Diplomacy and design are both science and art, technical professions that adhere to the rules of politics and physics but celebrate charisma and creativity. The two disciplines are rarely in conversation, lacking common language and institutions. Nonetheless, diplomats and designers increasingly take up the same questions and challenges from terrorism to sustainable development and climate change.

The Paris Agreement on climate change was negotiated over years by top diplomats around the world, including Jonathan Pershing, the former Special Envoy for Climate Change at the US Department of State and lead US negotiator to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and now director of the Environment Program at the Hewlett Foundation.

The agreement must be implemented not only by nation states, but also by the private sector, by cities, and by designers of the built environment at studios such as San Francisco’s Future Cities Lab, co-founded and led by Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno. Gattegno is also Chair of the Graduate Architecture Programs at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where Johson is a member of the faculty.

Together, we talked about how diplomats and designers think about climate change, the importance of proto-typing, and how to go “hyper-local.”

IAN KLAUS: How do designers and diplomats assess global trends?

NATALY GATTEGNO: In some ways, the need to certify every single building with some stamp of environmental approval - those certifications are almost baseline for things that we already should be doing. We also question what happens beyond climate mitigation and adaptation, like what happens post-sea level rise. We know that climate change is going to happen. Once it happens, how do we thrive in that situation? Our speculative design practice, the project Hydramax, for example, explores that sort of post-sea level rise in San Francisco. How do we thrive in a more dystopian scenario?

IK: Jonathan, you obviously worked very closely on what is the most famous goal in the climate space, the 2°C goal.

JONATHAN PERSHING: The goal we set is in fact the goal to keep global average temperature increase at less than two degrees. Which sounds like a really small number, but in fact one of the problems we often have in talking about this issue is that for any given situation, the temperature is likely to fluctuate for well more than 2°C over the course of a day. So if you think about that being a goal that just sounds absurdly small. And so communication turns out to be one of the biggest problems.

The first thing we do is we see what kind of agenda we have, what kind of long-term goal we’re seeking. We do that by looking at damages, by looking at impact. We’re concerned by flood damage in coastal areas, concerned by hurricane intensity, and we’ve certainly seen that this last hurricane season. Those kinds of damages seem to be more common, much more common, when you get above warming of about 2°C. So that became kind of a metric, a signal if you will, a way to characterize damages we did not want to exceed.

If you’re a small island state and you live in a country which has a maximum elevation above sea level of only three feet, say an island in the Pacific, any climate change is really, really scary. At the other end, if you’re a country that produces oil for a living, you think about your entire GDP as being a consequence of your ability to export oil. You don’t actually want people to cut back on oil consumption too much, because that’s not good for your GDP. So you will argue a very different type of agenda. And the objective among the diplomacy community is how do you square those divergent views with the science, with the economics, and with the politics.

IK: The Paris Agreement is between countries but also refers explicitly to other “actors”. How do you think about partnerships outside of your traditional discipline? Where do you go to do that, to establish shared language, for instance?

The Eiffel tower is illuminated in green with the words
Image: REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

JP: We try to do this across the board in a whole number of different ways. The first one, is that the government itself has a hugely multidisciplinary group that it tries to draw upon. For example, I worked at the State Department, but I had people on my team who were from the Energy Department, who had energy technical expertise. People from the Environmental Protection Agency who had that expertise, folks from the Commerce Department who had trade experience. Second, we used to host regular sessions, regular meetings. We’d get academics to come in. We’d get international partners to come forward. We’d have this whole set of activities where we try to collect as much information as we could. And third, we were doing this big negotiation, and anybody that had an interest in this, really sought us out.

NG: For us on the design side, there is definitely an assumption that design is about bringing in these multiple different threads and different sources for collaboration. So in our case, we’ve worked with the allied fields of engineers, climate engineers, biologists. We’ve worked with marine biologists to look at ways of understanding the changing flora and fauna in our environment and how do we as designers respond to that.

I’ve loved listening to Jonathan - it’s more of a giant umbrella where you can kind of have whomever you need. I think on the design side we’d love to have those resources to basically be able to have that larger umbrella and pool that you can pull from. But on the design side, there’s an interesting common denominator – and I don’t mean in the least common denominator kind of way – that you actually have a design that is on the table that everybody feels they can contribute to.

JASON KELLY JOHNSON: Nataly mentioned the Hydramax project earlier. Some people look at that project and idea and think of it as literally just science. It’s a building that’s filtering water, collecting energy, doing some really pragmatic things. But it also will help San Francisco in thirty years deal with sea level rise. It’s also a park. It’s also there to promote community cohesiveness as a larger social agenda.

One of our ideas here is to bring folks into the conversation around infrastructure, and for them to begin to understand it not only as a scientific or engineering problem but also a social problem, a cultural problem, an ecological problem. We’re kind of in the habit of not surrounding ourselves with just architects. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get together the experts all the time. I think there’s real value in beginning to branch out, bringing folks of different ages.

Image: Future Cities Lab

JP: One of the things I’ve been struck by in Jason’s framing, which seems like a common thread for me as well in our work, is that we’re all operating in different timelines.

NG: Yes.

JP: One of them is the formal exercise in which you’re developing the project. In your case it’s the building or a block renovation. In our case, it’s the larger agreement. But in that there are a whole series of sub-elements, and they take different communities of practice. And I’m struck in the overlap of how you framed it. So, for example, we do a deal. We have a big meeting and something comes out of it. And then we have to take it home and essentially go out and do community outreach. You guys are doing the plan and the plan is done. You have to go out and tell the community what you’re going to do, so they can either buy into it or force you to make change on it.

NG: I really love the way you called it “communities of practice.” I think that’s an interesting way to think about these partnerships and collaborations, almost as little eddies and spin-offs that basically take things and send them out before they bring them back in again for that feedback.

IK: It’s not the easy part, but the natural part of international agreement is to think geopolitically. Whereas Nataly and Jason, especially when you’re reaching out to a given community in a given city, it’s very localized. But of course to address the problem we’re discussing, international agreements have to be implemented locally around the world.

JP: I certainly see it in the climate change negotiations going back and forth, and it plays in every locality slightly differently. The United States right now is having a debate about how important climate change is on the agenda. But it doesn’t play out at the mega level, it plays out locally. So if I’m in a city block that’s being inundated in Texas by Hurricane Harvey, I have a really different view about what’s important to me today, and it probably has more in common with what happened to me if I was in Sandy in New York or Katrina in New Orleans than it does if I live in Denver and what I’m worried about is forest fires. You may have communities of practice in disparate places with the exact same experience.

JKJ: I think that back and forth is super interesting for us. We’re on the ground. We try and understand what’s happening at the global level, definitely, keeping track of it, and our biggest issue is how do we translate it to the every day? How do you do that in a practical fashion when you’re a designer and you have a budget and you’re trying to get through the every day.

NG: There are global, let’s say, trajectories and ambitions, but there’s also a kind of hyper-local micro-climate that is so specific to a particular place, a particular neighbourhood. So for us we’ve been grappling more with local to hyper-local scale - understanding the global parameters. Our ability these days to be able to calibrate basically anything in the built environment to such a fine tune is an interesting challenge, but it also takes what Jonathan was saying and breaks it even further down in the local, community based approach.

JP: I’m struck by the different levels at which people operate. As I understand the world of architecture and design, there are good practices that people have developed and it’s a body of work that spans centuries really. How do you do city design? How do you make them walkable? And then within that, the operations are very specific and detailed and local. I think climate diplomacy is at the front end of that. We’re trying to design the good practice. All of that will have to be translated into implementation and it will be the design people who do it. We have to reduce emissions: all right, how do I build my building in my location with reduced emissions? But those things build on the body of practice you have for architecture. My recommendation builds on the body of practice we’re developing for climate change.

JKJ: There are bigger ideas within our discipline - like we all understand that promoting density and promoting lots of ways to move around a city. An additional challenge is to bring it back into our practice, and to look at our own small design projects. You’re really operating at these different scales. It’s quite amazing when you think that you hit all of those scales. But it doesn’t happen that often. It’s quite tricky.

NG: It’s almost like you’re short-circuiting these scales by this conversation that we’re having. Jason and I are working at the really nitty-gritty, small scale and Jonathan is working at the big policy scale. And then a conversation like this is essentially short-circuiting that cycle and saying, if you could hop from global to hyper-local and vice versa, what are the opportunities that emerge when you disrupt the system that way?

JP: I think that’s right. I’m really also struck by how much I learn from these hyper-local discussions. In one way you think, we grind the system only for its aggregate frame for the climate negotiations, but in reality that’s made up of anecdotal information that we collect, and it changes the big global outcome.

IK: Translation of what you do to wider communities is a challenge for all experts - whether it’s bringing home an agreement and having to explain it to various communities or having to explain the limits and traditions of architectural and design practice to communities that don’t think about design in that way. How do you approach that?

JKJ: Nataly and I are working on an outdoor concert, sculptural canopy in downtown San Jose. It’s called the Levitt Pavilion. It’s our role as the designers of this pavilion, to go back and meet with the stakeholders and meet with the community, and get feedback. And then try and feed that into the big loop and make sure what the community is valuing and what we’re valuing begin to sync up. Again, we have a design intention. We want this to be a beautiful, powerful piece of architecture, but we also want to be sensitive to these multiple scales: the scale of something like the Paris Agreement and the scale of downtown San Jose.

NG: The other way we try to get that information out is through a series of prototypes and test installations. So we do a lot of public art work which is out there in the public realm really to test out some ideas. We try to instigate some of those conversations to happen at a much smaller scale in the public realm through our public artwork.

JP: I’m actually intrigued in some ways how much similarity there is and then at other ends, how different they are. One of the difficulties that we have in a lot of diplomacy is that the outcome is not as tangible as a building or a structure or an artwork. So what we’re trying to do in our domain is to communicate the idea of why it should matter. And sometimes not why it matters to you but why it might matter in the next generation, 10 years, 20 years or 30 years away, and why you, today, should care about that agenda.

So in that sense, we do some of the same things. We sometimes do prototypes. We say, well, imagine the following scenario, and people play that out. And recently there’s been an effort to bring in constituencies that are somewhat different. Can we get people who are designers or painters to represent it in graphic arts or, as you guys do, in buildings, and increasingly that speaks to a different part of community. I think it’s the collective endeavor that we on the climate change side are trying to move because people respond in so many different ways, and this is a problem that has so many different dimensions.

I think it’s an intriguing way to think about the problem that these cross-disciplinary approaches, and I would actually be intrigued about further discussion thinking about how design questions can be linked to this global level and then back down again.