Online Workshop: a chance for politican and citizens to communicate “face to face”

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Design workshop

 

When we participate in community projects, normally we would hold several workshops for community members before we come up with the design concepts; sometimes, it may has additional workshops for optimizing the concept.Since community design is slightly different from other type of projects, it has stronger connection to the residents and need to meet more demands. The most effective way to hear and gather residents’ voice is workshop. Here are some basic steps of design workshop:

1.Defining the goal of the workshop- what information do you want to know from the workshop? Any issues that need to be pointed out? What questions should we ask?
2. Designing a series of exercises helping people to consider the questions we asked and come up with appropriate opinions. Besides, exercises can be an efficient way to illustrate our purposes and ideas. They are the significant bridge which connect designers and residents.
3. Reviewing the results and discussing during the meeting, this offers the chance for us to reconsider our opinions after hearing other’s voice.
4.Visualizing the results and converting them into clear diagrams, then sending the feedback to residents. If necessary, starting to prepare the next workshop.

Struggling with our own ideas and blinding ourselves is one of the most horrible enemy to designer which would negatively affect our design decision. Questionary may be anther way to get people’s idea. It has, however, a drawback that information would lost during the process of transition. Workshop offers an valuable chance for designers and residents( or we can say “potential users”) to communicate face to face. In market, transition will increase the cost of products. Similarly, I believe there is also a “cost” for transition of information.

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Potential interface of Online workshop

When I read the series of articles about I-732, I kept thinking why not create a online workshop which might provides more direct communication for both politician and citizens? With the technology today, it is not difficult to offer a platform or app for online workshop. Actually the mechanism of online workshop will be quite similar to online class. One principal is responsible for organizing the workshop; participants can share their opinions not only by text but also graphics or videos; a background program can filter the information by keywords and collect the most valuable ideas from participants. I can’t guarantee that such a workshop would work since there are so many participants and ideas, however, it at least offers an possibility for a large group of people communicate “face to face”.

I-732 a Missed Opportunity

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Image: Tom Toles, Washington Post

In an editorial urging readers reject Initiative 732, the Seattle Times assured that, instead of the statewide carbon tax, soon-to-be-elected President Hillary Clinton promised to enact “aggressive climate-change response via executive actions that won’t need to go through Congress”. The paper quoted her campaign’s rosy projections of an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

In retrospect, this turned out to be presumptuous and deaf to prevailing political discord, laid painfully bare by the last election. It will be four more years before there is another presidential election with sufficient turnout to pass a new carbon tax. Meanwhile, Washington State’s worst polluters lack an incentive to reduce their emissions.

I-732 was a viable proposal for enacting carbon taxation in a politically fractious era. An integral feature was its “revenue neutrality”. The new carbon tax burden would be rebated with cuts to taxes on sales and business operations. As a result, the initiative didn’t trigger the level of opposition expected from the fossil fuel industry or manufacturers. This made it more likely to be approved.

Ironically, environmentalists’ opposition to I-732 defeated it at the ballot. They argued that proceeds from a carbon tax should be spent on renewable energy, mass transit, and other green measures. But they failed to grasp the bigger, more urgent, predicament. Firstly, spending revenues would make the tax less progressive by weakening its sales tax reductions and tax breaks for low-income families. Moreover, allocating the revenues to green measures would compromise the tax’s neutrality, alienating voters on the right who typically oppose such spending on principle. Without compromise, it will be harder to pass future environmental legislation.

Gambling that a more partisan measure can be passed sometime in the future not only ignores the realities of today’s polarized politics, it fails to weigh the costs of emitting carbon during the indefinite interim. With the global climate poised at the precipice of irrevocable change, suspending action for four more years may prove disastrous.

Washington missed its opportunity to be the vital early adopter of carbon taxation in the US—the world’s largest per-capita carbon emitter. A relatively neutral carbon tax like I-732 could have been replicated in more conservative states, even nationwide. Outside the fairly liberal west coast, initiatives that marry carbon taxes to additional spending on green measures are unlikely to gain bipartisan support.

Wouldn’t an imperfect, but effective carbon tax be better than no carbon tax at all?

A matter of city memory

Today I want to tell a story about my hometown.

I grew up in the biggest heavy-industrial city in China, and the most intense heavy-industrial district in the city. My father is an passionate engineer, who was really proud of his work. And there were generations of engineers just like my father, devoted themselves to the development of manufacturing and heavy-industry in the early years of New China, feeling proud of their contribution. Factories, mechanical drawings and fellow kids from other engineers’ families were so common through my entire childhood. People might have bad impressions about factories, and might think this is strange, but really, I wouldn’t say this was all bad childhood experience. I thought this hard and heavy character of the neighborhood was unique, so does the city. Especially after almost all the factories were relocated to the suburbs and my family finally moved out of the neighborhood.

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The city government decided to relocate the factories due to the economic recession and the process of Enterprise Reformation (Turning state-owned enterprises into private enterprises). Basically, factories were relocated to rural area, taking advantage of the low-price in countryside, and the land within the city was released and sold for high price, so that the price difference could be utilized for new development. This movement was certainly successful saving a lot of factories from bankrupt and allowing opportunities for inner city area to imply a more diverse and healthy development. The vision for the urban renewal plan after the relocation was to develop several commercial centers surrounded by upscale housing estates. This seems a fair decision to make at that time. While years later, when I revisited the district, I found that what coming together with the great renewal was also severe gentrification. Now what had replaced the factories are tons of skyscrapers one near another, the demographics and social atmosphere has totally changed. Middle-class, elites, students, and workers live in the same neighborhood, but never really communicated. The intimacy between neighbors is no longer exist, and social cohesion has been broken by the gates of those residential areas.

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I kept thinking of the concept of city memory every time when I recall this story. Does the memory still matter after all the pieces are gone? I always think that memories are just passed experience, and experience is what makes a person who he is. The same thing to a city. I think it’s a terrible decision to rip off all the factories stood there for almost a century, and covered with a totally irrelevant urban fabric. The skyscrapers are compact and efficient, but at the same time, they are also isolated. They are regressive to achieve the goal of livable city. And in this case, they cut off the city memory. Under many circumstances, urban development is driven by economic benefit, but we should also be mindful in terms of the inherent social issues.

 

The Monster

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Image provided by: http://d.ibtimes.co.uk/en/full/1372597/cookie-monster.jpg

 

Why is it so surprising that the political left has been actively fighting the passage of I-732?

For those unfamiliar with the initiative and the totally bizarre politics relating to it, I-732 is a proposed neutral carbon tax in Washington State. This proposal would institute a tax of $25 per metric ton of CO2 on fossil fuels consumed. Proceeds would be used to reduce the state sales tax and eliminate B&O taxes for manufacturers. Remaining funds would be distributed to low income households (those who are most impacted by increasing energy costs). By lowering the sales tax rate and redistributing tax proceeds to low earning families, the regressive economics of Washington’s zero income tax policy would greatly improve. Washington would be instituting the most progressive greenhouse gas legislation in the United States.

It may be surprising that Washington’s left worked against the passage of I-732. The state’s governor, Jay Inslee, and a handful of environmental and labor groups didn’t agree with the proposed use of the initiative’s tax proceeds. They wanted to use the additional tax revenues to grow government, increase investments in environmental programs, and most recently, use proceeds to cover the education budget gap.

I have been asking myself: why does it seem so strange that this initiative’s opposition is coming from the political left? With further analysis, the answer to this question is totally obvious.

I-732 is an absolutely terrible proposal. This initiative would pour cold water on the income tax debate while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions…all without expanding our State budget and creating an additional tax burden for Washington’s residents. In government speak; the proposal would be an absolute catastrophe! Two massive tax revenue opportunities wasted by a single initiative that actually solves the problems Washington’s residents feel are important. I-732 has the potential to be so destructive that it might actually gain the support of the totally ignorant political right. Take a step back and let the gravity of that potentiality sink in… Scary thought… The conservative minority actually agreeing with legislation in a state in which they too are residents.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like we really dodged a bullet on this one. Fortunately for all of us, the political leaders in this state saw I-732 for what it really was: an opportunity to solve a few problems without feeding the self-interest monster. We can all sleep well at night knowing that future versions of this initiative will attempt to keep the monster sated. At least… until it gets hungry again.

Should there be a LEED equivalent for food companies in the U.S.?

As I walk down the aisles of a grocery store, the labels that catch my eye are the Non-Gmo Project, the USDA organic, and the Fair Trade labels. These labels allow consumers to assume that what they are buying is good for their health, responsibly sourced, and responsibly traded. The labels operate as enabling frameworks that measure the success of a product in terms of health or trade standards, but they measure only the product, and fall short in determining the how the food company performs overall in the context of the increasing environmental and social standards of the U.S. consumer.  I think it is time to develop a standard label that takes a holistic approach to determining where food companies stand in relation to others.

The label could be based off of a rating system similar to LEED, where bronze, silver, gold, and platinum ratings differentiate the efficacy of their efforts, based on point totals. The standard should take in to account all aspects of the company’s operations. So the product is organic and responsibly sourced, but what impact do they have beyond their food product. Does the corporate office operate in a LEED certified building? Do they go beyond corporate social responsibility and make significant contributions to their communities? I love Newman’s Own products, because they taste great and they donate 100% of their after tax profits to charity; but does their manufacturing process also operate at a high standard. I assume that companies that make an effort to acquire Fair Trade, USDA Organic, and Non-Gmo labels, also make efforts to maintain high environmental and ethical standards within their operations and management, but I only speculate. Food companies should have the right to apply for and be rewarded for their full spectrum efforts in running their business, and not just for the quality of their product; health standards are only one part of the equation. Equally, consumers have the right to full transparency and trust in food companies that operate at high environmental and ethical standards, in addition to providing healthy food products for us, our friends, family, and kids.

The labels mentioned above should be not be overshadowed by this rating, but should be leveraged and used in the rating process. Other measurement systems should be leveraged as well, such as the Green Accounting system in the works, LEED ratings for building operations, and even CEO pay compared to employee pay should be taken in to account; as well as many other factors not mentioned. There should be differentiation between small, medium, large, and public companies. The operational nature of a small, local food company is a lot different than the complex operational network of a large conglomerate food company; the rating system should take this in to account and adjust the standards and calculations accordingly. In some ways, a holistic rating system may even be favorable to smaller companies, because a less complex supply chain and single office location, may allow for the necessary adjustments (for rating) to be made, simple and straightforward.

I think the food industry is poised to accommodate a universal rating system like this, plus it isn’t over regulation. Even in the beginning, I think new companies will have incentive and should be rewarded for their ability to address and adjust every facet of their business to function successfully in a culture that holds a high standard for not only the health and source of our food, but also the social and environmental impact we have as consumers and companies.

 

References:

1: “Newman’s Own as Alternative Economics”, Engler, Mark  : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-engler/newmans-own-as-alternativ_b_754063.html

2: “There are three potential problems with a social enterprise label for Europe”, Addarii, Filippo : https://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2012/oct/26/social-enterprise-label-europe

3: Fair Trade USA : http://fairtradeusa.org/

4: USDA Organic : https://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=organic-agriculture

5: Non-GMO Project: https://www.nongmoproject.org/

 

Who Needs LEED?

Which would you prefer: money or bragging rights? This is essentially the question that plagues environmental regulators around the world, as politicians bicker about taxes and incentives, the resulting cost to industry, and – in some countries – the merits of climate change science. As a result, environmental consciousness is effectively regulated on an industry-by-industry basis and with varying degrees of 400x300_carbon_taxsuccess. The US government
provides incentives for citizens to invest in solar and electric cars, yet subsidizes the oil and gas industry to the tune of $35.6 billion/year – nearly 2.5 times what it invests in alternative energy exploration. In the construction industry, many independent rating systems exist – LEED, Green Globes, GBI, and Greenroads, to name a few – yet incentives for green development are effectively limited to positive publicity. What if there was a simple method to create a better incentive for environmental consciousness, with minimal adverse effect to existing industry?

The concept of a carbon tax, or an additional cost levied on fossil fuels to mitigate environmental impacts, is not new and has been adopted in more than a dozen countries around the world. It’s simple. It’s effective. So why not base our entire sales tax structure solely upon environmental impact?

The chief advantage of an environment-based sales tax is quite simply the proven effectiveness of up-front costs. Whereas post-purchase incentives such as mail-in rebates and the plastic “bottle bill” taxes meet only minimal success, implementing a front-end tax motivates the purchaser to shop alternatives, which in turn will provide incentives for manufacturers and distributors to reduce their use of environmentally harmful materials and practices. In short, an all-inclusive environmental impact tax on all goods will prove far more effective than our current attempts at promoting green industry through industry-specific tax breaks.

So the question of the day: how does one go about basing an entire sales tax on environmental impact alone? It sounds complicated in theory, but is relatively simple in practice: Step 1 – We would first need to establish a standardized and universally-accepted method to quantify the environmental impact of any given material. This could be in the form of an impact study or even life-cycle cost analysis. Step 2 – We then simply tax products based upon their composition: polyethylene plastics see a certain tax per unit weight, Styrofoam another. In this way, goods are taxed according to their respective environmental impacts – an all-inclusive system offering the simplicity and effectiveness of a carbon tax, and without the rigidity of direct regulation.        picture1

The global stage has proven the effectiveness of a carbon tax as the most flexible and cost-
effective method to drive positive change. Companies are free to make decisions based upon their own economic pursuits – some will pursue green technology while others will pay the price not to do so. Additionally, regulatory and maintenance costs are relatively minimal for such a simple system. Ultimately, such a program would drastically reduce consumer use of environmentally detrimental goods as manufacturers reconsider their use of harmful materials and processes. In a world where we hope to reduce our global impact, an all-inclusive tax on environmental impact is the most effective, cost-efficient, flexible, and straightforward way to catalyze a change in thinking.

Coal…or Carrots?

The idea of whether the general public accepts an economic instrument depends on their understanding of the underlying issue…and its relevance to their life. This makes me think of the names that we give to different issues to make them more palatable. It also makes me think about the significant differences in culture across our country. I grew up in West Virginia, and while I have spent the last 11 years on the west coast, I’m still deeply connected with my roots.

The way that we refer to climate change and other similar environmental issues is important because it hearkens back to cultural relevance. In the small mining towns in West Virginia that are currently experiencing devastating unemployment and the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the nation, the immediate concern is not climate change. For decades, coal has been their livelihood–and now it’s gone. In communities like this that are struggling to survive day-to-day, it is extremely difficult to ask them to think about the impact of their current actions on the future. In order to do this, there must be alternatives, relatable reasons, and a sense of communal understanding.

Stories play a critical role in this process. In many towns in the U.S., decisions are established based on the family’s long-held beliefs. Over time, however, it is possible to shape those stories to reflect the reality of our current environmental challenges. In this case, this starts by introducing information about the environmental impacts of subsurface mining and mountain-top removal, as well as the negative impacts of carbon based fuel use. The challenge is that it must be a cohesive message across the spectrum of institutional and community leaders, and expressed in a way that provides relevance to people at all levels of community.

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Finally, there must be alternatives. Coal country is experiencing challenges relative to employment, healthcare, housing, and education, in large part because there is currently no replacement for the mines and processors that are closing. These jobs supported other non-basic jobs that are also now disappearing. So what is the next step for West Virginia? It’s time to ask the hard questions and explore the options. With vast wilderness, perhaps farming is a logical opportunity, in concert with an expansion of the outdoor adventure programs that are in place.

While I feel strongly about the injustice against the natural environment in West Virginia through coal operations, I also think that it is possible to plan for the future while dealing with the present challenges. It must be done thoughtfully and come from within. The future already exists within us as a collective, but the hard work is to understand and accept the need to change our story.