Update on WDCD Climate Action Challenge: The knowledge is there, and it’s time to share it

There are already some strategies out there for coping with climate change, but they don’t seem to be known to most of the people who really need them. That’s one of the learnings from the selection of winners of the What Design Can Do Climate Action Challenge, wherein four are knowledge-sharing initiatives.

Many people feel helpless when it comes to climate change. The consequences are coming at us thick and fast, outstripping both scientific predictions and a lacklustre policy response. So it’s quite empowering to realise that we can make a difference with the knowledge that is already out there — if we start sharing it and connecting the right people together.

For example, one of the recently announced challenge winners is Cascoland’s initiative ‘Keepers’. Their project in the Mexican rainforest brings farmers and locals together with scientists and creative problem-solvers ‘around the kitchen table’ to get them talking about how to implement trans-disciplinary solutions to farming, in response to climate change and other ecological challenges. Like all service designers, Cascoland recognised that orchestrating conversations is half the work of innovation and change.

Keepers also take a human-centred approach that is rooted in a specific local context, as do most of the winners, with a team that has experience on the ground and a wide network to show for it. This is a nice vindication of the emphasis we put on ‘people power’ in the briefing materials we co-created with What Design Can Do.

For an overview of all the 13 ideas that were selected by an international jury at the WDCD Live in Saõ Paulo on 22-23 November, see here.

So… what can design do?

When we started the preparatory research for the Challenge, we wrestled with the question: ‘What can design do to help people adapt to climate change, to complement efforts in science, politics, technology and activism?’ In answer, we identified four different design ‘strategies’, wherein design can:

– Be a powerful form of communication that helps people imagine new ways of living amidst climate change

– Create products and environments that empower people to cope with climate change (by changing their behaviour, by example);

– Connect people together via services that help them adapt to climate change together;

– Transform entire systems to accelerate people’s ability to adapt to climate change.

When we got together with the rest of the selection committee to make a shortlist of 35 nominees (which the international jury then whittled down to 13 winners), we had to rate the 384 submissions on six criteria: relevance, impact, feasibility, scalability, excitement, and commitment. For relevance and excitement, we had to ask ourselves what role design played in the idea, and for this the four design strategies were a useful filter.

We are happy to see that the 13 winners of the Challenge are nicely spread across these four categories, with some of them spanning two (a product and a service, for example). One thing that several entries showed was the power of design in taking formerly esoteric or unaffordable technologies and making them accessible to people who need them. ‘Nivara’, one of the winners, does this with activated charcoal and solar power to make a low-cost water purifier that could easily change the lives of millions of people.

Other ideas we found truly jaw-dropping in their simplicity and ingenuity. The ‘Artificial Glacier’ project from Nepal, for example, had such a straightforward and low-tech solution for melting ice that it’s a wonder it’s not already more widespread. The end of a pipe carrying water downstream is hung at the height of a mobile-phone tower. As the water trickles out during winter nights, when it is -30 to -50°C outside, it freezes, creating a huge cone of 30 to 50m tall in the shape of a traditional Buddhist stupa. As a solid block of ice melts far slower than sheets of ice on the ground, it survives until the summer irrigation season, when it gradually melts, feeding mountain farms further downstream.

As melting glaciers are one of the most problematic consequences of rising global temperatures (and the cause of many other problems), this seems to us a brilliantly simple and low-tech idea that can be scaled in mountainous regions around the world.

Adaptation vs. mitigation

During the selection process, it became clear that adaptation and mitigation are two sides of the same coin; they can’t be separated. In other words, the best ideas address both the causes and consequences of climate change at the same time. Many entrants came to the challenge through an interest in addressing the causes of climate change — in other words, mitigation. The winners among them, however, managed to address the consequences of a world with scarce fossil fuel energy or water at the same time. Mirjam de Bruin’s project ’20’, for example, seeks to significantly cut shipping volumes by creating household products that are shipped dried and reconstituted with water at home. Since most of the products in our homes contain more than 80 percent water, from creams to cleaning agents, this would reduce the volume and weight of shipping tremendously, cutting the fuel consumed and CO2 emitted by transport.

Next steps

The 13 winners will now be entered into an acceleration programme, co-developed by Social Enterprise NL, and aided by mentors specialised in business, concept development, marketing, and also their specific field (whether that be online food retail, or government regulations for mountainous infrastructure). The acceleration programme will run until May 24 2018, when there will be a ‘Demo Day’, in which teams get to pitch to potential launching customers, implementation partners and investors. We’re excited to see where the winning teams will be a year from now.