One of the key criticisms of the environmental and sustainability movement is that it's so darn depressing. This is not without reason, after all climate change deniers are quite given to calling us climate change alarmists which is perfectly apt since the state of the planet combined with the direction in which we are headed can only be described as alarming.

However, human psychology is not particularly fond of this kind of negativity. As if it wasn't bad enough that we often have to deal with environmentally-sound policies and decisions being out-competed by relatively exploitative and polluting choices which measure higher on the ridiculous one-dimensional scales of the immature science we call 'Economics'. No, we also have to deal with a crisis of confidence because we're not positive enough - since nobody can be sure of the happiness of a few trees, not when compared to the well-publicised joy of a well-fed, filthy-rich human.

Being told what we can't do forces us to think about the alternative. Forget about the alternative, we've already lost most people at "forces us to think". More facts aren't going to help us - the science is settled, and people have settled into their sedentary lifestyles and lack motivation to consider an alternative. What we have is not a shortage of knowledge, but lack of vision.

I once had a university lecturer who was fond of saying "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones". Why should we wait until we've run out of fossil fuels before making the switch? The fossil fuel industry is very powerful, yes, but no more powerful than a strong man holding a flint axe facing a man with a shiny, new bronze spear. Or perhaps to use a more recent example, nobody had to run a carefully-worded information campaign to teach us how to use an iPhone, and now smartphones are so ubiquitous that we can hardly imagine a world without them.


The Futureperfect 2014 conference/festival which I attended last month brought together music, art, and creativity with the aim to inspire participants and create a collaborative platform for the sustainable living debate. More broadly, it was a geek-camp for sustainability practitioners to come together and discuss, in a positive way, how to bring sustainability to the forefront of the world's more exciting and rapidly-growing industries, and thus into the mainstream. For four days, people from the areas of design, information security, tech startups, and social entrepreneurs (among others) gathered on Grinda Island in the Stockholm archipelago to discuss and debate various aspects of sustainability.

Many interesting topics were discussed as well as connections made. While there was a schedule of dialogues and forums, the conference was deliberately structured so as to allow a great range of freedom for participants to basically do whatever they wanted. The discussions wandered far and wide, and when faced with such intractable problems it was refreshing to not be constrained by too much structure, lest it stifle the kind of creativity needed to come up with solutions. Something I did find very interesting was that, even when the topic concerned technology (and sometimes very specific technology) the discussion always seemed to steer itself back to what I would describe as fundamentally 'human' problems - basically that we're not very good at getting along and resolving conflicts.

Aside from making connections with some remarkable and interesting people, what I got out of this conference was that technology isn't going to solve any of our problems. It's a great enabler. Soon knowledge of a programming language will be taught as an essential skill alongside basic literacy and numeracy. Information, or 'big data' will (hopefully) come to be viewed less as a commodity that people trade in, and more as part of our basic infrastructure. After a longstanding general tendency towards centralisation of services (and often with it, power) technology will allow us to decentralise, without taking the hit in efficiency that used to accompany it because the internet has effectively rendered the concept of 'distance' as rather old-fashioned in many aspects of our everyday lives.

All of this technology is great, and much of it makes measurable differences in our everyday lives, but none of them will solve the fundamental problems we face. They simply make things easier. Perhaps more than that, these new (and sometimes disruptive) frontiers of technology force us to rethink the way we design our systems, this can be analogous to redesigning human systems as well as technical ones. To take an example from the world of computer network security: in the early days information security was 'achieved' by security through obscurity, i.e. not telling people how the system worked, or where files were located, thus hiding any known or unknown security flaws. These days, we follow Kerckhoff's principle - that it should always be assumed that any potential attacker has complete familiarity with the system. To follow this example into human systems, one might compare it to the increased calls for greater transparency in government, especially after the revelation of 'hidden things' has exposed many flaws in the way that states operate. (thanks to messrs Manning, Assange, and Snowden)

At the end of the day, we had to say our goodbyes. But just like the broader aim of the meeting - to bring about change through good design and a positive vision - I left Stockholm with a vastly more positive outlook than I had expected. After the abysmally disappointing outcomes of high-profile summits like Rio+20 in Rio de Janeiro, and COP15 in Copenhagen (where, ironically enough, I first met the founder of Futureperfect), one can easily fall into the trap of losing hope, because the system is fundamentally flawed - and it is. But we are not slaves to a flawed system, we can change it and remake it however we want. And we don't need to teach people or tell people to use the new system, moreover we shouldn't need to - if and when we come up with a truly better system, it should be so obvious that most people will look back and wonder how we ever lived without it.