Posts filed under ‘sustainability’

Re-thinking our homes

by Pen Stuart

The home is the safe heart of many consumers’ lives, but this can make people overlook the changes that are reshaping the way people live, so it’s worth a closer look. The recent Grand Designs Live expo in London highlighted some of the most exciting things in homes. For me there were three highlights:

The future is sooner than you think: Changes in homes and housebuilding are assumed to be slow, incremental, and fairly dull, but Jaya Skandamoorthy, of the BRE, argued in a talk that when we look abroad this may be about to change. China for instance, needs to build 35 million more homes over five years to cope with urbanisation and falling household size. The sheer scale involved means the government can consider new approaches to building design, size of living space, materials used, and even urban planning itself.

Consumers in control: Closer to home, self-build housing has historically been only about 10% of new builds in the UK, compared to almost half on the continent, but now there seems to be an appetite to increase this proportion – among both governments and individuals. A raft of new policies has been launched in the past months, with the intention of doubling the amount of self-build. This could make housing more affordable, especially for young people who are currently squeezed out of the market. House building may become less constrained by the conservative expectations of developers and builders. This also mirrors the wider trends we’ve seen in other sectors.

Fit buildings to people, not people to buildings: The automated home has been talked about enthusiastically for a long time – where all devices will talk to each other seamlessly and resolve domestic problems invisibly. Grand Designs had a special Automated Home display section. But what struck me was how much this looked like a fairground – something you wander around, enjoy the spectacle, and get back to your real life.

As we say in our Technology 2020 report, people are often unwilling to fundamentally change their behaviours. On the subject of green homes, Hank Dittmar, Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, noted that new eco homes are often judged to be strange ‘teletubby homes’. Planners have declared in the past ‘the buildings work, but the people don’t’. But this is putting the problem round the wrong way. The Prince’s Foundation Natural House shows significant potential – embodying modern, eco-friendly efficient technology, but looking traditional – as a way to combine sustainability with mass market appeal.

The picture at the top of this post is of a street of ‘Natural Homes’ from the Learning from London blog, and it used with thanks.

22 May 2012 at 12:33 pm Leave a comment

Ungreening a generation?

Ashraf Choudhury writes:

The Futures Company has quite strong views on Millennials, which have been covered in posts here in the past. So when I noticed an academic paper (opens pdf) from San Diego State University, which argued – on the basis of a 30-year tracking study – that Millennials (the generation born in the late ‘80s or so) are much less politically and environmentally engaged than previous generations – it seemed to be fuel for the fire. The data – as analysed by the San Diego State University researcher Jean Twenge – are striking.

So I shared it internally and on our trends site, Trend and Tonic, from where it was picked up by the San Diego paper, U-T San Diego. This was how their reporter called it:

That downbeat assessment raises an important question about the future of green: Will the next wave of leaders care enough about the natural world to maintain momentum that has been won in courtrooms and boardrooms over decades?

One of the good things about American reporters is that they do expect to report, and Mike Lee, who wrote the story, took the trouble to call me and my colleague Lawrence Wykes, who worked on our Millennials segmentation, to canvas our views. The segmentation suggests it’s unhelpful to generalise about a generation, and that there are strong differences in attitudes within it. Two of our segments do rank poorly on political and environmental engagement, but one segment in particular (the ‘Spirits’, who comprise 25% of Millennials in the US) rank very high on this same measure of environmental and political engagement.

It’s also possible that there’s a research effect going on here – that different generations understand the questions differently. And the SDSU study has clearly touched a nerve with Millennials and environmental groups. Either way, this one has some distance yet to run.

The picture at the top of the post is from the environmental campaign site Zoe and is used with thanks.

4 May 2012 at 1:03 pm 1 comment

Megachange? Megamistake!

Ian Christie and Andrew Curry write:

Reading the Economist’s book Megachange:The World in 2050, edited by Dan Franklin and John Andrews, brings an increasingly heavy heart. If you’ve missed it, it is a collection of twenty essays by assorted contributors, and I suppose one can’t fault them for their ambition, since the Franklin-Andrews duo, as editors of the Economist’s annual World In … prognosis series, normally look just the one year ahead. But the lens they turn on 2050 is a surprisingly narrow one.

In case you’re wondering if you need to spend the thirteen pounds ($20) on the hardback, here’s a quick ten-point guide:

  1. Capitalism is supremely innovative, efficient, adaptive, empowering and enriching.
  2. It always has been and therefore always will be.
  3. Inequalities are good, or at least inevitable.
  4. Liberated wealth creators will always generate new value and everyone will benefit as it trickles down.
  5. Global environmental risks don’t exist.
  6. Or if they do, they are exaggerated.
  7. Or if they aren’t, we can adapt anyway.
  8. At any rate, we can be confident that they don’t matter to the upward sweep of capitalism and technical ingenuity.
  9. More tax cuts, privatisation and de-regulation are essential.
  10. I teach you the Super-Man (Nietzsche).

It’s not just us. Will Self was unimpressed too. .

But it’s one of the sad facts about futures work that there’s always a ready market, not to mention lucrative speaking opportunities, for those who say that everything’s going to turn out fine: think of Peter Schwartz’s ill-advised ‘Long Boom’ scenarios in 1999, or George Friedman’s more recent Next 100 Years. And think, in sharp contrast, of the way in which The Limits to Growth scenarios were pilloried for being pessimistic and unrealistic when they were published in 1972. Look again with the benefit of 30 years hindsight (opens pdf) and their model turns out to have been almost completely on the money in terms of industrial production and environmental harm since then. And that should make us afraid, because their particular ‘business as usual model leads to industrial collapse sometime in the 2020s.

Of course, this view of the possible future is notable for its absence in the pages of Megachange. But by discounting the alternatives, such mega-myopia reduces our chances of preparing for some of the more dismal futures which could lie ahead – or even taking action now to try to avert them.

If you feel your book collection needs a work on futures with the term ‘Mega’ in the title, you’d be a lot better off with Stephen Schnaars’s Megamistakes, a thoughtful, provocative and sobering analysis of all the ways we can get long range socio-economic forecasting badly wrong. Schnaars has plenty of warnings for the likes of the contributors to Megachange – including, ‘Avoid Technological Wonder’.

Ian Christie used to work at The Henley Centre. He is now Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Strategy, at the University of Surrey.

11 April 2012 at 8:46 am 1 comment

From cash to commitment

Amy Tomkins writes:

Tackling climate change requires collective action. Yet inspiring consumers to change their behaviour is tough. Lack of engagement, lack of understanding and a sense of powerlessness can all prevent people from taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints.

So I was interested in the presentation that Hermione Taylor, founder of The DoNation, gave when she came into the London office recently. Her new sponsorship site seeks to replace cash with action and help people inspire their friends to live more sustainably. By harnessing the social and viral nature of sponsorship, The DoNation encourages people to engage with environmental issues and take action to change their behaviour. As her diagrams above show, this changes the traditional sponsorship model and makes the whole transaction more direct and efficient. To sponsor a friend, you have to commit to at least one of a number of Do-Actions, or carbon-saving pledges, instead of giving money. Actions can be small steps, such as reducing the amount of meat you eat each week, or more significant, such as committing to installing solar panels.

By using friends seeking sponsorship as messengers, The DoNation aims to reach people who know they should do more for the environment, but need a nudge to inspire action. Sponsors have to commit to their action for two months, with the hope that it will become an ingrained habit. Early indicators suggest that some longer term behaviour change has been prompted, but time will tell if Hermione’s vision is realised.

Looking to the future, The DoNation raises an interesting challenge – does the key to environmental behaviour change lie in making it personal? Whether it be supporting a friend; saving money through energy efficiency or improving your immediate living environment, providing a personal connection point seems essential if people are going to reappraise their own behaviour and start to live more sustainable.  Governments, companies and third sector organisations need to understand better the personal motivations to being more environmentally aware if they are to help achieve a sustainable global future.

You can visit The DoNation at

19 August 2011 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment

Changing green

David Bersoff writes: In the US, the current thinking is that ‘green’ and sustainability have become flaccid consumer touch points. But while The Futures Company has found decreases in the level of green activity, our analysis shows that these decreases are not evenly distributed. Instead, the biggest declines in green behavior were disproportionately centered among those with the least commitment to living green.

Apparently, without a tide of marketplace excitement, media attention and green chic to sweep them along, the least committed dropped many of the behaviors in which they were previously engaged. In contrast, the more committed became somewhat less zealous in some areas, but stepped up in others for a net gain in green activity participation.

In contrast to the behavioral data, the attitudinal trends show a significant cooling towards environmentalism even among the greenest consumers.  While it is not uncommon for behavior sometimes to outstrip attitudes, this is not a stable state of affairs. Decreased attitudinal support may over time lead to the erosion of green activity participation if left unaddressed, especially regarding those activities that are not perceived to yield secondary benefits. In addition, with a less fertile attitudinal soil to plant them in, it becomes much more difficult to introduce new sustainability-oriented behaviors into the marketplace, especially those that require significant lifestyle change.

Ultimately organizations need to develop long-term strategies for helping people lead greener lives that can be effective even in the face of consumer passivity and lack of interest. Going forward, to the extent possible, green needs to baked into marketplace offerings, and not offered as an option that consumers can take or leave.

But the history of sustainability over a generation has shown quite sharp peaks and troughs in consumer engagement. There are real risks for organizations in deciding to wait until the next crisis before taking decisive action on sustainability issues. If they do, they may find that the severity of both the expectations and the necessary speed of response will be far more expensive and disruptive than taking the lead today on sustainability issues – regardless of the current environmental ennui in the US marketplace.

The image at the top of this post is from Carbon Rally, and is used here with thanks.

4 July 2011 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

Water pressures

Lindsay Kunkle writes:

A group of us from the Chapel Hill office went to a lecture at the University of North Carolina’s business school this week on the future of water. The speaker was Charles Fishman (author of The Big Thirst, as well as The Wal-Mart Effect). Mr. Fishman was quite engaging, and the clear implication of his talk was that our perceptions of water – that it is safe, free, and unlimited – are already out of date.

Some of the stories that he told about water issues, in the US and elsewhere, were alarming. A few highlights:

  • Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., and the water source for Las Vegas, is now half empty; areas of the reservoir that were once 100 feet deep are now bone dry.
  • 70% of the people in India’s hospitals are there because of water related problems (treatment of diarrhoea is a huge cost for the country—and could be resolved almost completely by providing the population with safe drinking water)
  • Still in India, one-sixth of the population still relies on “foot carried” water—in order for a family to have water the wife and daughters transport water from a well (often not close) to the family’s home.

However, Fishman stresses there is no ‘global water crisis,’ but rather there are local and regional water problems—conserving water in North Carolina will not help India have more water (just as cleaning one’s plate every night as a child did not help feed starving children in Africa, no matter what parents said.

And despite the portents, Mr. Fishman was hopeful about the future of ‘smart water’. In the U.S., Las Vegas is the poster child as the ‘smartest water city.’ The city has enacted many laws to control water use and to increase the amount of water that can safely be recycled for continued use. For example, it is illegal to let sprinkler water hit the sidewalk; new homes aren’t permitted to have pretty green front lawns; and as a result, 94% of the city’s water can be be reused.

And there are implications for the future of how we manage water.

  • As long as water is ‘free’, it decreases consumer and business willingness to invest money or time in smart water solutions. And since American consumers drink on average 4 bottles of water per a week, they are not completely unfamiliar with the idea of actually paying for water.
  • There is an emotional connection to water (think a hot bath on a cold day or diving into the cool ocean as a kid) that can be promoted to drive more creative smart water solutions as well as more creative water management in general.
  • Water needs to be marketed! Promoting water through marketing campaigns that educate consumers on their water sources and how water gets to their homes is a good first step in working towards solving the water problems so many face.

It happens that this is an area in which The Futures Company has already engaged with a wide range of clients, both commercial and in government. It’s clear that water needs to rise up the agenda of most businesses and organisations – wherever they are based.

The photograph of Lake Mead at the top of the post is from the Scripps Institute at UCSD, and is used here with thanks.

6 May 2011 at 9:14 am Leave a comment

Eating my greens

Eleanor Cooksey writes:

Early January, and it’s the time of year to be making New Year’s resolutions. After over-indulging during the festive season, it makes sense to decide to eat more healthily. And I would also like to try to be more green. However, I am not sure the two are compatible.

It might seem healthier to cook my cottage pie from scratch at home, but a study shows there are lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions involved in microwaving a ready meal version. This is because mass manufacture involves much more efficient use of resources and appliances, and being provided in portion format, is less likely to lead to wasting opened ingredients (such as that bit of mince that didn’t fit in the pan) or unconsumed cooked food (someone forgot the leftovers hidden at the back of the fridge).

Fine – so it looks like it could be better to eat ready prepared food, and many manufacturers are trying very hard to make their products healthier, for example by using oils high in polyunsaturated fats as oppose to saturated fat. However, it’s not that straightforward, as these oils need more water to clean the residues off the production lines, and I am not keen on increasing the embedded water content in what I eat.

Perhaps I would be better off to keep things simple, eat less meat, and focus on my ‘five a day‘. But who would have thought that it is greener to eat a salad with tomatoes imported from Spain than local produce needing lots of energy to heat the greenhouse, or that an English apple will have been consuming energy to stay fresh in refrigeration  throughout the winter? Or that going for fish is equally challenging given the amount of research needed to ensure you are eating from truly sustainable sources?

To avoid subsisting on a diet of just Brussels sprouts, turnips and parsnips I need help. How can we cut through the complexity so we can all make good (ie healthy, green and good value) choices as a consumer?

The photograph at the top of this poast is from VegBox Recipes, and is used with thanks.

7 January 2011 at 11:24 am 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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