In Our Hands
In Our Hands
Ep. 2. Leidy Klotz on Subtraction

Ep. 2. Leidy Klotz on Subtraction

Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Leidy Klotz about environmental design and trade-offs in sustainability.

In this episode, Ramanan speaks with Leidy Klotz, Copenhaver Associate Professor at the University of Virginia. His research is filling in underexplored overlaps between engineering and behavioral science in pursuit of more sustainable built environment systems. At the University of Virginia, he co-founded and co-directs the Convergent Behavioral Science Institute. He is also the author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

In Our Hands is a production of Amasia. Follow these links for more about our firm, the Amasia blog, our climate fiction podcast, and Ramanan’s blog.

Thanks for listening! Subscribe here for future episodes.

Show Notes

[00:00:14] Introduction

[00:00:53] Life and Career

[00:05:08] End-User Behavior

[00:08:02] Trade-Offs in Sustainability

[00:13:56] Diversity in Sustainable Design

[00:17:52] Subtracting in Everyday Life

[00:00:14] Ramanan Raghavendran: Hello everybody.

I'm here today with Leidy Klotz, who is the coordinator associate professor at the University of Virginia. His research is filling in under-explored overlaps between engineering on the one hand and behavioral science. And that is in the pursuit of more sustainable built environment systems. And we're going to talk about that in a second. His next research-based book, which I am wildly excited to read is, Subtract, which comes out in April 2021. It'll be the second time I've read it because I had a preview of it.

Leidy, I'm going to just kick this off. One of my goals in these short interviews is to humanize science.

[00:00:53] Can you walk us through your life and your career and what led you to make the career choices that you have?

And there's a very interesting twist in your story, given your background involving a sport. And I'd love for you to tell us about that as well.

[00:01:04] Leidy Klotz: Great. Thanks, Ramanan. I'm thrilled to be here. And I'm thrilled that you asked this question about humanizing science. For the first 22 years of my life, I would say my career was soccer. That was what I cared about. I knew that I would eventually want to make impact in other ways. But, I knew that that was the only time I could play soccer too. Soccer really was the main thing I was engaged in growing up. It drove my decision where to go to college, drove my focus in college. Soccer and not necessarily academics. And then, after college I played professionally for a couple of years. I was making $2,000 a month. So, it was nice for a post-college job. But, it was pretty quickly obvious that it wasn't going to be a long-term thing that I was able to do. And not ever do anything else, which was fine. That was never the intent.

But along the way, while I was playing soccer, I did manage to get an engineering degree. I went to Lafayette College, after I got done playing soccer. I got a job working in engineering mainly to pay the bills. And that's really when I started to think about making a difference. So, it's fun when I talk to students now who are in their second year of school and they're already thinking about this stuff that I didn't start thinking about until I was already graduated. I tell them that it's okay, that they don't have it all figured out yet. But then, once I started thinking about making a difference... I'd always cared about the environment. My dad's a biology professor, retired biology professor. My mom, she went to college in Vermont, in the '70s.

So, there was plenty of kind of environmental leaning in my house. And, when I started to think about, okay, how can I make an impact with climate change in particular, being the biggest environmental issue of my lifetime, I feel. I thought, well, maybe I'm going to need to switch away from engineering and maybe switch away from this focus on the built environment. And, as I was thinking about that, I realized that the size of the impact of the built environment. So my work job was, I was building schools in New Jersey. And, when we look at... Obviously, schools are a good thing to have. But, when we look at the overall amount of energy use worldwide and in the United States, roughly half of it is coming from our buildings. So this is an energy use, as your listeners, I'm sure know, correlates almost exactly with emissions.

So a huge opportunity here to... A huge contributor to emissions, but also a huge opportunity to do better buildings. We know how to do net zero energy buildings, and we know how to do them in ways that aren't necessarily more costly. And so, there's just a big gap between what's possible and what we implement. I do more than just buildings. I'm interested in the built environment as a system. The buildings and how they connect to the roadways and how you and I are interacting today, even. I feel like that's part of the built environment. That's how I've come to this focus in my research of merging this. Maybe, I'd left the soccer behind, I would say. But merging this view of the built environment with how can we close the gap between what's actually happening and what's technically possible.

[00:04:29] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it, thank you for that. And, we're going to explore your research next. Your work and the founding of the Conversion Behavioral Science Institution explores this intersection of human behavior and engineering, especially as it relates to climate change and reducing environmental footprint. That's pretty interesting. A lot of research and including our focus as a venture firm that I measure is around end use behavior of individual institutions. And as I often say to people, you can't really solve for end use without thinking about what led up to that point and your work targets the underlying design. And so, broad question, how does, and you can answer any way you like, including anecdotally.

[00:05:08] How does engineering and design influence end-user behavior or end-use behavior?

[00:05:14] Leidy Klotz: One of my go-to examples is a light switch. But since, before the meeting, you moved the shade behind you, right? Was that a switch or was that you just moving it automated?

[00:05:24] Ramanan Raghavendran: That was sadly a switch.

[00:05:26] Leidy Klotz: That was a switch. Well, that's fine. So, that's a perfect example, right? Is that one of the things that happens when you bring that shade up is that there's less lighting energy required to film this video. You might also put it down in times when there's a massive amount of solar gain, that's coming through the house that you would have to offset through air conditioning. So, at some point the position of this shade can make your environment more or less sustainable. And there's a designer who decides whether there's a shade there.

Or not, and how you use it. So, we'll see the light switch example. You can have a light switch and you'll have a picture next to the light switch or a reminder, turn this off when you leave the room. But, you can also have automated lighting that helps people turn things off when you leave the room.

So, I think that's one example, is in the general category there is, you can kind of automate these more sustainable behaviors through design. That's great. I think, the thing that I'm really interested in our institutes, the Convergent Behavioral Sciences Institutes', motivation is how can we make new behaviors possible by merging design and behavioral science. And you actually brought this up in our preliminary conversation, Ramanan, that the impact of Zoom on sustainability. And we can talk about whether or not it's a good or bad thing for every individual meeting. But, there's no question that it's this technology that designers and engineers came up with, has made new behaviors possible. So, it's not just automating sustainable behaviors, but you're changing the whole system for how we interact with each other.

So right now, this conversation that we're having that maybe before I would have had to fly to California, you would have had to come to Charlottesville, is happening. And, once it's had, you're going to put it out there. And, it's going to get to a whole set of other people. So, I think that... I totally agree that end-use behavior is important. But, the design behavior has been kind of overlooked and under-studied and is really influential. If you can automate sustainable behaviors, that changes behavior of a lot of end users. And if you can make entirely new behaviors possible, that's what it's all about.

[00:07:43] Ramanan Raghavendran: Great. And we may come back to that a little bit before we finish. So, a common perception and this builds on the response that you just gave. A common perception is, sustainable design comes with higher costs or loss of other benefits.

[00:08:02] What's the best way we can counter the idea that sustainability is kind of a… that it's always a zero-sum game. There's always a trade-off. How do we counter that idea?

You just gave me a great example with Zoom, right. Where we could have just stopped at the sustainability effect of a virtual meeting, being obviously much better than a physical meeting. But, you went ahead to point out one of my favorite points, which is, these virtual calls open up options that never existed before in human life and human civilization.

That we could record it, that we could share it. So, anyway, coming back to the question, how do we counter the idea that sustainability is a trade-off?

[00:08:41] Leidy Klotz: Yeah. I mean, it's a great question. And, you pointed out some really important things in it. I wish there was an easy answer, quite frankly. I feel like this is one of the learning outcomes for the class I teach. And, it takes the whole semester to get there. One of the things that's important and I think is just having the baseline definition of sustainability, that you're working really hard to get out there to people. And it's fundamentally about meeting human needs now and in the future. Once you understand that it's about human needs and how the environment overlaps with that. Then, you can start hitting people with the examples. I feel like.

So, in the built environment, I'll talk about, okay, but this building that doesn't have floor tiles, for example. It just has the finished concrete floor. That's a really trivial example. But, it doesn't have floor tiles. It's more sustainable. You didn't have to disrupt as much material and it's just as good and costs less.

And then, using the Zoom conferences example too, is another one. So I think, hitting them with the definition and then, the examples is one way to break it down. And then, being aware of two of the traps that we might fall into that you alluded to. You said zero-sum game. And so, one of the thinking traps we fall into is, trying to resolve contradiction when it's not actually there. A lot of times we want to say, okay, if this thing is true, then this other thing is not true. But, sustainability is not like that.

It's not a zero-sum game. These things aren't in conflict. And then, you framed it in terms of the things lost. And that's just something that we know from behavioral sciences, is a challenge to get over. And all losses loom larger than gains. So, the thing that we've lost, we weigh more than the thing that we've gained. And, when it comes to Zoom and conference travel, if you miss the time in a hotel, for example. I don't know who would miss that. But maybe, some people miss that. That lost hotel stay, or the lost restaurant visit that you got to go to, looms larger than the time you gained with your family or your friends by not traveling. With those mental traps, those are just things to be aware of.

I also think that maybe, the pandemic, that's something that it has shifted us out of. And now that we've seen that we can interact like this on Zoom, if we go back to the way it is. Then we've shifted, what's the loss and what's the gain, which might help with it. But, the bottom line is, I don't know. I would love to take this on as a research topic, maybe for some of our next studies, are there things we can do that are shortcuts to turn off this perception of trade-off. But, for now it's education and examples.

[00:11:25] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yeah, there's no question just to amplify what you just said, that the pandemic has revealed to us that a lot of the things that we viewed as immutable laws are just norms.

[00:11:35] Leidy Klotz: Right.

[00:11:36] Ramanan Raghavendran: And even for me, I've just gotten used to the idea of incessant travel in my day job in VC. And, it turns out that I don't need to do that much of it.

[00:11:48] Leidy Klotz: How much do you think will come back? Like what percentage?

[00:11:51] Ramanan Raghavendran: 10% to 20%. Wow. I have found the light. I have seen the light. It's just like you said, you have more time to annoy the hell out of your family. You just have given yourself the gift of time. And I think... But not everyone is in that position. I speak from a position where, I own my own business. I'm an entrepreneur. And so, I have more control over my life. For someone who doesn't have that control, I think that person can be pretty intentional too. But, in other ways, and it may require... So, weird things are going to happen here in a free market, so to speak, which is, I think employers who offer remote lives are actually going to really prosper. They will get the best people, in my view. But, it's going to take a decade for all of this to play out.

[00:12:45] Leidy Klotz: Yeah, it's interesting, I work for a university. So, I have a ton of intellectual freedom. But, it's not my own company. I do feel I think that it's the same 10% to 20% number for our work-related travel. And I do think that we have... It's not where we can just stop going. But, I do now have an approach that I can take next time I get invited to a conference. Which is like, maybe we just Zoom and see if this warrants an in-person meeting.

[00:13:17] Ramanan Raghavendran: I think a lot of conference providers, it's very complex. Because, there are other benefits to being together in person somewhere. But a lot of conference providers are realizing that a virtual conference format does in fact unleash options that never existed before. How subgroups can come together. And so anyway, we could spend many hours on this. I want to get the question forward, which is, your work doesn't concern just environmental sustainability. You've also published extensively about how to inspire students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in engineering and the environment. This is an issue that's near and dear to me as well.

[00:13:56] Can you shed some light on why, how, the connection between the environment that design can serve as a means to broadening participation, diverse participation and what value you think will arise from that?

[00:14:09] Leidy Klotz: Yeah. I'm so glad you picked up on this strand of my research. It's something that I'm really proud of and I'm proud to have been working on for at least a decade, studying this. One of the things to understand is the context. Engineering is about 20% women and very few racial and ethnic minorities and architecture is just as bad. And, it's horrible. It's rooted in the same structural sexism and racism that we're finding in our other systems. And that people are waking up to. We need to change that. A lot of I think engineering realizes that, architecture realizes that. One reason it's especially damaging for society is, it just simply limits the range of ideas. In addition to just being unethical and against everything our society stands for. It limits the range of ideas that get out there.

We just talked about how important design is to end-use behavior. Well, if you've only got a certain group of people doing designs, that's going to limit what you view as possible. What our, our research has found and other people are doing great work on this too, is that engineering has a high level... Ends up attracting a high percentage of people who are interested in things versus people who are interested in people. And that's boiling down a complex thing to a simple statement. But, you get the idea.

And of course, the whole point of engineering is to... And, the human focus definition of sustainability is to serve people. So, engineering is missing out when it fails to highlight how what it does connects to what people care about and making people's lives better. The environment and climate change, and social justice issues, kids want to work on these things. They that's what they're passionate about. Nobody's sitting there saying... Well, some people, I guess, they're sitting there saying, I'm really passionate about a widget. But, for the most part, they want to work on these big social issues that they're hearing about. And so, connecting the environment and design reaches a broader audience in our messaging.

Now, part of that I think is... A part of the thing we need to do right, is make that message clearer to students. But, that's not the end of it. I really worry that we can't just... We also have to make it true. So, we can't say, oh, you're going to get to be an engineer. And, you're going to get to work on climate change and social justice. And then, put them into four years of training where all they do is calculus and differential equations and physics.

Of course, those things are important. But, we also have to infuse these other things into the curriculum, so that the messaging is actually true. You can in fact, change the world through engineering, which is such a silly message to have lost over time. And then, help show them how to do that through their training.

[00:17:16] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it. Thank you for that. And then, it is an issue near and dear to me as well.

Okay. Well, we'll go to question five, which is topical also an issue that really moves and drives me and relates to your new book. So, much of sustainable engineering is focused on creating new things. And I'm in the business of venture capital, which is all about disruption and innovation and driving change. In your new book, you discuss the value of reforming our cities and lives by just reducing and redesigning what we already have.

[00:17:52] And so, what can you tell us about the importance of subtracting, not adding from our societies, in our everyday lives?

[00:18:01] Leidy Klotz: Yeah. While I'm thinking about it... You asked about the disruptiveness. I would argue that subtracting can be even more disruptive on an absolute basis.

[00:18:13] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well put. I retract that word.

[00:18:15] Leidy Klotz: You don't have to retract it. But yeah, just taking it to simple numbers. If you have the number three and you subtract one from it, you've changed that more than if you add one to it, right?

[00:18:29] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right, true.

[00:18:30] Leidy Klotz: Anyway, but again, there's nothing wrong with adding. It's just what we've found in our research and let me back up a little bit. What I love about this topic subtraction is that it's in the same vein as the trade-off issue with sustainability is that, this fundamental thing that's happening in our brains, that's influencing the overall sustainability. Or, how we're pursuing sustainability. It's a perfect example. I think of why sustainable design and behavioral science need to be considered together.

So, what we found in our research, and this is going to... There's a nature article that describes the research. And then, my book goes into way more detail and explanation of why it's happening and what it means. But, what we found in our research is that, presented with a situation that people want to change, whether it's grids on a computer screen or a Lego structure, miniature golf holes, itineraries. We didn't try... We didn't do it on venture capitalists yet. So, you're off the hook. But, presented with these situations that people want to change. Their first instinct is to think, what can we add to this thing? And, not necessarily a problem. But, the problem becomes once they get to a good enough additive solution, they can move on. Which, causes us to overlook subtraction. And okay, Lego studies, grids on a computer screen. But what's neat about this is it's arguably the most basic design decision.

You're presented with this thing, what's your first thought to do? And, we're systematically biased to adding, and we do it even when it results in coming up with the wrong answer. So, extending this out to social implications. If we're overlooking subtraction, is it causing us to miss out on removing highways that are bisecting neighborhoods? Is it causing us to overlook removing CO2 as a solution to the climate crisis? And again, just this fundamental decision process, isn't the only thing that's influencing all these global things. But, it is part of it. Removing tripped, is the way to make things better.

So, that's the premise of the paper. What I like about it in the context, I think your audience would appreciate this is that, one of the legitimate tensions in sustainability is, between limits and growth. So it's like, there's very real planetary limits. So infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. But, it's not really about growth. What we really want is I assume is infinite progress maybe, and progress can come through adding. But, progress can also come through taking away. It helps resolve or alleviate this basic tension that's there as it relates to sustainability. Does that make sense?

[00:21:32] Ramanan Raghavendran: It does. And I think for me, it actually relates to some of the other things we've talked about today. The idea that a lot of the addition that goes on in our society is a norm. If you have X, well then of course you should then add Y to it and aspire to Z. Even though there wasn't a whole lot of things wrong with just staying at X. And so, there's just a set of assumptions there. When these assumptions about addition, bleed into the physical world, you're then talking about adding things. You're adding physical objects and it's a finite planet. The adding has to stop.

[00:22:23] Leidy Klotz: Yeah. That's great wording. When these things bleed into the physical world and yeah, I think... And, it's not the only factor. There are economic forces and there are cultural forces pulling us to do this. And sometimes, more is better. Again, to be very clear about that. But, there's this fundamental thought process that's causing us to overlook an entire category of change is really interesting. And I think, really relevant to our pursuit of greater sustainability.

[00:22:54] Ramanan Raghavendran: I interview scientists such as yourself every month. And, I just I love all my scientists, just to be clear. But this was just super interesting and super relevant to what I do for a living. And also, frankly, my way of thinking about the world has evolved to many of the same things that you do research about. I want to remind my audience that your book is out next month. It's called, Subtract by Leidy Klotz. And Leidy, I just want to thank you for spending all this time with me.

[00:23:24] Leidy Klotz: Yeah. Thanks for asking me. And those other scientists are some of my heroes. So, I love what you do. And I appreciate... I watched Karen Seto talk and anything you can do to amplify the voices of people like that is amazing. So, thanks for having me. And, I learned a ton too.

In Our Hands
In Our Hands
In Our Hands is a podcast series featuring interviews with climate and sustainability experts on the front lines of climate action, emphasizing behavior change. Guests include researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, authors, and more.