Dispatches from SXSW Eco: Sustainable Design, Behavior Change, and Clean Energy

October 10, 2012
  • Julia Robinson

    Former Manager, Communications, BSR

Julia Robinson, Communications Associate, BSR

Many of us in the sustainability field would agree that we’ve made some great progress in the past 20 years. At the same time, the challenges are greater than ever. At SXSW Eco’s second annual conference, which took place in Austin, Texas, last week, the experts focused on new approaches and on how to get beyond words to lasting impact.

Although we have many techniques for sustainable design and architecture, it remains on the fringe. In his keynote, architecture firm RTKL’s CSO Lance Hosey argued for greater beauty in sustainable design to bring it into the mainstream. “The land of milk and honey will be photo-voltaics and wind turbines,” he said, alluding to the ideal future for many in the sustainability field. “Is that enough?” Hosey advocated for designs that mimic nature, as opposed to the accepted “inevitably unattractive” eco-friendly architecture existing today. Furthermore, as Hosey pointed out, natural settings can have a positive effect on physical and mental health. Until sustainable design moves beyond function and marries art to science, he argued, it will not be widespread—and its benefits to people and the planet will not be fully realized.

Behavior change among consumers remains one of the greatest challenges for sustainability, health, and development. In the panel session “Why Should I? Approaches to Drive Behavior Change” —which was so popular with conference attendees that many were sitting on the floor—speakers argued that “guilt doesn’t work” to inspire consumers to adopt more sustainable habits. Awareness of the “right” thing to do—such as turning off lights or the faucet—is high but that does not translate into behavior change. When clients insist to Lee Ann Head of sustainable advertising agency the Shelton Group, “We need a new education campaign,” she counters, “No, you don’t. You need a motivation campaign.” Her firm’s “Wasting Water is Weird” advertisements are one example of how to encourage sustainability among consumers without preachy undertones. Other panelists offered innovative tactics to change consumer behavior change, such as encouraging competition and collaboration between neighbors and friends, translating sustainability metrics into understandable language, and providing positive reinforcement through social networks and software.

Finally, clean energy might be the “land of milk and honey”—but in the U.S. and across the world, it’s still called alternative. In an energetic keynote conversation, Jigar Shah of Jigar Shah Consulting and former Senator Byron Dorgan focused on the need for inspiration and new thinking to advance clean energy. They both evoked the U.S. space program—and its aspirational effect—and argued that efforts among governments, entrepreneurs, and industry to promote clean energy have much further to go. Shah predicted, “Clean energy and energy efficiency is by far the largest wealth creation opportunity of this decade,” and Dorgan pointed to new technologies—such as social media—that have allowed  people around the world to move beyond reliance on money to create positive change. Shah’s running admonition was, “Find some [gosh darn] inspiration.”

Sustainability can—and should—move beyond the functional to something that is exciting, ambitious, and even beautiful. As we focus on how to achieve greater, and lasting, impact, we should not forget this. Those points of inspiration are what bring more of us to the sustainability table.

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