Ross Harding, founder of Finding Infinity, is helping build a future based upon infinite resources. His office, appropriately located in an old petrol station in Abbotsford, is awash with sun and might be the brightest place in Melbourne on this cold winter’s day. Outside, a pot of tea comes to the boil on the solar cooker. We’re talking about climate change but there’s a notable absence of doom and gloom. There’s not even the earnest concern that usually comes with thinking about the environment every day. Ross introduces us to his staff – who range from physicists to music programmers – and I get that feeling I sometimes get of wanting to be part of it, even though I don’t really know what it is yet. As we walk and talk, it’s clear how deep these issues run for Ross, but instead of being angry he’s upbeat. On a personal level, he transforms his environmental responsibilities from a burden into a lifestyle, enjoying the city’s many vegan food options and playing around with his soon-to-be converted car, that will be powered by veggie oil supplied by his friend’s pizza joint. More broadly, he views a world powered by renewable energy as an inevitability and, despite being an engineer, believes that it’s people, not technology, that will bring about the rate of change required. We’re all motivated by different things but we share the same two options: sit back and wait for fear to become the catalyst for change; or follow Ross’s lead and try and turn the inevitable into something incredible for others – even if that’s to enjoy when we are gone.
What led you to starting Finding Infinity?
I’ve always been passionate and rebellious in an environmental sense. I started thinking about it during a course at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership. They call it a ‘green MBA’ and the idea behind it is that if we want people in power who care, why not put people who care in power? It gave me the space to get a bit dreamy; to come up with something impossible and try and make it real. So I dreamed big and said that I want to power the whole world only using renewables. Looking into it further I realised that I understood the technical and financial barriers but that I didn’t know the political and social barriers. Which was interesting, because from my experience I knew the technical and financial barriers weren’t the problem, so I just started experimenting with the people side of things. I didn’t really know what that meant, I guess it was awareness, and I just felt that if everyone just understood the things that I studied, things would change much faster. So I started Finding Infinity, which was a bit like Don Quixote – dreaming the impossible dream – but it gave me the chance to do less engineering work and more creative stuff, and slowly I’ve combined the two.
Embedded in the name Finding Infinity is the idea that sustainability is a process, not a solution. Is this how you see it?
Totally. As a kid I was really into maths and calculus. I don’t know if you know calculus…
No but I’ll pretend to understand…
Okay, well, in calculus as you approach infinity you get so close to the right answer that it basically gives you the solution.
“every choice you make in life is a proxy vote for the future you want to see in the world”
So I liked the fact that as you aspire towards something you inevitably get there. But I also liked that its sounds impossible to find the number infinity and this became shorthand for finding a future based upon infinite resources, which definitely is possible but if people are trying to be perfect it’s easy to give up. Instead of being perfect, it’s just about having a go and this mindset makes it more accessible for everyone to do something, no matter how small.
Do you think people are struggling to connect with sustainability beyond the very basic tasks like domestic recycling?
I think so. There are three components: public sector; private sector; and people, and all three are responsible. There’s no real ownership in the public sector or private sector and I feel like people are disempowered by blaming the government or blaming businesses and it doesn’t necessarily speed things up. A good friend said to me once that every choice you make in life is a proxy vote for the future you want to see in the world. This really resonated with me.
So is your business about inspiring individuals to make better choices, or is it more about the business consultancy?
Before Finding Infinity I worked on some big development projects as an engineer. From a technical point of view, I knew the buildings inside out. I did a lot of financial analysis, which said, ‘if you do this, it will save you this’. There was a sound commercial argument for being 100 per cent self-sufficient with a pay back period of 10 years but there were all these other barriers along the way. For instance, commercial tenants wouldn’t want a naturally ventilated office building or apartments. Many of the initiatives we were pushing for people weren’t ready for. I realised that I was too low down in the hierarchy and that being a sub-consultant of an architect wasn’t the right position for sustainability. Also, not acknowledging the cultural barriers meant that it was going to be an uphill battle and so I wanted to look at things more holistically. To be honest, it’s only recently that we’ve started to connect the two dots of consulting and creative but we think there is an opportunity there because there are so few organisations out there doing a good job of communicating sustainability.
In the news lately there’s talk of Elon Musk’s big battery for Adelaide, India only producing electric cars by 2030 and Al Gore talking about the Bloomberg-led response to Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement. What’s your take on all these big public and private statements?
People say that dictatorships like China have the potential to move the fastest because they have the fewest barriers, so there’s definitely the ability for governments to lead. But I lost hope in politics – it’s very rare in Australia for politicians to lead. They’re generally just giving the people what they ask for, if that. The way I see this stuff is that it’s inevitable. Oil’s gone in 40 years. Gas is gone in 65 years. Uranium in 85 years and coal is gone in 130 years. So in two lifetimes we will definitely be on renewables. But the risk of waiting this long means the risk of destroying this magical place that we get to hang out in. So the reason I’m interested in the people side of it is that it’s our responsibility, and our opportunity, to speed up that process and make it happen faster. If we’re all just passengers in the process and let other people deal with it, it’ll still happen, but we might have lost a few countries under water… but I don’t like to get caught up in the doom and gloom of it because it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity. So I think the first step is people acknowledging that this is going to happen whether they like it or not.
But do you think the sustainability movement needs some level of opposition and some non-believers so that it doesn’t become complacent?
Definitely, living in Fitzroy and working in Abbotsford you walk around and you feel like people get it. Then you realise that we’re in a little bubble…
And that bubble is in one of the most wasteful countries in the world.
How do we get out of that bubble?
For me it used to be about finding examples and communicating them to people but I’m getting a bit tired of talking, so now I’m more interested in actually implementing and building some things. For instance, I’m creating prototypes for self-sufficient houses, apartment buildings, hotels and office buildings and if I can show people that they can make just as much money out of it this way then I can start changing the system from the inside, instead of saying that the system is broken, which again is disempowering.
“The way I see this stuff is that it’s inevitable. Oil’s gone in 40 years. Gas is gone in 65 years. Uranium in 85 years and coal is gone in 130 years. So in two lifetimes we will definitely be on renewables. But the risk of waiting this long means the risk of destroying this magical place that we get to hang out in.”
“I guess we see it as a little mock up of the future. We just try and build a little playground for people to play in that is representative of what we think the future of cities could be.”
Is Off the Grid [a solar powered music festival organised by Finding Infinity] one of those prototypes?
Yes, but accidentally. Off the Grid started as a way of engaging people with the solutions in a fun way. We like to look at it as ninety per cent entertainment, ten per cent education, sort of like marketing solutions without selling them. The idea began as a solar powered techno party in the basement of my house in London. At the time I was trying to convince my housemates to switch on to renewables and they didn’t want to do it. It was going to cost us three pounds a month to switch over. I would say to them ‘just buy the environment a beer once a month’, but it took me ages to persuade them. Finally, at that party, my housemate was trying to impress a girl and I heard him telling her that our house was powered by renewable energy and this was interesting to watch him do a backflip because he was put in a situation where it was cool to do the right thing.
At that same party a filmmaker came up to me and said that the music sounds so much better when it comes from the sun. This perfectly summed up what we were trying to do and so from there we did another one in a Thai restaurant, another in Mexico in Sunrise, one in Melbourne at Rooftop Bar and a New Year’s party in Mexico with DesignHotels. We also went back to London and did one with Vivienne Westwood. When I moved back to Melbourne two years ago, we wanted to turn it into street party but it turned into a festival for about a thousand people. I guess we see it as a little mock up of the future. We just try and build a little playground for people to play in that is representative of what we think the future of cities could be. With Off the Grid we’re just trying to be a bit more badass with the environment rather than be so religious about it.
When’s the next one?
December 22. Summer Solstice. It will be at ACCA [in Melbourne] again. Because the conference component went well last year we’re going to focus as much on that as the music. Because I don’t really like the word sustainability, and I like sustainability conferences even less, I worked with Timothy Hill from Donovan Hill on a concept for the conference. He came up with the idea of calling it a palimpsest, which is a document that gets written and rewritten over and again. Sort of like a city, it evolves as it goes. We wanted to make it less of a lecture series and more of a chat and I think this made it more accessible for people to see real people talking about real things.
“In hazmat suits, goggles and face masks, myself and the bar manager pulled all the rubbish out and saw that 50 per cent was plastics, which needed to be avoided through purchasing, and that 50 per cent was organics or recyclables, which could be dealt with through behaviour change.”
And with all this going on, do you have a way of neatly explaining what you do to your consultancy clients?
Well there are three people that design a building. There’s an architect to make it look cool, a structural engineer to make it stand up and building service engineers to design all the gizmos. Those gizmos are all the things that use energy and water and produce waste. What we do is build 3D models of buildings and simulate how much energy and water they might consume and how much waste they might produce. We then test different options from glass types to insulation types, building materials, shading, as well as active systems that generate energy for heating and cooling etcetera. We get pretty hard-core into the details but we also love to experiment and excite people with how cost effective the alternatives can be.
I assume you’re talking about new buildings. Do you also get involved in retrofitting old buildings?
We’re quite obsessed with retrofits even though sometimes they can be more challenging. One project we’ve been working on for a while is the Sherwood, an old mock Tudor hotel in Queenstown, New Zealand. They strapped seventy kilowatts of solar panels to it, built a veggie patch, put a BMX track around it and brought in a bio digester. They kept the rooms pretty much how they were and used recycled materials for everything else. They also filled the pool in with rubble and turned it into a fire pit. They spent all their money on the right things and this has created a great vibe, which means the best thing about the place is the people. I just got back from New Zealand yesterday and while we were there we surveyed their staff about sustainability and did two days of workshops looking at where they can improve. They’re probably one of the most sustainable hotels in the world but they bring us in to keep challenging them on how they can keep pushing it. We look at energy, water, waste, food, transport and community impact and we have this non-rating system approach, which is just about asking ourselves ‘what’s the best we can do?’ This question is pretty interesting at all levels of the business. For example, do you buy local alcohol when local is not natural?
It sounds like they’re not afraid to pull that thread?
Not at all. In fact, a while ago we even pulled the bins out from the bar and the restaurant. In hazmat suits, goggles and face masks, myself and the bar manager pulled all the rubbish out and saw that 50 per cent was plastics, which needed to be avoided through purchasing, and that 50 per cent was organics or recyclables, which could be dealt with through behaviour change. Three months later when I came back the bar was running at zero waste.
Just by creating that feedback loop?
Yes, but also through the joint understanding we reached by going through that process together, rather than me just writing a report and saying that you should do these things. This time when I went back we did the same exercise with all the kitchen staff and they were all pumped to get involved. Sometimes being overly professional is not all that effective. With me and the owner getting dirty and going through the bins, it showed how important these issues are to all of us.
Chris Barton is Cultural Director at Right Angle Studio and partner in Golden Age Cinema & Bar. Based in Melbourne, he oversees the company’s local and global research activities and ensures its strategic and creative work has both style and substance. In past lives, Chris co-founded The Thousands city guides and published Condiment, an independent magazine exploring the intersection between food and creativity, and food and community.