Sea Level Stories Wins MIT Sponsored Prize by johanna hoffman

We're jazzed -- Sea Level Stories won a prize! Re-envisioned as Climate Stories, to work with inland as well as coastal areas, the project won this year's Shifting Attitudes and Behaviors Competition from MIT affiliate Climate Colab. 

Johanna will be headed to Boston in October to present the project and connect with other climate change-makers. For more on the competition and current plans with the project, check out our profile here

Overlooking Risk is No Longer an Option by johanna hoffman

Overlooking Risk Until It’s Too Late is No Longer an Option

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Coffey Park, one of the most devastated neighborhoods in the recent fires raging across Northern California, was an urbanized place. Downtown Santa Rosa was right down the road, the highway just a short drive away. The real high-risk zones were the areas closer to the regional parks and forest edges. Coffey Park – built in the middle of the city, full of paved streets, cul-de-sacs and single-family homes -- was a safer bet. It said so on the hazard maps. 

We know now that the maps were wrong. A month since the deadliest fires in California history began to burn, Coffey Park looks like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, its streets and homes rendered to piles of cinder and ash, its residents suddenly homeless. Amidst all this destruction, new disturbing reports are emerging. Due to those low-risk ratings on the fire hazard maps, Coffey Park was somehow exempt from state fire regulations. Moves that could have made the area more resilient to flames and heat weren’t enforced. Before this year, the kinds of fires that tore through Santa Rose weren’t just unlikely – they were unheard of. 

But not everyone was so surprised by the October firestorms. For fire scientists, these levels of destruction are rare but predictable events, the product of problems with the ways we measure and mitigate risk in California. Techniques used to create fire hazard maps used across the state rated denser developments as unburnable, placing neighborhoods like Coffey Park in less severe risk zones, where more stringent fire regulations weren’t required. So how did we get this so wrong? How did the rest of us fail to notice what some of these researchers so clearly saw? 

It turns out that we have an unfortunate habit of overlooking risk in this country. Houston’s flooding vulnerabilities were well known for years before Harvey devastated the city this summer. The Army Corps of Engineers published a study in 1995 that outlined New York City’s risk to hurricanes, predicting the extent to that Hurricane Sandy would destroy the region nearly two decades before it struck. Facing a new reality is scary, time-consuming and often expensive, making scientific findings all too tempting to address later down the road. 

This isn’t always the case. There’s precedent for cities and regions to re-evaluate risk and create effective feedback loops between the scientific and planning sectors. Take the saga of California earthquake policy following San Francisco’s Great Quake of 1906. The disaster decimated the city when it struck, setting off fires that lasted for days, killing thousands and leaving nearly three quarters of the city’s 400,000 residents homeless. The most immediately devastated areas were places built on fill – former marshes and coves filled over with sand and mud into new swaths of shoreline. While they’re everywhere in the modern world, fill sites become dangerous in earthquake country. Softer materials can shake so much during a quake that they temporarily liquefy. When the 1906 event hit, these filled-in sites were the first to crumble.  

Scientists had been predicting the devastation for decades. Edward Holden, an early pioneer of seismic study, wrote an article in the 1870s specifically identifying how treacherous “the made land” was. While his findings were eventually honored as key foundations of earthquake research, few were interested in the late 1800s. Even after the 1906 event proved Holden tragically right, San Francisco officials refused to take earthquake risk seriously. During the aftermath of the disaster there was no talk among city leaders about developing new building codes, or staying away from filled in land. The goal of rapid reconstruction trumped all earthquake concerns. 

It was two decades before things began to change. The transformative moment happened in 1925, when Santa Barbara was hit with a tremor that shook the coast from Orange County to Watsonville two hundred and forty miles north. As the town set about rebuilding, city workers drafted a short paragraph, a building code appendix laying out provisions that would “provide adequate additional strength when applied in the design of buildings or structures.” That little slip of paper was the moment of change, the first open acknowledgment on American soil that earthquakes were risks worth addressing. 

With each new earthquake, state regulators, scientists and engineers found more ways to work in concert. More codes appeared. A 1933 quake in Long Beach led to seismic standards for public schools. A 1964 event in Alaska in 1964 resulted in a presidential decree to create better earthquake predictions. A relatively small 1971 quake in the San Fernando Valley killed dozens and destroyed swaths of infrastructure, inspiring new codes to reinforce older buildings. By the time the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area in 1989, it wasn’t the catastrophic disaster it could have been. Structures were more stable, buildings stronger, and power lines less brittle. Tragic fatalities were relatively few and daily life more or less resumed within a week. 

The story is proof of what we’re capable of when serious problems hit. The more researchers learned about earthquakes in California, the more policy makers distilled and spread the knowledge to different sectors. New structural codes influenced engineers, architects and construction managers. Zoning rules highlighted risk on everything from hospitals to schools to corner store bodegas. Public awareness of the fact that the San Francisco Bay is earthquake country began to spread, until it became the foundation of the story of what it means to live next to the Golden Gate. 

But motivation only goes so far. While zoning and building technologies have no doubt improved since 1906, the Bay Area is in some ways more at risk from earthquakes than it was a century ago. With trillions of dollars of real estate and public infrastructure located in vulnerable earthquake zones, future devastation could be catastrophic.  

And there’s the rub. Even when the information is right there in front of us, acting on that information is hard to do. Being proactive in the ways we plan our cities is a battle against inertia. Fixing the problems might be too expensive, politically trying or emotionally taxing. Change too often feels like too much of an inconvenience. 

Which is what happened in Santa Rosa neighborhoods like Coffey Park. Fire hazard maps are re-drawn infrequently in California – the last for Sonoma County where Santa Rosa is located were made over seven years ago. Intervening years comprised some of the most serious drought conditions in the state’s history. Yet none of those changes were incorporated into new maps, leaving communities largely unaware of the growing risks facing their homes. The story of low fire risk in urbanized areas never changed. 

Given the extremes and uncertainties that climate change is throwing our way, we can’t afford to overlook risk. We can't use obsolete data. We have to find ways to make our planning processes more agile, more able to adapt to conditions on the ground. We have to invest in regular, ongoing risk assessment for a range of natural hazards. We have to continually redefine our parameters for what constitutes vulnerability in our cities. 

We’ve done this work before in California. It’s time to take what we’ve learned in the past and update it for our future. If we don’t, the fate of Coffey Park will be the sign of what’s to come.

Waterspots a Finalist in 2017 MIT Solve Competition by johanna hoffman

Great news -- we’re thrilled to announce that Waterspots is a finalist in this year’s MIT Solve competition

Designed as watering holes for the 21st century, Waterspots are water catchment & treatment hubs combining rain, fog and dew harvesting with public gathering and education space. By synthesizing water collection systems and public space, Waterspots serve as both vital water harvesting systems and a means of bringing people together around the value and increasing scarcity of water. 

In the coming decades, rainfall levels in many semi-arid climates across the globe are predicted to decrease. Rain events that do occur are slated to be stronger and shorter. Chronic water scarcity will increasingly be the norm. Integrating decentralized water catchment strategies into regional water systems increases the resilience of our water supplies. Harnessing often overlooked resources such as fog, dew and rainwater creates a more diversified water supply, thus increasing water security across the globe.

In addition to providing these alternative, decentralized water catchment services, Waterspots enhance public and recreational spaces. In doing so, they provide opportunities for enhanced community connections and education, a critical ingredient of resilience. As more researchers agree, the best bet for creating more resilient systems is to foster community awareness and organization, thus strengthening our collective capacities for learning and adaptation

We're so excited to push this project forward and are honored to be among the Solve finalists selected this year. Shiftworks founder Johanna will be pitching the project to the Solve community in the middle of September for seed funding and developmental support. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on developments. In the meantime, check out the project on the Solve website and share your support! 

Future Vision Project Makes Finals of MIT Climate CoLab Competition by johanna hoffman

We’ve got some exciting news! Future Vision made it into the finals in the year’s MIT Climate CoLab Competition. It’s now eligible for both the Judges’ Choice Award and the Popular Choice Award. Visit the link and check out the project – we’d love to get your vote!

An interactive furniture series, Future Vision increases community resilience by spreading information, awareness & civic collaboration on climate issues in public transit hubs worldwide. In all models, interactive touch screens are embedded within modular furniture, presenting & collecting information in ways that encourage physical interaction. Each type is designed to cultivate various degrees of social interaction according to available space & traffic patterns.

“Gather” pieces are designed for areas with more room. Pull out desks & seating encourage more people to assemble & learn together. “Lean” pieces are for slightly smaller, more trafficked spaces. “Screen” pieces are crafted for crowded spaces. All models provide charge outlets & wifi, inviting users to linger & absorb more information.

By building off existing transit systems, Future Vision accomplishes three important resilience goals. One, it spreads vital information about climate change.

The community that is informed & able to self-organize is better prepared to bounce back from hazardous change. From evacuation routes to maps of flood zones, Future Vision places facts in some of the most public urban places – transit hubs.

Two, Future Vision encourages community wide action in dealing with climate hazards. Its digital interface invites users to plan for coming changes, from connecting with other planning-minded people in their area to uploading ideas of actions they’d like to take.

Three, Future Vision connects people with their regional resources. Because environmental threats can compromise local support networks, understanding how to connect to greater regional systems increases security in times of stress. Future Vision enhances connections between local residents & wider regions by spreading information through existing regional transit hubs.

By enhancing existing transit networks, Future Vision provides public forums for learning about & collaborating on adaptive, climate-sensitive adaptation options.

Check out the project here and click on the box in the upper right corner to show your support. Every vote gets us closer to winning the popular choice vote and creating a viable prototype to promote greater resilience to climate change impacts across the globe.

NOTE: This blog was first published at Urban Fabrick's blog  on June 7, 2017. 

Storytelling for Climate Change Planning by johanna hoffman

More and more these days, negotiating climate change is a storytelling issue. While scientific research is an essential part of the process, it’s far from enough. Encouraging people to act takes more than rigorous data. In the U.S. for example, while 87% of scientists now claim that human activity is driving global warming, only half of Americans agree.1 Even for those who accept that the science of climate change is real, how exactly to adapt – what policies to enact, which time frames to focus on – remains a conundrum. Start planning for the future and short-term interests quickly contrast with long-term uncertainties, paving the way to confusion.

This tension between short-term and long-term reasoning is an integral part of human nature. Together, the two form the foundation of our primary means of thinking.2 Short-term thought is our instinctual brain in action. This is the part of us that knows to flinch when we get too close to fire, that helps us avoid that speeding car when we step off the curb, that reminds us how to read subtle social cues during a date. Through experience, we learn to navigate the world around us. Over time, the process shapes greater cultural patterns and perceptions. Think of the Japanese — through their longstanding history of surviving tsunami, the population has developed a widespread understanding of how to respond when disastrous tidal waves strike.

Long-term thinking, on the other hand, is more deliberate, more conceptual. This is the thought process that helps us plan our yearly spending budgets, complete math problems, and conduct cost-benefit analyses. It’s more orderly and takes more effort. Lived experience counts for less.

The two often come in conflict but perhaps nowhere more so than in the arena of climate change planning. Thanks to short-term thinking, we’re the most motivated to act after we experience an event; when we go through a risky episode firsthand, we’re more likely to reduce the risk of it happening again. For example, people are more likely to buy flood insurance after they’ve gone through a flood. Time and again, we engage only after the worst has happened.

But that approach doesn’t work with climate change. Predicting the precise timing, scale and condition of climate impacts is largely impossible – systems are too wide-ranging and complex. Trying to plan for events that we’ve never seen before, that will happen at some unknown point in the future, goes against our fundamental nature. And yet if we don’t do that planning, we’ll find ourselves in increasingly dangerous situations. Cities like New York will soon have longer and hotter summers than humans have ever seen, with scientists predicting the number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit to more than double by 2050.3

Processing these kinds of facts before they occur calls for long-term thinking. Because climate change is very much a snowball situation – i.e. the more greenhouse gas emissions we put into the atmosphere now will result in increasingly drastic and unpredictable consequences in the future – adaptation and mitigation options demand a more logical approach. Once we emit those greenhouse gases, we can’t easily take them out of our atmosphere or oceans; the laws of physics don’t work that way. Yet because the consequences of runaway emissions are hard to precisely predict, it’s all too easy to say “that won’t happen to me” or “I can worry about that later.” Again, if we haven’t experienced something firsthand, it’s nearly impossible to view it as a critical issue to deal with now.

In order to harness the long-term thinking needed in climate planning, we have to work with our short-term brain. That’s where storytelling comes in. Studies have shown that when we find ways to connect to events and impacts that we have yet to personally experience, our levels of empathy and engagement grow.4 We start to care more, which helps us think beyond the envelope of our own families, communities and lifespans, and take the long view more intimately into consideration.

Cultivating that greater sense of empathy is a direct factor of good storytelling. Relating to phenomena outside our personal experiences happens when we see a powerful movie, read a gripping book or listen to well-made podcasts. Some efforts, like the 1990s movie Waterworld — in which all the world’s ice caps have melted and the oceans flood entire continents — take a much more science-fiction based approach. Projects like Years of Living Dangerously – a TV show exploring modern-day examples of climate change — harness the power of celebrities and Hollywood filmmaking to get the word out. It’s time to push this work further and faster forward. We can be faithful to the science while bringing in character development, plot and comedic timing. With these tools in hand, we can help people feel the ramifications of future climate change scenarios, to experience them far enough in advance that effective plans can be developed and put in place.

This approach activates the short-term brain in service of long-term thinking. While emotionally investing in futures that have yet to happen is difficult, it is also the key to navigating our increasingly shifting world. Climate change is arguably both the hardest issue to grasp and the most important one to understand. Strong storytelling is our way to get there.

1 Vaidyanathan, Gayathri, “Big Gap between What Scientists Say and Americans Think about Climate Change,”Scientific American, 2015, retrieved January 9, 2017

2 Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011.

3 New York City Panel on Climate Change, “Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2015, retrieved January 17, 2017

4 Keen, Suzanne, “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Narrative 14:3 (2006), 207-236.

NOTE: This blog was first published at Urban Fabrick's blog  on March 20, 2017.