Archive for June, 2008

“We are where we are”

Rachel Kelnar writes:

I went to two really interesting futures events last week and was struck by the extent to which some emerging learnings were common to both, despite having expected beforehand that the topics would have little in common.

First, I attended a debate at the London Transport Museum (LTM) on the future of transport – ‘Survive or Thrive: What will urban life be like in 2055?’ The LTM used the intelligent infrastructure scenarios which my colleague Andrew Curry and I wrote for the UK Government’s Foresight Programme as the starting point for this discussion. I also participated in ‘Museums in the Long Now’ – a roundtable exploring the future of the museum, organised by the Cultural Leadership Programme at City University and Compton Verney, with funding from the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprise (LCACE).

An emerging theme of both sessions was ‘we are where we are’ – that if we were to design a transport system for the UK, we would not set out to design what we currently have, and neither would we fund or develop our museums in the way we do now. However, ‘we are where we are’ – and we therefore have to temper our views of the future with the reality of this starting point. We don’t have the luxury of a blank slate.

However, it’s important that this doesn’t limit us in terms of what we strive for, and both sessions used scenarios to help participants resist the temptation to think too short term, or too negatively.

Another interesting reflection for me was the potentially changing role of museums. They are generally considered windows to the past and this is pretty uncontroversial. But, if museums are to remain relevant in the future, they perhaps need to do more than reflect on what has already happened. They need to start providing a window on the future as well. The LTM has certainly embraced this idea, with the Future Generator, which allows every virtual or real museum visitor to explore how their choices can impact the future of London and the type of city we will all live in. It’s about putting the Museum at the heart of the debate about our transport system, sustainability and the London we might have in 2055, and pleasingly, it’s also based on the scenarios we were involved in writing.

Discussing the Museum of the Long Now, it became increasingly clear that many museums may well be a natural home for such futures exploration. They are naturally places where people go to learn – to be challenged, provoked, and to understand a culture, a society or a particular event in our history. This mindset is a good one for thinking about the future of our culture and our society – because thinking about the past is the first step to thinking more effectively about the future.

This shift is not without its challenges – it requires, for example, that museums get a bit more comfortable with conflict than many are at the moment. If museums can successfully place themselves at the heart of our future – regardless of the issue – than they are helping to cement their role in our lives going forward. We are where we are – but we don’t have to be stuck here.

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25 June 2008 at 8:57 am 1 comment

dowconzki § 6

© Jake Goretzki

23 June 2008 at 9:18 am Leave a comment

Water : the new carbon

crickey.com.au

Rachel Claydon writes:

Carbon consciousness is now here to stay. However the CO2 intensity of different activities isn’t the only issue concerning environmentalists. We’ve been aware of water shortages in many parts of the world for many years, but as these become more acute, the ‘water intensity’ of various products and processes is moving into the spotlight, particularly those relating to food and drink production. This is not about turning off the tap to save water when you brush your teeth, rather understanding how much water has been used to make the items that we consume every day, or what’s known as ‘embedded water’ (opens in pdf). The data are pretty staggering – it takes 35 litres to produce a cup of tea; 170 to produce a glass of orange juice; and 2400 to produce a hamburger – and are much easier to visualise than grams or tonnes of carbon.

Unlike carbon, the water issue has not yet reached mainstream consciousness, but this isn’t far off. Individuals can now calculate their personal ‘water footprint’ thanks to a collaboration between UNESCO and the University of Twente, and manufacturers are also starting to respond. The Coca Cola Company announced a new partnership with WWF in June last year around water conservation, and was already talking about reducing the water intensity of its products at the time. It may take a while to convince the British consumer that the world is short of water, even though the South East of England has less water per head than Istanbul. In many other markets, from Spain to China to Australia, consumers are already acutely aware of shortages. Without doubt companies need to actively scrutinise their supply chains and implement water saving strategies. This said, water footprinting may prompt people to move away from certain ‘water heavy’ categories altogether – meat, especially red meat, is a prime candidate.

The chart at the top is from the Australian news site crikey – perhaps not surprisingly, given Australia’s acute water shortage.

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21 June 2008 at 9:47 am Leave a comment

The latest HenleyMail has gone out

Painting by Debora Gilbert Ryan

Andrew Curry writes:

The latest edition of our free e-letter, HenleyMail, has gone in the last week or so to those who have signed up to it. There are two main articles: Trevor Harvey looks at the credit crunch through the lens of Henley Centre HeadlightVision’s Financial Services Segmentation, and there’s an interview with J. Walker Smith, the Chief Executive of Yankelovich, which merged with HCHLV earlier this year. Among other things, we asked Walker about the major trends he saw in the US market at the moment:

We talk with our clients about three overarching dynamics – empowerment, purpose and health. Empowerment is simply the fact that unprecedented access to information is putting consumers in charge of the marketplace. Purpose is a newfound priority on the quality of life not the quantity of stuff, and so people are actively seeking more meaning and fulfillment in their lives. And multiple pressures, some demographic, some regulatory, some economic, are putting a premium on better health, particularly better preventive health which is one of the key initiatives in our business right now.

The full HenleyMail can be downloaded here. If you want to sign up to the newsletter, which is an occasional publication, you can do that here.

The painting at the top of the post is by the American painter Debora Gilbert Ryan: ” I did this series of rather simple encaustic and oil paintings … in the mid-1970’s. People liked them a lot until I told them they were paintings of envelopes. In certain circles, any sort of representation was looked down upon.”

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20 June 2008 at 4:21 pm Leave a comment

dowconzki § 5

© Jake Goretzki

13 June 2008 at 12:13 pm Leave a comment

Green consumers or green consumption

Thanks to treehugger.com

Rachel Claydon writes:

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the ‘blizzard’ of ethical and eco-labels and product claims from companies. And with companies such as Renault producing images of (slightly more energy efficient) cars with leaves coming out of their exhaust, and P&G putting an ‘earth friendly’ stamp on their washing powder, this seems to be a reasonable critique.

What does this sea of green marketing activity mean for the growing numbers of consumers trying to ‘do their bit’? There seem to be three possibilities:

  1. gritting their teeth and working harder to unearth the genuinely ethical products;
  2. giving up on the endeavour in cynical frustration; or
  3. enjoying the new array of ‘guilt-free green products’ now on offer.

The ethical livers (likely to go down route 1) are now well-established, and may even enjoy having to work harder to identify truly sustainable choices. But it will become harder. Sustainability design guru John Thakara fears that an growing number of green standards will cancel each other out, creating too much noise as each brand measures itself by different criteria, making comparison impossible. Consumers may respond by assessing green product claims themselves through sites like greenwashingindex.

Those who are less committed to sustainable lifestyles are unlikely to make such efforts. Eco-labels will stop being a purchase short cut for those short of time (after all, most of us wouldn’t choose to spend our time evaluating the competing ethical claims of different baked bean brands). But worse, consumers may become disillusioned with unfounded and confusing claims. Sustainability communications experts Futerra believe that the consequences could be bad (opens in pdf):

“Without confidence in the claims, consumers are reluctant to exercise the power of their green purchasing, as they no longer know who or what to believe. This puts the whole market for the ‘green pound’ in danger and might damage the virtuous circle of companies promoting their green products, consumers choosing them over non-green products thereby encouraging business towards greater greenness”.

I’m personally more worried about the third option, that consumers will unquestioningly embrace every new supposedly ‘ethical’ product that finds its way onto the shelves. Most people want to hear that they can do the ‘right thing’ without having to make too much effort. We’d rather buy organic mange tout from Kenya in January than work out how to cook seasonal swede; rather install energy efficient light bulbs than stop taking short haul flights. This said, campaigners such as the WWF are now challenging [opens in pdf] the prevailing wisdom that we’ll achieve pro-environmental behaviour change through small, painless steps. More please.

{And thanks to treehugger for the picture].

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12 June 2008 at 9:47 pm Leave a comment

Oil and consumer behaviour

Thanks to Matt Cutts - www.mattcutts.com - for the picture

Andrew Curry writes:

You have to pinch yourself as you leaf through the current issue of Newsweek, which is on the impact of high oil prices as pump prices climb and analysts are entertaining the thought of the $200 barrel of oil. Even a year ago, the coverage would certainly have been doom laden, even apocalyptic. But the cover story is almost upbeat, as it decides that this spring marked the moment when America changed:

With average gas prices per gallon edging toward $4, America’s notoriously profligate ways started to change fast. Americans are driving less, using mass transit more, buying fewer gas guzzlers, indeed shopping less wantonly in general, and lowering their previously unshakable confidence as consumers. Suddenly, Americans are acting differently; if not exactly like Swedes, then not quite like themselves, either. It’s a shift that could change the world.

What’s interesting is that it isn’t just journalistic hyperbole. The latest data from America’s Department of Transportation shows that high gas prices are changing consumer behaviour. Estimates for March show that Americans drove 3.4% fewer vehicle miles this year – 11 billion miles – than last year. It’s the biggest year-on-year monthly fall ever seen in the US transport data, and to give a sense of scale, the last time the year-on-year March data tipped downwards Jimmy Carter was President. In fact, there’s been a general downward trend since last November. So it turns out that driving habits do respond to price signals provided the price signals are sharp enough and persistent enough. And this has good effects; one result has been that nine million fewer tonnes of greenhouse gases were discharged into the atmosphere in the first quarter of 2008.

And this also bears out one of the central findings of the recent report, Dollars and Consumer Sense, from our colleagues at Yankelovich, which looks at consumer trade-offs in the face of recession. Certainly consumers plan to cut costs, for example from buying at stores which have cheaper prices but a smaller product range, and by trading down on quality. But quite a lot of the trade offs reported in the research involve lower consumption, even less consumerism – delaying purchases, cutting back on food and gasoline, cooking from scratch instead of buying prepared foods, buying second-hand, and giving up ‘shopping for fun’. Not exactly Sweden, at least not yet. But not exactly ‘shopping for America‘ either.

Thanks to Matt Cutts for the photo.

Update: Trendspoting, The Oil Drum has an account of the new American phenomenon of ‘hypermiling’ – or getting the maximum mileage per gallon from your vehicle. There’s even a website.

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3 June 2008 at 10:01 pm 1 comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.


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