co-production and consumption, ideals upon which this little Japanese town strongly stands by. Along with this, my sustainable world would enforce biodegradable packaging by law, to reduce the environmental stress caused by plastic packaging.

— Non-thermal ways of waste-to-energy conversion on a household level- While currently, incineration and thermal ways of waste-to-energy conversion exist on an industrial scale, I believe that a sustainable world would have such technology available on a house-hold scale, but in a way that the processes used are non-thermal and “green” causing minimal environmental harm (unlike the current industrial ways of incineration for WtE conversion)

— Synthesis of Waste-Management and Agri-food systems- As argued before, a sustainable world according to me would allow a symbiotic interaction of waste-management systems with the agricultural-food system. This can be in ways of using bio-waste as fertilizers, using treated waste-water for interrogation, production of bio-compost and bio-gas for energy etc. It is important to note that in this sustainable world, there would not only be a linkage between waste-management and agri-food, but also waste-management and energy production, thus enhancing our understanding of “recycling waste”.

(v) Transport and Public Areas

— “An advanced city is not where the poor use cars, but where the rich use public transport”-Penasola – Cheap and high-quality public transport will have spill-over effects on various domains of urban living.

— Real-time transport data to track fuel usage and maximize energy efficiency –In my sustainable world, the public transport system, traffic, private car movement will be monitored through real-time-data mapping, which will allow traffic regulators to gain insight into ways congestion can be reduced, parking can be managed, and overall fuel usage of the economy can be reduced through this monitoring. This information can be used for future infrastructural investments, for cost-benefit analysis purposes in constructing roadways and highways to maximize energy efficiency. These pet projects, though adopted by small companies such as SocialCops which aim to develop technology for such traffic data-sensors, need active involvement from central administration for it to work, which would be the case in the sustainable world I envision.

— Active transport policy: “Green Miles” for cycling? Redeemable for public transport tickets – I believe that in a sustainable world, transport policies which encourage eco-friendly transportation such cycling would take many forms. For example, cycling could earn you “green miles” which one may redeem to use public transport, incentivizing citizens to not use cars. There would be policies like “congestion-pricing” and “car-free days” or “odd-even rule” with active cooperation and support from the public in this world, which would also receive incentives such as “Green Credits” for purchasing eco-friendly vehicles like Hybrid Cars.

— “Green Highways”- In the sustainable world I envision, transport infrastructure such as roadways and highways would be built to minimize environmental impact and maximize energy efficiency. An example would be Glow-in-Dark roads in Netherlands, which negate the need for street lights and electricity. Using “green concrete” and other “green material” for constructing, while keeping in tune with the philosophy of incorporating nature within construction would be the ideal scenario in a sustainable world.

(vi) Green Credits

Reward-scheme to incentivize grass-root involvement in sustainable, eco-friendly living- A reward based system, like a loyalty scheme called Green Credits, ideated by Dr Ron Dembo would be implemented and functioning in my view of a sustainable world.

Not only would this system provide monetary incentives for citizens to behave an eco-friendly manner, but would also create an eco-system of accountability. With different Number of Green Credits allocated for different activities (1 GC per kwH reduction in electricity, 40 GC for house insulation, 300 GC for buying hybrid car etc) , the Green Credits would be redeemable in the form of direct cash transfer or tax cuts.

The funding of the system would be from the reduction in costs of energy production due to avoided investment in energy infrastructure through reduction in demand of energy, or through avoided future investments in the mitigation of environmental harm.

Finally, this system would have spill-over effects in transforming the economy, creating a market for eco-friendly products, and perhaps a Green Credit Website and Mobile App to track individual energy usage, and give tips on how to become more eco-friendly and earn Green Credits.

Such a system would tie up all the above verticals, and induce a cultural change within the citizens, and induce them to behave sustainably, in this sustainable world I imagine. Such a system becomes integrally important, given the INDC targets submitted by nations across the world, requiring a participatory approach to sustainable living, through behavioral change on a grass-root level.

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