A Future Green Utopia? Forget About It

Flawed, messy and human is how two influential NYC designers see our shift to sustainability.

Environmental activists protest against the Keystone pipeline project in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 3, 2014

[Editor's note: The Tyee's sustainability reporter Geoff Dembicki is on a months-long journalistic quest to answer the big question of his millennial generation: Are We Screwed? Find a complete list of his dispatches as they appear here.]

We live in a culture enraptured by technology. One that dreams of a more ordered and frictionless future where self-driving vehicles abolish gridlock, networks of wireless sensors solve climate change, implantable chips make sure we're healthy and smartphones anticipate our desires. "The answer is nigh" to society's problems, claims one leading IT company. "It is the intelligent metropolis," a tech-savvy city "that works with what it has, and makes it better, faster and more efficient."

This future is most certainly possible, if not inevitable, its proponents claim, because of the vast troves of digital data we create each second. New tools to make sense of such data promise to reveal the hidden truths governing society and ourselves. But two of North America's most imaginative green designers aren't buying it. Chris Garvin and Chris Starkey of Terrapin Bright Green, a pioneer of design trends like biomimicry, biophilia and net-plus buildings, aren't what you'd call techno-skeptics.

Yet they believe no matter how advanced our technology becomes, it can only be as effective as the flawed, messy and irrational humans who created it. During my recent visit to Terrapin's Manhattan headquarters, they shared at length their iconoclastic views on society's necessary shift to sustainability: that digital data can never give us perfect knowledge, how it's nonetheless reshaping our approach to planetary crises, and why at the end of the day we may not be totally screwed.

On the slippery definition of sustainability:

Chris Starkey: "I see sustainability in maybe a more fluid way than a lot of my peers. I think it's a narrative that can be wildly different from person to person. It's certainly different from place to place and from culture to culture. It's something that changes and evolves through time. So the idea that you could get to an end state that is [perfectly] sustainable ... to me seems unrealistic."

Chris Garvin: "Scale is something that's really, really important. Let's say you want to make the most sustainable table in the city. That bounded condition is so tight that you might be able to [do it] by finding biodegradable materials in a scrap yard ... but if you broadened it out to a larger scale, and looked at the larger impacts beyond that immediate context, sustainability becomes much more challenging."

On how data lets us make smarter choices:

CS: "There's always been data available that wasn't necessarily digitized. There's been data about how large a building is [for example] kept in the records of city hall. A lot of that has started to be digitized and is being coupled with other types of data, from the real estate world, from energy meters. ... The more robust these data sets become, the more they can start to link to the outside [world].

"Now, architects are modeling with building information [software] ... that basically will show you the water impacts, the land impacts upstream, of the materials that you're spec'ing in your computer. You have a more complete understanding of all the resources that will end up making [your building model] a reality."

On the dangers of too much knowledge:

CG: "We're creatures of habit, and there's a lot of data about movement of people in buildings and how they act. Data that can show how productive people are or how they're not productive -- where they should be, where they shouldn't be. ... You could easily be tracked without your knowledge, so that someone could say, 'Hey, you're not at your desk enough, and here's the data to show it. What are you doing all day?'"

On why data won't make us omniscient:

CG: "We're in a world where data is projected as being almost more important than anything else. Like, 'Oh, Big Data is the future, it's going to disrupt everything.'

"You could definitely eliminate certain types of waste or mismanagement [from society] because there's this great level of omnipresence and things can be tagged and tracked easier. ... But I think you still have with that the weird human condition to always throw tweaks into those systems."

CS: "There's this feeling that if we just had better data we would get to better answers ... but you can't have perfect knowledge. You can't have perfect data."

On the follies of trying to predict the future:

CG: "The proliferation of [wireless] sensors has unknown consequences. That alone makes predicting a bit challenging. Look at California, where they're designing communities now to be net zero [energy users] or be upgraded to net zero. That's something we weren't thinking about 20 years ago. ... It's hard to guess because you'll always be wrong. Everyone who goes into the future too far always misses it."

CS: "We do see pieces of [the future] being developed already. Individual user engagement with buildings and cities is really exciting. People programming preferences into their phone that set the terms of their relationship to a building, like levels of lighting or how much air is blowing on them. ... That's something that 10 years from now who knows where we're going to be."

On whether us humans are totally screwed:

CG: "We are just a species on this planet. And climate change is happening, so we can either adapt to it or we can be left behind. I guess we do the work that we do because we are optimistic, and there are amazing opportunities to change the way we think about our environment and how we interact with it."

CS: "No, we're not screwed."

Geoff Dembicki is an Alberta-born journalist who reports on energy and climate change. Dembicki's work has appeared in The Tyee, Toronto Star, Salon.com and Walrus Magazine.

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