Designing Climate Actions: Lessons from Stanford’s d.school

Michael A. Smyer

When it comes to climate change, start with people, end with solutions.

Recently, I was asked to come up with a bumper sticker to describe human-centered design, the core strategy of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, the d.school. My bumper sticker: Start with people, end with solutions. This is also a roadmap for crafting next steps on climate change.

The first step in human-centered design is to start with people, establish deep empathy, understanding the needs of the people you are serving. Although empathy has its critics, empathy and equity are essential parts of the design process. Developing deep empathy for your end users helps you develop solutions that meet peoples’ needs.

I have spent the last several months talking with people, mainly older adults, about their views of climate change. Why older adults? They are living climate memory and keen observers. As one recently retired couple put it: When we were young, teachers talked about change over the next 100 years. It’s already here. We heard about them when we were younger; now we are seeing them when we’re older.” A retired national park scientist summed it up: “We are valuable observers at this point. Farmers know they no longer have bumble- bees to pollinate…They don’t have to have data. They just see it.”

Sandy said she wasn’t particularly concerned about climate change, although she is concerned about learning to “live lightly on the earth.” I asked her to sort cards with possible climate actions into categories that made sense to her. I noticed there a large pile and I asked her what those were. “I rent, and those are things my landlord takes care of; I have no control over those.”

Emily, a landlord, said she is very concerned about climate change. When she sorted the possible climate actions, I noticed another large pile. “What’s that?” “Those are things my tenant takes care of; I have no control over those.”

In many ways, the tenant and landlord dilemma is a metaphor for the larger issue of climate change: people feel that they have little or no control, and that someone else must take the lead.

But older adults can also be an important force for action on climate change. They are primed to be thinking about their own legacy and the state of the world for their kids and grandkids. A still-active 70-something psychologist summed up her concerns: “With whatever time I have left, I am committed to being an example of how important climate change is to the future of life on Earth.” A retired editor and writer asked a question that resonates with many older adults: “What kind of earth are we leaving everyone’s children and grandchildren?”

In one-on-one conversations and large and small groups, I have found remarkable consensus: climate change is real; it’s happening; and it’s time to take action.

Recent survey data tell the same story. The bipartisan Voice of the People also finds significant support for specific actions: 75% say it is a high priority to reduce air pollution from energy production that adversely affects health; 70% endorse reducing greenhouse gases from energy production as a high priority. When it comes to the Paris accords on climate change, 70% support the United States’ continuing participation. Similarly, 70% favor the Clean Power Plan proposed by the Obama administration.

…the election was not about climate change: there is strong bipartisan consensus on the issues.

The Yale Program on Climate Change recently reported on a post-election survey of registered voters. Their findings were a compelling reminder that the election was not about climate change: there is strong bipartisan consensus on the issues. Seven in ten registered voters (69%) say the U.S. should participate in the Paris accords; two-thirds of registered voters (66%) say the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other countries do; and a majority want President-elect Trump (62%) and Congress (63%) to do more to address global warming. These registered voters say the Federal government should prepare for global warming, especially its impacts on public water supplies (76%), agriculture (75%), people’s health (74%), and the electricity system (71%).

In the design process, after empathy comes synthesis: distill the lessons learned from starting with people. On climate change, several lessons are now apparent: a majority of Americans understand that climate change is real; a majority see that climate change is a potential public health risk; and a majority endorse moving ahead with international cooperation, administrative action, and governmental incentives to lessen the impacts of climate change.

Frank, a grandfather, contacted me because he is concerned about the impact of climate change on his grandchildren. “I’m active, but I’m not an activist”, he told me. This was a phrase I’ve heard often from older adults. They are underestimating their potential impact.

How might we translate the public’s understanding of climate change into public policy at the local, state, and federal level?

The next step in designing for climate change is brainstorming ideas for solutions. How might we translate the public’s understanding of climate change into public policy at the local, state, and federal level?

Climate activists Jeanne and Dick Roy suggest a good place to start: ask how you can use your own circle of influence as a starting point.

I recently asked a group of retired business and civic leaders, fellows of Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, to propose one action they could take within their circles of influence. Their answers ranged from the simple (plant a tree) to the complex (work with other physicists on geo-engineering solutions). The point was clear: each had different circles of influence AND each could identify a positive step forward.

One of my favorite suggestions was Steve’s. He had noticed that there was a lot of plastic washing up on the beach near his home. He started carrying a white plastic bucket on his daily walks, filling it with cups, plastic rings, and other things. Soon, people approached him during his walk, bringing plastic they’d found. Just when he wasn’t sure he was having an impact, Steve was stopped dead in his tracks. Coming up the beach from the other direction was…a guy with a white plastic bucket. “Competition! But it showed me that I was on to something.”

I also met with a group of older adults at a local senior center. Ranging in age from mid-60s through the early 90s, they were spirited and engaged as we talked about possible steps they could take. Each nominated a possible action — recycling; eat less red meat; wash your clothes in cold water. Eventually, a reticent older man spoke up: “We’re avoiding the big things here. To make a really big impact, we could stop driving and move to a smaller home.”

“How might we reframe some of the transitions of aging as older adults’ climate leadership?”

His comment reminded me of a conversation I’d had a couple of weeks before with Dr. Howard Frumkin, of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. We discussed some of the regular transitions of later life, like eventually giving up driving. He wondered: “How might we reframe some of the transitions of aging as older adults’ climate leadership?” These are the conversations we need to have with older adults and with climate leaders.

Climate change is real; it’s complex; and it can feel overwhelming. But my work in the d.school suggests a way forward: When it comes to climate change, start with people, end with solutions.

Michael A. Smyer is a Civic Innovation Fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school) at Stanford.