A Cool Wall

Back in 2011, Peter Kinnell and I were developing a module in sustainable manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. Although we’ve both moved on to pastures new, they still run the module, and good luck to them: it’s an important topic.

Peter and I had plenty of basic sustainability concepts to throw into the mix: the triple bottom line, remanufacturing, legislation, greenwash, recyclability and so on, but we wanted to have a bit more fun with it. Was there some kind of group activity that could be a common theme throughout the eleven weeks of the module?

A game perhaps? We didn’t find anything on the Internet. Supply chain management has the Beer Distribution Game; manufacturing has (predictably enough) the Manufacturing Game; sales and marketing has (or had) Unilever’s ‘UniSim’ game[1]… but where is the ‘green game’?

We didn’t find one. I have since created something for young people that simulates the clash between economics and green goals at the political level, but at the time and as far as we could tell, there wasn’t a ‘green manufacturing game’.

So, as staff setting up an all-new module have to… we got lazy. Instead of a game with decisions to make each week, we went for something simpler, and created the ‘Sustainability Cool Wall’. If you’ve seen the BBC’s late, lamented Top Gear programme[2], you’ll be familiar with the Cool Wall: an imprecise (or at least highly subjective) linear scale upon which pictures of vehicles are placed, to indicate the desirability of each car.  For example, Skodas of all kinds were rated “seriously uncool”, BMWs were mostly judged “uncool”, the Mazda RX-8 was “cool” and the Jaguar XJR was “sub-zero”. (These are the opinions of motoring journalists, and not necessarily endorsed here at Capacify.)

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

The Sustainability Cool Wall ran from “cool” to “fool”, the latter in fiery letters that can be associated with climate change, if you like.

Cool scale

There were five subdivisions: future-proof, promising, better than nothing, misguided, and suicidal. We started the class off with a few examples, such as my rant about CFL bulbs, and then the students were invited to nominate items for the Wall during each session.

We weren’t able to use a physical wall, because we had to vacate the classroom as leave it as we had found it each week. Instead, we opted for an electronic version, maintained by the tutors. I hope one day to find a web-based service that will permit students to position images on the ‘board’ at any time… that would be neat.

Let’s have a look at some of the judgments that appeared on our Cool Wall – each successfully ‘sold’ to the group, to produce a consensus of opinion. We were impressed by the remanufacturing work being done by Brother Industries UK (two of their staff attended the class as guest speakers). We liked ‘Liter of Light, the low-cost ‘light pipe’ made from an old lemonade bottle containing water and a little bleach, as used in the Philippines. We were dubious about biofuels that replaced food crops, but we liked the news that Virgin Atlantic were experimenting with a biofuel made from the algal bloom on sewage. Other ‘cool’ items included a low-cost water filter, and the humble bicycle.

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

We were horrified by the Jiangling Landwind, the cheap 4×4 that had performed worse in crash test results than any vehicle had done for decades… and equally doubtful about Sheddable Shell, a brand of disposable polyethylene-polypropylene clothing used by (and discarded by) runners. We ridiculed Gillette when an inquiry from Peter was responded to with a classic piece of corporate ‘boilerplate’ text about how much they care for the environment – nothing but ‘Greenwash’, we decided. I don’t recall the reasons for one student’s loathing of the Cambridge to Ely guided bus scheme, and this is an important lesson if you ever want to run a Cool Wall of your own: you need to record the why as well as the what, if you intend to refer back to it later.

Could you have a ‘Supply Chain Cool Wall’? Well… maybe. I think any subject could be judged on a spectrum of ‘cool’ if it ends up looking at successes and failures, heroes and villains, desirable products and dross. I don’t believe the Cool Wall would work so well in a “block mode” setting (I teach mostly via intensive, weekend-long workshops nowadays) but where students come together for a few hours every week, the Cool Wall provides a good reason to reflect upon personal experiences or stories in the news, with a view to bringing something up in the next class.


[1] Last time I ran Unisim with students, it came on a 5¼” floppy disc and ran under DOS, so don’t hold your breath for this one. (But a reboot would be very much appreciated!)

[2] Apparently the BBC still plan to make the show, but without Clarkson et al… meh.


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