AirVisual Earth Shot Taken March 10 , 2020— the day that Chiang Mai, Thailand was recorded as the most polluted city on earth

Circular Design Lab Notes: from#airpollution to citizen driven policy design — what we are discovering in Bangkok

By the co-leads of the Circular Design Lab air pollution track: Courtney Savie Lawrence, Weenarin Lulitanonda, Laura Hammett, Sivalee Anantachart (Soma)

The Circular Design Lab, as detailed in a recent previous post, has been up to a lot in the past twelve months. Since flinging open the digital doors to see who in Bangkok would be keen to invest time towards tackling some of the most entrenched and complicated societal issues, we have seen the volunteer run community grow from less than five people to several dozens more. Our open innovation platform has since held two cycles of ‘systemic design’ workshops focused on the tricky themes of waste management, unsustainable fast fashion and air pollution. Now, in 2020, the resultant workshop teams are focused on taking the next step of a deep dive: this entails solutions and ecosystem mapping, and the development of triggers (or experiments) to shift ‘the system’. Beyond learning alone, we see our work contributing to de-risking some of the anticipated future changes or transitions that government, the private and public sectors will be required to drive — if problematic structural issues are to be course corrected at all.

In this post we are focusing on where the air pollution team is going next in this journey, as a result of designing around two ‘leverage points’ identified in our November workshops:

  • Policy creation (or policy change in some cases), and
  • Mainstreaming the notion that clean air is a basic human right, a values- based paradigm that is anchored in concepts related to structural violence.

With ‘about 4 billion people — 92 per cent of Asia and the Pacific’s population — exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health’, how could we not consider this air crisis a true man-made pandemic that demands urgent attention? Air pollution is inescapable and pervasive, impacting your children’s lung development, shortening life spans, increasing miscarriages and causing a slew of other human, environmental and economic consequences.

Connecting the dots and bridging the gaps

Globally the ever growing narrative around climate change is that it takes herculean resources and coordinated policy push. From Jeff Bezos alleged $10 Billion USD earmarked donations, to Singapore’s $100 Billion plan to future proof itself against worst case scenarios connected to rising seas, to enhanced country commitments to their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement, we see actions being taken on a grand scale all around us. However, while these intentions are noteworthy, they are well-financed and driven by a top-down approach. And, even with these pushes, will this be enough for society and governments to mobilize to make the necessary lasting changes? And, how do these large-scale gestures to incentivize energy transition affect the daily lived experience of people on the ground?

One way these forces come together is through the air quality debate. A clear co-benefit of the transition to clean energy and lowered emissions is improved air quality, which is a benefit that people can and will see in their daily lives. The thorough Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions, for example, is a ‘comprehensive scientific assessment of the air pollution outlook in Asia and the Pacific with 25 policy and technological measures that will deliver benefits across sectors’- yet how do we connect this to action at a faster clip? The latter inquiry stages our pop up urban lab’s working design question: how might we catalyze systems to change? And, how might the grassroots coalesce to be a lever for change at the level of national policy?

Context Matters — And Thailand is uniquely positioned to try something different, at scale

What happens when the civil society social contract allows for a grassroots to government approach to surface? What we are finding, thanks to our collaboration with the Thailand Clean Air Network (T-CAN), a coalition of interdisciplinary economists, environmental lawyers, educators and other specialists, is that policy can be shaped and demanded by ordinary citizens- it just takes (a lot) of organizing, patience, perseverance and serendipity- and in the context of Thailand Governance systems, several thousand signatures to table legislation to Parliament. So how do you create awareness and demand to do just that?

Credit: Vital Strategies Case Study Featuring Bangkok

Thailand, a dynamic country of over 69 million, has the world’s most polluted city on earth at the time of writing, according to the global monitoring system Air Visual. Over the past three years, this trend of making appearances in the ‘top 10’ list has only become more commonplace. Bangkok based data scientist Dr. Worasom Kundhikanjana extrapolated some of the causual factors behind PM 2.5- also known gruesomely as the ‘invisible killer’, made up of particles small enough to lodge in the bloodstream and cause myriad adverse health effects with sustained exposure. Kundhikanjana found that much of the blame for these particles is allocated to burning crops, weather patterns, transboundary pollution and vehicular emissions. While this research is revered, there remain gaps in the available supporting data, including only limited monitoring of industrial emissions (the over 170,000 factories in Thailand that are often not regulated), or the impact of a relentless and insatiable construction industry.

With evidence based backbone, The Thailand Clean Air Network, has collated a ‘White Paper’ to discuss the details behind the science. This is designed to help readers understand the facts as well as the opportunity for improved science to translate to policy. Anticipatory policy spaces that need more development are outlined, including the steps to achieve eventual establishment of the first ever ‘Clean Air Act’ for the country. However, achieving this transformative change will take a whole of society approach that penetrates the psyche of what citizens as well as policy-makers.

“Thailand requires a major paradigm shift in the mental model and a systemic change to the existing infrastructure to effectively and sustainably address the air pollution crisis.” — Thailand Clean Air Network, p22, Clean Air White Paper Thailand.

Uniting strategic intentions to build a coalition of the willing

The Circular Design Lab and T-CAN are teaming up to take this work to the next stage, building strategic partnerships, expanding the audience, and mobilizing support via a diverse network of domestic and international entities. Building on the team’s systems mapping completed back in November, we have been meeting with representatives from the arts community, NGOs, donors, local entrepreneurial groups, academia, agribusiness, and the United Nations — along the way seeking to understand the role each of these groups has in experiencing air pollution, and taking action towards solutions.

To help fuel the conversation and unite around a single message, T-CAN’s White Paper offers a foundation. The two leverage points for action — policy change and advancing the idea that clean air is a human right —are clearly outlined. Moving beyond the information gathering stage, our team is now at the point of planning for the next step, leveraging the network we have cultivated and helping take small steps towards idea networking the leverage points. We have a few items on the calendar that we invite you to join. One is the Community Townhall that will be hosted (and livestreamed) on March 31st at Glowfish Chong Nonsi a coworking space, thanks to in-kind sponsorship by the owner, and secondly a virtual ‘Getting to Zero (PM 2.5)’ Webinar Series that will be hosted over the months of April and May, free and open to the public, that will feature speakers from T-CAN and the community at large. The content of both will be related to the release of a detailed “Blue Paper”, by T-CAN that shows the science behind the air pollution challenge in Thailand, and the virtual dialogue of course is to invite in all segments of society to contribute to mobilizing change. Notably, the T-CAN group will also be sharing the findings at the UN in May with an “Air Quality Impact Report Dialogue: Insights from the Thailand Clean Air Network”.

Top: Working meeting between some of the Circular Design Lab and Thailand Clean Air Network members; Left to Right: Our team joined the public debate on Air Pollution hosted in Bangkok by the Alliance Francaise late January, (next image) we met up to conduct action research at the Bangkok Design Week in February,(next image) Co-leads Soma and Wanee meet Mr. Ban Ki-moon, the previous (eighth) Secretary-General of the United Nations, at an ESCAP event on Air Pollution in late January; Bottom Left: another weekly evening working meeting for the our air pollution team.

Why get involved?

As pointed out by Dark Matter Labs: Change can no longer be the responsibility or the capability of a single actor, organisation, institution or domain. Change needs movements. We operate on the hinge of this notion- we are in perpetual beta and seek as many voices as possible- if this is something you are interested in contributing to please be sure to let us know here. Also, stay tuned to details of the Townhall and ‘Getting to Zero (PM2.5)’ educational virtual series by following the Circular Design Lab on facebook or twitter.

Credit: Dark Matter Labs

Head of Exploration @ricap_undp, colead Circular Design Lab, #FRSA #THNK alum, connecter, ecosystem builder, cross-pollinator, design + social innovation

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