#btconf Berlin, Germany 01 - 02 Sep 2022

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is a London-based author, consultant and entrepreneur who works across climate change, ethics and the internet of things.

She is the author of ‘Creating a Culture of Innovation’ (2020) and ‘Smarter Homes: how technology will change your home life’ (2018). She was the first UK distributor of the Arduino, the founder of the Good Night Lamp and is now building the Low Carbon Design Institute, exploring how creative professionals integrate climate change knowledge in their practice.

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All Together Now

There is no better time to think about radical collaboration between tech and other sectors than in the middle of a climate emergency. Alex will share examples of complex technology problems that hide behind the headlines and that software and UX practitioners should look to address in their next job. From helping streamlining the access to green finance, decarbonising a supply chain or helping people understand their energy bills, there is plenty to do and the time is now.



[Audience applause]

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino: Good morning. Good morning. Good morning. I’m going to do a little adlibbing because he’s given me so much time; it means that I can kind of do all sorts of things that aren’t planned for. So, if you’re going to--

I would like you--

If we can get a bit of light on the audience if that’s all right. Amazing. Can I get you all to introduce yourself and say what you do and who you are to someone you did not come with who is sitting around you right now? And you get four minutes. Go!

[Audience chatter]

Alexandra: [Laughter]

[Audience chatter]

Alexandra: Okay. You get one more minute.

[Audience chatter]

Alexandra: All right. Look at that. Hopefully, you have now new friends or new people you can chat to over the next two days. And, you know, we’re not the only ones on stage who are interesting. People in the room are even more interesting and have even more time, so bear that in mind. Does that work? Yeah? Cool. Do more of this.

We’re in, you know, IRL. I still can’t believe it. This is my first talk abroad. This is my first talk in mainland Europe, probably the only one this year (since 2019), and I live in England, in London.

I’m sorry.

[Audience laughter]

Alexandra: And it’s just really exciting to be face-to-face with people. It’s really exciting to take the time to learn together. I’m going to ask you another participatory question, so you can keep the lights on people.

Who here--? Raise your hand if you were born before 1980.


[Audience laughter]

Alexandra: [Laughter] Raise your hand if you were born between 1980 and 2000.

Woo, sheesh. Okay.

And raise your hand if you were born in the new millennium.

[Loud inhale]

See what I did there? And I think -- I want you to think about that. I want you to think about our sector and how it’s aging and how going to conferences, it feels to me, isn’t necessarily something a young person wants to do anymore. And I think that’s, you know, something we can change, and we can invite our peers and our colleagues and young people who work with us so that we can make Marc’s event and every future Beyond Tellerrand super successful for the next 10, 15 years.

Does that work? Good.

All right. Now I’m going to do my talk. [Laughter]

All right. I wanted to--

This is kind of a weird one. I mean I kind of just do weird talks, really. But I wanted to take the time to do a bit of reflection. Also, because I, unfortunately, traveled here on a series of trains, so I came here by train.

I’m not going to say anything about Deutsche Banh. It’s always hilarious. I traveled across Germany in 2018, and I can tell you nothing has improved.

But I’m kind of bringing a whole bunch of baggage with me. I trained as an industrial designer. I spent the first ten years of my career working around tech. I was the first UK distributor of the Adruino. Give me a shout-out if you’ve heard about the Arduino.

[Audience cheers]

Alexandra: Those were the days...

I’ve written some books and, over the last -- since 2018, really -- I’ve started doing climate work and working in organizations that (in some way, shape, or form) have, yes, a design and tech angle but also a really important energy or social change or social enterprise angle. And it makes me think a lot about what it means to have done ten years of design in tech - just design in tech.

There are three things I want to kind of bring to you, and they’re not easy things. Also, really awful to bring at the beginning of an event, but it kind of makes the job for every other speaker way easier because everyone else is going to be so much happier. And so, I’m kind of bringing you the complicated things first, so you can then move on and have nicer thoughts afterwards.

But I’m going to talk about moral disengagement and what I think is sort of the difference between next practice and new practice (and what I mean by that). I’m going to leave you with some very easy to-dos, things that are kind of simple that I think, no matter where you are in design or tech, you want to think about and think around.

Hands up for who describes themselves as a designer.

Okay. Who describes themselves as a software person? I mean I’m not going to get into front-end, back-end, and all that.

Okay. And then miscellaneous others?

I really want to know what you people do now.

Cool, and so I think that every -- hopefully, all of you will find something in my talk that you can snack on as a to-do. It’s not perfect. It’s not meant for every single possible audience. It’s just a bit of a thing, a bit of an attempt.

The thing about this “This is fine” meme that everybody knows is that the rest of the strip, the rest of the comic strip just gets worse and worse. This is actually the beginning of the worst bit of that comic strip. I’m sure you’ve all seen that “This is fine” meme, but it’s always the first two bits of the strip.

As time goes by, the dog just decomposes with things that are happening around him. I feel like that a lot at the minute. I feel like I’ve made choices in my career, I’ve made choices in the things I was interested in, and maybe they weren’t the right choice for the world that we live in now, and I have to think about that.

I’m a geriatric millennial. I was born in 1980, so it makes me, on a good day, mid-life. On a bad day, maybe close to the end. Who knows?

Depending on whose report you read, the world may or may not be uninhabitable by 2050, which doesn’t leave me a ton of time to try to reflect. I have to kind of get past the point of reflecting and have to go into action. I have to think about what I want to do as a professional, what I want to do with my time, my work, et cetera.

I think it’s really easy not to do that. It’s really easy to kind of sit there and go, “Ugh. Tomorrow’s problems.” Or not even tomorrow. You know, next year’s problems.

And I think that’s a really interesting dynamic. If you’re interested in moral disengagement, sadly, I have a book on the matter, which was written by Albert Bandura, who died very recently. A very well-known American psychologist, and he talks about this ability to sort of pick and choose, basically, your moral space. So, someone who is extremely moral in their day-to-day life with their family could be extremely not so moral to the taxman, for example - and other kinds of sins.

I won’t get into that, but other kinds of sins is sort of what society is made up right now, and there’s just a lot going on and a lot of things that really come as no surprise. Even if we’ve worked in design and tech and we’ve worked with the most powerful tools on earth, we’re still slushing around with some fundamental problems that you could say have been around for a really, really long time. And I find that perplexing. I thought we were supposed to evolve with our tools and let our tools change us and all that jazz.

This, by the way, is one of the Jenny Holzer’s truisms. And if you’ve not encountered Jenny Holzer’s work, I recommend it. If you just Google “abuse of power,” it comes as no surprise you’ll find it.

I think it’s interesting to be slushing around that problem space and to think of yourself as an agent of change. We like to think of ourselves (in design and technology) as agents of change. What are we really doing?

I think about that for myself. I think about that for my sector.

On the left-hand side, which I’m standing in front of -- I’ll do this. It’s slightly easier.

On the left-hand side is a poster designed by James Bridle. If you’ve not encountered James’s work or his books, I recommend you do.

The idea that we live in a world that’s digital, it’s very easy to swipe under the carpet the fact that there’s infrastructure there. There’s infrastructure that demands resources. Those resources are hard to come by. They’re getting more and more messy to manage.

I live in a country where, right now, I’ve been under a hose pipe ban for the last few weeks. I haven’t really attempted to water my garden for weeks anyway. Everything is kind of not doing well.

And you know there’s that decision of whether I engage with these problems in my work or not. Whether I engage with the fact that according to -- this is a McKinsey report -- we will triple our global demand for energy until 2050. That’s quite interesting. It’s quite an interesting kind of hidden piece of data that’s slushing around out there in the information space.

What does it mean? What does it mean when energy and the price of energy is going to cost an absolute fortune?

Again, I come from a land that’s very specific in its geopolitical-ness. But still, everyone is kind of having trouble with the price of energy.

Does that translate into data centers? Yep. Probably.

And I also feel, as an industrial designer, I feel there’s a moral disengagement that we’ve participated in (as a sector) to say that these are all problems that can be addressed with traditional design practice. Traditional design practice is designing things to make people desire those things in a way that more or less has maintained the status quo, has maintained certain kinds of behaviors. Even worse, it’s made marketplaces for behaviors that were even less exciting or more impactful to the environment but we were really trying.

And I think that’s interesting. I think it’s interesting to have that conversation with ourselves because not a lot of spaces do. You don’t go into university studying design these days and learn about any of this. You get the nice, shiny end product. You always get the nice, shiny end product.

And if you dig even kind of deeper into that space, then you get very old ideas and very old sort of myths, I think, about where we are. On the left-hand side is a very famous idea of Buckminster Fuller. I’m hoping Buckminster Fuller is someone you’ve been vaguely familiar with as a name. But he decided, “You know what? In order to conserve energy in New York, let’s just put a dome over the whole place, and that will help us save energy,” which is ridiculous.

And it was 1960, so you could sort of vaguely forgive him for that, but he really made a big case that, in the ‘70s, this was going to be the way forward because, in the ‘60s, they had drought, problems with water, water access, et cetera.

And so, our equivalent these days is, “Okay, well, we’ll solve it with more advertising. We’ll solve it with more creativity. We’ll solve it with more ways to see the problem differently.”

On the right-hand side is a campaign called Build Back Better, which was all about encouraging people to invest in insulation and insulating their homes through pretty shiny visuals. Pretty shiny visuals do not translate into the 15,000 pounds you need in order to get walls insulated in the UK. Right?

But, hey, it’s shiny. It’s beautiful. It’s exciting looking.

And moral disengagement also means not looking behind the headlines, not looking at the thing that is being sold. I’m sorry to put a car thing here in Germany. I feel like I have to. When I went on YouTube for something or other last night, instead of getting Monday.com ads, I got Michelin tire ads, and I knew I was here.

What are we building and how are we building it? How is it built? How is it propped up by whose infrastructure, by whose resources? All of these are really important questions.

Do we engage with them deeply when we go to work? Do we engage with them deeply even for 1% of our day at work?

Then we won’t even get into any of the kind of underlying stuff here, which is predominantly -- and this a heteronormative sort of framing -- a lot of environmental work is done by women, whether they’re extremely young women or older women, but still women. The local food bank in my neck of the woods, the manager who has just decided to take a proper job, she’s a woman.

These things are curious. If I read from this very quickly, in a 2016 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, “Men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviors in order to safeguard their gender identity.”

Oh, my God...

So, you know, all of that kind of sits with me, and sits with me as a professional. It sits with me as a practitioner. It sits with me as a woman in the world, a woman of a certain age with friends, with family, et cetera.

So, I have to look at what we do, and I have to look at what I do. I have to look at what I bring into the world, what I encourage my clients to bring into the world, and kind of try to do better. But what does better mean?

I think a reading of better, a traditional reading of better, is work in the same way but just, you know, fudge the thing a little bit and work on the thing in a way that is perceived as new, perceived as interesting, perceived as innovation. And you could hide a multitude of sins under innovation work, really.

This is an example just from work that I’ve seen in and around. The problem with this -- and these are all, of course, you can tell, eco solutions to people understanding their energy at home, just because I had to pick a sector to kind of present to you today. All of these examples, they look cute. They look like new things, right? They look like the future.

All of these examples are between 2005 and 2010. None of them came to anything. All of them are rest in peace-type projects. And that’s interesting because the look and feel of them as newness, as innovation, as the future still remains. They still look like, “Ooh, this could be exciting. This could be interesting.”

All sorts of stuff have been attempted through the years from showing you your consumption against your neighbors.

I’ll get out of the way here so you can see that.

So, you are here. Your neighbors are there. Showing beautiful graphics. This was an art project. Bless them. Letting you offset something by swiping your credit card next to this thing so every time the tree grew, you could just go, “Yeah, yeah, just offset my consumption for the year.”

A multitude of ideas have been attempted, but they all borrow the language of newness that I think is sort of this mush of new work that I think we know how to recognize, we know how to back, we know how to convince our bosses to do an R&D project around. They don’t go anywhere because they’re not the right thing for the problems that we have.

And so, I’d like to think of us as wanting to do better, and I think of the examples that I like, and I think of the things that I like that represent next practice.

If a designer or a person in design and technology looks like a particular person today, what does that person look like who is acting as if the peak of their work will be in the 2050s? What are they interested in addressing? What are they interested in capturing, visualizing?

There are a lot of data vis folks here. There are a lot of people interested in data vis.

And I look to both the past and the future for inspiration for who that person could be so I can be that person. Not so I can flog it off on them and go, “The children of the future.”

So, I find examples like on the left-hand side, which was a tea towel that was printed to help households understand how to even just fix their plugs because they understood that people were adopting technology in a domestic context. They understood that fixing that context or helping people understand that context was a domestic act. Okay. Print it on some tea towels and sell a load of them.

Beautiful illustrations of what lies behind fossil fuels, this is from 1800-something. No, sorry. 1957.

The one on the right-hand side is this absolutely crazy amazing Dutch artist called Christien Meindertsma who has done a project called PIG 05049 where she documents everything that happens to the byproducts of a pig, including in wine, including in cake, including in medication. She’s also made one sweater out of an identifiable series of sheep. Just crazy.

But it’s the crazy stuff that ends up being interesting visualizations, interesting ways of seeing problems, interesting ways of getting people to understand complexity. And complexity, I think it’s just our bread and butter. It’s our bread and butter to make things simple, to make things simple to use, to make things simple to adopt, to make things sticky, right? We talk about this all the time.

This is in the UK. This was the energy mix this morning. It’s not a good day for very much. Seventy-two percent almost fossil fuels for today. A little windy. But this is a visualization done by an independent data visualization person, and this person has absolutely no relationship to the government, but this is the website I go to in order to understand what’s happening with the national grid. That’s crazy.

This should come from government sources. This should be as easy to digest as anything else. And we have pretty good government digital services type folks, so it shouldn’t be hard.

Next practice should be about making things both easier and also just questioning things a bit more. This is super and elegant. This is from one of my own pieces of research. But if you want to walk into a green building these days, you see a little label to say, “Oh, this is a green building, a green building that is BREEAM rated,” I don’t know, “gold.” It turns out that’s 65% of the results that you need.

If you and I went to school, in high school, and had a result of 65%, I’m pretty sure nobody would have given us a gold star. But this is how building ratings work. They’re all over the shop. There’s no standard. People can sell you the idea that you work in a super green office right now on really poor, meager results. And you kind of want next practitioners and next practice to address that somehow.

Who here has heard of EPCs?

Ish. One, two. Ugh.

Energy Performance Certificates, this is an EU directive 2010. Amazing EU.

I don’t think we’re going to do the thing of trying to replace that in the UK, although I’ve got a new government on Monday, so who knows.

Energy Performance Certificates are issued for every single household no matter whether you rent or you buy, and they give you all the details around what happens and what your home should be made up of.

Right now, it’s a stupid PDF. Usually, the data is closed. In the UK and in Holland, it’s open, so you can build cool, interesting services on top of that data. But in Germany, it’s super, super closed, and I’ve had some chats with your ministries - very closed.

It should be open data. It should be open data so you could compare it to other countries. You could compare how you’re doing, how you’re improving, not improving. Is the building stock worth anything? All of these conversations are design conversations. They’re visualization conversations. They’re data conversations. They’re ideal for design and tech and this idea of next practice.

Then next practice is also explaining to people why they can’t have nice things if they can’t have nice things. These are two versions of home batteries that you could have, but they really, really depend on what kind of home you have, what kind of infrastructure you have. The reason why the Powerwall Tesla looks like it’s in a garage, it’s because that’s the safest place for it to be. If you don’t have a garage, you’re not going to get a Powerwall.

I’ve unfortunately sat through information on how to get both EV chargers and battery installs in homes, and it’s kind of a nightmare. And you want that stuff to be easy. You want people to understand really easily what they can or can’t do.

In England right now a big conversation is happening around heat pumps and someone has written a 20-minute blog post (like it would take me 20 minutes to read through this thing) to explain to me which kind of heat pump they may or may not be able to use. This should be a website I should go boop-boop-boop, three clicks, you’re done, you know what to buy, you know where to buy it, done. It’s not.

Then next practice is also about doing things differently for yourself, putting your money, your pension money, the little pension money you and I have, and putting it somewhere good. This is called Abundance. This is a bank that only really invests in social and green type projects, and it basically takes your pension money out of the pension pots that are going in and financing all sorts of really ridiculous stuff, including really crappy buildings.

It also means using new tools. Who has seen the left-hand drawing?


Well, if you Google “donut economics,” which, if you haven’t googled, you should Google. This is some of their framework, some of their tools. Obviously, the SDGs, which, if you haven’t looked into, you should.

But even if I wanted to bring it right back to, “Just tell me about some cool websites, Alex,” well, cool websites could be done differently and next practice with design is also related to this.

Microsoft put out their green design principles. There are some really cool people in Berlin who will tell you about this, and I’ll mention this in a second.

This is Low Tech Magazine. Low Tech Magazine is a magazine that is a website that is powered by solar and wind only. So, when there is no solar and wind, it does not work.

They give you page size. They give you the intensity of the site. you can choose different grid intensities in order to see how you would have to change your design in order to accommodate different grid intensities. This is pure UX mumbo-jumbo, back-end something-something stuff. But this exists, and people do this, and people are emerging, and they’re small businesses, and they’re small studios. But they do this day in and day out. It’s to sell people low website design practice.

All these kind of new things, what if you’re starting from scratch? What if you don’t know where to start? This is sort of, “Okay, well, maybe I’ll make it my 10% project,” if you’re lucky enough to have 10% of your brain available for anything other than panicking about the next deadline, the kids, Corona, et cetera. Well, this is what you could do with the 10%.

Firstly, train up. Train up your staff. Who here employs other people? Raise your hands.

Come on. Don’t be shy.

It’s like three people employ other people? Wow. Freelance heaven. Okay.

Then train yourself up. Julie’s Bicycle and the Carbon Literacy Project are both training schemes specifically targeted at any kind of organization who wants to understand and become carbon literate. Super simple. I went through the training with my team very recently.

It’s not rocket science. It’s literally half a day of listening to stuff, understanding the problem, and understanding where you might sit at an organizational scale or at a personal scale.

It doesn’t commit you to anything. No one is asking you to take the compost out. It’s just about information. Information, we know, changes practice.

Understand when you don’t understand. I think this is also something really important. Maybe you don’t have the answers. Maybe the answers have nothing to do with the work you can provide. Maybe the work that you’re doing is really toxic in really interesting ways that you would rather not think about. That’s okay. But at least understand what the problem is because maybe it’s not for this job. Maybe it’s for the next client. Maybe it’s for three jobs from now.

Maybe you’re super young and you just have to pay your bills. That’s fine. Just understand where power structures lie.

And understand the limitations of what we’re doing. We’re not the only actors in this space. It’s not just tech design, Web design. Other actors are involved. Other people are involved. Other ways of delivering value are involved. It’s not just a sort of technocratic solutionism conversation. It’s kind of an everyone conversation.

Read. For the love of God, read. I know this isn’t a modern thing. Everyone I know goes, “I don’t read anymore.” I get it. I so understand, but it’s also another way of keeping the problem at bay and morally disengaging.

I have a nice QR code of an Amazon list that you can peruse with lots of different ways at the end.

Then if you want to do more, you want to get involved, you really want to dig into this, well, you kind of happen to be in the best -- if you’re in Berlin -- place in the world, really. The Green Web Foundation are based here, and Chris Adams, who runs it, is fantastic.

Climate Action Tech, which he also co-runs with Sandra Pallier at Microsoft, is an amazing community. There of course is a Slack. They have a newsletter.

There are jobs galore. If you wanted to change jobs tomorrow, and you want to do something that supports a startup doing climate-related work, they’re there. They’re there in incredible numbers.

If you want to get funding for a thing, or you have an idea that you’d like to spend more time on, EIT Climate-KIC is a fund, and they fund small things. Part of the Green Web Foundation is partly funded by them.

Then you’ve got Green Sphere, and Green Sphere are a fund, a proper fund. They’re not the only one. They’re just one that comes to mind or came to mind right now.

There are loads of emerging VC funds and people who are “investing” in climate tech - if that’s where you want to go.

But that’s quite advanced. It’s quite advanced from taking training for half a day to transitioning your whole career. All of these things are available to you. They were not really available to you ten years ago, and that’s super, super exciting (to me, at least).

Then this is where I kind of sell my own stuff, but I’m currently the chief design officer at the Design Council. If you have ever used the double diamond in anger, that’s probably because of the Design Council.

They have, we have, a festival coming up in November, and there’s a huge online track. It’s called Design for Planet. It’ll be November 8th and 9th in Newcastle.

This is kind of where I want to pause before I give you my last slide, really, which is, I think, all of this stuff. The reason why I’m bringing you this is, I think, ultimately, these conversations -- I’m not the only person who is ever going to talk to you about them, and I’m probably not the first. This will be reoccurring through all the conferences that you ever attend. This will come back and, eventually, it’ll just become part of practice, part of daily practice.

People are going to ask you, “Do you do ESG reporting in your enterprise and how did you rate last year in the carbon disclosure project?” and you’ll kind of know what those things are.

You’ll be like, “Oh, yes, yes, A. And yes, of course, our scope 1, 2, and 3 are covered.”

These things will just become part of practice. They’re not quite part of education now, but they’ll become part of practice in the same way that you knew the new language of du jour was such and such because you went to five conferences that just kept banging on about this stuff.

I think, ultimately, it would be very easy to sit where Bill Collins sits. If you have not experienced the poetry of Bill Collins, I recommend it. And to say that everything is an act of nostalgia, everything was better before when we didn’t have these problems. No, no, we had these problems. We just refused to look at them, and now we kind of don’t have a choice anymore.

Then Stuart Hall, who again if you’ve not encountered, a fantastic author. There is no going home. It’s just moving from now. It’s moving from what we have and what we have is a changing landscape. I think we’re all capable of adapting.

With that, I thank you very much for this morning.

[Audience applause]