We introduce a series of researcher blogs written by Lab4Living staff and postgraduate students in which they reflect on their work, studies, events and trips.
In this first blog, researcher Paul Emmerson writes about his recent participation in an online dialogue organised for Sheffield Hallam University staff and students.
Sustainability Challenges for Moving to A Low Carbon Economy and Society
On Wednesday, 24th February 2021 I was pleased to attend, as a discussant, SHU’s Research Institute Dialogue online event introducing diverse academic expertise exploring: “Sustainability Challenges for Moving to A Low Carbon Economy and Society.” A cohort of colleagues engaged the sixty strong viewers with their research and insight. I note several discussions that caught my attention. Fiery thoughts encapsulated Dr Robin Smith’s approach. His study of nuclear reactions within stars ignited his case for fission and fusion nuclear power as decarbonising technologies to energise our industries and heat our homes. But, as Robin sagely noted, these ideas have technical difficulties and societal challenges ahead.
A cohort of colleagues engaged the sixty strong viewers with their research and insight. I note several discussions that caught my attention. Fiery thoughts encapsulated Dr Robin Smith’s approach. His study of nuclear reactions within stars ignited his case for fission and fusion nuclear power as decarbonising technologies to energise our industries and heat our homes. But, as Robin sagely noted, these ideas have technical difficulties and societal challenges ahead.
A chemist, whose past explored studying carbon arising in the age of dinosaurs, Dr Rachel Schwartz-Narbonne spoke of how her new research employs the remarkable characteristics of microbes. She enlists their help to create renewable biogas energy and other materials from our endless supply of wastewater. Biogas power from the “cleaning” of waste is surely a future development we can support.
Elsewhere, Dr Steve Parkes drew attention to the social inequalities of transportation and his promotion of active travel within Sheffield as a carbon-reducing practice we can all partake in while improving our wellbeing. In the future, he argues autonomous vehicles also hold the potential to support the creation of a low carbon economy. And, hopefully, if electrically powered, redress the troubling issue of car emissions within inner cities.
Dr Hywel Jones, a material scientist, spoke of the problematics of recycling. With mobile phones a global phenomenon containing over 45 elements, it remains that reclamation is limited to just over twenty. Moreover, billions remain “hiding” in our cupboards! Hywel’s wise position is to questions how we use materials more efficiently and make our phones last longer while offering the same performance. To advance this discourse, he engages the public in recycling and informational events to help drive behavioural change.
Closest to my practice of design for wellbeing and sustainability is the research of Dr Cristina Cerulli. An architect, Cristina’s work promotes community involvement in designing sustainable focused interventions that challenge the status quo. This stance brings her ethical commitment towards creating a more just society to the fore within her practice.
The presentations highlight SHU’s reach and depth of disciplinary insight capable of helping to address the sustainability challenge and move to a low carbon economy. But to my mind, they mainly agreed with what I believe is today’s dominant worldview. A belief presented by governments, industries and academics. One of how technological innovation will save the day and enable low carbon economies. This is a dangerous position.
Robin’s thinking, I believe, represents the “grandest” of such a technology-led intervention to sustainability. Such ideas ought not to be dismissed. Indeed, they will likely play an essential future role. However, the worldview perspective they are typically presented from represents a technological solutions approach that has proven problematic since such thinking arose during the industrial revolution. Centuries-old studies inform how technological innovations delivering transformative efficiency gains result in price reductions. These price reductions drive demand that in turn drives consumption. As an everyday example, since the switch from using baths to water-saving showers, our water usage in the UK over the last 25 years has increased by 50% (Environment Agency 2014).
Consequently, as widely discussed in economics for sustainability, and design for sustainability literature, efficiency alone is not the solution. Sustainability, encompassing the question of how we realise a low carbon economy, fundamentally requires comprehending our sufficient needs from the perspective of social practices (Shove 2011).
Such comprehension of sufficiency, in my view, requires the formation of a new culture. A culture that builds on the existing social movement practices for sustainability and social equality movements to support the broad critical engagement of citizens as ongoing participants in the steer of their community towards sustainability.
We know citizen endeavour to be sustainable. However, as my question to the panel posed, we need to research: “how do we democratise, articulate, and create the enabling conditions that may scale nationally for Sheffield’s citizen’s ongoing life-centred practice of sustainability?” Only when the enabling conditions, the realising of new civics infrastructures that support citizens in shaping their everyday practice of sustainability and wellbeing, with a cultural informational focus (Sen 2009) of delivering the ongoing value of fairness between citizens, is a path depicting a globally sustainable future likely to become visible. SHU appears well-placed to enable this research. Its impressive academics, with their combined expertise and energy, appear ready to empower citizens to radically challenge their ways of living.
Environment Agency. (2014). Environment Agency – Save Water. Retrieved 21 March 2014, from http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/homeandleisure/beinggreen/117266.aspx
Sen, A. (2009). The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Shove, E. (2011). Science and Technology Select Committee Behaviour Change (Cabinet Office, Department of Education and the Government Economic and Social Research Team, Ed.). House of Lords. http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/science-technology/behaviourchange/BCOralandWrittenEvCompiled180711.pdf
About the Researcher
Paul Emmerson‘s practice seeks to resolve the synthesis of his interests in social innovation, sustainability and design for health and wellbeing across projects that involve product and service design alongside business model innovation.