Tilman // Solving the tangible

Entering the southwest corner of Germany, I spent the past few days staying with Tilman, a german who was originally from Dusseldorf and currently studying in Reutlingen. During my two day stay in the area, we found ourselves traveling on many trains, ranging from the old smaller wagons that service many of the tiny villages, to the brand new double-decker wagons with LED lighting and innovative air conditioning systems. I have a whole new appreciation for the railway system after traveling with Tilman, whose bedroom was lined with model trains, books and maps of trains and railways throughout europe.

As we talked more about the transportation system in Germany, Tilman explained some of the challenges and issues he sees related to sustainability and transportation. “It needs to have an emotional connection for me to want to work on it.” If solving sustainability challenges does not have that emotional connection and demonstrate something very tangible, then people aren’t compelled to invest time and energy to the problem. Take for example energy vs. transporation.

Tilman explained how working on energy challenges alone, for him, doesn’t always show a tangible outcome. However, transportation is easy to see what you are working on. You can sit in the seats, feel the movement, hear and smell the commotion around you as you wait on the platform for oncoming trains – our senses are actively involved with seeing, and therefore understanding, the sustainability challenges involved with transportation.

But many of us don’t view energy in the same way. Energy is rarely thought of as a product we buy, but rather a means for fulfilling and operating the other products that we buy. It is a means rather than an end. We buy a television that needs electricity to run. We buy a cell phone that needs electricity to be charged. We don’t buy electricity simply to have more electricity – it always serves something else.

As a society, we are driven by our senses and tangibility. Perhaps we are more compelled to solve challenges surrounding the energy crisis when they are more closely connected to tangible outcomes, such as transportation, which relies heavily on energy.

Many companies and businesses are starting to realize this in the way their customers have begun to respond to them. Starbucks has been one of the leading coffee companies in the world when it comes to fair pricing and sustainability initiatives. In April, they held an event known as the Cup Summit in Boston, where they brought together some of the leading thinkers in the world to address how to make their cups more sustainable. What they had discovered was that regardless how much time they invested in installing and designing more energy-efficient ventilation and cooling systems or better supply chain practices – their customers always came back to them and said “but what are you doing about your cups?” Even though the cups result in less than one percent of the companies total footprint, it is still the immediate challenge that the customers associate Starbucks with because they are able to feel it, move it, and decide what to do with it when they are done. A ventialation system doesn’t have that same kind of tangibility.

For many of us, sometimes the tangible (and perhaps less important) challenges need to be solved first, before addressing the larger, and more significant, sustainable challenges. What tangible challenges have you faced and how might solving those lead to bigger sustainability challenges?


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