The urgent need for a new approach

Transcript from her talk at the colloquium on metadesign on 28th June 2007

By Jo Williams

Hi. Probably just before I start I should say that this particular work I am going to talk about today, and possibly if we are going to write a book, this would be the area on which I would personally focus on, is a small part of a much wider agenda that I am working on. I look , as I said, fairly broadly at things like sustainable design and sustainable lifestyles and how you can create sustainable lifestyles through sustainable design and all the other factors that interact to achieve that. I have got a particular focus on, and you can probably guess being involved in the European Environment Angency and London Renewables and so on, I have got a particular focus on, at the moment, in terms of energy. Looking at energy and CO2 emissions and climate change. Having said that, I am a lot more interested in the wider agenda which is really looking at people’s lifestyles and the changes in lifestyles that people are undergoing anyway through their own choices, and the impact that has on the environment, and then again, how can we design for these new households and mitigate some of those impacts.
What I am going to talk you through today is basically one small part of the research I have worked on over a period of time, and this is actually focusing on one particular group which is one-person households. What became apparent while I was doing this work was a couple of things really: Firstly that growth of this group has not been something that was really identified at the time when we started doing this work, by many governments and large institutions, and so on around the world; and Secondly what has not been identified was the diversity of people within these groups, and the different things that motivated them and the different types of lifestyles within these groups. And also the fact that some of these people within these groups have come up with their own design solutions, which fits in quite well with what we are talking about today.
The increase of one-person households poses a potential threat, environmental threat globally, with the premise of this work and then we sat out and determined if that was actually the case. First thing to say is the increase of one-person households is something we are seeing certainly in many developed nations. It certainly began in Northern Europe, the Nordic countries, it spread southwards towards the UK and we have now got a very rapidly growing part of the population who are people that live alone, essentially.
It is something which is also being seen in Japan, in Australia, in New Zealand, its being seen all over the world. And to a certain extend it’s seen more and more in the States although there it’s a lot slower to develop. Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, still you have got this househould with the usual family structure, there hasn’t been such a shift so far towards this type of household. But having said that, there are movements in that direction and there are people becoming increasingly affluent within these countries, and as culture changes and so on, I suspect that we can see similar patterns happening there in the future. So just a quick overview - this is just to show you how one-person households have increased over the period ‘61-‘98 (pointing at the slide), and they are still continuing to increase substantially, in the future, in the UK. And this is just to show you (pointing at the slide again), this is the UK in terms of looking at other European countries. Essentially what we have got here is: Norway, over 40% of households in Norway are one-person households. Sweden, again, very high; Finland, Denmark, Germany, the Netherland, Switzerland, Austria, France, Estonia and Belgium - all above the UK in terms of the number of one-person households. So you can see that they are quite a significant percentage of households within these countries.
So, what about the environmental impact? From our research we found out that one-person households, when compared to four-person households, and this is a four-person adult household, so we are not talking about kids, which would probably consume less in terms of material and so on compared to adults. We are looking at 38% more products, 42% more packaging, 55% more electricity, 61% more gas and produce 25% more household waste per capita, and they also produce more carbondioxide per person which is what we were particularly interested in, was the the electricity, gas, carbondioxide dimension of it. So the environmental impact of one-person households, as you can see, is potentially quite significant now, and if we see the current trends of social and economic and cultural trends continuing, it is likely to be fairly astronomic in the future.
The other thing to say is that the characteristics of the one-person household is also changing. Firstly, they are becoming more affluent and secondly, they are getting younger. So, in terms of the types of homes, for example, that we might have designed for these people in the past, the types of products they might want and this kind of thing, it’s changing a lot. Because basically what we had in the past is - we had older, retirement age, widowed one-person households, and also young men who are usually unemployed. And what we are doing is we are moving towards a group which is younger and more affluent, and I have tried to give more information on this. So, what we have seen before: retired elderly widows, young unemployed men, and I have then tried to categorize some of these into the groups we started to see amongst these people. And the reason why I have done this is because it gives you an idea about the types of lifestyles that these types of people might lead and also the types of things that they might accept in terms of their accomodation options and so on. And so we had the aging downsizer who has been living in a very large spacious house which abviously loses a lot more energy than a smaller, more space-sufficient house, probably has rather lots of goods and storage in their houses, so they decide to go and travel off around the world, or they may well be in the case of elderly widows, where their husbands have died. So people who have moved on to the next stage of their life and all they want to do is downsize.
Some of these might also be regretful loners - that is another group identified by the research, which are people that actually live on their own but don’t want to. There is an expanding group here now because you got an increasing number of people for example who are divorcees, people that are seperated, people that are married but are now living apart, who also want to be part of a household. So you have got this group.
And there is happy independents - people who are very happy, thank you very much, I am living in my own space and I will never share it with anybody else. So there are these various groups.
And what we are starting to see is this movement towards new groups and new interests. We got the regretful loners still, and we still got the happy independents, but what we are starting to see as well, is what I am calling for the sake of our argument, eco-singles. So people who are this kind of die-hard conservationist within this group who actually want to live in ecological housing and so on.
But we are also seing this sort of movement toward the green-chic which is basically people who like the technological additions because of their aesthetics and their economic value, basically, when attached to their housing. And what we are starting to see is the kind of people in this group, this very large growth group, which is single middle-aged men 35-44, for example. That’s the largest growing group. They have a lot of money to spend essentially. That is conspicuous consumption. Obviously from an environmental point of view the last thing we want is conspicuous consumption, but having said that, that’s exactly the group which is looking for things like green-chic. You are also seing that the growth really in women living on their own, single women, partly because they are becoming more affluent, more mobile in society and so on.
And you see this other slightly strange phenomenon which is married people that have decided to live apart, and that might be for obvious reasons, because they work in different parts of the country, and so on, but that might also become more and more a lifestyle choice. That is something particularly in Nordic countries, which is very popular.
So again, you are starting to see these new lifestyles, these new types of households and its really about how you cater for those needs and how in some ways you are catering for their social needs, what makes them happy and so on. But also at the same time, thinking about these synergies between that and how we can protect the environment, essentially.
Here we go, ecological homes, for the eco-singles and the green-chic singles.
Another thing which I looked into, a lot, was this other idea of collective or collaborative housing. Collective or collaborative living, so things like co-housing, for example. But also things like house and flat shares, condiminium style developments, these kinds of things.
So it’s basically giving people the options, particularly the people that classify as regretful loners, giving them the option to live with people, but at the same time retain their independence, if you like. So they share certain activities and spaces and so on within the developments. And we did a whole lot of work looking at how we can best design for that type of collaborative lifestyle. And another thing we looked at was this idea of: What about relocation services? At the moment, what happens, certainly in the social housing sector, is that for aging people that live in social housing - if they live in locations that are too large for their needs, they are offered a relocation service which provides information, physical help and so on in moving to other accommodation. But that type of thing is not really provided outside the social housing sector. So one of the things we are thinking about is redesigning that service, for example, so that it would actually be something that is provided more widely within the population, because of course, presumably, if you are a lot older and you are living on your own, and maybe it might be quite difficult to achieve that. But anyway, these are just some of the many solutions that we were starting to come up with. And some of these ideas were really born out of talking a lot to these various groups that we were dealing with.
And another thing which was obvious, really, was using education and advertising to reach them or using things, for example, like labelling systems in lots of different aspects of society. And again, using education, so using things like the global action plan, eco-scheme type things, certainly within new developments, new ecological developments that are going to be going up.
Of course this will also be useful for things like Gordon Brown’s eco-towns, or zero carbon development etc. although I don’t like the term zero-carbon, low carbon development essentially. So it’s this idea that we need sustainable citizens to live in these sustainable houses that we are building. We need them to understand that. Certainly for my work it is fairly obvious that an information pack is not adequate to achieve those aims.
So how does metadesign fit in with this, or how do I fit in with metadesign, I guess is more the point?
Well, I have used a slightly different word, I have used ‘holistic’, rather than ‘holarchic’, but essentially, it was this idea of bringing together the economic, social and environmental aspects. But what we were starting to see was, for example, for collective housing or collaborative lifestyles that actually there were a lot of synergies here.
On the one hand, you can provide this social environment for people to live in, which is really what attracted them in the first place. Secondly, we were seeing that the accommodation within these developments actually had a lot of market value as a result of this social interaction. And thirdly, we were seeing that basically there were lots of resource savings that could be made by people living in a more collaborative manner. So there are these synergies that go around and we found out that you can design better to try and encourage those synergies to a greater or lesser extend. Again, it’s thinking about how all these things interact.
Now, we have been talking before about this idea of bottom-up, this more democratic approach, if you like, to design and so on. I believe in that, I think it is essential. But I am also thinking, certainly from the work that we have done with community groups and so on, to design these types of things, is that sometimes you need to give them inspiration, sometimes you need to say to them: “Hey, this is what’s possible, these are possible ideas”. So it’s going in both directions. So it’s learning from the general public about what their needs are and what their wants are, learning from these new one-person households that we haven’t come across before. Learning from the eco chicers, the downsizers and so on what exactly it is they need. But it’s also about us saying: This is was is possible, these are new ideas. If we don’t bring these new ideas into the mainstream, then people aren’t aware of the possibilities. A lot of people talk to us once they found out about co-housing and are very excited: “Where can we get this? How is it going to be made available?” Essentially it is not available, and it is something that needs to be brought into the mainstream, and there is a lot of ways that we can manage to do that. But again, it’s thinking about how the top-down facilitates the bottom-up to a large extent as well.
Participators are involved in the one-person household design process. And you can call it an entrepreneurial idea, which is these win-win situations, these new innovative ideas that have social and economic benefits as well environmental benefits. How can we maximise these win-win situations? Also, the other thing is, we have got this growth in one-person households, which in terms of the environmental could potentially be a not-fantastic-thing, but essentially they are also very affluent, so could they buy into these, probably more easily buy into these new sort of bespoke lifestyles and bespoke properties and so on, as a result of that. It is thinking really about how it can be done, I suppose, so it’s operationalising it. And also socially inclusive, again collaborative housing is a very good example for that where they actually involve residents in the design process, so again it’s about involving people in that process.
To create the environmental support for new lifestyles. The thing I have just said and I kept coming across time and time again is there is loads of ideas out there, there is a project done by a group, various people which was called Emute which was an EU project. There are loads of ideas about new green innovation and social innovation that we can pick up, but the problem was that no institutional or cultural or no economic structure existed. And the question is, and that’s were the focus of my research is: how do we mainstream these innovations? How do we take them outside of where they are, in this very small-scale they are operating at at the moment?