Carbon picker at work

Shared Responsibility: Learning from share economy models to design for climate change


While much attention is given to the ways share economies are changing more formalized industries, they are often painted as neutral technological--imparting new resources but not new values. We would like instead to focus on the deliberate use of the share economy as the creation of a new value system. The personal incentive structures and collective platform for connecting people scattered across the globe allows for new values to be cultivated (for both altruistic or selfish ends). Digital platforms and apps developed through share economy systems (Airbnb, Uber, Kiva, Lyft, and the like) prime us to trust in collective networks. We propose here speculative models to utilize this cultivated trust to create systems of collective responsibility and new entry-points to engaging environmental mitigation. Through speculative designs for platforms and personal artifacts, we wonder the value of share economy structures to have social impact and tackle new collective challenges of climate change and personal responsibility for environmental stability.

The Share Economy as a blanket term is a method of distributed commerce through a consolidated platform which connects many contract workers, dispersed assets, and localized resources. These services have their roots in more ad hoc community ‘sharing’ structures built on personal relationships and connections. Borrowed, swapped, or lent accommodations between friends and neighbors have turned into distributed digital platforms--an accumulation of many independent actors (or contractors) adding up to global industries and economies, from rooms for rent, to cars for hire, to micro-lending. Climate change is impacting people's lives in different forms: rising seas and increased coastal flooding, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, more destructive hurricanes, disruptions to food supplies, and costly and increased health impacts from air pollution and extreme weather. This growing global challenge creates new needs to connect at individual and collective scales. This paper posits carbon sequestration as a space for technological innovation and personal impact, learning from the share economy to create incentive structures and economic metrics to engage directly with the abstraction of our carbon emissions personally and in aggregate.


The Paris Climate Accord, agreed upon at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), creates new caps and metrics for countries to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, as well as mitigation strategies, and financing for these goals starting in the year 2020. In total so far, 135 countries, provinces, and cities, representing one-quarter of the world economy, have signed the agreement and announced proposals to reduce carbon emissions to positively impact global warming. Regulating carbon at an industrial scale is done primarily through cap-and-trade systems, allowing good actors to sell extra credits to over-emitting companies, slowly reducing overall emissions. Working from a standard allowance of emissions, companies buy and sell credits based on their surplus or overage to this allowance. These credits can be sold privately or in the international market at the prevailing market price, through what is called carbon trade. In the United States, California’s state cap-and-trade program has led to a steady decline of the state’s carbon dioxide pollution over the last 10 years.

These incentives for emission reductions has spurred carbon sequestration technology. Biochar, carbon heavy fertilizer, can be made from farmed algae and other biomass, and new farming techniques are allowing greater carbon capture. Direct air capture syphons CO2 from the air and buries it underground. And new carbon-sink materials are being developed, including material coatings, CO2 consuming bacteria, and artificial leaves. A synthetic tree, developed by Klaus Lackner at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, made from a resin-coated plastic containing sodium carbonate, pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and stores it as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) on the surface of the material. This technology is very efficient in capturing CO2--one square foot can remove up to 700 kg of CO2 from the air in 24 hours[1] (for comparison, a tree captures 0.06kg/day, and a U.S. resident produces 53.8kg/day).

Research into the impact of the Paris Climate Accord and its emissions goals has shown a huge gap remaining between fully implemented carbon emissions of the agreement and the levels needed for sustainable life[2]. While it represents a huge advancement for countries to agree to the carbon reduction goals of the Accord, even with all of its promises fully implemented, humanity is still far reaching needed carbon levels. This projected emissions ‘gap’ is where we are proposing innovation, thinking outside of industrial scales of sequestration technology, and learning from the share economy to locate personal incentive structures and distributed economic models.

Climate change requires new values and metrics of success as we move into more precarious relationship with our weather and environment. Design has an important role to play in reimagining the potential of new technologies, public values, and material science, especially in connection with our daily lives and habits. Carbon sequestration technologies, designed for large, cap-and-trade scale applications, have design potential as well at the localized, personal scale. As a distributed network of small sequestration objects, individuals could similarly engage in a cap-and-trade economy, and even have similar emissions goals. The industrial-scale cap-and-trade system gives us a clear economic structure; transferring this to a design challenge of a personal scale, the collective and bottom-up power are beyond measure.


Our current global recycling infrastructure provides us a worthwhile parallel to how carbon sequestration could combine both industrial and personal incentives. Recycling was promoted and incorporated into government and industry policy as both a value system and set of economic incentives. But beyond this, the recycling economy is a good example of collective and bottom-up innovations worldwide, built on a backbone of industrial scale global economies. In every part of recycling infrastructure, and in every part of the world, from sorting and scavenging to creating luxury goods out of recycled material. This entrepreneurial, creative spirit of opportunism at a personal scale can teach us about the economic and personal incentives for systems ultimately hoping for social and environmental impact.

At one end of the recycling stream are waste pickers. Waste pickers worldwide collect recyclables from landfills and recycling dumps that they can sell for cash. Their need for the small income it can enable creates an economy out of this dangerous and often toxic work. There are an estimated 24 million people working in the recycling economy worldwide, and 19.2 million of those, or eighty percent, are waste pickers and other informal workers[3]. Waste picking has even in some cases turned into direct economies. In Indonesia, for example, the Garbage Clinical Insurance project uses recyclable waste as direct payment for medical insurance in lieu of cash. At the ‘top’ end of the recycling economy, recycled materials have turned into added value in products and luxury goods. Adidas’s shoes made out of recycled fishnet, and Freitag city commuting bags using recycled tarpaulins from lorries, as a few examples of many, use upcycled materials as evidence of ethical values of the company and the buyer. These very different recycling economies, as well as the many others in between, show the potential for personal-scale economies and products to build on a global industrial infrastructure, and demonstrate opportunities and values embedded in global initiatives. As carbon emissions policies starts to become a new shared value system and global initiative, recycling economies and design responses offer possibilities to imagine the implications at a personal scale of adaptive carbon economies.


The Personal Carbon Economy is a proposal for an intersection of these industries. It learns from the successes of distributed share economies, such as Kiva and Airbnb, as well as enrollment of personal incentives towards environmental values, as embodied in the adaptation of recycling policy. Carbon sequestration, like these precedents, requires collective individual action and enrollment. It is an imagined cap-and-trade system at an individual scale. Operating alongside monetary systems, it sets a carbon credit allowance, set by a governmental or voluntary body. Individuals spend their carbon credits like money, and must pay fines for overages of use, akin to the current cap-and-trade system. To offset these fines, gig workers, much like digital ‘mechanical turks’ or Uber drivers, can make extra income sequestering carbon to sell on the global carbon market. Heavy-use individuals can buy extra credits from this market to boost their carbon allowance and avoid fines. In this way, the Personal Carbon Economy is a proposal for a structural response to the greenhouse gas emissions ‘gap’ described by Climate Interactive, through which localized innovations, products, businesses, side-hustles, and community industries can emerge.

The project imagines a share-economy platform that would emerge to trade credits and track carbon sequestration projects worldwide. The World Carbon Bank platform, working similarly to Kiva’s micro-lend platform, allows people to directly trade carbon credits and view interesting projects to purchase carbon credits. The daily allowance for purposes of speculation is set at 5.5 carbon credits per day, which would stabilize carbon emissions at today’s rate. Individuals wanting to spend more than that would need to pay for their overage in dollars, or buy them on this shared marketplace, such as the World Carbon Bank. By connecting carbon to a monetary value, much like cap-and-trade, people are encouraged to be conscious of their carbon use, and support sequestration initiatives to offset large carbon use and support reducing carbon emissions.

Climate change will increasingly create more weather volatility and vulnerability for communities worldwide. By creating a system to position carbon sequestration as a collective value, both economically and socially, there is huge potential to turn industrial-scale technologies into personal-scale innovative businesses, products, and community initiatives. Without a system of incentives, enrollment in carbon sequestration is an abstract cause without metrics or collective goals. By creating individual responsibility and agency within this cause, the market will find new potential to innovate.


Within this future, and the framework of the carbon economy, new products are imagined that find opportunities, aesthetics, and technologies of this new world. Workers in the developing world earn money on the global market as ‘carbon pickers’, capturing carbon for sale as credits. Dangerous and toxic waste picking and electronics recycling jobs are replaced with urban algae farmers for AL-cology, a future bio-fuel producer. Clothing is developed that uses human body heat to aid algae growth and make portable farms. (Farmers also follow instructions on their clothing tags to facilitate algae growth by shaking the body and exposing it to sunlight.) Part-time gig workers start to wear urban farming clothing during their other jobs, cultivating algae for extra income. The algae jackets are filled up with water based nutrients, and they add a lot of weight to the farmers. Farmers tend to their algae and track the growing status their farm using color palettes on clothing tags to make sure the algae is healthy. When the algae matches the harvest color, farmers can drop the jacket off for harvesting.

In San Francisco, algae farming has become a status symbol, and high-end algae farming clothing have entered the market. The Carbon Garden Dress from Valentino 2038 Spring Collection serves as a personal statement of carbon consciousness for high society, its design is inspired by the carbon picker’s algae jacket. This dress is not designed for efficient carbon farming, but acts to display social consciousness and carbon sustainability values of its owner. Other carbon credit aesthetic good begin to emerge, using material science learned from the cap-and-trade industry which incorporates harvesting into our personal products, domestic materials, and public identity.

The Personal Carbon Economy is a fictional future, developed as a tool in imagining shifting values and the personal incentives needed for collective action in the face of climate change. The share economy offers us new ways to connect without shared geography, communities, or networks. It holds potential to rally social innovation and environmental awareness through common platform to connect people and offer economic or social incentives. There is a lot of discussion, rightfully, about the negative effects of many share platforms. Technology is a mirror of our values, not immune to them. The Personal Carbon Economy is a project positing a new set of collective values, and the technologies and innovations that may result. It offers a platform for discussion and framework in which to imagine design interventions in a world willing to incentivize carbon reduction on industrial and personal scales.


Advertisements for carbon economy jobs in China


Garden Carbon Dress, a carbon harvesting aesthetic

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Climate Interactive's graph showing the gap between the implemented Paris Climate Accord and sustainable carbon levels.

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Carbon harvesting tag

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Industrial scale carbon technologies

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Diagrams depicting current systems of cap-and-trade and recycling

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