Taking the Train

“Getting out of the building” in the era of uncertainty: Taking the train

Preliminary note:

I wrote this article in early March. The coronavirus has since made the world a very different place. Now, I see parallels between the climate change this article focuses on and the recent spread of the virus. Both are a challenge to business traditions.

Many conferences are canceled, business travel is minimal, and as for ethnographic research—we do not yet know if participants will feel safe letting us into their homes. The difference between the two is that coronavirus is having an immediate effect, and climate changes feels longer-term. I hope we do not wait until climate change feels as imminent a threat as coronavirus to start matching our business practices with our aspirational business intentions.


I’m a design researcher, and it’s my job to travel to different places and talk to people. Over the last few years, Los Angeles has been one of my most frequent destinations. I’ve flown there for various research programs to talk to people in their homes and workplaces about topics like banking, small business management, and education. During one of my most recent research trips to LA, my drive between locations featured beautiful vistas on one side of the highway, while the other side sent up black billows of smoke and flames.

I wondered about the toll my day-to-day work takes on the environment. I felt the dissonance between my routine experience and the influx of news stories about how businesses are combating climate change. These include the recent statement issued by the Business Roundtable about the purposes of corporations, which now include protecting the environment. I read about companies like Microsoft, which vows to go carbon negative by 2030. However, sitting in that car, it became clear that big, headline-friendly initiatives don’t always mean that greener practices for day-to-day work quickly follow.

Why the tension between the headlines and the work itself?

I thought that perhaps it’s up to me to minimize my corporate footprint, so I considered how I could change my personal design research practices. Every thread I pulled—methods, logistics, reporting—ended up with my inner critic naysaying every idea, accusing me of being “unrealistic” and contending that “no company” would ever accept my proposals. How we address climate change in our design research work—and a great many other roles—is not really about method, logistics, or reporting differently. It’s that climate change from business requires culture change in business.

Speed above all

Design research is a positive force for understanding people and solving ill-defined problems. One foundational aspect of this kind of work is spending time in context with our research participants. Going “in context” means going to where the activities related to the research—work, play, and daily life—are done. For instance, to understand the life of small business owners, I go to their brick-and-mortar business, their newly-leased space, the coffeeshop where they bring their laptop, or their home office—which may also be their kitchen table. It’s important to be in context because the participants don’t have to recall past events or describe what they do (or think they do). It’s a space where “show” wins out over “tell,” with all the attendant richness of detail, workarounds, environmental factors, interpersonal exchange, and emotions. I can observe real behavior, and I can see subtle cultural nuances that are lost in a verbal protocol.

However, getting there is problematic.

On my last trip, I:

That’s 645kg of CO2, equivalent to the carbon footprint of ordering 161 cheeseburgers.

I travel at least this far at minimum 10 times per year. Multiply that by the many people do work like mine—LinkedIn alone records over 850,000 design researchers. The highest culprit on this list is air travel…so what if I traveled by train?

Getting responsible research on track

Amtrak offers a train from Austin—where I work—to LA. It stops in El Paso and Tuscon, and passes the giant windmills of Palm Springs. It costs $161 for an economy seat and $553 for a roomette at of the time of this writing. It has a dining car and better baggage allowances than airlines, but no wifi (download your files before you go…).

One roundtrip by train from Austin to LA results in 198.4kg of carbon emissions. That’s basically half the emissions of one roundtrip plane ride.

But a train would take me over 37 hours. It only takes me one workday to get from our design studio in Austin to LA, counting wait and car time. And a faster trip means I can take more trips—it’s not uncommon to have two research trips in a month when getting to the destination takes a workday or less, meaning (loosely) 4x the emissions.

What’s wrong with 37 hours of travel? What’s the hurry? Objectively, there is nothing about research that has to be fast. Findings do not expire rapidly, and it does not inherently require any particular mode of transportation. But ‘speed above all’ is a business value that has been predominate for at least the past several decades. It is a cultural value that exacerbates the climate issue in the day-to-day work of practitioners like me. Speed, in business, is inextricably linked with air travel.

Companies are pushing researchers to work fast because they’re under the assumption that research insights will go stale, or the competition will “beat” them to an innovation. There is also the prevailing idea that since research is an expenditure, businesses get more out of their investment if the research cycle is faster.

The assumption that speed is the top priority creates problematic practices.

In terms of research going stale, human motivation and underlying reasons for their actions don’t change very rapidly. Humans change on an evolutionary timeframe, not a technological one. Technology changes are fast and getting faster all the time. While human behavior changes in response to these technological stimuli, much of what is needed to be understood to create products, services, and systems that truly serve humanity in rich and meaningful ways is to be found in human motivations and interpersonal interactions themselves.

As for the competition “beating” a company to market with an innovation, there are more than enough potential solutions to truly pressing problems out there. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Lastly, the value of a researcher is not in just how fast they can bring data back to an organization. The data has little value until it is coded and synthesized into actionable insights. And those insights are of little utility until the researcher’s team decides how to act upon them in the form of products, services, and systems. As contrary to current business practices as it may be, the real value of that work lies more in having a rigorous process and a decisive team than in speed alone.

So, when travel is a necessity, the comparison between our hypothetical train and plane invites us all to think about what would be most appropriate for our travel purposes, rather than resort to the speediest business default—air travel. When we hear “the need for speed” in our business contexts, design researchers—already adept at pushing back on too-fast timelines when it hurts the rigor and integrity of the research—will need to start pushing back for environmental reasons as well. To make that a constructive conversation, it has to start with examining the underlying assumptions that drive us to harmful practices. In this way, we can help to decrease the harmful pollution that our work activities currently generate.

Cultural inertia

New practices beg new questions. The cultural can of worms only opens further when we think about how disrupting standard business practices will create a domino effect in other typical business practices. In our train scenario, we open questions such as:

  • If a researcher is on a train for 37 hours, what constitutes a ‘work week?’
  • If a researcher is on a train overnight, does she get those overnight hours back in terms of flex time or extra time off?
  • What are childcare options when researchers might be away for a month at a time?
  • How do longer projects change the nature of research, and what more are we able to explore about human behavior?
  • How might research methods change if we are not moving quite so quickly?
  • How do others on the team keep engaged when extremely fast turn-around is no longer the norm?

We should not be afraid of these questions. When we pull on one thread in design research—that of transportation and climate change—it’s no wonder that a bunch of other cultural issues become tangled in the changes we try to make. We’ve talked about cultural attributes that this single thread disrupts—speed and assumptions about doing business—but of course it will also bring up questions about the nature of work, our outmoded assumptions about time and productivity, when, how, and where we all do work, and what outcomes we’re striving for. Changing our work for environmental purposes is worthy enough, but it also opens up the door to so much more that can improve our work, our quality of life, and our understanding of human behavior.

Conclusion

Am I going to take a train for my next research program? Unfortunately, no, that would risk my livelihood. But the question misses the point. Rather than focus myopically on one-off changes individuals can make, we need to address the traits of the underlying culture that compels and shapes our practices.

Laura Galos

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