It’s not easy being Green (Frog, K.T. 1970)

A few weeks ago, fellow 6heads contributor James P and I had an amazing meeting with Mark Adams at Vitsoe. I use ‘amazing’ without any hint of hyperbole – the thinking employed by Mark at Vitsoe to manage the needs of his business is a thing of wonder, and surprise. To give you but one example, Mark had been a keen cricketer at school: cricket games have a ‘scorer’, there to observe and keep track of what is going on, but never to get involved. They aren’t even allowed on the pitch. This is the sort of participation that Mark thinks a finance department should have in a business – keep track of what’s going on, but never get involved. In Vitsoe’s business process flow chart, there is indeed a function, quite separated, marked as ‘Keeping the Score’. Finance’s involvement in a business, “is a sure sign of the beginning of the end” says Mark.

I popped in to see Auntie Oracle (Mike Tennant – the one that likes to “bake our noodles”) afterwards to gush incoherently about how I’d seen the future, and the future was shelves! Mike was having a rare Eeyore moment. Although normally a fan of all things Vitsoe, I think the cheerful optimism was too much to take – or he really didn’t want me in his office any more: “But why do we need shelves? OK great they’re made as efficiently and durably as possible with the absolute minimum of waste, but wouldn’t a Kindle just solve this? Maybe that’s the best that we’ll ever be able to manage. Maybe extreme efficiency is as good as it’s going to get.”

This was not the first time that Mike had dropped a bomb on me that could, potentially, render the entire course and all of his teaching over the last year, well, pointless. As you can imagine, I was a tad troubled, and after stewing on it for a week I felt up to task of challenging him (on Friday evening when he might have had a beer or two and would be a bit less likely to scramble my head again).

I thought it would be novel to post the exchange as a dialectic piece – it’s rather a fun insight into what happens when you scratch the surface of sustainability problems.

From: Hill-Landolt, Julian
Sent: 29 June 2012 17:41
To: Tennant, Mike
Subject: Vitsoe conundrum

I’ve had a few thoughts regarding our brief conversation the other day – with you getting upset because people don’t need shelves… and maybe the best that we can hope for is extreme eco-efficiency.

Well, let’s imagine what that would look like. 100% recycled materials. 100% renewable energy in production and delivery processes. High levels of skilled manual and knowledge labour. Localised business that supports skill in the community. A basic human requirement is met – I don’t think you could make a better argument for our “need” for coffee over shelves for instance. Zero waste is created. So where is the problem?

We know there’s no need for profit other than to pay basic bills, staff and suppliers. Wealth distribution is admittedly limited due to size and need, but equitably spread where possible and to foreign partners where they exist. Vitsoe’s actually a company that might conceivably be able to reach these goals. More likely them than any of their customers. So is that the problem? That the system as a whole won’t allow them to achieve it? Because we know they would if they could. Of that I have no doubt.

So I’m wondering where the issue with extreme efficiency is – because I think all we mean by “extreme” is reaching the point where we create similar levels of byproduct and waste to a natural system. The issue, as always, is one of time and scale. Isn’t it that the level of cooperation required for us to achieve extreme efficiency is out of reach, as are the business cases (most wouldn’t pay off), as is the technology, and so too the “need” – there’s simply more need to get rich quick, or generate “sustained” growth (did you see Tim Jackson’s betrayal article in the Guardian? Genius quote: “It makes no sense to get the London Philharmonic Orchestra to play Beethoven’s ninth symphony faster and faster each year.”), or pay for the mistakes that we’ve already made, let alone the ones we’re locked in to making as we add another billion people to the roster…

I would genuinely appreciate a response on this (“no” is not an appropriate answer the above questions…). This is sort of key isn’t it? What is it that we are actually aiming for? I suspect that the problem is either utterly insoluble, or it is as simple as “Do no Evil. Strive for Equity. Take Nothing that can’t be put back in a reasonable time frame. Do no harm.”

Thoughts?

On 29 Jun 2012, at 18:03, Tennant, Mike wrote:

Upset about shelves? Never – what would I put my books on?!

A couple of observations:

I think there’s nothing wrong with efficiency if it can be shown to be effective. It may be that the “extreme efficiency” example is the best we could ever do, short of cutting our noses off to spite our faces. An argument could be made for this, but in lieu of a better functionally equivalent solution (I guess the Kindle would be functionally, but not aesthetically, equivalent), I’m not sure how useful cutting noses off is. So efficiency as effectiveness becomes a viable model (albeit dynamic – a thing that just struck me is that efficiency is relative while effectiveness is absolute (“partially effective” could still be toxic)).

There are significant benefits to Vitsoe’s model, as you describe, and when looked at from multiple dimensions e.g. beyond materials & concomitant CO2 reductions the definition of efficiency becomes somewhat intractable. Going beyond either/or trade-offs and looking at optimisation within a both/and system means we have to re-think what we actually mean by efficiency. Achieving efficiency in multiple inter-related dimensions simultaneously may not be (is not?) the same as achieving efficiency in multiple inter-related dimensions individually.

Extending that to the Kindle example, we have a thing that is an artefact that combines both books and shelves (well, gets rid of shelves, but I’m using it creatively…) so looks at the larger system. Maybe a thought experiment would be to think of what a shelf actually means (e.g. a way/thing to stack books) and then think how to make a single thing that fulfils all of those functions. Efficiency would then be different for that new combined system than for the shelves or the books themselves.

Hmm – that all sounds really interesting… could be fodder for a dissertation :-)

Mike

From: Hill-Landolt, Julian
Sent: 29 June 2012 18:09
To: Tennant, Mike
Subject: Re: Vitsoe conundrum

I hate you.

Quick clarification. First para last line. Do you mean partially effective? Or do you mean partially efficient? Because in the sense you’ve described aren’t they both relative?

The rest I’ll have to think about properly. My head’s going to explode.

On 29 Jun 2012, at 18:22, Tennant, Mike wrote:

Yes, I meant partially effective. I think that things can be partially efficient – all that means is that it’s easy to see a way forward e.g. 30mpg -> 40mpg.

It’s confusing terminology though as that could imply that “fully efficient” would be “effective”, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Effective could have many more dimensions e.g. what’s “fit for purpose”?

From: Hill-Landolt, Julian
Sent: 29 June 2012 21:31
To: Tennant, Mike
Subject: Re: Vitsoe conundrum

OK I think I get it now – I’ve had a chance to read in silence and think.

The confusion was in that you were saying “partially effective is toxic” which is relative, as opposed to “effective is not toxic” which is, of course, as you said, absolute. I also agree that something that is 100% efficient would not necessarily be effective. You could for instance have an internal combustion engine that is 100% efficient at converting stored energy into drive train power (at the moment it’s about 18% for petrol I think) but it would not be effective by any means, unless it weighed nothing and was attached to your bum – the effectiveness disappears with the unnecessary weight that the engine has to transport along with the person and their things.

I think that I get what you mean between the individual and simultaneous multi-dimensional efficiencies – so you might be able to get every aspect of a human system to operate efficiently on its own, but getting aspects to operate efficiently on their own as well as operating efficiently with each other and all at the same time might be too much to ask for. If we know anything about our ability to control systems, we know that it’s beyond our reach. And to be fair, that might not be that much of an admonishment. I’m thinking of Suzuki’s salmon example – how long did nature have to sort that system out – to arrange for all the different cycles to sync with each other? Was the continent of North America even in the position that it is in now when the process began? When beating ourselves up about our destructiveness and stupidity it would be wise to remember the unpredictable arbitrary serendipity with which natural systems as we see them now have come about. Framing again. Time invariant systems thinking is not possible. Systems are snapshots, relatively speaking…

The only thing I don’t get, is the final bit about the Kindle. Are you saying that there might be something that combines (and/also) what we want from a book and a shelf? But without a book why would we want a shelf? Or do we need an artefact “minority report”-style, that projects the books we have on virtual shelves and upon being picked transfers them wirelessly to our digital paper book? OK fine then efficiency is different for that system, but the shelves no longer exist so of course it would be.

I think that there are bigger questions to be answered than “do we need shelves”. Surely we get through the ‘do no evil’ set of questions first, the low hanging fruit. Address these whilst changing the industrial system as we know it along the way so that we are ready for the final push when we get to start asking the bigger questions such as “Is there a better way?” Or do you consider that defeatist…?

Did I understand – or still missing the point?

Can I use any of this in my thesis by the way?!

On 29 Jun 2012, at 22:01, Tennant, Mike wrote:

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I think that the efficiency/effectiveness needs more clarity (for me also) as it’s not easy to think of examples that are “effective” (sort of the “no such thing…” trope)

Absolutely right about the salmon cycle. Evolution didn’t have agency to worry about though – we’ve got another layer of constraints to adapt or adapt to, as opposed to just the physical that nature has.

With the Kindle thing, which again needs a better example, that’s generally the idea. If we can combine two things that were reliant on each other (books + shelves) into one co-constitutive thing (“books-are-shelves”, or some such) then the combined thing would have different properties than the bits on their own. I need to find examples of non-obligate symbionts (basically, things that work on their own, but form a super-organism when together – just cooler words) to illustrate properly.

The challenge, as you say, is working this into something other than a trite example, but I think there’s some mileage to be had (in the future) in seeing whether we can describe these simpler systems and then scaling the descriptions up.

I guess the “do no evil” problem is captured well here:

“Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”

From: “Hill-Landolt, Julian”
To: “Tennant, Mike”
Subject: Vitsoe conundrum
Date: Fri, Jun 29, 2012 10:19 pm

So we’ve reached that stage…

Just as a last word though, the combination concept might be a fool’s errand. It’s simply another form of efficiency – we’re still using stuff, just differently. What you do get from the combination is the unknown. The ability to discover un-thought-of new activities and uses deriving from products that couldn’t possibly have been figured out until we’d combined the constituent parts, probably by accident…

We’re effectively back to the ‘first, do no evil’ position, then, simply ‘do it better’.

“I’m trying to free your mind, but I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Hehe

On 29 Jun 2012, at 22:24, Tennant, Mike wrote:

Don’t try to out-geek me…for some immensely sad and inexplicable reason I know most of the lines from the Matrix.

From: “Hill-Landolt, Julian”
To: “Tennant, Mike”
Subject: Vitsoe conundrum
Date: Fri, Jun 29, 2012 10:26 pm

I was being insolent. I would never try to outgeek you. Wouldn’t that be futile? ;-)

I still think I have a point on the combinations thing though.

On 29 Jun 2012, at 22:31, Tennant, Mike wrote:

You do have a point. It needs to be expanded though. The salmon cycle brings in ideas where animals and the environment and geography are a system, so thinking outside of the confines of just artefacts and looking at how to combine with the environment may be useful. Or futile :-)

From: Hill-Landolt, Julian
Sent: 29 June 2012 22:36
To: Tennant, Mike
Subject: Re: Vitsoe conundrum

Dammit. You win. Again. Hit by my own ammo. Again.

7 responses to “It’s not easy being Green (Frog, K.T. 1970)

  1. “I’m trying to free your mind, but I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it” – love it.

    This makes me reminisce the great (and somewhat frustrating and confusing) conversations I had with Mike last summer!

    • Hah – I think I’ve yet to have a conversation with him where I walk away from it in anything less than a state of light befuddlement and distress. It’s like playing a board game where you get sent back to the start every move…!

  2. You just have to try play at the same level. So when Mike asked me how one would extend the metaphor of driving radical innovation, I came back a week later quite literally with a radical innovation car. TAKE THAT

    • yeah – but my only option at that point would have been to set fire to his book shelves and that seemed like it might have been heading towards the realms of unreasonableness…

  3. Pingback: It’s Not Easy Being Green (Frog, K.T. 1970) « J Hill-Landolt·

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