This ship is ready to sail!

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

We know plastic straws suck. We know less than a quarter of the one million plastic bottles that humans buy every minute are recycled. We even know that the microbeads in our toothpaste end up back on our dinner plate — after becoming a million times more toxic than the water we discharged them to. These items that harm the environment are, literally, in our face, so they’re (relatively) easy to understand and want to do something about.  

But what about shipping? Not the cardboard boxes from Amazon that turn up at your doorstep, but the big huge cargo ships criss-crossing our oceans carrying the things that go in those cardboard boxes, plus all the other resources needed to make them. Unless you live in a port town (and even if you do), it may be hard to get your head around the sustainability of shipping.

According to Project Drawdown, 80% of global trade — more than 10 billion tons a year — “floats its way from place to place”.  Although shipping is the most carbon-efficient way to move cargo long distances, it still accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (800 million tons annually of carbon dioxide), and that number could be up to 250% higher by 2050 if things don’t change.  Most cargo ships burn heavy fuel oil, and thus “create not only carbon dioxide emissions but also significant emissions of black carbon, or soot”.  Ambition 1.5C, Shipping’s Global Action Plan (a plan to limit global temperature rise to 1.5℃) notes that that zero emissions — eliminating use of fossil fuels altogether — is the real goal, and that to do this we need new business models.  

These are very big changes for a very old industry that will require some very new thinking — things like biomimicry thinking and systems thinking. Diane Gilpin, founder of UK-based B9 Shipping and now at the helm of the Smart Green Shipping Alliance has done just that.  

In 2012, B9 Shipping came out with a design for the modern world’s first 100% fossil fuel-free cargo sailing ship, combining a Dyna-rig sail propulsion system with an off-the-shelf Rolls-Royce engine powered by liquid biomethane derived from municipal waste. Analyses showed that ships using these combined technologies could leverage wind power to cut fuel use in half, and use biogas for the rest. And they’re beautiful.

But that’s not all. Gilpin has envisioned an optimized system of shipping routes which use empty ships (which are the most inefficient) on return routes to haul waste to feed biomass-based renewable energy facilities. Eliminate fossil-fuel use, generate renewable and reliable biogas, reduce landfilling, and support local economies — wow.

So why aren’t we seeing widespread adoption? It’s all the barriers so familiar to sustainable designers: Oil prices dropped, and companies are more interested in costs than carbon. This technology work best with smaller ships, but it’s the companies with bigger ships that have money to invest. Redesigns and retrofits require engineers from different disciplines and industries to collaborate and co-create, but most engineers are trained to focus on their specialty and avoid the liability of going beyond their world of expertise. Investors want proof before investing, yet it takes investments to generate that proof. The biggest gains are realized when implemented as an optimized system, but our economic system is built on individuals and countries and countries locked in competition (and distrust).  

What is Gilpin doing about this? First, she has empathy. She knows that most people don’t know there ways of doing business that don’t reflect the paradigm of “the real world”.  In fact, she realizes that most of the challenges she is facing emerge when she tries to use conventional thinking to forward her radically innovative designs and ideas. She knows she has to understand where people are (in their heads and hearts) and what they care about, and not expect them to adopt her big vision.

Second, although B9 and the Smart Green Shipping Alliance are all about engineering and analyses and supply chains and financing and systems-optimization, she realizes that it’s really all about people. When she brings divergent (and resistant) players to the table as humans, as people rather than simply professionals, she has seen creativity emerge and surge, with  inspiration and imagination rapidly resulting in ideation and innovation. She realizes that it will take her creative leadership to make this happen.

Finally, she’s clear on what really good looks like, and keeps seeking and finding and connecting with others with the same clarity of vision. She’s inspired by RiverSimple whose purpose is to “.. pursue, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport. … A “Whole System Design” approach ensures that every step we take, every investment we make, gets us closer to our end goal.”  She’s inspired by WornAgain bringing the  waste-free, circular resource world within reach. She’s inspired by Dr Daniel Wahl’s Designing Regenerative Cultures who is “catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design”.

Gilpin knows it will take all the tools in the sustainable designer’s toolbox — biomimicry thinking, design thinking, system thinking, creative leadership, visual communications, making the business case  — to realize her dream. What’s next on her journey? Going beyond conventional business models and focussing on creating conditions conducive to this work, perhaps engaging crowd sourcing and forming a Community Interest Company.  We’ll keep you posted, as we believe this ship is ready to sail!


If you want to learn the the tools in the sustainable designer’s toolbox, consider making MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program the next step in your journey.

[Image courtesy of Diane Gilpin.]