Getting from (PM)2.5 to Zero: From Air Pollution to Air Assets

What happens when Air Pollution becomes something of high value? We explored this proposition and the mechanics of ‘Circular Design’ in this session learning about ‘air ink’ with Graviky Labs plus the future of mobility with Thailand’s 1st e-motorbike company. We wrapped up the session by learning from speakers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the RSA’s cutting edge tools and platforms in this installment of the #right2cleanair “roadshow”.

From August to December this year, the Roadshow will feature a series of events that bring together experts and active citizens from academia, law, business, civil society, the arts to engage and elevate the discussion around what it means to have the right to breathe clean air. The goal of this Roadshow is twofold: to raise awareness and educate, but also to inspire and catalyze actions to systematically address the challenge of air pollution. Below is an overview of what we covered on our first digital “stop”, an effort led 100% by volunteers.

As Buckminster Fuller once said, “Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.” Unchecked air pollution is causing public health crises, placing strain on economies worldwide, and contributes to global climate change. But what happens when reframe air pollution as a resource?

Designers and engineers are applying the principles of circular economy and redefining what it means to live in a world with clean air. In the August 26 session of the Right to Clean Air Roadshow, the Circular Design Lab and Thailand Clean Air Network hosted a panel of innovators leading the way to redesign the air pollution challenge.

You can watch this session (and others) on our YouTube channel — note, this specific session was conducted in English with simultaneous translation to Thai.

Here’s a summary of Part A- learning from the trailblazers:

From startup Graviky Labs, based in New Delhi, India, Anirudh Sharma and Nikhil Kaushik shared the evolution of the enterprise’s “AirInk” — an ink derived from the soot in pollutants pulled from the air. The enterprise has grown from an experimental pilot at MIT capturing soot from a candle, to having pulled over 3 million tonnes of pollution out of the air and collaborated with brands like Mastercard and Dell and over 10,000 artists.

Anirudh walks us through some of the backstory, how the Graviky Labs concept, anchored in the context of India, got it’s start.

AirInk is built around capturing the value in carbon emissions. Looking around, Graviky founders saw that there were various polluters and factories that spend a lot of money cleaning up emissions. Graviky focuses on capturing those emissions, and then converting into inks and other products. This has a dual benefit of not only removing emissions, but also avoiding them: inks on the market are normally derived from carbon black resulting from burning fossil fuels.

“If we take inspiration from nature — in nature nothing goes to waste. We can turn this waste into products.” — Anirudh Sharma, Graviky Labs

A key component to Graviky’s success has been collaboration. Said Anirudh, “When you open yourself up to collaboration from other initiatives, we can achieve things that we can’t otherwise.” The next innovation they have in the works is a carbon labeling and emissions reduction credits scheme based on adoption of AirInk, and they are only just getting started.

“Every single particle will make a difference. We have pulled out 3 million tons of pollution and that’s just the beginning.” — Nikhil Kaushik, Graviky Labs

Soranun “Earth” Choochut joined the conversation live from a notorious Bangkok traffic jam — a fitting setting to walk the audience through the business model behind ETRAN, Thailand’s first public transit e-bike company.

At times, motorbike taxis in Bangkok can seem like the only way to get around, and they are a critical part of the last mile mobility network in the city. But, the majority of bikes on the street today still run on fossil fuels and contribute to the transport emissions in the city. ETRAN is on a mission to transition motorbike taxis to electric bikes and is working with drivers and manufacturers to make sure the design and power supply chain are fit for the current system.

So far, in the pilot stage, ETRAN drivers love the e-bikes because they save money and find the whole experience a lot cleaner. This is proving that electrification of vehicles — an untapped market in Thailand — can be a viable and pivotal part of changing the future for the country’s energy use and air quality.

Though this journey to put e-bikes on the streets hasn’t been easy: ETRAN worked for several years to build the business case, regulatory environment, and demonstrate the viability and possibility of e-bike adoption — especially for use as taxis. Today, the government is on a mission to convert over 50,000 riders to electric motorbikes, and ETRAN is leading the way to help achieve this goal.

When you’re a first mover with a new technology, there often aren’t regulations for the product or service you are introducing. This was also true for Graviky Labs: there are no regulations for air pollution-based inks. As Nikhil added: “I don’t think you can change the world by following the existing norms. You have to go out and get things moving, and the norms will follow.”

What we covered in Part B- how to get started:

So, if you have an idea, how do you get started? Simon Widmer of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation works with designers to support them during the design stage of their circular design journey. Via sharing stories, tools, and networks the Foundation helps connect designers with opportunities to grow and launch their circular innovations.

Simon stressed that the one of the most critical principles of circular design is expanding the view to consider the entire system. Taking a systems approach shows how a design will leverage change, and whether or not it will be successful.

“In order to be circular about design, you have to look at the system.” — Simon Widmer

Another institution working to support designers in the social and environmental space is the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA). Joining live, Natalie Ortiz presented the upcoming launch of a Student Design Award focused on the “Right to Breathe”. The Student Design Awards are an annual RSA tradition that seeks to foster creative approaches to wicked problems worldwide. For the 2020–2021 design awards, the RSA is collaborating with the Circular Design Lab and World Resources Institute to focus on innovation for air pollution.

Natalie underscored that we are “asking students to be really open minded and creative and look at the smaller problem within the larger problem they are trying to solve.” Considering the system and understanding the impact are key to make sure the students’ innovations are not designed in a vacuum.

The RSA Student Design Awards launched on August 28th, and an in-depth session to present the process is scheduled for October. Courtney Savie Lawrence from the Circular Design Lab placed this in the context of the session: “Through the design brief, we are utilizing a crowdsourcing model — leveraging the various expertise all around the world to make sure we are getting to all of the possibilities for systems change” for air pollution.

Each speaker added a few parting words based on their circular design journey, emphasizing the power of collaboration, unexpected partnerships and leveraging collective intelligence. Moving forward in solving a challenge like air pollution will take us all working together, but sharing resources with each other will help us get further together. Natalie from the RSA underscored the fact that “as we engage in this global challenge, we need to have inclusive approaches to make sure that those in living poverty who are the most exposed to air pollution are included in the solutions.”

See you soon—here’s what’s on for September!

Join the Circular Design Lab and the Thailand Clean Air Network for the “Digital Roadshow: From PM2.5 to Zero” to learn more about air pollution and the #right2cleanair. Next up, on September 4–6 the team will host a series of talks and interactive workshops as part of the “Making the Invisible Visible” event at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center.

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