The Human Side of Technology: Reflections on China

Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Tribune, once pointed to the criterion that often separates high-impact movies from those forgotten with the last handful of popcorn: do you care about the characters?

Recently, that simple question helped explain why my recent trip to China carried such impact.

Like others, I’ve often cited facts and figures surrounding China’s economic growth to underscore the global imperatives for moving to a sustainable economy. China’s economy is doubling every eight years, boosting consumerism to levels that are rattling markets around the world.

It has set ambitious goals for efficiency and renewables, though it is building a new coal-fired power plant every week. Half the world’s new buildings between now and 2015 will be built there, accompanied by the migration of 400 million peasants moving to cities. Sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China. And the list goes on.

Such mega-numbers are hard to comprehend and can easily overwhelm. But my recent trip to Shanghai infused the data-rich portrait of China with real-life characters. Dozens of people-students, professors, developers, government officials, architects, consultants-now have faces, names and personalities. Their generosity and warmth will linger for years. So will their insights.

Like “Joey,” the graduate student in Tongji University’s Institute for Sustainable Development who remarked: “Green buildings are much more practical than I thought; why can’t we just mandate these best practices?!” The administrator in Shanghai’s city government who, after explaining that chemists and engineers tend to view environmental problems in technical terms, said his top interest was learning more about market-based instruments to help combat pollution.

There was also the developer who explained why large government projects, multinational corporations, and properties for international tenants were the core of the fledgling green building industry so far. The green consultant, formerly a government building inspector, who agreed that barriers were largely those of management rather than technology. The staff of Shanghai’s Energy Conservation Center working hard to raise public awareness of the technologies displayed in their clever showroom.

Such conversations reminded me that we too often emphasize technologies at the expense of the “human factor” when it comes to policy design and implementation.

In the U.S., for example, one of the most persistent barriers to energy retrofits stems from the way we separate capital from operating budgets. That human artifact alone often removes incentives for business units and public agencies to explore innovative ways to cut energy use. Likewise, we often wind up short-changing promising technologies by not giving equal weight to the continuum of regulatory “push” programs and “pull” programs (e.g. financial incentives, marketing) needed to build consumer demand for those technologies. No wonder so many green building and energy experts insist that a good portion of near-and-medium term greenhouse gas emission reductions can readily be met through off-the-shelf technologies-if we so choose.

In China, one need only scan recent media coverage on tainted products to see these are not failures of technology but institutions and their effect on human behavior: the melamine scare in pet food; antifreeze ingredients found in U.S. toothpaste; dangerous toys. Now that so many countries and companies are drawing on China’s production capacity for their own needs, the perceived stakes have mounted. Hence we see a spate of articles seeking to explain the challenges in crafting a Chinese version of a market economy at breakneck speed.

The June issue of Harvard Business Review includes a warning that pollution in China has “reached such epic proportions that it threatens the ability of multinational corporations to do business as usual” and outlines recommendations for corporations to practice exceptional environmental stewardship up and down the supply chain.

Business Week, in its July Broken China feature, traces the disconnect between strong national policy and weak implementation to often-contrary and politically charged incentives faced by officials and companies in the 657 municipalities, 2,862 counties and 41,636 townships.

When 70 percent of a typical official’s annual performance assessment is based on GDP growth, for example, it’s pretty easy to understand lax enforcement of environmental mandates; it’s simply faster and cheaper to pay the fine than to purchase cleaner equipment or adopt new practices.

The stakes are even higher when it comes to climate change and other ecological challenges that affect global systems. Last year, China’s greenhouse gas emissions eclipsed those of the U.S.- years ahead of most predictions. (It should be noted, however, that China’s per capita emissions are 1/7 of U.S. per capita emissions still dwarf those of China and the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. will overshadow China for many years to come.) Clearly, what happens in China over the next decade will shape mitigation and adaptation strategies around the world. Likewise, our own policies and practices will affect China. We’re in this together.

So, how to better reconcile the human factor in our strategies?

First, we can assume that economic development will remain the single highest priority for China in the foreseeable future. It’s no coincidence that China almost succeeded in its goal to eradicate poverty by the end of the 20th century; the World Bank reports that the share of people in poverty has plummeted from 53 percent in 1981 to 8 percent in 2001. That laser focus on bringing new jobs and a higher standard of living to the ranks of those recently impoverished will most certainly continue for years to come-even as environmental efforts escalate.

Second, we can act on the recognition that we all have a stake in China’s success to accelerate progress toward sustainable markets. That requires equal attention to both technologies and the human factor in adopting those technologies-and a focus on accelerating all the good efforts to date.

Myriad examples provide a strong foundation for replicating one-hundred fold and beyond. Strategies like Hewlett Packard conducting monthly training programs for its 30 suppliers in China. The Ministry of Science and Technology hosting the first LEED Gold building in China, using 72 percent less energy and 60 percent less water than typical for Beijing, aided by design collaboration from the U.S. Department of Energy. The World Green Building Council encouraging local green building councils. President Clinton’s Climate Initiative to share best practices among the world’s largest cities and their leaders. Portland State University and Tongji University exchanging faculty and students to build environmental management capacity. Efforts to support the blossoming NGO network to build much-needed public awareness about green alternatives.

The Bush administration’s Asia Pacific Technology Partnership could also play a valuable role if its top priorities were energy efficiency and renewable energy; or better yet, clean energy in the context of high performance green buildings and communities. Such a clear focus would signal our belief here-and abroad– that our economy will be stronger and more resilient through investments that address climate change.

One of the great consequences of traveling abroad has been to look at the world a little differently because of people you meet and places you see. Spotting an image of Machu Picchu on the television screen, I stop to watch because of our trek to Peru in the 1980s. Talking with a Russian cab driver at the airport last week, I’m immediately engaged because of several trade missions to Moscow in the 1990s.

Now, my portrait of China has been enlivened with real people, their aspirations and challenges. And that knowledge has heightened the stakes about the decisions we make here at home.

Christine Ervin is an Editor at Large for Greener World Media.

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