Seeing things with new eyes

I love the way changing how we think leads to all kinds of new ways to do things, and at this time of the year, as the days start to get longer, I want to celebrate a few of breakthroughs I noticed this past year. As well as some older ones I have always treasured.

The first one comes from a retired farmer in the US state of Georgia, who appears in a video made by an Atlanta tv station, 11 Alive, a few years back. He had farmed all his life, which meant that at retirement, he had no savings to fall back on – just his land. And that land was now home to solar panels. He was now growing sun.

He’s not alone. In 2000, Georgia had two solar installations, In 2010, it had 200. In 2019, it had more than 2,000.

“I’ve been harvesting in the Sun for forty-something years,” he said. “My product is just different than what I’ve been doing all my life.”

For him, solar energy was yet another crop harvested from the land. Forget the debates about climate change, which had never been very high on his agenda. For him, it was another way for savvy farmers to make money from the land. A new crop.

It’s the same kind of thinking that sees the opportunity to harvest rare metals from old discarded electronics. The UK’s Royal Mint is building a plant to retain precious metals from electronic waste using a process developed by a Canadian company, Excir. It is the first such plant in the world – and it comes from seeing a different kind of ‘crop’. Just like that farmer in Georgia, it’s about seeing all the rare metals in old phones and laptops and so on. It’s the circular economy at work, reusing precious resources, reducing the environmental footprint of our electronics, and creating new jobs.   

When fully operational in 2023, the plant expects to process up to 90 tonnes of UK-sourced circuit boards per week, generating hundreds of kilograms of gold per year and supporting around 40 jobs. And there is a lot more opportunity in this field.

Less than 20% of the more than 50 million tonnes of electronic waste produced globally each year is recycled. By 2030, that figure will reach 74 million tonnes unless others begin to take action as the Royal Mint has done.

Josh Calabrese, Unsplash

The International Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum estimates that in 2022, more than 5.3 billion mobile phones alone will be discarded. Gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials, valued at about £47bn, are dumped or burned year after year, rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.

This is the same kind of thinking that led Kate Raworth to develop a new metaphor for us – the doughnut economy. The fruit of looking at what existed in a completely new way, her image grabbed the attention of many, including cities like Amsterdam, and has led to many, many changes in how things operate in the city, and in its relationship with the rest of the world.

Looking at things differently has been Marilyn Waring’s huge contribution to our world. She was the youngest member of the New Zealand parliament when she cast the deciding vote that kept nuclear-powered vessels out of NZ harbours, but I think it is her work on analyzing the Gross Domestic Product, and its implications for what we value and measure, that is so hugely significant, I have always thought.

The GDP, she discovered from asking questions about it, is actually more like the icing on a cake, than the whole cake. That cake is made up of a lot more than the things we attach a dollar or pound value to. It is made up of things like voluntary work, done to serve others and our communities – which is one reason why your national census probably asks you questions about how much time you volunteered, in addition to all those other more traditional questions.

I wish you all new eyes for the new year. And here is one portal to that idea of seeing things with a new perspective.

Seeing with new eyes is an approach which tries to take a fresh look at something, by-passing the pattern recognition and seeing the issue with a different perspective. It offers these “tools”:

  • “Bringing in outsiders – literally bringing fresh eyes to look at a problem
  • Using challenging techniques to strip away the surface problem and get down to its core – fishbone (Ishikawa) diagrams, 5 whys
  • ‘Putting on different glasses’ – imagine you were looking at the problem through the lens of a 5-year-old child. How would they see it? Or try another lens – how would an alien from another planet view it, assuming they didn’t know the rules of our physics?
  • Use metaphor and analogy – make connections which force a different way of thinking about the problem”

Featured image: Bud Helisson, Unsplash.