Beautiful Monsters: The odds are in

Beautiful Monsters is a series by David Fore, head of Cooper's consulting practice. It is intended encourage conversation about how interaction designers can grow more sustainable practices, with the goals of improving our fortunes, our relationships, and the health of our planet. Start at the beginning, or read the latest installment below.

Critics may charge that I’m loving on WunderMap too much. But these guys have vision. They provide fantastic resources for visualizing many of the changes afoot, which is a necessary precursor to visualizing solutions. But what they haven’t done yet is provide us the coordinates of our honeybees, one in three of which have disappeared from these parts. Without honeybees we don’t have agriculture as we know it — and, ipso facto, culture.

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"How would our federal government respond if 1 out of every 3 cows was dying?" a scientist recently asked a bovine Congress.While WunderMap is at it, I’d like also them to go get some fish: turns out California has misplaced its Chinook salmon. Theories for their disappearance abound, including a lack of attention to the interlocking social, industrial, and environmental ecologies of the delta, but in the meantime an entire industry has collapsed, along with its inter-dependent human communities.

Ours is not the first generation to expend resources in a profligate manner, and to heedlessly dispose of our waste in ways that damage our environment (check out this extremely shrewd whitepaper (PDF) on the subject, written by Robert Costanza, et al.) But our generation could be the last to do so.

Before the amplification of carbon-fueled technologies, it used to be that our wasteful ways were restricted to our immediate neighborhoods. Then, about 200 years ago, we began conducting this extremely cool experiment to see what happens when we change the chemistry of this test tube called Planet Earth. Problem was, we fired up our industrial-strength Bunsen burners without any kind of hypothesis as to the likely cultural and ecological consequences of industrializing society, loading our oxygen-rich atmosphere with carbon, and making our oceans into acid baths. Even if, at the time, some dreamers could have modeled the current rate of global climate change and the collapse of the planet’s natural systems, it’s unlikely they could have influenced the implacable course of industrialization. For one thing, early planners lacked the data, analytical tools, system models, organizations, and specialists (such as interaction designers!) that we have today. Also, they didn’t know what we know: that we are confronting a situation of massive complexity begetting massive change.

This experiment has taken a couple of hundred of years of greed-driven worldwide effort, the deleterious effects of which we must attempt to undo in a few short years. Many factors are required to effect such change, but none will be truly effective without massive collaboration channeled toward the achievement of personal goals, organizational objectives, and ecological balance. And since system thinking is the forte of interaction designers—and because our work so often determines the shape and behavior of what gets put into production, into use, and into landfills— we have the opportunity (nay! the obligation!) to participate fully.

Who are some of our collaborators?

Potential collaborators include anyone who takes a walk in the woods, or along the seashore, or looks outside their windows. At least that’s the supposition of the Encyclopedia of Life, which is creating a constantly evolving compendium of species that lives on the Internet, with contributions from scientists and amateurs alike. (Now there’s an interaction design challenge for you!)

Who else? Technologists, writers, philosophers, ethicists, and building engineers, have been working long and hard on these issues. Even the Pope is turning green. And of course there are whole communities committed to various kinds of sustainability, one of the more interesting of which is described in a recent issue of the New Yorker: A Danish town that has achieved a kind of carbon-neutrality.

Meanwhile, power producers, supply chain managers, manufacturers, and some retailers are trying to crack this nut. People who run data centers know that they have to do something about the energy suck of their servers; perhaps feeling the hot breath of WunderMap on their necks, some folks in Amsterdam are putting together 3-D weather maps of data centers to get a handle on consumption patterns. Fireman's Fund is launching a green insurance option for homeowners that will allow people with conventional homes to rebuild to the latest environmental standards after a loss.

Even VCs are getting into the act. While the current economic situation is forcing conventional startups to peddle pocket-protectors on the streets of Palo Alto, the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that businesses which can claim to enable new sources of energy, clean water, and sustainable agriculture will continue to be hot targets for venture capitalists.

The point is this: If insurance companies can tell something is amiss, and are paying you to fix it, you can bet the odds are in. We must ameliorate, reverse, and prepare for these conditions of risk. Interaction designers determine what people need, then put computing power to work on their behalf. And computers make everything go faster. Which puts us in the catbird seat to help industries, individuals, and social systems to address the implications of their actions on the various ecologies on which we all depend. Read more about Beautiful Monsters and ecosystem-centered design.