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School is not a building: Sharing economies and the low-carbon school of the future

Singapore sits just above the equator and is monotonously hot and humid all year round.   It’s a long way from my native New England, with its distinct and ever-changing seasons. My Singaporean friends joke that they have two seasons: indoors and outdoors. Singapore is perhaps the most air-conditioned nation on earth. The former long-time, and recently deceased, Prime Minister Li Kwan Yu once famously declared air-conditioning the greatest invention of the twentieth century.

I was thinking about a lot about air-conditioning recently as I froze through a two-day conference on sustainability in a school that ironically was recognised for having the second “greenest” buildings in Singapore (the first being the government’s “Zero Energy Building”). Apparently making rooms as cold as meat lockers as efficiently as possible counts as an innovative approach to sustainability.

I was forced to make frequent trips into the non-air conditioned lobby to defrost.  The relatively new, purpose-built school is in many ways a model of good school design – a lot of flow between public and private spaces, nooks for small group learning, classrooms flooded with daylight.

But what I noticed the most was the sheer amount of space and resources devoted to routine human activities – sitting, walking, eating.  The fact that children are involved brings into play a whole battery of safety codes and regulations. Most are for good reason, of course, but some of it is terribly unthinking and unimaginative. Do all children fit neatly into 50 square meters of space in classrooms, or six meters of hallway to pass each other, two meters to go potty?

And consider for a moment the extraordinary amount of resources and embodied energy that goes into making and maintaining these spaces.  We extract stone, sand, lime, iron, aluminium, and dozens of other metals from the earth, fell trees from non-rapidly renewing forests, pump vast amounts of fossil fuels to process and transport building materials, still more energy to pour, cast, erect, bolt, weld, it all together, then add a stew of toxic chemicals – paints, adhesives, laminates and finishes – to cover it all up. And that’s just what’s upstream. Downstream – at the end of a building’s relatively short life, maybe thirty years at best, and every day in between – awaits more even environmental damage in the form of unused and unusable waste.

The point is that we are way beyond default mode when it comes to addressing potentially catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change. We simply can no longer afford unthinking business-as-usual, if we ever could.  So if we are to be honest and clear-eyed about the enormity of the mess we have get ourselves out of, here is the challenge in a nutshell: Do everything we’re doing today using half the energy and meet the needs of twice as many people.  So as a formula it looks like X / 2 = Y x 2 (X = amount of energy consumed, Y = number of consumers).   Or a simple algebra operation will show us that we need to be 4 times more productive than we currently are.

So, starting today, or as quickly as humanly possible (politically possible is another matter all together) we have to produce every single good and service in the global economy using half the energy and meet the needs of twice as many people.

Pretty daunting on a global scale to be sure. We’re struggling to just get correct data on countries’ GHG emissions, let alone hold ourselves to national targets. The COP21 in Paris last year was undoubtedly a breakthrough in terms of political will and vision. But the almost 200 hundred nations attending the conference walked away without any binding plan for how to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees by mid-century.

Let’s go back to the math and break it down to bite-sized pieces.   Take the event I was attending at the “green” school in Singapore. Even though it is one of the lowest consuming buildings in the country, it still falls far short of the task of delivering its goods and services to twice as many “consumers” (students) using half the energy. It’s pretty hard to squeeze much more energy savings out of a building that already uses the latest solar PV technology, water-efficiency and lighting and comfort controls.

So we have to change our perspective, our mindset.  And this gets to the heart of the question of what do we want our schools (homes/offices/cities…) to do for us?  Not just how we want them to look, or how safe they keep our kids, although those are also important.  But what essential human purpose do we want the things we design and create to serve – in this case our schools?

If we shift our perspective on the purpose – not to educate x number of students because that is the market will bear for elite private education in Singapore – but to create buildings and infrastructure for as many people as possible to learn in. (Let’s set aside for the moment the issue of who pays and how much, etc.)

Now what would that building look like?  First of all the rooms would not be cooled to a bone-chilling 18 degrees.  But much beyond the architecture and operations we would need to rethink who benefits and how they benefit from our school of the future. Remember we have to be four times as efficient.

From where I was sitting in the “green school” classroom, I could envision what we’d need to change to meet our goal.  First we could not have one teacher delivering educational content (“goods and services”) to just fifteen shivering students.  That’s not even an efficient use of resources for conventional school.  How about one teacher lecturing to twice that many, thirty?  No sweat – we could easily accommodate another fifteen people in the ample classrooms.  Now how about four times more – sixty?  Still doable, we’d just need to move to a larger classroom or open a wall divider and combine it into two classrooms.

So we reached our goal – four times more students served using the same amount of resources. Well, not exactly the same because we increased a few resources by expanding the classroom – more AC, more lights, etc.  But that could easily be offset by turning up the AC one or two degrees and switching off some lights.

Wait – that wasn’t so hard. Why stop there?  Let set the goal at 10 times more efficient – serving 150 students with the same resources.  Now it gets interesting. We can’t rely on the current design arrangement of the school, and it there aren’t enough auditorium spaces to make all classes so large, so where do we turn?

Look no further than what’s probably in your hand right now (or pocket or bag). The technology revolution makes this challenge seem as easy as opening the divider to make a bigger classroom – easier, in fact. And we’re doing it all the time. Link up our teacher through videoconferencing (or more cheaply and flexibly via Skype, Google Hangout, Facetime, etc.) to 150 students, no wait, how about 1,500 students, or 15,000?

Suddenly it’s not hard to imagine. In fact it’s happening all around us every day. We are, or can be, a hundred times more efficient by simply seeing things differently and making different choices. Let’s take how we get to work – being four times more efficient is as easy as car pooling. But if you choose to take the bus or subway, you’re about 50 times more efficient. Now dust off that old bike and take it some days, and walk more on other days, and soon you’ll be at 100 times. Heating or cooling your home? In tropical Singapore, the evenings are quite comfortable, and the night-sky cooling effect acts as an incredible natural air conditioner. So we just open all our doors and windows at night and let Mother Nature do the rest. No CFCs, no CO2 – and best of all, no cost!

So, suddenly, the challenge we have set for humanity to stop global warming doesn’t seem so daunting after all. In fact, in countless, unsung ways we’re already doing it: we’re making the necessary shift out of choice and facilitated by technology not because our politicians are telling us we have to (because for the most part they aren’t!) but because we find it’s often more economical, sometimes more convenient, and even more joyful.

The environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken has recently started an organization called “Drawdown” (www. drawdown.org) that lists one hundred current solutions – technically proven, economically viable and happening right now – that are moving us towards “drawdown,” the inflection point at which we actually begin to not just slow down climate change, but reverse it.  As Hawken says, what’s the point of going off the cliff at a slower speed when what we really need to do is stop and turn around!

And think of how much more beautiful and joyful our world will look with the abyss of global warming receding in the rearview mirror instead of looming in windshield.

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