Actualising Adaptation

In the zeitgeist of today there’s a perception that design is the saviour of all, and designers—if only unleashed and given seats at the table—can solve all our world’s problems. This rings with a touch of hubris. While undoubtedly a powerful tool, at the end of the day ‘design thinking’ is creative problem solving. And I’ve met brilliant problem solvers in professions from economics to medicine.

So if we dig a little deeper, what are the problem-solving values of our specific crafts, the more tangible tools like interaction design, product design or service design? What role can these play in improving the world around us?

And for my specific passion: where can interaction and service design best actualise powerful climate action?

Everything is adaptation now.

Let’s start at the beginning and talk about ‘climate action’ in 2017. In general, approaches tend to fall into two categories: climate mitigation and climate adaptation.

Mitigation: An anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. (IPCC)

Adaptation: Adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities. (IPCC)

Maybe future historians will be able to point to a specific turning point when adaptation became more important than mitigation, but I’d like to argue that—whenever that point was—we’ve already passed it. These are not separate activities anymore.

The climate change effects we’re starting to feel today are the result of emissions released decades ago by past generations. Thermal inertia in our oceans creates a time lag wherein the full effects of GHG emissions take decades to manifest. If we stopped all emissions today there would still be increased heating in the climate pipeline. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, there are decades of effects we have yet to experience.

We have to start planning our adaptation to this inevitable heat increase now. And whatever our future of ‘adaptation’ looks like, it must to be low-carbon. We can’t be foolish enough to adapt while we continue the harmful processes that got us here in the first place.

Adaptation should lead how the critical pieces of mitigation fit into our future. For example, if we’re designing for more dense, walkable neighbourhoods, then our mitigation plans should emphasise not just that car companies make electric cars, but that car companies make twenty-year plans to transition completely out of a business model focused on privately-owned cars.

Adaptation means shifts to systems that thrive in an over-heated planet

Climate change has one primary affect: heat. More heat trapped in our atmospheres than is radiating back to space, putting our closed thermodynamic system of a planet out of balance.

This increased heat has direct effect on humans and systems, and indirect effects through our planet’s hydraulic cycle (oceans, rain, rivers, lakes, ground water, etc.), all of which ripples through our ecosystems and human systems. There are major threats to our agriculture and health, and additional risks to everything from our economy to human migration and governance.

Adaptation means preparing for theses changes, changes that will ripple through everything in interwoven and colliding waves. Adaptation means making new systems and services that won’t break from the changes, but can rather thrive. This is systems thinking on steroids. It’s also a designer’s dream: radically different energy services, resilient built environments, innovative production and business models, and different products and services across transportation, agriculture, communication, and so on.

Every sector has a role to play and we have a wealth of existing knowledge

In the decades since global warming has been on our radar, phenomenal leaders and brilliant thinkers have already created a trove of thoughtful work about how we can adapt to climate change. Many places have already started.

Some approaches require more top-down action, as in the realm of policy, legislation, finance and justice. These are especially critical because we are short on time—we have to take broad action fast. Unfortunately, there will be losers in the disruption and tough action is needed to combat their vested interests and protect the vulnerable. One the most simple, but powerful, things we can do is to restructure our economic systems to punish pollution and reward cleaner energy (i.e. a carbon tax).

Other approaches require action more in the realm of infrastructure and technology: renewable energy at scale, green-blue infrastructure to manage stormwater, more passive buildings, renewable energy storage, water purification, efficiency algorithms, and so on.

Climate adaption will effect every sector. Every sector has a role to play in transition to a low-carbon, adaptive future.

A role for interaction and service design

Interaction and service design don’t fit into one particular approach. These design tools can plug in to support other initiatives and goals. One of their key strengths is that designers are comfortable with ambiguity, good with sense-making, and excellent storytellers. Interaction and service design are not, however, magic design wands that can be wielded to solve any type of problem. We should carefully consider if they are the right tool for the job, or if sometimes other sectors and tools might be more appropriate.

For me, I think there are three important cues that hint a given climate problem or opportunity could be suitably tackled through interaction or service design:

Cue 1: The opportunity traverses data and people’s decisions

A defining hallmark of interaction design is that a person acts on a system, which then takes this data and reacts, giving new information back to the person. Services create multiple such moments across channels and time. In the broadest term, data could be anything from the push of a button to a collection of millions of people’s electricity consumption. Data today is often in a digital format which lends itself well to digital solutions.

Interaction and service designers are trained to understand the context of an opportunity, to understand people’s needs and desires, the business and technical constraints, and then design solutions which enable understanding and possibility in delightful ways.

For example, Ignitia is a weather service for small-scale farmers in Africa that produces hyper-local, highly-accurate weather forecasts for the tropics. They are transferring complicated weather data, especially critical as patterns becomes more erratic, to farmers who depend on this data to manage their crops and their budgets. On top of robust science, they’ve designed a great user experience. The service uses simple SMS’s, localised and optimised for understanding in low-literacy areas, and is a pay as you go using mobile credit systems that farmers are already familiar with. Throughout Ignitia’s development they’ve worked and iterated directly with farmers to design for their needs and context.


Image: Ignitia

Opower is another inspiring example. As a leading customer engagement platform for utilities, Opower creates products that give people personalized insights about their energy consumption. Through brilliant behavioural design, Opower subtly nudges people to reduce their energy consumption, saving on their energy bills and helping utility companies better manage demand. While they have many digital tracking tools and SMS services, one of their most effective products has been a monthly utility bill, a simple way to embed comparison data of how you’re doing compared to your neighbour.


Image: Opower

Cue 2: There’s a low barrier to live prototyping

To explore and test valuable solutions, interaction and service designers have an extremely powerful tool: live prototyping. Using mock-ups, experience prototypes, even paper tools, designers can learn from people’s reactions to early, unfinished ideas. The key is to get visual representations of ideas, and especially prototypes, into the hands of real people to see how they react in a live context. This practice provides early understandings of an idea, especially powerful for revealing unexpected human behaviours in complex systems.

Not everything should be prototyped live. Some solutions, such as flood barriers or electrical grids are less people-focused and can be reliably designed with good technical knowledge. Other solutions, such as carbon taxes or international agreements involve such political action that much more is required than a prototype, traditional methods might be more effective. A low barrier to prototyping usually means something that can be cheaply and tangibly mocked-up using simple tools, and collaboratively worked on with a small sample of people to reach a new consensus.

Digital Green is an example of an incredibly impactful service that started with iterative rounds of prototyping. The service uses digital platforms to promote best practices in agriculture, helping improve nutrition and sustainable farming in rural communities across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Rikin Gandhi, the founder, approached an NGO to use audio-visual tools towards this end, but rather than take one idea and run with it, he experimented with exactly how to set this up. Would it be more effective to film experts explaining the techniques? Or local farmers? Would more farmers take up the new practices if the video viewings had facilitators? Digital Green was able to prototype many different directions and through this learning process design a service that empowers local communities—it has been proven to be seven times more effective compared to traditional extension services.


Image: Digital Green

Another prototyping example is Refugee Text, a service that delivers the critical information refugees need via automated messages. This project started as student’s final project at CIID, which included a small trial in the field. It has since grown into a start up that has prototyped and redesigned numerous services to best fit the information need of refugees and the needs of donors and organisations working on the front lines. Each iteration has been a learning experience in the fluid landscape of migration and international support.


Image: Refugee Text

Cue 3: The values align and the science is rigorous

We as designers should also be aware of the values behind any climate adaptation work. Who is funding this work? What is their interest? Is the work based on rigorous science and systems thinking? Is there a sustainable value chain? Is there participation with users and collaboration with other sectors?

Design will be one key part, though our only hope is if we use everything

Design will be a powerful tool towards our low-carbon, adaptive future. It’s critical that we approach the tasks ahead with optimism and creativity. Yet it’s also critical that we use all the tools in our tool box. We’ve learned a lot from activism, policy, literature, justice, science, and so many other sectors—our only hope is if we use everything.

Inspiration about climate action and appropriate design:
A Framework and Principles for Science‐Based Adaptation, Erika Spanger‐Siegfried
1.000 Word Manifesto, Allan Chochinov
What can a technologist do about climate change?, Bret Victor
The Designer’s Bias, David Sherwin