Saving the World, One Buzzcut at a Time
How might the collective action of a million people manifest itself?
After a month and a half after shelter-in-place measures in Bangkok, it came to nobody’s surprise that hair salons and barbershops all over town were to be among the first businesses to re-open, with appropriate caution of course. Haircuts are one of those quotidian services that I don’t think about until I really need it, at which point I will promptly bombard my barber with messages asking for the next available appointment (ideally tomorrow!).
We’ve written about hair before (by way of probing questions) and clearly, hair styles are important to people’s identities — so much so that some Americans will take to the streets during a pandemic (see Exhibit A).
As responsible citizens, my family ordered equipment, with a buzzer and even fancy jagged scissor. I then used my immense influence as an only child on my mother to get her to give me a quick buzz on the balcony of our 10th floor 2-bedroom apartment. The view was great.
I would categorize myself into the “My hair should be presentable-not-dazzle” user persona. A clue: I did not touch my styling product once since the shelter-in-place started in late March, even for (gasp!) video Zoom calls. What I did notice was how I used more and more shampoo over the 6 weeks I went without a haircut. I used up one bottle of shampoo made by a lovely company that doesn’t have a recycling program (unlike Kiehl’s). Ironically, of all the dirty stuff I throw in the trash everyday, this is what triggered my inner Captain Planet.
As black strands of hair rain around me, I had a provocatively environmental thought: if a million people get buzzcuts, can we save the world?
Reversing Engineering Massive Impact
Ok, I confess — this thought didn’t really come out of the blue.
I spent one spring break during my graduate program decompressing as spring-breakers do: in an intensive energy systems course on Factor 10 Engineering (10XE) or integrative design for short. This set of design principles were pioneered by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an environmental organization that empowers everybody who will listen in scaling up clean energy production through market-based solutions.
Integrative design is a way of designing (mainly engineering) systems that “enables radical resource efficiency through integrative design to unlock large energy savings, often at a lower cost”. Each day of the week-long course is dedicated to the idea of energy efficiency in different sectors: mobility, buildings, industry, electricity, and disruptive energy futures. All very relatable topics to the experiences of individual human beings. My key takeaway from the week: integrative can be used to plan and maintain projects that use less than energy over its lifetime than traditional methods that reduces upfront cost.
The main principles of integrative design can be boiled down to the ripple effect of energy savings at the end-use. This is illustrated by a Sankey energy flow diagram of electricity generation for operating a water pump (Exhibit B). It is estimated that over 90% energy loss between input of fuels for and useful work, due to the many, many losses along the way. Therefore, the more we optimize our end-use systems (e.g. reducing friction in pipes, reducing flow of water needed), the more energy savings (lower losses, on absolute terms) and capital savings (e.g. smaller motor needed) we can realize upstream.
Could there be other spillover benefits from this type of thinking? Sure.
Let’s take a look at an example from the mobility sector — Hypercars. A hypercar is a super energy efficient concept car invented by RMI’s founder Amory Lovins in 1991 that “integrate ultralight weight, superior aerodynamics, low-rolling resistance tires, and a downsized and super-efficient electrified powertrain” (Source). The idea is to optimize the car’s internal and external design from scratch in order to minimize energy usage while still maintaining its (obvious) function as a mode of transport for, perhaps, a modern nuclear family.
In 2014, Volkswagen released one such hypercar-esque concept car, the XL1 (Exhibit C), that weighs 795 kg (1753 lbs) pounds. It is rated — if their data is to be believed — at over 230 miles per gallon, an order of magnitude higher than the average efficiency of 2014 light duty passenger car of 36.5 mpg (Source). Aside from lower energy usage and lower emissions, a lighter car will also reduce the wear on the roads (reducing the need for repairs) and reduce the momentum of a car during some road accidents (thus reducing severity of crashes, and potentially fatalities).
You can read in detail about the concept of hypercars and the precedents to Volkswagen’s XL1 in RMI’s The Hypercar Lives: Meet VW’s XL1 right here on Medium.
Some Caveats to Applying Integrative Design
At this point, we can summarize integrative design as a scaffold for a project’s design from scratch to maximize energy efficiency and realize other systemic benefits.
Reflecting on my own practice now, I can appreciate the power of integrative design — although the promise felt too ideal and outside of my own sphere of influence. Three observations that I can articulate made me feel this way:
- You need to be in a high position of influence, commanding a decent amount of wealth in order to make the high upfront investment needed (lower lifecycle savings is not a selling point).
- You need to apply integrative design at a project’s inception to really make an impact (retroactive application sometimes works, as I recall, say for redesigning building piping but not so much for designing a new model of cars).
- Replacing all 90-degrees elbow pipes will solve our collective energy efficiency challenge. Friction in fluid flow is apparently a huge energy drain! (Pun intended!)
All-in-all, integrative design makes tangible the idea of making small changes near consumers of energy (but not always by consumers of energy) to effect large impacts.
What does this have to do with haircuts?
A fascinating idea, you might say, but what the [bleep] does this have to do with haircuts? Here’s another, perhaps more relatable example that inspires my “think big, act small crusade” of #amillionbuzzcuts for our #SpaceshipEarth.
Have you heard of the “What If?” series by xkcd comics? It’s a page answering absurd scientific questions with, well, hardcore science. This ranges from the innocently cute:
How many fireflies would it take to match the brightness of the Sun? (Sun Bug)
To the terrifyingly dark but oddly intriguing:
Earth’s atmosphere is really thin compared to the radius of the Earth. How big a hole do I need to dig before people suffocate? (Hide the Atmosphere)
Do you see what I’m getting at? We have the integrative design style of systemic thinking and the curiosity to connect seemingly irrelevant topics for intriguing results. Here it is, short and sweet, you see…
… if enough people cut their hair short, maybe we can solve the environmental crisis by way of saving water, energy, air pollution, plastics, and more!
It might be simpler to lay out how this works in a diagram. This is, hopefully, what happens when someone decides to get a buzzcut (or just keeping their hair short):
Following this to it’s logical conclusion, we should in theory, as a society, be using less resources overall — and possibly have more conversations about our environmental footprint if you put a flashy design on your hair.
Environmentally speaking, this is all good fun. But of course, there is the Big Ol’ status quo system of capitalism that we live in. My inner critic is already saying…
What about the [insert stakeholder] who we [care/don’t care] so much about? What will they lose in this #amillionbuzzcuts?
To that, I say, it is time to *cue drumroll* reframe!
What about the budding hair stylists who dream of creating fun and experimental communities of hair-lovers through their salons? (This may be an actual user persona someone shared with us in a workshop). Can they… set aside appointments in their day just for buzzcuts and allocate the rest of their time towards community-building activities, like teaching lessons and volunteering with kids?
What about corporations selling shampoo? Time to rethink of their product as a service, one that helps their users stay clean and fresh and empowered. Can they… start a subscription service or a bulk store? Can they… produce high quality, resuable plastics or use stainless steel or go waterless with their products? In short, time to innovate what really works for the users and the environment.
Little Actions Everywhere
One can imagine that this way of thinking can be applied to, well, any incremental individual action that will result in using less of something, or using something more efficiently.
Examples: Using waterless toothpaste. Flying one less flight per year for corporate meetings. Refusing plastic utensils for take out. Eating one vegetarian meal per week. Buying a bigger water bottle, if you buy plastic water bottles at all. Seeping loose-leaf teas rather than tea bags. At the office, use both sides of the paper! Sleeping in late and skipping breakfast on weekends! (I’m kidding, nourishment is important, please eat healthily).
If anything, integrative design itself can be reframed as a “little actions initiative” where we make small edits in our daily routines. Though this idea of grassroots, bottom-up change is nothing new (see: Meatless Mondays), I’m excited to see this grows into what we would normally not think about when we think about “green” solutions. This is not an impossibility: starting with your shampoo might just reduce traffic! (see Exhibit D).
“You’re oversimplifying it.” Yes, I am.
Obviously, I am oversimplifying here. It is impossible to capture the complexity of a system such as capitalism, let alone try to address what is ultimately a collaborative problem space. There are many stakeholders that needs to be onboard this change even if we do get to #amillionbuzzcuts (I promise this is the last time I use this hashtag).
Individual actions has their limits so of course companies have to play their part. After all, regardless of how little hair we have on our head, we are still (most likely) using synthetic chemicals, delivered in plastic containers, transported by gas-powered trucks, sold in energy-inefficient buildings, (usually) far away from where we live. Without the co-operation from other players in the system, this potentially impactful idea will remain just a fun thought experiment.
I’m hopeful that we will move beyond our capitalistic narrative of “individuals” v. “corporations” in the war for “profits” which, I suspect, stands in the way of our collaboration. This is far beyond the scope of what I intend to write about today, but I thought ahead about the knock-on effects of the ideas here (see what I did there?!).
Maybe my next haircut will be buzzcut. Maybe it won’t. What I hope is clear, however, is that we can always start with ourselves, now, today, with some small actions while we’re still grappling with capitalism and begging companies to get on board.
All of us, sending a million little signals, together.