An OPEN Letter on Climate Justice in the Urban Realm

Like many people around the world, our team at OPEN Technologies has watched the current struggles in American cities with horror and concern, coupled with admiration for the many brave people stepping in to demand real, fundamental change.

And like so many young organizations with the privilege of distance and security from many of the oppressions that triggered this uprising, we have grappled with how best to “show up” (if at all) in solidarity with those demanding the justices that we can easily take for granted. On the one hand we understand that our voice is not central to this moment.  Just as our ability to separate ourselves from much of the structural oppression being challenged is real, so must be our ability to recognize that this moment is not ours to claim or to profit from.  After this letter we will go back to NOT blessing the world with our hot take on the matter.

But on the other hand it would be profoundly wrong to ignore this moment as not our concern, or that our personal and moral distance from daily oppression suggests we should just get on with our lives and, besides, we’re among the good ones doing Very Important Work.

We at OPEN recognize that we are neither central to this moment nor absolved from it.  So while we are outwardly silent, we are listening and learning until our voice is needed, and making sure that we are integrating this learning into our work. 

Here’s what we’re up to in the meantime.

“Urban Design is Not Neutral…”

We are grateful that we are not among the ones in crisis due to COVID or structural oppression. We are not among those seeking relief or beyond waiting for relief to arrive. Instead we are privileged and excited that now is a moment of opportunity for our mission to shape a new, profoundly more sustainable urban realm. In Canada and many other countries, governments appear to be seizing on the COVID crisis as an opportunity to invest in a green recovery that builds sustainable prosperity coupled with aggressive action on climate change. 

And as we are seeing more clearly every day, with the opportunity to contribute to a green recovery from the COVID crisis comes a profound responsibility to ensure that this is also a just recovery, which doesn’t simply repeat the same mistakes all over again.

So our team is leaning into the work of ensuring that our vision is, indeed, of a better (not just a shinier) urban realm.  As Canadian urbanist and placemaker Jay Pitter states in her powerful open letter to urbanists, “urban design is not neutral, it either perpetuates or reduces social inequities“.  While the instruments of injustice in Canadian cities are often (not always) different from those in America, we are not without our history and our present which systematically exclude certain populations from safety, participation, and access to economic resources. 

Informed by that frame, our discussions and design work are increasingly guided by the question of  whose interests are ‘normalized’ and whose excluded in our professional spaces of urban design, the built environment, and software development.  What follows are some of the social inequities that we at OPEN are conscious of and actively seeking to address in our product design work.

To the Owner Goes the Spoils?

A key strategic focus for OPEN Technologies is the opportunity to achieve deep energy retrofits from Canada’s existing stock of buildings and houses. In these COVID-times, we are among the voices noting that building retrofits have an unparalleled capacity to permanently bend the curve on our national carbon footprint while also creating meaningful employment for thousands across the country.  It is truly an obvious step in achieving both a green recovery and a just transition to a low carbon economy.

But a just recovery lens must also account for the issue of property ownership itself. In most of urban Canada, home ownership is the domain of the truly privileged; our history (and present) also includes some shockingly racist policies at all levels of government specifically designed to exclude certain populations from land ownership on the basis of their race. As such, societal resources allocated toward rebates and incentive programs are resources generally allocated toward Canada’s more privileged households.

OPEN is exploring a range of options to ensure that climate change mitigation is not simply another windfall for the most well off. While we applaud the federal government and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to retrofit stimulation, a foundational premise of OPEN’s approach is that the primary barrier to deep energy retrofits is not a capital gap but rather an information gap: what are the right interventions to reduce a home or building’s climate impact, and how does one tackle them? Which interventions are within the investment capacities of property owners themselves, once they have the information to form a plan and a pathway?

OPEN is building software tools to remove this information gap for property owners, and to inform incentive providers where they can best allocate public funds to catalyze new, high impact projects that require financial support. In other words, we aim to help steer financial resources effectively (for the climate) and fairly (for society).

Who Shapes our Understanding of the Problem Space? (Questions of Representation & Inclusion in Market & User Research)

There are too many stories of tech solutions that make or reflect shocking “judgments” and interpretations based upon factors such as race. We note the examples of facial recognition software tools that misidentify people of colour much more often (and more egregiously) than they do white people. In MOST instances (there are some horrible exceptions) this is a function of unconscious bias on the part of their designers as opposed to intentional racism. While the harm done to those impacted is the same regardless of intent, this does give the design community the opportunity to get better. In some respects, this means recognizing that it’s not enough to just avoid being intentionally racist, we must be intentionally NOT racist. Training your facial recognition AI on a dataset reflective of the broader population, for example.

In OPEN’s case, we are leaning more intentionally into ensuring that our user and market research efforts intentionally seek insights from the diverse cultural communities that are active in the construction and real estate industry. This means going beyond those easiest to reach (for us) associations and groups in the green building industry, to learn from the larger communities of practice in our space.  This will likely entail some additional cost and effort, but also tremendous benefit in allowing us to better understand the overall market that we’re hoping to serve.

Do our Solutions Serve the Full Problem Space? (Questions of Inclusive Product Design)

Building from the point above, the better we understand the entire market – not just the segments that are easiest for us to reach with minimal effort – the better we serve the entire market.  And in our mission context, this means helping the people that shape our cities to allocate information and financial resources to the places where the climate return is the greatest.  As noted above, this will (it must) include a shift in resources away from the traditional beneficiaries toward those too often excluded.  In other words, effective climate solutions in the urban environment are fundamentally climate justice solutions.  

Towards Integrating a Climate Justice Lens in our Products & Services

With the above in mind, what follows are some of the central principles and questions guiding our work to drive insights and financial resources to those places where the climate impact and social equity will BOTH be highest. 

  1. How might we ensure that our benchmark and disclosure datasets are representative of all eligible buildings and owners?  The central purpose of this work is to identify the buildings where the greatest energy and climate benefit can be achieved through owner insights, targeted policy creation, and strategic incentive design.  But if our dataset is limited to shiny downtown towers – and not the affordable housing facilities, co-ops, and Class C office spaces that make up so much of the building stock and potential climate savings – then the beneficiaries of these policies (and incentive dollars) will be those owners that already have the highest capacity to retrofit.  
  2. What are the additional metrics that our tools should include – beyond energy use intensity and GHG intensity and the like – to ensure that we are capturing the full impact potential?  Two great examples include: 
  3. How might we help to streamline public resources (eg. retrofit subsidies) to where they are most catalytic and impactful? As noted above, the central barrier to deep retrofits is often information, not capital: property owners already have access to some of the cheapest capital on the market… many just need a roadmap or a clear set of standards or policy requirements to comply with.  While the numbers being discussed for retrofit capital incentives may seem large, OPEN aims to give incentive program designers insights on where they can target these funds to catalyze the greatest impact for climate change mitigation, livability, and also green jobs.
  4. How might we ensure that our tools are accessible to a broad range of industry participants and homeowners (ie. language, intuitive design, etc.)?  As discussed above, this means ensuring that we listen to all the voices that make up our industry, and intentionally build solutions that fit their needs.
  5. How might we most appropriately include anti-racism learning and resources in our staff development? How can we ensure that anti-racism principles are embedded in the policies, procedures and culture of our team? 

In summary, OPEN remains steadfast in its mission to reduce the climate impact of buildings, both new and existing.  Collectively, our built environment is one of the biggest, and most addressable, sources of greenhouse gas emissions on our continent.  We recognize that addressing the climate impact of our built environment can be a tremendous driver of green jobs and livable cities.  OPEN recognizes the intentional work that it must do to ensure that this positive vision is achieved.  

And that this vision of a better urban realm puts justice and fairness at its core.  



The OPEN Technologies Team