We need to start designing products with their end in mind, and city councils and businesses could provide the infrastructure for this, Kansara says

Tia Kansara is an entrepreneur and an award-winning director of sustainable design consultancy Kansara Hackney Ltd. She’s a co-director of the international CleanTech Challenge, the Gulf ambassador of the UCL Bartlett, on Siemens’s list of Future Influencers and Global Head of the One/Thousand Network.

Ethical Corporation: A troubling trend of the last few years is the plateau many sustainability efforts have reached. Why do you think the momentum has stalled and how can we take our thinking further?

Tia Kansara: There are a plethora of reasons the momentum has changed. These range from our interests changing and the citizens’ understanding of the subject evolving, to our ability to adjust both the expectations of others, and our own (government, business). One important cause is that we are inherently trained to be specialists and to focus on one aspect of sustainability. And yet, this is inherently an integrated subject and requires a generalist mind-set.

Scale for cities, for example, is really important, but cities also have to be practical. Somebody who’s planning the transport also needs to be talking to someone who’s planning the scale and form of the buildings surrounding the road. In addition, this needs to relate to somebody who’s walking down the street, thus these factors are interrelated. This kind of cyclical mentality is so difficult to achieve because throughout the whole of our education we have been advised to have one particular specialisation. We need to think more holistically and design for an ecosystem. The ecosystem is not just about the tree, but it’s also about the leaves, it’s about the ground, about the air, it’s about the animals and insects, it’s about the bacteria and the fungus – all of these different elements have a role, and we need to have a much more systemic way of looking at it rather than a more individual, isolationist one.

Ethical Corporation: What are some tangible examples of applying systemic thinking to doing business or governing society?

Tia Kansara: I definitely think the concept of the “circular economy” that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has pioneered is an amazing example of this. It is the holistic approach to goods and services. For example, Coca Cola is a company that has a plethora of drinks, not just one drink called Coca Cola. What they have done over the course of their existence is to create a product that different people from around the world accept and drink – in itself, a bottle filled with “happiness”. We have been programmed to think in a particular way towards the resources and the products that we are being sold - as a lifestyle choice, of course, I want to be happy, and if a bottle of Coca Cola is telling me that I will be, why not try it?

What’s really necessary is to understand our lifestyle and the impact that this has on the Earth. We don’t have to necessarily think about where our products come from on an individual basis (as we do today) if they come from a more circular dynamic. The circular economics pioneered by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is to see how we can take a natural resource, modify it, use it and at the end of its life either disassemble or reassemble it for another use, or convert it into a form that nature can absorb without it being harmful to the planet. Instead, what we have right now are resources that are mined, modified and discarded in places where nature is unable to absorb them.

The design of a product can lead to this item either ending up in a waste stream (take the islands of waste the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, for example) or it never being a waste item. Companies should require a new set of skills. What if a dustbin didn’t exist, for example? How would you design your product with this in mind? Will we live in a world of no-waste? That’s a lifestyle I am interested in living. Similar to the organic movement – where goods are marked with their social and environmental impact, aside from the obvious nutritional health – perhaps we would pay a little more attention knowing these no-waste products were giving back to nature.

Ethical Corporation: This is similar to a concept that you are developing right now – the “replenishing factor”. Can you explain what it is and how it can be utilized?

Tia Kansara: Similar to the idea of a circular economy, if we have a no-waste lifestyle, what are the products that we will use? Is there a way to differentiate these from the current norm? How can we help consumers make an informed decision when they purchase new items? This is the challenge for companies today.

To replenish is to be mindful of how we design products in the first place so that their end is also in the design of the product. For example, if I need a bottle to carry a drink – perhaps I will use a bottle that is biodegradable. The biodegradable bottle is a product that may be designed to be recycled, thus replenishing the Earth in some way.

Right now we have plastic recycling centres, but many plastics are difficult to recycle. If we have the end of the product in mind, instead, we will design the aesthetics around the environmental cause. The city councils then have a task of providing the infrastructure to help.

Ethical Corporation: Are any cities doing what you are describing?

Tia Kansara: I think what’s really beautiful about cities is that they are the epitome of human lifestyles. They survive because of the aspiration, the excitement and the energy of humans. It is the vision of cities that we may pay closer attention to here. The C40 scheme and other organisations are trying to understand the next stage of cities. There are cities that are experimenting digitally or even socially, but are there enough challenging cities environmentally? I think there are some that are really impressive – but none are yet aligned with replenishment as a core.

Ethical Corporation: Why is this?

Tia Kansara: One of the factors in addressing this is that cities are also the arena for businesses to sell their products. We should be wary of companies ‘visioning’ cities. An example of a company visioning cities is when General Motors (GM) sponsored “Futurama” in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. The result was the installation of highways and vast suburbs connected by roads. Of course, GM would create a city that looked like Detroit because that’s what they want to sell – cars. Their vision of a future city thus had a huge impact on the way cities were designed.

The Brazilian city of Curitiba is where Jaime Lerner, a mayor and architect, has really pioneered the ability to empower citizens to design their own city. People in favelas wanted to grow their own vegetables, so the mayor suggested that urban agriculture become part of the city’s strategy.

Cities are a canvas – what we do in cities becomes effectively a mark of our presence. Citizens, as well as the urban form, are the energy or personality of that particular city. Take London, for example, with its Boris bikes or its decision to reintroduce biodiversity by putting beehives on top of buildings to bring bee colonies back. These are all good examples of how we can also live in tune with nature. It’s about designing a place where humans and nature can survive together.

Ethical Corporation: We have seen several experiments in the last few years to design zero-carbon, zero-waste cities. Take the Masdar City project in Abu Dhabi. What do you think about such costly high-tech projects? They are very much about futuristic sustainability, but how sustainable are they?

Tia Kansara: Architects, urban planners, designers, policy-makers and managers are facing a great challenge today. They can design something but they do not necessarily have access to the occupants who evaluate their designs.

When I first came across Masdar, I saw a big poster of it in the Foster + Partners’ office – it was this square-urban plan in the middle of the desert. And my first question was: how are you building something in the middle of the desert when you have nothing that survives around it? And that was my mistake. Things do survive around it, and people have lived there for centuries. They have moved around, that’s their style. The reason why they have been nomadic is to take account of seasonal variations. The reason why their urban form has been different from the structures of modern-day society is because they have been more aware of passive ways of creating sustainable architecture. And this they have taken into consideration at Masdar City.

To give you an example with Masdar, none of the buildings’ windows open; showers have a timed limit. This is all to curate a controlled sustainable environment. The thermal comfort inside the buildings is set so that as you are transitioning into the building, rather than the cooling hitting you suddenly, it's a gradual change thanks to using intelligent passive techniques like shading, which will inevitably use less energy.
Our challenge is in finding a method to test new technologies that are mindful of modern climates and resource scarcities. Naturally, that may be in designing a new city, or trialling an experiment.

Ethical Corporation: At the same time, some people have argued that there should be more focus on retrofitting existing cities to make them more sustainable rather than constructing cities from scratch. What do you think?

Tia Kansara: That’s interesting because if you look at the buildings that we have in the world today, the majority of this stock of buildings will still remain in 50 years’ time, possibly even in 100 years’ time. New buildings that are being constructed should take into consideration that possibly they will be disassembled and their use will be renewed. For example, with new buildings, such as the future buildings that Arup’s Foresight team designed, you’ve got all sorts of modulations in the buildings – the core of the building rotates; they are also using algae and technology to convert solar into energy that can be used inside the building. I think we need to think bigger, be a bit more imaginative whilst mindful of replenishing the planet. 

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