Sustainability is the minimum

Authors: Jose Narvaez | Green For All Academy Fellow Candidate Scientists aren't known for their ability to be funny, but every now and then it happens. In an article about sustainability, German chemist Michael Braungart says:

"But I can tell you, sustainability is boring. It is just the minimum. Like when you are asked "How is your relationship with your girlfriend?" What do you say? Sustainable? I'd say "I am so sorry for you."

Funny, but he is trying to make a greater point. Braumngart works on things like making candy wrappers that are not only biodegradable, but also rich with soil nutrients. So when that wrapper is thrown away and absorbed into the earth, it improves the soil quality. His book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things is a game changer. After reading it, you'll never look at the world the same way again. If you're taking the time to read this blog, you probably believe that we can have a mutually beneficial economic and environmental system. I strongly believe this to be true, and it is the reason why I chose to study clean energy engineering. When Green For All asked me to come up with a project for my Fellowship term of service, I knew exactly what I would be doing.

After much research and soul-searching, I decided on building a prototype electric bicycle for inner city youth. The seed of this idea was a design I created while I was living in an urban environment. I loved road bikes because they were practical for getting around the city. However, I loved the look of low-riders. I decided on making it electric because the emerging electric vehicle industry seems sure to blow up. I also wanted to ensure that our communities are ahead of the curve with this technology. One reason I chose to build an electric bike is the laws that apply to them. Although electric bike laws vary by state, they are usually less stringent than for regular vehicles. An electric bike will deliver a way to get around that is cheaper than a car, but also makes for an attractive and affordable option to young people in the city. The key would be to create a unique expression of our communities and at the same time a "vehicle" to help young people engage with emerging green technologies. This is not a product in the traditional sense. If the prototype is successful and we were able to mass produce the product, I would want it to be a product-service (a little more on that in a minute). If the hypothetical company were to be a success, it would be set up as a non-profit. The revenue stream would be used to pay fair wages, cost of materials and investments in future product development. Going back to how this could provide an edge up on this kind of technology: an electric bike is just a skeleton of an electric car. This means that if someone knows how to build an electric bike, they have the basics for building a career in this emerging field. Therefore we have to design the bike in such a way that it is open and easy to learn about. The goal is to make it at as easy to build and modify as a desktop computer. More importantly the bike is going to be a product-service, as mentioned above. If someone buys this bike, he isn't really buying the materials. What consumers want is a way to get a round and/or exercise. Once the customers are done with the whole bike or just a part, we would be responsible for taking back the components, breaking them down, and using them for new bikes. That means I have to design to recycle. It also means the customer would sign up for the bike service for as long as he or she needs, while the manufacturer would retain ownership of the material. After all, a person doesn't need the "material" TV, just the entertainment it provides. A person may continually buy televisions throughout his lifetime, without any responsibility for where the old televisions land up. With the product-services model, the manufacturer is responsible for any environmental damage this product may eventually cause. This damage is a personal thing for me. I was born in Ecuador. For those who don't know, this country's low-income communities have seen incredible destruction at the hands of multinational oil corporations. My commitment to recycle arises from these personal experiences. These are just one of the many possibilities I've been considering with respect to social enterprise. Another idea that has interested me is the concept of sliding scale pricing for consumer goods. That is, if a product produces a larger social good when it is consumed, the manufacturer can design the pricing in such a way that higher income consumers can offset the cost for those who cannot otherwise afford it. Organizations such as OLPC and Tom's Shoes have tried similar sliding scale pricing schemes. This is all an experiment where I can push the envelope of how far I can take the idea of social enterprise. I may be biting off more than I can chew, but that keeps it interesting!

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