Vivek Gilani on Systems Change – Closing the Gap between Vision & Implementation

Vivek Gilani on Systems Change – Closing the Gap between Vision & Implementation

Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space

Vivek Gilani on Systems Change – Closing the Gap between Vision & Implementation

Hidden amongst the narrow by-lanes of Bandra, a hip neighbourhood in Mumbai, we met Vivek Gilani for dinner in a small restaurant buried under a flowering bougainvillea tree. He had graciously agreed to talk with 3rd Space about his climate mitigation work.  With an Iranian Islamic heritage, Vivek’s Sanskrit name hints at the open-minded, cosmopolitan roots he comes from. His warmth, combined with a laser-like intelligence and global spirit, is grounded in a keen sense of social justice, a passionate care for the environment, and an orientation to the ‘local’.  Vivek exemplifies what he calls grass roots postmodernism, which he sees as having traditional origins. Like others, he’s committed to radical systems change from the bottom up. But what is different lies in Vivek and his team’s success in working from within the system itself.  

In a world where inspired theories often founder on the rocks of the ruthless reality of market logic. Or are subsumed by powerful corporations that simply hijack innovation for their own ends, Vivek’s company, cBalance, is a radical departure from the status quo. Armed with entrepreneurial savvy, an intuitive grasp of market psychology, and a rare willingness to learn along the way, Vivek and his largely youthful team are closing the gap between visionary innovation and implementation.

While waiting for dinner to arrive, he describes the culture of trust and experimentation at cBalance. How these provide a ground for their projects to develop and thrive. 

A Culture of Trust and Creativity

Cheerfully dipping into a plate of spicy appetizers, Vivek gives us some insight into who he is, by virtue of his company’s unorthodox work culture. 

Vivek: We don’t fire anyone. cBalance has a zero-firing policy. The only exception being a violation of the law. This gives people a sense of inner relaxation. There’s not the fear that you’ve got to get it ‘right’. A deep structure in all of us.

The only expectation at cBalance is for you to participate with sincerity and authenticity. It’s your input that matters. Recognising there is space to experiment, letting go of some of the notions we have about ourselves and what we’re capable of, invites a lot of creative diversity.

Some of the cBalance team

3rd Space: Can you say more?

Vivek: Well, in our engagement description of what a typical day in cBalance might look like, you might start the day off making coffee for the team followed by doing policy research, or building an Excel framework, or putting data into some database. You could be talking to professors about teaching techniques. All of this in one day. So the team know they are going to have an infinite learning experience.

3rd Space:  How do people respond to this?

Vivek: For some it’s too much. Especially the challenge of cleaning up! You’re gonna have to learn to clean the office. [smiles] There is an acceptance of no gradation in kinds of work. All work is dignified, right? So, we get to clean the toilet some days. There are no entitled people in the organisation.

3rd Space: That’s impressive.

Vivek: Something else that gives people a sense of equity is that there are no shareholders we are beholden to. There are directors of the organisation, but they don’t make any income from it. Your capital cannot give you any return.

3rd Space: Very creative ideas!

Vivek: I’m one of the biggest borrowers. [smiles] I hear an idea and I want to find a way of implementing it.

3rd Space: This must break down all kinds of barriers. It must be liberating for those who can give themselves to it?

Vivek: Yes. Joy and liberation. We also don’t check what your previous employer thinks of you. We don’t care.

3rd Space: Wow. That’s radical.

Vivek and cBalance

Vivek: Yes. The reason your previous employer may not like you could have a whole history to it that I don’t know. They may have a disparaging view because of something they’ve done. Or maybe you were in a certain state but have evolved since then.

The interaction between you and us has never happened before. Therefore, there’s no characteristic that I want to label you by, based on some background check.

There is also no skill check. We deliberately don’t check skills. 

3rd Space: Really?

Vivek: Yes. [smiles] This has caused some falling out between us at times. My team are like, ‘No, Vivek, we are hiring people who don’t know anything.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s a very narrow interpretation of this person. They might not be reliable right now in terms their analytical skills. They may make mistakes. But their values are there. You can teach skills like Excel, but you can’t teach values. The thing we do check in our dialogical hiring process, which takes four hours, concerns a person’s values. And how they engage with difficult ethical topics.

3rd Space: That’s amazing. A very different bias.

Vivek: It’s a source of creativity. If people are passionate about something. They care deeply, ethically. Then they’re always going to be looking through a frame of what’s going to be the best way, holistically, to find a real solution. 

3rd Space: That’s a deep orientation you are looking for. I can see this would all create a close-knit team.

Vivek: Exactly. There is a lot of trust.

The Making of a Revolutionary

3rd Space:  One of the reasons we wanted to interview you, Vivek, is that in the West people are aware that countries in the global south are on the frontline of climate change. But what is largely not known is how much proactive innovation and climate mitigation is happening here.

You studied environmental engineering in the States. Worked in NYC, lived in Harlem, became an aficionado of jazz. A quintessential New Yorker! So, my first question is what brought you back to India and the work you are doing?

Vivek: Initially I had a very tenuous relationship with the West. I wasn’t one of those people who put their hands up and say, ‘Give me a visa’. I was an introverted person, who at an early age was socially concerned. I became quite alarmed by the state of neglect and apathy in India. I felt there’s so much to do.

Yet, my worldview was almost borderline nationalistic. [smiles] I felt that India was so superior, so filled with richness and meaning that I didn’t need to go anywhere. My mom was a little concerned that I would become sort of zealot. She wanted me to open myself up and travel. Then she died suddenly in a car crash which changed my world forever.

At the time I was aspiring to study at the Indian Institute of Technology, the only institution in India that offered environmental education then. But I was so devastated by what happened that I did not appear for those exams. My only option really was to go to the States. So, reluctantly I went.

Every year during the summer holidays, I would return home to engage with municipal issues here. I knew that when I was done with my education, I would come hurrying back. But then New York City happened! It became a bit of a drug. I fell in love with someone and with the city itself. And it took me about 13 years to close that loop.

In 2004 while still in New York, I realised I needed to actualise a dream I had had for a long time, something called Mumbai Votes. At 18, I was very concerned about the state of blindness to our political responsibilities. India had become a very entitled democracy.

In the US my friends and I talked about India as being the largest democracy, the ‘largest’ market. And at a certain point, I realised we needed to be far more vigilant. That a functioning democracy needs a vigilant citizenry. I started Mumbai Votes from the US. But over time it became clear that I needed to root this project in the soil of India, rather than engaging it as an expat.

It was 2007. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth was just being released. It had a big impact on me. The term carbon foot-printing was new to me. Even ‘climate crisis’ was not really front and centre in the environmental discourse. So, these two pulls, Mumbai Votes and a calling to engage environmentally, brought me back.

From Individual to Systems Change

3rd Space: That’s quite a story. Can you tell us where you went with all this, the work you’re doing now?

Vivek: With cBalance, we primarily recognise that our feet are in a capitalist, industrial, corporate-controlled world. Capitalism, colonisation have produced exploitative, extractive relationships with society and with the natural world. So, we are trying to create a hybrid response where we recognise that the systems need to be transformed.

Change through individual action at this point is too little too late. The idea that conscious consumption or ‘green’ consumption i.e. voting with our money is going to change the world, does not make sense anymore. That’s the ‘individual carbon footprint’ approach.

We recognise there are some actors out there who have a radical appetite to limit their production. For example, a company might want to reduce the climate harm per unit of their production. They want to become more efficient. But they cannot really circumscribe the total environmental impact their company is having, because they will always leave room for more and more growth, to capture the market.

Through our work we are trying to make it clear that limits to growth are going to have to be respected, either voluntarily or by coercion due to the wrath of the climate. We’re trying to work with organisations to get them onto what’s called the ‘science-based targets’ pathway.

This is a framework that unambiguously calls for a certain amount of ramping down of the total environmental impact of a company, or whole group of companies, if they want to be in alignment with the 1.5 degree warming goal. A target now accepted worldwide. So, we are trying to get the most conventional kind of companies into that framework, into the science-based targets framework. This is one aspect of cBalance’s work.

Another aspect is we work with the economic ecosystem of a specific industry, versus individual companies within it. 

3rd Space: Can you elaborate?

Vivek: Yes. Wherever the market does not allow a radical reorganising of power, a radical reorganising of society, where society serves the economy and not the other way around; in other words, places where the market dominates the social discourse by converting everything into a ‘market solution’, there we’re creating programmes that don’t just deal with one company one at a time, but with an industry’s entire ecosystem.

3rd Space: Wow. Can you give an example of this?

Vivek: Yes. Take the build space (building industry). The only way to lower its very high environmental impact is if the entire industry’s ecosystem starts functioning in a manner that has correlation, has empathy, has recognition of each other’s influence on this particular economy.

So, we’ve been running a primary ecosystem change programme in the building industry, which goes beyond the individual interests of one company, or one particular actor in that ecosystem. It’s called Fair Conditioning.

This intervention in the build space economy started in 2012. It’s been evolving for 12 years now and will continue. It might outlast us!

Another major ecosystem change programme we’re currently working on is in the aviation economy. It’s called Fair Travel. So, these are our two main projects. 

Ecosystem Interventions

3rd Space: Can you describe what an ecosystem intervention looks like?

Vivek. Well, take the build space. It consists of commercial buildings as well as residential buildings. The latter is the hardest nut to crack.

The building economy has a vested economic interest to reduce cost. So, the benefit of more ‘investment’ into making a building more energy efficient, is only reaped if the investor inhabits the building.

Say a builder is building a high-rise in an urban area. What is the incentive for the builder to make the walls thick, to have good insulation, or good shading on their windows, sustainable cooling systems, if all the benefits are reaped solely by the person who buys the property from them?

3rd Space: In other words, there is no financial gain for the builder?

Vivek: Exactly. The building industry is expected to invest in energy reduction. And it’s a very powerful actor which should be doing this at an ethical level, right? But there is no market reason for them to spend 10% more on construction, if the benefits are only going to accrue to the person who buys the apartment from them.

3rd Space: That’s a problem.

Vivek: Yes. It’s a problem. And that’s why our programme focuses more on residential space rather than on the commercial building space, where market forces will force change naturally in time.

3rd Space: Given the construction industry’s embeddedness in a market-based economy, how do you get it to change? Especially as we live in a culture that openly embraces profit over ethics.

Vivek: We started our conversation at the ‘end’ of the pipeline. With rising temperatures, we were alarmed by the increasing use of air conditioning here in India. That was the trigger. This is why this programme is called Fair Conditioning.

Initially, we thought all we need to do is work with the builders who install these ACs. Try to get them to change. But over time, we realised that there are at least three major actors or mini ecosystems, in this larger ecosystem or build-space. It’s a bit of a reductive view, but I think it helps in interrogating this question. There are the builders, the architects, and academia.

The Builders

Over a span of 12 years, Vivek and his team have worked back along the pipeline of production within the build space. Through listening, learning, and responding, they have and are dismantling economic dogma, disrupting false logic, and supporting would-be adopters of sustainable practices by infiltrating educational institutions with curricula interventions.

In short, they are demonstrating how to extricate these actors within the build space ecosystem from the tyranny of market logic.  

Vivek described that one way of engaging with the builder/developer sector is to work on the real economics involved. A major issue is return on investment, or ROI.

Vivek: We often asked builder/developers, ‘why do you treat sustainability interventions i.e. putting in more efficient AC, only from the standpoint of return on investment?  Whereas using Italian marble for example, over local stone, also has no ROI.’

This is what’s called ‘luxury aspiration creation’, where a luxury building material that has no market reward in itself, is used because it attracts buyers. It’s therefore considered a net expense.  

So, we realised the builder/developer ecosystem needs to have a new kind of rubric to evaluate economic alternatives.

We began to see there’s a lot of unquestioned dogma that doesn’t make economic sense. When we looked at savings, payback periods etc, we were often able to convince builders through the economics involved, to employ more sustainable options. Some young avant-garde builders are willing to build sustainable buildings as a non-negotiable value, with savings on costs. 

This was one step, but we realised the market’s tentacles go deeper than just the builders. The whole industry was still in the grip of market logic.

The Architects

On the advice of builders cBalance began to focus on architects.

Vivek: India has a rich history of sustainable architectural design and practices. The evolution of architecture has grappled with heat without using electricity for aeons.

What we discovered in conversations within the profession is that there’s a lot of knowledge about tropical design – insulation shading, cool roofs, thick walls, ventilation techniques etc. But architects are only able to use this for the few clients who are willing to pay them a premium.

This means sustainability practices get reduced to what’s called ‘event architecture’. Architects have a portfolio of run-of-the-mill buildings which constitute their bread and butter. They practice sustainability almost as a bit of a catharsis where they get to design their pet projects. Often the preogative of the very rich.

Vivek: If energy was truly priced at its real ecological and social cost, then immediately architects and their clients would want much more energy-efficient buildings.

There’s also the impact of subsidies. If cement was really taxed at a level where account was taken of the disruption to the ecosystem when you blast an entire mountain, if this was embedded in the cost of concrete, then immediately rammed earth brick becomes far more economically viable, right?  But an architect cannot change the economy. However, an architect can change their practice.

Vivek: We realised that if we could get architects to translate the grand theory about solar geometry, insulation, and ventilation into certain kinds of checklists, they could build this into their day-to-day practice.

3rd Space: How does the economics of that work, given the inequitable subsidies etc?

Vivek: We launched a programme to come up with an India-specific methodology for small and medium architecture firms to be able to incorporate sustainable changes for the run-of-the-mill project, where the client had not even asked for this.

We realised that clients do not explicitly ask you to build a structurally safe building. This is done as professional ethics. You don’t charge 10% extra to make a more structurally safe building.  So, why can’t we integrate sustainability and climate responsiveness into the very DNA of the practice of architecture? 

3rd Space: That means not charge it as an ‘extra’?

Vivek: Yes. We trained about 40 small and medium architecture firms, providing them with open-source tools. The idea was not to create more proprietary expense for architects, that would get passed on to the consumer. We’ve learned that when you work with a good intention, and if a programme is created through dialogue with the stakeholders, then it’s going to succeed. And that’s what happened.

Academia

Through working with architects, cBalance came to understand that the source of the ‘contamination’ in the build space, lay in the classrooms of educational institutions.

Students, they were told, are fixated on grand development firms building high-rise structures.

Vivek: India’s academic environment has been completely hijacked by market logic. Architects told us students almost disparage sustainable architecture as “vernacular”.

We realised the root of the belief that we have to build in concrete, that we just design contextless buildings (which could be called the ‘architecture of nowhere’), and routinely install an AC to apologise for the building, comes from the classroom.

This kind of mindset is created and cultivated in our greatly depleted and impoverished academia. So, we realised then that our intervention had to include creating an inversion in how the pedagogy around architecture is currently at the mercy of the market.

3rd Space: How is that progressing?

Vivek: Actually, it’s become the most important part of our work. We realised we had to focus at the beginning of the pipeline.

Infiltrating Pedagogy

Through listening and learning about the science of pedagogy, Vivek and his team set about arming teachers with the knowledge and pedagogical tools to educate students (architects & engineers) in sustainable practices.

Vivek: As with previous interventions, we needed to take a supportive look at what the teachers and professors were grappling with, not treat them as the problem.  

After several years, we created the modern avatar of our programme which is called the Academic Curriculum Integration Programme. We realised that the only way to change the system is to first prove to the system, and the gatekeepers of the system, that it is possible in day-to-day teaching to bring this perspective and knowledge into the curriculum using a whole spectrum of learning techniques.

cBalance has since created evidence-based strategies for these institutions proving that critical sustainability practices are not only ethical, but also do-able. 

In Bangalore, a state capital in the south, the architectural curriculum has been formally changed to integrate climate crisis, responsive design, including for informal settlements, over five years.

Vivek: We are almost paying the price for the changes we have made. [laughs]. We now have to figure out a way to train close to 1000 teachers over the next three years. You can put sustainability into a curriculum but unless it’s supported with a very rigorous training programme, it will just remain a pipe dream.

Climate change is educating us about climate change. It’s a pedagogical tool itself. If you start awakening your senses, you perceive it all around. Very often, what we’re trying to do is just awaken those perceptive capabilities amongst teachers.

Our challenge is for pedagogy on sustainability to be non-negotiable. For every student to be able to design buildings that are fit for the situation we’re in, socially just, and don’t take from the earth more than they should. There is a lot of awareness of the climate crisis, it just needs to be supported.

Look out next week for Part 2 with Vivek Gilani: From Growth Agnosticism to Prosperity for All

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Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Co-founder of 3rd Space

One Response

  1. This is brilliant and SO inspiring, from the bottom to the top, with the integrity embedded within the heart of the company and how it functions, to the work they are doing in multiple spheres. Thanks very much for bringing my awareness to what is possible and indeed happening in places like India – a great counterpoint to all that has and is being revealed to be so wrong and unjust in our world today. Knowing about what is possible provides me/us with a much needed conscience that I/we can and must begin to change in line with what the Earth is demanding from us now.

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