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Green surprise: Why the world's forests are growing back

August 30, 2015
If the air feels just a bit fresher, it may be because the trees are making a comeback. Despite a lot of bad news on climate, our planet has become measurably greener, as seen from space. And that points to a way out of the climate crisis.

A group of scholars at Australian, Chinese, Dutch and Saudi Arabian universities recently published, in the journal Nature Climate Change, a 20-year study measuring the precise quantity of the Earth’s “terrestrial biomass” – that is, the total mass of living organisms, most of which are plants. They used two decades of microwave satellite readings (which are an accurate way to measure biological material) to determine how the world’s stock of living things has changed over time.

Because biological matter absorbs and stores carbon, it is crucial to protecting the Earth from climate change: If we diminish the amount of plant matter, then more carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, ends up in the atmosphere.

What the study found was, in the initial years, predictably depressing: Between 1993 and 2002, the world’s stock of plants declined – in large part because of large-scale deforestation in the tropical rain forests of Brazil and Indonesia.

But then, between 2003 and 2012 (the last year they analyzed), something surprising happened: The trees started growing back. Their results showed that deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia slowed sharply, while better growing conditions in the savannahs of northern Australia and southern Africa added mass, and – most dramatically – the vast forests of China and Russia grew back at a considerable pace. The last point is especially significant: The boreal forest, which stretches across Northern Canada and Russia, stores almost 60 per cent of the world’s carbon (tropical rain forests store about half that much).

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Energy

Design for Action

August 18, 2015
Throughout most of history, design was a process applied to physical objects. Raymond Loewy designed trains. Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses. Charles Eames designed furniture. Coco Chanel designed haute couture. Paul Rand designed logos. David Kelley designed products, including (most famously) the mouse for the Apple computer.

But as it became clear that smart, effective design was behind the success of many commercial goods, companies began employing it in more and more contexts. High-tech firms that hired designers to work on hardware (to, say, come up with the shape and layout of a smartphone) began asking them to create the look and feel of user-interface software. Then designers were asked to help improve user experiences. Soon firms were treating corporate strategy making as an exercise in design. Today design is even applied to helping multiple stakeholders and organizations work better as a system.

This is the classic path of intellectual progress. Each design process is more complicated and sophisticated than the one before it. Each was enabled by learning from the preceding stage. Designers could easily turn their minds to graphical user interfaces for software because they had experience designing the hardware on which the applications would run. Having crafted better experiences for computer users, designers could readily take on nondigital experiences, like patients’ hospital visits. And once they learned how to redesign the user experience in a single organization, they were more prepared to tackle the holistic experience in a system of organizations. The San Francisco Unified School District, for example, recently worked with IDEO to help redesign the cafeteria experience across all its schools.

As design has moved further from the world of products, its tools have been adapted and extended into a distinct new discipline: design thinking. Arguably, Nobel laureate Herbert Simon got the ball rolling with the 1969 classic The Sciences of the Artificial, which characterized design not so much as a physical process as a way of thinking. And Richard Buchanan made a seminal advance in his 1992 article “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” in which he proposed using design to solve extraordinarily persistent and difficult challenges.

But as the complexity of the design process increases, a new hurdle arises: the acceptance of what we might call “the designed artifact”—whether product, user experience, strategy, or complex system— by stakeholders. In the following pages we’ll explain this new challenge and demonstrate how design thinking can help strategic and system innovators make the new worlds they’ve imagined come to pass. In fact, we’d argue that with very complex artifacts, the design of their “intervention”—their introduction and integration into the status quo—is even more critical to success than the design of the artifacts themselves.

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Creative